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Breaking up Britain

With Labour in danger of losing control at Holyrood, Roz Patterson looks at the politics of the SNP, the debates over independence, the tactics of the Greens and the frustrations and hopes of the Scottish Socialist Party of which she is a member

November 1, 2007
8 min read

In a previous century – 1999 to be precise – the Scottish Labour Party was still quite popular. Its big brother down south had won the 1997 election by a landslide and up here, the first Scottish parliament in 300 years had just been established. It felt like new winds were blowing through the corridors of power. Or at least, rather less stale ones.

Scotland went to the polls, for the first time in a long time, with something almost akin to hope. Labour won, but not by enough to form a government, and went into coalition with the Lib Dems.

At the next Holyrood elections, the same team was returned to power. But it was a good election for small, radical parties, with the Greens returning seven MSPs and the Scottish Socialist Party six, thanks to the regional list top-up system, which gave everyone a second vote, counted on a proportional representation basis.

It made what would have been the most anodyne of all parliaments, given its limited remit and absence of anything even akin to government party rebels, an occasionally remarkable place. Once in a while, the political consensus got a run for its money.

Now we head to the polls again, in what are being called the ‘independence elections’, not least because they mark the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Union – and because opinion polls consistently suggest that the SNP could overtake Labour as the biggest party in Holyrood. Which explains why the likes of John Reid and Tony Blair are vaulting the border to warn us against such folly because, er, our beloved entrepreneurs will stampede for the exit and the gentle river Tweed will be patrolled by armed guards hell-bent on stopping us visiting our aunties in Berwick.

Curiously enough, the more these big guns blast hot air, the more we flock to the banner of independence.

The call for independence is in fact a very pragmatic one, and a measure of how far we’ve come from the tentative early days of 1999, when devolution was as far as most people were prepared to go.What our experience of the Scottish Parliament has made clear is that we need more, not less, democracy.

Why? Because nothing is more sickening than hearing well-paid, career MSPs duck every difficult issue by reminding you that, of course, it’s a reserved matter. Be it war, or want, it’s up to Westminster. And frankly, the rest of the powers might as well be reserved too, as Scottish Labour do nothing if not their London master’s bidding.

We do have some marginally better things up here, such as free care for the elderly (though in practice, it’s not so simple) and no tuition fees (though it makes little difference if you don’t have the money to fund yourself for three to five years). But we also have higher rates of poverty, ill-health and premature death; a disproportionate number of our troops are being sent to Iraq; and we alone get to house the UK’s stock of nuclear weapons – and within a few miles of our biggest conurbation too. Imagine that happening near London.

All of the above was true at the last elections in 2003, of course, but people were not yet ready to relinquish their faith in the mainstream alternative to the Tories.This election will be different.

This election, Labour seems set to become a minority. Its local representatives are also likely to be swept out of the town and city councils they have run like private fiefdoms by the new broom of the single transferable vote.This is despite the fact that Labour politicians voted for the least democratic version of it available, on top of massive pay-offs to those who agreed not to stand this time, as the number of council seats is to shrink.

They’ve also fiddled with the ballot paper, on which the vote that last time was the first vote is now the second, and the second is now the first, with a council vote thrown into the mix. Confused? They clearly hope we will be.

Even so, the SNP seems likely to win, though not by enough to form a government alone.This will force them into coalition, possibly with the Lib Dems and perhaps even the Greens.

Don’t get too excited. This isn’t nearly as promising as it sounds.

Sure, the SNP is anti-war and anti- Trident, pro-independence and against poverty. These are the headlines, and the reason why most of the people who vote for them will vote for them.

But scratch beneath the surface, and you have a party that seeks to make corporate taxation the lowest in the UK, in a bid to woo the multinationals who have already ravaged swathes of Scotland, burning up the workforce, swallowing government subsidies whole and then pissing off to sweatshop economies elsewhere. And a party that may talk bombastically of its ambitions for Scotland, but more quietly of its intention to delay an independence referendum until the end of its first term in office, around 2010.

The Lib Dems may have called for the abolition of the council tax in England, but as coalition partners here, they voted down a Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) bill to do just that. Likewise, they didn’t mention the war, even as Charles Kennedy headlined on anti-war platforms. The super-right turn the party has made under Menzies Campbell is well underway here.

As for the Greens, their power would be marginal in any kind of coalition, even if some media predictions are right and they get ten MSPs. Mark Ballard, probably the most left-leaning of the Greens’ parliamentary representatives, says they would only go into coalition on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, as practised by Green parties in New Zealand and Sweden.

In exchange for some pledges – the red-line one being no construction of new nuclear power stations – the Greens would support the government in votes of confidence and in supply – that is, budget – votes.Thus they would avoid having to flush their manifesto down the pan, a la the Lib Dems, but may not escape having to shore up a noxious government, as the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista has had to do in Italy.

For the SSP, this promises to be a troublesome election, in that the left has been split with former SSP convenor Tommy Sheridan contesting seats with his Solidarity party.

That said, the SSP is strongly identified with our campaigns for free, nutritious school meals (the parliamentary consultation for which attracted more responses than almost any other bill in the Scottish Parliament’s lifetime, and 98 per cent supportive too), the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the closure of Dungavel detention centre and an end to dawn raids, the abolition of the council tax and prescription charges, and for an independent Scottish socialist republic.

The SSP has been showing 3-4 per cent in the polls, a couple of points down on last time but consistently ahead of Solidarity, which means we are within reach of getting four MSPs (compared with six in 2003).This is remarkable, given that some parties only have to break wind and they get a half-page in the Daily Record, whereas the SSP barely breaks surface in any paper.

But even if we are wiped out electorally – unlikely, as we seem set to gain considerably in council seats – we are far from finished, being a grassroots, campaigning party from inception. Ours is the long fight – for socialism, for generational change – and 2007 is a detail. We still have the vast majority of our membership, the money we need to campaign comes in, and we’re building, fast, across even rural Scotland.

As for the election itself, it will be the usual fight of the giant billboards between the big parties.We may have proportional representation, sort of, but our electoral system remains stacked against the small parties because of money.

The SNP has discovered the game of effectively bribing backers, by offering corporate tax cuts. It has a war chest of £1.5million. We have £30,000. We get pensioners coming in to donate, in fivers and tenners, the money they didn’t pay in council tax in March.They have multimillionaire homophobe Brian Souter, of Stagecoach and the appalling campaign to Keep the Clause (28), swanning in with a cheque for £500,000.

When the dust settles after 3 May, if Labour goes into opposition, the momentum towards independence will be strong.The SSP will call, within or without Holyrood, for a referendum within a hundred days.We won’t be alone.

For us, it’s a stepping-stone towards socialism. It won’t deliver a just and equal society, but will make good the democratic deficit that saw the Scottish people vote for Labour election after election, and yet get Thatcher every time. It increases democracy for England too, not least because there will no longer be Scottish MPs in Westminster voting through Blair’s hated policies for England. After a referendum, and the shattering of the Labour deadlock, it will be up to us what we make of ourselves.

Unlike the Labour party, the SNP has no heartfelt place in the nation’s psyche. If the Scots Nats disappoint us, and they’re certainly showing all the signs, they won’t dig in for generations, which leaves the field open for the left.

Independence is a step forward, not back.We could break up the British state, open our borders, redistribute wealth, rebuild the health service and kick the private profiteers into touch. And that’s good news for everyone, in every corner of the fallen empire.

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