Desperately seeking social democracy in Scotland

George Kerevan says a grassroots revolt is needed to make the SNP stand by what it says it is for

Some on the left define the SNP as a ‘bourgeois nationalist’ party. If so, the Scottish working class has suffered one of the gravest defeats in its history. The latest polls show support for the party at 57% (after 13 years in office) and Scottish Labour slumped at a pathetic 14%. Even then, around 44% of Labour voters say they will support independence in a second referendum.

Ideologically, the SNP is better described as a reformist, social democratic party of the moderate centre left. True, the party started life after WW1 as a radical petty bourgeois movement. But the modern SNP emerged from the 1970s onwards as a popular response to nuclear weapons, deindustrialisation and Thatcherism, eventually attracting many disgruntled Labour Party members and supporters (such as myself) in the Blair era. It is insane to classify SNP luminaries such as Margo MacDonald, Jim Sillars, Jimmy Reid, Stephen Maxwell or Tommy Shepard as dupes of bourgeois nationalism.

That said, it is clear that during its 13 years in government the SNP has accommodated to capital, just as much as Labour leaderships have done. The essence of post-war social democracy everywhere is to promote Western capitalism as (ostensibly) the most efficient model of wealth creation, while ensuring consent by using the welfare system to ameliorate the worst excess of the free market. Latterly, ‘modernising’, Blair-style social democracy has become a cheerleader for neo-liberalism and then for austerity, as the global system grows more unstable.

The SNP fits directly into this managerial model of social democracy. Under Alex Salmond, the party adopted neo-liberal Ireland as its model, advocated low corporate taxes as a magnet for foreign investment, and welcomed Donald Trump International to Aberdeenshire. At the same time, Salmond’s early administration abolished prescription charges and student fees, mitigated the ‘bedroom tax’, froze council tax and held down social rents. As a result, poverty levels are lower in Scotland than in England.

However, the balance the SNP government keeps between accommodating capital and offering concessions to the working class has begun to shift in favour of the former, particularly since Nicola Sturgeon took over. In part, this is due to the financial squeeze imposed on Holyrood by the Tories. Sturgeon’s administration has tried to hold the line, introducing the ‘baby box’, ending period poverty, and providing grants for young carers. But valuable as these developments are, the financial straight jacket imposed by the Treasury means any reforms are limited.

The alternative is to take direct control of the economy. Instead, the SNP Government has chosen to rely on private sector investment to boost growth. This has led to questionable compromises. Scotland’s single biggest food export is factory-farmed salmon. Most production is controlled by Norwegian-owned multinational, Mowi, which uses dangerous insecticides to kill the parasitic sea lice common in intensive salmon cultivation. Yet Cabinet Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, has consistently refused demands from environmentalists to investigate Mowi.

Other examples of the too cosy relations developing between ministers and capital include Richard Lockhead’s refusal to shut down Exxon-Shell’s dangerously obsolete plastics complex at Mossmorran, whose flaring of natural gas makes the plant Scotland’s second biggest emitter of CO2, and the £60m grant to Nuveen, the world’s biggest commercial property owner, to subsidise its ugly hotel and shopping development on Leith Walk.

An independent, socialist Scotland will have to deal with the global economy to survive. But subsidising US capital or allowing global agribusiness to destroy Scotland’s natural habitat is taking pragmatism too far. Worse, the Sturgeon administration has started to accommodate to domestic capital. As head of her advisory group on rebooting the economy after Covid-19, she appointed Benny Higgins, the former boss of Tesco Bank turned chair of Buccleuch Estates. Higgins also advised on setting up the new Scottish National Investment Bank and on the proposed National Infrastructure Company (an idea endorsed by the SNP conference). In the latter case, Higgins has called on Sturgeon to veto the idea lest it compete with private builders.

Higgins represents something new: the integration of Scottish business directly into Scottish Government decision-making, much as Gordon Brown recruited bankers like Fred Goodwin. This managerialism is in line with the increasing bureaucratising of the SNP and recruitment of MSPs and ministers from a self-perpetuating caste of former advisers. But bringing business representatives into government leads to conflicts of interest and sleaze. The SNP also wants business people onboard as part of its overtures to reassure middle class voters that independence will change as little as possible – that assumes SNP voters in the housing schemes are stupid.

You can see this drift in the first report from the Just Transition Commission, set up last year by the Scottish Government to show it is doing something about climate change. In print, the Commission’s tone is radical: ‘Here in Scotland, we need to put social justice at the heart of our actions as we build the climate movement and mobilise for COP26 …’. However, Scottish Government was careful to include among the genuine environmental activists on the Commission representatives of Big Oil. They include Colette Cohen, Chief Exec of the Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) in Aberdeen and a 14-year veteran at Connoco-Phillips. While working in Kazakhstan, Cohen was awarded a medal in recognition of her ‘contribution to the country’s oil and gas industry’. Cohen’s OGTC wants to maximise oil recovery using new technology, funded by £180m from the UK and Scottish governments.

Buried deep in the Transition Commission’s fiery but ultimately vague report is a commitment to help OGTC deliver more oil to ‘protect jobs’. Such is the ultimate contradiction of social democracy – talking reform while accepting the rule of capital. This suggest the SNP grassroots need to reassert their right to make party policy and, after independence, the first task will be to build a party that represents the interests of the working class.

George Kerevan is co-convenor of the SNP Socialists