By Marion Davies
The Scottish National Party, until recently viewed by many as tartan Tories, is riding high as growing numbers of Scots call for independence. Thanks to the SNP's prominent role in fighting the poll tax and other unpopular aspects of Westminster rule, party support is booming, particularly among young people.
The SNP is the only party to oppose the threatened closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks, wants the removal of United States and British nuclear submarine bases and supports greater state involvement in the economy. Much of the party's higher profile is due to its leader Alex Salmon, installed 18 months ago, who hails from the left of the party.
Yet there is a suspicion that the SNP is promising all things to all people in the scrabble for seats in the general election, and is trying to cash in on the unpopularity of Labour councils which have taken a hard line with poll tax non-payers. Salmon demurs.
"As a party we find ourselves in the curious position that just by standing still we are outflanking Labour on just about every issue in Scottish politics. The SNP is not a hard-left or socialist party. But by advocating sensible policies, we do find ourselves on a range of issues in a flanking position.
"The point is not that Labour has moved to the right but that it is devoid of any ideological touchstone beyond the latest opinion poll", says Salmon.
Salmon says if the SNP wins a majority of seats, it will have a mandate to negotiate with Westminster and Brussels for independence in Europe. That would be followed by a referendum and an election with proportional representation. A wide range of parties would emerge.
"I think the SNP would continue as a Social Democratic party. People would spin off to the left and right, but the bulk of the membership would want us to continue on that platform.
"I'm quite sure there would be a party to the left of the SNP — I think it would come out of the membership of the Labour Party, not the established structures, and from people not in politics, and from the green movement."
Recent opinion polls show 50% support for some form of independence, yet the SNP receives only about 26% in the polls. One of the reasons, according to Salmon, is that voters associated the SNP with constitutional questions but not economic or social issues.
So the SNP is launching a four-year, full-employment program, to include nationalisation of steel, with supply-side intervention through government agencies to control ownership of key industries and
Salmon blames the Labour Party for "hiding behind EC regulations to explain the lack of radicalism in their policies". Far from seeing European Community membership as a brake on economic options for an independent Scotland, he thinks it can encourage confidence.
"It is very useful to be able to say to people that we will be part of the wider market. Scotland is not going to shut itself into a corner and not speak to anyone. People are given the impression of a barbed-wire Scotland with a trench along the border. The European context has transformed that."
The SNP, says Salmon, advocates a 200-strong constituent assembly with 133 members chosen in single-member constituencies and the remaining 67 chosen from a party list to achieve overall proportionality.
The SNP party list, he pledges, will aim at gender balance. But he does not favour compelling all parties to do the same. He is defensive when challenged on why there are only two women in the SNP's shadow cabinet.
"It was chosen on merit as I saw it", he explains, and stresses that in junior shadow positions, there are more women than men.
But English lefties pondering emigration northwards if the Tories get in again can take heart from his views on citizenship. "Anyone resident in Scotland or born in Scotland would be eligible for Scottish citizenship. The only definition we are prepared to acknowledge of a Scot is people who want to live and work in and contribute to the Scottish community. Our belief in self-determination is civic and community based, not racially based."
[Abridged from the UK socialist.]