Dissatisfaction with the SNP’s lack of strategy and turn to neoliberalism is being expressed in the new pro-independence Alba party, argues Chris Bambery
For most of those outside Scotland watching developments within the pro-independence camp there must raise a sense of bewilderment. That’s true for many watching in Scotland!
Last Friday, former Scottish First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, announced he was launching a new pro-independence party, Alba. The vast majority of the media coverage then and since has presented this as a personal battle between Salmond and the current First Minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon.
This follows Salmond’s acquittal of charges of sexual assault. The Scottish government has admitted it breached its own guidelines and had to pay Salmond £500,000. Nicola Sturgeon, though, was cleared of breaching the ministerial code, which if she had would have been a resignation matter. Salmond is never going to escape the dark shadow left by those allegations, and, not surprisingly, many will hold that against him. Although he was acquitted, his admitted behaviour towards women was unacceptable.
Clearly there is a deep rift between two onetime allies and friends. But it would be wrong to simply portray the launch of Alba as a consequence of that.
The new party has attracted over 4,000 members, which in Scottish terms in not inconsequential. Among them are two Westminster MPs Kenny MacAskill, former Scottish Justice Minister, and Neale Hanvey, as well as two former MPs Corri Wilson and George Kerevan. At this stage I must state the latter is one of my best friends. Others to join are SNP's national equalities convener, Lynne Anderson, Inverclyde councillor Chris McEleny and Caroline McAllister, the SNP's women's convener, and deputy leader of West Dunbartonshire council.
Among those joining Alba are many of my friends – but many too have stayed with the SNP seeing that as the best guarantee of independence. I’ll come back to how we on the pro-independence left address that.
For those joining Alba the main reason is that the Scottish government and the SNP have no strategy for independence beyond asking Boris Johnson for one. Westminster must agree to an independence referendum. David Cameron did so because he was confident the pro-independence side would be humiliated but then his call on the outcome of referendums was never good.
Huge numbers of independence supporters joined major street protests called by All Under One Banner, which, while not taking a formal political stance beyond support for independence, was very working class. Many SNP figures and swathes of its membership joined these, but Nicola Sturgeon stood aloof.
During the pandemic support for independence has grown because, being canny, most Scots can look across the border, watch Boris Johnson and desire to get as far away from possible from Westminster (the same effect is occurring in Wales). Sturgeon came across as more down to earth and more humane, masking the fact that Scotland’s death rate while not as bad as England’s is one of the highest in Europe.
Consistent leads in the polls for independence have led to frustration that there is no strategy for securing a referendum beyond asking Downing Street; or hoping our gallant allies in Europe will intervene (that will be when pigs can fly). The simple truth is that Johnson won’t say yes to a referendum where independence would win, and the hapless Sir Keir Starmer, even if he could win a Westminster election (not a likely prospect) has wrapped himself in the Union Jack and champions the Union.
In that event the SNP has ruled out a consultative, non-binding referendum or a mass campaign of civil disobedience.
Discontent within the SNP
Internally to the SNP this frustration over the lack of a Plan B has become intertwined with concerns over a shift in a pronounced neoliberal direction.
In 2016 Nicola Sturgeon established the Sustainable Growth Commission, chaired by Andrew Wilson, a founding partner at influential public relations firm Charlotte Street Partners and former SNP MSP. The Commission published its final report in May 2018, but alarm bells soon began to ring.
The Commission consulted 23 bodies, 17 of whom were business lobby groups, such as CBI Scotland, the Scottish Property Federation, and the Institute of Directors. The trade unions, environmental groups and bodies campaigning over housing, health and welfare services were cold-shouldered.
The model offered of an independent Scotland was thoroughly neoliberal, advocating holding down public spending to what amounted to an austerity programme. For decades the SNP had praised Scandinavian “welfare capitalism,” but that was ruled too costly.
But the sticking point came when it advocated keeping Sterling as Scotland’s currency despite the Bank Of England controlling its exchange rate plus interest rates and much else (there was a promise a separate Scottish currency would eventually emerge but then criteria for that were so severe the chances of them being ever met seemed unlikely).
At the SNP’s 2019 spring conference, members succeeded in voting through an amendment to the leadership’s motion to endorse the Growth Commission’s currency recommendations calling for a new currency to be established “as soon as practicable after independence day.”
This was highly unusual. Until recently the SNP’s membership has been completely loyal to the leadership seeing itself as being part of a movement more than a party which had to win independence, thus requiring maximum loyalty to the cause.
The SNP leadership has ignored this but for the first time it faced growing calls for internal democracy. Last year the left wing SNP Common Weal Group got 11 members elected to the National Executive on a democracy ticket. In the event, they were negated as unelected representatives were brought to meetings, motions were ignored, or they were not called to speak, they allege, in virtual meetings.
Salmond’s court case and the subsequent Scottish Parliamentary inquiry also highlighted the fact that the CEO of the SNP, Peter Murrell is Nicola Sturgeon’s partner.
So last Friday’s launch of Alba came as a surprise but the discontent within the SNP and the wider independence movement was obvious to all.
A question of strategy
In his statement launching the new party Salmond did not attack Sturgeon or the SNP, insisting they would call for a vote for SNP candidates in the constituency vote. Scotland is divided into 73 Scottish Parliamentary constituencies and each constituency elects one MSP in a Westminster style first-past-the-post election, but you also get a vote for a regional party list which is used to ensure that the overall number of MSPs elected for each party is roughly proportional to their electoral support. This system is used to elect 56 additional members.
Salmond’s argument is that the SNP will sweep the constituency election but on the second vote SNP support will be discounted because of that and seats will be given to the other parties reflecting their overall support. By voting SNP in the constituency and then Alba on the lost vote, Salmond claims, pro-independence parties could win a super-majority.
If you haven’t dozed off, the claim is that a vote in the PR style for the SNP is a wasted vote, but another pro-independence party could benefit. The SNP are adamant that if you want to vote for independence you must give both votes to them.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think a super majority is likely, but I do think the Alba party could win five or six seats – something which the old radical left Scottish Socialist Party achieved a decade and a half ago. But only if it steers left as Kerevan and others are urging, because the middle class vote is quite decided but there are many working class folk who might not vote or have been Labour supporters who now back independence.
Achieving even that is quite a task for a new party but it does seem to be forging an active membership base.
Alba defines itself as “left of centre.” But on social media, a number of SNP loyalists attacked Alba for being made up of “social conservatives.” Alex Salmond is no radical, but he can use left rhetoric when required. Kenny MacAskill is a social democrat and Neale Hanvey has a track record as a trade union activist.
Joining Kerevan in a statement to explain their move was the founder and Convenor of the SNP Common Weal Group, Craig Berry and Lynne Anderson, also a member of the group. The SNP CWG was on the left of the party, made up in the main of younger members.
In a joint statement Berry, Kerevan and Anderson explained their decision to switch to Alba thus:
“In practical terms, the CWG has campaigned inside the SNP against the neoliberal Growth Commission report; advocated radical economic policies including the creation of the Scottish National Investment Bank and the Green New Deal; launched a People’s Manifesto for the May Holyrood elections calling for rent controls, a National Care Service and socialised public transport; and seen 11 of our supporters elected to the party’s national offices in a campaign for greater internal democracy.”
They concluded that, “in its present state [the SNP] is unreformable” and have decided to seek membership of the Alba Party to “seek to build a left-wing, progressive wing of the independence movement elsewhere.”
It needs to be stressed that there is little difference in the political stances of Sturgeon and Salmond, though there is in style. Sturgeon attacked Salmond as a “gambler.” That’s true but sometimes you have to be and break from corporate management. The latter is very much the current SNP leadership’s way.
Independence and the left
On social media it has been sad to see so many attacking Alba in insulting ways which can only poison matters. On the other hand some of the pro-independence bloggers who turned against the SNP and are now attached to Alba match that venom.
This is not a pretty sight. Many of us have been through internal, factional fights where you stop speaking to people you know well only to find yourself re-engaging years later because there are still real points of agreement.
Politically, the pro-independence camp is now split between the SNP, still by far the biggest force, Alba, and the Greens. The radical left has still not recovered from the eventual car crash of the Scottish Socialist Party and is divided between those who have varied party cards and those who have not chosen any existing options and look to build a viable left alternative in the future.
But that is not unusual. In Catalonia there are three pro-independence parties represented in parliament. Despite real difficulties, as at present, they have to work together because they are under relentless attack from the Spanish state.
The saving grace in Catalonia has been the existence of a mass membership, grassroots movement, the Catalan National Assembly. At different times when the pro-independence parties where at each other’s throats or were decapitated by repression, it kept things on the road.
In Scotland those who support independence need to dampen sectarianism, strive to get pro-independence candidates elected to Holyrood using the strategy we have chosen, and build a grassroots movement like the ANC. The newly launched Now Scotland seems the best vehicle for that.
Finally, let’s be honest, and say the independence movement, and the Scottish Parliament, does require a much more animated and enlightened discussion of what an independent Scotland could offer its citizens. In the 2014 independence referendum we did achieve that to a major extent but that required a whole range of organisations beyond the official Yes Scotland – Radical Independence, Women for Independence, Labour for Independence, Bella Caledonia and more.
Letting a hundred flowers bloom may have advantages! Kicking lumps out of each other doesn’t. Getting a pro-independence majority at Holyrood requires hard work, then we need to get a referendum, no easy task, then win it. Its achievable but no easy task.
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Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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