Salmond smiling

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(359)

Anyone wanting to understand the reasons for the Scottish National Party's landslide election victory in Scotland on 5 May could do worse than read the speech delivered by Alex Salmond as he was sworn in as first minister on 20 May.

Echoing Woody Guthrie's famous anthem, Salmond went out of his way to welcome new Italian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern members of the Scottish Parliament, saying, "This land is their land...it belongs to all who choose to call it home. This includes new Scots who have escaped persecution or conflict in Africa or the Middle East...We offer a hand to all, whether they hail from England, Ireland, Pakistan or Poland."

It's the kind of speech that Ed Miliband probably wouldn't have made, not because he's a racist but because it might risk upsetting the tabloids or lose votes among the "white working-class". A similar lack of courage and vision characterised the entire election campaign of the Scottish Labour Party. While the SNP ran a positive campaign based on their government's abolition of prescription charges, rejection of tuition fees and freezing of council tax, Labour's main demand was for mandatory sentences for knife crimes, implicitly demonising working class teenagers at a time when unemployment among young people in Scotland is soaring.

Of course, other factors were also important in the SNP's victory. Salmond is a popular and astute politician, while Labour's (now-resigned) leader Iain Gray has neither of these qualities. In addition, Labour's base in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, has been in decline for years. As one activist said to me, "The problem is that no one knows what Labour stands for any more." The SNP won by appearing to offer some reforms, while Labour offered none.

Unfortunately, the often stirring rhetoric of Salmond and the SNP is just that - rhetoric. Their election campaign four years ago, for example, was based on the slogan "Schools and hospitals, not Trident missiles". Since then the SNP government has done nothing to challenge the presence of nuclear missiles at Faslane naval base or even (given that control over defence still lies at Westminster) sought to prevent the movement of nuclear materials by road and rail. Similarly, despite Salmond's welcome to asylum seekers and refugees, the obscenity that is Dungavel Detention Centre - used to imprison immigrants - is still open. No less important, where the SNP control local councils, they have shown themselves to be just as willing to implement cuts in local services as Labour controlled councils.

Salmond's internationalist rhetoric sits alongside an essentially neoliberal programme, one core element of which is the demand for increased powers over corporation tax. Far from wishing to use these powers to force the banks and the multinationals to pay tax which could fund public services, the SNP have made it clear that they wish to reduce corporation tax to encourage big business to come to Scotland. Comical as it seems now, it's not so long since Salmond was waxing lyrical about the "arc of prosperity" - Iceland, Ireland and Norway - and citing the Celtic Tiger as a model for Scotland!

Salmond's reason for pointing to these countries was to argue that an independent Scotland could prosper in a globalised world. Despite the very changed fortunes of Iceland and Ireland since the onset of the capitalist crisis in 2008, independence remains a central plank of the SNP's programme with a referendum promised during the second half of the parliament. Salmond will undoubtedly argue that if Scotland had more powers, it would not have to make the huge cuts demanded by Westminster. Where that argument is used to justify making cuts, it needs to be challenged.

The majority of people voted for the SNP because they saw it as offering some protection against cuts. The SNP should argue that there is no mandate for these cuts in Scotland and refuse to implement them, setting a deficit budget if necessary. That said, should the promised referendum result in a demand for greater independence for Scotland, that's not something that should worry us - it's hardly the role of socialists to defend a Union which has brought misery and hardship to people across the globe.

Meantime, there is an expectation that things will be different with a majority SNP government in power. Over the coming months it's likely that the Holyrood parliament in Edinburgh will become the focus for a myriad of different groups and campaigns from all over Scotland - trade unionists fighting for their jobs, disability activists fighting cuts, pensioners' groups fighting to retain their services. Against a background of huge cuts and ongoing capitalist crisis, the SNP's commitment to the splendid vision outlined by Alex Salmond on 20 May will be severely tested.