England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Ukraine crisis: Does the SNP provide a way out?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown the bloodthirsty face of Russian imperialism. But this crisis has also revealed the reactionary war-mongering lurking behind the ‘caring, liberal’ face of Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party (SNP). Ian Blackford, SNP’s Westminster leader, attacks Tory sanctions on the basis of not going far enough. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has gone one further, repeatedly calling on Boris Johnson ‘not to rule out’ a no-fly zone over Ukraine, claiming this is “writing Vladimir Putin a blank cheque of assurance” that he can escape “military consequences”. 

This allowed the Tory Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack to pose as a responsible statesman in comparison. Jack claimed Sturgeon was “utterly irresponsible” and “naive”, and warned that she was suggesting a course of action that “could lead to World War III”. Of course, this is empty rhetoric. So far the Johnson government has used the war to champion the interests of Western imperialism in the region. But the fact that the Secretary of State saw this as an opportunity to paint the Tories in a ‘moderate’ light exposes the direction in which Sturgeon and the SNP are moving

At least 135,000 Scottish soldiers were slaughtered in World War One.  This total, 26 per cent of British and Irish casualties, represented the destruction, on an industrial scale, of a generation of Scottish workers. Young men, dragged from the streets, factories and farms of a nation with barely 11 per cent of the population of the British Isles, to die in the mud of the Western Front. The callous disregard of the Generals (particularly the Edinburgh whisky baron, Field Marshall Haig) for their fate continued a two-century long ruling-class tradition: shipping Scotland’s ‘surplus’ population around the world to kill and be killed for the British Empire. 

Anti-militarist tradition

Unsurprisingly, anti-militarism has always been central to working class struggle and socialism in Scotland. As the Scottish revolutionary Marxist John MacLean explained, on trial for sedition in 1918: “the great powers are not prepared to stop the war until one side or the other is broken down. It is our business as members of the working class to see that this war ceases today.  I am not here as the accused. I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

Initially the SNP, eager to capture the votes of workers and youth disillusioned by New Labour austerity, opposed both NATO membership and the Trident missile programme. This increasingly jarred with Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Salmond’s aim to make the SNP a ‘safe pair of hands’ to run an Independent capitalist Scotland for big business. So his allies overcame rank and file resistance at the 2012 party conference to maintain a policy of support for NATO. 

Although Sturgeon still pays lip-service to the ‘wastefulness’ of nuclear weapons, such as the UK’s Trident programme, this doesn’t even come close to a genuine internationalist, anti-war approach, as long as the SNP’s policy is to remain within the NATO alliance. As their website puts it: “Nuclear weapons are a core component of NATO’s strategy. As long as nuclear weapons exist, it will remain a nuclear alliance”. 

Moreover, the ‘no fly zone’ Sturgeon demands over Ukraine, far from representing a ‘rescue’ for the Ukrainian people, would instead cause devastation by bringing NATO powers in direct military confrontation with Russian imperialism. This would make the Trident base at Faslane (less than 30 miles from Glasgow) a prime target for Russian missiles.

In this, Sturgeon is marching in step with ‘centrist’ politicians across Europe, joining a headlong retreat from any pretence of anti-militarism.  The governments of Sweden and Finland (both held up by SNP politicians as models for an independent Scotland) seem likely to abandon over a century’s neutrality to join NATO.

European governments on the war footing

In Ireland, popular opinion prevents the Fianna Fail/Fine Gael/Green government taking this step immediately, but the Ukraine war has exposed the hollowness of the claims of capitalist states to ‘neutrality’. As the ISA member of the Irish Parliament, Mick Barry explained recently: “The Irish State has never been a genuinely neutral State. It was ‘neutral’ in the Second World War, but on the side of America and Britain. It was ‘neutral’ in the Vietnam war on the side of Uncle Sam. It was so neutral in the Iraq War that Shannon Airport was given over as a refuelling pit stop for the American war machine.”

Neither has neutrality prevented Ireland joining the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation on defence (PESCO). Today, Ireland baulks at PESCO’s requirement to commit 2% of GDP to military expenditure, but for how long?  The German SPD government has used the Ukraine war to fall into line with PESCO, pledging to double military expenditure by 2026! On the basis of crisis-ridden capitalism, this must mean savage cuts to health, education and other essential public services. 

Writing in the pro-war New Statesman magazine in March, Sturgeon justified her sabre-rattling against Russia, in empty talk of “vital, robust democracies” taking the fight to “Putin and his regime”. In the same article, Sturgeon makes the progressive and in-of-itself correct point that “Despite all the talk of levelling up from the Conservatives, the ugly truth is that the UK is one of the most unequal countries in Western Europe”. 

However, meeting the PESCO target would mean diverting over £1.3 billion from public services to the military-industrial complex, and condemn further generations of Scottish people to the fate of their great-grandfathers: fighting and dying in capitalist wars. 

Only a socialist Scotland, a workers’ republic, can be genuinely independent. Rather than the imperialist alliances and entanglements of the ruling class such as the EU, NATO, a socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist federation alongside Ireland and England and Wales, and a socialist Europe, would open the door to a world based on solidarity and cooperation rather than capitalist warmongering. 

As John MacLean wrote in the opening months of World War I: “Let the propertied class go out and defend their blessed property. When they have been disposed of, we of the working class will have something to defend, and we shall do it.”


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