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Issue 48, June 2000

New Labour's Scottish problem

THE SCOTTISH parliament recently celebrated its first year of existence. An opinion poll commissioned to coincide with this anniversary found almost 70% of people in Scotland calling for increased powers for the Edinburgh legislature.

At the same time, a number of recent polls have seen the Scottish National Party (SNP) overtake Labour in voting intentions for the next Scottish elections. Clearly the hopes of New Labour that devolution would settle once and for all the constitutional question in Scotland are proving to be well wide of the mark.

While we supported the setting up of a devolved parliament in Scotland the national question could not be resolved by such a measure. Inevitably, as the interests of the working class began to come into collision with the limited clout of the parliament - which in reality relies on a block grant from Westminster - many workers would begin to demand extra powers and resources for the parliament. The main reason for the growth of support for the SNP is the widespread anti-Labour mood rather than a significant increase in support for independence at the moment.

The SNP themselves are split between the 'gradualists', who see the fight for independence as a process of accumulation of more and more powers for the parliament, and the 'fundamentalists', who oppose any watering down of the demand for independence. A compromise position was agreed at a recent conference, that an SNP administration in Edinburgh would negotiate a referendum on independence after four years.


The craven performance of the New Labour/Lib-Dem executive in Edinburgh has only increased the general feeling of disappointment at the lack of any real change. The crisis in the NHS is unresolved, as are the problems of housing and public services in general. The executive are backing the wholesale stock transfer of council housing in Glasgow, which the Labour-led council in the city are advocating as a solution to the crumbling state of housing provision.

The parliament has been incapable of preventing a whole series of hospital and ward closures that are currently being driven through by cash-hungry NHS Trust managers and health boards. Many areas of Scotland have seen massive hikes in local taxation through council tax and water charges increases. Dundee, Glasgow and West Dumbarton have average council tax bills at over £1,000 a year. Dundee alone has had imposed a 46% increase in water bills by the local water quango that Labour once proposed to abolish in a 'bonfire of the quangos'.

At the same time, the abolition of up-front tuition fees and the return of a limited student grant, as well as the tremendous victory over warrant sales, have helped increase the appetite for more powers over the economy, tax, social security and the minimum wage. It has also, of course, raised the need for fighting socialist political representation which has been epitomised by the role of Tommy Sheridan and the Scottish Socialist Party.

Tommy's bill for the abolition of warrant sales and poindings (valuations of people's possessions, in their homes, prior to sale) is currently the first Private Member's Bill to be considered by the parliament. The decision to back this bill and take it to a second reading by 79 votes to 15, forcing the executive into a humiliating climbdown, was seen as being of enormous political significance.


The fact that Tommy, who served a four-month prison sentence in 1992 for opposing warrant sales, was the main sponsor of the bill, made this victory all the more significant. It was also the spectre of the mass anti-poll tax struggle that played a role in this breakthrough. One of Scotland's leading political journalists, Ian McWhirtar, wrote: "Thursday was a transforming event, and its implications will be pored over for many months. It was above all a triumph for Sheridan and his Scottish Socialist Party. The Scottish executive has been forced to abandon its policy and adopt his".

Without any doubt, Tommy Sheridan and the SSP have made a big impact and the warrant sales bill has helped to increase this enormously. 'If that is what one socialist MSP can do what could more achieve?' Such regularly expressed comments reflect a widespread mood, with the SSP at around 5% in opinion polls. The SSP is very likely to increase its representation in the parliament at the next elections as disillusionment with the ruling Scottish executive and the Westminster government bite further.

This mood of dissatisfaction is despite the ongoing economic growth, with unemployment falling in most areas. In common with all the other capitalist economies, poverty and inequality have actually increased, despite the continued upswing. Nevertheless, manufacturing industry has taken a hammering in Scotland. Factory closures including textiles, electronics and the threat over shipbuilding on the Clyde, are a constant reminder of the uneven and weak character of the recovery. The call centres and the service industries in general have seen a growth in employment but poverty pay is endemic in these sectors. All of these contradictions are resulting in a ready-made audience for socialist ideas. The recent occupation of a factory in Clydebank by workers fighting job losses is a foretaste of an anger and preparedness to take action that can develop further in the months ahead.


The role of the trade union leaders in Scotland, as in the rest of Britain, is still a barrier to workers taking action. There have, however, been limited struggles in education, the post office, oil fabrication and local government over the last few months. The ending of the US bubble economy and a downturn in the rest of Britain and Europe would leave Scotland in a very vulnerable position due to its reliance on exports and inward investment.

The new situation which is developing can lead to a significant growth in socialist ideas in Scotland. While the SSP is well placed to take advantage of this, the role of Marxism within this broad socialist party will be decisive if the SSP is to capitalise on the potential.

Philip Stott

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