Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

Scottish parliament

‘IF YOU asked the public whether they thought their Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) should be beheaded I’m sure 99% would be in favour’.

This was the quip by Scottish National Party (SNP) MSP, Margo McDonald, in an effort to dismiss polls which found that 99% of people in Scotland were opposed to the recent MSP pay rise. Despite her attempts at a humorous put down – she voted for the pay increase – McDonald’s comments aptly sum up the scathing hostility that exists in Scotland towards the political establishment. This is quite an achievement given the parliament is only now three years old.

The 13.5% pay rise provoked a storm of protest. The Daily Record newspaper and Scottish Television ran polls which found 99.5% and 99% opposition. There is seething anger at the fat-cat increase – £100 a week to £48,000 a year – when nurses were being told £7 a week was all that could be afforded for them, when one-in-three children live in poverty, and 750,000 households in Scotland cannot afford to adequately heat their homes. Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist Party MSP who takes a skilled workers’ wage, tabled an amendment calling for MSP pay to be restricted to £25,000. This amendment received one vote – his own.

It would be difficult to overstate the contempt with which the majority of the political establishment is regarded by the working class in Scotland. This is linked to the failure of the devolved parliament to deliver reforms in any of the key public services that it is responsible for.

Recent research found that in 1997 80% of Scots believed the parliament would give them more say in how they were governed, whereas today that figure is below 40%. Only 45% expect the NHS will improve and 42% think there will be no difference. Only 25% believe that education will get better. The limitations of devolution on a capitalist basis made it inevitable from the start that the Edinburgh parliament would fail to deliver.

That does not mean that there is opposition to constitutional change as such. In fact, polls show that 60-70% believe the parliament needs more powers over the economy and taxation. It is more a rejection of establishment politics. It is possible that at the next Scottish parliament elections in 2003 fewer than 50% will vote. At the same time, however, there has not been any significant rise in support for independence in the last three years, partly linked to the disappointment with the parliament and opposition to all the main big-business parties in Scotland.

The New Labour/Liberal Scottish executive has driven ahead with its privatisation agenda. Hundreds of private finance initiative (PFI) and public/private partnership (PPP) schemes are now being introduced into schools and hospitals. The total investment is around £2bn for which the private companies involved expect to receive at least £7bn of public money over the next 20-30 years. The executive has supported the privatisation of road maintenance, the stock transfer of council housing in Glasgow, and the privatisation of prisons in Scotland. This has cost hundreds of jobs while thousands of workers face being transferred out of the public sector with no guarantees on wages and conditions.

At the recent New Labour Scottish conference in Perth the leadership defeated attempts by the unions to guarantee conditions for workers moved into the private sector through PFI/PPP projects. The next day, First Minister Jack McConnell announced a further 100 PPP projects for schools and hospitals. The privatisation of naval bases at Faslane and Coulport also threatens 500 support workers’ jobs.

Even changes agreed by the executive which were seen by some workers as reforms have not saved the bacon for the Holyrood establishment. The McCrone deal which saw a significant increase in teachers’ salaries and contractual changes – widely hailed by union leaders in England and Wales as a model – is beginning to unravel. One of the main reasons is that local authorities, which were supposed to finance significant parts of the deal, claim they have no money to do so. The 35-hour week is being undermined by local negotiations, resulting in some schools getting better deals than others, largely depending on the strength of the union in the area.

The abolition of tuition fees (replaced by a graduate tax), and the return of a limited grant for a small number of students, have not stopped an inexorable increase in student poverty. Rising numbers of students are forced to work long hours to fund their education.

There has been a significant increase in industrial action. ScotRail drivers are balloting on an improved pay offer after two one-day strikes. The deal, which involves some concessions and ‘flexibility’, would see a 14% pay rise in June, or 22% over 18 months with productivity links. Drivers’ basic pay would go up from £23,000 to £26,000 from June and to £28,000 in 2004. The PCS strike over workplace safety and the possibility of action by postal workers are indications of a new mood developing among a section of working-class people. The privatisation of the naval dockyard jobs has forced the union leaders to sanction strike action on the Clyde ports.

In each case these disputes are part of all-Britain struggles over pay, conditions and privatisation. Despite the importance of the national question in Scotland, a series of workers’ actions throughout Britain could see the common interests of trade unionists and the wider working class pushed to the foreground.

Disappointment in the parliament and politicians in general has impacted on the SNP as well as New Labour. Despite New Labour’s unpopularity the nationalists have not significantly increased their support since 1999, when they won 35 MSPs out of 129. This is mainly due to their shift to the right on a number of policy questions: their acceptance of free-market policies; opposition to taxation on oil companies; opposition to public ownership; support for cuts in corporation tax; support for the Afghanistan war; and their downplaying of independence in favour of ‘making the parliament work for Scotland’. This has made the SNP seem indistinguishable from the other bourgeois parties.

It is true that it is still to the left of New Labour on PPP/PFI and some other issues. But the main trend under John Swinney’s leadership is away from the, at times, radical populism of Alex Salmond. Swinney, for example, wants to change the SNP’s opposition to joining Nato and has discussed dropping the policy of refusing to serve in the House of Lords –desperately wishing to be seen as a ‘responsible’ party. Nevertheless, the SNP is likely to make gains in 2003, if for no other reason than the hatred of New Labour.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is standing at around 6% in opinion polls for the proportional representation list section. This could see the SSP win three or four seats in the 2003 elections. There is a massive political vacuum in Scotland that the SSP is partially filling.

There has, however, been a significant shift in the programme of the SSP in the recent past. For example while the SSP came out forcefully against the war on Afghanistan, no link was made between opposition to the war and the need to end capitalism and fight for socialism. Domestically, Tommy Sheridan has raised the idea of using the ‘tartan tax’, that is the power to increase the basic rate of income tax, which would penalize the working class (Scottish Socialist Voice, 15 February).

The likely election of more SSP MSPs will provide a major test for the party. A clear and uncompromising socialist programme is necessary to meet the possibilities that exist to build support for socialism against the background of increasing world instability, recession and an increasing confidence of the working class.

Phillip Stott

To keep up to date on developments in Scotland subscribe to the International Socialist, the monthly paper of the Scottish section of the CWI


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