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Socialist Unity in Scotland and elsewhere
A reply to Sandy McBurney and Matthew Jones in Socialist Democracy Bulletin - Summer 2001
It is good to see your interest in initiatives towards socialist unity elsewhere in these islands. The Republican Communist Platform within the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has emphasised the need to link these various socialist unity initiatives. It is widely agreed that the most successful unity initiative so far has been the formation of the SSP. Since you conducted your interview with Workers Unity Platform members, Sandy McBurney and Matthew Jones, the leading position of the SSP has been confirmed by the UK General Election results. The SSP won 72,518 votes standing in all 72 Scottish constituencies; whilst the Socialist Alliance (SA) in England won 55,295 votes standing in 92 constituencies and the Welsh Socialist Alliance(WSA) won 2,258 votes standing in 6 constituencies.
The significance of the national question is shown in both its negative and positive aspects. Socialist Democracy has chronicled the failures of both the Socialist and Socialist Workers Parties in Ireland to address in a principled manner the issue of partition and its divisive effects on the Irish working class. Not surprisingly, the partitionist Socialist and Environmental Alliance was unable to mount a General Election challenge in Northern Ireland.
However, the poor showing of the WSA in Wales (with its longstanding socialist tradition) can also be largely attributed to divisions on the Left, which reflect British state divide-and-rule policies. These are designed to accentuate divisions between English and Welsh speakers. With one of the key WSA components, the Welsh independence-supporting Cymru Goch, abstaining in this election, the field was left open to the other two components - the Socialist Party (SP) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Unlike England, where the SWP dominates the SA (apart from a few local exceptions) or Scotland, where the ex-Militant, International Socialist Movement (ISM), dominates the SSP, the relative numbers of the SP and SWP are more evenly balanced in the WSA. The resulting sectarian manoeuvring further weakened the WSA to such an extent, that Wales was the only country where Scargill’s rapidly declining SLP gained the majority of Left votes (albeit much down on their 1997 results).
However in Scotland the national question impacts differently on politics. The democratic thrust of the national movement here has not been so successfully derailed by the UK state or its Labourist supporters. This is why the contributions by Sandy and Matthew are quite misleading. They attribute the formation of the SSP to the politics of defeat and a retreat into Scottish nationalism. This makes it very hard to explain the relative strength of the SSP’s position.
Undoubtedly, the whole of the Left has been in retreat in the UK since the defeat of the Miners’ Strike. However, this retreat hasn’t been an even process. Indeed there have been significant rearguard actions, including the actions of the 'communities of resistance' in Northern Ireland and the defeat of the poll tax by a mass movement triggered off in Scotland in 1987.
Within the Anti-Poll Tax Movement a continued political struggle took place. Those who initiated the struggle in Scotland were socialist republicans and anarchists. When Militant decided to throw its weight behind the campaign it led to convulsions in their ranks. They were forced to question their long established Labour Party deep-entrist politics. The working class clearly showed it was prepared to defy Labour's poll tax collectors, to desert Labour in droves in the 1988 Govan by-election and to give considerable electoral support to independent anti-poll tax council candidates. This included a 20+% vote for Militant member, Keith Simpson, in Musselburgh, who campaigned not only against the Tories, Labour and SNP, but against the opposition of his own Militant organisation and the SWP! Eventually all these pressures pushed the overwhelming majority of Militant, led by Peter Taffe, to leave the Labour Party to form the Socialist Party.
However, that wasn’t the end of the story. Given Militant’s deeply engrained sectarianism the most likely outcome was another sect, this time outside the Labour Party. Indeed that has largely been the trajectory of Taffe's SP in England and Wales. However in Scotland, Militant was immersed in a movement where social and democratic issues became mixed in a heady political brew, just as in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. The Tories had attempted to test the hated poll tax in Scotland first (in a country where they enjoyed little electoral support). 'No Go' areas soon developed for poll tax registration and sheriff officers. Later Tommy Sheridan was jailed for his part in the struggle. Scottish Militant belatedly decided to stand candidates for council seats in Glasgow, winning three. The very economistic Militant was forced to address the democratic issue raised by the Tories' running of Scotland without any shred of an electoral mandate. Militant's unionist politics (well seen in Northern Ireland!) also came under scrutiny.
Having been challenged and forced by both workers and other socialists to question their recent pro-Labourist and unionist politics, Scottish Militant went considerably further than their SP comrades. Instead of opting for a 'small mass party' (i.e. a larger sect), they eventually decided to take the initiative in setting up the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA), the forerunner of the present SSP. This was open to all self-proclaimed socialists, whether in their own organisations, the Labour Party or SNP, independents or direct action campaigners. The earlier success of the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign was followed by successful occupations of schools threatened with closure and of the Glacier Works in Glasgow. Therefore, despite the claims of Sandy, the SSA (and hence SSP) was born out of important working class victories not out of defeat.
Indeed, it is the sad political trajectory of the SP in England which more reflects the politics of defeat, marked first by the Militant expulsions in Liverpool and then Militant’s less than glorious role at Trafalgar Square, when the poll tax was finally seen off. The SP’s lack of confidence probably helps to explain their sectarian spoiling tactics with regard to the SA in England. Their few remaining CWI supporters in Scotland also tried unsuccessfully to prevent the SWP from joining the SSP. The politically more confident ISM have supported (with whatever reservations and promptings) every socialist organisation applying to join first the SSA and now the SSP.
Whilst Sandy and Matthew are right in identifying a Scottish nationalist trajectory in Militant’s and now the ISM’s politics, this doesn’t represent a retreat from an earlier more principled internationalist politics. Whatever ‘Marxist’ politics Militant and the SWP offer, largely for the Left’s own consumption, their wider public face is invariably left reformist. This is demonstrated in the platforms of their front organisations and their electoral interventions. As a result both Militant and the SWP have always been left British unionist in practice (remember SWP predecessor, the International Socialists’ call for British troops in Northern Ireland in 1969 and Militant/SP’s flirting with the PUP).
The former Militant ISM has merely refocussed its public left reformism from the British to a possible future Scottish state. Left reformism cannot be separated from nationalism. Matthew seems to think that the SWP uphold a more internationalist position which they are opportunistically hiding to gain entry into the SSP. It is fairly safe to predict that, if the SWP immerses itself more fully into the SSP, this will lead it into the same internal tensions as were found in Militant. Not having an independent communist politics, the profoundly economistic SWP will be torn between those liberal advocates of UK constitutional reform, increasingly advocating a federal (and even tentatively republican) reorganisation of the British state and those populists in the SNP advocating a break-up of Britain.
One beneficial result of the ISM’s break with the SP has been their abandonment of sect-front politics. Whilst the entry of the SWP has brought welcome new activist recruits, it has immediately presented the SSP with the problem of confronting the SWP’s own sect-front organisations - the Anti-Nazi League (which refuses to confront racism and sectarianism in a principled manner) and now Globalise Resistance. One marked feature of the ‘Brit Left’, who continually seem to equate working class unity with British state unity, is just how deeply their anti-democratic sectarianism mirrors the practice of the UK state and its supporters in the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracies. Now that SWP comrades have come out of their self-imposed sectarian ghetto, it will need hard and patient work by others in the SSP to overcome their profoundly anti-democratic legacy.
Whilst Workers Unity (and others) have joined Republican Communist Platform initiatives to defend and extend democratic rights in the SSP, their politics still share some of the economism of Militant and the SWP. Matthew rather curiously writes off any ‘progressive’ content to politics in Scotland on the grounds that ‘there is no way which capital within Scotland has been oppressed’! Matthew seems to have a strange understanding of oppression. Oppression means the denial of democratic rights - whether it be for women, gays, nationalities or nations. Capital has never sought such democratic rights.
Scotland exists as a nation within the multi-nation UK state. Scotland has certainly contributed members to a British imperial ruling class (as have England, Wales, Ireland and the ‘white’ colonies). However, ‘Britishness’ has always been primarily a ruling class, top-down, state-promoted identity. There was never a popular struggle to unite Britain in the manner of German and Italy during the 1848 Revolutions. Therefore, as a wider franchise was won by the ‘lower orders’ in the nineteenth century, it became increasingly necessary for the UK state to make the minimal democratic concessions necessary to accommodate the still marked Irish, Scottish and even Welsh national identities not eliminated by state-promoted ‘Britishness’. Hence Liberal (and later ILP) support for ‘Home Rule-all-round’. What was never conceded was the constitutional right of self determination for the state’s constituent nations. Furthermore, the UK state actively promoted religious and linguistic divide-and-rule tactics to derail any national democratic movements.
Sandy and Matthew ignore the political aspects of the UK state’s creation (except for a half-hearted nod towards the situation in Ireland). They see the British state as a reflection of the unity of British capital. In response they argue that a British working class has achieved its own unity through the creation of British-wide trade unions and the Labour Party. These organisations are massively bureaucratised and have disunited rather than united the working class throughout these islands. This stems from their close association with and acceptance of the British state. Sandy and Matthew don't appear to be able to conceive of an alternative voluntary internationalism from below.
Unlike Sandy and Matthew, New Labour has realised the significance of the democratic challenge represented by the national movements (not the same thing as the SNP, Plaid Cymru, SDLP or even Sinn Fein). This is why Tony Blair promotes a policy of 'devolution-all-round', to roll back this political challenge, whether in the perceived remnants of 'Red Clydeside' or the 'communities of resistance’ in Northern Ireland. This political policy goes hand in hand with government-backed employer/trade union partnership deals, the better to open up every corner of these islands (for the Irish Republic too is part of this overall strategy) for more profitable exploitation.
The Republican Communist Platform is the only organisation within the SSP which has continually made the link between political events throughout these islands. We have encouraged the formation of Socialist Alliances in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. We have raised these issues in our publications and at SSP Conferences and other meetings.
Some of our number seek a federal republican solution to the democratic issues raised by the national movements. Others (myself included) feel that this merely anticipates the next line of defence the British state will take in the face of further political challenge. Therefore, a federal republican politics will merely place the Left in the position of cheerleaders for the liberal wing of the British ruling class, in a similar manner to the ILP 'Home Rulers' in the nineteenth century and to the old CPGB, IMG and Militant supporters of Scottish devolution in the 1970¹s.
The real answer to 'British bureaucratic internationalism from above' is 'internationalism from below'. There is no 'British road to socialism' but there could be a 'break-up of the UK road to communism', especially now that a growing anti-globalisation movement offers the prospect of a new International. In their support for Irish and Scottish Workers' Republics, James Connolly and John Maclean, the two finest revolutionaries to emerge from these islands, adopted a similar political perspective, which mightily contributed to the International Revolutionary Wave from 1916. We need to reconnect with their internationalism if we are to realise the full potential their politics still offer us today.
We in the Republican Communist Platfrom welcome further cooperation with Socialist Democracy members, who alone on the Irish Left see the connection between the UK state promoted 'Pacification Process' and the state/employer/trade union partnership deals. We argue that this ruling class policy can not be seen in isolation from New Labour's 'devolution-all-round' strategy and complete subordination to the interests of the big corporations. This is why we need to pursue a common strategy.
Allan Armstrong, Republican Communist Platform in the SSP
* Copies of the journal Republican Communist are available from RC, c/o PO Box 6773, Dundee, DD1 1YL for £2.50. Make cheques payable to Record of Letters.