Monday, April 30, 2007

"...but they can buy our politics" ?

CLOUDY HORIZONS. Saltire flag on CalMac ferry plying Hebrides. But the Nats no longer want Scottish transport

THE Scottish National Party is hoping to sweep through Scottish parliament seats and local councils in the coming elections, taking advantage of disillusionment with Labour.

It is three centuries since Scottish lairds and merchants, having failed in their own colonial venture, voted to throw in their lot with Britain, going on to clear their Highlands while helping build an Empire. But now, just ten years since devolution to set up a Scottish parliament, the Nationalists are confidently raising the call for independence.

South of the Border the prospect of separation is seen with dismay by those of us who envied the Scottish parliament's resistance to New Labour's Old Toryism (for instance on student grants, and prescription charges), and the rise of the Scottish Socialist Party; and who are grateful to Scots for bolstering the Left and labour movement over all, while showing there is an alternative to Blairism. Scottish nationalism is welcomed by Tories who opposed devolution but have given up hope for now of restoring their own party's fortunes in Scotland. Hence anti-Scottish prejudice being aired in the media, which pretend they are merely reporting what people think. They want to see not just Labour, but the labour movement, weakened by division. So do right-wing English nationalists, hoping the SNP's success will in turn boost them.

The SNP is not a racialist or fascist party. It is not like the British National Party. But both are thriving not just on discontent with Labour, and disgust with Blair and his rich cronies, but on New Labour's success - both deliberate and a consequence - in confusing working people and undermining class consciousness. A hundred years of Labourism has been thrown away. As a result, in Keir Hardie's country, the epithet "Tartan Tory" which used to be hurled at the Scottish Nationalists no longer has the same effect., even if it is true.

How far the rot has gone was shown in a recent item on the SNP's own website:
Welcome Candidate Donations from Fire Brigades Union
snp - 2007-04-17

Visiting the STUC Congress in Glasgow this morning, where she will tour the stalls of the SNP Trade Union Group and others, the Scottish National Party deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon welcomed donations to SNP candidates from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) – the first ever example of such trade union support.

The FBU have donated £500 to the campaigns of Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Kenny MacAskill, Shona Robison, Sandra White, and Michael Matheson. They have also donated £250 each to Council candidates David Alexander and Lynda Kenna (Falkirk), and Peter Johnston (West Lothian). The total among the different candidates is £4,250.

Nicola Sturgeon is visiting the STUC Congress in Glasgow this morning, where she will tour the stalls of the SNP Trade Union Group and others.
Speaking from Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon said:
"This is a very welcome and significant development – the first ever such example of trade union support.

"We are grateful to the FBU for their contributions, which illustrate the broad base of trade union membership and the broad base of SNP support.
"Unions are rightly opposed to the privatisation of public services, and the BBC election poll also put this issue at the top of the people’s agenda. The SNP want to keep public services public, and offer better value finance than the credit card interest rates of PFI.

"That is why the SNP's plans to introduce a not-for-profit Scottish Futures Trust to offer better value funding and crowd out PFI are so important.
"The developments at the STUC congress – where Labour barely carry the support of the general council anymore – are another indication of a fresh political agenda in the run up to the Scottish Parliament election.”

Scotland has tasted more than it needs to reject Labour's Private Finance Initiatives - Gordon Brown's baby - which attract generous capitalists to move into hospitals, transport and schools, by using public resources to guarantee their private profit for decades. People are also opposed to Labour's continuing privatisation. It was revealed in March that the process of putting Caledonian MacBrayne ferry services out to tender had cost the Scottish taxpayer more than £15m, more than half the subsidy to CalMac, which runs essential links between the Scottish isles. There are already cuts, and fears that any commercial owners who did take over would decide services were not profitable enough.

But how genuine is the Scottish National Party's commitment to public ownership? On the same day that the SNP was boasting about the support it had gained from the Fire Brigades Union, another union, the Rail Maritime Transport (RMT) revealed that the Nats were dropping their policy in favour of rail renationalisation after receiving funding from a Mr.Brian Souter. He is chief executive director of Stagecoach, the company that took advantage of Thatcherite deregulation to take over bus services across Scotland and England, bought and sold Prestwick airport, and is a major player in railways.

It is not the first time Brian Souter has shown an interest in Scottish politics.
A devout member of an obscure brand of Methodism, he joined forces with the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland to oppose repeal of Clause 28 of the Local Government Act, the Tory measure forbidding teachers from doing anything to "promote" acceptability of homosexuality in schools. Many had felt intimidated and unsure what to do when pupils asked questions or complained of harassment by homophobes.

Believers like Souter don't have to worry about uncertainty, even if this piece of law had been smuggled through tacked on to another bit of legislation. The bus boss laid out half a million pounds for the campaign to keep the Clause. His money did not buy success then, but what about the future?

On the eve of an Scottish TUC debate on transport policy, RMT general secretary Bob Crow said all mention of bringing the railways under public control had been dropped from latest SNP manifesto following donations from Stagecoach director Brian Souter. "It would be interesting to see if these privateers would have given money to the SNP if it had retained a commitment to a publicly-owned railway."

"In 2003, the SNP said that passenger train services across Scotland should be taken under public control through a not-for-profit trust. At a time when public opinion and many of the political parties in Scotland, including the Labour Party, are recognising that Scotland's railways should be run in the interests of passengers and not shareholders, the SNP are taking a step backwards.

"It seems the SNP would rather take money and support from the likes Souter and non-executive director of Stagecoach, Sir George Mathewson rather than putting the interests of passengers first".

How far are the capitalist privateers likely to be committed to Scotland? Though it started out with second-hand buses and cut-price fares, pushing rivals out of business, the Perth-based Stagecoach nowadays has interests around the world, from Manchester to Malawi, Canada to New Zealand.

The Independent reported in September:

'Brian Souter, the co-founder and chief executive of the bus and rail group Stagecoach, is clearing the decks in readiness for being handed a new 10-year franchise to run South West Trains.
Mr Souter and his sister Ann Gloag sold their entire shareholding in the Scottish airline ScotAirways yesterday in order, it was said, for Mr Souter to focus fully on his role at Stagecoach. Mr Souter also stood down as chairman of ScotAirways with immediate effect.
The pair acquired a majority stake in the airline seven years ago. They have been bought out for an undisclosed amount by the two founders of ScotAirways, Merlyn and Roy Suckling'.

Souter sells airline stake to concentrate on running trains
Independent Online: 18 September 2006 By Michael Harrison, Business Editor

Truly, patriotism is not enough. It seems the nationalist party is putting itself in hock to a man intent on higher things. But then the SNP is not a class-based, socialist party and does not pretend to be, as Labour to some extent once did and many of its supporters thought it to be. That the Fire Brigades Union in Scotland has pragmatically seen it as an alternative place for its political funds is a reminder that trade union consciousness is not yet class consciousness.

The RMT, among the first to show its independence from New Labour, is evidently not so naive in falling into the trap of false alternatives. Yet in looking for reasons for the rise of the SNP, and confusion in the working class, we must also point to the disappointing progress of the supposed socialist alternative which had aroused such hopes. Seeking to ride with the nationalist wave, the Scottish Socialist Party has been split by the conduct of one man, with Sheridan loyalists and groups like the SWP and what was Militant now backing "Solidarity". It's no way to challenge the powers that run our railroads.

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