Return to Europe menu


Socialist Unity in Scotland

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has been seen as the inspiration for the creation of Socialist Alliances in Ireland just as it has in the rest of Britain.  In large part the example of the SSP has been looked at in terms of the (all too welcome) organisational unity of the left and has ignored some of the political issues that have arisen from its creation and development.  The appeal of the SSP experience may grow all the stronger now that the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland has joined.

In this issue of ĎSocialist Democracyí we interview two members of the SSP about the issues thrown up by the creation of the party.  It provides lessons for those of us in Ireland who may be called upon to Ďfollow the Scottish road.í  The interview by Joe Craig (JC) which took place in Glasgow on 19th April was with Mathew Jones (MJ), a member of the SSP from south Glasgow and Sandy McBurney (SMcB) from the Kelvin branch in the west of the city.

JC: The Scottish Socialist Party has been held up as an example for socialists to follow in England with the creation of the London Socialist Alliance and English Socialist Alliance and now with the creation of a Socialist Alliance in Ireland.  What do you think are the positive lessons of the Scottish Socialist Party?

MJ: The positive lessons are that it has forced the unity of the left and allowed the opportunity to have a more general political discussion, although the problem is that the level of it is very limited.  People have been forced to say ok we must have a democratic organisation where people can express themselves.  This has always been a problem for the left.and there have only been occasional flourishes of internal democracy in the past.  Within the SSP the freedom of the membership to express itself has been conceded.   This may not be the case forever but it is true now.  Unfortunately it is limited to Scotland.

JC: You are saying one of the weaknesses of the SSP is that it only organises in Scotland but surely that derives from its programme which is for an independent socialist Scotland.  Does that mean you think that this is a weakness of the SSP?

MJ: Yes that is the central part of the programme and it is a central weakness.  First of all until very recently the leadership of the SSP including Tommy Sheridan were vehemently opposed to this demand and they have never quite explained as far as I can see why they switched.  I think it originates from two things.  First it is a populist thing, a means of building a base, a certain move towards nationalism which I donít think is particularly left wing or socialist or progressive.  And secondly they are opposed to the leadership of their organisation which is in England, they want to establish their own organisation and they have now in fact split from the Socialist Party in England which was the leadership of their international current.

If you look at the working class there is no particular history of Scottish nationalism, which originates outside the working class.  Within the industrialised central belt of Scotland its main hold is over the more marginalised sections of the class, unemployed youth for example.  There is not a great difference between the Scottish working class and the working class in the rest of Britain.  You can say ok the labour movement in Scotland has differences with England but not to the point where you would say there is an irretrievable or irreconcilable break between the Scottish working class and the rest of the British working class.

JC: Supporters of the demand for an independent Scotland say that it would lead to the break up of the UK state and socialists should be in favour of that.  Why is the demand for an independent socialist Scotland so bad?

MJ:  The problem is, are you in favour of the destruction of capitalism or the fragmentation of the state.  Principally in Britain the advocates of nationalism have always been those who wanted a bigger piece of the capitalist state for themselves.  We can see that clearly in the Scottish National Party which is not a working class party.  Clearly as socialists we are in favour of the maximum unity of the working class rather than its fragmentation and if we look at capitalism we see the need to tackle it on an international basis.  If we look to its destruction it needs to happen on a world scale.  Support for fragmentation amounts to advocating the creation of more capitalist states not socialist states as far as I can see.  Ireland in this respect is a separate case.  The idea that the working class is much more advanced in Scotland, well I see no particular evidence for that.  In any case even if it were surely the demand should be that the Scottish working class play a leading role in the organisation of the working class in the rest of Britain and the rest of Europe.  Our goal should be creating wider international organisation rather than limiting our organisation and scope of our demands.

JC: Does that mean you donít regard Scotland as an oppressed nation?

MJ: Clearly Scotland is not an oppressed nation.  There is no way in which capital within Scotland has been oppressed.  There is no basis on which you could say it is oppressed.  In terms of self-determination you can compare it to Leninís position.  We are for the right of divorce but that doesnít mean we advocate it.  In current circumstances we are looking for maximum unity of the working class for which it requires to unite on an international basis.  It faces capital increasingly organised on an international basis.  Why should workers say we should sub-divide existing states?  The demand for an independent socialist Scotland is populism rather than anything to do with socialism.

SMcB:  Just to follow what Matthew said the demand for independence really has been promoted as an alternative to class struggle politics.  If you look historically how its grown, a whole section of the petty bourgeois have used it to deviate the workers vanguard, instead of looking towards unity in struggle with the working class in England and Wales, towards an independence project.  The Trade Union and Labour bureaucracy have also promoted the ĎScottish dimensioní as an alternative, and thus in fact an obstacle, to a class struggle fight back against Capitalís attack on working class living standards.  It was essentially the Labour bureaucracy and sections of the middle class who promoted Devolution as a way of protecting the Scottish working class from the ravages of Thatcherism.  Of course the Labour bureaucracy attempted to stifle or destroy any real fight back by the working class as in the minerís strike.  I have never heard a coherent argument that Scotland is an oppressed nation.  It has been part of the British Empire.  It gained from being part of the empire.  Scots are not discriminated against in Britain.  You just have to look at the Labour cabinet, Scots are quite prominent in all fields down in London.  In fact I think that Scotland and Scots are amongst the least nationally oppressed people in the world.  It is a project of the middle class to gain a bigger slice of the pie for themselves, to cut out London and have a direct relationship with Brussels.

It breaks up working class unity.  Where was the demand for Scottish independence in the minerís strike? What use would that demand have been during the strike?  Had it been raised it would have divided the working class.  Where was the call for independence during the general strike in 1926?  It is a question of dividing the British working class, which is a really existing entity.  The international working class is an aspiration which we are working towards but there is a history of the British working class with a history of struggle based on the fact that there is British capital.

The idea that the British working class can advance by dividing into national sections is a real diversion and a real danger and we can look to Yugoslavia as a warning of what happens when the working class becomes divided on national lines, and at least there you had national oppression.  In Scotland there is none.  Of course if people want independence they can vote for it.  If they were then denied it then we would be confronting national oppression but I believe there would be no reason for capital to do that.  They could live with an independent capitalist Scotland within Europe.

I would say that the project of independence for Scotland is a project of defeat. It comes from the defeats suffered by the working class over the past twenty-five, thirty years in Scotland and internationally.  It also flows specifically from the defeat of the Militant Tendencyís project, where you take over the Labour Party and somehow the Labour Party would introduce socialism through parliament.  That project has been defeated.

The analysis of Alan McCoombes (a leader of the SSP) that the British working class is no longer a viable means of advancing the interests of the working class, and its organisations are no longer viable, is because he points to Thatcherism successfully breaking up nationalised industries and therefore breaking up the structures of the working class.  Thatís supposedly why we need to organise locally and so the importance of just organising in Scotland. He is accepting the results of the defeat rather than seeing that the working class is going to recover from those defeats and is going to have to organise even more internationally than it has in the past.

The central slogan of the SSP thus comes from defeat and it is a slogan that reflects a certain despair in the project of socialism. They are now looking towards a sort of social-democratic, independent type state in Scotland which is just not a possibility.

JC: What you appear to be saying is that the present perspectives of the SSP are based on a mistaken understanding of where the Scottish working class is at.  What do you think the correct perspectives should be for socialists in Scotland?

SMcB: Where the Scottish working class is is where the British working class is and that is a position where they have gone through defeats, but there is starting to be a recomposition.  If you look at the left, the old forms of organisation of the left have proved to be useless.  This is not just in Britain obviously but also internationally.  Stalinism is counter-revolutionary, Social democracy is counter-revolutionary and the various far-left organisations have been tainted by those traditions.  The Militant Tendency was an example of that, they were very centralist and were very close to a Stalinist idea of how a party could be organised and how the Labour Party could be transformed into a socialist party.  That old way forward has gone, so that is positive, the ground has opened up for new forms of socialist organisation and this is still coming together.

We can see it in England with the development of the Socialist Alliances.  They donít have the correct programme yet and they are trying to work out the programme but it is a good development.  Similarly in Scotland the left have come together.  The big negative in Scotland is that it has come together in a project supported by Militant around the question of independence and as I have said I think the demand for Scottish independence is anti-working class because it helps divide the British working class.

So I think what the Scottish working class have to do is help build a British-wide Socialist organisation that has an adequate programme and adequate practice to take on British capital and obviously has to be part of an international movement that does likewise.  I think the leadership of the SSP is unfortunately hampering this development by its project of independence and breaking up the organisations of the British working class.

MJ: The best elements of the working class in Scotland are against the nationalist project.  The SSP say they are well in advance of the left in England but I think recently we have seen that this is not necessarily the case.  The nationalist perspective is not a Marxist one, which is a much more long-term perspective, and is a short term, populist one without a real analysis or understanding.  The historical lack of a real theoretical understanding on behalf of the British left is now coming home to roost.

JC: The SWP have an analysis that a new radicalisation around issues of globalisation puts an onus on the left to unite to take advantage of this radicalisation.  How is this reflected in Scotland?

SMcB: I think the extent of these new forces can be exaggerated and although it has to be welcomed we are not dealing with a mass phenomenon yet.  I think it is positive but I think the SWP are exaggerating it for their own political reasons.  However I think it is very positive that the SWP are looking to open up and engage in debate with others and try to build common organisations.

They havenít taken it on fully, for example I would like to see in England and Wales the Socialist Alliance commit themselves to forming a real party with the rights to tendencies and factions. I would see the tasks of us in Scotland in the SSP as being to link up with that and to say, look we donít want to divide our forces.  We want to unite in a party that allows us freedoms, freedoms of tendencies and factions to argue out the political programme that we need.  I mean the old past organisations of the British left and of the SWP are no use.  They have been and will be rejected by thinking members of the working class who are looking for an answer.  They donít want to be told what to say, to be restricted in debate.  They want to debate things out and I think that that is becoming widely recognised and that it is reflected in the SSP is a positive thing.

So I think the globalisation mobilisation and radicalisation has been exaggerated but it does exist and it may grow and hopefully it will grow and it is certainly true that if these new forces are to be won to socialism we have to have attractive forms of socialist organisation that allow people to educate themselves, debate and act in unity.

MJ: The SWP have had a history of opportunism even going back to their heyday in the early seventies, making a virtue of it, and now they have joined the SSP they have said they are not opposed to the nationalist project having said all along they were opposed to it!  Why donít they say honestly we are against it but we will join the SSP with that position?

However the positive thing about the SSP is that now that we have all the people in one place all these questions can be argued out providing people are willing to have the debate and willing to listen.

JC: So what do you see as the possible future for the SSP over the next two to five years?

SMcB: Well I think there are basically two potential futures. One is that the SSP is a moment towards the creation of a new socialist party in Britain.  Thatís obviously the positive outcome and a lot of that depends on how strongly the comrades in England and Wales organise and if they become a pole of attraction to the most healthy elements of the SSP.  That is, not the nationalist elements who are just anti-English and unfortunately there are these sort of people in the SSP.

So that is the positive outcome, that there is a rise in the class struggle in Britain and the organisation of socialists in England and Wales are an attractive pole for the organisation of a new socialist organisation in Britain.

The negative possible outcome is where the SSP becomes simply the left face of nationalism in Scotland.  As part of the nationalist project the nationalists need an organisation that can appeal to sections of the working class.  The SNP canít do that or they would lose their big business support.  There is space for an organisation that says to the working class if you go for independence you will be better off.  Lets get rid of the English who are a drain on our resources.  That can win some workers to the nationalist project which is a middle class project that will result in a fragmented working class in a much weaker position vis-à-vis Capital.  That is a real danger.

Obviously the electoralism of the SSP would go along with that because independence will start to be emphasised and class struggle and working class unity downplayed.  Down that road the SSP would be a barrier to the working class creating a decent socialist organisation.  I donít think we have too long before one of those two roads will be chosen.  It will be impossible for the forces identifying with each option to contain themselves within the same organisation.  Over the short term that will have to be decided.

MJ:  I agree with that. I think that some leading members of the ISM (International Socialist Movement) may want a deal with sections of the labour bureaucracy or SNP in return for influence.  This would be the essence of the nationalist project, which would obscure questions of class and emphasise questions of nationalism and all the old nonsense.

The problem is that at the moment the Scottish working class has a lack of organisation and direction.  For most workers if you look at the trade unions they are at least as much an obstacle as the bosses.  In fact the two work together and for many workers the unions act as outriders for the bosses.  They come up against the union at least as often as the boss.

So the whole question for the working class of how it organises itself effectively against capital which is increasingly international, for example Motorola or Scottish Power, is posed.  We actually need international organisation not nationalist splitting.  As Sandy has said nationalism is a product of defeat.  A real confrontation by workers with capital would blow nationalism away.



Return to top of page