Why I joined the SNP

Editor’s note: No personal attacks on Hugh please. The discussion will be robustly moderated.

Hugh Kerr is a former MEP and was Tommy Sheridan’s press officer.

The news that I have joined the SNP caused a minor flutter in the media. Forty-two newspaper articles were written and over 400 comments followed the Scotsman article, which broke the story. Mind you most of the comments weren’t about me! The news also caused some critical comments from people hostile to the SNP and some old friends in the socialist movement who think I have sold out or become a carpetbagger. I should say many old friends in the SNP have warmly welcomed me, as have local SNP members in Edinburgh West. However I would like to explain to friends and critics why I have joined the SNP and indeed why I think other socialists and trade unionists should consider joining in the future.

I joined the Labour Party in Kilmarnock in 1959 when I was 15. As the son of Communist Party members, I remember being approached by a young Jimmie Reid to join the Young Communist League. When we discovered that the Communist Party defended the Soviet Union’s possession of nuclear weapons (“the workers bomb”! as it was known) like many young peace activists we rejected the YCL and decided to join the Labour Party. CND were working hard to commit Labour to a nuclear free Britain. Labour at that time also believed in equality, social justice, public ownership and although not explicitly socialist, was certainly a place where many socialists could feel at home rather like the SNP today!

I spent almost 40 years as a Labour member and carried out many jobs within the party ending up as a councillor and an MEP. However when I met Blair and saw how he was operating within Labour I knew our paths would part soon. The story goes that when Blair was elected first as a Labour MP in 1983 his old friends at Oxford said ” a Labour MP, that can’t be right Tony is a Tory!” Well they were fairly accurate in their assessment!

I too was under whelmed when I first met Blair. I was a newly elected MEP for Essex West and Hertfordshire East (Labour officials later told me they would never have let me stand if they thought I would win!). Blair came to pitch for our votes in Brussels when he was standing for the leadership in June 1994.There were 62 Labour MEPs elected in 1994 (they currently have 13) so we had a significant block of votes, Blair swept into the room accompanied by 2 camera crews filming his every move.

He was a little put out when I insisted that his cameras be removed from what was a private meeting and our relationship worsened when I asked him why it taken him so long to join the Labour Party. Unlike the late John Smith who had joined when he was 15, Blair had joined when he was 27. No doubt this was as a career move when he joined Derry Irvine’s chambers! So after 4 years of attempting to resist New Labour and Blair, Ken Coates MEP and I were finally expelled in January 1998 after writing an article in the Observer saying Blair was a menace to socialism and the Labour Party. This is something that is widely acknowledged today, Ken and I were just ahead of our time!

When I was expelled from Labour and the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, I joined the Green group in the parliament as an independent socialist and Ken Coates joined the GUE, the group of socialists and communists in the parliament. Between us we tried to unite the Greens and Left in Britain. We failed and discovered the Greens were almost as sectarian as the left and didn’t want to join with anyone. To be fair the Greens did get 2 MEPs elected in 1999 but a Green/Left coalition would have got more elected including in Scotland. The Greens and the SSP took 10% of the vote in 1999 in Scotland well in front of the Tories and the Liberals who both got seats indeed a Green/Left alliance would have had a seat in the European Parliament at the last 3 elections.

Subsequently I returned to Scotland to help form the SSP with Tommy Sheridan. Some people may say, well that was a mistake. However I am happy to defend what I helped Tommy to achieve, particularly in the first Scottish Parliament from 1999 to 2003. Remember Tommy got through the first private members bill abolishing poindings and warrant sales with the help of Alec Neil and John Mcallion. I sat in the press gallery the afternoon of the final debate and watched the Labour/Liberal majority crumble as Labour MSPs one after the other said they couldn’t go back to their constituents having voted against this bill.

At 4.30pm half an hour before the vote the government whips stated they would no longer oppose the bill. It was a historic victory and removed this threat from over 25,000 families every year. Ironically I noticed that Johann Lamont the likely next leader of Labour in Scotland is claiming she supported Tommy’s bill as part of her election manifesto. As Tommy and I recall Lamont opposed the bill right until the last minute when the government crumbled! Tommy also put forward bills to introduce free school meals and prescription charges both now SNP government policy and his scheme to abolish the Council Tax and replace it with a Scottish Service Tax is again now SNP policy although not such a radical version.

Tommy Sheridan by 2003 had become the best known politician in Scotland at 92% recognition and the most respected politician and as his press officer I like to think I played a small apart in that process. Indeed Winnie Ewing in her autobiography paid tribute to her “old friend from Europe Hugh Kerr” in getting these results although Winnie also wisely predicted the SSP would not maintain their popularity!
Indeed in 2003 the SSP got 7% of the vote and 6 MSPs and were within a whisker of getting 8.

However it was then that Tommy’s troubles began and within weeks of being elected some of the other elected SSP members began to distance themselves and indeed within a year,  I felt that I could no longer work along side them in the parliament. Unlike those who were for the first time in their life in well paid jobs at the taxpayers expense, I gave my labour voluntarily and decided life was too short to put up with the tension of the situation. So it was no surprise to me that they refused to support Tommy and seem to have openly aided the News of the World in sending Tommy to prison.

This split in the SSP meant that Winnie’s predictions came true and the SSP lost all of its seats at the 2007 election. Tommy’s new party Solidarity fared little better although Tommy arguably would have retained his seat had Labour not attempted to rig the ballot and 150,000 votes were spoilt. Solidarity kept going until the last elections but all the left parties by then got derisory votes. Indeed I got the highest Solidarity vote in the country at 853 votes as top of the list in the South of Scotland some thousands off being elected. It is clear to me and indeed I suspect most people on the left that the socialist left in Scotland is doomed to be on the margins of Scottish politics for many years. Tommy Sheridan could well make a comeback if he wins his appeal or the verdict is quashed but the left as a whole will be electorally on the fringe, although some may continue to play a valuable role in the trade union movement.

The Labour Party since its crushing defeats north and south of the border shows little sign of coming to terms with its place in opposition and the current crop of Labour leadership candidates in Scotland are deeply underwhelming. The Liberals, after their coalition agreement with the Tories at Westminster, have rightly been punished in Scotland and many of their constituency votes were almost as derisory as the far left. Like them the Liberals will be fringe players in Scotland as sadly will the Greens who have failed to build on their past electoral gains.

The future of Scotland certainly in the next few years depends on the SNP and I want to make a contribution to that future. The SNP proved in their first four years of minority government that they could govern competently. I remember meeting a doctor and his wife, a teacher, just after the election who cheerfully admitted that they had voted SNP for the first time in their lives not because they were in favour of independence but because the SNP government had done well in the past four years and faced with a choice of Alec Salmond and Iain Grey there was no choice.

I have been a long time supporter of independence being a follower of John Maclean the great Scottish socialist leader who wanted an Scottish socialist republic. I know the SNP is not a socialist party but it is a social democratic party similar in its policies to the Labour Party I joined 50 years ago, except that it favours an independent Scotland. Over the next 4 years there is a major job to do in convincing Scots that they can take charge of their own affairs and even in difficult times in the world economy create a better Scotland.

Some years ago I was criticised by one of the more revolutionary members of the far left at a public meeting. Comrade Kerr he said, “you are nothing but a reformist”! I said, “Comrade you are correct I want to reform poverty, inequality, homelessness, poor health, unemployment and bad education. You know if we mange that we will be much nearer a socialist society”.

I also want to see a Scotland identified with peace and cooperation in the world, not tied to a warlike nation that has taken us to illegal and immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, costing the lives of many young Scots. As a former MEP I want to see Scotland playing a fuller position in Europe and incidentally being much better represented in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. For some years I lived in Denmark and observed a much more equal and socially just society, It is no accident that Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries come at the top of the UN indices for the quality of life, for public services and for happiness. Britain languishes in 42nd place.

Scotland if independent would become the sixth wealthiest nation in the world. We have seen how Norway by using its oil wealth wisely has created the highest living standards in the world and is acknowledged as a force for good. Let us make Scotland a little more like Scandinavia and a little less like the USA. I hope I can make a contribution to that as a member of the SNP. I will be in good company for the SNP have doubled their membership in the last four years to over 20,000 and plan to double it again over the next four years. In 2014 or 2015 we are going to have a referendum on the independence of Scotland I am glad I will be helping to win that referendum and build a new Scotland inside the SNP.

Hugh Kerr

Editor- since this was written, we now know that Johann Lamont was elected Scottish labour party leader and that the independence referendum has been set for the autumn of 2014.

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