Scottish National Party switch on Europe

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October 31, 2007 15:27 | by John Foster

John Foster investigates whether the Scottish National Party appears to be changing its tune on the European Union.

THE Scottish National Party (SNP) was historically opposed to the European Union. In 1975 , it campaigned for a No vote alongside the STUC and the Labour left. Billy Wolfe, its chairperson through the 1970s, attacked the EU as undemocratic and centralist.

Today, the EU is infinitely more centralist, but it now forms a key part of the party's creed. Under the slogan "Independence in Europe," its official website states: "Independence in Europe means accepting the role and responsibilities of a member state of the European Union who have pooled certain of their sovereign rights for common advantage. Sharing sovereignty in Europe in this way enhances Scotland's sovereignty because it increases our influence."

In the current debate on the EU reform treaty - the retitled version of the rejected constitution, the SNP appears to have decided not to join the call for a referendum and to be content for Gordon Brown to ratify it on their behalf. Yet, under the treaty, the small nations lose any automatic representation on the key policy body the European Commission. So why is the SNP still in support?

The SNP switch to a pro-EU position goes back to the 1980s. At that time, the "independence in Europe" concept was associated with Jim Sillars and the radical 79 Group, which projected it as an alternative to the narrow nationalism of the old guard. They argued that absolute sovereignty was impossible in an economically globalised world and that a measure of shared sovereignty within the EU would serve to protect Scotland from the ravages of the world market.

The SNP officially adopted the "independence in Europe" slogan in 1988, the same year that Jacques Delors issued his social charter and proclaimed a vision of the EU as standing for social partnership in opposition to the raw market-driven monetarism of Reagan and Thatcher. It was at this point also that many in the trade union movement and the Labour Party also revised their previous opposition to the EU.

But this has now changed. Most trade unionists again oppose it and they do so precisely because they have experienced the EU at first hand.They have seen compulsory competitive tendering decimate employment and working conditions in local government and the health service. In road, rail and maritime transport, in postal services, energy and telecommunications, workers have felt the dire consequences of the privatisation directives stemming from the Single European Act. The Maastricht Treaty's limits on public spending led directly to further losses, in particular, the disastrous privatisation of housing. So it is no wonder that the 2007 TUC described the EU reform treaty as a "Trojan horse for unfettered privatisation."

But what of the SNP? Why does it still support it?

The SNP has never claimed to be socialist or to represent working people in terms of their class interests. On the other hand, it does seek to represent a country that is overwhelmingly working class in composition and where the great bulk of capital is owned externally.

It was this realisation that influenced Sillars and the SNP 79 Group to advocate a switch to social democratic politics 20 years ago. Indeed, the ability of the SNP to secure the largest share of votes in the 2007 elections was largely dependent on being seen to be to the left of the Labour Party.

However, now that it is in government , the SNP is acting with considerable caution. The party leadership appears to want to avoid debate on the revived constitution and to have reversed its 2004 position in favour of a referendum.

Even in terms of Alex Salmond's famous pragmatism, this seems to be a mistake. Opposition to the constitution would put further pressure on new Labour's big-business alignment and would not necessarily call into question the wider European stance taken by the SNP. It would also bring the SNP back in touch with some important realities.

Far from being a protection against globalisation, the EU in 2007 directly serves to open small economies to external big business dominance. The EU insistence on open markets inevitably means dominance by the biggest companies. Nor is the EU in any way a bulwark against the US. On the contrary, US capital exerts massive influence in the EU.

In terms of its investments, most notably in Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden, US capital represents the third biggest block and its needs are fully reflected in EU debate by the governments of those countries. Currently, US finance is particularly aggressive within European capital markets where the City of London acts as its transatlantic base.

Most seriously and critically, the EU is being used to close down our democracy.

This is the role of the EU reform treaty. It ends the national veto over 40 new policy areas, including energy and public health, establishes the EU as a state in its own right and gives EU law legal superiority to national law. It also establishes the "free market" as the binding economic principle for the new EU state.

In saying this, it is important to stress that we are not talking about some "external" body imposing on Britain or Scotland. We are talking about big business in Britain, jointly with that in France, Germany and Italy, ending the ability of working people in those countries to use national parliaments to protect themselves.

It is a class attack. It unites big business across different countries. And its timing is no accident. The next phase of EU policy, the full implementation of the 2000 Lisbon action programme, will involve a frontal assault on labour costs - on pension rights, retirement ages and the status of collective bargaining contracts.

The architects of the Lisbon programme don't want their plans wrecked again by the volatility of national politics in France, Germany, Italy and Britain. National parliaments will, of course, remain. But they will never again have the power to interfere with the unfettered freedom of capital. And the same would apply to any parliament of an independent Scotland.

In face of this, the silence of the SNP is indeed deafening and it conceals the other debate that its party leadership refuses to acknowledge - how far the SNP is to become just one further neoliberal party governing within the parameters set by big business.

Conversely, for the left in both the SNP and in the Labour Party, the EU reform treaty represents a key opportunity for taking the offensive against the big-business dominance of their parties - not in any abstract sense, but because it now directly threatens democracy itself.

In the 1970s, Billy Wolfe was right to describe the EU as centralist and undemocratic. The SNP would be right to do so now.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.