The Instability of The SNP

​Despite the Holyrood election results falling short of an overall majority, it is clear that the SNP is still the dominating party in Scotland. However, despite leadership claims to the contrary, it would be a mistake to think that this overwhelming popularity is the sign of a unified party. In fact differences on various issues including NATO, the monarchy, currency post-independence, the single police force and privatisation of CALMAC are very present and are subject to passionate discussion at many branches.

Land Reform and Fracking

At the SNP 2015 conference a delegate spoke in favour of remitting the party’s moderate motion on land reform in order to push for a more radical policy. In his speech he said. “Does radical land reform leave 750,000, three-quarters of a million acres of Scotland, in the hands of unaccountable, nameless corporations based in tax havens across the globe? No, it doesn’t and we have the power to change that now.” which was then met with big round of applause.

The conference voted in favour of this remittance, against the wishes of the leadership. Scotland has the smallest concentration of land ownership in the “developed” world. This new land reform bill, among other things, gives small renting farmers more security and potentially a bigger share of what they produce and obliges landlords to reveal their identity and assets. SNP delegates from all over the country, including the urban areas, voted to overturn the much weaker policy supported by the party leadership. Within this debate delegates spoke about how the SNP’s policies needed to be more radical in order to attract people towards independence.

This of course falls far short of what is needed but is a step forward and was still enough to send a jolt through Scotland’s land owning class. David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, the organization representing landowners, said: “There are measures within the proposed land reform legislation that could have a significantly detrimental effect on rural jobs, local economies and our members’ businesses. We are currently looking at unprecedented legislation that will impact on many thousands of people and will provide the right for government ministers to intervene and enforce the sale of property under certain circumstances against the wishes of the owner.”

Another controversial topic at conference was that of fracking. Many campaigners pushed for a full ban on fracking as opposed to the moratorium that the leadership supported motion was offering. The debate caused controversy as the SOAC (Standing Orders and Agenda Committee), where motions go to before conference, had watered down the anti-fracking motion so that it was basically no different to the existing party policy. SMAUG (SNP Members Against Unconventional Oil and Gas) said they were “very disappointed” at the decision. On the basis that the motion was not strong enough, party members proposed a ‘remit back’ – which would signal the membership’s disapproval of existing policy. A delegate from Arran called for the motion to be sent back for further consideration of a full ban on fracking. He said there was a “real threat that this inadequate motion” would split the party from community interests. Many delegates got up and slated Ineos, the company which support fracking in Scotland (but has also admitted that it caused an earthquake in England). One delegate accused the company of wanting to blow Scotland to pieces. Awkwardly, Ineos was present at the SNP conference with a stall. In this case the leadership only narrowly won the vote.

In “Marxism and the National Question in Scotland” Alan Woods writes “In its class composition, the SNP is a mixed bag. Most of the leaders stand for “capitalism with a human face”, an animal that is completely unknown either to zoology or to political economy. But an increasing number of its new members are working class people who have broken with Labour precisely because it was not left-wing enough. In future these class contradictions will come to the fore. The tripling of the membership will make it harder to maintain the discipline the Party has shown. One SNP member of the Scottish parliament told the Financial Times: “It is impossible to know how policy debates will play out in the future, since we don’t know who the party is now”. Gordon Wilson, a former party leader, is already warning that excessive expectations could be a problem for the SNP.

Internal Democracy

In preparation for the 2016 conference a raft of motions were again submitted on the subject of fracking. In January, 12 were submitted and failed to pass SAOC with the excuse being that they had already been discussed at the 2015 conference. Leading environmentalists correctly accused the party of “rigging” the debate.

The leadership of a party like the SNP which is so full of contradictions in reality can’t afford full democracy. If the rank and file were to have a genuine input in the decisions it would inevitably come into direct conflict with the party’s big business interests and funders. Full freedom of debate would either push the party leaders to become much more radical or would expose the weakness of their politics. They are very fearful of both options. Instead they resort to intrigues and doublespeak to try and keep the debate within comfortable limits.

In the run up to the 2015 General election, an activist from Airdrie and Shotts branch, Craig Murray ran to be a candidate but was rejected by the vetting process. The reason given was that he “could not give a full commitment on group discipline issues”. Murray told of how in his candidate vetting he was asked whether he would support the bedroom tax in a pact with another party in the event of a hung parliament to which he said no. On his blog, Murray tellingly said: “Those in the SNP who make a fat living out of it are terrified the energy of the Yes campaign may come to threaten their comfy position.”

Party Stability

Often the hegemony of the SNP is compared to the past dominance of the Labour Party in Scotland. From this, the conclusion is that it will be long-lasting. However there are important differences between the SNP’s current dominance and the Labour Party’s post-war success. The Labour Party’s popularity and trust among the working classes came from the huge concessions it was able to grant during the post-war boom including the NHS, the welfare state and nationalised industries etc. The trust reserves they had accumulated in working class consciousness were big enough to last for decades. Even when the same party showed inadequate opposition to the Tories or when in government actually clawed back reforms, workers still came out on mass and voted them.

In comparison the SNP has become popular during a time of capitalist crisis and can offer very little in the way of progressive reforms. The SNP do not have these same reserves of trust in working class consciousness. It will take much less exposure of their ineffectiveness to spark their downfall. The sharp fall in the popularity of Syriza in Greece last year shows how quickly a newly popular party will plummet if it fails to give what it promises.

In 2012 the party suffered a small rupture when a motion was passed calling on an SNP government to remain in NATO after years of opposition. This demonstrated the shakiness of the SNP’s much boasted “unity”. One of the MSPs John Finnie who quit the party said “”I cannot belong to a party that quite rightly does not wish to hold nuclear weapons on its soil, but wants to join a first-strike nuclear alliance”. This in many ways summed up the contradictions of the SNP. On one hand they want to please big businesses, their future imperialist allies. On the other hand they want to please a left leaning base which is sick of imperialist adventures. The contradictions which existed in the party in 2012 now exist on a much bigger scale. Anti NATO feeling is very high among the tens of thousands of new members who campaigned for a YES vote as a blow to British imperialism.

The SNP is susceptible to pressure from below particularly when votes are at stake. Richie Venton, the SSP workplace organizer demonstrates this in his article on the recent EIS Further Education strike: “About 300 strikers travelled to lobby the Scottish parliament that afternoon, visibly rattling Nicola Sturgeon herself with the passion and determination they displayed. Just weeks before the May elections, Nicola at last told some lobbyists that “I’m going to sort this out once and for all.“ By 3 o’clock on the Saturday morning, after nearly 13 hours of negotiations, the strikers had won a stunning victory. All of a sudden, Colleges Scotland – and their paymasters, the Scottish Government – abandoned their previous claims of being penniless, unable to improve the 1% pay offer, let alone harmonize pay upwards across Scotland.”

The popularity of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP as a whole rest on her supposedly being a woman of the people and “speaking for Scotland”. They have skillfully convinced the Scottish electorate that this is the case. But in reality with their current policies she cannot afford to give concessions like she did with the FE dispute. As we have explained in other articles, examples such as promised corporation tax cuts post-independence and Scottish Future Trusts (which are remarkably similar to PFI), show that both post and pre independence the SNP want to attract big business and make no effort to hide this.

Sturgeon boasts industrial tranquility and a relatively low number of days lost to strike action compared to the rest of the UK. This is also in a bid to attract capital to the country. In the event of industrial action, in order to maintain this reputation she is under pressure to make sure demands are met quickly and no more strike days are lost. The SNP are caught on an ever thinning ledge when it comes to pleasing their masters in big business and their working class electorate. They can’t please both forever and it is only a matter of time before these contradictions are exposed.

The exposure of the ineffectiveness of the SNP leadership would not necessarily mean a mass exodus from the party. The SNP’s working class base has made a big shift in throwing their cards in the party and some have spent a lot of time and energy campaigning for the party. They will not just drop in a moment. Effort will be made to turn the SNP into the party it promises to be and the party they need.

Many SNP activists openly admit that in a post-referendum Scotland the SNP would break into different parts. Socialist, capitalist, environmentalist, some even talk of a new Labour party. If Scotland were to become independent the popularity of the SNP, the party most likely to have led the campaign, would take a huge surge, and the initial instinct would not be towards splits. However this popularity would be short lived and ruptures would be likely as an independent capitalist Scotland would not deliver upon promises of prosperity and fairness; although the dynamics, nature and timescale of such splits would not necessarily be as clean as some imagine.

Independence, the policy which essentially defines the SNP is also something which could expose the party’s class collaborationist polices for what they are. No longer will the leaders be able to blame things on Westminster. Even without independence the Westminster card can only be played for so long, particularly given the fact that the SNP are delaying another referendum. As the experience of the bourgeois nationalists in Catalonia shows, there is only so long they can blame the unionist government before they lose credibility. In this sense the SNP are also in a tricky situation. Many of the leaders benefit from the status quo, not least the MPs with fat salaries, prestige, and popularity. However their status as the party that wants to rid Scotland of Westminster austerity starts to deteriorate if they are doing very little to push for change.

Towards Socialism

Westminster, as reactionary an institution it is, it is still not the root of the problems of the Scotland’s masses. This may be the overwhelming consensus right now but as Marxists we patiently explain that even in the event of independence the same problems will exist. It is clear that some in the SNP are open to such ideas. Often the idea is that “Scotland can show the way”. Activists will say that once we achieve independence we can achieve a fairer more equal and peaceful country and then other countries will follow our example. We welcome this aspiration for a better society, but it leaves two questions of how this can be achieved.

Firstly, the fair and equal society the SNP rank and file want cannot be achieved with the current SNP polices, pre or post referendum. The progressive polices that the SNP do offer could only ever be temporary, if possible at all, under crisis ridden capitalism. In order to solve the problems of Scotland – including poverty, land ownership, environmental damaging industries -the main levers of the economy need to be taken into public ownership and democratically controlled by those who produce and consume the wealth. Public re-generation programs need to take place in the places hit hardest by de-industrialisation

The issue of land reform would take a longer article to give the detailed analysis and sensitive solutions it needs. However it is clear that both EU and Westminster laws will need to be broken in order to solve it. Real radical laws should be passed limiting the amount of land a single person can own. No-one in rural Scotland should have to live in poverty and instability. Capital should be blocked from going to offshore accounts, Landowners should be made to open their books and hand back all wealth they have made from the small farmers, crofters and other exploited layers. Refusal to do this should be deemed illegal and met with an expropriation of their land. Public land can be used however people see fit. With the elimination of unemployment and the shortening of the working day, creativity of people could be unleashed.

Such measures are of course a complete break from capitalism. In a globalised market, they could not be sustained in Scotland alone for very long but would be part of an international process, in which the Scottish workers have a role to play in. This includes that masses of people who support or are even currently active in the SNP. As its contradictions expose themselves, more and more of the party’s supporters will become winnable to the ideas of socialism

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