Scotland’s new road to reform?

Issue: 118

Neil Davidson

A year has elapsed since the Scottish National Party (SNP) formed its first government in the devolved Scottish Parliament. The SNP took power at a time when neoliberal strategies all but completely dominated mainstream politics.1 However, the SNP appears to have broken with the neoliberal consensus. To what extent does the SNP government contradict the thesis, propounded, in different ways, by sections of the radical left and the neoliberal political elite, that the path of reformism is now closed off?

Scotland is well integrated into the capitalist world economy. Britain was one of the first sites of neoliberal experimentation, and as part of the British state Scotland has experienced the effects of these policies, with only minor variations, since the establishment of devolved government in 1999.

At first sight, the SNP would not seem a strong contender to challenge neoliberal strategies since it is not a social democratic party, nor has it ever been one. Rather it is a party openly committed to making Scotland more successful in capitalist terms. Like many nationalist parties, the SNP has always contained a socialist minority, and this was particularly influential between 1974 and 1983. An attempt to take over the party by the explicitly socialist ‘79 Group was defeated by 1983, and the leadership of the group—including current leader and first minister Alex Salmond—was expelled, although this sentence was later commuted to temporary suspension. This experiment has not been repeated since.

In winning elections to the Scottish Parliament, the SNP took just one seat from Labour. Nonetheless, the SNP victory ended the Labour/Liberal Democrat regime that had been in office since devolution and dealt a blow to Labour’s hegemony in Scotland. Where did the increase in SNP support come from, if not Labour? Of the 20 seats the SNP gained in the election, 13 came from smaller, more radical forces, which were either greatly reduced in numbers (the Greens and independents) or eliminated from parliament altogether (the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity).

It could be argued that the SNP has simply managed to attract a majority of voters who support independence. But this presumes that independence is the most important issue for supporters of the Greens, the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity. As I have argued previously in this journal, support for the SNP can be separated from support for independence.2 In fact, the SNP attracted votes from the most left wing sections of the electorate, for whom it was the only realistic choice if their intention was to punish the Labour/Liberal Democrat government by actually driving it from office.

The SNP was able to present itself as both anti-imperialist and, if not social democratic, at least the inheritor of social democratic policy. For instance, it opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Being anti-war is a relatively cost free position, since the Scottish government has no control over Scottish troops. It is, however, in a position to make things difficult for the UK government over Trident, not least by invoking health and safety legislation to prevent weapons of mass destruction being transported across Scotland.

The SNP also committed itself to a series of social policies similar to those that Labour might once have proposed. The introduction to the SNP’s manifesto included promises to “keep vital health services local”, “scrap the Council Tax and introduce a fairer system based on ability to pay”, “increase by 50 percent the amount of free nursery education available for three and four year olds” and “dump student debt”.3 After the election the SNP had perfect excuses for not delivering on its commitments: the lowest level of financial settlement from the Treasury since devolution and an alliance of the other major parties that initially looked as if it might act collectively to block bills. The SNP has, however, made attempts to implement most of them—above all, the Council Tax has been frozen.

In fact, reforms making conditions marginally superior to those in England pre-date the SNP government, most obviously the abolition of student fees and the free provision of personal care for the elderly. There are two reasons why reforms have been introduced in Scotland.

First, in Scotland the usual “first past the post” elections are supplemented with a “list” elected by proportional representation. The model employed was designed to favour the larger parties and to make a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats virtually inevitable, thus allowing Labour to blame the Liberal Democrats for blocking the more radical policies it had supposedly wanted to introduce. A coalition was duly formed, but otherwise the plan failed to achieve the intended result. Not only did the Liberal Democrats instigate the reforms mentioned above, but the smaller, more radical parties were able to get elected. Unlike Westminster, where Labour retains a diminishing majority, the situation at Holyrood, where no one party has an absolute majority, allows the possibility for raising legislation outside the neoliberal consensus.

The second factor is the nature of the party struggle between Labour and the SNP. Following the May 1999 elections the SNP became the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament. This, more than any other factor, has driven subsequent Labour policy in Scotland. In order to outmanoeuvre the SNP, to make devolution rather than independence the last stage of constitutional change, the Scottish Parliament had to be seen to be pursuing its own policies, at least partly independent of Westminster. But, given the extent to which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have moved Labour to the right, the policies that provided this independence have tended to be to the left.

Although the smaller parties are currently outside parliament (with the exception of the ex-SNP Independent Margo MacDonald and two Greens), the nature of the struggle between Labour and the SNP remains the same. Salmond is playing a long game in which he hopes to build the basis for a permanent majority, if not to achieve independence, then at least to renegotiate the Treaty of Union.4 To do so the SNP has to distinguish itself from Scottish Labour to a far greater extent than Scottish Labour has to distinguish itself from the Labour Party at a British level. The SNP must still win support from Labour’s core working class voters. Without doing so it will never achieve the majority it seeks. It cannot do so simply with unbridled neoliberalism.

It is important not to exaggerate what the SNP has done or is likely to do. The SNP is as committed to the core economic principles of neoliberalism as the other parties. Even in the SNP’s first budget, announced on 14 November 2007 in the first bloom of reforming zeal, “money was spent on trying to ensure that the council tax does not go up while business rates actually go down. In contrast, downgraded or ditched were commitments to free former students from their debt, to give grants to first time house buyers and to cut class sizes. Meanwhile the public sector is to be put under strict financial discipline, making 2 percent ‘efficiency savings’ a year”.5 The budget was eventually passed on 24 January with Tory support. The Tories backed it on the basis that it would speed up the abolition of business rates for 120,000 small businesses and their reduction for 30,000 more.

Nevertheless, the example of the SNP over the past year shows that, under certain conditions, even parties wedded to capitalism can make some reforms. Claims about the impossibility of reform are in fact a smokescreen for conscious choices—neoliberal choices. For socialists in Scotland, these reforms give the opportunity to argue for further and deeper breaches in the neoliberal orthodoxy. Elsewhere they raise the question of why reformist strategies are only implemented to benefit ailing capitalist enterprises such as Metronet or Northern Rock. Of course, reforms alone cannot surmount the logic of capital. But it is capitalism that presents us with the limits of reform—as it always has done—not neoliberalism.


1: By “neoliberal strategies” I mean what Chris Harman has called “the negative features of many government measures in the present phase of the system—the anti-reforms that have replaced the positive reforms it was possible to extract from capital without a great deal of struggle from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s”. See Harman, 2008, p118.

2: Davidson, 2007, pp36-37.

3: SNP, Manifesto 2007.

4: Davidson 2007, pp37-38.

5: John Curtice, “Common Ground”, Holyrood 180, 3 December 2007.


Davidson, Neil, 2007, “Socialists and Scottish Independence”, International Socialism 114 (spring 2007),

Harman, Chris, 2008, “Theorising Neoliberalism”, International Socialism 117 (winter 2008),