Sturgeon's rhetoric goes against the spirit of the Scottish independence movement. The left must unite against the state, argues David Jamieson
Nicola Sturgeon won plaudits from Scotland's rightwing press on Wednesday (14 March) by backing Theresa May's new measures against Russia, in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning. Amid a flurry of condemnations of Jeremy Corbyn, who called for a standard multilateral response to the incident involving international monitors of chemical weapons, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and party Westminster leader Iain Blackford took their opportunity.
They called for a "robust" response to "attacks on our streets" and commended the Prime Minister, thus joining the chorus of British nationalist rhetoric for escalation with Russia.
The action itself, the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomatic officials, is fairly meaningless. For May, it is an opportunity to adopt the tough stance that has eluded her hapless leadership so far. For the SNP, it is the opportunity for a clear overture to the UK establishment, and to the leadership of the EU, that it can be counted on as a defender of the Western order.
The SNP has always had a patchy foreign policy record.
Historically it has distanced itself from other independence movements, mainly for fear of politicised conflation with groups like the IRA or Basque ETA. It fell quiet during some recent UK military actions, when it couldn't read the public mood or felt it couldn't find large enough counter currents to join, such as in Afghanistan and Libya.
These pointed to an essential weakness in its brand of constitutional politics. The SNP has often found itself caught between the populist, leftwing and anti-establishment forces it needs to muster to forward its goal of Scottish independence and a desire to seem dependable and safe to an element of the Scottish middle class and business that it seeks to court for electoral ends.
But there have also been flashes of brilliance. These tended to coincide with the high points of former party leader Alex Salmond's strategy to turn Scottish Nationalism into a popular social democratic alternative to the Westminster consensus. They included spirited parliamentary and street level opposition to the Iraq war and opposition to UK bombing of Serbia, which Salmond attacked for its "dubious legality" and "unpardonable folly" at a time when there was very little objection to that imperialist manoeuvre in official politics. This record also included an apparently short lived flirtation with a strong pro-Palestinian position in the wake of the 2014 movement.
What we have witnessed in the days since the Salisbury poisoning is the full blooded reversal of the populist, dissident foreign policy pursued inconsistently but sometimes tenaciously by Salmond. It is part of a wider turn in the party since Sturgeon took over the leadership, which has seen her associate the SNP project, especially since the UK vote for Brexit, with the institutions of the Western order.
The SNP has always accepted the neoliberal economic status quo, though it always successfully presented itself as an opposition at least to its excesses and to austerity. Now, Sturgeon openly mourns populist challenges to the social and economic order of recent years. She has ditched key parts of the SNP programme from far reaching tax changes to substantial land reform.
All of this has taken place under the rubric of Brexit. Sturgeon and the small and isolated leading elements at the top of the party re-imagined independence as a road back into the EU and thus a movement of 'sensible', centrist accomodation with the establishment.
The reframing jars profoundly with the leftwing, ruptural and populist nature of the 2014 Scottish independence movement, and with the SNP's more than 100,000 members, who remains far to the left of the party leadership.
This latest turn is in many ways the most public signal of the change of direction yet.
The SNP left
A river very like the Rubicon has been quietly crossed and it will be difficult for those on the party left to forge a way back.
Some in the SNP left feel that foreign policy can be separated out from domestic policy or the priority of independence. They are wrong. Co-ordinates on foreign policy will realign domestic policy and are strategically essential to the appeal of Scottish independence in any future independence referendum.
Though many lay members of the party have expressed alarm at the change in direction and over the noises of escalation with Russia, so far the only major party figure to break rank has been Salmond himself - already alienated from the party leadership - who has adopted a stance closer to Corbyn's.
If there were a time for the party left to take action to pressure the leadership, it would be now and on this issue, where the leadership is clearly misrepresenting the attitudes of members and constituents.
Unite the movements
Socialists in Scotland have a responsibility to speak out against the UK's dangerous and useless war of words with Russia. They have a responsibility also to speak out against Scottish politicians supporting this rhetoric, whether they be anti-Corbyn Labour MPs or the SNP.
The SNP's new establishment-friendly stance, and its near senseless hostility to Corbynism, brought on no doubt by fear that his politics appeal to parts of the SNP base, does nothing to help the independence movement, the wider Scottish left, or indeed the SNP itself. Instead it strengthens the most reactionary elements of the UK state, who are seeking to undermine any threats to stability and order.
Instead of dividing the left and unifying the state's response to challenge, we should unite the movements across the UK against the state.
In 2012-14, thousands of Scots campaigned for independence precisely on the basis of a rupture from neoliberalism, austerity and war. It is not acceptable that the party that claims to represent this movement stands in the way of those same ruptural politics as they make advances across the UK, and at such a dangerous moment when the threat of conflict looms again.