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Seismic shifts in Scotland

Big changes are brewing beneath the surface of Scottish politics, says Roz Paterson. And the various forces that combined to get six unreservedly socialist MSPs and seven Greens into the Scottish parliament in 2003 could do much to furnish an alternative vision

May 7, 2010
6 min read

As a Westminster election looms, in Scotland you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all up for the SNP and the dream of independence. Alex Salmond’s nationalists were gubbed at the last by-election, in Glasgow North East; the banking crisis and Scotland’s inability to bail out the banks herself made the party’s Celtic Tiger aspirations look pretty silly; the public sector is being slashed to ribbons; and almost the entire Holyrood opposition is lined up ready to torpedo the SNP’s proposed referendum bill. Surely a UK election will see Scotland re-align itself along traditional Labour/Tory lines?

Well, perhaps. But it won’t be all that it appears to be.

There may be a stampede to cross the Labour box, if only to fend off a Cameron government, complete with public spending cuts that will ruin Scotland’s very public sector-dependent economy.

That, and to rule out a reprise of the Thatcher years, wherein the Tories, despite being utterly rejected by the Scots, ruled and wrecked us for nearly two decades.

There may also be a bit of an anti-SNP protest, or a feeling that there is no point in voting for a party that could never form a UK government. Nonetheless, Scotland’s status as a Labour stronghold is almost certainly on the slide.

Since devolution in 1999, a pattern has been emerging. Labour may have been in power for the first two terms, with the SNP only squeaking to victory in 2007, but seismic shifts have been occurring beneath the surface.

Political entrenchment is breaking up, particularly among the under-40s, who often switch parties from election to election, and express different preferences for their first (constituency) and second (regional) votes. The causes include a collapse of party and trade union membership, and particularly in payment of the political levy.

But these are UK-wide trends. What makes Scotland different is the proportional representation (PR) system, which enables smaller parties to break through, as in 2003, when the Scottish Socialist Party won six seats, and the Greens ran away with seven. This renders voting with your conscience more than a token gesture, in contrast to traditional first-past-the-post elections. Tactical voting also plays a part. The SNP victory in 2007 was a triumph of tactical voting, with the party winning more seats on the regional list – the so-called ‘top-up’ vote – than in the constituency vote, where it trailed Labour by 16 seats. This suggested that the anti-Labour forces rallied to the nationalists, if only to break the deadlock of Scottish politics.The issue of independence, though not top of everyone’s ‘most wanted’ list, is central to what happens next.

No turning back

Certainly, there is no turning back. The Scottish Labour Party supports the call for a stronger Scottish parliament. And even the Tories, who have quietly dropped the word ‘Unionist’ from their Conservative and Unionist party label, can feel the way the wind is blowing.

While Holyrood may have done less than many Scots would have liked, it has passed some progressive legislation. This includes free personal care for the over-65s, scrapping tuition fees, the smoking ban and the staged reduction – with a view to abolition – of prescription charges. All have proved to be broadly acceptable, if not trumpet-blastingly popular.

That the ‘graduate endowment tax’, implemented to replace tuition fees, has now also been abolished, while in England a top-up fee, a form of graduate tax, has been introduced on top of tuition fees, suggests that the north/south divergence is becoming more marked.

Not that Scotland has much to be proud of. It was Scottish Labour MPs, after all, who helped drive through the foundation hospitals legislation, when English MPs threatened to rebel. The same foundation hospitals legislation that does not and never did apply to Scotland. And it was Scottish Labour MPs who ensured top-up fees for students at English universities too.

As for the referendum, Alex Salmond has rather cleverly billed it as a chance for Scots to ‘have their say’ – are those in opposition really going to insist that we shouldn’t?

The SNP’s game plan almost certainly extends beyond this Westminster election to 2011 and the next Holyrood poll. If the opposition insist on denying a referendum, it could rebound on them, with the SNP increasing its majority at the next Scottish elections. After a year of Cameron’s Tories, or a hung parliament, or an increasingly savage Labour one, Scotland could well be mobilising for independence.

But what would independence look like? Where is the vision? The SNP’s is a soulless one, a corporate pamphlet of golf courses and ‘open for business’ schools, hospitals and universities. The spectre of Ireland looms large.

The pro-independence left, for various reasons, is not in a strong position right now. But the various forces that combined to get 100,000 onto the anti-Iraq war march in Glasgow in 2003, and got six unreservedly socialist MSPs and seven Greens into the Scottish parliament three months later, could do much to furnish an alternative vision.

Huge mobilisations

While the political elite continue to eat away at the public sector, there are huge mobilisations by trade unions, anti-poverty groups, the SSP and the left-wing rump of the nationalists, waging war against cuts and privatisation, and against stealth taxes that hurt those on low incomes while leaving the rich with extra change in their pockets.

The call to scrap the council tax, a flagship SSP policy in 2003, and voted down within Holyrood, has proved so popular that the SNP has adopted it. It has noted the huge support for abolition from not only the left and the anti-poverty alliances, but from the small business sector too, which sees, in the adoption of a local income tax, a freeing up of the ‘marginal propensity to spend’ – one of the mainstays of a local economy.

On a more radical note, cancelling Trident and thereby freeing up millions of pounds of public money is a call taken up across the board, from CND through the hard left and way over to the gentler slopes of environmentalism and the church. Renationalising the railways and ferries, a move supported vigorously by the RMT union, as well as the buses, expanding the network and making it free, was the SSP’s key policy in 2007.

Free public transport is a welcome and timely idea that has already been implemented in some places (none of them in Scotland, alas) and enjoys enormous support.

So does the campaign for nutritious, free school meals, which continues long after the bill was twice rejected at Holyrood. Interestingly, the idea has been taken up, albeit piecemeal, by local authorities and by the SNP, who are rolling it out in primary schools.

This goes to show that, when ideas are good, well thought-out, and popular, they can filter through somehow. So how about a progressively taxed, public sector-friendly, Trident and council tax-free Scotland with free school meals and free buses? That would do for starters.

Roz Paterson writes for Scottish Socialist Voice

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