Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2050

Is the SNP a radical force for Scotland?

This article is over 14 years, 8 months old
The Scottish National Party has captured the mood of anger over New Labour, but behind the radical rhetoric is a party dedicated to neoliberalism, writes Neil Davidson
Issue 2050
SNP leader Alex Salmond wants tax cuts for big business
SNP leader Alex Salmond wants tax cuts for big business

For the first time in any parliamentary election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) polled a higher number of votes than any of the other parties in last Thursday’s Scottish parliamentary elections.

With 47 seats it has one seat more than its nearest rival, the Labour Party. The rules of the Scottish parliament state that a first minister has to be chosen within 28 days of an election, or the result is declared void and the poll has to be rerun.

Since the SNP does not have an outright majority of the 129 seats, it will need to form a coalition in order to govern – the only possible candidates being Labour’s former partners, the Liberal Democrats with 16 MSPs and the Greens with two MSPs.

None of the other smaller parties won MSPs in the election.

The main difficulty facing the potential coalition is that SNP leader Alex Salmond is committed to holding a referendum on independence within the set four-year term of the new parliament.

The Liberal Democrats not only oppose independence but are against even holding a referendum to decide the issue. But these are not insurmountable difficulties.

One complicating factor is that, because of the chaos which surrounded the election, with over 100,000 ballot papers declared void as a result of voter misunderstandings over what was required, the possibilities exist for contesting various outcomes.

At least one narrow SNP victory, by 48 votes in Cunninghame North, is being challenged by the Labour candidate. Others will probably follow.

Nor can the possibility of Labour trying to stay in office on the basis of a deal with the Liberal Democrats be discounted.

Last week saw the trend toward declining participation in elections has continued.

Despite all the controversy around this election, slightly less than half the Scottish electorate participated.

Since all the major parties are committed to the neoliberal agenda, it might seem obvious, except to our politicians and media, that these two facts are linked.

Why then the swing to the SNP, if its politics are not fundamentally different from the others?

There is a serious desire on the part of voters to punish Labour for its various crimes, but there are limited options for doing so on a left wing basis.

The Liberal Democrats had been in coalition with Labour for the last eight years and were therefore associated with its policies. That left the SNP as the only alternative to New Labour.

The Labour Party mobilised the media and its affiliated trade unions to attack the SNP in the last few days of the election.


On polling day tabloids, such as The Sun and the Daily Record, made similar attempts to instil fear of independence.

Here Salmond has played his hand with great skill. When talking to business he emphasises policies to reduce taxation along the lines of the Irish model.

But in his public pronouncements he emphasises the SNP’s radicalism, particularly in relation to foreign policy.

Salmond has spent far more time attacking the Iraq war, the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system and reliance on nuclear power than in promoting independence.

Whether these policies would ­translate into action is of course another matter. Nevertheless, support for the SNP indicates a misplaced view among many voters that the SNP is a left alternative to New Labour.

The Labour Party has lost control in Scotland. This is the first time it has lost an election here since 1955 and in some respects the situation at a local level is even worse.

Now that council elections are conducted by the “single transferable vote” system, the grip of Labour, which in some places dates back to the inter-war years, has been fundamentally loosened.

Labour now has majorities in only two councils in the whole of Scotland, and these are in its western heartlands of Glasgow and Lanarkshire.

Does the SNP vote show rising support for independence? Once the campaign began, polling figures consistently showed support for independence to be running at around 25 percent, while support for the SNP was around 45 percent.

Some commentators claim to find this surprising, but there is no mystery here. Scots are quite capable of distinguishing between voting for the SNP as an alternative government and the goal of independence to which the party is nominally committed.

The SNP itself is less committed to independence than many, including Labour and its media echo-chambers, like to pretend.

The last decade has seen a trend throughout Europe in places such as Catalonia in Spain and Quebec in Canada for parties committed to secession effectively turning themselves into “regionalist” governing parties. This is on the basis of renegotiated relations with the central state.

Behind this shift is usually the recognition that there is unlikely to be a majority for secession in the short to medium term – and maybe never will be.

Although these parties – and Plaid Cymru in Wales – have gone further than the SNP in making this shift, it is a difficult one for them to openly declare.

Party activists tend to react badly to suggestions that historic goals have been abandoned. Nevertheless, similar trends are underway in the SNP.

It is the resulting conflict between the fundamentalists and the “regionalists” – carefully concealed during the election – rather than a left-right split, which underlies current debates within the party.

The greatest disappointment of the election is undoubtedly the elimination of virtually all the smaller left wing parties, with the partial exceptions of Margo MacDonald, the independent former SNP member, and the two Greens, Patrick Harvie and Robin Harper.


The Scottish parliament now effectively excludes real dissenting voices to an even greater extent than Westminster. Why did Solidarity fail to get any seats and, in particular, why was Tommy Sheridan not re-elected? There appear to be three reasons.

First, voters intent on punishing Labour turned to the SNP on the grounds that only it could realistically form a government.

The results themselves tend to support this theory, since the great majority of new SNP seats came from the smaller parties, not from Labour. The Labour vote certainly fell, but this only cost it four seats.

Second, although the electoral draw of the SNP did not completely obliterate the far left vote, it was fragmented between three parties.

Although Solidarity gained twice as many votes as the other two added together, a split vote denied the party any seats.

Had Sheridan received even half of the 5,259 votes that went to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Socialist Labour Party, he would have beaten the Green candidate for the fifth regional list seat in Glasgow.

Third, Scotland’s “hanging chad” moment, which brings back memories of George Bush’s controversial election victory in Florida in 2000, seems to have hit the smaller parties harder than the rest.

Nevertheless, the election has produced positive outcomes for ­socialists in Scotland. While no one should be deluded into thinking that the Labour vote is going to collapse in the near future, this represents a further stage in its disintegration.

Salmond was right to draw attention to the end of Labour’s perceived “divine right to rule” in Scotland. The resulting fragmentation will see people looking for new political homes.

We should welcome the advent of an SNP coalition at Holyrood. For far too long the SNP has been able to bask in a wholly undeserved aura of radicalism because it has never been put to the test nationally. This also applies to the Greens.

Many anti-war and alternative globalisation activists have deceived themselves into thinking that these parties are essentially on the left. They are not, and these illusions will not survive a spell in government.

The result has also decisively shown which party of the radical left will act as a focus for electoral resistance. Solidarity, which has been in existence for eight months, polled 31,047 votes.

The SSP, which has been in existence for nine years and, if nothing else, had the benefit of name recognition, polled 12,731, fewer than the Socialist Labour Party with 13,404, which has virtually no members and carries out no activity.

This is a tribute to the work of Solidarity members over the past months and vindicates their decision to split from the SSP.

Electoral representation remains important. But now that the elections are over, the left in Scotland needs to resume its activities on the streets, in communities and trade unions, and remind those who have forgotten that decisive change does not come from parliaments.

Neil Davidson’s Deutscher prize winning book, Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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