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Scottish National Party: One year in power - but little for workers to celebrate
On the face of it, with a series of popular measures implemented and opinion polls showing the Scottish National Party (SNP) with an extended lead over their rivals, the first anniversary of the SNP coming to power is a moment for celebration. At least from their point of view.
Philip Stott, International Socialists, CWI Scotland
In contrast to Gordon Brown's catastrophic premiership at Westminster, SNP leader Alex Salmond's approval ratings are still running at around 70%.
Since forming a minority administration in May 2007 the SNP have carried through a self-proclaimed "whirlwind" of policy announcements and legislative changes. Many of these have proved popular and some represent limited reforms that socialists would support.
They have included the reversal of decisions, backed by the previous Labour/Lib Dem executive, to close accident and emergency departments in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. The cuts provoked mass opposition in the areas affected, including huge demonstrations and protests that the SNP utilised to strengthen its electoral support.
The SNP have also announced the abolition of road bridge tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges, the freezing of the widely despised council tax for three years and its planned replacement with a "local" income tax by 2011. They have announced the abolition of the graduate endowment (tuition fees) for Scottish students, the planned phased withdrawal of prescription charges and the limited introduction of free school meals.
The SNP government have also called for - although not properly funded - a programme of new council house building at the same time as moving to end the right to buy new council and housing association homes.
The symbolism of Alex Salmond attending the Scottish TUC conference in April and announcing that the new Southern General Hospital in Glasgow would be funded by the government and not through private finance reinforced the fairly wide perception of the SNP as a "left of centre" government.
Perception can be a powerful weapon, and in comparison to the unrelenting attacks carried out by the previous Labour/Liberal executive, the SNP are seen as a government that is - at least for a layer of people - "on our side".
The SNP paid a 2.5% pay "rise" for the Scottish police force and agreed a 2.5% pay deal for 2007 for Scottish NHS staff (still a pay cut with inflation at 4%+). This was done at the same time as at a UK level New Labour were staging pay awards and announcing their intention to seek three-year below-inflation pay restraint deals for public-sector workers.
But there are two sides to the SNP. On the one hand there is an element of radical populism which includes opposition to the occupation of Iraq, the scrapping of plans for new nuclear power stations and the removal of Trident from Scotland.
On the other hand the SNP are a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist party that has embraced a large degree of neo-liberal orthodoxy and seeks at all times to work within the limits of whatever capitalism can afford.
Against the background of a rapidly contracting economy the SNP will be faced with a stark choice. Either put up a fighting resistance to the coming onslaught against workers' rights or become a vehicle to implement brutal measures against the working class. Recent evidence indicates that the SNP will follow the latter course.
The SNP government agreed a block with the Tories to get their budget through the Scottish parliament, including cuts in business taxes and other pro-business measures.
Salmond has gone further and announced that he would be prepared to back a Cameron-led Tory party after the next general election on an issue by issue basis and would thereby: "seek to extend Scotland's influence." This position overturns a long held policy of refusing to back the Tories that goes back to the introduction of the poll tax.
It did not take the SNP long to jump on the three-year below-inflation pay deals either. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP health minister has welcomed the three-year pay offer to NHS staff that will see nurses and other health workers face year-on-year pay cuts. NHS staffs are currently balloting on this offer.
The effective coalition of Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems in the Scottish local government employers' body, CoSLA, has offered a 'take it or leave it' 2.5% a year insult to 220,000 local government workers for the years 2008 to 2011.
Finance minister John Swinney has launched an almighty assault on public spending, demanding a colossal £l.6 billion in "efficiencies", ie cuts in the public sector over the next three years. If implemented they will result in a cull of jobs.
The SNP have ignited huge waves of popular protest in Edinburgh and Aberdeen where they form part of the ruling council coalitions. At the beginning of April Aberdeen saw 5,000 people marching against the £27 million cuts package being implemented by the SNP/Lib Dem council. The deputy SNP leader of the council was heckled and shouted down when he tried to justify the cuts.
In Edinburgh, within weeks of taking the chains of office, the SNP, along with the Lib Dems, launched an assault on education in the city in a bid to implement £12 million worth of cuts. This involved the proposed closure of 22 schools, six nurseries and four community centres. A massive campaign of opposition forced a rapid retreat. But the council are coming back for more.
The SNP Argyll and Bute council has issued redundancy notices to hundreds of its employees to force them to sign new contracts under the single status agreement. This has provoked a series of strikes by council workers.
Against the backdrop of cuts in public spending, the SNP government at Holyrood and their administrations at a local level are prepared to take the axe to jobs and services and collaborate with the driving down of workers' pay and conditions.
It is wrong to categorise the SNP as a party of the left as even some socialists have done. They have absolutely no alternative ideology that seeks to go beyond the confines of capitalism. Nor, at this stage, do they even promote limited public ownership or nationalisation as they did in the past.
The SNP government has come under attack, including from the RMT rail union, for extending the rail franchise for another three years to First Scotrail - a private company - rather than use the limited powers of the parliament to promote a public-sector alternative.
Their alternative to PPP for capital building projects has been derided as yet another form of privatisation or 'PFI-lite'.
A deathly silence has engulfed the SNP over support for striking Grangemouth oil workers. Nor has there been a word of criticism from Alex Salmond over the £50 billion bail-out to the banks by the Brown government to try and stem the credit crisis.
A genuine left party, rather than make cuts, would mount a campaign seeking to mobilise the working class to demand the resources needed from the Brown government and capitalism to carry out policies in the interests of the working class and local communities.
The SNP will not go down that road. In fact the strategy of the SNP is in the words of Alex Salmond to: "Prove that the SNP can run a successful government and make Scotland a successful country."
In other words, a safe pair of hands for big business. This approach will inevitably propel the SNP increasingly into a collision course with the working class in Scotland.
As we pointed out following the May 2007 elections, Labour in opposition would, on occasion, opportunistically attack the SNP from the 'left' in an effort to make up ground.
In a great historical irony Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander, who was in the vanguard of the Blairite counter-revolution in the Labour Party, supported the abolition of Clause 4 and championed the pro-market policies of New Labour, has declared the battle between the SNP and Labour as one of "nationalism versus socialism".
Speaking at the STUC conference Alexander attacked the SNP for being in the pockets of big business: "In Alex Salmond's Scotland some people are indeed more equal than others. The Trump Organisation, Macdonald Hotels in Aviemore, ScottishPower - all big businesses with a special pass to the corridors of SNP power."
Alex Salmond has personally intervened to try and get US billionaire Donald Trump's millionaires' golf course and housing project back on track following the local Aberdeenshire planning committee decision to reject the proposal. Donald Macdonald, the head of Macdonald Hotels, is an SNP donor. SNP ministers were accused of speeding up the planning process for an extension to Macdonald's resort in Aviemore.
Labour in Scotland is feigning to the left, only to then make a turn to the right - especially when they are in power as the last eight years of Labour rule in Scotland aptly demonstrated. And as the scandalous decision on the 10p tax abolition by Gordon Brown also exposes.
Move to 'left'
Nevertheless, it is not ruled out that, in a cynical attempt to rebuild their base among sections of the working class, Labour may continue to try and position themselves to the 'left' of the SNP on some issues.
This could, as the SNP undermine their position by attacking the working class and with the fear of a return of a Tory government, lead to a limited revival of Labour support in Scotland.
However, this possibility is in itself - as the coming to power of the SNP also underlined - a reflection of the huge vacuum that exists for the building of a viable mass workers' party in Scotland.
The demise of the Scottish Socialist Party, who lost 90% of their support in May 2007, has complicated the situation. The party Solidarity, led by Tommy Sheridan, and within which the forces of the CWI play a key role, has an important role in seeking to rebuild the ground that has been lost.
The rapidly changing situation which is being prepared by the economic crisis and the moving into struggle of significant sections of the working class will develop consciousness. At a certain stage, a combination of these factors will propel thousands and tens of thousands along the road of an independent voice for the working class and for socialist ideas. The continuing need to strengthen the forces of Marxism and the CWI are a vital part of that struggle.
Scottish Labour's U-turn deepens crisis for Brown
The unprecedented defeat for New Labour at the recent elections in England and Wales has raised the spectre of a Tory victory at the next UK general election. Such a possibility is having an immediate impact on Scotland. The possibility of a return of the hated Tory party brings back memories of the Thatcher years of the 1980s and early 1990s. This period laid the basis for a sharpening of the national question and a big increase in support for Scottish independence and the Scottish National Party. It also led to the setting up of the devolved Scottish parliament in 1997.
Ten years later, the SNP won the 2007 elections and formed a minority government. Now Labour's leader in Scotland, Wendy Alexander, has come out in support of a referendum on Scottish independence, which has send tremors through the political establishment. This, in turn, has had consequences for the position of New Labour throughout Britain. It has further undermined the leadership of Gordon Brown, himself an MP for a Scottish constituency who has refused to back Alexander's position.
Until Sunday 4 May, Labour's position, along with the Lib Dems and the Tories in the Scottish parliament, had been to oppose in principle any referendum bill brought forward by the SNP. In other words they were effectively against the right of self-determination for the people of Scotland. Now, Labour, at least in Scotland, seem to have shifted their position and now back the principle of a referendum on independence.
Ironically, the SNP was elected last year by playing down independence.
Since forming a minority government they have made it crystal clear that their primary concern was proving themselves a 'competent' government that was seen to 'deliver'. Hence the pledge to postpone a referendum until 2010 at the earliest.
In truth, the assumption of the SNP leadership was that they were unlikely to get a majority in the parliament for an independence referendum bill at all. That's why Salmond opened the door to a multi-option referendum which would include a third question on increased powers for the Scottish parliament but which would fall short of full independence. All the opinion polls show this is currently the favourite option.
'Enhanced devolution' or the mis-named 'devolution max' is what the three main opposition parties are currently working on through the newly formed Calman commission.
Now, in an ironic twist it is New Labour and not the SNP who have put independence in the centre of the political stage. As commentator Iain MacWhirter writing for the Guardian web blog commented: "Until now, independence has been very much on the back-burner - indeed, the SNP managed to win the Scottish election precisely because they factored independence out of the equation. Now Labour has put it back in."
Labour's 'strategy' seems to be based on forcing the SNP to accept an earlier referendum, before the UK general election, which they hope would give them a better chance of seeing the independence option defeated - thus dealing a blow to the political fortunes of the SNP. Because they fear, correctly, if the referendum was to be held after the re-election of a UK Tory government, it would give a major impetus to independence and the SNP.
However, the SNP have consistently sought to avoid a confrontation with big business and capitalist interests who are in the main opposed to independence. Alex Salmond only last week emphasised that while the SNP were seeking an end to the United Kingdom - they wanted to replace it with the United Kingdoms.
Under the SNP's plans the Queen would remain Head of State and other all UK bodies would be maintained, while trade with the rest of the Britain would be central to an independent Scotland. This gradualist approach to a form of "constitutional" independence based on a new arrangement is predicated on maintaining the economic infrastructure of capitalism and the poverty, low pay and inequality that go with it.
In a cynical move, "the party of independence", the SNP, turned down Alexander's initial offer of an early referendum and insisted that the date of late 2010 still stands. They hope that this would give them the best opportunity to maximise the vote for independence or at least more powers for the parliament over tax and other areas currently controlled by Westminster. Although they won't say it publicly - the best result for the SNP would be a Tory victory at Westminster.
There is little chance of referendum before 2010. But Labour will now find it impossible to reverse their support for a referendum unless Alexander is removed as leader - which is not ruled out. Instead they are likely to oppose the SNP on the wording of the questions in any referendum.
The cynical manoeuvring of all the main pro-capitalist parties over this issue underlines the need to build a principled party of the working class and for socialism in Scotland. A party that stands for a genuine democratic referendum on Scotland's future that would at least need to have three options. A party that fights against those, including the SNP, who see the democratic rights of the Scottish people as bargaining chips to enhance the position of the main parties.
But above all a party that stands up against the onslaught on wages and working conditions being carried out by the bosses and capitalist system - which would continue even in an independent Scotland.
A party that fights to build a socialist Scotland and unity with workers in England, Wales and Ireland to form the basis of a democratic and voluntary socialist federation.
In The Socialist 14 May 2008:
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party women
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news and analysis
Socialist Party review