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Voices of Scotland Where now for Scottish nationalism?

As Fergus Ewing’s suspension unfolds, the two paths open to the SNP become increasingly stark: upholding its progressive image amid growing conservative influences or sinking deeper into neoliberal rot, writes PAULINE BRYAN

THE suspension of Fergus Ewing MSP for a week from the SNP group in the Scottish Parliament may not feel like a shift of the tectonic plates of Scottish nationalism, but, as anyone who has seen a decent disaster movie knows, it is the small events that presage the final catastrophe.

The notion of an SNP catastrophe may seem all the more ridiculous given the resilience in support for independence in Scotland, which bobs along at around 50 per cent — never enough above that margin to threaten the union and never enough below that number to say that it can be declared as dead.

Ewing is of course part of the Scottish Ewing dynasty. Back in 1979, Alex Salmond, as part of the “79 group,” argued that the SNP should adopt policies that would appeal to working-class voters.

Winnie Ewing, Fergus’s mother, argued that nationalism transcended class politics and instead established the Campaign for Nationalism in Scotland. The party papered over the cracks by banning internal groups, but the differences remained.

In 1990 Salmond defeated Margaret Ewing, Fergus’s wife, to win the leadership of the SNP. Salmond had by then lost much of his radical edge, but there remained a difference in how best to win popular support.

Fergus Ewing was suspended after he supported the Tories in a vote of no confidence in Lorna Slater, the minister for the circular economy and Scottish Green co-leader. He was adamantly opposed to the SNP-Green government’s deposit return scheme (since abandoned) which Slater was leading.

After losing an appeal against his suspension last week, he said that the party should “go back to the middle ground, to be a broad church representing everybody in Scotland, accepting that people can have different views, social conservatives as well as progressives.” What he means by “middle ground” is not 1970s-style social democracy.

The deposit return scheme was not the only Scottish government policy that the Inverness and Nairn MSP has attacked. He urged his party to ditch the gender recognition reform proposals, which, after a Court of Session ruling have been dropped.

He opposed the ban on gas boilers in new homes by 2025, later postponed, and the plans, later abandoned, to restrict fishing and other activities in some coastal areas to protect wildlife and the environment.

The trail of retreats and defeats on some of these more progressive elements of the SNP-Green programme highlights the problem for the SNP —  that is, that Ewing is far from alone outside or inside the SNP.

Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, who is socially and economically conservative, ran Humza Yousaf a very close second in the SNP leadership race with 47.9 per cent of the membership vote, compared to Yousaf’s 52.1 per cent in the second round of voting last year.

Forbes and Ewing represent a return to openly espousing neoliberal policies, rather than hiding behind a smokescreen of claiming to be a progressive party. Forbes called for Scotland to become a “magnet for inward investment and global private capital.”

This is worrying for those on the left who support the SNP because the SNP’s leadership claims that their policies are “progressive” is largely rhetorical. As Stephen Low pointed out in this paper last week (Tuesday February 27 2024) the SNP’s National Care Service (Scotland) Bill published in 2022, seeks to ensure the place of the private sector in the care service with minimum public scrutiny of the detail of the proposals.

The same toxic combination of undemocratic practice and regressive politics can be seen in the SNP-Greens’ attitude to local government and the council tax. Yousaf, without consulting his local government partners, used the platform of his first SNP conference as leader to announce a council tax freeze.

This was despite a formal agreement between the Scottish government and local government called the Verity House Agreement signed in June, committing to “a positive working relationship” that “should be based on mutual trust and respect” and specifically, one that should include “no surprises.”

Last year, the SNP-led Convention of Scottish Local Authorities asked the Scottish government to allow councils to increase the tax by 5 per cent with “no penalty or reduction in funding.”

Yousaf’s announcement came like a slap in the face especially because the council tax freeze comes with precisely those kinds of penalties, including an ultimatum to councils that if they did not implement a council tax freeze, their share of a £144 million pot to deliver it will be withdrawn.

Two councils are currently facing this punishment. Penalising councils in this way is reminiscent of the Tories’ rates cap under Thatcher and, like that, serves to benefit better-off households.

This brings us to the budget voted through in the Scottish Parliament last week with almost £200m in cuts to the affordable housing budget, a reduction of about 26 per cent, and criticism from the Scottish government’s own poverty and inequality commission that the budget was taking us even further from tackling inequality.

There may be nothing in this budget that Ewing or Forbes would take issue with, except to argue that Scotland needs an even bigger dose of neoliberalism through income tax reductions and even more access by the private sector to the public domain.

But although arguments may appear to be about business interests — and they are — they are also about the social motivation for such things as environmental protection or recycling schemes. In this, he reflects the concerns of the “pop cons” in England and Maga supporters in the US.

The SNP leadership could take him on, but so far, a combination of their own incompetence and lack of support has seen retreat after retreat.

We can expect that the SNP will continue on the path increasingly being set out by the SNP’s conservative right. In these circumstances nationalists tend to coalesce around the centrality of defence of the nation and “freedom.”

The claim that nationalism transcends the politics of left and right has the attraction of relegating all other issues of political concern, especially class issues, and challenging dissidents on the basis of the commitment to the fundamental goal of Scottish independence. Strangely enough, Salmond has turned into the type of nationalist he once opposed — and is one of Ewing’s most vocal supporters.

Pauline Bryan is the convener of Red Paper Collective and a Labour peer.

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