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The End of the Union?

Gregor Gall on the opportunities and problems facing the SNP government

The tectonic plates of Scottish politics underwent a further and seemingly decisive shift on 5 May 2011 with the SNP landslide in the Scottish Parliament election. The return of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was destined in the minds of its ‘new’ Labour architects to have made such an SNP advance impossible – recall that while Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Labour MP George Robertson declared in 1995 that ‘Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead’. It seemed from 6 May until late June 2011 - with the debacle over the law against sectarianism - that Salmond was master of all that he surveyed. Even after that, Salmond remained a political and intellectual giant amongst pygmies on the Scottish stage, and convincingly challenged Westminster-based leaders for political dominance.

So, after languishing as the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2007, the SNP has made a remarkable breakthrough. The SNP started off with just 35 MSPs in 1999 – compared to Labour’s 56. By 2003, the SNP had dropped to 27 (with Labour on 50). But by 2007, the SNP gained 47 MSPs to Labour’s 46. It formed a minority government for the Parliament of 2003-2007 with the help of two Green MSPs and an independent (former SNP) MSP.

Although Labour had an early and commanding lead in the polls for the 2011 election (of between 10%-15%), the media believed its negative, lacklustre and misdirected campaign – epitomised by Iain Gray - allowed the SNP to take votes from it to add to the droves of Liberal Democrats voters coming its way. Come the election count, the SNP gained 69 MSPs to Labour’s 37. For the first time since 1999, a single party has formed a majority government but – at the very least - it was not supposed to be the SNP. Indeed, no single party was supposed to be able to dominate in this way. Now the SNP is arithmetically able to push though much of the legislative agenda which it could not in the 2007-2011 parliament. This includes a bill to undertake a referendum on whether Scotland should become a separate nation state. Consequently, this article examines the possibility of a breakup of the union, and what social and political direction such a break up may take. The key points for debate in radical circles are what can and will replace these entities and what will be their social and political composition.

A New Base for the SNP?

One of the key issues raised by the movement of voters concerns how coherent and permanent the SNP’s new electoral base now is. Since 1999, and unlike Labour, its vote has fluctuated widely and most of the former Liberal Democrat vote in 2011 came to it. Was this a mere protest vote against the Liberal Democrats’ participation in the Westminster coalition government which has seen the Liberal Democrats renege on its policy on student tuition fees and agree to savage cuts in the welfare state? Or does it mark the beginning of a permanent realignment? Ultimately, of course, only time will tell. But it can be doubted that the former Liberal Democrat voters have necessarily become more radicalised - or sufficiently radicalised - to become permanent SNP supporters. This can be ventured because an examination of the SNP’s policies shows it to be a left-of-centre party by comparison to the Liberal Democrats, and one which supports independence while the Liberal Democrats do not.

the revolt against Thatcherism most often framed by a social democratic influenced notion of national identity, the SNP became a more social democratic influenced party

Before the arrival of Thatcherism, the SNP were commonly referred to as ‘Tartan Tories’ in light of not just their policies but their social base of the middle class and the fishing and farming communities outside the central belt of Scotland. But with the revolt against Thatcherism most often framed by a social democratic influenced notion of national identity, the SNP became a more social democratic influenced party. It was more than just Thatcherism had no mandate to the predominant form of Scottish national identity for what it meant to be Scottish was to be the opposite of Thatcherism, namely, egalitarian, tolerant, caring and compassionate. It was under this process that the SNP adopted – in competition with Labour in particular – a set of policies (of which some have been acted upon since 2007) that now compromise what seems like radicalism on the social and political front. The former includes abolition of prescription charges, freezing the council tax, scrapping tuition fees and bridge tolls, introducing free school meals for all 5-8 year olds, ending the sale of council houses, preserving free personal care for the elderly, and progressive local taxation. The later has included opposition to the Iraq war, abolition of new weapons (and Trident in particular) as well as opposition to privatisation of public services via the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and its replacement with the non-profit making Scottish Futures Trust along with the building the first publicly funded and owned hospital for a generation.

Radical Nationalists?

But the extent to which this is or looks radical has to been held in regard of three points. First, the Scottish Labour Party – despite the some organisational autonomy and the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament – did not open up a particularly large expanse of ‘clear red water’ between itself and ‘new’ Labour. The Welsh Labour Party under the less powerful Welsh Assembly has a better claim in this regard. The comparison of the SNP to Scottish Labour, therefore, easily flatters the SNP.

Second, the SNP has – notwithstanding the aforementioned policies – gravitated towards the centre ground of politics as ‘new’ Labour and neo-liberalism reconfigured the whole political landscape. Thus, the SNP’s economic policy was and remains very similar to Scottish Labour’s ‘smart successful Scotland’ agenda of a high-tech and research-based ‘value added economy’ under which business is supported and encouraged through deregulation and financial assistance (within the confines of devolved matters). The SNP 2007-2011 government’s support for Donald Trump’s golf and leisure development near Aberdeen is an indication of how the SNP is prepared to support business (and in the course of this, often, browbeat opposition) in order for business to have free rein for its terms on which to invest its capital. Like many other examples such as Amazon and News International, the benefit in the eyes of the SNP of Trump’s investment is to bring jobs to Scotland at a time of economic stagnation – and in contradiction of the ‘value added economy’ approach, pretty much never mind the types of jobs that are created, namely, low paid and low skilled ones. This was why some two hundred leading members of the business community endorsed the SNP in the 2011 election, with Finance Secretary, John Swinney, proclaiming ‘Captains of industry have benefited from the SNP’. This is particularly true with regard to ‘big oil’ and ‘big finance’.

The main regard in which the SNP’s economic policy is different from Labour’s ‘smart successful Scotland’ is that the SNP advocates that Scotland as an independent nation state should join the economies of Ireland, Iceland and Norway in an ‘arc of prosperity’. That the SNP chose these exemplars and put much emphasis on the Ireland as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy with its vastly lower level of corporation tax is instructive, for this left out the rather more socially democratic-inclined Denmark, Sweden and Finland. There are a few counter-movements to the influence of neo-liberalism upon the SNP’s economic policy. The resistance to PFI and the like is evident but no moves have been made to recapture lost ground to the domination of the market. Interesting as though they are the minimum pricing on alcohol (to reduce health and social problems) and the so-called additional ‘Tesco tax’ on supermarket profits do not contradict this analysis. Indeed, with the vast price increase in gas and electricity of 1 August 2011 by Scottish Power, the SNP merely asked the company to justify this increase rather than say it was thinking about setting establishing price controls and arguing that such a power should be devolved.

the SNP is not a republican party by policy or leadership and has always made it clear that while the ending of the union of countries is its favoured policy, it would still maintain the union of the crowns

Third, the SNP is not a republican party by policy or leadership and has always made it clear that while the ending of the union of countries is its favoured policy, it would still maintain the union of the crowns. Fourth, upon greeting the 2011 election result the following day, Alex Salmond declared that: ‘For the first time, we're living up to the idea that we're the national party of Scotland, all classes, all communities, all parts of Scotland; we will do our absolute best to redeem the people's trust’. Although it seems somewhat churlish to castigate the SNP alone for having a worldview based on the politics of a supposed ‘national interest’ (even a Scottish rather than British one) whereby ‘national interest’ is that defined and controlled by the powerful forces of the capitalist status quo, it remains the case that for those that see radical pretensions in the SNP will likely be disappointed. Such an examination of the nature of the SNP and its political support is essential to then assessing if, how and when an independent Scotland may emerge as well as what that independence may look like.

Support for Independence

Support for the SNP has nearly always exceeded support for independence and historically not all SNP voters have supported independence so the two are far from being synonymous with each other. Even before the SNP took some 45% of the vote in the constituency and regional vote on 5 May 2011, support for independence has between 1999 and 2007 never exceeded 34% and has been as low as 23% according to the Scottish Social Attitudes surveys (which asks gives the option of ‘independence’, ‘enhanced devolution’, ‘status quo’ and ‘end devolution’ to a wider sample than most polls). In these surveys, support for enhanced devolution – that is, greater fiscal autonomy in particular – shows support ranging from 37% to 55%. More recent polls conducted by YouGov broadly continue this pattern (and show that the percentage favouring independence for Scotland is higher in England and Wales). However, it remains to be seen whether the higher level of support for independence (39%) than support for staying in the Union (38%) – as recorded in the early September 2011 TNS-BMRB poll – is a blip or the beginning of a more fixed phenomenon.

The difference between support for the SNP and independence arises for a number of reasons but a principal one is that the SNP itself has wavered over time in the extent to which it has prioritised independence and was divided between the ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘gradualists’ wings of its party over the roadmap to independence and the centrality of independence to the SNP’s political platform. Nonetheless, as much as 58% of SNP voters supported independence in 2003 according to the Scottish Social Attitude survey. This is both a strength and a weakness – the former because as the only major party supporting independence but the latter because only just over a simple majority of  SNP voters supported (with support for independence amongst the voters of other parties like Labour much lower).

Salmond will not be forced by the Unionist parties and Unionist media into organising a referendum before he thinks he has strengthened the case of the SNP as a credible party of government in order to strengthen the case for independence. This means the SNP wants to take time to deepen its image of managerial competency. Salmond will also devise a ballot paper which maximises support for independence (probably by avoiding a simple ‘yes’/’no’ choice and asking the question in principle, maybe by even avoiding use of the term ‘independence’) and will use a staged approach of a successful referendum outcome to negotiate terms of sovereignty which will then be subject to another referendum. He will try to use the opportunity of the newly enhanced power of the Scottish Parliament (through the Scotland Act 2011) to show what more could be achieved with independence. With a majority in the Scottish Parliament, he intends to introduce the bill to initiate the first referendum no sooner than the end of 2013. But between now and then and thereafter there are quite a few issues that could derail this SNP plan.


First amongst those is whether the SNP can as a party remain unscathed from the effect of the swingeing cuts in the welfare state that are coming. As the Scottish government, it is obliged to make savings of £3.3bn over the next five years. Moreover, with fresh election pledges to maintain on a council tax freeze for five years, no tuition fees for home students and the like, the public sector worker pay freeze will require continuation along with considerable cuts in other budgets. So-called ‘efficiency savings’ not only can only go so far but these will necessarily have to comprise huge real cuts in provision. The SNP government will no doubt ramp up the rhetoric of the ‘blame game’ on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in Westminster for initiating the cuts and will point out with its rich natural reserves (especially of oil) that Scotland, as an independent country, would not have to suffer these cuts. However, if the SNP government does not firmly square up to the Westminster government in a fight on this and have some measure of success as well, it will be undermined as the defender of Scotland, especially as the welfare state and the values of fairness and egalitarianism are so central to the dominant notion of Scottish nationality. Having travelled so far to the right since their ’79 Group’ days, it is incredulous to believe that Salmond and MacAskill would now advocate ‘a real Scottish resistance’ including ‘political strikes and civil disobedience on a mass scale’ as they did then. It is highly unlikely that the cuts can be delayed or ameliorated through extra borrowing or economic growth. The SNP is also not currently minded to increase (personal) taxation by varying the basic rate of income tax in Scotland (as any Scottish government could have done since 1999) or abolish the council tax and replace it with a progressive alternative which also would generate more revenue from the well-to-do.

if the SNP government does not firmly square up to the Westminster government in a fight on this and have some measure of success as well, it will be undermined as the defender of Scotland, especially as the welfare state and the values of fairness and egalitarianism are so central to the dominant notion of Scottish nationality.

If the case for independence is to be made and made successfully, it will no doubt hinge upon the type of independence that is on offer. But this will not come without its own problems. During the 2011 election campaign, the SNP did not make a big fist of independence given it was still smarting a little from the blow of the ‘arc of insolvency’ jibe. Nonetheless, it did make clear that independence – in its view – would be ‘better for jobs and the economy’. Since the election, it has emerged that the SNP now favours what has been dubbed 'independence-lite'. This is to envisage Scotland as more independent but remaining within a confederation of states on the British Isles, and sharing services such as defence, foreign affairs and social security with England while exercising full fiscal and political sovereignty. In other words, outright independence or separatism is not being contemplated and shows that, as before, the SNP’s vision of independence is a flexible and changing one. For example, in the late 1980s, the slogan of the SNP was a fairly definite, full-blown 'independence in Europe' while by the early 2000s it had moved to fiscal autonomy to precede independence (then unclearly defined). Such nimble footwork may be able to form an internal balancing act between the fundamentalist and gradualist wings within the SNP as well as one amongst the electorate, media and other key players like business. But much will depend upon whether the message remains coherent and credible, and whether what is lost by angering those clamouring for quick and outright independence is made up for by assuaging those that fear separatism.

Mobilising Voters

But probably a more significant consideration is that come the actual independence campaign, politically, the SNP will have to go much further to the left than these mere platitudes on jobs if it wants to win the campaign and amongst the majority ‘lower orders’. If the SNP is to keep and maintain political influence for its political objectives, crucially convincing these ‘lower orders’ – which constitute the majority of citizenry and electorate - that their living standards will be better under independence (however defined) becomes the central task. This is because it is evident at the moment that independence being better for jobs and the economy is conceived within the conventions of neo-liberalism (and absent economic expansion) and that is not a convincing basis upon which to argue to most citizens that independence will be better for jobs etc. Indeed, if a) there is no credible sense that independence will not protect jobs and their terms and conditions as well protect and promote public services and b) independence is, thus, essentially just about constitutional and political change, then a whole swathe of citizenship amongst workers and the impoverished will either not vote at all or vote against it (under the influence of a Unionist dominated media). A low turnout is already a problem for in the Scottish Parliament elections where it has declined from a high of 58% in 1999 to 50% in 2011%, and in some areas of Glasgow 60% did not vote in 2011. But to envisage what a socially radical version of what independence may be and which is capable of moving the disenfranchised to vote could also scare some of the horses on the political centre and right including many amongst the business community. For example, intervening in the market to control prices (rather just on minimum pricing of alcohol) and having a solidaristic wage and taxation policy would create this kind of positive and negative reaction.

The Left and Independence

Although the SNP's legislative programme for the 2011-2015 Parliament is quite unimaginative, with Labour, the Liberals and the Tories all being affected by their own internal crises, it’s not quite a case that the SNP thus looks better than it actually is. It’s more a case of it not looking as unappealing and uninspiring as it is. Turning to the left, at the moment, with Scottish Socialist Party continuing to be at the very bottom reaches of its doldrums after gaining just 8,272 votes in May 2011, there is very little sense at the moment and for the foreseeable future in which it and the wider pro-independence left is going to be able to pull the overall independence agenda towards it in order to make it more radical and left-wing. The effect of the second Sheridan trial was to further alienate voters from the SSP and Solidarity as ‘a plague on both your houses’.

The irony is that with the SNP in government and its goal of independence, the purchase of Scottish socialism is potentially large because the framing of the issue of which direction society should move in plays to the politics of the SSP’s platform of ‘Socialism - Independence – Internationalism’. What the SSP and wider radical left woefully lack are numbers and credibility to take advantage of this window of opportunity. They have the slim opportunity to regain lost ground for that purpose by helping to organise the fight against the cuts in public expenditure. If they do not, and in this overall situation, the SNP may end up being caught between a rock and a hard place of trying to be all things to all classes and not be enough of anything to anyone of them. Consequently, the break-up of Britain, for good or for ill, will have to wait some time yet.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire ( but lives in Edinburgh. He is the author of The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? (University of Wales Press, 2005) and a fortnightly columnist in the Morning Star.