Workers' Liberty #50/51  


Scottish nationalism... or socialism?

Stan Crooke looks at the new Scottish Socialist Party

A recall conference of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) held in Glasgow last month agreed almost unanimously to vote the SSA out of existence and replace it with a Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). The background to the launch of the new party gives its supporters only limited grounds for optimism.

Nearly 400 people attended the founding conference of the SSA in April 1996. Less than 150 attended its second conference in June of last year, and less than a hundred attended its third conference in June of this year. The recall conference itself was attended by around 150, a fair proportion of whom were observers and visitors.

The SSA magazine Red was launched as a bi-monthly in late 1996. In fact, it competes with Critique for irregularity of appearance — the fourth issue of Red was published over the summer. But given that few, if any, members of the SSA bothered to sell the magazine, how often it appeared was largely irrelevant.

Outside of Glasgow Pollok constituency the SSA’s intervention in last year’s General Election — standing 16 candidates — was spectacularly unsuccessful.

Tommy Sheridan picked up a healthy 3,639 votes in Glasgow Pollak — but this marked a fall of some 50% from his 1992 vote. With the exception of two other candidates in Glasgow (where around 3% of the vote went to the SSA) the average vote for SSA candidates hovered around 1%. In local council by-elections, especially in Glasgow, the SSA’s electoral results have varied from poor to occasionally respectable. In late 1996 the SSA had a high profile and effective input into the Glaciers workplace occupation in Glasgow. A few months later it had a similarly high profile in campaigning against Glasgow City Council cutbacks. However, it was unable to build any sizeable base of support in the unions. its influence largely confined to two or three unions in a few localities.

Having made self-intoxicating predictions about imminent mass breakthrough, the SSA avoided explanations when the breakthroughs failed to come.

Before last year’s General Election, the SSA boasted: “The SSA has entered 16 candidates (contesting over 20% of Scottish seats). This is a remarkable achievement for such a new organisation, reflecting the enthusiasm for a socialist alternative.”

After the elections, however, just a single sentence in Red made any reference to the results: “The SSA vote was perhaps(!) disappointing, but its real achievement was in standing in so many seats and, as a result, becoming widely known.” No doubt the Natural Law Party consoled itself with the same thoughts.

In place of serious political accounting the SSA chose the supposedly quick-fix solution of declaring itself the SSP and campaigning for an independent socialist Scotland.

The driving force behind the new line is Scottish Militant Labour (SML).

Theoretically this is the Scottish wing of the Socialist Party (formally Militant) but in practice it is an independent organisation. The rationale offered by SML for championing an “independent socialist Scotland” combines political incoherence with electoral opportunism, reincarnating some of the most vulgar-evolutionary aspects of traditional Militant dogma in a peculiarly Scottish form.

In an article in the current issue of Red SML full-timer Alan McCombes (whose main role in the life is now to construct the “theory” which justifies the opportunism of both the SSA and the SML) invents a history of Scotland which would embarrass even an overtly Scottish-nationalist historian.

“Over and over again, from time immemorial, Scotland’s ruling classes have betrayed the national demands of the common people of Scotland,” writes McCombes. Scotland’s rulers who today oppose independence thus “conform to a treacherous historical pattern stretching back almost 1,000 years.”

Oblivious to all the evidence to the contrary, McCombes claims that “even during the glory days of the British Empire there continued to run a strong strain of support for Home Rule among the working classes,” and that Home Rule sentiments produced a “separate left-wing Scottish TUC.” During the “glory days of the British Empire” the call for Home Rule was largely the property of the Tory Romantics. In the latter part of the nineteenth century the cause was taken up by the Liberals, from whom it was carried over into the embryonic Labour Party by Keir Hardie. However the Scottish TUC did not come out in favour of Home Rule until 1914. The STUC has always been either indifferent or downright hostile to the demand for Home Rule.

According to McCombes, “the sections of society who favour Scottish independence are those who are generally more socialist leaning, including a big majority of young people and low paid workers.” Thus “support for independence” is seen as a more revolutionary solution than anything on offer from the labour movement.

By coming out in favour of an “independent socialist Scotland” run the electoralist calculations, the SSP can attract the votes of these young people and low-paid workers.

But what is meant by the slogan “an independent socialist Scotland”? Either it means that socialism can be built in a single small state — in which case it is manifestly absurd. Or it is a call for an independent Scotland with a left-of-centre government — in which case the SSP would be better off calling for a vote for the SNP.

It is hardly a coincident that the current issue of Red carries an article advocating a “third way” to socialism, remarkably reminiscent of the old CPGB line: “The election of a Left government supported by popular forces outside Parliament united behind a programme of progressive change. The aim would not be socialism but to move society to the left, preparing the ground for further advances.”

This unique brand of Kailyard Marxism — a combination of rewriting history, political ambiguity, Marxist phraseology, and pseudo-internationalist posturing — is a Scottish adaptation of old-style Militant scenario politics.

When Militant was in the Labour Party it argued that the eventual election of a Tribune-led Labour government would disabuse the masses of their illusion in left reformism and rally behind the forces of genuine socialism (which, incorrectly, they identified with themselves).

Now SML applies the same scenario to Scottish politics: “An SNP government in the future would inevitably be forced to abandon its programme of social reforms. Such a backlash against an SNP-type government would develop in a leftward direction and lead to a massive strengthening of the forces of genuine socialism.”

“In that sense,” argues SML, “even a capitalist independent Scotland would mark a step forward in the overall movement towards socialism; at the very least it would help to dispel any illusions that Scotland’s problems could be solved by swapping a British capitalist government for a Scottish capitalist government.”

Despite its limited influence and growing political incoherence the SSP nonetheless has a chance of seeing Tommy Sheridan elected to a Scottish Parliament. Under proportional representation a 6% vote could get Sheridan elected.

The SML lacks any strategy for promoting the emergence of a new trade union based party of labour from the debris of new Labour. Occasionally it has called for union disaffiliation from Labour and affiliation to the SSA — a demand which makes no sense politically and which, in any case, has not been pursued with any vigour.

The call for an independent Scotland may have some resonance with the youth on the housing schemes but it remains a non-starter in the unions. Members of the SSP and SML need to ask themselves whether a possible seat in the Scottish Parliament is a worthwhile exchange for an abandonment of basic socialist principles and an abandonment of any orientation towards the labour movement.

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