Union busting Socialists? The SNP and the aesthetics of resistance

The summer rain is threatening to to turn into sunshine above the Thames as Natalie McGarry, MP for Glasgow East, opens the window on the balcony of her wood-panelled office opposite the Houses of Parliament.

“I think the SNP victory has shown people around the UK that there can be alternative messages, and that with the right catalyst you can break the system,” says McGarry, whose first weeks in London have seen a media storm around her party’s challenging of convention on everything from where to sit in the chamber to clapping speeches. She is one of 56 Scottish National Party (SNP) representatives in Westminster following their best election ever, replacing the Liberal Democrats as the third party in UK politics.

The newly elected SNP MP represents one of the poorest constituencies in the UK, while her office occupies a prime address in one of the richest. Many of McGarry’s constituents rely on government services and in recent years food banks that run on private donations have become a regular fixture as the UK government has sought to reduce social security spending. It was against this background that the SNP soared to victory in May’s elections, capitalising on a feeling that the main UK parties were indifferent to the problems of Glasgow’s working class communities and Scotland more generally. Ten months on from the narrowly lost all-or-nothing referendum on Scottish independence, the main political driving force of the movement to leave the UK has reached new heights of political dominance on a simple message of change.

With the right catalyst you can break the system. – Natalie McGarry MP

“I think it has kind of shaken up politics in the UK at the moment, regardless of us playing our cards and being defeated in votes,” she says. “I was speaking to to Caroline Lucas [the UK’s only Green MP] last week and she said that having a large group of SNP MPs had changed the dynamics within the parliament, and that empowers the smaller parties too. Prime Minister’s Questions is quite intimidating if you are in a small block.”

Resisting austerity

The SNP has been keen to foster a reputation as rebels on the UK political scene, declaring itself part of an anti-austerity alliance in the general election campaign together with the Green Party in England and the independence-focused and green-tinged Plaid Cymru in Wales. Just two days before meeting for an interview, the square outside McGarry’s office had been filled with anti-austerity protestors and Caroline Lucas had made a stirring speech to the crowd. McGarry herself had been at a similar demonstration in Glasgow.

Opposition to UK government cuts became a key part of the SNP’s message in the run up to their election landslide. The party’s slick media team had used the twitter hashtag #redtories to attack the Labour Party for being too close to the Conservatives, a label eagerly taken up by Scottish voters. “Labour no more” pin badges were printed and distributed to party members and the public alike, together with the more folksy identity marker, “See me, I’m SNP”. The result was a catastrophic night for the one party in Britain with a claim to represent its disparate parts. Hounded from Scotland and pushed out of the south of England by a voting system that exaggerates the gains and losses of parties, Labour has been beaten back to the middle of Britain.

Whatever the bigger political picture, Glasgow East is suffering heavily from economic stagnation and a lack of basic services.

Since her party’s landslide north of the Anglo-Scottish border in May, McGarry’s staff have been working on laptops out of a community centre in one of the most deprived areas of her constituency. On the index of multiple deprivation that maps living conditions across the UK, the area is consistently hard hit and notoriously has a male life expectancy of just 54 in one district. It is clear that whatever the bigger political picture, Glasgow East is suffering heavily from economic stagnation and a lack of basic services.

Six weeks earlier the prospective MP had been out canvassing hard in the constituency under the banner “Stronger for Scotland”. The SNP cast itself not as a pro-independence party but as standing up for normal people’s interests better than the Labour Party had done. McGarry took her seat from Labour’s Margaret Curran, a former Scottish minister and senior member of the Labour Party.

“Yes, the feeble 41,” says McGarry, referring to the former 41 Scottish Labour MPs whom she believes did not do enough to look after Scotland before most of them lost their seats. Although the SNP and its allies in the Scottish Green Party narrowly lost September’s referendum on Scottish independence, it gave the SNP in particular a critical mass that it carried into Westminster. Across the country people received SNP leaflets in their letterboxes on which Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon boasted that she would “stand up for Scotland”. It was a turn of phrase that passed from the pens of campaign managers to the mouths of the general public.

“I think it is in part due to the referendum, but then it is not just about how you voted in the referendum,” says McGarry. “In my constituency, a majority of people voted Yes, but it wasn’t just about that. On the doorsteps, for example, I met a 73-year old man who said he would vote No if there was another referendum, but that he thought the SNP were best suited to stand up for Scotland. He thought the SNP had stood up to the Tories, and when they looked at the Labour party they did not do it through the rose-tinted spectacles that had given them a loyalty for generations. Looking at that block of MPs whom we sent to Westminster, people did not feel they were raising their voices enough.”

More powers for Scotland

One of the key pledges of the SNP was to secure more powers for Scotland after defeat in the independence referendum, but it finds itself in a difficult position. The UK government is currently pushing its Scotland Bill through parliament, determining which new powers the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh will inherit. There may be more SNP MPs than ever before, but the party is powerless to influence the majority Conservative government.

“Being a Scottish MP is not about nationality, but knowing you have been empowered by more than 50% of people to represent them. You have some great debates in the chamber, only to see them troop through the voting lobby without any real engagement with an issue,” laments McGarry.

Top of the list for the SNP is welfare powers, which it argues would counter the huge cuts to social security for which there is no mandate in Scotland. The government though is reluctant to cede such significant areas of policy to Britain’s second-largest member nation.

“The reason we want welfare is because we want to be able to act on all of these powers and link them up – without joined-up powers we cannot tackle equality at a base level,” McGarry explains.

Running through the hall that divides the House of Commons from the House of Lords, McGarry picks up the presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, the SNP’s Trisha Marwick. Marwick also happens to be a relative, and the Scottish Parliament’s official representative in London has the support of the 56 SNP MPs. Twenty-four hours later the same hall would be filled with disability protesters and police officers as the protesters attempted to storm the parliamentary chamber in protest at government cuts to disabled support.

“Ultimately we are here to secure the best deal we can for the Scottish parliament,” says McGarry, waving to other members of the SNP 56 as she runs through the Gothic cloisters on the way to the parliamentary canteen.“If you look at some of the media reports it is clear that the London media does not understand some of the complexities of the Scottish situation, but it is a studied ignorance. ‘Scotland has delivered 56 seats’ was one of the headlines, which made me laugh because we have no more seats than before, just a different party has them.”

The SNP’s radical identity

One thing that the SNP and the media can agree on is that it has become a symbol of resistance at Westminster. At the state opening of parliament, McGarry and her fellow 55 colleagues wore white roses in allusion to the Little White Rose of Scotland, a poem by the Scottish writer Christopher Grieve, better known under his pen name Hugh MacDiarmid. Grieve is a canonical figure in Scotland’s independence movement, becoming an early high-profile candidate for the party and a near-mythological figure among certain sections of the nationalist movement. Such displays of black and white political symbolism belie the complexities of the SNP project, however.

Scott Hames is a lecturer at the University of Stirling who has written extensively about the relationship between cultural expression and the independence movement. His office sits in the shadow of the monument to William Wallace, the 14th century military leader who defeated invading English armies and has become a regular fixture in portrayals of Scottish nationalism in the British media.

“Twenty years ago the idea of Scottish cultural radicalism was centered on Byres Road,” says Hames, referring to the cultural set based on the main street past Glasgow’s sprawling university campus. “Now though these people are outnumbered 10 to 1 and are going to find themselves marginalised in what they created.”

Unlike in Westminster, in post-referendum Scotland simply being Scottish is not a transgressive act in the way it once was. In the 1980s and 1990s, Scotland’s cultural renaissance was characterised by self-consciously Scottish – and left wing – voices such as the novelists James Kelman and Iain Banks. It was even the stated and unrealised wish of the late Banks to “die in an independent Socialist Scottish Republic”.

Today’s national project is a far more mainstream affair, and though it campaigned on an anti-austerity platform, the SNP is still vocally pro-business and has advocated cuts to corporation tax and the freezing of local taxation. This created a dilemma for the cultural radicals who helped sow the seeds of the SNP’s rise.

“Scottish writers and activists used to employ authenticity and difference – if you continue to bang the drum then you begin to sound like government cheerleaders whose output is too similar to the official rhetoric,” says Hames. “The SNP has not hitched its wagon to serious cultural nationalism, but it exists at a symbolic level.” The white roses worn in Westminster were an obvious act of political aesthetics, albeit one that relied on Westminster’s own ideas about Scotland.

Choppy waters for radical rhetoric

In Westminster the SNP represents a challenge to the status quo, but in Edinburgh it is now firmly established as the dominant political and social force. Only a few weeks after its anti-austerity election tidal wave, a storm started brewing on Scotland’s west coast that is proving a challenge to its rhetoric of resistance. Caledonian MacBrayne, the government-owned ferry operator whose iconic red funnel is known throughout Scotland’s sprawling chain of islands, was put out to public tender.

The company provides lifeline services to some of Scotland’s most remote communities, including that of one of the SNP’s most senior Westminster politicians. The main beneficiary of private involvement is likely to be Serco, the multinational outsourcing company that already runs Scottish contracts for ferries to the remote Northern Isles and overnight rail services to England at the request of the SNP government in Edinburgh. Previously embroiled in scandals at its immigration detention centres in England, the company also providessupport services for the UK’s nuclear arsenal at the Faslane naval base outside of Glasgow, areas where the SNP has sought to distance itself from the policies of Westminster government and the privatisation agenda.

Patrick Harvie is a pro-independence member of the Scottish Parliament and co-convener of the Scottish Green Party. Despite campaigning alongside the SNP in the referendum defeat, he has been critical of the behaviour of the government in Edinburgh on key issues.

“People are deeply concerned about their futures and their pensions,” he says of Caledonian MacBrayne, “as well the principle of whether a publicly owned, publicly operated public service should be handed over, as so many others have already to the private sector and a company like Serco. It is very clear this is handing operation of a public service to a private company that will run it with profit as its leading motive rather than public service […] all of us should be saying to the European Union and UK government that this should be kept in the public sector.”

The Greens are just one strand of a pro-independence grouping committed to a more radical vision of Scotland than the SNP. In the 1800s, Edinburgh used to style itself the Athens of the North, including building a huge neoclassical monument atop one of the Scottish capital’s hills. It is a visual language that feeds into the idea of Scotland as a special, inherently democratic and progressive country, and for a certain section of the Scottish electorate Greece is the new role model. A number of socialist groupings recently agreed to come together under the banner of a “Scottish Syriza”, vowing to both fight austerity and campaign for independence, and inspired by the popular-left movement in Greece.

Talk without action

The emphasis on difference is an inherent part of the SNP narrative, but away from Westminster it has taken an extremely centrist approach to maintaining its popularity. The safe game being played at home by the SNP also means it is not doing as much as it might to match its rhetoric of equality and social justice, according to one leading researcher who wished to remain anonymous. The researcher, who teaches at a leading Scottish university and studies Scottish government policy says that ambition is rarely met with action.

“If they have to tackle a difficult problem like ‘social justice’, they have an endless conversation about it to avoid making redistributive decisions that leave some people worse off,” they say. “The land reform debate [to tackle Scotland’s unequal system of land ownership] will be an interesting test once the landed lobby starts. The SNP government strikes me as the very epitome of a conservative centrist government. They’re not changing anything because it will lose them support.”

The SNP has been in power in Edinburgh for eight years and looks set to win another term in Scotland’s general elections next May. In that time it has benefited hugely from the lack of opposition from a disorganised Scottish Labour Party that will shortly elect its fourth leader in four years. Labour’s huge losses have meant that many of the old generation of politicians has been cleared out, and what the party now does could determine the future of the whole of the UK.

Labour renewal?

One person hoping to take Labour back to power and save the union is Cat Headley, a young lawyer from Orkney off Scotland’s northern coast. She is campaigning to become a member of the Scottish parliament for Edinburgh Western, an area that takes in the country’s iconic Forth Rail Bridge. Before the SNP election wave swept across Scotland, the party projected its logo onto the structure, perpetuating the idea that it was an insurgent and anti-establishment force. For the first time in half a century, though, it is Labour that is on the back foot, still coming to terms with being a party of opposition. Belonging to the same generation as McGarry, the constitutional upheaval in Scotland has given Headley’s politics new meaning.

“I joined the party in 2013, I had got involved and been interested in the referendum, and had become more confident in my own voice regarding politics after going on Twitter. You get to know people and find new connections, and out of that people said, ‘have you ever thought about going further with this?’ I’d always been a Labour supporter but the referendum made me realise there was meaning to getting involved in politics.”

She was scouted out to stand as a candidate by a party desperate for new blood and was present in the counting hall in May as the scale of Labour’s Scottish defeat became clear to those assembled in the room. Ten years ago Headley could have expected to be a member of the Scottish parliament without much thought going into it, but “I don’t think I have much chance,” she admits of the present situation. “The job now is to rebuild the party and work towards breathing new life into it.”

“There is a huge onus on all of us to really think about it, and I have considered a lot why this all happened,” she reflects. “We’ve not all been sobbing into our cups of tea, but having realistic conversations about how to move forward. There have not just been knee jerk reactions to this and I think there is a realisation now that simple solutions will not work and that we need a whole new kind of politics to respond to the new politics the SNP has brought.”

The SNP poses an existential threat to Labour, pushing it not only from power but even attempting to replace it as the party of trade unions. On the same weekend that protesters filled Parliament Square in London and Natalie McGarry marched in Glasgow, the SNP’s trade union group held a huge conference with some of its 16,000 members – more than the entire Scottish Labour party.

“Labour likes to think it is above the kind of politics the SNP runs,” Headley says, “the problem being that it has not worked and they have been so effective at messaging that the substance of what goes on does not really get analysed. That leaves you with a choice between doing the same or trying to be consistent.”

Perception politics

“Sadly your policies are just half of it. You need to do the perception politics and be successful,“ she admits. “People are not listening. Our policies in the manifesto were right – people voted for our policies but with an SNP flag on it. The manifestos were highly similar. In the longer run they even had the same plans to tackle austerity. We need to hold the SNP to account and rehabilitate ourselves in the eyes of voters as trustworthy.”

This is the heart of Labour’s problem – whatever they do, it has been branded an institutionalised party, suffering the same fate as Germany’s Social Democrats to Greece, which have been caught between radicalism and managerialism. On everything from education to reforming the UK, Labour is trapped between two worlds which the SNP seems able to master simultaneously.

“The UK has unequal parts, and Scotland cannot just decide to be federal on its own. Federalism has the same risks as full economic autonomy. We need to have a UK convention on the constitution where everyone can contribute,” Headley says.

The problem for Headley’s party is that there is little appetite for any meaningful change across the UK. The same impotence felt by the SNP’s 56 members in Westminster is matched elsewhere in the UK. With a full majority the Conservative government can do as it likes. In the long term, this benefits the SNP too, which can protest in Westminster and govern in Edinburgh, strengthening the idea that it is both a radical outsider standing up for normal people and a responsible custodian of Scotland.

The SNP has ruled out another referendum for the time being, but with the caveat that something major could change that. With another five years of austerity from Westminster and perceived indifference from Labour, that something may not be far away.

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