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The SNP’s War on the Public Sector

This week, the SNP announced plans to shrink the public sector and cut tens of thousands of jobs – exposing the myth that the party offers an alternative to neoliberal orthodoxy.

The SNP is ruling in the interest of domestic and international elites. (Henry Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

On the day the Scottish Finance Minister Kate Forbes announced her spending review, bent on massive cuts to legal aid, transport, education and local government in a bid to reduce the size of the public sector to pre-pandemic levels, the right-wing press was triumphal.

The London Tory journal The Spectator hailed her as ‘the McMilton Friedman of Scottish nationalism’ and noted that her spending plan ‘bears a remarkable similarity to the policy of the hated government in Westminster, where Jacob Rees-Mogg has pledged to slash 70,000 jobs to cut numbers back to where they were in 2016’.

In fact, some 30,000-40,000 public sector jobs are expected to go in Scotland. To match this at Westminster, Rees-Mogg would need to be after approximately 300,000 scalps. 

The journal’s Scotland editor, Alex Massie, quoted Forbes inviting the public sector to ‘…consider scope for innovation that embraces entrepreneurship, improves value for money, offers opportunities for commercialisation, better manages assets and brings benefit to the public purse.’

He added: ‘A lot to like in today’s SNP spending review.’

Economic liberalism

Altogether, the review was something of a breakthrough in post-devolution politics. Cuts, austerity and regressive reforms there have been—but typically couched in a language of social consensus, care and inclusion. What we see now is the rhetoric of primal economic liberalism: the creative destruction of state capacity.

What does this change register? Partly the diminishing expectations in British capitalism as a whole. The soft-social democratic ambience of the Scottish Parliament’s re-opening 23 years ago feels like a different time.

It also, however, records the direction of travel of the SNP. It remains the property of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (the SNP is a ‘personal rule’ outfit of the kind increasingly prominent in Europe). But directly beneath her the party’s right, represented by figures like Forbes, minister for culture, external affairs and the constitution Angus Robertson (both of them possible replacements for Nicola Sturgeon), and Westminster defence and foreign affairs spokesmen Stewart McDonald and Alyn Smith, are in the ascendant.

The Scottish Government and local authorities across the country will be slashing jobs and pay just as global recession threatens, prices of food and fuel spiral and economic growth grinds to a halt. The consequences for Scots—including those whose jobs are to be cut—provoked little sympathy from the Scottish government, who rather complained about the ‘tough decisions’ they would have to make.

Only the week before, Scottish minister for employment Richard Lochhead had demanded workers only request ‘sensible’ pay rises, in response to rail workers rejecting a 2.2 pay rise—which in effect was a significant pay cut against inflation now heading into double digits. Workers seeking to protect their existing pay rates could drive the economy into ‘recession’, he claimed. 

And if you are wondering where the Scottish Greens are in all this—having joined the Scottish Government last year—they are lockstep behind SNP leaders. On the day of the spending review, they mostly talked about single-use plastics.

Faux independence

In addition to Forbes’ homilies to market virtues, SNP leaders made much of the fact that the Scottish budget has been cut at Westminster. This is true. However, the SNP and Scottish Green response to this—that cuts to the budget, and the lack of borrowing powers, shows the need for Scottish independence—rings hollow for two reasons.

The first and most obvious is that the much advertised 2023 independence referendum is a hoax. Halfway into 2022 there is no official ‘white paper’ prospectus for an independent country. There is no campaign for independence (the official Yes campaign for the September 2014 referendum was launched in May 2012). There aren’t even negotiations with the UK Government (which concluded, after months, with the Edinburgh Agreement of October 2012). 

The pledge of £20 million to preparations for the referendum is nothing but a distraction from the extent of the cuts. And this is now the function of the independence cause in general.

In any case, independence on the SNP leadership’s prospectus, prominently including Sterlingisation—using the UK currency without a central bank or access to monetary policy—would mean savage austerity. When the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission, recommending Sterlingisation, ‘deficit reduction’, regulatory alignment with the City of London and annual ‘solidarity payments’ to the remaining UK state, was published in May 2018 it already appeared anachronistic.

Its authors (led by a corporate lobbyist, Andrew Wilson, close to the Scottish Government) had seemingly learned nothing from the 2008 financial crisis, resulting recession and the damage done by austerity.

And yet over 5 years later, the SNP leadership still stands by its findings, and said so prominently in the Sunday National newspaper, days before the spending review. Yet in those five years we have seen Brexit in 2020, the pandemic and massive state spending to deal with it, and now the highest rate of inflation in decades.

Each of these developments alone make a mockery of Sterlingisation and austerian economics. Consider alone the question of a central bank. The EU Maastricht treaty forbids membership by countries without their own central bank. Scotland wouldn’t have been able to put workers on furlough, which was paid for in the UK by central bank money printing. And without access to control over monetary printing and policy, an independence Scotland would be extremely vulnerable during runaway inflation or recession.

Western imperialism

The SNP’s attempts to woo big business and the transnational apparats of global capitalism isn’t just regressive. It is a major impediment to any kind of independence at all. Conservative institutions simply do not want the kind of disruption that even this strange, post-sovereignty barnacle state could cause by breaking away from the UK.

This was aptly demonstrated on a recent trip to the US by Sturgeon. Hoping to demonstrate the subservience of any future independent Scottish state to the empire, she fulminated in a speech to the Brooking Institution the need for western re-armament, and pledged undying fealty to the Nato cause (for which she has lately been remarkably hawkish, demanding Nato troops stay in Afghanistan last year, and toying with a ‘no-fly zone’ over Russia).

It was to no avail. Michael O’Hanlon, head of research on foreign policy for the institution, spoke for the vast Atlanticist lobby, when he said: ‘To me it feels wrong in the timing. Nato does not have the bandwidth for this issue now. And it might appear to weaken the alliance at a time when we need to project strength and resolve.’

In the end, the British state is just too important to western power. 

This international diplomacy is matched in efforts at home. Forbes’ tough posture on cutting the state is also a pitch to corporate power and foreign investors, who now own so much of Scotland. It’s apiece with the leasing—at knockdown prices—of Scotland’s seabeds to big oil, who are now the guardians of Scotland’s renewable energy development. 

It’s why the SNP opposes a windfall tax on oil and gas profits to offset energy prices. And it is why the party has failed, after 15 years in office, to implement the tax reforms, land reforms, rent controls, national energy company and many other policies they have vaunted, and which could have supplied the Scottish Government with room to manoeuvre from the restrictions of the devolution settlement.

With independence off the table, and with the government wedded to domestic and international elites and drifting continually rightward, there remains only one option. To fight the Scottish Government and defeat its attacks on jobs, pay and services, and to marry this with a rejection of Scottish participation in western imperial intrigue and war.