Why the ‘Social Democrat’ SNP needs a fresh look after 15 years in power

Despite mounting evidence of unrest and even discontent with the current Scottish government, the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party will retain an unassailable dominant position following the local elections of May 2022.

There is no doubt that the opposition is still far behind, but cracks are beginning to appear in the idea that Scotland has a in reality “one-party state” under the SNP. The announcement of the intention to hold another referendum on independence in October 2023 is likely to further crystallize these tensions.

For the radical left to make progress in these new times, fresh thinking is needed. This is most likely not from Scottish Labour, as it continues to follow the path taken by previous leaders of the Scottish Labor party – which lost its position as an official opposition to the SNP government in 2016. It seems that “Blairism” has returned south of the border with Keir Starmer, and Scottish Labor has its own version of Starmer in the form of Anas Sarwar.

The North Ayrshire council, a pioneer of community wealth building as a form of local ‘municipal socialism’, was regarded as Scottish Labor’s only bright spot – but the party lost control of the council in May 5022. And while the Scottish Greens seemed increasingly compromised by taking part in government with the SNP, it’s unlikely this fresh thinking will come from them too.

The independent radical left in the form of the Scottish Socialist Party has failed to resuscitate itself after making first strides in 2003 when it won six MSPs, promoting ideas such as free school meals, free public transport and free prescriptions.

What is Social Democracy?

The revived ideas and ideals of Social Democracy are critical to making progress for the left. It is crucial that we can recognize what is and what is not social-democratic.

Until the mid-1990s, politics in Scotland was dominated by Labour, which was then still a largely Social Democratic party. Social democracy is the belief in using state intervention in the economy to make the results of capitalism fairer to many. Actual application once in the government can sometimes be problematic if there is resistance from the business community and the media.

Labour, north and south of the border, distanced itself from this belief, as Margaret Thatcher acknowledged. When asked in 2002 what her greatest achievement was, she said: “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their mind.”

The fringes of the SNP became the portrayal of itself as the last bastion of social democracy in Scotland – the so-called ‘old Labor’ area – and a bulwark against this move to the right. The SNP’s website states that it is “centre-left and social-democratic”.

But the SNP – in government since 2007 in Scotland – has had its own conversion on its way to Damascus, in that its ideology can now best be described as socially liberal and not social-democratic. This is most clearly indicated by its vision of an independent capitalist Scotland as set out in its 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission report.

This view was not fundamentally changed by the publication in June 2022 of the new prospectus called Independence in the Modern World: Wealthier, Happer, Fairer – Why Not Scotland?

Social liberalism is based on trying to create a successful capitalist market economy to raise taxes to pay for a limited welfare state. Market interference is not tolerated because it is believed that it could make capitalism less efficient or deter private investment and in any case lower taxes on social spending.

This social-liberalism is, of course, different from neo-liberalism, which aims to deregulate the market even further and introduce it through government action in areas where it did not exist before, for example in the social care sector. It is this distinction between social liberalism and neoliberalism that still allows the SNP to portray itself as left-wing, especially when compared to its two main political opponents, Scottish Labor and the Scottish Conservatives.

Scottish Labor leader Anas Sarwar at a protest over women's pensions.
Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labor leader, is an admirer of Tony Blair’s politics.
Skully/Alamy

change inequality

The social democracy of yesteryear got a bit of a bad name when it was associated with dilapidated public services and state-owned enterprises in the 1970s. They became increasingly starved of the resources needed to make themselves successful and effective in serving the wider interests of the population. British Rail was an example of this.

But this social democracy was also of the redistributive kind. Fresh thinking suggests it should be of the “pre-distribution” kind. Redistributive social democracy is a matter of trying to change the unequal effects of capitalism in retrospect, through social benefits such as unemployment or housing benefit. In contrast, pre-distributive social democracy tries to change the processes by which capitalism works so that the unfair effects will be much less likely in the first place.

Examples include maximum wages, universal basic income or citizens’ basic income and price controls on food, fuel and rent, as well as helping to create stronger unions by creating a standard system for unions so that unions can more effectively represent the interests of their members.

The pre-distributive social democracy is more radical. While it is not socialism, which would see the abolition of the market and capitalism, it tries to tackle the problems of inequality at the root. Pre-distribution was an idea Labor leader Ed Miliband toyed with a decade ago – albeit briefly and superficially.

It is this kind of vision that the left – whether in the SNP, Labour, Greens or beyond – must articulate if it is to appeal to the interests of the bulk of the population in Scotland, and to build political forces on this basis. wants to build for radical social and economic change.

This means that the debate on independence versus enhanced devolution is rather misleading unless one or both sides of the pro or anti parties are willing to promote pre-distribution. These ideas are explored in a new book published by the Jimmy Reid Foundation called A New Scotland: Building an Equal, Fair and Sustainable Society.

Independence or enhanced devolution not based on pre-distribution will be another false dawn for the Scottish people. It will simply repeat the shortcomings of the 1999 Devolution Scheme, which was based on the idea that the Scottish Parliament would act as a shield against the inequitable inequalities caused by neoliberalism, without interfering in the processes of the market.