Labour or the SNP? It’s Not Much of a Choice for Working Class Scots

Difference in rhetoric won’t cut it.

by Jonathon Shafi

1 August 2023

Labour leader Keir Starmer. Wiktor Szymanowicz/Reuters

Keir Starmer’s announcement that Labour won’t oppose the two-child benefit payment cap has provoked a range of critical and angry responses in Scotland. Labour MSPs Mercedes Villalba and Monica Lennon publicly “slammed” the Labour leader, while former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who railed against the Tory policy in 2017 in a debate on welfare “reforms”, reposted her speech in Holyrood. The SNP, meanwhile, argued the saga once again illustrates the need for independence. Labour, it claims, is a pale imitation of the Tory party and could never deliver for Scotland. Only the SNP understands the issues affecting Scots and could chart a different course to that of an ailing British state.

This kind of policy spat is grist to the mill for the SNP and the Scottish government. Opposition to something like the two-child benefit cap replenishes multiple talking points which can steer the party, riven as it is by its own crisis, onto better terrain. Here is not only a political but moral presentation of its difference from the Westminster establishment, and anyone looking at Labour as an alternative to the Tories in Scotland is reminded of the cigarette paper which divides the two. If you want to escape this dilemma, so the argument goes, the SNP can offer a route towards independence. Then, instead of having to mitigate policy choices at the level of the UK, Scotland can devise itself a fairer, greener future.

Given we live in the shadow of Corbynism’s defeat, the collapse of the major projects of left reformism across Europe and the fragmentation of the independence cause in Scotland, the political horizons of many on the left have narrowed. Now, what’s possible is degraded in the search for the least worst option to ameliorate the worst excesses of late capitalist decline. In the case of the two-child benefit cap, the SNP is indeed to the left of Starmer’s Labour. But while spikes of deeply felt (though largely directionless) outrage over tinderbox issues can be important, they shouldn’t obscure the structural unity between the mainstream parties in their attempts to maintain neoliberal capitalism, reliance on privatisation, and the supremacy of the market. And if independence is the only avenue to “real change”, it follows that some interrogation of the SNP’s strategy for achieving it is required beyond the opiates of electoral sloganeering and Scottish exceptionalism.

Having led the independence movement into the dead end of the Supreme Court, the pathway to a referendum has been definitively blocked. This misadventure may have been followed up with a robust campaign for self-determination to galvanise the independence cause, but just as this was notable for its absence even during the height of the Brexit fallout, it has failed to materialise. Instead, the SNP has used the issue to marshal electoral support at the expense of developing the infrastructure required for a broad pro-independence front. The prospect of a referendum has been reeled out in the run up to elections in particular, but without any sense of an overarching strategy beyond party-centric electoralism.

At the same time, the official prospectus, even if implemented through a ‘Yes’ vote, would mean that the Bank of England would retain monetary control and governance over Scotland. Independence in name only would leave Scotland’s working class at the continued behest of the UK’s financial institutions. That means no green new deal, no furlough in the case of a pandemic without IMF loans with the strings of privatisation attached, and no ability to reorientate the Scottish economy with borrowing set at a premium. Despite having years to work on the issues of an independent currency and central bank, the conclusion is to say that the question of economic development should be left to the City and the banking elite.

Lacking a popular agenda and having stymied the development of a movement for national self-determination with living roots in the society, it’s little wonder the dial among Scottish public opinion hasn’t shifted. Alongside the arrests of the party’s former leader and chief executive and a bruising leadership election, belief in the ability of the de facto leadership of the independence movement to deliver on its central objective is waning. It’s no surprise, then, that the link between support for independence and voting for the SNP is weakening too, while dysfunction and confusion mean opportunities that present themselves can’t be properly exploited beyond the transient tweets of increasingly desperate SNP representatives.

At the same time, Scotland has become a laboratory for neoliberalism and a playground for the corporate lobby. Scottish wind is sold at rock bottom prices to the likes of BP and Shell. The SNP leadership shook hands with Rishi Sunak over Thatcherite free ports, despite opposition from party activists. The Scottish government has signed one of Scotland’s largest-ever PFI deals over the future of huge tracts of Scottish forestry to a “cabal of private interests”. The Scottish National Investment Bank, meant to be a counterweight to the failures of commercial banking, has been little more than a conduit for a revolving door of corporate interests. The red carpet has been rolled out repeatedly for foreign capital, while the case for independence has been put in the straightjacket of ‘sterlingisation’.

A national house building company? Non-existent. A national energy company? Promised but never delivered, despite repeated attempts by SNP members. Replacing council tax? A manifesto pledge from 2007 which gathers dust. All this and more is within the powers of the Scottish parliament. But inaction and paralysis has been the order of the day since the awe-inspiring independence campaign of 2014. Meanwhile, deep poverty has increased profoundly in the last 20 years.

As the parties set out their stall for the forthcoming general election, the interests of the working class are largely reduced to rhetoric. A democratic challenge to the system that can meet the demands of the era will require far more than accepting the parameters of the debate as they currently stand.

Jonathon Shafi is a columnist for Novara Media and socialist campaigner, based in Glasgow. He writes the weekly newsletter ‘Independence Captured’.

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