In a recent article in The Guardian, Scottish journalist Iain MacWhirter noted Gordon Brown’s “apparent capitulation to neoconservatism” and asked what might have happened if Brown had taken a different path.
MacWhirter asked, “What if Brown had decided to halt the renewal of Trident, rule out nuclear power... share the proceeds of growth by abolishing prescription charges and graduate fees, launch a pilot project on free school meals and curb the right to buy council houses?”
Anticipating the claim that these are impossible policies to follow these days, MacWhirter was then able to reveal – to no doubt astonished readers in England and Wales – that these policies were in fact being pursued by the Scottish National Party (SNP) minority government in Edinburgh.
By any criteria, the SNP has never been a reformist or social democratic party in the sense in which Marxists have traditionally used that term.
The SNP has always been a classically petty bourgeois party – in the literal sense that their core membership consisted of doctors, lawyers and small business people – which has never deviated from support for capitalism.
The SNP and its predecessors drew support from working class “protest” voters at by-elections, but never really made permanent inroads into Labour support.
It has still only done so in a relatively narrow way. The Labour vote did not collapse in the Scottish elections in May and the SNP was able to form the government only because supporters of the smaller, more radical parties like the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, switched votes.
The reason they switched votes is important – the SNP did not stand on a platform that emphasised independence. Opposition to the war in Iraq and social reforms all played a far greater role.
This is not because the SNP has had a sudden conversion to social democracy. On the contrary, the left inside the SNP is as weak as it has ever been.
The real battle is between the “independence nothing less” fundamentalists and the “Catalans” – the increasingly dominant wing whose real agenda is to renegotiate the devolved government within Britain.
First minister Alex Salmond is playing a longer game in which he hopes to build the basis for a permanent majority.
To do this he has to deliver some reforms to distinguish the SNP from other parties. But by making these reforms, the SNP has exposed one of the great ideological myths of neoliberalism – that there is no alternative to the programme of privatisation, deregulation, and so on.
This is what has infuriated the Labour Party. Labour MPs in England have complained that the SNP has only been able to make these reforms because Scots are benefiting “unfairly” from English largesse.
This is nonsense. As the SNP has gleefully pointed out, the result of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review has seen Scotland receive the lowest budget allocation since devolution in 1999 – something that may be connected to the fact that the Labour-led coalition is no longer in office.
Labour minister David Cairns replied to MacWhirter by complaining about SNP plans to end the “right to buy” scheme and to build council houses. These arguments tell us more about changes to the Labour Party than the SNP.
It is important not to exaggerate what the SNP has done or is likely to do. The SNP is as committed to the core economic principles of neoliberalism as the other parties.
At the moment it has the perfect excuse for not delivering – the limited financial settlement from Brown and the pan-unionist alliance of parties which can be guaranteed to block bills.
Nevertheless, the SNP has shown that neoliberalism is a conscious choice.
This is useful in two ways. To English Labour politicians who argue that Scotland is advantaged, we have to say – why are they not fighting for the same things in England? To the SNP, we have to argue that we want the reforms to go further, and if they don’t, that will have been their choice as well.