SNP leader Humza Yousaf. Photo: Scottish Government/CC
SNP leader Humza Yousaf. Photo: Scottish Government/CC

Socialist Party Scotland (CWI) reporters

The Scottish National Party (SNP) conference took place in October and was one of the smallest in years. Day one saw yet another retreat by the nationalist leadership on its strategy to achieve independence.

Amid a 10% drop in support during 2023, and the defeat to Labour in the recent Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, the SNP conference debated how to take forward its campaign. The outcome was yet another lowering of the bar for what would constitute a mandate for independence at next year’s likely Westminster election.

Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s previous plan followed the UK Supreme Court’s undemocratic ruling that the Scottish parliament could not organise a referendum. Sturgeon had proposed making the next election a ‘de facto referendum’ – with 50% plus one share of the vote for pro-independence parties being a mandate. No one in the SNP leadership believes it can possibly achieve that level of vote and therefore that plan has been dumped.

Conference instead agreed a motion that stipulated if a majority of SNP MPs are elected from the 57 available seats, that would be enough to “begin immediate negotiations with the UK government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”. In other words, asking for the permanent powers to hold a second referendum from whoever forms a UK government – most likely a Keir Starmer-led Labour government. Yet Starmer has explicitly ruled out allowing for any second indyref.

However, there will be no intention, even if the SNP wins a majority of the seats, for an immediate referendum. And that is no surprise given the falling support for the SNP. Average polling over the last couple of months puts them on 36% – down from 45% in early 2023. Labour are on 32%. That would mean that around 20 seats could possibly be won by Labour in Scotland next year from the SNP. Labour currently has just two MPs.

It is therefore still possible that the SNP could win a majority of seats in Scotland, even while losing almost half of its MPs. However, also possible is the eclipsing of the SNP by Labour, given the anger towards the SNP-Scottish Green government from big sections of the working class combined with a mood to get rid of the Tories.

The undermining of the SNP is the consequence of the nationalists in power carrying out cuts and implementing other anti-working class policies generally. As well as having no idea of how to overcome the opposition of the capitalist class to the break-up of the UK.

John Curtice from Strathclyde University commented: “Back in the autumn of 2021, on average as many as 80% of those who voted Yes in 2014 said they would vote for the SNP. That figure now stands at just 60%. In contrast, Labour’s tally among 2014 Yes voters has increased from 8% to 20%. The link between constitutional preference and support has now frayed”.

The fact that a minority of independence-supporting voters have shifted to Labour is not an endorsement of the neo-Blairite leadership of Scottish and UK Labour either. There is no enthusiasm for Labour – but there is a strong support to get the Tories out amid an unbearable cost-of-living crisis.

In reality, the current SNP leadership is fighting for its political life. Humza Yousaf would be unlikely to survive if the SNP fails to defeat Labour in Scotland at a general election. More important, with support for independence currently polling at 49%, there is now a significant section of the working class who cannot bring themselves to vote for the SNP – and no wonder when the role of the Scottish government and SNP-led councils in implementing cuts is factored in.

For these reasons, the SNP leadership will appeal to as many of that 49% as it can to use the general election to advance the cause of independence. Yousaf’s pledge is that page one, line one of the manifesto will read: “Vote SNP for Scotland to become an independent country”.

The SNP will attempt to tie in independence with the ‘Westminster-driven’ cost-of-living crisis, and also demand more powers for Holyrood over employment rights and the minimum wage, windfall taxes on energy companies, and employment visas for overseas workers.

Yet claims by the SNP to be anti-austerity are hollow when their track record of provoking strike after strike with trade unions following below-inflation pay deals are the reality.

The SNP leadership is wholly committed to capitalism, and increasingly has returned to the examples of the Republic of Ireland, Norway and Denmark as its economic models for a capitalist independent Scotland.

Stephen Flynn, SNP Westminster leader, called for action on energy and food costs which amounted only to the reinstatement of the £400 energy rebate and a cap on food prices in supermarkets for essential items like bread and milk. But why not demand the nationalisation of energy and the big food producers and supermarkets? That would really tackle the crisis at its root.

Their support for capitalism is also a central reason why they have sought to only use elections to apply pressure on the Westminster government over the right for a second indyref. They have strictly avoided seeking to build a mass movement, on the streets, in the workplaces and communities, for self-determination.

Conference also agreed for the creation of a constitutional convention for independence – predictably made up of politicians and civic Scotland to ‘negotiate with Westminster’ – rather than a body to organise and lead mass working-class struggle for both democratic rights and socialism to deal with the economic crisis.

The SNP offers no way forward in either the struggle for self-determination or on the cost-of-living nightmare. That’s why Socialist Party Scotland has consistently called for the trade unions to build a new mass party for the working class based on socialist policies, including the right to a second independence referendum and an independent socialist Scotland.

These policies should include nationalisation of the rip-off energy companies, public ownership of transport, the major banks and big business as a whole under democratic working-class control and management. As well as the building of a democratic and voluntary socialist confederation of states including Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland as a step to a socialist world.

These were the policies we stood on in the recent Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election as part of the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition campaign.

At the forthcoming general election we would appeal to trade unionists to work with us to prepare an election challenge in Scotland that puts public ownership, support for workers striking for pay rises, and socialism on the agenda.