We have repeatedly voiced our scepticism concerning the Scottish National Party (SNP) as a progressive party and a force for emancipation. Chris Bambery has decided enough is enough and contributed this piece refuting our concerns – more or less.
Chris Bambery is author and broadcaster. Co-author (with George Kerevan) of Catalonia Reborn: How Catalonia Took on the Corrupt Spanish State and the Legacy of Franco (Luath Press, June 2018)
Women council workers across Glasgow recently striking over a pay dispute with Glasgow City Council
National identity is constructed by human beings in specific circumstances. It is not something that is unchanging or ahistorical; it can and does change. Take Scotland’s national identity, for example.
Growing up in Scotland in the 1960s Scottish identity was very much identified with our role in the vanguard of the British Empire, particularly its wars, and by the state religion, Calvinism, which excluded the Catholic minority of Irish descent (most of whom migrated following the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1849). Until relative recently they were subject to discrimination which, while never on the scale of Northern Ireland, was very real.
Yet something has profoundly changed. Scotland has rebranded its identity (although it still trades on Outlander and tartan kitsch).
Until the 1980s the Scottish working class was fully part of the once mighty British trade union movement but in the 1980s that was brought to heel by Margaret Thatcher. Having struck and marched Scottish working class people began to look to another form of rebellion, their national identity.
The Conservative Party, which had as recently won 51 percent of the vote in 1955 in Scotland, was retreating increasingly into its bulwark of Southern England. The vision of Britain it offered was unappealing economically but also increasingly English. The Union was becoming uncomfortable for many middle and working class Scots.
When the Conservatives unexpectedly won the 1992 UK General Election, but took just 11 of Scotland’s 72 seats at Westminster, people flooded onto the streets demanding a separate, devolved Scottish parliament, seeing that as a shield from Tory rule (the Conservatives had little support north of the border). When Tony Blair and New Labour were elected in 1997 they had to move immediately to create that parliament, despite Blair’s instincts. He was assured devolution would place a cap on Scottish aspirations.
Instead as New Labour brought its supporters the Iraq War and raw blooded neo-liberalism Scottish voters started moving towards support for independence. The Scottish National Party followed, adopting traditional social democratic rhetoric, and a few policies, jettisoned by New Labour.
In turn a new Scottish identity emerged centred on the vision of a modern European state which championed social democratic values, counterpoised to an archaic British state committed to full blooded economic liberalism. It was also very much rooted in a Presbyterian Scotland.
All of this brought about a transformation in the Scottish National Party which until the 1990s had been a party very much on the centre ground in regards to economic and social questions. In two Westminster elections in 1974 it returned seven then 11 MPs. Yet they overwhelmingly represented rural seats won from the Liberals and Tories and aside from the slogan “Its Scotland’s Oil” and the promise to spend the revenue from the newly discovered North Sea oil to the benefit of the Scottish people, its platform was fairly middle of the road.
The SNP spent much of the next two decades in the doldrums, with the odd spectacular by-election victories when disillusionment set in with Labour as an opposition force to the Tories. But in the new millennium it benefitted hugely from its active opposition to the Iraq War and by adopting much Old Labour rhetoric in opposition to Blair’s New Labour. After it formed a minority government in 2007 it has held onto office and has delivered a modest but real reform agenda: free higher education, free personal care, free bus travel across Scotland for pensioners, abolition of bridge tolls and an end to health prescription charges. It might not be much but is sufficient to contrast with what is on offer in England and Wales.
Scottish Labour continued to champion economic liberalism, opposing free education as being “unaffordable,” and even with the rise of Corbyn it concentrates on attacking the SNP and independence more than the Tories and austerity. Its decision to bloc with the Tories in the official No campaign in the 2014 referendum was a serious mistake. While many Scots like Corbyn’s agenda they dislike the party’s unionism, which he has not shifted from 2014.
The SNP also did sterling work in winning over working class Catholic voters, mainly in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, and migrant communities, particularly the Muslim one. In that it helped that the SNP had not just opposed the invasion of Iraq but also in government the demonization of Islam in general and the passing of security laws which were aimed at Muslim communities.
Overall the centre of the party’s support has shifted from the rural north east into the former industrial Central Belt with the party finally capturing Labour’s bastion Glasgow last year.
The Scottish Government of Nicola Sturgeon has gone further than any European government aside from that of Flanders in defending Catalan democracy and speaking out against the use of repression to try and halt last October’s independence referendum.
Of course compared to the great peak of British Labourism in 1945 and the creation of the National Health Service above all this is all small beer but so far have we retreated from that social democratic consensus, shared by the centre right, the sorts of modest measures I’ve outlined stand out.
Yet the party has its neo-liberal wing and the leadership is cautious looking constantly to triangulate. Earlier it sponsored a report from the Growth Commission on the future of the economy which was thoroughly neo-liberal, though that has produced something of a revolt among a membership previously renowned for its loyalty to the leadership.
The membership is also an active won, committed to securing independence, on a platform which champions welfare, ridding Scotland of Britain’s nuclear missiles and environmentalism. It saw a huge surge in new members after the 2014 referendum, although retaining them has not been easy, as Labour in England has found too.
In recent months it has taken to the streets en masse in a series of demonstrations in support of independence involving key SNP figures, but independent of the party. The last in Edinburgh drew 100,000 people.
To return to Scotland’s changed national identity, the SNP has also mirrored that by ditching any hint of blood and race nationalism and repositioning itself on the centre left to tune in with the beliefs and standards of a majority of Scots. That has not been registered by their opponents who continue to attack it as if it was the party of Marine Le Pen (it has never been a party of the right let alone the far right and the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has to her credit refused to appear on a BBC programme alongside Steve Bannon). By continuing that Labour has driven a wedge ever deeper between itself and independence supporters, despite electing a new left wing leader, who has turned out be uninspiring and too stuck into the groove of attacking the SNP rather than the Tories.
The Scottish National Party has proved remarkably successful, and because it supports what amounts to the break up of Britain it is treated with suspicion and dislike by the UK elite, which gives it a certain edginess. But it has also benefitted from the huge mobilisation of support for independence in 2014 which gives it an activist base no rival party can command. It is hard to see it leaving office any time soon.