Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

How SNP Sold Scotland to Corporate Profiteers

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Jonathon Shafi maps the influence of the corporate lobby in the governance of Scotland. The whole elaborate picture makes for a disturbing read.

This article is reposted from the regular newsletter Independence Captured.

As a socialist operating in Scotland, it is not an easy job to build and popularise a critical perspective of the Scottish governing class and the SNP. Often this is for understandable reasons, given the frustrations of the era are largely channelled through the UK Government.

When it comes to the SNP leadership, the true nature of how they govern is subordinate to what has proven to be a well managed public relations campaign, feeding off Westminster malfeasance.

This week, we take an in-depth look at the relationship between the SNP leadership and the corporate lobby, which comes at the expense of the party membership, democracy and the interests of the working class.

Corporate capture

The “corporate capture” of politics is nothing new. The same could be said when Scottish Labour were in power. The SNP led administrations which followed also inculcated the corporate lobby. This, after all, is part of the rationale behind any bourgeoise democracy. The process takes place at the level of the nation state, and is rescaled to the transnational dimension through the institutions that manage international capitalism, such as the European Union, the World Trade Organisation and so on. Democratic challenges to the system mainly come from below through trade unions, social movementsindigenous peoples campaigns and so on.

In this vein, the major defeats experienced by the workers movement were a prerequisite for neoliberalism to triumph. The Scottish context shares in those defeats. My view is that the largest expression of working class agency in Scotland in recent decades, as a result, has not come through mass strike action, but through a national political confrontation based on the possibilities of sovereignty. In short, the independence movement.

The SNP leadership have played a central role in disciplining that movement, at the same time as strengthening the influence and reach of the corporate lobby over government. I argue this has excelled and accelerated under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon like no other government since devolution.

In part this is simply because machine politicians tend to fall back onto prevailing orthodoxies, rather than providing a challenge to them. It is about retaining power, for the sake of power. That could be said not just for the First Minister, but the coterie of ministers and MSPs who are largely sycophantic to a leadership model based on the centralisation of power around the party leader and Chief Executive. But another process, much more strategic, also took place after 2014.

The SNP leadership had to ensure that the mass working class movement that arose during the independence campaign could be managed, lest it make demands too radical of them. Control had to be exerted, aided by the context of the 2014 defeat which bred a high degree of organic passivity towards the SNP leadership. The movement had to be exploited for votes, funds, and activism – but it should never have any political clout over the direction of the party.

So, when in 2016 Tommy Sheppard stood to become Deputy Leader on a platform of integrating the 100,000 new members into a revamped campaigning organisation, this had to be resisted. Angus Robertson, widely tipped as a future leader of the party, and the choice of the leadership, won the contest.

I spoke to a conference delegate after Robertson’s victory had been announced. He said that while he agreed with Sheppard’s proposals, he felt that the media would have a field day if “disloyalty” to the leadership were to emerge. That would be a dynamic that would serve SNP leaders well, until quite recently. Of course, as soon as he was elected, all pretence of empowering the new membership was dropped. Instead they would be drip-fed initiatives to keep things on the boil.

The conference transformed into an entirely stage managed event. As one SNP special advisor told the Financial Times during the 2015 October conference, “we don’t really do policy,” noting that the biggest announcement in John Swinney’s speech was a “copy” of George Osborne’s conference pledge on business rates.

But more than that, it became a beacon for the corporate sector, while the grassroots organisations of the independence movement were carved out. In 2016, a row opened about the rising cost of stall spaces and fringes. Charities and independence groups were priced out. Think tanks and campaigns were quoted more than £5000 for a small stall, and £2000 for meeting space. No exceptions were made for key independence organisations or progressive causes.

At the time, Lesley Riddoch said:

“Screening out community groups that are taking the brunt of key issues is a pretty poor move by the SNP.”

This was a process that would only intensify. Votes would come and go, without action being taken to implement them if they veered even slightly outside the parameters set by the corporate lobby. This, in combination with a very poorly structured local democracy, would come to erode the Scottish landscape of any real grit and popular engagement, turning politics into a media managed spectacle.

Even where debates did arise, the SNP hierarchy would mobilise well worn bureaucratic measures to shut them down. A far cry from the outstanding debate on NATO in 2012. Controversial proposals, such as the Growth Commission, were put forward as one document, in one motion, meaning opponents had to cherry pick items to oppose. I know first hand, having been an organiser of the Common Weal campaign set up to oppose Sterlingisation.

Now, the SNP Trade Union Group can’t even get a motion raising debates about how devolved tax powers could be used during the cost of living crisis onto the agenda.

Scotland for sale

In years gone by lots of stories about the relationship between the SNP and corporate lobbyists have circulated. But it is only when you put it all together you get a real sense of just how deep the process runs. By laying out a series of examples, we begin to see the unity between the SNP leadership and the corporate establishment, importantly, at the expense of workers and their communities.

At present, Scotland has a lobbying register. Fought for by a range of democracy organisations, the idea is to generate transparency between lobbyists and politicians by ensuring that such interactions are placed on the public record. The system, however, contains all kinds of loopholes. For example, say you were a lobbyist for Shell and wanted a conversation with a government minister, without it being recorded. You could simply use the phone, and since it is not an in person meeting, it won’t be registered.

In 2020 alone, hundreds of meetings between multinational corporations and wealthy individuals took place with Scottish Government ministers. In a wide-ranging investigation conducted by The Ferret, the following was reported:

“Analysis of Scottish Government ministers’ engagements in 2020 shows that meetings, potentially of key public interest, were not in the register, including those between ministers and companies awarded multi-million pound UK and Scottish contracts to supply the NHS in the run-up to Covid-19.

“As these meetings took place by phone they did not fall under regulated lobbying rules, an exemption which means they don’t need to appear on the lobbying register. Others in this category included meetings between ministers and the billionaire steel tycoon behind GFG Alliance, Sanjeev Gupta.”

Sanjeev Gupta, as it happens, has paid just £5 (five pounds) towards the acquisition of a Highlands smelting plant – with taxpayers financing the rest of the £330 million deal. The research also found that:

“…engagements with big business, including energy companies and renewables chasing Scotland’s booming renewables sector, dominated the diaries of several ministers.”

Let’s just think about this. The First Minister announces a National Energy Company in 2017. Nothing happens. Then, in 2021, SNP members want to raise the issue again to add some urgency to the plan. They vote overwhelmingly for the policy at their conference. Again, nothing happens. At the same time government ministers were having meetings, outside of the public record, with big businesses seeking to cash in on Scotland’s renewables industry.

Before we know it, the Scottish Government launches a “green investment portfolio” worth £3 Billion of Scottish green assets. This package, a substantial component of Scotland’s economic future, is to be bought up by private and foreign capital. As we know, ScotWind has already seen large tracts of renewable wind energy sold, cheaply, to the likes of British Petroleum. Meanwhile, Scotland’s six offshore wind farms have paid a derisory £150,000 to nearby communities in the last 12 months.

This, of course, is packaged as a boon not for the multinationals, but the environment. The Scottish Government are fond of greenwashing their big business partners. Indeed they extend use of the word “green” as a passport to advancing the interests of the corporate lobby in a range of settings. We see this through, for example, the Scottish Government’s embrace of freeports, rebadged as “green freeports”, but serving precisely the same function.

“Freeports” are bound up with the Tory incarnation of Brexit. The are special zones that, as the TUC report, “sit outside the UK’s main tax and tariff rules, with lower regulations to attract investment and business.” This means that once again the dice are loaded in favour of big business and against workers and local communities. They are also loaded against SNP conference decisions which are effectively superfluous to events, as the SNP Trade Union Group noted in relation to the “green freeports.”

While the behind the scenes lobbying runs like a well oiled machine, there are occasions when the Scottish Government will be very upfront about whose interests they are loyal to. Naturally, the Growth Commission, the George Osborne variant of “independence,” was brought together by Scotland’s premier corporate lobbying firm, Charlotte Street Partners, while the trade unions were excluded.

Charlotte Street Partners acts as a central cog between the leadership of the SNP and the array of business clients represented by the firm. It worked behind the scenes with IHSL “the controversial private consortium set up to fund, build and run” the disastrous £150 million Edinburgh Sick Kids Hospital.

The “Economic Recovery Group” set up during the pandemic, was led by the former CEO of Tesco bank, Benny Higgins, who is now Chairman of the estate of Scotland’s largest feudal landowner, the Duke of Buccleuch.

The council to advise on a ten year plan for Scotland to “unleash entrepreneurial potential and grow Scotland’s competitive business base,” included Sir Nick Macpherson, a former Treasury permanent secretary who advised George Osborne to reject a currency union during the 2014 referendum campaign.

The hotchpotch of word salad this apparently chaotic group arrived at, known as “Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation” has so far produced a couple of events which the press were excluded from, and the formation of a new post known as Scotland’s “Chief Entrepreneur” who is to be paid a salary of £192,000 for working just 8 days a month.

Outsource everything

Outsource everything. This must be the internal slogan for how the Scottish Government manages big projects, even when they are supposed to be major public infrastructure developments. Some weeks ago we looked at the question of CalMac after information circulated about an impending privatisation plan. The First Minister denied the story, but closer inspection informs us that the proposed redesign has already been influenced by the corporate lobby:

“Ernst and Young were asked by Ministers to conduct an in-depth examination of the government structure which runs Scotland’s ferry service under a brief titled “Project Neptune”. The government agreed contracts worth £560,000 with Ernst and Young to carry out the work. That’s over half a million from the public purse into the bank account of a private firm with an ideological and economic preference towards privatisation.”

Then we can come to the so-called National Care Service (NCS). The design for this has been contracted to multinational consultancy firms PriceWaterhouseCoopers and KPMG. Incidentally, KPMG have recently been fined £18.4m for deliberately misleading regulators. In addition, “four of its senior staff have been banned from the accountancy profession, over the firm’s botched audits of collapsed outsourcing company Carillion.”

As Lilian Macer, convener of Unison Scotland, said of the NCS contracts:

“PriceWaterhouseCoopers and KPMG have a track record of promoting private health and social care, this is not what most people in Scotland want. Care should be delivered in and for the community. It is a public service not a commodity. Big private equity firms have led us to the tragically dysfunctional care system we have now.”

The gap between rhetoric and reality is also on show in relation to the Scottish National Investment Bank (SNIB). What should be a “bank for the people” set up to make strategic investments for the common good, appears to have morphed into yet another avenue for corporate Scotland to capitalise on.

For instance, tourism technology business Travelnest Ltd has received an initial £3 million in funding from the SNIB. The company specialises in providing infrastructure for holiday home owners to list and manage their properties. It turns out that the bank, rather than acting as a countermeasure to the failures of the market, is nothing of the sort.

Take a look at some of the corporate networks involved:

All of this fits neatly into the system of patronage set up around the leadership of the Scottish Government sprawling beyond the corporate sector and into wider parts of public life.

Thus, the Chair of the Economic Recovery Group, is also the Chair of Buccleuch Estates and is also Chair of the National Galleries of Scotland board, alongside Andrew Wilson of Charlotte Street Partners who is also the author of the Growth Commission, alongside Willie Watt who is also the inaugural chair of the Scottish National Investment bank.

The First Minister is perfectly positioned in this context. Outwardly progressive, inwardly focussed on delivering for the corporate lobby. Outwardly appealing, internally dictatorial. In the world of the Scottish establishment the interests and concerns of the schemes which mobilised in 2014, and who then went on to deliver the SNP their political hegemony, are not on the agenda.

Parallels with New Labour are drawn. But this is only partially accurate. What New Labour didn’t have at their disposal was the national question to provide an extra, strongly felt and widely held, issue to triangulate around. This is why independence is an important part of the SNP formula, so long as it is never fully realised, and so long as the “campaigning” is run through political elites.

The working class

The First Minister poses, with a great deal of success, as a woman of the people. But this doesn’t stand up to any real scrutiny. Sure, throw a few bungs towards Scotland’s impoverished communities. But with all of the power at her disposal, no real reform has taken place in favour of the working class. Even tinkering with the various devolved tax powers is out of bounds. Indeed, it isn’t even allowed to be discussed. And don’t mention a rent freeze.

While the corporate lobby exercises a hundred times more power and influence than the SNP membership, the party hierarchy also comes down hard whenever the working class start to mobilise in their own interests. They have shown they are willing to utilise Tory anti-trade union laws against striking cleansing workers in Glasgow.

Indeed, Susan Aitken, who wins the award for reintroducing the word “ned” into public discourse, is driving an agenda in Scotland’s largest “Yes” city based on a programme of massive privatisation. If John Swinney really did cut and paste Osborne’s business rate proposals for his conference speech in 2015, then Susan Aitken is a dead ringer for David Cameron.

In true “Big Society” fashion, the citizens of Glasgow are asked to do their own community cleaning in an initiative co-sponsored by McDonalds, who were given the green light for a new drive through in Toryglen despite concerns raised by local residents who fear the impact it will have on children’s health and traffic. At the same time, the SNP led City Council has spent £10 million on private cleansing contractors in recent years.

As GMB union organiser Sean Baillie reflected:

“It beggars belief they are lining the pockets of private contractors with millions of pounds of public money while the city’s waste crisis keeps growing. It would be far better if these monies were redistributed properly by investing in more full-time staff and better resources to help make our communities cleaner and greener.”

These processes, local and national, are furnished with a “quango class” composed of “influential bankers, retired senior civil servants, well-connected industry insiders, powerful chief executives and former politicians.”

As the cost of living crisis takes hold, Nicola Sturgeon is putting the focus on Westminster. But there is a hypocrisy here. Because the SNP are gearing up to take on the public sector unions as their own Spending Review commits to a plan that will cut around 30,000 jobs. At the same time, their strategy for independence amounts to box ticking.

In the end, the votes, money, activism and support for the SNP, drawn primarily from Scotland’s working class, has been funnelled directly into sustaining the architecture of the Scottish establishment.

That is the real role of the SNP leadership.

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