The SNP and the progressive alliance

As Scotland leaves the UK, it should also help the rest of the UK to mend its democracy.

Tommy Sheppard Anne McLaighlin
7 April 2017

Tommy Sheppard and Anne McLaughlin were elected to Westminster in 2015, part of the political Tsunami in Scotland that saw the SNP return 56 out of 59 MPs. They consider the role of the SNP in trying to reform the UK whilst heading for the exit in this new paper from Compass – The Progressive Alliance – why the SNP needs it.

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Tommy Sheppherd delivering his acclaimed maiden speech at Westminster.

The refusal of the May government to countenance any differential deal for Scotland post Brexit now means we’re counting down to the next referendum on Scottish independence. 

Winning that will be our top priority. But there are four reasons why the SNP should join the debate about a progressive alliance in the UK.

  • Making the UK more democratic enhances rather than diminishes the case for an independent Scotland.
  • The lives of the people of Scotland will be affected by decisions at Westminster until we achieve our independence.
  • Being part of a progressive alliance in the UK can allow us to explain and promote the progressive case for Scottish independence
  • The way we campaign for independence will have an effect on its success and sustainability.

The progressive alliance seeks to create an electoral coalition capable of mobilising a non-Tory majority and removing Conservative MPs. That’s already been achieved in Scotland but if the non-Tory majority get their act together throughout England then a big block of SNP MPs could be a key ally in getting reforms through.

Last time the Tory press went apoplectic at the notion of the SNP supporting a minority Labour government: remember the billboards of a grinning Alex Salmond with a little Ed Miliband in his breast pocket.

Labour’s response was inadequate to say the least. Under pressure Miliband got himself into a positon of saying “I am not going to have a Labour government if it means deals or coalitions with the SNP”. We all need to be better next time.

Many people in the SNP would not use the word nationalist to describe their political philosophy preferring instead socialist, republican, internationalist of some other term. But as a party we do espouse a contemporary progressive nationalism and we are sick and tired of this being used against us as a term of abuse. 

The SNP has now replaced the Labour party as the mass social democratic party in Scotland. A key factor in consolidating that change was the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum on 2104.

It was a focus for anyone who wanted change. It brought together those who had long campaigned for national autonomy with those who increasingly saw independence as a more pragmatic and immediate route to social and economic reform than staying in the UK. The message was unrelentingly positive, always talking up the potential for a new progressive country, arguing for better public services, equality of opportunity, and a fair distribution of wealth.

The Yes campaign was about many things, but it was least of all about identity. It was about empowerment, about taking control. It was breath-taking.

But it didn’t win. The legacy, however, is vast. It shapes Scottish politics today and it likely to do so for years to come.

In the space of a few months SNP membership soared. Today’s Scottish National Party is unashamedly left of centre and, in the tradition of classic West European social democracy, it has woven together a civic nationalism with a programme of social and economic reform. It is pro public service and pro trade union.

The SNP’s detractors point to the party’s record in government as evidence that it is anything but socialist. We are not afraid of criticism but, more often than not, it does not stand up to analysis. And all too frequently people pretend that somehow the SNP government is a free agent able to choose from a range of policy options when in fact, precisely because we are not an independent country, the room for manoeuvre is severely curtailed by Westminster.

By 2020 Westminster will have cut the Scottish government’s available funds by more than 10%. And yet we’ve managed to avoid imposing cuts to public services on the scale that’s being experienced in England. We have also defended key principles. Chief amongst these is resistance to privatisation: the debate about the public sector in Scotland is about how to reform and reorganise within a public interest, non-profit framework.

Given the power to do so the SNP will gradually try to increase the proportion of GDP that is deployed in the public realm, a clear challenge to the political consensus south of the border which has seen an absolute and relative decline in the public sector.

Some on the left claim cross border common interests as a reason for maintaining the union. But that is to suggest that the United Kingdom as presently constituted is an optimum polity which allows the democratic advancement of class interests. Our basic contention is that if this were ever true is certainly is not true any longer.

In reality, the union prevents a potential progressive majority in Scotland from achieving radical social and economic reform by hitching it to a conservative majority which frustrates its every ambition.

We are convinced that Scotland will continue on the journey to self-government and that soon we will leave the UK. The midwife of that process will be our own progressive alliance. It may well be that by the time of the next UK general election that process will be well underway and, as a consequence, we will lose the ability to play any direct role in the internal politics of the remaining UK state.

But whilst we are leaving, if we can assist in the formation of a left of centre UK government which will fundamentally modernise constitutional arrangements in the rest of the UK we would be happy to have that as our swansong.  


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