by Allan Armstrong, Republican Communist Network
Political developments in Scotland are hotting-up in the aftermath of the decision by Kenny MacAskill, the SNP’s Justice Minister in the current Scottish government, to release Abdelbaset Ali-Mohamed al-Megrabhi, the so-called Libyan bomber, on compassionate grounds.
Whatever the undisclosed background negotiations behind this move, involving New Labour at Westminster and SNP at Holyrood, the political fallout has been considerable. Earlier negotiations between the British and Libyan government, involving Tony Blair and Jack Straw, had strongly implied a prisoner transfer agreement. Megrabhi would finish his sentence in Libya, in return for BP oil concessions. The Scottish government thwarted this. It denied any right to the British government to interfere with the decision taken by the Scottish judiciary, which had been given original responsibility for Megrabhi’s trial, held at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, in 2000-1.
What has become abundantly clear is that Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson wanted Megrabhi released before his impending death, to ensure that British corporate interests in Libya weren’t jeopardised if he died in a British jail. MacAskill’s willingness to take responsibility for Megrabhi’s release was an added bonus for the New Labour-led British government. It meant that the SNP-led Scottish government could take all the blame, when the right wing press, both in Britain and the USA, orchestrated the howls of outrage about ‘weakness’ in the face of terrorism.
It is possible that the SNP leadership thought that, with Barack Obama as President, the new US Democrat government would welcome the MacAskill’s compassionate approach. After all Obama had personally given an undertaking to the Moslem world in Cairo that he represented a new type of American leader. However, as the continuing war in Afghanistan (and now Pakistan), and the US’s failure to discipline Netananyhu in the face of continued Israeli settlements on the West Bank demonstrate, Obama is only trying to rebrand US imperialism, not challenge it.
So ‘liberal’ Obama, Hilary Clinton, and the late Ted Kennedy, led the attack on the Scottish government. Meanwhile, the rabid American Right soon ended any delusions about the longstanding, affectionate ties between Scotland and the USA. In their eyes, Scotland has replaced France as the country all ‘good American’s love to hate. Only now it is the Scots who are ‘haggis-eating surrender monkeys’. Back in Scotland, the British unionist parties, New Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem, have characteristically decided to echo the sentiments emanating from the US. They have launched an attack on the Scottish government and the nationalist SNP.
The SNP has been trying for years to win the approval of corporate America, with the prospect of low business taxation. Donald Trump, the dodgy property speculator, has been assiduously wooed. Therefore, defending MacAskill’s decision in the face of blatant US imperial pressure did not come easily to the SNP leadership, particularly after the display of Scottish saltires being waved at Tripoli’s airport, welcoming Megrabhi upon his return. After all, MacAskill still insisted that he acted solely on compassionate grounds, but that he upheld the Scottish court’s extremely dubious decision that Megrabhi was guilty.
Early opinion polls seemed to indicate that MacAskill was indeed isolated. However, the Church of Scotland, followed by the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, gave their public backing to MacAskill. Whilst this was undoubtedly embarrassing to sections of the unionist alliance, it was the decision of Nelson Mandela to support MacAskill which turned the tables. Within days, support for MacAskill’s decision had risen to 45% in Scotland.
Sensing a possible drubbing in any Scottish General Election, the unionist opposition retreated from a vote of ‘No confidence’ in MacAskill at Holyrood. They settled for a motion condemning the Scottish government’s handling of the affair. Although the unionist parties have an overall majority in Holyrood, their alliance began to break up. Former Scottish Labour Ministers, Henry McLeish and Malcolm Chisholm backed MacAskill, and the Conservatives decided to switch the focus of attention to Gordon Brown and Westminster Government involvement in Megrabhi’s release.
It was in this context that the SNP Government announced its next year’s legislative programme on September 3rd, with their proposal for a referendum on Scottish independence given flagship status. Now the unionist parties can kill this off at the first hurdle, by using their majority to vote down any such bill in Holyrood. Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond well knows this, but has likely calculated on there being a British Conservative Government under David Cameron next year. This could place the SNP in a good position before the next Holyrood General Election in 2011, especially with an impotent New Labour in ‘opposition’ at Westminster.
However, a more immediate by-election battle is looming in Glasgow North East, after the resignation of the disgraced Westminster Speaker, New Labour’s Michael Martin. Not wanting to be portrayed as the ‘Orange’ party (Labour’s main accusation against the SNP, when it stood against Scottish party leader, Helen Liddell, in the Monklands constituency of Coatbridge and Airdrie), the SNP leadership is taking no chances. It has adopted David Kerr as candidate. He is a member of Opus Dei! Furthermore, Glasgow City Council is still under Labour control, so the SNP can not so easily be held responsible for the type of unpopular local policies, which contributed to their surprise defeat in the last Scottish by-election in Glenrothes in Fife.
For it is at local council level that the contradictions of the SNP strategy of trying to appeal to all Scots, regardless of class, have first come unstuck. The introduction of new local service charges for pensioners in Fife was just one indicator of where the SNP’s real loyalties lie. In Edinburgh they share responsibility for the current city council’s attempt to impose draconian pay cuts on refuse disposal workers, with the threat of privatisation looming. In West Dumbartonshire, they have suspended SSP councillor, Jim Bollan, for nine months, for his tireless commitment to working class communities.
Yet, the long honeymoon enjoyed by the SNP led minority Scottish government is also under strain. Wedded to a neo-liberal economic model, which once placed such spectacularly failed corporations as the Royal Bank of Scotland in the driving seat of their proposed new Scottish economy, and which lauded the successes of the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’, the SNP government now meekly accepts its role in administering the Westminster government’s latest measures to deal with the current crisis – massive public spending cuts to bail out the bankers. The Scottish government has also frozen council taxes now for three years. This further contributes to the squeeze on social spending. Furthermore, the full consequences of the SNP’s fawning before Trump, means that the Scottish government is prepared to back a compulsory purchase order to evict residents from their homes in Aberdeenshire to make way for Trump’s new golf course and leisure complex –the new Clearances.
Although the prime press interest in Glasgow North East will be the battle between New Labour and the SNP, there will be other significant political struggles going on. In the last election here, following the mainstream parties’ convention of not standing against the Speaker, the Conservatives did not field a candidate. This left the way open for the Scottish Unionists to stand. They represent that traditional Orange wing, abandoned by the Conservatives, when the party broke their link with the Ulster Unionist Party in the 1970’s. David Cameron has recently reforged that alliance. Official British Conservative backing for a Protestant unionist party in ‘the Six Counties’ will have knock on effects in Glasgow, where sectarian divisions still exist.
Both the previous New Labour/Lib-Dem and current SNP Scottish governments at Holyrood have been promoting a bureaucratic and moralistic campaign against sectarianism in Scotland, based on the false notion of there being a ‘war between two tribes’ – Protestant and Catholic or, sometimes more simply, between Rangers and Celtic. One of the aims of this official campaign is to cutback on the many Orange Order and the handful of Irish Republican marches held in Scotland’s Central Belt. This will become a focus of opposition for hard line loyalists, with whom the BNP are desperate to forge stronger links. The BNP are standing in the Glasgow by-election. They would love to have the sort of clout that loyalists demonstrated, when the PSNI meekly bowed before their intimidation of Roma families in Belfast.
However, there are other dangerous links being forged beyond this. The mainstream, usually socially liberal, Church of Scotland is under growing attack by the reactionary Fellowship of Confessing Churches (FCC), with 45 parishes threatening to break away, unless the Church publicly condemns homosexuality. The FCC is backed by Sam Cole, DUP councillor and Orange Lodge chaplain, along with Maurice Bradley, former mayor of Coleraine, Danny Kennedy, Ulster Unionist depute leader, Sir David McNee, former Chief Constable of Strathclyde, and a hundred members of the ultra-conservative Presbyterian Church of America.
Tragically, the Left remains divided in Scotland. In the last Glasgow North East election, the SSP easily defeated both the Scottish Unionists and the BNP, although Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party was able to do better still and get 14% of the vote, in the confusion caused by the absence of an official Labour candidate, with Michael Martin standing solely as the Speaker. The SLP has left no organisation on the ground and is, in effect, now only one man’s vanity party. Scargill may make the decision that the SLP stand again for publicity’s sake.
The concern is that, with a now more divided Left, and the possibility of SSP, Solidarity and SLP candidates, the BNP vote will overtake the Socialist vote. More worrying than any vote, would be the opportunity this could provide them for becoming the ‘shock troops’ of hard right unionism in Scotland, at a time when the issue of Scottish independence is coming to the fore.
The SNP remains a thoroughly constitutionalist party, and has indicated, by its recently declared support for the British monarchy, a complete willingness to play politics by Westminster rules. The problem is, that the British ruling class only play be these rules when it suits them. When their state is under threat, both Conservative and Labour governments have shown their preparedness to utilise the anti-democratic Crown Powers to thwart any challenges, as any Republican living in Ireland can testify.
Scotland, with its North Sea Oil, and its numerous British and NATO military bases, is far more central to ruling class interests, than ‘the Six Counties’. It is unlikely that the British state will just wait until the Scottish independence referendum bill comes to Holyrood. Along with the US security services, the British are probably preparing a strategy, using both official and unofficial forces, to marginalise the threat of the break-up of the UK and the potential loss of NATO bases.
Although there is no deep-seated tradition of independent republican organisations in Scotland, such as the Republican Movement in Ireland, there is nevertheless widespread popular support for a Scottish Republic. Furthermore, this is strongly liked to support for public services provided on the basis of need, and opposition to British and American imperial wars. A vote for the SNP sometimes expresses this feeling in a sentimental way.
It is the job of socialist republicans to organise this sentiment in an effective way, by linking everyday struggles, such as the ‘Save Our Schools’ campaign in Glasgow today, with the demand for a Scottish Republic tomorrow, when the SNP independence referendum comes up against British unionist intransigence. Since the British state and its Irish government allies coordinate their actions through the ‘Peace Process’ and Devolution-all-round; and both the British and Scottish TUCs and the Irish CTU promote ‘social partnerships’, which subordinate workers’ interests to those of the bosses; whilst the BNP and loyalists are trying to cement links ‘across the border’ and ‘across the water’, it becomes all the more imperative that Socialists in these islands organise ourselves on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’ to more effectively promote working class interests throughout these islands.