What next for the Scottish National Party?

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‘Labour gained 142 seats and Glasgow sent off 10 ‘Red Clydesiders’ to Parliament to abolish poverty. It is recorded that on the train down these MPs were concerned chiefly to discover if being thrown out of the House of Commons meant a loss of salary. Abolishing poverty was one thing but joining the ranks of the poor was not their intention.’

(1922 General Election, quoted in John Maclean, Battlepost of the Poor)

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has styled itself as the new party of progressive social democracy in Scotland and campaigned for a parliamentary anti-austerity alliance with the Labour Party. This strategy unravelled with the Tory victory. The September 2014 referendum posed the question: who will represent the working class? Our answer then was neither the Scottish Labour Party nor the SNP. That has not changed today.

Dundee recorded the highest Yes vote for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum. It is also the city which has topped the Scottish welfare sanctions table since 2012. Thousands have been sanctioned by staff in the Wellgate Job Centre Plus office. Since its formation in April 2014 the campaigning group Dundee Against Welfare Sanctions (DAWS) has met hundreds of working class folk coming out of the ‘burro’ – as the employment offices were known in the 1920s and 1930s – to the foodbanks. Overwhelmingly staff fail to tell those sanctioned that they are entitled to claim hardship payments, despite DWP lies to the contrary.

The Church of Scotland is forthright in its condemnation and told the Tory’s Ian Duncan Smith to ‘Stop using hunger as punishment’. UK government figures published in February showed that 80,000 people in Scotland have been sanctioned for a minimum of four weeks since 2013. No court would sentence anyone to 13 weeks, 26 weeks or three years starvation for being late. There are increasing calls for an immediate end to sanctions from other religious institutions and charities. Citizens Advice called for an immediate moratorium on welfare sanctions at its recent AGM. DAWS launched a petition in January 2015 calling on the Scottish government to cover all financial losses incurred by sanctions.

The lamentable response of the SNP exposes the cynical use it has made of its anti-austerity electoral branding to gain parliamentary seats. Support for the Citizens Advice call lasted all of a day on the SNP website and then was buried at the stage-managed SNP April Conference. Despite a huge surge in membership to over 110,000 since the referendum and a new wave of 56 MPs since the election, references to welfare sanctions and challenging austerity have lessened shockingly. On 19 May, The National – a new popular, pro-SNP, pro-independence daily paper – had SNP stalwart Michael Russell, Chief Executive of the SNP 1994-99 and present Scottish Cabinet minister, launch a campaign to have yachts owned by Scots fly a saltire-based ensign.

This crass insensitivity to working class people facing appalling poverty – in and out of work – undermines the SNP’s claims to be anti-austerity. The SNP cheerfully labelled the Labour Party as the ‘Red Tories’ in Scotland. Less well known is the popular working class recognition of the SNP some years ago as ‘Tartan Tories’. The new crop of MPs includes QCs, media workers, financial advisers, people from the professions and business. The working class, which came out of the housing schemes and tenements of Scotland to vote ‘Yes’ and which then booted out the Labour Party, is barely represented.

On the first formal sitting of Parliament, Chris Law, newly elected for Dundee West, wanted to sit where Labour’s Dennis Skinner sits on the opposition benches. This old opportunist of the now negligible Labour left has picked up a juicy parliamentary salary for 45 years and advanced the cause of the working class not one jot. By picking this fight, Law wanted to continue the SNP pretence of being anti-austerity. Yet he has resolutely ignored the local battles in Dundee over pay for striking hospital porters, the closure of schools by the SNP council and the anti-sanctions petition.

In Glasgow SNP councillor Malcolm Balfour and parliamentary candidate Carol Monaghan were electioneering close to a protest at Drumchapel Job Centre. They refused to sign a petition against sanctions. They cited Scottish government financial restraints as a problem. The anti-sanctions petition has also been deemed outwith the competency of the Scottish parliament as welfare is not a devolved matter. Those campaigning against austerity need to point out to the SNP that the slogan ‘Better to Break the Law than Break the Poor’ was coined in London in the early 1920s by the unemployed movement of that period. Such a slogan reflected the determination of those suffering from benefit cuts in that period to fight injustice and hunger all the way.

Irish revolutionary James Connolly joined the socialist movement in Dundee in the 19th century, fighting for striking workers and for democratic rights to organise and protest. He famously pointed out that politics is a matter of the stomach, not just the brain and that real political progress for the working class would arise from real material conditions. Scottish revolutionary John Maclean began the last of his six prison sentences in 1921 for calling on the unemployed not to allow themselves to starve. Today welfare sanctions, low pay and zero hours contracts are creating the beginnings of resistance in Scotland, England and Wales – to differing degrees. The working class can place no reliance on the SNP to advance that battle. The beginnings of a fight against austerity and against the SNP are apparent in Scotland.

As for the SNP’s other progressive claims, specifically to oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile deterrent, these are yet to be tested. At the incredible cost of £100 billion it is not difficult to counterpose this wasteful barbarism to the human waste of austerity economics. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has described the position as a red line which her party would not cross.

The SNP General Election victory is expected to be repeated at the Scottish elections in May 2016. With an almost full house of parliamentary seats in Edinburgh and Westminster, the SNP will be faced with a vote on the Trident replacement in the House of Commons. The issue will go to the heart of the imperialist union which is the United Kingdom. The SNP abandoned its opposition to NATO membership in 2012 – a regressive move led by its fixer in the House of Commons, Angus Robertson. So which way will it jump? Will it capitulate, or will it force another independence referendum on the issue? That will be a real test of its progressive pretensions.

Michael MacGregor

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 245 June/July 2015

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