The wrong question – John Foster on the SNP ‘conversation’ on independence
Thu 23 Aug 2007
JOHN FOSTER on why the SNP ‘conversation’ on independence conceals the issues facing Scotland
“I AM all for a Scottish parliament,” then Scottish Trades Union Congress general secretary Jimmy Jack told the first Scottish Assembly in 1972.
After a significant pause, he added: “Because – wait for it – there is not the slightest shadow of doubt that it will be a workers’ parliament.”
Edinburgh’s Usher Hall echoed with the applause from the hundreds of trade union and shop stewards representatives and local councillors drawn from across Scotland.
The representatives of the business community from chambers of commerce and the Scottish CBI tried not to look abashed.
They were present in order not to be seen to be absent, but they had nothing to say. They could not figure out how a Scottish parliament could be made to work for them. They feared democracy, as big business always does when the working class is mobilised.
Today, the situation is almost reversed. Big business has got the Scottish Parliament figured. It knows exactly what it wants. It is the labour movement that seems adrift.
This is the backdrop, a potentially dangerous one, to the “conversation” that was launched last week by Scotland’s SNP government in its discussion document entitled Choosing Scotland’s Future. This sets out three options.
The first is that the powers of the Scottish Parliament should continue to evolve within the terms of the existing Scotland Act. This permits new responsibilities to be added by mutual agreement between Westminster and Holyrood. Control over railways and railway franchising in Scotland was added in this way in 2004.
The second option is that devolution should be structurally extended, including, if desired, fully fledged federalism. This would involve a new constitutional settlement granting the Scottish Parliament radically new powers over areas such as taxation, economic policy, trade, welfare, pensions, energy and broadcasting.
The third option is the SNP one – independence. Scotland’s parliament would have full sovereign power and the Act of Union would be repealed.
The “conversation” seeks to engage all sections of Scottish society in discussion over these options. It does so in order to frame the terms for a new referendum in line with the SNP election pledge. The SNP government’s preferred date seems to be 2010.
Since taking office, the SNP leaders have shown themselves to be masters of tactical manoeuvre.
By taking stands on class sizes, nuclear power, Trident, bridge tolls and NHS privatisation, they have consistently thrown Labour onto the back foot.
They have done so again on the referendum. The original SNP commitment was simply to hold a referendum on independence. With support currently fluctuating between 22 and 32 per cent, it was very likely to lose.
By adding a third option, it has both shown “flexibility” and thrown the other political parties into disarray. The Liberal Democrats are inclined to go for the second option, Labour and the Conservatives for the first.
But none of them has any strongly developed rationale. The “conversation” has started and the SNP have already begun to lob in issues that are creating their own bandwagons of local interests. Broadcasting is the most recent.
The other parties are in a quandary. The magician’s box is open. Do they deny everything and enter two years of negative campaigning? Or do they get drawn onto a territory full of booby traps laid by the SNP?
Viewed through the eyes of political commentators, there is little doubt as to who is winning.
SNP First Minister Alex Salmond is portrayed as reasonable, moderate and flexible yet also a man of principle. Labour ex-first minister Jack McConnell’s image was negative and wooden – a puppet tied to the agenda of new Labour in Westminster. His replacement Wendy Alexander will find it difficult to do better.
As played out in the editorial columns of the Herald and Scotsman, this game of political snakes and ladders is mesmerising the Scottish public.
But, in reality, this is what it is. A game. It hides the class issues. Labour’s problem is that its current denial of these issues means that it cannot break the spell.
Put bluntly, the SNP parliament will be a parliament for big business.
The subtitle of Choosing Scotland’s Future is Independence with Responsibility in the Modern World. The SNP-favoured option three is for “independence in the European Union.” And, with quaint sentimentality, the 1603 union of the crowns will also be preserved so that the Queen can continue to reign in Scotland as in England.
The SNP has so far issued no statement on the EU reform treaty. It calls for a referendum on Scotland’s future. But it has no current position on a whether a referendum should be held on a constitutional change of much greater magnitude in terms of the rights of working people.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is demanding a referendum. In the Irish Republic, it is campaigning for a No vote on the grounds that the reform treaty will further compromise Ireland’s economic sovereignty and, in particular, the ability of its parliament to place any limits on the power of big business.
So far, the SNP has been silent on the whole issue. As, of course, has the Labour Party in Scotland.
But the big business agenda is clear. It wants the reform treaty to copper-fasten the ability of the EU to pursue neoliberal, big business policies without interference from national parliaments – particularly in the coming years, as it seeks to impose “flexicurity” on the labour market.
But it also wants to be able to manipulate national parliaments in a competitive race to the bottom and reduce the remaining safeguards for labour.
Who can promise the lowest corporation tax? Or the “lightest touch” in terms of business regulation? Or the lowest infrastructure costs in terms of social services – and the most scope for private operators?
The SNP-favoured independent sovereign Scottish Parliament would have no power to decide trade policy or interest rates.
It could not even interfere with Hyster moving its plant from Irvine to Northern Ireland. To do so would be to interfere with that abstraction beloved of all monopolists – the free market.
But the SNP has already promised that an independent Scottish Parliament would use its power to lower corporation tax. Its discussion document raises the prospect of “lighter” corporate regulation and that fiscal autonomy would “make Holyrood more accountable.”
In 1972, “Scottish business” was, in fact, largely owned and based in Scotland. Today, almost all the big companies and finance houses are controlled by institutional shareholders based in London or New York. Their interests are increasingly short term. They look for safe, high-profit niches in privatised provision with public subsidy. Merger, buy-out and asset stripping are their quickest ways of turning a profit.
These are the people who control Scotland’s resources and, by and large, its press and media as well. They will also be predominant in the new Scotland unless the trade union and labour movement mobilises itself to pose the class alternative.
Back in 1972, the power of the demand for a Scottish Parliament was that it could take on the unaccountable power of big business and provide a public-sector alternative.
Then, the anger of a Mick McGahey could shake the Usher Hall.
The ability of faceless men to decimate communities. The irresponsibility of private capital. Is it different today? Who will say it?
Only when they do will the “great conversation” become real and the spell of the SNP be broken.