The Scottish Government wants to present itself as a reliable partner to the big powers at COP26. But, argues George Kerevan, industrial unrest at home threatens the SNP’s triangulation strategy.
Slowly, haltingly, but surely, there are signs that the Scottish working class is starting to flex its muscles independently of the parliamentary parties. A raft of Scottish trades unions have used the COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow as leverage to force the SNP-Green government, the nationalist-led Glasgow City Council, and Cosla local authority bosses, to grant major pay concessions. This militancy has also spread to private sector workers.
Initially it looked like strikes could bring the city to a halt. RMT, the main rail union, planned a “total shutdown” during COP26. Meanwhile, 1,500 refuse workers, school cleaners and cooks who work for the SNP-led Glasgow City Council were balloted to join the rail workers in industrial action. Their union, the GMB, is calling for a £2,000 pay rise for low-paid staff. Meanwhile bus workers are also becoming militant. 600 Unite members in Fife and Perth have rejected the latest miserly pay offer from Stagecoach, which amounted to 2.4% – UK inflation is now running at 4% and rising.
The threat of strikes was effective, with rail workers and others being offered deals. But industrial action by refuse workers has begun, creating the nightmarish prospect for the SNP leadership of rubbish piling up in the streets during COP26.
Over 120 world (but mostly Western) leaders will attend the COP26 meeting, from 31 October to 12 November. This has given SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon an unparalleled opportunity to grandstand as an alleged ‘global leader’ – to the chagrin of the Tory administration in London. Theoretically, seizing the opportunity of COP26 to prosecute Scotland’s case for independence is a good idea. But Sturgeon’s method for winning international recognition for Scotland’s right to self-determination is premised on presenting her government as a solid proponent of Western neoliberalism, of Nato’s new Cold War against China and Russia, and of Biden’s project to use COP26 as a launch pad for the take-over of the climate change agenda by US capitalism in search of new investment opportunities. The last thing Sturgeon wants to see is trade unions spoiling the party.
Sturgeon aims to present Scotland as the ideal client state – a more reliable ally for the US, Nato and the EU than Boris Johnson’s erratic administration (remember Boris’ love affair with Trump). Recently she travelled to Iceland where she gave a speech to the Arctic Circle Assembly spelling out a vision of an independent Scotland collaborating closely with its Scandinavian and Nordic neighbours on climate change and (hint hint) defence matters. Any whiff of internal Scottish dissent or unrest during COP26 – when the world’s eyes are on Scotland – would undermine Sturgeon’s image as someone who can deliver for the neoliberal world order.
Which, of course, is exactly why the trades unions are using COP26 as a lever to extract concessions from the SNP-Green government – an administration that has failed consistently, despite its pro-union rhetoric, to defend standards of living or challenge the predations of international capital, for which the Scottish economy really functions. For example, Sturgeon recently opened the new Barclays HQ in Glasgow claiming it was “a good example of sustainable redevelopment and a real showcase of Scottish excellence in financial services”. Barclays has nothing to do with excellence, Scottish or otherwise. It is a predatory corporate monster that has incurred some $6bn in fines since 2000, for interest rate manipulation, money laundering and securities abuse. Since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, Barclays has facilitated $95bn in loans for new oil, gas, coal and nuclear power stations.
The putative Scottish strikes are, of course, modest in numbers. Their political importance lies in a new willingness of sections of organised labour to confront the SNP government. This suggests a shift in mood among working class Scots, who vote in their majority for pro-independence parties. The SNP’s more vocal clique may see the hand of London-based, anti-independence unions seeking to undermine the SNP. But the RMT, for instance, recommended its members vote Yes in the 2014 independence referendum.
THE MAY HOLYROOD ELECTION
The May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections saw the SNP win 64 seats out of 129 – one shy of an overall majority but one more than it won in 2016. That is quite spectacular given the SNP has been in power at Holyrood since 2007. More interesting still, the SNP’s share of the vote rose by 1.2 points to 47.7%. The Tories won the 2019 UK general election with 43.6%.
How do we explain this powerful, hegemonic performance? One part of the answer is Brexit. Scotland voted 62% in favour of remaining in the EU. Many of those pro-EU voters – especially from the professional middle classes – had supported remaining in the UK in 2014, because they believed independence would take Scotland out of Europe. Precisely the opposite happened. Those people have now switched to voting SNP as a pro-Europe gesture, dovetailing with Sturgeon’s shift to a globalist, ultra-EU stance. Edinburgh in 2014 was the main opposition to independence. But at the 2021 Holyrood election, the combined SNP-Green vote in Edinburgh and Lothians was 48.6%. Assuming some Labour voters were also pro-indy, there is now a majority for independence in the capital – thanks primarily to Brexit.
But Brexit alone does not explain the fact that turnout in May 2021 was its highest ever for a Scottish Parliament election – 63.2%. Most commentators were expecting a fall in turnout, as a result of the pandemic and the fact the SNP had been in power so long. In fact, in raw numbers, the SNP vote increased by around 250,000 between the 2016 and 2021 elections. This suggests that working class voters – those most likely to abstain – came to the polls in large numbers.
There is a seeming contradiction here. As we have noted, there are deep rumblings of discontent in the Scottish working class, expressed in the current strikes and in popular campaigns against local authority cuts (Glasgow) and private landlordism (Edinburgh). The SNP government and SNP local authorities in Glasgow and Edinburgh are the ultimate cause of much of this discontent, even if Sturgeon (a smooth communicator) has been able to deflect a lot of the blame until now. Why, then, was there a big working class vote for the SNP in May after Sturgeon had tacked rightwards to embrace the pro-EU middle classes?
Here we must grasp the essential reality that the working class is politically pragmatic. Faced with renewed attacks on welfare, public services and wages from the Boris Johnson cabal in London, the Scottish working class opted to vote for Sturgeon as the only practical way of defending themselves at a political-state level, in the absence of any effective mass party of the left. After all, Sturgeon and her close ally Angus Robertson (now an MSP) were busily reiterating that there would be a second independence referendum by the end of 2021. The unexpected increased working class vote for the SNP was also a sign the class was getting ready to defend itself, as are strike threats of industrial action during COP26.
Another major development since the May election is the formation of an SNP-Green coalition. This is clearly designed to give Sturgeon a left cover to face down internal opposition such as she is now facing from the trades unions. But what do the Greens get out of it?
In 2020, a faction fight in the pro-independence Scottish Greens saw long-time Holyrood supremo Patrick Harvie oust left-winger Maggie Chapman from the co-convenorship and replace her with the technocratic Lorna Slater. This was soon followed by the hounding from the party of Andy Wightman MSP in December 2020 and his subsequent ouster from Holyrood at the ensuing elections. Wightman is Scotland’s most active and best-know campaigner on land ownership – a pivotal issue given the incursions of billionaire oligarchs and foreign agribusiness into rural Scotland. However, Wightman’s independent spirit marked him out as too dangerous for Harvie and his youthful acolytes to tolerate.
These bureaucratic moves paved the way for Harvie and Slater to enter a coalition arrangement with Sturgeon’s SNP in August 2021. Harvie and Slater were rewarded with minor ministerial posts but the chance to grandstand at COP26. The decision by Harvie to enter a coalition with Sturgeon (camouflaged as a “cooperation agreement”) represents a significant evolution of the Scottish Greens towards mainstream, bourgeois politics. The same evolution is taking place in Germany with the possible formation of an SPD-Green-Free Democrat government. In both cases, the Greens provide a left cover for an essentially neoliberal agenda.
The real question is how the SNP-Green deal impacts on young voters and left nationalists, who traditionally have seen voting Green as an alternative to supporting the SNP. Counter-intuitively, the immediate result of the coalition deal has been a sharp rise in the polls for the Scottish Greens. This probably represents the mood among younger voters who feel that having Harvie and Slater inside the Scottish Government will push Sturgeon to the left.
However, the reality is completely different, with the Green ministers tacking rightwards. For instance, Harvie and Slater have rejected calls to demand that Sturgeon blocks the development of the giant new Cambo oil field, west of Shetland. The SNP position on Cambo is merely to demand that Westminster ‘reviews’ the granting of a license to exploit the new oil field – a piece of fence-sitting for which Sturgeon deserves an award. But the Greens have gone further, not just letting Sturgeon off the political hook but giving her public cover. Lorna Slater popped up to say she and Harvie would not raise the Cambo issue with SNP ministers because oil was a matter reserved to Westminster – so “our hands are tied.”
The apostasy of the Scottish Greens is due to the immense pressures now being exerted on Scotland by global capitalism. The Scottish economy is based on raw material and energy extraction controlled from without. The energy monopolies which have bled Scotland dry are now posing as the saviours of the planet by marketising public investment in anti-climate change activities. That goal is essentially what the Glasgow COP26 summit meeting is designed to legitimise – with President Biden officiating on behalf of US finance capital, Big Energy and High Tech. The authoritative International Energy Agency estimates that it will require $4 trillion a year invested in clean energy and infrastructure to keep climate change to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Translated that equals $4 trillion per annum of new markets for the energy monopolies and a vast new opportunity to make profits.
Here is the historic mission of Harvie and the tiny middle class clique he represents. In return for practically no policy concessions from Surgeon, plus a ministerial title, he will parade at COP26 as one the leaders of the fight against climate change. The reality is that he will give cover at the Glasgow climate summit not just to Sturgeon but to the whole sham event – making it easier for Biden and US capitalism to capture the climate change agenda wholesale. Thus, Harvie and the supposed environmental cause he represents will earn their footnote in the history books, in service of powerful capitalist interests.
Sturgeon’s shift rightwards has been one factor in causing a major organic split in the SNP, resulting in the emergence of the Alba Party in March, just before the Holyrood election. Alba’s emergence has several causes, including the fallout from the grave allegations regarding the sexual conduct of Alba’s leader, former First Minister Alex Salmond. These allegations led to a very public split with Sturgeon, Salmond’s erstwhile political protégé; to a botched Scottish Government inquiry into Salmond’s alleged behaviour (leading to a court case which Salmond won); and to Salmond’s prosecution and subsequent acquittal on attempted rape and sexual assault charges.
Salmond accused the SNP leadership of using these allegations as part of a deliberate campaign to force him out of frontline politics – with the increasingly vocal implication that he might otherwise have used his standing in the party to oppose Sturgeon’s move to the right, and away from a challenge for independence. Others see this as a smokescreen created by Salmond.
Alba is essentially a split from the SNP, attracting large numbers of the party’s local branch cadres. Alba now has over 6,000 members which is roughly the size of the SNP in the early 2000s.
What is the class composition and political direction of Alba? New parties are always difficult to define because they are untested by events. On the one hand, Salmond has recruited people like Jim Walker, a former stockbroker in Hong Kong, later Chief Economist at Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia, and latterly a leading strategist for the global fund management industry investing in China. Walker has returned to Scotland and stood as an Alba candidate in the May Holyrood elections. It would be hard to find a more sophisticated exponent of neoliberalism.
On the other had, Alba also recruited activists from the left of the SNP, including much of its Common Weal and SNP Socialists groupings, and a milieu of pro-independence socialist from outside the SNP. Alba also drew in leading members of All Under One Banner (AUOB), who were the main organisers of all the big independence marches since 2017.
Of course, the involvement of these progressive forces does not ensure Alba will develop as a consistent left opposition to the SNP. For starters, Salmond and his close aides are maintaining close control of the Alba machine to the point of excluding anti-Nato motions from the agenda of the inaugural conference. Against this, the party’s conference also pitched to the left of the SNP, including with the adoption of a pro-republic position.
Alba’s ultimate ability to influence Scottish politics comes down to its strategy for intervening practically in the class and national struggles. Here the balance sheet is dangerously thin. Salmond and the new, untested Alba leadership are set on replicating the SNP’s model of electoral politics. A preoccupation with electoral politics – particularly when the SNP remain so hegemonic in this field – over addressing the mounting class and social movement pressures in the country, could well see Alba hemmed-in.
What of the other left formations inside the nationalist camp? The old Scottish Socialist Party is a pale shadow of its former self, an empty political shell surviving on legacy standing orders. The new Socialists for Independence, led by veteran campaigner and former MSP Francis Curran, is a cross party group that wants to act as a conveyer belt between the old nationalist left and newly radicalised forces coming into politics under the pressure of the class struggle. SFI is a laudable venture, any success depends on its ability to intervene among new social layers without lapsing into propagandism.
But what new layers? The huge numbers of pro-indy activists who turned out for All Under One Banner demos pre-Covid have yet to return to the streets. The rightward drift of the SNP leadership, plus Sturgeon’s obvious reluctance to confront the Tories openly rather than rhetorically, has split the movement. The result is a certain degree of demoralisation. The recent AUOB march in Edinburgh attracted only around 1500 people (my head count). Attempts at reforging grassroots unity across the movement via the Now Scotland organisation have yet to bear fruit.
Meanwhile, having secured an election victory in May, and incorporated the Greens as a left cover, Sturgeon is free to pursue her vision of turning the SNP into the supplicant, supine agent of neoliberalism. SNP manifesto promises made in May have already bitten the political dust, having served their purpose of attracting gullible votes. The headline proposal to create a national care service has already been artfully sabotaged. Of all people, Sturgeon has hired PWC – the London City accountants, serial infringers of protective financial regulations, and agent of privatised medicine – to draw up the operational blueprint for the care service. That should ensure the project does not harm the private sector care industry.
Which brings us back to the crucial question: where will any new class struggle forces emerge from to challenge the SNP leadership’s political hegemony? Clearly there is movement in the public sector and transport unions, focused on pay. Such pay struggles are likely to expand and intensify if energy-inflation and welfare cuts continue, as seems likely. The strategic question will be how to generalise such economic struggles and turn them into an assault on the state. This means linking economic demands with a call for self-determination.
This is not as fanciful as it seems. The unique factor in politics in Scotland (compared with the rest of Europe) is that the majority of the working class wants to break with the existing (British) state and build new state institutions dedicated to popular interests. Of course, this project is currently held hostage by the SNP leadership’s liberal agenda and bourgeois electoralism. Sturgeon and her right-wing cronies (Angus Robertson, Alyn Smith, Stuart McDonald etc) will do anything to divert economic, climate and social struggles from the streets into safe electoral channels where they can be suffocated.
The lesson here is that the pro-independence left has to push forward all those current economic, climate and social struggles for immediate demands, and at the same time couple them with pressure on the Scottish government to use its current (if limited) powers to support these actions. At the same time, calls for a second (unilateral if necessary) independence referendum have to be put in the context of gaining freedom from the pro-capitalist British state, precisely in order to raise wages, defend the NHS, and tackle climate change. That strategy in turn opens a discussion on what a new state would look like – with the emphasis on popular democracy and economic sovereignty. Putting economic, climate and social campaigns in the context of self-determination also allows for a unification of these struggles, transforming sectoral actions into an assault on the state itself.
Ultimate success in this struggle depends on displacing the SNP leadership from its hegemonic position at the head of the independence movement. A two-stage approach – first let Sturgeon win independence, then battle for socialism – will not suffice. Unless under extreme pressure from below, Sturgeon will never risk a break with her middle class and big-business clientele and so never contemplate unilateral action to secure independence from an unwilling Tory government. The fight for independence therefore means challenging the Sturgeon leadership of the movement directly. First stop: the new wave of industrial struggles must succeed in imposing its will on the Scottish government.