This May’s Holyrood elections will be a landmark event. With the coronavirus pandemic receding for the moment at least, after over a year of hardship for millions, and the SNP on course to form the Scottish Government for a fourth term, the question of Scottish Independence is being thrust to the forefront.
Thanks to the sacrifices of NHS workers, including millions of hours of unpaid overtime and near total exhaustion, the vaccination programme has progressed steadily. Deaths and hospital admissions are falling, and Governments are this time much more cautious about lifting lockdown restrictions. After the disastrous second wave last winter, which epidemiologists predicted but politicians and businesses ignored, and the extended cost of another lockdown, the Government knows it will not get a third chance.
The danger remains, however, of a third wave of infection brought over from mainland Europe. Due to the catastrophic failure of the European Union’s vaccination efforts, the image of ‘European solidarity’ is rendered a farce, as EU leaders squabble among themselves and try to shift the blame.
Chaos emanates from 10 Downing Street as well, as the pandemic has exposed all the weakness of British capitalism and the corruption at the heart of the Tory Government. On the contrary, however, the Scottish Government has enjoyed the confidence of the public. Nicola Sturgeon is almost as trusted as Boris Johnson is hated, and the SNP will most likely ride this perception to victory at the ballot box.
Apart from parading their ‘competence’ during the pandemic — which is largely a mirage, as shown by the scale of the pandemic and crises in Scottish care homes and hospitals — the SNP’s programme for this election is much of the usual formula: meagre reforms promised (such as the abolition of Council Tax for people aged under-22) and solemn declarations about holding a new independence referendum.
These proposals typically do not get very far, either kicked into the long grass of ‘feasibility’ studies or downgraded and pushed into the background (as with the Scottish National Investment Bank, nationalised energy company etc, touted for the 2016 election). SNP voters can expect more of the same from the 2021 campaign.
Where the SNP leaders may not rest on their laurels, however, is the question of Independence. For a significant layer, their support for the SNP is conditional on it being able to lead the country to national independence.
The party leadership are under pressure from over twenty consecutive polls that show a historic majority in favour of Independence, and the growing impatience of the movement rank-and-file. Sturgeon’s strategy of simply asking Boris Johnson for permission (via a Section 30 order) to hold a referendum has proven untenable, and many are looking to the Holyrood election for a way out of the impasse.
Nicola Sturgeon promises that, should the SNP win a majority in May, they will pass the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill. The bill outlines the rules of a new referendum, though does not commit to a specific date. In January, as Constitution Secretary Michael Russell unveiled the party’s ’11-Point Plan’, they claimed there will be a “legal referendum” in the “early part” of the next Parliament.
The SNP will struggle against the limitations of Holyrood’s proportional Additional Member System to get a majority. This has led some independence movement activists to promote the idea of a “Max the Yes” strategy for the election, encouraging SNP voters to use their second ballot to elect other pro-independence parties and thus ensure a pro-indy parliamentary majority.
In an unexpected turn of events, Alex Salmond is the latest to jump on this bandwagon with the launch of his ‘Alba Party’ on the 26th of March. Days after his announcement that he would again sue the Scottish Government, Salmond directly pitched his party to those who feared their votes for the SNP would be wasted.
Alba immediately mopped up the other nationalist ‘pop-up’ list-only parties, ‘Action for Independence’ and the ‘Independence for Scotland Party’. Both were largely composed of reactionary breakaways from the SNP over the Salmond scandal and plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act. AFI and ISP swiftly withdrew all their candidates and endorsed Alba, exclusively because the new party is led by Alex Salmond.
Alba has so far attracted the same mix of anti-Sturgeon sceptics and transphobic activists from the fringes of the independence movement. Supporters of the anti-transgender so-called ‘Women’s Pledge’ now share common cause with defenders of Salmond’s sleaze and opponents of abortion rights.
Crucially, however, Alba has also won a number of defections from the SNP. MPs Kenny MacAskill (former Scottish Justice Secretary) and Neale Hanvey (the SNP’s vaccine spokesman) joined Alba shortly after its launch, and several councillors have also defected, including a leading Glasgow City Councillor. Inside sources in Alba and the SNP say they expect more ahead of the election.
The response of the SNP leaders so far has been to say ‘good riddance’ to MacAskill and Hanvey, and question the suitability of Salmond to hold elected office given the history of sexual harassment complaints against him. The launch of Alba is purely about Alex Salmond’s ego, Sturgeon surmises, and exacting revenge on his former colleagues.
Alba intends to stand at least four candidates on every regional list, including SNP defectors and novice politicians. One announced so far is Dr Jim Walker in Central Scotland. Walker is a wealthy investment consultant who is moving from his home in Hong Kong to Scotland for the election. An owner of race horses, including ones named “Subjectivist” and “Austrian School”, Dr Walker represents a thoroughbred bourgeois class perspective, writing last year that protecting capitalist profits was “singularly important” in the middle of a global pandemic.
The likes of Walker contrasts strongly with the supposedly “social-democratic” platform Salmond claims for Alba, and his reputation among his followers as a “radical” alternative to Sturgeon. In reality, Alba is a completely bourgeois outfit and an attempted carbon-copy of the SNP.
Alex Salmond is a bourgeois opportunist who has nothing to offer the working class, but unfortunately left-wingers like George Kerevan and Craig Berry have been swept up in Alba’s novelty. In a statement, they naively complain about the SNP’s pro-capitalist machine politics while throwing their lot in with the same man who created the modern SNP, warts and all.
Majority and Supermajority
Salmond argues that Alba MSPs will contribute to a pro-indy “supermajority” in the Scottish Parliament, which the Tories will allegedly find it impossible to say no to. This is the same line of argument used by Sturgeon in favour of an SNP majority, and is similarly ambiguous over the question of holding an ‘illegal’ referendum without Westminster’s permission.
Alba may well pick up a few seats in May – they need probably less than 6% in most regions to win an MSP – but may also cost the SNP some votes. As the University of Strathclyde’s ubiquitous expert Prof John Curtice has noted, Alba’s popularity will be almost exclusively tied to Salmond personally, and he is not widely liked. Less than 20% of SNP voters view him favourably, according to YouGov and Opinium polling.
Alba’s appeal will be limited to a small minority of anti-SNP nationalist voters, probably without much crossover with Green party supporters. To many of their voters, the Greens are a second pro-independence option after the SNP, supported on the regional list ballot.
Prof Curtice points out Alba may prove to be more of a ‘thorn in the side’ of Sturgeon and the SNP than the Unionist establishment. The SNP are out to get a majority and need every vote possible to pick up a few list seats to make up the numbers (hence the barrage of ‘#BothVotesSNP’). If they lose those seats to Alba, the resulting pro-independence majority spread between three parties could have its divisions exploited by the Unionist minority.
The Tories, Labour and LibDems have all cynically used the Salmond versus Sturgeon ‘psychodrama’ to attack the SNP, even dragging the institutions of devolution into the scandal. Despite what will likely prove to be a wide gap in polling numbers between the SNP and Alba, the media will relish the opportunity to publicise Salmond’s ‘comeback’.
The Scottish Tories’ campaign to force the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon stalled after their No-Confidence vote failed and the First Minister was cleared of breaching the Ministerial Code. Their haughty grandstanding clearly backfired, with polls suggesting their second-place lead over Labour is narrowing, or even lost.
In response to Alex Salmond’s announcement, Tory leader Douglas Ross called for the formation of a “pro-UK, anti-referendum coalition” with Labour and the LibDems. Both parties rejected the idea, pointing out the ‘dark politics’ of Boris Johnson and the Tories do more harm to the Union than good.
Former Scotland Secretary David Mundell did not mince words, however, asserting that Salmond’s new formation represented a “real and present danger.”
The Tories have ramped up their campaign against an independence referendum in the preceding months of the election. Social media ads promoting the ‘UK Government Scotland’ have been published, civil service jobs moved to Glasgow, and other promises of investment and closer ties made. Tory election propaganda continues to warn against a referendum “within months” if the SNP are left unobstructed.
This year’s Holyrood elections are set to be dominated by the national question again, perhaps even more than in any election since 2014. To the bourgeois SNP leaders, this is despite the coronavirus pandemic. They attempted to suspend all discussion of independence until after the crisis, but the debate has only grown.
Rather, it is because of the pandemic that the crisis of British capitalism has accelerated, and thus so too have the tendencies pulling the United Kingdom apart. The constraints of private property have been exposed by the worldwide economic chaos, and the self-interest of the rich has provoked deep indignation. Support for independence has risen, and it is pushing Holyrood and Westminster towards a direct conflict over democracy and constitutional legality.
As Marxists, we stand on the side of democracy against the interests of the capitalist elite. We recognise that it is only the working class that has a genuine and consistent interest in democracy. Countless struggles, from Catalonia to Myanmar, have shown the ability of the working class to fight bravely for their democratic and social rights.
However, the fight for democracy and self-determination must be coupled with the fight against capitalism and for socialism. This struggle is present in Scotland and in the next years will stretch the fabric of capitalism to near breaking point. It is our duty to prepare for these explosive turns, building the forces of Marxism in Scotland.