Not the messiah, just a naughty... Photo:Getty
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If you think the SNP are a left-wing force, think again

Many on the Left see the SNP as a progressive partner - the reality is very different. 

Len McCluskey this week praised Nicola Sturgeon and said that Labour should be prepared to work with the SNP. He isn’t the only English lefty to fall for the charms of Scotland’s First Minister. ‘Can I vote SNP?’ was one of the most popular Google searches among non-Scottish voters who watched the main leaders’ debate at the start of the campaign. The effect has been similar to Cleggmania in 2010 with a rival party leader appearing to say the sorts of things many Labour supporters have longed to hear from one of their own. Why shouldn’t they be attracted to the idea of Labour forming a progressive alliance with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, SDLP and possibly a Green or two? For very good reasons, as it happens.

The case against a deal with the SNP is usually made by Labour tribalists and couched in terms so self-serving as to be immediately discounted by its intended audience. The party might do better if it showed more self-awareness by acknowledging that there are valid reasons for people in Scotland to feel angry with it.

The argument for steering clear of the SNP isn’t that Labour has a monopoly of progressive virtue. It clearly doesn’t. The real reason for being a Nat-sceptic is that, aside from nationalism, the SNP has no ideological core of its own and simply instrumentalises progressive ideas to advance the regressive goal of separatism. For the non-Scottish left there can be no question of a principled and trusting relationship with the SNP because you can’t build a common project for social change with someone whose first and only purpose is to smash up the political community to which you both belong. The left in England and Wales may want the UK to work differently, but they definitely want it to work. Nicola Sturgeon and her party want it to fail.

The SNP could have proved otherwise by refocusing its priorities on areas of shared interest with the rest of Britain when it lost the referendum, but it spurned the opportunity. Like true vanguardists, the self-styled ‘45’ decided to set democracy and majority opinion aside and behave as if they were real voice of Scotland. Their pledge that the referendum would be a “once in a generation” event was immediately ditched in a frenzy of debate about how soon a rerun could be engineered and what ruses would be needed to secure a different outcome. Everything the SNP does is now framed with that solitary objective in mind.

The effect has been to foster a dominant attitude that is highly sectarian and trending towards totalitarian. There is only one truth and one way to be authentically Scottish – the nationalist way. Anyone who disagrees with this is, as one SNP parliamentary candidate put it, the moral equivalent of a Nazi collaborator. There is no space for pluralism and honest compromise with a movement in this state of mind. The normal rules of democratic conduct don’t apply because it answers to destiny alone. When Nicola Sturgeon says that she wants to help the Labour Party, she does so in the same spirit that Lenin once advised his British followers support the Labour Party of Arthur Henderson: “as the rope supports a hanged man”.

The SNP’s progressive credentials don’t, in any case, stand up to serious scrutiny. When Sturgeon was asked at her manifesto launch to name a redistributive policy enacted by the SNP in Holyrood, she was unable to cite a single example. There has been plenty of middle class welfarism, but no effective measures to reduce inequality or poverty. Indeed, the SNP in power has resembled nothing as much as New Labour in its pomp, combining the worst reflexes of authoritarian statism and market liberalism with a superior, “we know best” attitude that brooks no opposition.

With the creation of a single national police force, the routine use of armed response units, a stop and search rate four times higher than the rest of the UK and plans to create an integrated ID database, the SNP has strayed into areas that even Tony Blair’s Home Secretaries backed away from. A new ‘named person’ law will create an army of state employed snoopers with a right to pry into the affairs of every family. The party has also taken a lurch towards democratic centralism with a new gagging rule that obliges its MPs to "accept that no member shall within or outwith the parliament publicly criticise a group decision, policy or another member of the group".

The SNP’s ‘business friendly’ approach of sucking up to powerful tycoons like Donald Trump, Brian Souter and Rupert Murdoch is scarcely any better then Blair’s cloying embrace of the super-rich, and arguably worse. The party’s flagship post-independence economic policy of attracting multinational companies by slashing corporation tax and undercutting the welfare budgets of other countries is the sort of tax piracy beloved of the neo-liberal right. The SNP’s claims to be anti-austerity have been revealed as baseless. Only opposition to Trident sets it apart; hardly an act of principle given that an independent Scotland wouldn’t be able to afford nuclear weapons.

At a time when Britain is crying out for a politics of the common good, the SNP stands for a militant politics of sectional advantage. It is rapidly acquiring the characteristics of a political religion, a faith-based movement that vilifies unbelievers and subordinates all other considerations to the attainment of national ‘rapture’ through independence. This sets it apart from other parties, even Plaid Cymru which takes a more pragmatic approach to independence and has already worked as part of a coalition in Cardiff. There are good reasons for people on the left to want a new kind of pluralist politics, but it’s no use pretending that you can pursue that vision with people who aren’t pluralists. Short of a second referendum defeat, the SNP is likely to remain a belligerent and destructive force in British politics. Progressives beware.

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.