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5 January 2021

Simon Barrow is director of the beliefs, ethics and politics think-tank Ekklesia. He is on the executive committees of both the SNP Trade Union Group and SNP Socialists, and remains committed to progressive alliance politics, in and beyond parties.

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Where stands the left in the SNP?

While the SNP continue to increase their support with the Scottish parliament election just months away, Simon Barrow looks at the role of the left within the party

WHILE internal strife within the SNP is not nearly as widespread as some sections of the press and social media might suggest, there can be little doubt that the political positioning of the party is under greater scrutiny and strain now than it has been since the 2014 referendum. This is due not least to the fact that, as support for independence in Scotland has been growing considerably in recent months, so has the level of anxiety and activity among ruling elites viewing developments from both near and afar.


It is no coincidence that the forces of both change and retrenchment have been growing simultaneously within the SNP. The tipping point came in 2016 when a Sustainable Growth Commission was created to develop the SNP’s economic case for independence. This was established under the leadership of Andrew Wilson, a founding partner in business-friendly PR outfit Charlotte Street Partners and former head of corporate relations at RBS during the 2008 banking crisis. The result was a report grounded in caution, pro-market solutions and fiscal conservatism. When the 354-page document was published in 2018 it produced an instant reaction of concern from progressives inside and beyond the party. Nationwide consultations of SNP members were overwhelmingly critical, and a party conference resolution backgrounded the report’s conservatism and (thanks to a successful amendment) speeded up proposals for establishing a Scottish currency under independence.


Until that point, the political tide had seemed to be moving (albeit quietly) in a rather different way. Proposals for a National Investment Bank and similar institutions for renewable energy and infrastructure, combined with a fresh approach to social security and an openness to Universal Basic Income, suggested an economic approach at the more ambitious end of social democracy. The question was one of control and direction. Was this the evolution of some truly transformational instruments of change, or a matter of gesturing left while maintaining an overall stance of caution, competence and pragmatism which has marked the leadership of a party riding high in both the opinion polls and national and UK-wide elections?


The Growth Commission embodied an acceptable direction of travel among corporate interests which, recognising the likelihood that SNP electoral hegemony and the gradual swing to independence was likely to continue, determined that signs of radicalism within a number of key areas of policy development needed to be restrained. Big oil, agribusiness, the airline industry, bankers, investment companies, landowners and landlords all sought to push back from their positions as advisers, consultants and influencers. They remain a looming force which needs to be taken very seriously indeed.


At the same time, the left-of-centre ethos of the party was strengthened by an influx from the radical wing of the independence movement after 2014. Of the 125,000-peak membership (down to around 90,000 now), the great majority were well-wishers whose practical involvement was negligible. But those who got involved at grassroots level tended leftwards. In 2015 an SNP Socialists Group began to pitch a flag for those who wanted to see the party embolden its vision and policy. The SNP Trade Union Group, an official affiliate with an NEC seat, now has a base membership of around 13,000 (potentially making it the largest trade union affiliate group in the country).


The latest arrival on the scene is the SNP Common Weal Group, which has produced a burst of energy in terms of policy and organisation, and which undoubtedly had an impact on the 2020 NEC elections. However, the restraining factors for the left within the SNP remain co-ordination, the desire to exercise influence while not to be seen as factional (going back to the controversies and expulsions around the republican socialist 79 Group), and the hugely divisive impact of gender/sex arguments – and to a lesser extent, the lightning-conductor row about Alex Salmond, his behaviour, and his fraught relationship with the current leadership.


In addition, the SNP as a party, while certainly harbouring radical currents over the years, has few links to organised labour (in the broadest sense of that term) and no real tradition of thinking hard about class and power as a key component of the intersectional justice and human rights perspective needed to shape a progressive agenda for future Scotland. There is also something of a tension between those who see independence as the cause which must push all other struggles into the shadows until it is achieved, and those who see it as a means to an end (a just, more equal, participatory, sustainable, non-nuclear, post-carbon country) which forms a key part of the case for achieving it.


The arena in which the contending forces in and around the SNP will conduct their arguments in the coming period – unless and until events in the wider political frame intervene – will be that of party democracy. That has been a matter of growing concern as the tensions between the SNP as (part of a) political movement, and the SNP as a bureaucratic election machine and party of government, are played out. For those who look left, the issue is how to balance unity with progress, how to confront the real dangers of corporate capture, and how not to get so caught up in internal politics that the larger task of forging partnerships and policies for radical change in Scotland is not side-lined.