Scotland Moves Left

Neil Davidson

The Scottish National Party has been running to Labour's left ahead of the May 7 elections. How should we relate to it?

The Scottish National Party's Nicola Sturgeon on the campaign trail. Scottish Political Archive / Flickr

Interview by
Bhaskar Sunkara

On May 7, the United Kingdom will pick its new prime minister. The preference for many? A resounding “none of the above.” Neither Labour nor the ruling Conservative Party is anticipated to win an outright majority.

Combined, a hotchpotch of minor parties will capture around a third of the vote. Some bright spots are to be expected, like an improved showing from the Green Party, but far too many of those votes are going in the direction of the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP).

In Scotland, however, the Scottish National Party (SNP) may win a majority, occupying the social-democratic political space abandoned for decades by a rightward moving Labour Party. Last year’s independence referendum spearheaded by the SNP saw working-class districts and former Labour strongholds among the most energized by the party’s program.

With just a week to go before the elections, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara sat down with academic and activist Neil Davidson to discuss the situation in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain.

Bhaskar Sunkara

Last year, you joined many on the Left in Scotland and beyond in supporting a “yes” vote in the Scottish referendum. What did you see in the movement that made it worthy of support?

Neil Davidson

One answer would be that you only need to look at the forces of world reaction lined up against Scottish independence — all of whom have a perfectly good understanding of their class interests — to understand why socialists should support it! But the reasons are more complex than this, so perhaps I should maybe begin by explaining my views before the referendum campaign began.

Prior to 2011 my position was that, if there ever was a referendum then I would vote “yes,” largely on the grounds that it would be impossible for socialists to vote for the continued existence of the British imperialist state and — in effect — to endorse British nationalism. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the prospect though, for two reasons.

One was that there appeared to be very little possibility of a referendum actually being held. It would only happen if the Scottish National Party, for whom a referendum was a programmatic demand, became a majority government in the Scottish Parliament. There was, however, little prospect of that since the system of proportional representation adopted by the parliament was specifically designed to prevent any party from achieving a majority — in effect it was designed to produce permanent coalitions between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

So, to fixate on the question of independence — as many on the Left, particularly in the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), started to do from the late 1990s — seemed to me to be a mistake, particularly when there were infinitely more pressing issues requiring our involvement, such as the alter-globalization movement (from 1999) and the anti-war movements (from 2001–2). I was a member of the Socialist Workers Party at this point, and the party — rightly, in my view — regarded these as priorities.

The other was that some of the arguments used by sections of the Left to support independence effectively involved a capitulation to left nationalism. Many of these were based on what I regarded as extremely dubious historical claims: that the Scottish nation had existed since the time of William Wallace in the late thirteenth century; that Scotland had been and still was oppressed within the UK in the technical Marxist sense; that Scots had been and still were more radical, democratic, or socialist than the English.

This led to attempts to minimize Scottish participation in the British Empire and to transform every historical political struggle, from the Jacobite attempts at absolutist restoration in the eighteenth century to the anti–Poll Tax campaign in the 1980s as “national” in character, regardless of their class basis.

I rejected all this as a historian, but was also concerned that it involved a level of fantasy about Scottish radicalism that had anti-English implications — that English workers had supposedly accepted Thatcherism while we hadn’t — and so on.

However, the SNP gained a majority at Holyrood in the Scottish elections of 2011 — itself reflecting a major shift in Scottish politics given the institutional obstacles in the way of this happening. This meant that “the actuality of the referendum” could not be long delayed. Independence was therefore no longer simply an abstract possibility, and three things happened that made me realize that a “yes” vote had to be should be actively supported by the revolutionary left rather than passively (and grudgingly) endorsed.

The first was the way in which, over the decade, British politics became dominated by the imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, together with the attendant Islamophobia and increasingly right-wing conceptions of Britishness. (On reflection, I think I was too slow in working through what the practical implications of removing nuclear weapons from Scotland would mean — not just in the damage to NATO’s geopolitical strategy, but in the removal of the rest of the UK from the UN security council, etc.)

And to cap it all, of course, the referendum was to take place in the centenary year of the outbreak of World War I, when the level of official imperial nostalgia — not least in Scotland — was reaching fever pitch.

The second derived from my work on neoliberalism, particularly in the 2010 book I coedited, Neoliberal Scotland. We were, and remain, faced with the choice between some form of greater devolution and independence: no one seriously regards the status quo as an option. But devolution is now a neoliberal strategy of delegation “of the axe,” and therefore independence at least offers the possibility of greater control over the state against austerity, without any illusions in the ability of small states to break free from the global capitalist system.

However, the third and most important change was simply the nature of the campaign itself, at any rate in the last six months or so. By that point it had gone from being a ballot on a constitutional issue to a social movement comparable to the movement of the squares in Spain and Greece.

Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of working-class people were drawn into political life in a way that they rarely had the opportunity to before. Even fairly dyed-in-the-wool bourgeois commentators noticed the changed character of the Yes campaign.

And this was clearly a movement of the Left, not one based on ethnic hostility or anything like that. Indeed, for many people it wasn’t about nationalism of any sort, but about how to realize various social goals: an end to austerity, the removal of nuclear weapons, defense of the National Health Service, and so on.

The ruling class was of course perfectly aware of this — hence their hysteria in the closing weeks of the campaign. In these circumstances, for the Left to have stood to one side claiming neutrality, or worse, supporting the Union, would have been a complete dereliction of duty, substituting a ridiculous formalism (“the unity of the British working class”) for the concrete analysis of a concrete situation.

Fortunately, most of the radical left rose to the challenge, although there were some in the Labour Party and the fragments of the Communist Party who behave as if we were still 1973.

Bhaskar Sunkara

What role did socialists have in the independence campaign?

Neil Davidson

The decisive organization here was the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), which — quite against historical experience — managed to unite most of the radical left in Scotland, and in doing so dramatically changed the entire dynamic of the campaign. RIC drove the entire discussion of independence to the left.

We went to working-class communities, particularly the poorest housing schemes — what you call “projects” in the States — and spoke about politics to people who are normally ignored by the mainstream parties. What drove the struggle for independence was actually opposition to neoliberalism, even though people didn’t necessarily use those terms. If we had talked about the Scottish nation I don’t think people would have been interested.

RIC’s efforts and those of many others mobilized an incredible number of people who took ownership over the struggle: people made their own posters and leaflets and participated in politics in ways they haven’t since the antiwar movement ten years ago, but to a far greater extent.

Perhaps the most important thing RIC did — even more than the rallies, the mass canvassing, and the innovative use of social media — was voter registration drives, a tactic borrowed from the quite different circumstances of the black civil rights struggle in the US South. This was one reason why, by the end, 97 percent of potential voters had registered to vote, and nearly 85 percent actually voted.

I don’t want to suggest that RIC was solely responsible for these mobilizations — given its relatively limited size compared to the overall numbers involved as a whole that would have been impossible — but it did galvanize the campaign and give it a left dynamic which would have otherwise have been much weaker.

Of course, no initiative is ever perfect, and I think one issue is that we need to think seriously about how we engage with working-class people at work. We were very successful in talking with workers in their communities; less so in their workplaces.

We should have reached out in particular to workplaces — particularly in finance, defense, and the universities, where people were told by both their bosses and, unfortunately, some of their unions that their jobs would go if Scotland became independent. That’s a lesson for next time.

Bhaskar Sunkara

What is the class composition and political orientation of the Scottish National Party, broadly speaking?

Neil Davidson

The SNP is a bourgeois nationalist party and, like all nationalist parties, it is a cross-class alliance with the goal of establishing a new capitalist state. It is not, in other words, a classic social-democratic party like the Labour Party, the French Socialist party, or Pasok in Greece, with formal links to the trade union bureaucracy and so on. That’s the bad news.

However, it has certainly moved considerably to the left since it was founded in the 1930s (one of the constituent parts was a split from the Scottish Unionist — i.e. Conservative Party), when it was essentially a petty bourgeois formation.

One of the difficulties it has always faced is that the Scottish capitalist class — to the extent that distinct entity of that name can be said to have survived World War II — has had and continues to have very little interest in Scottish independence: with a handful of exceptions like Brian Souter of Stagecoach, it is Unionist to the core. If you look at the composition of the Yes-supporting Business for Scotland group during the referendum, for example, it largely consisted of people on the border line between the petty bourgeoisie proper and very small capitalists.

As a result, until the aftermath of the referendum, the SNP tended to be based in what is usually called the New Middle Class, specifically the public sector and cultural wings, which tend to be “left” on social issues.

I would say that the SNP was on the extreme left of what I call “social neoliberalism” — the dominant strain since around the early 1990s — which broadly accepts the neoliberal economic settlement, but not the racist, sexist, homophobic tendencies characteristic of Thatcher-Reagan vanguards.

In order to win over voters, however, it had positioned itself to occupy the political ground of social democracy (and both former leader Alex Salmond and current leader Nicola Sturgeon describe SNP politics in these terms), which has been vacated by the Labour Party. It would have been difficult to compete with New Labour from the right, after all. Austerity and the referendum changed matters again.

Bhaskar Sunkara

What about the post-referendum developments in the Scottish National Party? Is Sturgeon to the left of Alex Salmond?

Neil Davidson

She is, but that’s not the most significant development. Over 75,000 people have joined the SNP since after the referendum eight months ago. It now has a membership of around 103,000 people, making it the third biggest party in the whole of Britain and, in relation to population, one of the biggest in the world: one in fifty Scots is a member.

This is probably unprecedented in postwar European history. No party can experience that level growth and not be transformed in several respects — especially since most of these new members are both working class and on the Left. It will probably take until the next SNP annual conference to see what effect this has had in terms of policy, but it has consolidated their shift to the left, and in economic terms, not just over social issues, above all in the rejection of austerity.

We need to be clear, though: the SNP as the government of an independent Scotland would be under exactly the same pressures to which every previous reformist government has been exposed. But the point is that it is being joined and supported because it is offering reforms, and this tells us something about the unreality of supposed “anti-politics” or public apathy.

Sturgeon has been central to the leftward shift. Like Salmond, she is an extremely able and tactically astute politician. She made a tremendously positive impression on English viewers of the televised leader’s debates, with people asking whether they could vote for the SNP and many comments about what a pity it was that Sturgeon wasn’t the leader of the Labour Party.

Amongst other things the SNP simply “does” politics in a way that the other mainstream parties have long since ceased to: its leading figures make clear statements of belief; they form open alliances with other parties (Plaid Cymru and the Greens); they’ve made it clear they’ll never support the Tories; and they’ve called for an anti-Tory bloc with Labour, which the latter party of course rejected.

Bhaskar Sunkara

What are people expecting to happen in the May 7 elections? Will the SNP sweep Scotland? Labour leader Ed Miliband says there will be no SNP ministers in his government, but what kind of concessions can they wring out of Labour if their support is needed to form a government?

Neil Davidson

There are 650 seats at Westminster, of which 59 are Scottish. Of these, Labour currently has 41, the Liberal Democrats 11, the SNP 6, and the Conservatives 1. Polls vary, but the smallest number of seats the SNP are expected to take is 42, and the largest is 54 — I think it will be closer to the latter, but we’ll know soon enough. However, even if it’s nearer the lower figure the outcome will be unprecedented: the highest number of seats that the SNP have previously taken at Westminster was 11, back in October 1974.

To me this suggests a real shift in Scottish politics. Since 2007, when the first SNP government in Scotland was formed on a minority basis, an increasing number of Scots have been prepared to vote for the party, regardless of their attitude towards independence, because it has defended aspects of the welfare state that are under much more serious threat in England and Wales (the NHS, for example) and has proved perfectly competent at governing in the devolved parliament.

It was this that allowed the SNP to become the majority party in 2011. But to repeat this at Westminster is a historic achievement as great as when Labour finally replaced the Tories as the dominant party in Scotland between the late 1950s and early 1980s.

I very much doubt that Miliband will willingly make any concessions to the SNP at all. My sense is that he would much prefer to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats, although this may not be possible as they are likely to be as badly depleted in England as Labour is in Scotland.

On the basis that only the Tories or Labour can actually lead a government — that much of their propaganda is true — I think the Left should be prepared to demand, through demonstrations, petitions, etc., that Labour takes office in coalition with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens on a program that involves the removal of Trident and the abandonment of austerity.

Bhaskar Sunkara

From afar and, especially given his political background and policies, many in the United States associate Ed Miliband with New Labour. But his stance on the NHS and other issues has placed him at odds with some Blairites. How would you politically situate Miliband within the party?

Neil Davidson

I think that people — and not just in the US — exaggerate the extent to which the problem has been or continues to be New Labour. The real problem is the way in which Labour has been moving to the right since the mid-1970s in response to the rise of neoliberalism.

It is important not to romanticize Old Labour. There is a big tendency on some sections of the Left — particularly in England — to argue that we need to get back to the Golden Age of the post-1945 Labour governments. Although understandable, this is a mistake: the conditions which allowed the creation and extension of the welfare state after 1945 were quite exceptional and will not return.

On the other hand, the 1945–1951 Labour Government was also responsible for the partition of India, establishing the British nuclear program, sending troops into suppress strikes, a ferocious campaign against gays, and so on. In most respects it was deeply conservative government.

Blair and his New Labour cohort seized their opportunity in the early 1990s by presenting a strategy for electoral victory which involved winning over the middle classes disaffected with the Tories. But this masked the fact that Labour was moving rightwards anyway — just not at the speed and intensity with which New Labour did.

The Blairites are now in a small minority, and the specific features of New Labour — such as Blair’s willingness to engage in foreign wars at the behest of the US — have gone, but this doesn’t mean that Labour is any less the prisoner of capital. Whatever his personal views, Miliband is trapped by a logic which accepts that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, except at the margins.

Labour’s rhetoric has moved left in the latter stages of the current election campaign, but this is almost entirely because of pressure from the SNP.

Bhaskar Sunkara

There’s been a bit of talk in some quarters about a “grand coalition” between Labour and the Conservatives to keep the SNP out. Is this at all possible?

Neil Davidson

I think this is highly unlikely, not because Labour and the Tories don’t share many of the same policies — they do, although they can’t admit it — but because it would irrevocably damage Labour in the eyes of its English and Welsh supporters, in the same way that its alliance with the Tories over the referendum did in the eyes of its Scottish supporters.

You can’t denounce the Tories for threatening to return us to the 1930s and then enter a coalition with them: even the most docile Labour supporter would find that impossible to take.

One effect of neoliberalism is that, as all the major parties have come to accept essentially the same economic program, their mock battles increase in intensity, almost in direct proportion to how similar they actually are. There are differences in terms of social policy of course, although even this is reducing, with the Tories now supporting gay marriage, for instance.

Bhaskar Sunkara

What should the Left in Scotland do now, given the hegemonic position of the SNP?

Neil Davidson

The most important thing is, it has to stay organizationally and politically distinct from the SNP. Disillusionment with the SNP is bound to follow at some point, when the realities of trying to introduce reforms in the face of capitalist intransigence begins to become apparent.

We need a new socialist formation — by which I don’t mean yet another rejigging of the existing groups — to ensure that the SNP faces opposition from the Left, rather than the Right. The activist base of RIC and the Yes campaign more generally will be key to this.

The RIC conference last November drew 3,500 people. That’s a phenomenal number of people to a conference organized by the radical left in Scotland. If you got those numbers in London, you’d consider that a successful conference. But Scotland is a much smaller country with a population of a little over 5 million people. The equivalent size conference in London would have been something like 35,000 people.

That opens the possibility of establishing a new political formation, which can both stand in the forthcoming Scottish election of May 2016 and mobilize on the streets, communities, and in workplaces. Comrades in RIC have initiated the Scottish Left Project (SLP) to bring this about. We don’t want to set it up in advance and hand people a program and a structure from on high. Instead we are organizing local meetings throughout the country to find out what people want, what we can agree on, and what the principles at the center of the SLP should be.

If we are able to establish something, then there’s the possibility of alliances with the Greens. We’ll also have to enter into some complex arguments with those in the Scottish Socialist Party. But I think there is a lot of goodwill amongst all the Left that collaborated in RIC, so we have to seize this opportunity and get these local meetings off the ground.

An important task is to win over people in Scotland who voted “no,” many of whom now feel that they were fooled or bullied into doing so. We have to find ways to win these people over to independence. We must not give up the question of independence. Unless a revolutionary situation emerges in England — which would obviously change the entire situation — I think that the demand for Scottish independence has to be consistently maintained from now on in the platform of the Scottish radical left.

So we must persuade the “no” voters that their social interests and political goals would be achieved by supporting a political party that is actually committed to an independent Scotland. We have to show that independence will improve their situation immediately and protect existing social benefits. We need definite plans to pay for and expand the welfare state. We have to say that we’ll nationalize the oil industry to get the money to reverse the neoliberal attacks we’ve suffered over the last forty years.

We also have to be able to say that independence is not anti-English. It is not about breaking with trade unions or other forms of solidarity with people in England. For example, if there was an attempt to take the Trident missiles from Scotland and put them somewhere in England, we should obviously be in solidarity with people in England so they can reject them as well.

The Scottish Left Project does not have a Scottish nationalist agenda. We don’t blame English workers for what the British government and British ruling class, which includes Scottish capitalists, are doing. We want to build solidarity with English workers against the British state.

The main argument will be about whether the SLP becomes an actual party or remains a looser coalition. In my view we need a broad left party with a revolutionary current within it. We are not in a position in Scotland to immediately set up a revolutionary party, which at the moment would only involve a couple hundred people, and it would be ridiculous to set up yet another group claiming to be “the” party. We have to move beyond that model and try to build a broad party as the left alternative to the SNP.

However, I think there are all sorts of historical lessons from broad parties like Italy’s Rifondazione, France’s NPA (New Anticapitalist Party), and, above all, Syriza. These experiences show the challenges and pitfalls as well as the opportunities. But I can’t see any other way of getting people together except through a broader party.

In reality, most of the historic distinction between reformists, centrists, and revolutionaries are now understood only among Trotskyists and other revolutionaries. So when people come to the movement, they do not know what these distinctions mean. We have to find a way to be in a common party with them and go through experiences and arguments to win them over to a revolutionary viewpoint.