SNP: neo-liberalism with a heart?

On its website, the SNP describes itself as a ‘social democratic political party’ and, upon the change in its leadership last year, sympathetic but not uncritical commentator, George Kerevan, then more of a journalist but now an SNP MP, heartily agreed in the Scotsman (18 November 2014): ‘The SNP under Nicola Sturgeon is a genuine social democratic party’.

Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon said of herself: ‘I’d describe myself as a social democrat’ (Guardian 2 May 2015) and ‘My role is to build a Scotland that all those who live and work here can be proud of, a nation both social democratic and socially just’ to the SNP annual conference in November 2014 while former First Minister, Jack McConnell told the Times (18 October 2014): ‘Alex Salmond was essentially a right-wing populist, posing as social democrat [but] Nicola Sturgeon is a social democrat’.

Many joining SNP – as membership grew from 25,000 just prior to the referendum to over 100,000 prior to the general election in May 2015 – would have no doubt concurred. And there are others (see box ‘Perceptions of the SNP’).

Could they all be wrong? The depressing answer is a solid, definite ‘yes’ because looking at not just the words but also the deeds, the SNP is very far from being – or even becoming – a social democratic party.

Perceptions of the SNP

Former UCS leader, Jimmy Cloughley: ‘I’ve been hoping for a situation like this all my life. The progressive elements in Scotland are on the move. Rather than opportunists and careerists, and hatred and aggression filling politics, the SNP showed they could do social justice, whether they’re to the left, right or upside down. Labour has a chance now to come back realigned. With two social democrat parties working for people, the population would be the winners’ (Observer 10 May 2015).

Author and journalist, Lesley Riddoch: ‘Nicola Sturgeon is now unquestionably Britain’s most trusted social democrat and Scotland’s most popular political leader’ (Guardian 8 May 2015).

Now new SNP MP, Tommy Sheppard: ‘The effect of [English Labour MPs] being confronted not by people waving Claymores but by a bunch of social democrats who want the same reforms as they do could be quite seismic’ (Guardian 7 May 2015).

Other like the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and the Times have all frequently echoed this sentiment.

Meanwhile, there are even some who believe the SNP to have socialist leanings and undertones. For example, Vonny Moyes, activist within the now defunct independence supporting National Collective, believed the SNP was characterised by ‘centralism with a soupcon of socialism – just enough to win over the floating left’ (Guardian 24 March 2015) while Sean Clerkin, of Scottish Labour heckling fame and Citizens United, proclaimed: ‘I say to you working-class people: don’t be fooled, vote against Labour, vote against the red Tories, vote for the Scottish National Party come the election and vote for socialism’ (Herald 21 February 2015).

There is no doubt that the SNP has moved a long, long way from the time when it could accurately be described as ‘Tartan Tories’, a predominant alliance of farmers and fishermen, and that Sturgeon is to the left of previous leader, Alex Salmond. But this does not make the SNP social democratic.

The essence of social democracy is a political party in both words and deeds that is prepared to use the state to intervene in the economy to ameliorate the processes and outcomes of free market capitalism – and to do so in order to make them fairer for most citizens. This is not socialism for the market still exists and is merely regulated – neither heavily curtailed nor abolished. The outcome is to make society more ‘sociable’ in terms of economic justice and social equality.

The evidence to show that any political party – when in office – is social democratic comprises statutory intervention leading to the regulation of wages and prices, progressive taxation (where those with more pay more), measures to achieve wealth redistribution, support for unions to level the playing field with employers and so on. One of the most obvious forms social democracy takes is public ownership.

Notwithstanding the recent populist opportunism of the Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, it is a measure of the political disorientation brought about by Labour’s endorsement of neo-liberalism – the belief the market knows best – that leads many like Kerevan and Riddoch to mistakenly believe any party that is critical of Labour from a slightly left-of-centre perspective is then social democratic.

The SNP, having been in government in Holyrood since 2007, has legitimately been able to claim that there has been a limit to what it could do under devolution. In other words, SNP supporters claim that while some things have been done – like introducing free prescriptions, building the first publicly funded hospital and introducing the living wage for Scottish government employees – issues reserved to Westminster have constrained what further can be done.

This does not hold up to serious examination. Privateers still abound in public services (especially in the NHS), and though to be welcomed, the legislative programme announced by Sturgeon last November did not amount to much more than tinkering around the edges and talking about the possibility of limited state intervention despite enhanced devolved powers. Taking Prestwick airport into public ownership and nationalising the debt of Pelamis Wave Power are but mere drops in the ocean – indeed, the two exceptions that prove the rule, especially when added to the wasted opportunity of not bringing Scotrail back into public ownership and the possible privatisation of CalMac.

Moreover, there are growing concerns about the SNP government’s tendencies towards centralisation and managerialism so that the democratic part of any alleged social democracy is very much being called into question.

Now a major player at Westminster after May 7, the SNP will no longer be able to hide so easily behind its limitations of power argument whilst simultaneously proclaiming its social democratic credentials.

The SNP will be sorely tested by its attitude towards renationalising all forms of public transport and former public utilities, introducing rent and other price controls, bringing banks and other key economic activities into public ownership, providing statutory means for unions to engage in sectoral collective bargaining and the like.

This is because so much of what the SNP is about in regard of the critical private sector is encouragement and cajoling of a voluntary nature with the result that this voluntary method is neither forceful nor effective. If employers do not want to do ‘x’ or ‘y’ and there is no compulsion (especially financial) upon them to do so, they will not do it unless it benefits them financially.

A good example of this is the Scottish Government’s recent launching of the Fair Work Convention – it is to be welcomed but it is not a return to corporatism or tripartism because it seeks to lead by example and through best practice without any financial or legal compulsion on capital and employers. Another example is the ‘Scottish Business Pledge’ to introduce the living wage, end zero hour contracts and increase the representation of women.

But behind the issue of modus operandi lurks a much bigger and more important one – that of ideology. Whether seen as its difficulty in – or its aversion to – becoming social democratic, the SNP’s problem is that it does not recognise the existence of social classes and the conflict between them.

One class owns the means of production, distribution and exchange while the other does not. Sturgeon’s talk of ‘one Scotland’ and ‘Scotland’s interests’ means that this root cause of social inequality within Scotland is not recognised and cannot be recognised. And, if it is not recognised, it cannot be addressed either.

Consequently, the SNP can best be characterised as social liberal, not social democratic. While neo-liberalism means letting the market rip, social liberalism is a variant of it with an added touch of social conscience. Indeed, was recognised some time ago by renown independent economists, Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, when in 2009 they analysed the SNP as ‘neo-liberalism with a heart’ in a chapter for an edited book on the SNP called The Modern SNP – from protest to power.

Social liberalism welcomes free market capitalism so long as it operates efficiently in terms of creating jobs. Indeed, its efficient operation can, social liberalism believes, be aided by state guidance – hence, SNP policy of now selectively cutting corporation tax to encourage specific investment to create jobs or tax breaks for oil companies to save jobs (with nationalisation not considered). The SNP is then rather less interested in whether the jobs are well-paid, decent, unionised ones or not. This is to remain the prerogative of employers and that is not a hallmark of social democracy. But it is up to the unions and the left to contest this as strongly and as successfully as they can.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and author of ‘The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland?’ (University of Wales Press, 2005)

Sturgeon speaks to Scottish business

Nicola Sturgeon speaking to business leaders said business has nothing to fear from her government, adding ‘I am a social democrat … I believe in pursuing greater equality and tackling social justice. You can’t do that unless you have got a strong economy, unless you have got a vibrant business base earning the wealth that makes that possible. Your success underpins the prosperity and wellbeing of every community in Scotland. It is vital for me and my Government to work closely with you to help you succeed, and I intend to do that. My government will be enthusiastic in our support for business’ (from the Express 2 December 2014).