Blow to separatism
The Tory revival north of the border exposes the failure of left nationalism, writes Eddie Ford
For years we have been told by most sections of the left that Scotland was so much more advanced than the rest of Britain - a progressive, Tory-free zone to be envied and emulated. This sentiment was reinforced by the freak result in the 2015 general election, thanks to the ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) electoral system, which saw the Scottish National Party scoop up 56 of the 59 seats (95%) with only 50% of the vote - leaving the other parties with only one seat each. There was only one direction of movement, it seemed, and that was towards Scottish independence.
But, of course, that was always baloney that ignored history and common sense. In the 1950s, apart from the ‘red belt’ and a few scattered Liberals, Scotland was a Tory country - the Conservatives won an absolute majority of the vote in the 1955 general election (50.1%) and not far off that four years earlier (48.6%).1 Now, in certain respects, politics in Scotland shows every sign of returning to type, at least if the results of the general election are anything to go by. Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, we are seeing the return of two-party politics in all parts of the UK - or in the case of Northern Ireland, its first emergence with the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin carving up everything between them except for one seat. This should not surprise us in the slightest, as two-party politics is predicated on FPTP, electorally punishing splits and breakaways.
Anyhow, this time round the SNP was reduced to 35 seats on 36.9% of the vote - representing a 13% drop in its share of the popular vote, and costing it nearly 480,000 votes compared with 2015. This result, we must remember, comes on the back of last year’s Holyrood elections, in which the SNP failed to secure an overall majority, but the Scottish Tories increased their MSPs by 16 and overtook Labour as the largest opposition party. And last week the Tories secured 13 seats on 28.6% of the vote and were runners-up in nine other constituencies - very nearly doubling their share of the vote from two years ago and getting over 300,000 more votes.
Meanwhile, Labour ended up with seven seats, gaining six, and 27.1% of the vote - a share broadly similar to the Tories, but the swing towards Labour was only 2.8%, as opposed to 13.7% for the Tories. Moreover, two of them are Corbyn supporters: Danielle Rowley and Phil Boswell. And Matt Kerr, another Corbyn supporter, came a narrow second to the SNP in Glasgow South West, winning 14,326 votes, just 61 votes short of winning (those on the left who called for an SNP vote in Scotland should be considered class traitors). As for the Liberal Democrats, they got four seats on 7.5%, but actually got 40,000 fewer votes than in 2015.
One consequence of the election, surprising many, was that two of the SNP’s biggest stars lost their seats. Angus Robertson, its Westminster parliamentary leader and MP for Moray, was defeated by the Tories - though he remains deputy leader for now - as did Alex Salmond in Gordon, losing out to Conservative Colin Clark. This leaves former SNP leader Salmond without a parliamentary seat for the first time in 30 years.
The general conclusion from these results is that is that momentum is ebbing away from the SNP and towards their opponents - especially the Tories, who are now enjoying a serious revival (something that we in the CPGB have long warned was possible). But it was obvious that, once Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a second referendum on independence, the Tories would be going hell for leather to capture the anti-independence/unionist vote - with those for Brexit thrown in for good measure.
Indy Ref 2?
In fact, the Scottish first minister - not being a fool - has had to admit a good part of the reason for the result was a backlash against her calls for independence. Sturgeon said she needed more time to “reflect carefully” on the consequences of the election before deciding whether to press on with her quest for another referendum either towards the end of next year or the spring of the following year, “when the terms of Brexit are known” - as she originally phrased it. “Undoubtedly” the issue of an independence referendum was a “factor” in this election result, she also remarked, but there were “other factors as well”, such as Brexit.
However, despite Sturgeon facing calls at Holyrood and elsewhere to abandon any plans for a second independence referendum, Scottish government ministers on June 13 apparently did not discuss Indy Ref 2 in their first meeting since the election, and the next day there was a flurry of stories about how she was planning to “rebrand” the independence referendum as a vote on the finalised UK Brexit deal - with one SNP MEP, Alyn Smith, telling the BBC’s Good morning Scotland programme that any future referendum “would be on the terms of Brexit set against independence”.2 On the same day Sturgeon issued a series of almost Trumpian tweets stating that media speculation about her plans for a referendum, or not, was “nonsense” - she would set out the way forward “in due course after talking to people across the SNP”.3 She went on to tell BBC Scotland that she would not be “rushed into knee-jerk decisions” on a referendum and that her “immediate focus” will be on the forthcoming Brexit negotiations - a “Tory-led hard Brexit is simply not acceptable” in the wake of the election result, she said.
Sturgeon wants a “short pause” in the Brexit negotiations and has written a letter to Theresa May, in which she argues that new proposals are “urgently needed” to end the “confusion surrounding the UK’s position” - she repeated her call for Scotland and the UK to remain in both the single market and the customs union and for the rights of EU citizens living in the UK to be “guaranteed”. Furthermore, she claimed that the Scottish government’s Scotland’s place in Europe document, published in December, provides a “blueprint” for the “way forward” for the whole of the UK. In her opinion, the UK government should “reconvene” a joint ministerial committee involving all three devolved governments in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, and set up an “advisory group” involving Sinn Féin to agree a consensual, “cross-party, all-government”, approach to the Brexit negotiations.
Perhaps ironically, Nicola Sturgeon’s appeal for a “pause” in Brexit talks comes just as the European commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, warns in the pages of the Financial Times that Britain risks crashing out of the EU with no deal if it wastes any more time - he urged Theresa May to “very quickly” begin the discussions and appoint a negotiating team that is “stable, accountable and with a mandate” (June 12). After all, he notes, as from next week it will be three months since the sending of the letter triggering article 50 - but no progress yet.
Obviously, Tory, Labour and Lib Dem leaders in Scotland are stepping up the pressure on Sturgeon to finally dump Indy Ref 2 - now declared “dead” by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader and saviour of the party (if it was not for her performance on June 8, the Tories would be even deeper in the shit). She has accused the first minister of having “given up representing Scotland” and of “turning a tin ear to everyone outside the SNP, who just want a break from her political games” - instead, Sturgeon is now “focused solely on her discredited and unwanted plan to drag us back to a second referendum”. Similarly, Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, urged Sturgeon to withdraw a Holyrood motion calling for the referendum. Just as damning, Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, said the country “won’t be fooled by Nicola Sturgeon’s desperate plan to rebrand her divisive referendum”.
Scotland’s deputy first minister and a former SNP leader, John Swinney, also seems dubious about the prospects for Indy Ref 2. He told the BBC that Sturgeon’s dogged quest for a second referendum was a “significant motivator” for SNP losses and the party would “have to be attentive to that”. Other senior SNP figures disagreed, however, arguing that Sturgeon won a “clear mandate” for a referendum in last year’s Holyrood election and in a Scottish parliament vote in March - and claiming that support for independence is still as high as 47%.
The Tory revival in Scotland has exposed the total bankruptcy of those left groups who capitulated before Scottish nationalism and the SNP. For instance, the Socialist Workers Party crazily argued that Jeremy Corbyn should “champion” Scottish independence in order to boost his then dismal poll ratings - thankfully he ignored their advice, otherwise the Labour Party might still have only one seat north of the border. The SWP also wanted us to vote Labour in … “England and Wales”. But not in Scotland, as apparently the struggle for independence was the top priority. Or, as Charlie Kimber wrote back in March, “we need to fight for [a] new referendum on Scottish independence”, so that “May can be wrecked on the shores of Scotland”.4
In other words, the SWP’s rationale for effectively backing the SNP was the same as for voting Brexit - it will damage David Cameron. Yes, comrades, it certainly did that - but so what? As Kenneth Clarke said, it was obvious to anyone but a fool that Cameron would not “last 30 seconds” if he lost the EU referendum: we hardly need the SWP’s help or advice on this matter, thank you very much. But the idea, repeated ad nauseam by the comrades, that the Tory Party would “shatter” under the weight of Brexit (or Indy Ref 2) was always absurd - it is the party of government, existing for that purpose. It was always going to unite around one candidate - hence the crowning of Theresa May. If she goes soon, which looks likely, then they will eventually unite around somebody else - not split apart in order to make life easier for Socialist Worker journalists.
Clearly, we are not going to see another referendum on independence any time soon - however much Sturgeon might try to ‘rebrand’ it. This completely shoots down in flames the SWP’s ‘strategy’, insofar as it had one - in its excitable, day-to-day existence devoid of programme. Now, instead of attempting to critique its own obviously failed perspective, the SWP pathetically informs us that “socialists should take from these results that independence, which Socialist Worker supports, is not and should not be the only key fault line for the left” (June 9). Rather, we read that “support for independence hasn’t changed” and that “the surge in support for Corbyn’s Labour mirrors the surge in working class support for independence in 2014” - once again deluding themselves. Nothing ever goes wrong in the SWP’s world: everything is a confirmation of the central committee’s infallible line.
If anything, the position of the Scottish Socialist Party is even worse - more cravenly nationalist. The SSP told us on its semi-moribund website that the “forthcoming” election (ie, June 8) has to be made into a “referendum” on independence, and called upon the SNP to “put independence at the heart of its general election manifesto”. It boasted about the “100,000 leaflets” distributed throughout the country making the case for an “independent socialist” Scotland, as it is “essential” that “Scottish MPs are armed with an unchallengeable mandate for self-determination”.5 Effectively the SSP was for an SNP vote in Glasgow and elsewhere.
But, just like the SWP, the SSP’s “referendum” has completely failed - the majority of Scottish people voted for parties that do not support independence and Indy Ref 2 is almost certainly off the agenda. Commenting upon the election result, Colin Fox, the SSP’s national spokesperson, argues that the SNP’s diminution is a “direct consequence of their failure to make the case for independence”. Yes, he says, June 8 was a “setback for the independence movement”, but it also “clearly demonstrates that support for independence is greater than that for the SNP” - again “underlining the case for a reinvigorated broad-based ‘yes’ movement”.6
What was totally wrong to start with has now become utterly stupid and reactionary - the SSP’s commitment to Tartan national socialism comes at the expense of working class unity throughout Britain. If they had any sort of working class outlook, they would be fighting to transform and democratise the Labour Party both sides of the border - not acting as a nationalist pressure group on the SNP.