Rifts in the SNP: How should the Left respond?

Whilst support for independence is growing, tensions within the SNP are also becoming more apparent. We’re just over half a year away from Holyrood elections where these increasing pressures will put the relatively stable dominance of the SNP to the test.

Growing support for Independence

The last several months have shown the longest consistent period of overall support for Scottish independence in history. As this is written, the 9th poll since June has come out in favour of independence, this time giving it 58% support. This support is up amongst all age groups but is highest among the youth with three in four 16-34 year olds supporting separation.

Whilst Labour and the Lib Dems in Scotland continue to be anti-independence, the Internal Market Bill has managed to unite them with the SNP and Greens in opposition to an undemocratic power grab from Westminster. The willingness to unite with nationalist parties against Westminster on such a key constitutional issue reflects how weak unionist arguments are becoming in Scotland.

The Westminster Tory government is different to previous ones. The Tories used to be the most stable capitalist party in Europe. However in recent years it has been taken over by a Brexiteer clique led by Johnson and Cummings who base themselves on, and whip up, the frenzied patriotism of middle England, and as a result are at odds  with the more far-sighted liberal capitalists.

Unlike previous Tory governments, this one cannot be relied upon to loyally represent the ruling class as shown by the growing likelihood of a no deal Brexit. Rifts are opening between the Scottish Tories and the main British party. The party in Scotland — whose main identity is that of ardent unionism — are particularly worried about the threat to the United Kingdom. Their leader Douglas Ross has even publicly criticised Johnson for his reckless and dismissive approach to the national question in Scotland.

Whilst the Tory party is becoming a less reliant servant of capitalism, Sturgeon and the clique at the top of the SNP have been trying to show the ruling class that they’d be a safe pair of hands. Their increasing focus around support for the EU, the Growth Commission for an Independent capitalist Scotland and their more scientific (than Westminster) approach to the pandemic all seek to win over the liberal wing of the ruling class.

In this, Sturgeon has been at least partially successful. In 2014, the capitalist class by and large were clearly against independence. However, today feelings on this issue are less strong. Ipsos Mori showed only 6% of chief executives felt strongly that it would be a significant risk to their company whilst 16 per cent tended to agree it would be a risk, compared to 54% who said they thought there wouldn’t be any problems and 21% who had no opinion (4% said they didn’t think it would happen).

Rifts within the movement

Looking simply at the polls, the moderate strategy seems to be playing out. Support for independence is growing. Sturgeon’s ratings are at a record high and the party is on course for another Holyrood victory and may even get an overall majority this time. However there are widening rifts within the party.

Most notoriously, there has been the conflict between ex-leader Alex Salmond and current leader Nicola Sturgeon. This started off as a calculated bid from Salmond and his lawyers to fight off multiple accusations of sexual assault and harassment. To do this they took aim at the civil service and current SNP leadership for supposedly conspiring against him. Salmond’s acquittal was scandalous but sadly not surprising in a bourgeois court system which frequently drags abuse sufferers through humiliating processes, whilst powerful perpetrators are let off.

As Salmond has continued to campaign against Sturgeon and the Civil Service, this conflict has begun to express tensions that already existed in the party. For example, high profile SNP figures such as Kenny MacAskill and Alex Neil publicly backed Salmond’s claims of innocence. Notably, both have also been critical of the SNP leadership’s policy on the EU and overly legalistic approach to a second referendum.

Controversy also exists around the Edinburgh Central Holyrood seat candidate selection, believed to be a key tactical seat and currently held by the Tories. For this, Sturgeon ally and ex Westminster group leader Angus Robertson was favoured to stand, when Joanna Cherry announced she would compete with Robertson to be the candidate. Cherry is rumoured to have her eye on Sturgeon’s job and in the past has allied herself with Salmond.

Soon after this, the party NEC ruled that standing MPs could not run as MSPs, meaning that Cherry could not stand in this election, in what was likely a calculated move by Sturgeon’s clique against a potential threat. However this backfired when 13 MPs wrote to the NEC asking for the decision to be overturned and many members angrily questioned the party’s ruling structures. Now to give the illusion of democracy, the less ambitious and controversial Marco Biagi is running against Robertson as a “unity candidate”, but the suspicions are still high among members.

Class contradictions

In terms of what they offer politically and economically, there are few fundamental differences between these factions. What is notable is that tensions are arising now, whilst support for independence is growing. This is reflective of the contradictory situation the SNP find themselves in.

The 2014 YES campaign did not become popular on the basis of a moderate capitalist Scotland in the EU but of a radical new country which the working classes desperately needed and saw an opportunity for. It is on this basis that the SNP is so popular.

The SNP is one of the biggest political parties in the world in terms of membership relative to population. This is a result of the way the 2014 referendum campaign inspired many radicalized workers and youth. Since then, the membership has pushed the leaders to adopt a more radical position on land reform as well as developing public banks and infrastructure. Many other left wing motions, for example to change the party’s commitment to NATO, have been rejected by the party’s notoriously sturdy bureaucracy which has been in overdrive to keep this membership under control.

Most crucially, the debate around the Growth Commission vision for an independent Scotland continues. This vision, developed by SNP bureaucrats and city financiers, has been very unpopular among the membership and the wider independence movement. Among other things, this would leave borrowing rates and currency value completely at the mercy of the Bank of England and in reality would not be independent at all. The majority of the YES supporters instinctively know this would be a bad idea. 

This led to the leadership being defeated on the currency debate in the 2019 Spring conference. This rebellion committed the party to campaign for an independent Scotland to adopt a new currency as soon as practicable. However, the architect of the Growth commission and corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson, recently publicly contradicted the party policy in an interview with the Herald, calling for a long period to sterlingisation. 

Sturgeon and the SNP leadership can’t afford to alienate their base of active campaigners who want a radical new country. On the other hand, if they want to show they’d be a safe pair of hands for Scottish capitalism, they can’t ignore the likes of Andrew Wilson. Their classic response to such questions is a call for unity and to wait until independence to discuss these issues.

However, in the case of a new referendum, economic questions would become more and more key as the date approached. Tens of thousands of campaigners would want to know what they’re campaigning for, as millions of voters would be asking what an independent Scotland would actually entail. This is a problem that, despite all their nice smiles and law degrees, none of the pro market SNP leaders can solve. Frustrated, they’re slowly beginning to turn on each other.

Some small splits have occurred. The SNP’s Holyrood election slogan “Both Votes SNP” has raised criticism for being inappropriate for the D’hondt system, with many saying it’s better to vote for SNP in constituencies and another pro independence party on the regional lists. This prompted the formation of two tiny new parties, “Independence for Scotland Party” and the “Alliance for Scottish Independence” as pro independence regional list alternatives to the SNP.

In such unstable times we cannot rule anything out, but for now it seems unlikely that either will seriously challenge the SNP. The former has been very quiet since its formation in May. The latter, led by ex SNP MSP Dave Thompson, has tried to appeal to Alex Salmond to run on its ticket as well the other non SNP parties (including the Greens and SSP) but failed to gather anyone other than Tommy Shreridan and his tiny Solidarity party. This prompted the electoral commission to force them to withdraw as they weren’t an “alliance”.

Opportunities for the Left?

However it is becoming clearer that the current dominance the SNP leadership has over the independence movement and Scottish politics in general has a time limit. Leading SNP left winger George Kerevan has written two articles on left wing website Conter which caused debate within the movement. In the first he gave a detailed and eye-opening report of the situation within the SNP, including its bureaucratic structures and ties to the ruling class. In the second he outlines ideas of what needs to be done.

This is a welcome intervention. Refreshingly, Kerevan has a perspective for the radicalisation of youth and points out the need to give a new generation a political home. He recognises the need for such an organisation to be flexible in its tactics and is careful not to call it a political party for now. Many class conscious workers and youth still see the SNP as the only electoral option just now but could still be won over to a socialist organisation which for now wasn’t competing with the SNP.

This is particularly important in the context of SSP and RISE electoral campaigns since 2014 that have tried to compete with the SNP. Illusions have been too high in the SNP for any small left wing party to seriously compete and this is still the situation today. In some cases electoral campaigns can have a good agitational impact even if they don’t win, providing they actually recruit and consolidate activists for the future, but this was never done.

In order to avoid this, any new left wing organisation must have a strong Marxist understanding of the current situation and importantly and understanding that mass illusions in the SNP are temporary and will in time be shattered, opening up great opportunities for Marxism. In order to do this a political home must be built for those class conscious workers and youth to join and receive a practical education in campaigning and a Marxist education in theory.

Despite the widening rifts within the SNP, a 2021 Holyrood victory is currently likely and this would give the party another morale boost that may temporarily overshadow any rifts. However it will be governing in a period of unprecedented economic crisis. The Pandemic induced recession will hit all sectors, particularly tourism and oil which are key sectors in Scotland. The effects of this will cause many previously inactive workers and youth to actively draw revolutionary conclusions and also provoke left-right divisions in the SNP and wider YES movement.

It is with this perspective that socialists must boldly go forward. A programme that calls for the expropriation of banks, capitalists, landowners and all their assets and puts them under democratic workers controls will become very popular and an effective Marxist cadre organisation must be built to carry this out.

by Ross Walker, Edinburgh