By Neil Davidson
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The Illusion of Freedom

This article is over 12 years, 2 months old
Tom Gallagher, Hurst and Company; £12.99
Issue 341

Tom Gallagher tells us that he voted for the Scottish National Party (SNP) as early as 1979 and as recently as 2007. He is not, in other words, a partisan for the Labour Party (whose own critique of the SNP is, unsurprisingly, utterly incoherent). In fact, one of his main criticisms of the SNP is precisely that it resembles New Labour too closely in its manipulative, top-down approach.

Gallagher provides a useful and refreshing account of devolution. He identifies the hostility of the SNP to popular sovereignty and claims that it is simply reproducing the rule by the elites that have dominated Scottish life since the Act of Union of 1707. This is fine insofar as it captures the deeply anti-democratic impulses which the SNP shares with all contemporary bourgeois parties.

The real problems begin when Gallagher lists the issues which make him suspicious of the SNP: its opposition to Western imperialism in the Balkans and the Middle East, to the nuclear arsenal on the Clyde and to nuclear power, and attempts by the government to reach out to the Muslim community. Gallagher obsesses about the potential for alliances with self-appointed Muslim leaders as if this was the greatest danger facing democracy today, and rejects the very existence of Islamophobia.

Gallagher is right to argue that the SNP leadership probably do not expect to win a referendum on independence. He believes that Alex Salmond hopes to provoke an anti-Scottish reaction in England that will help break up the UK from the Westminster end. I remain unconvinced.

It is not clear whether the SNP leaders any longer think independence is possible at all, and their strategy is actually to renegotiate the Union along the lines of Catalonia in Spain or Quebec in Canada – although this is not something which can yet be admitted to the party rank and file, for fear of accusations about betraying the sacred blood of William Wallace (etc). Gallagher is on surer ground when he refers to the SNP leadership as “super-unionists” – not in relation to the Anglo-Scottish Union, but instead to the EU. As he points out, Scotland’s autonomy would be at least as restricted as a small nation in the EU as it currently is as a devolved region of the UK.

Although helpful as a guide to political events in Scotland over the last ten years, the problem with this book is that it misses the central contradiction within the SNP. This has less to do with the contest between the nationalist currents that Gallagher identifies, and far more to do with the fact that it seeks working class support by presenting itself as a social democratic organisation while adhering to neoliberal economics.

The fact that Scots actually want social democratic policies should be a source of encouragement, but Gallagher sees no alternative to the current party set-up. Thus his book ends on a depressed note. It is high time that the left in Scotland resumed the task of providing that alternative.

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