Challenging The SNP Status Quo

By Shaun Morris, Glasgow Marxists

Since becoming a party with a mass membership, there has been an underlying tension between the SNP members and their leaders. The constraints of the SNP’s old structure have been shown on multiple occasions at conferences and on election campaigns, when members have mobilised themselves and had to drag the party’s officialdom with them. The party has opened a constitutional review to look into how it could reform.

Former SNP Finance Secretary Kenny MacAskill recently spoke out about how centralised the party had become under Nicola Sturgeon, who he claims has adopted a “presidential” style of leadership over the party, owing to her general popularity.

Democracy within the SNP has suffered as a result, MacAskill says, with poor consequences for the party itself and the wider independence movement. Dropping the Sustainable Growth Commission Report – a disappointment to many, to say the least – onto the shoulders of SNP members is a stark example. Few are excited about its recommendations, and while the party will have a chance to discuss the proposals at three national meetings, whether it becomes the official SNP vision for independence will not be put to a members’ vote.

Many of those on the left of the party have sought to find an internal organised expression to challenge the leadership. Traditionally, since the expulsion of the left-wing ’79 Group the SNP has been suspicious of formal factions. Pressure groups and special interests existed, but not organised political tendencies.

That looked like it was about to change with the formation of the SNP Socialists, a group of ordinary members and some famous faces that early on weren’t afraid to say they would hold the leadership to account. Coupled with the 16,000-strong SNP Trade Union Group, this potentially could have been a leading layer of the SNP’s working class base within the party.

Unfortunately, the SNP Socialists didn’t live up to this potential and became little more than a campaigning vehicle for a handful of SNP councillors, some of whom, like Graeme Campbell on Glasgow City Council, went on to vote for council cuts. The SNP Trade Union Group has also rarely been the voice for Scottish workers it aims to be. The SNP leadership prefer to go over TUG’s head and speak directly to the STUC.

After a period of quiet, left-wing SNP members are getting organised again. Off the back of the announcements of a Scottish National Investment Bank and a publicly-owned energy company, in the context of the Carillion collapse, the campaign for a National Infrastructure Company was launched. Supported by Common Weal and former MPs George Kerevan and Anne McLaughlin, the #SupportSNIC campaign hopes to have the policy adopted at the SNP June conference.

More recently, two groups focussed on foreign affairs have emerged: the anti-NATO “Neutral Scotland” and the anti-EU “Autonomy” groups. Neutral Scotland picks up where others left off, before the mass influx of members in 2014-15. In 2012, after a heated debate, the SNP conference overturned the decades-long policy of opposition to NATO. This change had been pushed from above, after Scottish Government meetings with other NATO Governments, and caused two MSPs to resign from the party.

Since then, opposition to NATO wars and Trident weapons became a major feature of the Yes Campaign in 2014, when millions of working class Scots hoped a vote for independence would bring Scotland a future without the UK’s imperialist interventions and arms dealing. Neutral Scotland hopes to make Scotland’s NATO membership a live debate again, particularly after Nicola Sturgeon stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Theresa May, Donald Trump and others after the Sergei Skripal poisoning.

Socialists in Scotland should welcome this development. For Scotland to avoid being caught in the inter-imperialist rivalries between Russia and the EU/USA, it must break free from imperialism which means to fight capitalism; in Scotland and across the globe. A socialist, internationalist policy is needed here, meaning a Scottish Workers’ Republic and world socialist revolution.

Autonomy has fought off accusations of being factionalists, fifth-columnists and the rest of it since its founding. Serious about its mission, the group hopes to have a founding conference in the next few months. Autonomy correctly says that tying independence to being pro-EU is not a winning strategy. While it may appear that Scotland is more pro-EU than the rest of the UK, analysis by Professor John Curtice has revealed that up to a third of those who voted Yes in 2014 voted Leave in 2016.

The violent repression of Catalan independence supporters last October and the legitimising role the EU played was a wake-up call to many who romanticised the EU in the context of Brexit. Neither we nor Autonomy doubt that Brexit will be a disaster, but the EU should be seen for what it is: an alliance of the ruling class, a bosses’ club. This was made clear by the European Commission’s full backing of the Spanish State’s repression. The lessons learned by the workers of Greece also show that the EU is an enemy of the working class.

Again this a welcome development. However, we believe that the “social Europe” – the alternative for Europe that is anti-war and anti-austerity – can only be won through the struggle for socialism, just as the independent Scotland we fight for must be a Workers’ Republic.

There is a need for the rank and file of the SNP to challenge the status quo within the party and challenge the leadership. As the shock of the Growth Commission shows, fundamental differences should not be swept under the rug until after independence, and they won’t. Groups like Autonomy, Neutral Scotland and #SupportSNIC may have a more narrow focus now, but they could grow into a coherent left opposition within the SNP.

Arming ourselves with a Marxist perspective, we can see how the pro-independence Scottish capitalists put pressure on the SNP, ensuring that their vision for independence is one of capitalist continuity rather than a radical rupture. The radical independence of the Scottish working class must be ready with a proper organisation and programme in order to push in the opposite direction: socialist revolution.

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