The crisis of neoliberal globalisation meant the Scottish National Party (SNP) conference last week was far less triumphal than might have been predicted only six months ago.
Scotland’s First Minster Alex Salmond spent much of his keynote speech criticising Gordon Brown’s own complicity in what the latter has called the “Age of Irresponsibility”.
Given the way in which Brown grovelled to the financial markets until last month, these attacks are entirely justified. However, they also point to a major weakness with the SNP’s own position.
Until now, it was attempting what might be called “neoliberalism without tears”. This means social reforms within the established framework of the neoliberal order. It is this that is now unravelling.
First, the foreign states to which the SNP looked as models of independent development, essentially Ireland and the Nordic countries, are themselves in crisis. Iceland is effectively bankrupt, Ireland is in recession and even the much-lauded Norwegian oil fund has lost all the profits it accrued since being established in 1995.
Second, the Scottish economy, above all in Edinburgh, is heavily dependent on financial services – the very sector that has suffered the most severe blows from the crisis.
The Scottish-based institutions that have just been bailed out by the British state are serious players in the world market.
In terms of capitalised value the Royal Bank of Scotland Group (RBSG) was the second largest bank in Europe and the sixth in the world while HBOS was fourteenth in the world.
Labour politicians such as the new Scottish secretary Jim Murphy have gleefully pointed out that an independent Scotland could not have afforded to prop them up. The £37.5 billion needed to recapitalise the RBSG was £7.5 billion greater than the entire Scottish budget.
A Scottish Government could only have raised this by borrowing from the money markets and ultimately by raising taxes, which is what the Irish have just done.
None of this means accepting the Labour argument that Scottish independence is ruled out as a result of the crisis. Opposition to imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq alone would make it impossible for socialists to defend the British state.
And the SNP is right that Scots are as capable of forming an independent capitalist state as any other national group.
However, an independent Scotland would suffer from precisely the problems that are now besetting the rest of the world system. This is not because of the size of the nation-state, but the capitalist nature of its economy – which the SNP has no intention of challenging.
Last weekend, Scotland’s most serious newspaper, The Sunday Herald, repeated Socialist Worker’s “Capitalism isn’t working” caption and photograph for a major piece on the crisis. It’s leading political commentator, Ian MacWhirter, wrote of “the ruins of financial capitalism”, and said that “this system doesn’t actually work”.
This reflects the kind of debates that are taking place throughout the country, but which found no echo in the SNP’s discussions in Perth.
Since the Scottish election of 2007 there has been a tendency for the left to indulge the SNP – a state of paralysis brought on by fear of accusations of “unionism” and bemusement at the spectacle of Salmond running rings around Labour.
But in a situation where local councils are finding it hard to fund reforms such as free school meals, which the Scottish Government has introduced, this has to stop.
In Scotland we are approaching the limits of what is possible by way of social reform while still clinging to neoliberalism.
Socialists must continue to pressurise the SNP into implementing its anti-imperialist rhetoric by removing Trident from Scottish waters and withdrawing Scottish troops from the Middle East.
But we also have to point out that as long as capitalism exists, the crisis will only be resolved at our expense – regardless of whether Scotland is independent or not.