There’s one real criticism one can make of Nicola Sturgeon: she and her team bottled it when it came to drafting the SNP’s election manifesto. Watching her being interviewed on STV on the evening of the manifesto’s launch was like listening to a series of reprises from Labour’s playlist. “Deficit reduction,” “moderate spending increases,” “borrowing to invest,” “balanced budget” two or three years later than George Osborne proposes hardly chimed with the “bolder” plan promised to “end austerity” and keep Ed Miliband from neoliberal temptation.
“Somewhere to the left of the SWP”? Do me a favour. Tribune rallies at Labour conferences some 30 years ago when Sturgeon was entering politics were more radical than this and that was with the non-Trots: “seize the commanding heights of the economy,” “expropriate without compensation under workers’ control.” OK, that was good cartoon slogan theatre, little more. But even the Socialists and Democrats Group (in the European Parliament) pamphlet – Basta! Our alternative vision – on measures to combat inequality and promote wage growth two years ago was more “progressive” than the warmed-over tax-and-spend panaceas dished up at the climbing centre.
It’s taken for granted in Scottish political discourse that the SNP is “social democratic” – and even more so under Sturgeon than under her petit bourgeois predecessor Alex Salmond. Indeed, she couples it regularly with “progressive” – as in her #Scotland2015 interview on April 21 where she proclaimed the SNP as offering “the only genuine alternative to austerity.” But, rarely, if ever, does anybody define social democracy or the SNP’s version of it other than as somewhat ameliorating capitalism with a bit more state spending on welfare than determined by automatic stabilisers and slightly more progressive taxation to help fund a higher minimum age/living wage. The same holds true for Scottish Labour, bytheway.
There’s barely a scintilla of difference between SNP and ScoLab policies across a range of tax issues; as others have pointed out, Sturgeon and her team have copy-and-pasted them from the so-called “red Tories” (of whom we hear little or nothing in the campaign). The proposals on welfare do differ slightly, with the SNP trying to trump Labour here and there (universal credit roll-out), but they are cast from the same redistributive mould – and that holds true too for the minimum/living wage (£8.70 versus £8 is hardly an unbridgeable gap and hundreds of firms and public authorities are shifting to the living wage). Either way, neither party is offering redistribution on a grand scale and even the row over the “£30bn of spending cuts” in the Charter of Budget Responsibility is pretty synthetic (as we identified in a previous posting here).
Really radical anti-austerity politics is to be found elsewhere in Europe. When Syriza won the Greek elections earlier this year, many SNP supporters identified the two parties as embarked upon the same course. This was and is self-deluding nonsense. Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis are not only seeking to reverse decades of bad government and mishandling of the economy but taking on the might of the neoliberal troika (IMF, ECB and European Commission) and global financial markets with scant support from elsewhere. The scale and depth of austerity in Greece cannot be compared with that of the UK/Scotland – dreadful though the latter is. (Whether Syriza is handling its campaign the right way is another story).
The SNP’s manifesto is, in comparison, tame. It seems to have been drafted with the same caution as much of the literature during the #indyref campaign. Then it was pro-monarchy, pro-Nato, pro-pound. Now it’s pro-business, especially SMEs, and mildly redistributive in a way that the FT and its City friends wouldn’t blink at. It scarcely reinvigorates social democracy and is plainly in the tradition of post-WW2 British labourism. That may well be its purpose.
Sturgeon joined the SNP aged 16 and had already rejected UK Labour as a vehicle for social justice then. But her political trajectory in the intervening 30 years appears to be driven towards replacing ScoLab as the centre-left majority party in Scotland. However, the SNP’s election strategy is wholly dependent on Labour in the rest of the UK winning enough seats to form an administration capable of being prodded or cajoled into proving “a better politics at Westminster” (Sturgeon’s own words). And, if it does, what would that improved situation economically and socially mean for independence? Would Scots revert to being pro-Labour in the majority? Or give the SNP all the credit?