Scottish National Party


By Frank Noakes

PERTH — No longer on the fringes of Scottish politics the Scottish National Party, is projecting itself as a party preparing for government. The SNP is a party that takes its task and itself seriously, and is gaining in influence and reputation.

Nationalism here is more than a peripheral issue: In April, Scots voted overwhelmingly for parties supporting, in one form or another, greater sovereignty. Some 22%, or 630,000, voted for the SNP and independence. Since April the SNP has further increased its ratings in the opinion polls.

The SNP are a progressive party, standing well to the left of the Labour Party on all issues. The image of burly kilted Scotsmen clutching claymores is false to the core. Women were well represented; workers outnumbered students, but many young people participated; farmers and people running small businesses argued with the rest against the deployment in Scottish waters of the new nuclear armed Trident submarine.

A notable feature of the Scottish National Party conference held here in September was the obvious environmental concern expressed by delegates. Alex Salmond MP, leader of the SNP, agrees:"It has been a very strong feature of SNP policies over the years, I mean, for example, our anti-nuclear campaign has been a trade mark of the Scottish National Party." he says.

Indeed, the SNP's position on nuclear weapons is unique among the major political parties. The party's election manifesto commits them to "ban the importation of toxic waste, encourage the recycling of raw materials and support wholeheartedly the international initiatives that are essential to protect our planet" and to "fulfil our outstanding potential for developing and implementing clean and renewable sources of energy for the future."

Unlike Labour, the SNP advocates the scrapping of all anti-union laws. The party is increasing its support amongst trade unionists; less than 50% of union members voted Labour in April, with a third voting SNP.

The party is also pledged to the renationalisation of public utilities privatised by the Tory government in London. Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's finance spokesperson, explained the case for renationalisation to Green Left Weekly:"Renationalisation is essential for the long term future of our economy and we'll be using the Scottish Steel, which we'll take the Scottish assets into public control upon independence, we'll be using that to build our economy, because that's essential for jobs and our social expenditure program."

Hyslop added that nationalisation won't be along the lines of the state capitalist model but rather a "more participative, more decentralist type, with more community control".

The SNP exhibits an internationalism unknown to the major political parties, call for withdrawal from NATO at earliest opportunity; support for East Timor; increase aid for third world, cheered enthusiastically; understanding of the real causes of hunger in Africa, trade imbalance, debt crisis and wars, not overpopulation.

Scotland and European unity go hand in glove in the view of the party, as Salmond explains, but what about the Maastricht Treaty?

"Well, I don't think it's central, I mean Maastricht itself is only a part of a process towards a closer union within Europe. Basically, we're in favour of the Maastricht accord, not uncritically, we recognise its deficiencies, but basically we're in favour of closer European cooperation."

European cooperation not only makes sense for a newly independent nation but also highlights the case for independence.

"We want to see Scotland as part of that process, with a voice in the process, as opposed to an outlying and disregarded region of the United Kingdom," Salmond said.

"It's also important to note that the Scottish attitude towards Europe, generally speaking, is much more positive than the English one. And therefore, being partly submerged within Britain does tend to restrict our contacts with Europe and ability to express a view within Europe and also tends to misrepresent our views to other Europeans." Salmond argues.

"So when we have the Edinburgh summit in December, in Scotland's capital, I think it will demonstrate the fact that Scotland is the invisible nation of Europe, one of the very few countries that doesn't have a vote in Europe, but probably the only country which has no voice in its own future."

The political parties that support only devolved political powers from London are described as Unionist. Although the SNP works with these parties through a broad-based coalition, Scotland United, for a multi-option referendum on Scotland's future, the differences of approach are profound, as Salmond points out:

"I think devolution is a dead end alley, the difficulty with it is that the parties that propose it can't get to power at Westminster and therefore votes for devolution in Scotland are totally discounted. For example, the Labour and Liberals, who propose various forms of devolution, between them got 52% of the Scottish vote at the recent elections, but although they hold 58 out of 72 MP's for those parties it's only the Westminster result that counts. And remember the anti- devolution Tories have power at Westminster, have since 1979 and may well be there for the foreseeable future.

"Devolution is a dead end alley you can't vote for devolution just in Scotland, you've got to get votes south of the border as well. Independence in contrast, is within the power of Scots to decide, and it's generally acknowledged, even by our key political opponents like John Major, that if Scots vote for independence then independence is what we'll get. So independence is the only effective vote for Scottish self government, it's the only vote that doesn't depend on a veto being expressed on it south of the border."

Of course, with devolution there are no guarantees for the future and not all powers will be devolved.

"There's a famous political quote from Enoch Powell, that power devolved is power retained and of course what's granted by Westminster can be taken away by Westminster.

"So it's much better if Scots assert their national right to self- determination which we can do by winning a majority of seats in Scotland", asserts Salmond. "But that difference in the argument for devolution or independence is not always appreciated by Scots, there are many people who believe in independence that still think they can vote for limited forms of self government and have that vote expressed in Scotland. They are extremely puzzled and angry when they see that the Labour Party, with 49 MP's, doesn't argue that they won the election in Scotland, but accepts that it lost it at Westminster.

"We believe there is a Scottish mandate and when the people of Scotland give that to the SNP we won't be slow in making that count."

There are some groups in Scotland that are British to their bootstraps. The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, for instance, called on its 80,000 members to "use all lawful means to support the Union and oppose those elements that seek to turn the clock back and break up the United Kingdom".

British Prime Minister John Major paid a flying visit to Scotland in the wake of the general election to reaffirm the Union, which his party supports. However, his Tory party has no mandate in Scotland, with less than 25% support at the polls.

The sands of Scottish politics are shifting though. The SNP, although not securing its ultimate objective at the general election, managed to increase its share of the vote by 50%. It has further improved its position in local government elections since. Its biggest success, though, was in putting independence firmly back on the agenda.

The party, coming out of its September conference, appears self-confident and projects itself as a forward looking and progressive party. That hasn't always been the case, the SNP has clearly evolved. So what's behind the changes?

"I think a change of personnel, the infusion of young key activists into the party, particularly in the mid to late eighties, that now dominate the conferences", states Salmond, elected leader in 1990 at the age of 35.

"The SNP is a left of centre party, there's no doubt about that, I think, what we're arguing about is just where exactly is to position ourselves within that spectrum.

"I'd like to see us adopt a program, we have a program of Scottish social democracy, I'd like to see us adopt a label because I think that would be very helpful for the electorate. But I understand that some people in the party have misgivings about that label and it needs to go back for further discussion. But in terms of policies the party's already anchored left of centre and we just have to discuss how we can transform that into an easily identifiable political identity."

Salmond agrees with a previous leader, the late Donald Stewart, when he described the SNP as a radical party with a revolutionary aim: that of breaking up the British state. But ultimately, Salmond says, the party will have a political identity with which it is comfortable with and a strong socialist current will continue to exist inside the party. n