Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
The tempo of political events in Scotland is moving fast, as strikes focus growing discontent with New Labour. Chris Bambery explains why Scots workers want change
Scotland is turning into something of a nightmare for New Labour. On paper things should be rather different. New Labour dominates the Scottish seats at Westminster. The creation of a Scottish parliament next May was supposed to take the wind out of the Scottish National Party's sails. But instead disillusionment with New Labour is at its sharpest north of the border. In response, leaks from Labour headquarters at Millbank tell us that the Blairite coterie would shed few tears if Scotland became independent and they were free of the Scottish Labour Party.
The creation of a Scottish parliament has sharpened the desire for change which swept New Labour into office at Westminster. Civil war is raging in the Scottish Labour Party as the Blairites attempt to bar those they regard as 'Old Labour' or simply dislike from being candidates for the Scottish parliament. Meanwhile the pro-market policies underlying New Labour mean that Labour con trolled councils, like that in Glasgow, are privatising care homes and selling off their entire stock of council housing while across Scotland council jobs are being axed. All of this takes place as the storm clouds of recession gather.
In terms of mainstream politics there exists an alternative to New Labour in the shape of the Scottish National Party whose leader, Alex Salmond, has ensured that the party has a left veneer. New Labour have lost five safe council seats to the SNP, the most recent being in West Dumbarton, and polls show the two parties standing neck and neck.
Labour's response to growing discontent with its performance and with Increased support for the SNP has only added fuel to the fire. Gus Macdonald has been made a government industry minister with a brief to deal with the SNP. Macdonald was head of Scottish TV where he carried through large scale sackings. He represents the fat cats and the free market principles people resent so much.
But what has been most striking is how suddenly and unexpectedly discontent with New Labour has boiled over into class struggle. Two major strikes broke out on Clydeside this summer. In July 250 electricians walked out on unofficial strike over travel allowances and then picketed out 1,000 other workers. The two main unions in the yard, the AEEU and the GMB, ordered the strikers back several times before the GMB narrowly got a return to work. Only then did the electricians end the strike.
Then in August a strike by over 1,500 social workers against the privatisation of care homes and the suspension of two union activists became front page news. The strike was disowned by the Unison leadership as being Illegal and unofficial. A letter stating this was sent to every social worker in the city. Meanwhile Glasgow City Council took out an injunction against eight strikers. In classic New Labour fashion a media witch hunt was then launched against the strike and against a Socialist Workers Party member, Roddy Slorach, who it was claimed had 'hijacked' the strike.
Despite all this, the witch hunt had little effect. At the final mass meeting the local Unison leadership attempted to close the meeting, told the strikers to return to work, and then left taking only 50 strikers with them. The mass meeting continued in defiance of the union on fulltimers and although it was agreed to return to work 500 social workers marched five miles across the. city to the Govan office where they won the reinstatement of the two union activists.
Both disputes represented rank and file politics at their best with mass pickets and flying pickets, mass meetings, and democratic debate. Workers elsewhere gave a warm response to a fightback.
But the strikes also demonstrated some thing else. The relentless right wing drive of New Labour and the failure of the union leaders, who are tied to Blair, to champion any resistance has created a space in which both class struggle can explode and socialists can capture a new audience. Both disputes, but particularly the Glasgow social workers' strike, showed just how out of touch New Labour and both the national and local full time union leaderships are with the mood at grass roots level.
Realisation of this even penetrated the Scottish media. Having simply repeated the line fed to them from Glasgow City Council and from the Unison leadership, even claiming the strike had ended in defeat, letters began appearing attacking this coverage and then articles offering a much more sympathetic and honest portrayal of the strike appeared in the Herald, Scotland on Sunday and the Scottish edition of the Observer. Journalists have to present a version of reality which cuts with the popular mood. When they realised just how far out on a limb they were they had to quickly backtrack.
It is likely other such explosions will occur in the coming months.
The main beneficiaries of disillusionment with New Labour, in electoral terms, will be the SNP. Yet it is important to state that rising support for the SNP does not represent an overwhelming wave of nationalism. People are looking to the SNP because they believe it represents a radical alternative to New Labour. The Financial Times said that New labour 'is now seen by many Scots as the party of middle England; Tony Blair is viewed as out of touch with Scottish concerns. That exacerbates the Scots' tendency to oppose whoever occupies power in London.'
But behind the left wing rhetoric of Alex Salmond the substance is rather different. Salmond presented a vision of an independent Scotland as a low tax economy favourable to business, modelled on the Irish Republic.
Glasgow social workers demonstrate
What he did not say was that in Ireland direct taxation is far higher than in Britain and that burden is shouldered by the working class.
Salmond has been busy courting big business. Twenty years ago big business lined up solidly against devolution in the 1979 referendum. Today they are less worried about Scotland gaining independence within the context of the European Union.
The old Unionist upper and middle classes have found themselves marginalised. Andrew Neil contributed an essay to the Spectator magazine bewailing the fact that where once 'those born to be Scottish and British had been truly dealt a privileged, winning hand by fate', today 'Britain is increasingly depicted as an irrelevance, a historic interlude from the age of imperialism.'
Neil issued a call for a new Unionist politics. A similar appeal can be heard from New Labour's ranks. So far this seems to amount to a sustained attempt to launch an anti-nationalist backlash by a campaign claiming anti-English racism is on the rise in Scotland. This first surfaced when a Tory journalist writing in the Spectator tried to exploit the murder of a teenager on the outskirts of Edinburgh. He had an English accent. It quickly transpired that this tragic killing had no racist content.
Since then the Blairites have taken up this theme. John Lloyd writing from 'an Edinburgh awash with anti-English sentiment' (as the New Statesman described it) blamed both the SNP and the Labour Party for this. Lloyd argued:
'The agitation for devolution in the 1980s and early 1990s had been framed not just as a desirable constitutional reform, bringing government closer to the people, but as an anti-English project. Phrases such as "metropolitan" or .south eastern" man were used to denote a selfish, grasping English type, counterpoised to the morally and socially balanced Scots.'
Lloyd's article misses out the most obvious fact. Nationalism has grown because of the deep resentment felt north of the border during 18 years of Tory rule.
Joyce McMillan writing in response to John Lloyd in the Scotsman pointed out: 'The sense of alienation many Scots experienced from Westminster government during the Thatcher years was not a matter of being Scottish, but a matter of being human. It was a feeling shared by millions in England, not only those geographically far from the south-cast, but ethnic minority groups, human rights campaigners, professional associations, men and women of the decent left everywhere; and they expressed solidarity with Scotland's aspiration for home rule because they saw it as part of the struggle against the worst, most centralising aspects of Thatcherism.'
McMillan also explains why the SNP has advanced so much in the polls since Blair's election last May when she points out that New Labour's 'over-enthusiastic endorsement of Margaret Thatcher's "no alternative" approach to market economics, which once again has left Scots of the left with no utopia to dream of except a Scottish one.'
Currently there are two visions of Scotland on offer.
One idea popular among sections of the left is that somehow Scotland is a more caring, less rapacious society than England and that class matters less. That argument underlay the Scottish TUC's invite to Stagecoach boss Brian Souter to address its conference this year. His claim that 'we're all Jock Tamson's bairns' rings a bit hollow when he awarded himself a 26 percent wage increase taking his annual pay to £585,000.
It has been a common assumption that a Scottish parliament would be dominated by the left. But all the polls indicate that next year's elections would produce either a Labour-Liberal coalition or an alliance between the SNP and Liberals.
But similarly Unionist rantings about a tide of anti-English racism sweeping Scotland have to be dismissed. Racism exists north of the border as in any other country but Scotland has become a more multi-racial and multi-cultural society in recent years. Socialists and anti-racists in Scotland have met with a marvellous response to the campaign over the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
What is missing from claims about rising Anglophobia is the reality that Scottish workers belong to the same mass membership organisations as their English and Welsh counterparts, the trade unions, and that there is a long history of common struggle-most recently seen in the rail maintenance workers' strike.
Socialists have no interest in maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom. If a vote on separation represents a vote of no confidence in an increasingly unpopular Blair government we would have no problems voting for it. But much of the Scottish left is now focused on electoral politics and the creation of pan-nationalist alliances. Behind that is a pessimism about the ability of the working class to act as a force for change.
While we have no interest in saving the union, Scottish workers have an absolute interest in maintaining unity with their English and Welsh brothers and sisters. Even if Scotland went independent it would remain with an all British free trade economy, its main trading partner would be England and there would be close connections between the ruling classes in Edinburgh and in London.
The most important lesson from this summer, however, is that there is a space opening up to the left of both New Labour and the union leadership. Class struggle is suddenly catapulted onto the front pages. In that situation socialists can catch the mood and can offer what neither New Labour or the SNP offer the working class - a way forward.