The May 7th UK general election, which saw the Conservatives win a slim majority, witnessed a democratic revolution of unprecedented scale in Scotland. England backed continued austerity, neo-liberal economics and £12 billion welfare spending cuts; the Scots overwhelmingly rejected that approach.
In the UK parliament Scotland is represented by 59 MPs, of whom, before May, 41 were Labour, 11 Liberal Democrats, 1 Conservative and 6 Scottish National Party. There are now 56 SNP members and one each from Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives.
Underpinning the 50-year-plus Labour dominance in Scotland that just ended were huge swathes of industrial Scotland where the party was said not to count its votes but to weigh them. This was built on raw class politics with Labour — founded to represent organised workers — entrenched in coalfields, shipbuilding and steel making communities which were not only fiercely loyal to the party but bitterly hostile to the Conservative party (Tories) who represented bosses and capitalists.
Built through the turbulent 20th century of depression and war, this political hegemony reached its zenith in the 1945 Labour landslide, which ushered in a universal National Health Service, comprehensive welfare and the public ownership of key industries such as coal and railways.
The wartime experience bolstered the idea that if planning could defeat the Nazis then it could also be harnessed to defeat poverty, unemployment, bad health and slum housing. Although social democratic in content, there is no doubt that this approach was also inspired by what were then seen as Soviet achievements. Indeed the wider Scottish Labour Movement had a substantial and influential Communist current with one MP and many councillors.
While the Tories had a significant base, even gaining a vote majority in 1955, this went into a slow decline in parallel with the end of empire; the decline accelerated in the early Thatcher years, and at the end of the Tory years the party fell off a cliff, losing all its Scottish MPs, before creeping back to its current modest one.
Although the SNP in this period experienced some success, notably in the stormy industrial strife of 1974 when it won 11 seats in parliament, the class divided nature of Scottish politics meant that it remained a minor force in the battle between Labour and the Tories. Paradoxically it was the SNP’s votes that brought down the 1979 Labour government and ushered in Thatcherism, which has proved to be at the core of its growing success and now dominance of Scottish politics.
From 1979 to the Tory defeat in 1997, hard-line Tory governments staged a counter revolution driven by free market ideology aimed at reversing the gains won by the working class. Most significantly, their drive to favour finance over industry, coupled with anti-union laws, resulted both in mass unemployment and a serious weakening of the trade unions. The most dramatic class confrontation of this dramatic period was the year-long UK wide coal miners’ strike in opposition to plans to close mines in the then still state-owned industry. A year of mass struggle, mass confrontation with riot police, police rule of mining areas and hunger and hardship ended in defeat to a triumphal Thatcher. Hundreds of mines closed, thousands lost jobs, communities were devastated and the mining industry almost totally destroyed. Small wonder then that there were street parties in mining communities as the elite gave Thatcher a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.
For Scotland this period held twin lessons. First was the reinforcement of the class reality of the ruthless nature of capitalism as it pursues its aims, the Tory party in power acting, as Lenin said, “as the executive committee” of the bosses. Second, however, was the unmistakable fact that the Tory government imposing the free market dogma on Scotland had no democratic mandate from Scots voters who rejected it at each election. This meant that class politics and the national question, previously regarded by many as separate issues, became inextricably linked as two sides of the same struggle. Scotland’s aspirations for self-government became both a democratic and class question.
It was to be the apparently anodyne question of local government taxation that would propel this unity from a question of theory to the centre of a major class struggle that not only led to Thatcher’s defeat but irreversibly changed the parameters of Scottish politics.
Following the 1987 UK election, Thatcher legislated to replace rates, a tax based on property values to cover local council services, with a so-called “community charge” under which all voters paid the same tax irrespective of income — rapidly dubbed the Poll Tax. The Tories then sought — despite their electoral minority there — to impose it on Scotland a year earlier than the rest of the UK in a move widely denounced as a democratic outrage.
Official Labour opposed the Poll Tax but confined its opposition to votes in parliament and token protests, rejecting widespread calls for a campaign of non-payment of the tax.
Thousands took up the non-payment call and mass pickets met court officials trying to enforce payments through seizure of goods. This mass campaign was key to the defeat of the Poll Tax and it in turn was central to Thatcher being forced from office. Indeed so widespread was the non-payment campaign that it was only last year that the last debts still outstanding from it were written off.
Labour responded to this tide of militancy not by supporting it but by moving rightwards, compromising with business and distancing itself from its own trade union and working class base in a line of march similar to that of sister parties in Europe. This culminated in the Blair-led “New Labour” non-socialist government proclaiming it was “relaxed” about the wealth of the super rich and privatisation and positively enthusiastic about the role of city financiers — who later crashed the economy — as supposed wealth creators.
Nevertheless, even the right wing Blair regime had to respond to growing demands and legislated for the creation of a Scottish Parliament with responsibility for a wide range of services including health, education and, given Scotland’s distinct legal system, the law. Thus the Scottish parliament, abolished by Burn’s “parcel of rogues in a nation” in 1707, reconvened in 1999.
Crucially, the electoral system was designed to avoid any party from gaining majority control of it. In reality, given that there would normally be a basis for a pro-union coalition, this had the main aim of excluding the SNP from power. However, the SNP became the biggest party in the third election and went on the run a successful minority government and then confounded the critics in 2011 and won a straight majority.
The referendum which resulted saw a mass Yes campaign involving the left, greens, feminists and anti-militarists among others, thousands of town and public meetings, the growth of groups like Women for Independence, cultural networks and widespread use of social media to counteract pro-union scares in the mainstream, largely pro-conservative media.
In what has proved a fatal error, Labour joined with the toxic Tories and their then coalition partner Lib Dems in the pro-union cross-class Better Together group, whose campaign was self described as Project Fear. Their negative campaign, backed by the full power of both the British state and big business, won.
But in getting into bed with the Tories Labour not only backed austerity, nuclear weapons and Britain’s archaic state — they were collaborating with a party seen as the sworn enemies of their own working class base. Signs of the devastating impact this would have on Labour were clear when all Glasgow, the cradle of Red Clydeside and Dundee, once dubbed Scotland’s most proletarian city, voted Yes. No amount of left election rhetoric from Labour’s former Blairite leader Jim Murphy about social justice and opposition to austerity could shake off the taint of the co-operation with the hated Tories — voters knew that Labour at UK level backed massive cuts.
In contrast, the SNP under recently elected leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon positioned itself firmly as a party seeking to end austerity and opposing the modernisation of the UK’s nuclear weapons. Sturgeon, a charismatic lawyer, came to dominate both the Scottish and UK campaigns and introduced the idea that there was an alternative path to austerity in what was striking contrast with the ultra-stage-managed “Safety First” Labour effort.
In particular, Labour struggled to counter the SNP pitch that it would, in the event of a hung parliament, work with Labour to “lock Cameron out of Downing Street”. This line demolished the claim that only Labour can stop the Tories, and it resonated strongly, particularly in working class communities. On the day absolute Labour bastions including the seats of Murphy, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Labour’s UK campaign manager Douglas Alexander all fell to the SNP, a humbled Labour was left with not 41 but just one seat, in common with the Lib Dems and Conservatives.
The SNP is now the third biggest party at Westminster and in government in Edinburgh. Its power base was immeasurably centred by the experience of thousands in the Yes campaign who backed the SNP, this time taking its voting share over 50%.
After the referendum defeat last year the SNP has soft pedalled the question of a second vote, preferring to concentrate on demands for more powers for the existing devolved parliament. However, the question must be if, in the teeth of Tory attacks from London which will savage workers, the poor and the vulnerable, such a position can hold. Elections take place for the Scottish Parliament next year and public pressure may yet result in it being in the SNP manifesto.
The non-SNP pro-independence left in parties such as the Scottish Socialist Party who were marginalised in last week’s poll, along with groups such as Women for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign, will no doubt be to the forefront in opposing Tory attacks, and this is likely to add to the pressure for a new referendum sooner rather than later. Alongside this, the development of the Scottish Left Project could give rise to a pro-independence left challenge through an electoral alliance putting the left’s distinctive perspectives before voters.
Without doubt “all changed, changed utterly”, and the real prospect of radical change has to be a key part of that, reflecting not just the fortune of the SNP but also the optimism of the mass movement generated by last year’s Yes campaign and the broad pro-independence progressive movement.
Ken Ferguson is Editor of Scottish Socialist Voice.