Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell, photo Scottish Government/CC
Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell, photo Scottish Government/CC

Philip Stott, Socialist Party Scotland

The crisis in the Scottish National Party (SNP), triggered by the resignation of party leader and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon on 15 February, shows no sign of abating. Falling opinion poll ratings, the clashes and splits that emerged during and after the ensuing leadership contest, the loss of 30,000 members in the last two years, and the resignation of the chief executive who lied about the drop in membership, were bad enough.

The malaise facing the nationalists was, however, added to last week when the said former chief executive and husband of Nicola Sturgeon, Peter Murrell, was arrested by police, questioned and then released without charge pending further inquiries. The police action followed a very long investigation that began in July 2021 into SNP finances, following complaints about how public donations were being used.

Between 2017 and 2020, the SNP said it received a total of £666,953 from independence referendum-related financial appeals. During that time, which followed the Brexit vote, they were campaigning for a second indyref and had pledged to spend these funds on that referendum.

However, by the end of 2019, the SNP reported just £90,000 in the bank and assets of around a quarter of a million pounds. Murrell himself loaned the SNP more than £100,000 in 2021, which underlines the problems the party was facing as a result of the loss of members, support and income.

This raises the question, given there was no independence referendum to spend the £666,953 on, was some of that money spent elsewhere? For example, on the running of the party, election campaigns or perhaps other unknown reasons.

Certainly a number of independence supporters and SNP members believe that the money should have been ring-fenced for a future indyref. Indeed, the original complaints to the police came from pro-independence supporters.

The media coverage of the police raid at Sturgeon and Murrell’s home, and the SNP offices in Edinburgh, made headline news for days. It helped reinforce the idea that the SNP is in a rapidly accelerating downward spiral. SNP president Mike Russell commented: “In my 50-year association with the party this is the biggest and most challenging crisis we’ve ever faced.”

There was, however, also a backlash from some against the police operation. Solicitor Aamer Anwar, a supporter of independence and of the SNP leadership, commented following the police operation: “Today when people look at this, a lot of people are asking the question – police ticker tape, several police vans, forensic tents – many of course are asking the question that they didn’t see any of that from the police at No 10 when law breaking was happening right under their nose, and people are quite right to ask those questions today. When we face a cost-of-living crisis this is almost like a deflection.”

No support for capitalist state

It’s very likely that the Police Scotland investigation, launched in in the summer of 2021 when backing for independence was at over 50% and the SNP had just won the Scottish parliament election of that year with a record number of votes on a ‘mandate’ for a new referendum, was seen as an opportunity to weaken the SNP and public support for independence itself.

Socialists can give no clean bill of health to a pro-capitalist party like the SNP, the leadership of which has lifestyles and class backgrounds far removed from the lives of ordinary workers.

The SNP is certainly not a left party, let alone a workers’ party. However, its support for the break-up of the UK has put it on collision course with the overwhelming majority of the ruling capitalist class who have welcomed the current SNP debacle.

Despite our trenchant and consistent opposition to the SNP leadership’s anti-working class policies and bureaucratic methods, we oppose the capitalist state intervening in this way.

The capitalist class has, of course, a long history and current practice of attacking the workers’ movement though the use of anti-union laws, the courts and the use of the state generally. During the miners’ strike of 1984-85 the South Wales area of the National Union of Mineworkers had £700,000 sequestrated by the courts. Arrests and prosecutions of hundreds of miners took place during the strike as well.

In a genuine workers’ party, members would be able to scrutinise finances and take action if it were needed, including the right to remove elected officials under the right of recall. Crucially, we would also demand that all elected representatives should live on the average wage of a skilled worker.

It was precisely Sturgeon’s role in implementing austerity, including refusing inflation-proof pay rises demanded by trade unions, that has undermined support among the working class. The other crucial factor was the SNP leadership’s inability to mobilise mass struggle to challenge the refusal of the Tories to grant the powers for a second referendum.

Effectively, it is the SNP’s pro-capitalist policies that have created the crisis it now faces. As arch-Blairite Martin Kettle gloated in the Guardian newspaper: “Sturgeon resigned, it should be remembered… because her political strategy on issues from independence to gender recognition was falling apart.”

Falling support

Currently, SNP support has dropped to around 36% in voting intentions for the next Westminster election, a drop of around 8% since Sturgeon resigned. Scottish Labour, which had moved up to 30%, primarily at the expense of the Tories in Scotland, now seem to be gaining some support from former SNP voters. The pro-independence Greens and Alex Salmond’s Alba party are also showing increased support in the polls.

While the SNP remains by some distance the largest party in electoral terms, significant losses at the next election seem very likely, with Scottish Labour most likely to benefit. However, Scottish and UK Labour are in the vice-like grip of the neo-Blairites – the dominant capitalist wing of the party. A Starmer-led government at Westminster would not only refuse a second indyref, it would also savagely defend the interests of big business and attack the rights of the working class.

Significantly though, support for independence – on average sitting at 47% – has not been falling in tandem with dropping SNP support. This reality can mean that the SNP still have a base of support to draw on as the largest pro-indy party currently.

In the wake of Sturgeon’s resignation, splits are deepening in the party. A 15-strong faction of the SNP parliamentary group at Holyrood associated with Kate Forbes is now openly opposing the new Hamza Yousef leadership from the right, wishing to take the SNP in a more ‘business orientated’ direction. Further fissures and even splits are likely.

A new party for the working class

The most important question is, where does the working class go for its political voice? The way forward is for the trade unions – or a significant section of them – to take the necessary steps to build a new workers’ party.

The recent strike wave has underlined the enormous attraction of working-class struggle to combat the cost-of-living disaster. Further strikes are now possible in local government, among North Sea and dockyard workers on top of the current action by university workers in UCU and civil servants in PCS. The need for a party of the working class to fight for socialist policies to end the capitalist crisis while standing for the right to self-determination for Scotland is growing.

A good place to start would be standing as many worker, socialist and trade union candidates as possible at the general election.