Scottish myth blown away

Left nat candidates humiliated, writes Sarah McDonald

While Britain as a whole awoke on the morning of Friday May 7 to the prospect of a Tory-led hung parliament, the Scottish Labour Party had what has been considered a relative victory. Across England, and to an extent in Wales, Labour lost ground to the Tories, but in Scotland the result was exactly the same as in the 2005 general election. The Tories, who had hoped to win seats in Perthshire and East Renfrewshire, made no gains whatsoever. Scottish National Party supporters rallied tactically behind the Labour candidates to try to keep David Cameron out of No10. This left the Tories only holding on to their one seat in Dumfriesshire - Clydesdale and Tweeddale.

Labour’s support actually went up overall in Scotland by 2.5% on 2005, whereas the Tories’ 16.7% is around half the Scottish support they had back in the general election of 1979. According to the Sunday Herald political editor Tom Gordon, Labour had already started planning to switch its focus from Westminster to Holyrood for next year’s Scottish parliamentary election, after it began to become clear that Labour would be unlikely to stay in power in the UK as a whole.

Should Labour beat the nationalists at Holyrood in 2011, this would “give Labour a higher profile and the credibility of a £30 billion budget with which to attack the Tories”, with Holyrood serving a “base camp” for the journey back to Westminster (May 9).

Another victory for Scottish Labour from this election was in winning back two seats that had been lost in by-elections since 2005. Crucially, Margaret Curran (MSP for Baillieston) regained the traditionally working class constituency of Glasgow East. The SNP had taken it from Labour in a 2008 by-election, a result that SNP leader Alex Salmond referred to as “ground-breaking”. In fact, his party broke very little ground in the urban lowlands this time around. With the exception of Dundee East, the SNP’s victories were in rural areas, where levels of class-consciousness are lower than in industrial centres.

It is largely in more affluent and/or rural areas too where the Liberal Democrats have won seats. While their impact on the election on the whole was not anywhere near what had been predicted, their result in Scotland was poor indeed. The Lib Dems actually lost out, compared to their 2005 result - so much for the ‘Clegg effect’. Meanwhile, as David Cameron’s deputy prime minister, Clegg could be in for real opposition from his party further down the line. Cameron has, as expected, made one of the 11 Lib Dem MPs from north of the border Scottish secretary rather than his one Scottish Tory MP. Danny Alexander, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathpsey, enthusiastically accepted the appointment - this despite the fact that the Lib Dems went into the election with a manifesto committing them to abolish the entire department. Incidentally, Alexander is considered to be on the right of his party and is widely credited for brokering the coalition agreement with the Tories in his role as Clegg’s chief of staff.

Depending on what happens in the Scottish parliament election, Lib Dem MSPs could end up forming a governing coalition with Labour in Holyrood that is opposed to the Tories in Westminster, while their party nationally backs up that same government.

The SNP, while increasing its share of the vote in certain areas, did not do well, as mentioned above, winning little support in Scotland’s central belt. Salmond, who had set an unrealistic goal of 20 seats, saw his party reduced to a meagre six. To an extent, the SNP’s poor result could be down to the fact that this was a UK general election and therefore the nationalists seemed less relevant to many. The main reason for the SNP’s lack of success, however, was that people backed the Labour Party out of fear of a Tory government.

It is very clear from the Scottish results that the Tories have almost no support in Scotland and in view of this Salmond had said he was not prepared for SNP MPs to work with the Tories in Westminster, calling instead for Labour and the Lib Dems to work with the ‘Celtic block’ of Scottish and Welsh nationalists and others to form a ‘rainbow coalition’. Should this ever have come to pass (and it looked surprisingly possible on the night of Monday May 10), this would ironically have led to SNP MPs voting on matters in a UK parliament that affect only England (such as education).

It will be interesting to see how the differences in voting patterns in Scotland compared to the rest of the country will affect national antagonisms. The fact that the working class in Scotland will suffer at the hands of a government it did not elect might divert opposition in a nationalist direction. Equally, it could have the effect of rekindling working class loyalty to the Labour Party, harking back to when SNP candidates were regarded as ‘tartan Tories’ attempting to take seats from Labour. Oddly, at the moment the Scottish media seem to be putting across an odd mixture of both elements: on the one hand, a feeling of general disgruntlement, seeing Scotland as a national underdog likely to be on the receiving end of cuts from a party with no mandate; on the other, there is a new-found affection for Gordon Brown, portrayed as the tragic victim cum local Scots hero.

So, with the prospect of the national question flaring up on the back of this election, it is important that we take a principled position - one that opposes nationalism and separatism and promotes the unity of the working class. We must also recognise that there are national antagonisms that will not magically disappear. This, of course, is something the left has failed to do both north and south of the border to date. The Scottish left has embraced separatism out of pure opportunism or - worse yet - by identifying ideologically with the nationalist movement. All the while, UK-wide organisations like the Socialist Workers Party take a more schizophrenic view; not wanting to separate along national lines, but not wanting not to either - both apparently on principle ...

In my view the best way to address the national question, as things currently stand in Britain, is to link it to the struggle for democracy by calling for a federal republic: advocating unity, while recognising the right to secession. Not because federalism is the desired end point, but because it addresses the question in a principled way, in the here and now, and it raises consciousness by calling for the working class to fight on constitutional matters, on matters of democracy and high politics.

Returning to the general election, how did the left in Scotland fare? Well, its performance in Scotland more or less mirrored that of the left across the country. In a word, badly. The Scottish Socialist Party and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition both scored just under 1% overall in the 10 seats they each contested. Tommy Sheridan, standing for Tusc along with other Solidarity comrades, was the most successful, but even he was reduced to 2.9% in Glasgow South West. The fact he has a perjury trial hanging over his head following his successful defamation case against the News of the World is not irrelevant, of course.

However, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the Sheridan case, gone are the days when the Scottish left could boast of its vast superiority over its English counterparts, with talk of how well the SSP brought comrades from different trends together and how much better the left in Scotland did at the ballot box (not that much, truth be told). Of course, this sanctimonious crap was cited as good reason for Scotland to go it alone. The truth - and we have to be realistic about it - is that the situation is bad across the country.

If we are to defend ourselves against a Tory-led government in a harsh economic climate then the workers’ movement needs to get its act together. The left has to end the divisions along national lines, just as much as along sect lines. Revolutionary groups should give up the facade of electoral fronts with politics designed to appeal to the masses, but in reality appeal to no-one. There is a need to form a single, united party with a revolutionary programme north and south of the border.