How should we remember Nicola Sturgeon’s time as first minister? Ellie Gomersall, the NUS Scotland student union president and Green Party activist, summed up the dominant view in The National newspaper. “Her leadership throughout the pandemic was undeniably strong, and though I often wished she would go further, she has made a significant impact in making Scotland a better place to live,” she wrote.
However, any honest assessment of Sturgeon’s tenure would lead to a vastly different conclusion. Scottish independence seems as far away as ever. The grassroots movement is divided and demoralised. The Scottish National Party (SNP) government faces a wave of strikes by public sector workers it employs. Reforms of the Gender Recognition Act have been blocked by Westminster. And vast numbers of working class people in Scotland face poverty, hardship and deprivation.
The trick Sturgeon has been able to pull off is that she is not David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak. But the SNP’s reforms have provided little more than a thin gloss over the real issues ordinary people in Scotland face daily.
When she took over the leadership of the SNP in November 2014, things looked vastly different. The independence referendum was lost by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent. However, all the momentum and optimism was with the Yes side of the argument. “I’m with Nicola” badges seemed to be everywhere. And the general mood was that, in comparison to her predecessor Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s leadership would prove to be more inclusive and radical.
This seemed to be confirmed by the general election in 2015 when the SNP took 56 of the 59 seats contested. Labour, the Tories and Liberal Democrats were all reduced to one seat each. Labour was rebuked by working class voters across Scotland for doing the Tories’ dirty work during the referendum, fronting up the Better Together Campaign.
Despite all the problems that have beset the SNP, independence in Scotland remains popular. And Sturgeon’s approval ratings, though they have fallen from the highs of the Covid pandemic, remain positive in comparison with the majority of mainstream politicians. So why has she chosen to go at this time?
The media has pushed two issues as an explanation. The first is her handling of the reform of the Gender Recognition Act in Scotland. The second was the idea of using the next general election as a de facto vote on independence in the wake of a UK Supreme Court ruling.
Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reforms
Many claim that Sturgeon has driven GRA reforms forward, dividing the SNP and independence movement. Robin McAlpine, former Director of the Common Weal think tank, argued, “This crisis (and it is a crisis) is headlined by two matters in particular. The first is obviously the situation the party finds itself in around gender. Setting aside what you think about the debate personally and looking only at its secondary consequences, this one is horrible.”
It’s right to demand trans and non-binary rights and reform of the GRA. And the move was widely supported by trans people and organisations such as Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid and the STUC union federation. But, far from driving this forward in a divisive manner, Sturgeon has sought compromise and only eventually moved ahead at the insistence of the Scottish Greens.
The SNP first proposed reforming the GRA in Scotland, which would make it easier for trans people to legally change their gender, in 2016. A consultation process showed a majority in favour of reform. The SNP then delayed moving forward with implementation until after Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021. And, even then, it was only included in the Scottish government’s programme at the insistence of the Green Party as part of the coalition agreement.
The bill was eventually passed by the Scottish parliament by 86 votes to 39. Only the Tories showed significant opposition with 26 of them voting against. The Act was amended to include a provision that for applicants aged 16 to 17 the period of “living within the acquired gender” should be raised from three to six months before gender recognition would be allowed. Also, there was no provision for people who identify as non-binary.
Meanwhile, The Telegraph recently reported, “Sturgeon’s plans to change the law on gender self-identification are now set to be ditched by the SNP, The Telegraph understands. The highly controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which proposed allowing anyone over the age of 16 to legally change their sex without consulting a doctor, was vetoed in Westminster. Our Scottish Correspondent Daniel Sanderson writes that sources in Holyrood now suggest a proposed legal challenge will be quietly dropped.”
The fight for independence?
Both issues besetting Sturgeon have something in common. They have shown the limitations of both the devolved settlement and Sturgeon’s route to achieving independence. In both cases, there’s only been a quiet outrage in the face of Westminster intransigence and blockage. It is the constitutional, law abiding, “don’t disturb the status quo” approach that has failed. She is constrained within the framework of capitalist legality.
Sturgeon probably would have been happy to continue as first minister and govern with policies that differentiated the Scottish government from the Tories. However, the base of the movement she represents demands, at the very minimum, the appearance that she is committed to bringing independence closer. This explains her latest initiatives.
Her decision to stand down also reflects the growing disquiet among SNP members about her ability to move independence forward. A special SNP conference, planned for March, to discuss plans for a de facto referendum has now been postponed. Any conference to be held later in the year is unlikely to follow through on her plan.
More importantly, recent years have seen a major dip in activists’ willingness to turn out and campaign. Sturgeon and the SNP have never been supportive of the mass demonstrations called by All Under One Banner. The SNP only agreed to speak at these once it became clear they represented a huge number of people, with over 200,000 marching in Edinburgh in October 2019. These days are long gone with many unconvinced that the SNP leadership is serious about confronting the British State in any meaningful manner.
The latest opinion polls show a dip in support for independence since Sturgeon’s resignation, though it would be wrong to make too much of this. While the Tories are in power passive support for independence will remain a major element of working class opposition.
Perhaps more interestingly, there seems to be some evidence of a recovery for the Labour Party in Scotland. The latest polls show Labour on 30 percent, rising from a 19 percent share of the vote in the 2019 general election. Anas Sarwar, Labour Leader in Scotland, is looking to take up to 25 seats. But Keir Stammer won’t be a step forward for working class voters in Scotland looking for an alternative to the Tories. He has ruled out any deal with the SNP or a second vote on independence.
Meanwhile, there are three candidates for SNP leader—Humza Yousaf, Ash Regan and Kate Forbes, the current finance secretary. Yousaf is MSP for Glasgow Pollok, a working class community in the South Side of the city. He is probably the contender most in tune with working class voters across Scotland. But he is currently secretary for health and social care and has presided over the ongoing crisis in the NHS and social care provision. His offer of a 6.5 percent pay rise to NHS staff in Scotland is way below the rate of inflation and far from an increase which they deserve.
Ash Regan opposed the GRA reforms—and calls for those who resigned in protest to be allowed back into the party. Forbes is also opposed to gender reform, oppose abortion rights for women and has said she does not support gay marriage.
What about Sturgeon’s record in government?
At the end of her resignation speech, Sturgeon was clear that she was proud of her record. She believes Scotland has “changed for the better” since she was in office, saying, “Scotland is fairer today than it was in 2014. We have a more progressive approach to taxation and a new social security system, with the Scottish Child Payment at its heart”.
How do her claims stack up? Undoubtedly, some of the SNP’s reforms make a small difference to people in Scotland. These include free prescriptions, no fees for students undertaking their first degree, and the Scottish Child Payment which provides low income families with £80 per child every four weeks.
However, Sturgeon and the SNP are caught in the contradiction. They want to make Scotland a place that provides incentives for capitalist investment while at the same time responding to the aspirations of the majority of its working-class voters. Iain Ferguson, in Breaking up the British State—Scotland, Independence and Socialism, describes it as “neoliberalism, with a heart”.
Taxation provides a good example. The Scottish government has full control over income tax in Scotland. And it is certainly true that there is a difference between Scotland and the rest of Britain. In Scotland the top rate of tax is currently 47 percent on incomes above £125,140. The rest of Britain is 45 percent on incomes above £150,001.
This hardly amounts to a radical progressive taxation system. The SNP under Sturgeon’s leadership has never made a serious attempt to tax rich earners to any extent, with the aim of redistributing wealth in a meaningful way.
Another example is the fact that free ports are to be set up in the Cromarty Firth and the Forth. These have been implemented in conjunction with the Tory government. Forbes has presented these as “green” free ports with fair work practices. The Green Party on the other hand describe them as a “corporate giveaway” and “greenwashing”.
The failure of social care in Scotland which was brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. In response, the SNP have put forward plans for a new social care service. This should have provided an opportunity for the Scottish government to bring all services into public ownership and provide investment and resources for neglected and deprived people. Instead, it has offered another opportunity for private companies to make profits and exploit the vulnerable.
Similarly, the ScotWind project was a chance to create publicly-owned offshore wind farms and to make an important contribution to the expansion of renewable energy. Instead, this has been auctioned off to multinational companies such as Shell and BP.
The list can go on and on. Drug deaths in Scotland at record levels. Local authorities facing huge cuts. The NHS in crisis with record waiting times. Poverty and inequality—a major problem exacerbated by the current cost of living crisis. During the pandemic the death toll was slightly better than England, but still one of the worst in the world.
Another issue lurking in the background is the SNP finances. Between 2016 and 2019, £600,000 was raised, ostensibly to fund an ongoing independence campaign. It transpired that the money was actually being obtained to fund the SNP—£500,000 of which appeared to go directly to the party. Complaints have led to a police investigation. Peter Murrel, the SNP executive officer and Sturgeon’s husband, then lent the party £107,000 in June 2021 which was not declared to the electoral commission until a year later. This was a breach of the rules. When asked for her view on the matter after her resignation speech, Sturgeon wouldn’t comment.
The shift of working class voters towards the SNP and independence was never solely about Scotland breaking away from Britain. Rather, this became a form of resistance to the onslaught living standards by successive Tory and Labour governments. It was also a consequence of the so-called “democratic deficit”, where people largely voted Labour and mostly ended up with the Tories.
Sturgeon sought to soak up support, while at the same time presenting Scotland as open for business and willing to work and encourage multinational corporations to invest in Scotland. In doing so, the SNP was rigidly controlled by the central leadership to ensure the membership remained on message.
If things went awry, she could always blame the Tories in Westminster. Of course, there is an element of truth in this. But the reality is that under Sturgeon, the SNP never offered any serious form of resistance to the Tories.
Neither should we underestimate independence. Most SNP activists, now a dwindling force, were prepared to put up with a lot of things as long as it looked like the party was committed to achieving this. Unfortunately, the proposals put forward by Sturgeon of appealing to the UK Supreme Court and of using a general election as a de facto vote on independence were never going to succeed. In the end, they amounted to mere window dressing.
Sturgeon and the SNP leadership have overseen the decline and stifling of a movement, which in 2014 looked as if it had the possibility of bringing about real change.The project of breaking up the British state remains one that socialists should continue to support. But, for us, Scottish independence was never the end point.
Much more radical and effective areas of struggle are emerging. While Scottish Independence is most strongly supported by 16- to 35-year-olds, very few of them turn up to independence demonstrations or actively campaign for it. They are much more likely to be found acting over climate change, supporting anti-racist initiatives or campaigning over women’s or trans rights.
In recent months many of them have been turning up to picket lines in support of striking workers. And many independence supporters and SNP members have, too, been involved in strikes and stood on picket lines, often in opposition to their own government. These are the battles which supporters of independence should throw themselves into.Original post