In a detailed analysis, economist and former SNP MP George Kerevan looks at the competing forces re-shaping both the Scottish National Party, and the broader independence movement.
A movement split between activists and parliamentary leadership
The crisis decades of the neoliberal era saw working class voters in Scotland desert Labour for the SNP and turn towards independence as a way of challenging austerity policies determined in London. Of course, nominal independence cannot free Scotland or its working people from the effects of global competition, the gig economy, stagnant wages, public spending cuts or a rapacious financial capitalism bent on using state austerity policies to protect its profits. But faced with the disastrous record of the Blairite Labour Party, and in the absence of any immediate anti-capitalist project, Scotland’s working people took matters into their own hands. Whatever its parliamentary limitations, voting for the SNP and independence still represents a progressive, anti-system impulse among the core working class demographic – witness the popular support for Yes in Glasgow and Dundee, in the 2014 referendum.
However, the working class Yes movement now has to contend with an SNP leadership under Nicola Sturgeon that has shifted bodily to the right and particularly so since the 2017 UK general election. The SNP Government – while talking left – has governed in the interests of the major capitalist groups that dominate the Scottish economy: London banking, foreign agribusiness, big oil, the property development lobby, and major landlords and landowners. Since the general election of 2017, Sturgeon has also de-mobilised the party’s door-to-door campaign for a second independence referendum and refused personally to attend major demonstrations organised by the autonomous All Under One Banner (AUOB) group. This sharp right turn by the SNP leadership threatens to demoralise the very working class voters who put the party into government. What are the roots of this shift?
The SNP Government and big business
Under Sturgeon the SNP Government’s links with big business have grown significantly. As head of her advisory group on rebooting the economy after the Covid-19 recession, the First Minister appointed Benny Higgins. He is a former banker and current chair of Buccleuch Estates, the company running the property and development interests of Scotland’s biggest feudal magnate, the Duke of Buccleuch. But there are other worrying signs of the current SNP administration’s close ties to big business.
Oil: the SNP Government has stuffed the board of Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), the main environmental regulator, with representatives of Big Oil and the investment industry. They include Nicola Gordon, a former Shell boss and still a big owner of shares in the company. This despite the fact that Shell’s refining and plastics complex at Mossmorran in Fife (jointly owned with Exxon) is one of Scotland’s biggest CO2 emitters. To date, SEPA has dragged its feet over taking action to halt Shell’s illegal flaring of gas at the facility.
Agribusiness: the SNP Government has championed factory-farmed salmon, now Scotland’s single biggest food export. Much of the production is controlled by a Norwegian-owned multinational conglomerate called Mowi. Intensive cultivation of salmon in fish farms causes the spread of disease from parasitic sea lice to wild salmon. To combat this, Mowi uses dangerous insecticides. Yet Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham – once on the SNP’s extreme left – has refused demands from the Holyrood environment committee to investigate. Mowi is controlled by Norway’s richest capitalist, John Fredriksen, who also happens to own the world’s largest tanker fleet. In 1986, he was arrested by the Norwegian authorities for insurance fraud. The case was settled out of court though Fredriksen had to pay a large fine.
Property: In 2014, the SNP Government adopted a policy of subsidising investment companies and developers to build houses for rent. It even appointed and paid for a “Private Rental Sector Champion” to promote this new landlordism. He was Gerry More, a house building industry insider. According to Sturgeon at the time: “I welcome the appointment of Gerry More as Scotland’s PRS Champion, a post that underlines the importance of the private rented sector to Scotland’s housing mix…” What did Mr More do to earn his publicly funded salary? He lobbied MSPs incessantly not to impose rent controls of any kind. In May, the SNP introduced protections for landlords affected by the Covid-19 emergency but blocked with the Tories to vote down a rents freeze for tenants.
Banking: In 2016, Nicola Sturgeon appointed Andrew Wilson – former head of corporate relations at RBS during the 2008 banking crisis – to head a Commission on Sustainable Growth. At this point Wilson had become a founding partner in Charlotte Street Partners, a PR agency bankrolled by Scotland’s leading merchant banker and former RBS vice chair, Angus Grossart. Charlotte Street Partners includes key financial institutions among its clients. After “consultation” with these institutions, Wilson re-wrote the Growth Commission to advocate a pro-market vision for an independent Scotland.
Rise of the party bureaucracy
Why has the Sturgeon administration moved so far rightwards as to provide this level of state support for Scottish and global capitalism? In part, there is a political calculation by Sturgeon and her closest advisers such as Andrew Wilson and Angus Robertson, the former SNP Westminster leader who voted to bomb Libya, that a wing of the (tiny) Scottish bourgeoisie can be won to the independence cause, creating a cross-class alliance.
This calculation also underlies the party leadership’s totally uncritical devotion to the EU, an organisation that spent the last decade forcing a draconian austerity on the ordinary citizens of Greece and Spain, the better to save the German banks. (NB: This author was told by Nicola Sturgeon, when he suggested that calling for a Yes vote in the 2016 referendum had to be allied with a demand for EU democratic reform, that this would be a political diversion and “confuse the voters”!)
However, there is another factor behind the SNP’s shift to the right – the domination of the party and its apparatus by a new, conservative bureaucracy which acts in its own interests. The SNP began as a movement rather than a party, and for decades focused on mass campaigning. Since 1999, it has become almost entirely a parliamentary machine with its campaigning activities tied to elections.
Consider the make-up of the SNP’s Holyrood group of MSPs. The SNP won 63 seats in 2016 out of 129. Manual workers are conspicuous by their absence. Roughly a quarter of SNP MSPs come from a managerial, consulting or banking background. Classic middle-strata – lawyers, journalists, teachers, and medical staff – make up another quarter. As do those from local government, being full-time councillors, officials, or both. But a particular sign of the times: former party functionaries make up the final quarter of SNP MSPs.
From one perspective, the middle class composition of the current cohort of nationalist MSPs is no different from that of other political parties. Scottish Labour MSPs are no more proletarian: Neil Findlay is an ex-teacher while Alex Rowley and Richard Leonard were paid trades union bureaucrats. It is also the case – certainly for a nationalist party – that a middle class leadership is no barrier to radical action. Indeed, the early SNP leadership was quite Jacobin and anti-parliamentary in its approach. Douglas Young, while party chair during WWII, was jailed twice for his anti-war activities.
Again, the SNP ran an illegal, pirate radio station (Radio Free Scotland) from 1956 through to the early 1970s, using BBC frequencies. An estimated 13% of Scots listened to its thrice-weekly programmes, which included news, discussions and even music. Despite concerted action by the police and Post Office detector vans to close it down, RFS was sanctioned by the SNP National Council. Its head of programming was none other than Gordon Wilson, party leader between 1979 and 1990. Wilson was so proud of defying the British state that he published a book about Radio Free Scotland (he gave me a signed copy).
In 1981, the party conference voted by a large majority to launch a campaign of “political strikes and civil disobedience on a mass scale” against the Thatcher government. The campaign (dubbed “the Scottish Resistance”) was led by Jim Sillars, the SNP’s then Vice-Chair for Policy. On 16 October 1981, Sillars led a group of SNP activists breaking into the former Royal High School in Edinburgh, which had been converted to be home for the aborted Scottish Assembly. They intended to read out a declaration on what the Scottish Assembly would have done to counter Thatcherite policies. But Sillars was arrested and later fined.
Clearly something has altered to eliminate this ‘Jacobin’ tendency. One obvious explanation is the large number of paid staffers, administrators, and advisors who now dominate the party and provide an increasing number of its elected members and ministers. Thirteen years in Holyrood government – allied with control of most local authorities since proportional election was introduced – has created a bureaucratic layer inside the party with its own career and political interests separate from the membership.
This rapid bureaucratisation has been reinforced by the SNP’s spectacular victories at Westminster elections from 2015 on. The increase in the number of SNP MPs resulted in the party receiving a huge increase in so-called short money – the state subsidy to the bigger political parties to fund “research”. In 2017 the SNP received £825,589 in short money to hire staff. In addition, SNP MPs at Westminster are levied a significant annual sum from their salaries to supplement the employment of Westminster staff.
As a result of these developments, control has shifted demonstrably from the SNP rank and file membership to the party apparatus. Policy is made by special advisors and civil servants, not the party faithful – or, increasingly, elected members. The present writer, while an MP, once received a long, vituperative email from an advisor to a Holyrood minister, ticking me off for a newspaper column I had written on economic policy. I was told it was not my business!
On another occasion, the Westminster SNP media staff refused to issue my press release (as a member of the Treasury Select Committee and chair of the Fair Business Banking All-Party Group) criticising RBS for its attitude to small firms. I was told this was “not newsworthy” but the true reason was these apparatchiks were unwilling to criticise RBS management lest it seem the cautious SNP was anti-banker.
There now exists a career ladder from apparatus to elected post which aspiring SNP politicians are unwilling to jeopardise by being too radical. But is the SNP special in this regard? We could point to numerous examples of radical parties becoming bureaucratised and conservative in office, right back to the German SPD before the Great War. The significant point about the SNP is that it has gone from being a tiny movement with next to no elected members or membership to becoming the hegemonic party of government in Scotland in barely two decades. This has created a growing tension between the mass movement and the parliamentary apparatus – a tension that has led to talk of standing “movement” candidates separate from the party at the next Holyrood elections.
The SNP apparatus has unique features. Sturgeon holds untrammelled executive sway over both the party apparatus and the government machine, blurring responsibilities in a dangerous fashion. On a day-to-day basis, the party is run by Peter Murrell, who happens to be Sturgeon’s long-time partner and husband. Murrell has been SNP chief executive since 1999. Before that, he worked for Alex Salmond (though the two have long since ceased to be on speaking terms). The SNP keeps the amount of Murrell’s salary a secret, but media estimates put it at over £100,000 – much more than the £63,000 of an MSP.
The fact that the political and administrative control of the SNP are controlled by one couple has long since been a bone of contention inside the party, though criticism is rarely public. After 21 years in control, Murrell has effectively turned the party apparatus into a machine to support the First Minister personally. Party branches and candidates (at least those known to the present writer) are continuously critical of the lack of support they get from “head office”, especially since the membership increased dramatically in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum.
Murrell and the apparatus use their patronage ruthlessly. For instance, candidates seen as “unsound” are denied resources, particularly visits by the First Minister during election campaigns, which attract huge local media attention. On the other hand, candidates close to the FM are given major attention. Take Stephen Gethins, the former MP for East Fife. Gethins held the seat in 2017 by a microscopic two votes. His chances of winning in 2019 were equally marginal. But Gethins was a former Holyrood special advisor, a leadership loyalist being groomed for an eventual top job. So the FM turned up twice in East Fife while anti-establishment candidates like Kenny MacAskill got none (in a Labour marginal).
One might argue that all parties in bourgeois democracies behave this way. The point is that the SNP apparatus is using its entrenched power to protect an increasingly conservative status quo – a shift with no precedence in the party’s long history. For instance, the Westminster group has increasingly condoned the dramatic swing towards supporting NATO’s new Cold War in Europe, spearheaded by the party’s defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald. The latter takes great pride in having been awarded the Ukraine Order of Merit (third class).
The SNP leadership’s control is buttressed by the well-known unwillingness of the membership to display any sign of public disloyalty, lest it provide ammunition to the Unionist Tory press. Instead, activists tend to show their frustrations by dropping out of party work. Since the leadership cancelled the IndyRef2 campaign abruptly following the 2017 election reverses, many SNP activists have turned their efforts to reanimating autonomous Yes groups, usually in conjunction with independent nationalists and independence supporters.
In fact, had it not been for the efforts of the non-party, working class All Under One Banner (AUOB) group and their marches, the independence campaign would have been conspicuous by its invisibility. Yet the First Minister refused to attend or speak at any of the AUOB marches, even though these attracted sometimes tens of thousands of activists – a clear majority of the SNP membership. Even when AUOB offered the SNP leadership a veto over the other speakers, the FM stayed away or organised competing rallies. This is clear evidence of a split between a conservative party hierarchy and the mass movement.
The Split with Salmond
At the same time, another split (poisonous in the extreme) has appeared between former leader Alex Salmond and the current Sturgeon leadership. The roots of this split lie in accusations against Salmond of alleged sexual misconduct concerning very senior party officials, including attempted rape. Salmond was acquitted of these charges though he admitted to some inappropriate behaviour. There is a political side to this unseemly affair. Salmond sued the Scottish Government for mishandling the investigation into these sexual allegations and was awarded considerable damages. Salmond maintains that the party apparatus used the allegations to orchestrate a deliberate campaign to vilify him politically and block his return to elected office, lest he challenge the leadership.
The SNP leadership’s visceral opposition to Salmond has its roots in his time as party leader – and in his particular style of leadership. Alex Salmond is a genuine populist rather than a career parliamentarian. His politics were formed in the global left-wing upsurge of the 1970s – this writer first got to know him when Salmond was active in joint activity with the International Marxist Group. When Salmond seized the leadership of the SNP in the early 1990s, he made the party his personal fiefdom – a move that alienated Jim Sillars. Salmond used his undoubted charisma to re-energise the party’s grassroots. But he was also adept at balancing between the mass independence movement and parliamentary initiatives – a classic, bonapartist use of pressure from below to secure gains in the bourgeois political sphere.
Salmond always describes himself as a “social democrat” but ideologically he is something of a chameleon. In the 1970s he was viscerally opposed to membership of the Common Market but led the SNP’s later conversion to uncritical support for the EU. A near decade spent as a senior economist with RBS in the 1980s moved him to embrace a neoliberal stance in economics, though (as befits a political opportunist) he married this with dramatic feints to the left, such as his infamous denunciation of the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. In 2007, on the eve of the RBS collapse, Salmond reassured The Times: “We are pledging a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector with its outstanding reputation for probity”.
For two decades, Salmond’s textbook neoliberal plan for an independent Scotland involved copying Irish corporate tax cuts while ignoring Ireland’s notoriously limited welfare system. In 2003 Salmond gave an important series of lectures outlining in detail how this tax nirvana would work: “So having won financial independence, what should Scotland do with it?… Art Laffer’s famous curve is alive and well… for small countries, low business taxation to secure a competitive edge”. This promise of a low-tax Scotland attracted major business donors to the party in the shape of Tom Farmer and Brian Souter – a key factor in the SNP’s Holyrood breakthrough campaign in 2007. However, since the global Bank Crash and EU-induced austerity in Ireland, Salmond has been noticeably silent on tax matters.
The SNP leadership feels threatened by Salmond’s populist and personalised style of politics lest it undermines their plan for an alliance with the conservative (and politically skittish) upper middle classes and capitalists in Scotland. For his part, Salmond views the current SNP leadership as pusillanimous in the face of a likely rebuff from the Boris Johnson government over granting a second referendum. Salmond knows that the British state only responds to pressure. It seems unlikely that Salmond plans a return to the leadership role, though some see him as the ideal figure to lead a new, non-party umbrella body to lead the independence campaign. Instead Salmond is backing Edinburgh SNP MP Joanna Cherry to challenge Sturgeon or, more likely, whoever is the apparatus candidate when the First Minister quits.
The central question arising from this analysis is how do we build a new, effective leadership for the Scottish working class and the independence movement? One that is prepared to confront neoliberalism and its hold over the Scottish economy, head on. One that, unlike the present SNP apparatus, is opposed to the further integration of Scotland into an exploitative global order which is killing the planet. We will explore this in a later article.
Image: Scottish Government