A new party for a new Scotland

The independence debate has created a 'New Scotland'. Weighing up in turn the implications of a Yes and a No vote, Ben Wray argues that a new left party is essential if campaigns for democratic renewal and social justice are to have a fighting chance.

I began this series by emphasising that my intention is not to detail the specific form which a left party should take, but rather to contribute to a much needed debate. A left party will only have legs if it involves a coming together of various forces and productively combines the different experiences of people who are actively engaged in diverse communities. This cannot become a mere platitude – a party entirely led by one faction of the left is not worth pursuing. We have to build something sustainable over the long-term with genuine grassroots involvement or else we are setting ourselves up for another fall when the initial enthusiasm wears off.

In the last part of this series, I aim to analyse the political context which makes a new party not just possible, but a neccessity if the independence movement is going to have a fighting chance of achieving its goals.

The most important thing we have to understand about Scotland in 2014 is that, whatever happens now, there’s no going back. Better Together needed a thumping victory to convince Scots to go back into their box and swear deference forever more to Westminster; the shift in the polls shows that there is now no chance of that happening. We already live in the era of ‘new Scotland’, the real question being what new Scotland looks like and how quickly we can break entirely from the old.

New Scotland is cut across by two principal axes of division – one relating to economic and social justice, the other constitutional in nature. These dividing lines, regardless of the result in September, create a dynamic that means a new party up to the challenge of achieving the goals of the independence movement – a democratic, independent Scotland committed to achieving social justice – is a neccessity. Let me explain.

Hypothesis 1: a narrow defeat for yes

‘Perpetual austerity’

Scotland faces unprecedented Westminster austerity regardless of the 2015 general election result. According to Seumas Milne, Ed Balls has already told the Shadow Cabinet that some departments face up to 33% cuts. It’s possible that as little as 20% of the cuts to the public-sector have been made thus far. In such a scenario, Holyrood will struggle to hold back the tide – indeed it has already struggled, since 100,000 children in Scotland have been put into poverty by the coalition’s welfare reforms. Endemic problems of inequality, poverty, unemployment and alienation (with all of its subsequent social and health repercussions) are likely to intensify. What then is the future direction of a social and economic justice agenda in the New Scotland post-No vote?

100,000 children in Scotland have been pushed into poverty by coalition austerity

100,000 children in Scotland have been pushed into poverty by coalition austerity

With the SNP continuing to be the governing party until at least 2016, what is their strategy, with the referendum lost, to pull Scotland out of the mire? The SNP could implement new taxation policies to raise more money in Scotland, like a land value tax, and they could raise the council tax or replace it with a more progressive income-related tax, but they have so far resisted such an approach and it’s unlikely they would change course. Scottish Labour, after convincing Scots to stick with the union, have to have a compelling argument for how Labour-Labour rule at Westminster and Holyrood will see the lives of working class Scots improved. Since they’ve provided little evidence of this out of power, there’s little reason to believe that a new dynamic and radical Scottish Labour in the union is just round the corner. An explicitly anti-cuts party in the new Scotland will be a must.

SNP: the ‘devo-max’ party?

‘Perpetual austerity’ will of course interweave with the new constitutional debate in the ‘post-NO’ political climate. It’s widely touted that the SNP have a plan, in the short-term, to redefine themselves as the ‘devo-max’ party, shunning full independence for a future day. There will certainly be intensive pressure on the SNP from the ranks of Better Together and the unionist media to commit to ruling out a second referendum if they win the 2016 elections. Salmond and Sturgeon will likely take this path – they have long sought to present themselves as more than a single-issue party and they will want to avoid that tag with the 2016 elections on the horizon. Additionally, there is a prize for the SNP in commiting to devo-max as their constitutional priority – they can outflank Labour in the renewed devolution debate, who are not going to get much more radical than an increase in income tax powers. An SNP 2016 election majority could then raise the spectre of a devo-max referendum.

There is an obvious problem for the SNP with this strategy: they are supposed to be the party of independence, abandoning their primary aim will not be achieved without a backlash. They have also helped unleash a historic grass-roots movement that has a life of its own outside of the SNP machine. That movement is unlikely to accept conclusive defeat for the foreseeable future. I would also wager that in the context of major cuts to Scottish budgets coming in the years after the referendum, opinion polls will show a majority for yes. In this context, a party committing to a referendum on independence after the 2016 elections would receive a lot of support within the independence movement and the public at large.

Hypothesis 2: a yes victory

Negotiations, constitution and soveriegnty

In this scenario, Scotland immediately enters the ‘negotiation phase’. Salmond has already said that the negotiating team will include people from the No side. There’s likely to be back-sliding with regard to some SNP white paper commitments and although the specifics can’t reasonably be predicted, it’s safe to assume the independence movement will be in some respects disappointed. Any backsliding on Trident, for example, would have an explosive impact within the SNP and in the wider independence movement. The partial solution of a negotiating team democratically elected by a citizens’ assembly, proposed by both Robin McAlpine and Colin Fox, is likely to fall on deaf ears.


SNP back-sliding on Trident would be explosive

Fissures are likely to open up over the negotiations, but also over the creation of Scotland’s new constitution. The SNP are going to implement an interim constitution through to 2016, and then it looks like part of the first parliament will be taken up with debating the constitution. But this isn’t likely to meet the appetite of the independence movement for democratic participation in the creation of new Scotland.

More long-standing constitutional divisions within the independence movement are also likely rear their head in the context of independence: will we get that referendum on the monarchy that is still in the SNP’s manifesto? If the Bank of England becomes our lender of last resort, how long will such an arrangement last and to what extent will it curtail our soveriegnty? What impact will NATO membership have on our defence and foreign policy? Scottish Labour will not be well positioned to challenge the SNP on any of these matters given they opposed independence in the first place, such that the challenge must come from the wider independence movement, which would need to have an electoral edge to have any purchase.

Achieving social (and economic) justice

On social justice – the stated purpose of independence for the vast majority of the independence movement – expectations will run high for the first party manifestos of the 2016 elections. The SNP’s white paper outlines many progressive measures which, if implemented, would be of great significance, such as free childcare. However in other areas, like transport, energy and finance, it’s still too much like old Scotland: taking its lead from Westminster’s neoliberal economic orthodoxy. Some argue that the SNP have been cautious to get all of Scotland on board, and that ‘radical Salmond’ will emerge post-yes vote – on this I am sceptical. ‘Sensible Salmond’ is more likely, desperate to show the Scottish elite of their ability to manage an independent Scotland in a prudent fashion, just like any other Western country. The SNP will need to meet much of their social justice obligations, but they will continue to attempt to seperate this from economic justice, when in the long-run the two cannot be pulled apart. A party of economic and social justice willing to challenge the British economic model head on will be required, if for no other reason than to provide a counter-pressure on the SNP to Scottish capital in the new Scotland.

Could Scottish Labour be that party? Whilst I have no willingness to dampen the enthusiasm of Labour supporting independence campaigners who envisage that Labour will finally rediscover its roots in the new Scotland, I fear that it amounts to so much wishful thinking. Labour’s visceral hatred of the SNP will ultimately drive policy, and they will find as much room to try to outflank them on the right as on the left. It’s quite easy to see the narrative already, as it has a continuity with Lamont’s message now: “See they promised the world but they can’t deliver, we are the party of realism, we know that Scotland can’t afford universal services, so we’re going to put those at the bottom first by means-testing.” This is, surely, at least as likely as Nye Bevan emerging from within the bowels of Scottish Labour. Down-trodden pessimism has become woven into the fabric of Labour – I don’t see it disappearing overnight.

‘Third Scotland’ and the new Party

New Scotland opens up new fissures in Scottish politics that only a new party can address to the benefit of working class Scots. But is there a force that can actually generate a serious electoral challenge to Scotland’s establishment’s old and new? The independence movement has thrown up new alliances that would not have been possible without the common purpose of the referendum – many of us who have been part of this process have been surprised by the degree of consensus we have found. Gerry Hassan has called this new community ‘third Scotland’:

Sceptics pour scorn on what this third Scotland stands for, but its political agenda is clear. It is for self-government and independence as not an end in itself, but as a means of bringing about social change. It is suspicious of the SNP’s rather timid version of independence, always being described as being about “the full powers of the parliament” – which is hardly a language or outlook for transformational change. And they see the old mechanisms of social change such as the Labour party, labour movement and British state as having consistently failed and colluded with inequality, power and privilege.”

Common characteristics of ‘Third Scotland’ can be identified in Jim Sillars In place of fear II, Lesley Riddoch’s Blossom, Green Yes, the Radical Independence Conferences, Colin Fox’s pamphlet for an independent socialist Scotland, James Foley and Ernesto Sanchez’s Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence, the Common Weal Project and much of the cultural inspiration behind National Collective. There is certainly much more politically that unites than divides. It broadly represents a red-green alliance based on a commitment to bottom-up democracy and an economy that puts people and planet before profit.

Could at least some of the eclectic forces that comprise so-called ‘Third Scotland’ be bound together in a new party? It would require great sacrifice and humility from existing parties like the SSP and the Greens, but the prize of being a new force in the new Scotland is far beyond the limits of its individual parts. It would also have to be aware that it needs to reach out and build broader alliances: some of the “old mechanisms” Hassan refers to like the labour movement are still the biggest and most effective mechanisms working people have to challenge “inequality, power and priviledge”, but they need new political leadership at the ballot box. Building a sustainable ‘Third Scotland’ that becomes embedded in the fabric of Scottish society means being aware of the limits of the ‘new’ and renewing the ‘old’.

‘Third Scotland’ has a choice in the new Scotland: are we happy to be a disparate voice of dissent, or worse a group of warring left factions, or do we take responsibility for Scotland’s future, put aside apprehensions, and combine? I’m for the latter.

Earlier instalments of the ‘What sort of left party do we need’ series may be found here:


The case for an electoral party

The case for training and expertise

The case for tolerant democratic discipline

The case for politics, not just beliefs 

Rethinking the relationship between party and movements

The case for revolutionary reforms

2 Responses to “A new party for a new Scotland”

  1. Another well argued article Ben. I have been involved with Dumfries and Galloway RIC for a year now and for most of that time -although this is my view not that of DG RIC- it has seemed very likely that RIC would evolve into a post-independence political party. I don’t see where else a party of ‘Third Scotland’ can emerge from. The main obstacle is practical- how to make the transition from an informally organised and loosely structured coalition of campaigners into a formal entity. For example DG RIC does not have a constitution and I assume other RICs do not either. [This makes basic things like opening a bank account difficult] But any new political party will require a constitution, will require to ‘materialise’ itself. But since the frequency of meetings, leafleting, canvassing (etc) on an upward trend between now and 18 September discussions about what shape/structure this new party will take are likely to be seen as a distraction. This will probably be followed by post-referendum exhaustion and a degree of burn-out. There may also be the problem that having persuaded many of the politically disengaged to engage with the referendum, a fair few might decide to disengage again after doing their bit and voting Yes.

    It is the difference between a sprint and a marathon. My impression is that most campaigners have geared themselves up for a sprint and are focused on getting the Yes vote out on 18 September. A yes vote is necessary, but as you have been spelling out in these articles, on its own it is not enough, it is not sufficient to make a real difference to the future direction of an independent Scotland. To achieve that will require a marathon effort. But if we are involved in a marathon, that will require different tactics, will mean starting to plan and think seriously about the long term future now, even while that future is still up in the air.

  2. YES , I agree some more structured organisational form will be necessary after the referendum.
    What particular form that takes is the big question.
    I sense that there are generally two types of people in favour of a conventional hierarchical party structure……
    i) Those who want to lead or be in control
    ii) Those who prefer to follow or be controlled

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