Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2420

The limits of Scottish nationalism

This article is over 9 years, 9 months old
The Scottish National Party is making headway as the independence referendum nears, but, says Iain Ferguson, the party is trapped by its attempt to please both the rich and the poor at the same time
Issue 2420
Supporters of the Yes campaign gather in Glasgow last week
Supporters of the Yes campaign gather in Glasgow last week (Pic: Andrew McGowan)

Scotland’s forthcoming independence vote has put Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP) centre stage. A stream of largely positive coverage has followed his trouncing of Alistair Darling in last month’s TV debate on the referendum.

Salmond hopes that a large Yes vote will combine with his high profile to help draw thousands of pro-independence voters into his party. And he hopes this will keep his SNP successors in office for years to come.

The growing independence movement is certainly reaching deep into the working class.

Recent polls show that the Yes campaign is being buoyed by swathes of Labour voters breaking from their party’s support for the union.

Voting for independence is not the same as switching party allegiance to the SNP.

But many Labour voters are attracted by SNP policies that are well to the left to those of Ed Miliband. This can lead some to see the SNP as a party on the side of working class people.

Salmond’s talk of defending the Scottish NHS from 

privatisation appeals to those who know it was Tony Blair that pushed the market deep into healthcare.

The SNP pledge to defend benefits and the welfare state from Tory and Labour attack chimes with people who bitterly resent the way austerity has hit the poorest. And that’s despite the SNP’s record of implementing cuts of its own.

Salmond’s stance against Britain’s immigration and asylum legislation is bound to make the SNP appear a far more principled party than others of the mainstream. So does its pledge to remove nuclear weapons.

Despite this carefully cultivated left wing veneer, the SNP remains a nationalist party. That means it seeks to unite the rich and poor in Scotland for the sake of what it sees as the “national interest”. 

Nationalism, whether it embraces policies from the left or the right, ultimately seeks to mask class divisions.


It says that the multi­millionaire golf course owner has the same interest in a “better Scotland” as a single parent living in a Glasgow high rise flat. This is even if one can only benefit at the expense of the other.

In practice this has meant presenting friendly policies to lure working class supporters. At the same time the SNP tells Scotland’s bosses that a future Scottish economy will be low tax and low regulation.

It may be possible to sustain this contradiction for the duration of a campaign.

But as capitalism pits the interests of the rich and poor against each other, sooner or later all nationalist parties are forced to take sides.

When put to the test we can already see that the SNP prefers to side with the powerful. In 2013, bosses at the Ineos petrochemical plant in Grangemouth provoked a major confrontation with workers. They victimised the union convenor and sought to impose a pay freeze, an end to the final salary pension scheme and far worse conditions.

Ineos told workers to accept the changes or face the closure of the plant.

The SNP should have declared itself against the company’s blackmail and weighed in behind the workers.

Instead, Salmond talked of the “national interest” being supreme. Scotland’s refinery business must not be put in jeopardy, he said. 

Abandoned by their union leaders and attacked by their government, the Ineos workers reluctantly accepted the bosses’ ultimatum.

The final deal saw the Scottish and Westminster governments handing out grants totalling £134 million to the firm.

According to the SNP’s Joan McAlpine, Salmond also “negotiated a deal to reduce the cost of Ineos’s gas by £40 million”—effectively a massive corporate tax break.

Some in the SNP leadership have gone further still in siding with the bosses.

Discussing the 2011 pensions strike, Scottish finance secretary John Swinney said, “I don’t support the strike action—and I’ve already crossed a picket line.”

To better understand how the SNP vacillates when under pressure from capitalism requires us to look more closely at its history. 

The SNP was founded in 1934 to unite the different strands of the nationalist movement. 

It brought together left wing activists who supported independence and former Tories who favoured some form of home rule. 

Despite the presence of socialists in its ranks, from the outset it sought to represent all classes within Scottish society, including the business class.


It experienced very limited electoral success in the immediate post-war decades.

However in the 1960s its then leader William Wolfe sought to reposition it as a moderate left of centre social democratic party. This was a means of gaining support in the Labour 

heartlands of central Scotland.

The strategy enjoyed some success and led to the SNP’s first by-election victory in Hamilton in 1967. 

The SNP increasingly began to seem like an attractive and viable alternative to many people. Especially given the background of high poverty and unemployment, growing disillusionment with Labour and, crucially, the discovery of oil off Scotland’s shores. 

Following a further spectacular by-election victory in Glasgow Govan in 1973, the SNP’s high-water mark was achieved in the October 1974 general election. It polled almost a third of all votes in Scotland and returned 11 MPs to Westminster—still the most MPs it has ever had.

However, its vote fell away following the defeat of a government-rigged referendum on devolution in 1979. The limits of its radicalism were revealed at around the same time.

The leadership expelled members of the left wing 79 Group including Alex Salmond and Jim Sillars. 

The 79 group were seeking to shift the party in a more socialist direction.

This, plus the fact that most of its MPs were elected from what had previously been Conservative seats, led many on the left to dub the SNP as “Tartan Tories”. 

The party’s recovery and growth since then are largely a product of its positioning itself to the left of Labour on a variety of key issues. 

Its success is reflected in a number of electoral wins. It was elected to the Scottish parliament in 2007, re-elected with a parliamentary majority in 2011 and won a majority of local councillors in Scotland.

It has successfully tapped into widespread anger and a sense of injustice over what is usually referred to as “the democratic deficit”.

From Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax to the coalition’s austerity,  these policies have caused deep anger.


Many feel they have been subjected time and again to brutal economic policies imposed by governments that have no mandate in Scotland. There is currently just one Scottish Tory MP in Westminster, out of a possible 71.

The SNP’s argument that only by breaking with Westminster can Scottish people get the governments they vote for is a powerful one.

It also understands the way many working class people feel doubly disenfranchised by the dominance of Labour in both Westminster and Holyrood. 

Labour has embraced neoliberalism and its leader in the Scottish Parliament regularly attacks Alex Salmond from the right.   

But just as the referendum campaign has elevated the SNP’s status among many working class voters, so it can also point to its future undoing. 

In the packed meetings on council estates and on the crowded high street stalls many people are daring to think of what an alternative Scotland could look like.

They ask, if we had control of all the resources of society what would we do to improve things for the majority?

They are questioning why we should have to live under the dictatorship of the rich, the free market and capitalism. 

Those aspirations mean the SNP could face opposition to the version of austerity and corporate tax cuts it will impose.

People who have recently grasped the possibility of a different kind of society will not easily go back to believing that there is no alternative.

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