32. Differences open in Scotland



In Scotland the situation was far more favourable for an electoral challenge from socialists, particularly from the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). There were big differences between the national leadership of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Scottish leadership, formerly in Scottish Militant Labour (SML), then in the SSP. These disagreements were not of recent vintage. In reality, in the whole period leading up to the formation of the SSP – and we disagreed on the way this was carried out – there were differences on the national question and the approach which Marxists should adopt. It had almost been an axiom of the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) that it was a principled position to support the right of self-determination for oppressed nationalities. Other organisations had broken their backs on this issue. For instance, the split from our organisation in 1992 led by Ted Grant and Alan Woods took a completely wrong, one-sided position to the national questions in the Balkans, Russia and Pakistan.

At the same time we are implacably opposed to all manifestations of bourgeois nationalism, which seeks to divide the working class. In fact, we stand for the greatest unification of workers, irrespective of national boundaries. This means that, while supporting the legitimate national aspirations of a subject people or nation, or even a group – the right of self-determination – we do not support demands which will reinforce divisions within the working class.  There were many occasions when we clashed with the leaders of our Scottish organisation, particularly Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan, when we believed they made unnecessary concessions to Scottish nationalism.

We elaborated our differences with them in Socialism Today in a critique of the book Imagine they co-authored: “If this book had been written by socialists who were evolving towards the left and a Marxist position it would deserve fulsome praise.” Tony Benn, for instance, developed in this way as he started on the right but became a key figure for the left in Britain. On the evidence of their book Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes were evolving in the opposite direction from the Marxist-Trotskyist perspective and programme they once advocated.

On Scotland and the national question the authors wholeheartedly welcomed “the disintegration of the United Kingdom”. We replied: “In general, socialists and Marxists are against Balkanisation, the splitting up and separation of multinational states.” The breakup of states, even capitalist ones, while sometimes unavoidable can carry big overheads. One of these is the possible fracturing of the working class along national lines, the separation of their organisations, parties and trade unions. This can weaken the struggle against the common enemy, the capitalists, which is not restricted to the borders of one country. This is one reason why we and our comrades in Scotland opposed the bald demand of the SNP for independence for Scotland. Even then, we emphasise the right of selfdetermination of the Scottish people and our preparedness to defend their legitimate national aspirations. We did this at a time when significant sections of the left, as we have already pointed out, opposed any ‘concessions to nationalism’. We were at one with Lenin and Trotsky in emphasising that a new socialist world could not be built with the slightest compulsion against a nation or even a grouping in society.

We had no differences when independence was linked to the demand for a socialist Scotland. However, we had profound differences about the way that the authors posed this in their book – which they would never have done in the past when they were in our ranks. They wrote: “Socialists should be prepared to support such a step, even on a non-socialist basis as promoted by the SNP.” This was a ‘stageist’ position supported by the Stalinists but opposed by Trotsky with his idea of the ‘permanent revolution’. The bourgeois democratic revolution – including the solution of the national question – could only be carried through by the working class taking power in an alliance with the poor including small farmers. The theory of stages meant that first comes national tasks – independence for Scotland, for instance, but still on a capitalist basis. Then, separated in time, socialism would be posed. History has shown that real independence is impossible on the basis of capitalism. Only by a movement for independence and socialism combined would it be possible to satisfy legitimate national aspirations.

Indeed, they held out the hope that significant lasting reforms could be introduced which would fundamentally change the balance of power and wealth. This flew in the face of the whole historical experience of the working class, including of past Labour governments, quite apart from the bloody experience of the failure of Salvador Allende in Chile. It is one thing to put forward reforms, which the Socialist Party does consistently today. But not to warn about the limitations of such measures within capitalism stokes up illusions amongst the working class.1

The analysis made in Imagine has not stood the test of time. The models the SNP used for the future of Scotland on a capitalist basis were Iceland and Southern Ireland, which were steaming ahead economically at that stage. But both came crashing down in the wake of the crisis which began in 2007-08. The SSP leaders created illusions in the ‘self-sufficiency’ of Scotland which in a globalised world is utopian. They did not link the struggle for Scotland to the rest of Britain nor to Europe, as the Socialist Party did with the demand for a socialist confederation of Europe.

Yet these clear political deficiencies did not prevent the spectacular initial success for the SSP and particularly the victory of Tommy Sheridan who was elected as a Member of the Scottish Parliament  (MSP) in 1999. We welcomed these developments, despite the differences that we had with the SSP and their leading figures, which if anything were to widen later. The mood at the time of Tommy’s election was captured by the Scottish newspaper the Herald, no friend of the left – it was, in fact, the house journal of the Blairised Labour Party in Scotland. Nonetheless, when it reported on his inauguration at the Scottish Parliament, it commented: “It took Tommy Sheridan to provoke spontaneity which he managed in style.” It then quoted from his speech: “‘Before making the affirmation I would like to declare that, as a democratically-elected socialist, my vision for Scotland is of a democratic socialist republic where supreme sovereignty lies with the people of Scotland and not with an unelected monarch, and I therefore take this affirmation under protest,’ he proclaimed. At which point he raised a clenched fist. (Let it be noted that when this scene was replayed on television in the pubs around Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the customers cheered).”2

Tommy Sheridan commented in an interview with the Socialist shortly after his election: “I’ve had more congratulations from SNP members and even the odd Tory than I’ve had from the New Labour benches.”3 Little wonder because the representation of parties to the left of Labour, including the SSP, was significant. They were, of course, helped by the use of proportional representation in these elections. The combined total vote for socialists, the SSP and the SLP, together with the Greens, came to a commendable anti-establishment vote of almost 10%. It was difficult to imagine a more favourable terrain in which New Labour could fight a mid-term election; the bottom had not yet completely fallen out of the world economy and the British economy was still staggering along. Yet the Labour vote dropped by 7% compared to the uK general election. Nor were the SNP encouraged by their vote, which was the same as 25 years previously. Over 100,000 people in Scotland voted for socialists of one kind or another – the SSP, SLP, the independent socialist Dennis Canavan and the Greens. These successes were continued in the European elections later in the year and in council elections in subsequent years.

In Wales on the other hand, there was general disillusionment with the main parties and a mood of ‘no confidence in any of them’.4 The success of the SSP combined with the general disillusionment with Labour, fuelled support for Scotland to have increased powers in the Edinburgh legislature with almost 70% supporting this.

Although the Socialist Party’s national leadership first proposed the idea of a new party, big differences developed between the leaders of the party and those of the Scottish organisation over how we should participate in building such a project. As will be recalled, after a period of debate throughout the British organisation, SML was launched as an autonomous part of Militant Labour’s all-Britain organisation. SML achieved a number of striking successes: including the campaigns against water privatisation and opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill. As with other parts of the CWI, this arose from a clear perspective that in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism a bold socialist programme and tactical flexibility were necessary. We were in favour of working with others on the left, but the precondition for coming together with other organisations was the clear understanding of the need to maintain a separate political and organisational identity. Without a distinct Marxist force it is impossible to undertake this work around the idea of left unity and at the same time build the forces of Marxism and raise the level of political understanding.

At the beginning there were little differences as the comrades in Scotland adopted a similar approach with the formation of the SSA, bringing together members of SML, ex-Labour lefts and left-wing members or supporters of the SNP. However, over time the ideological differences between SML and the broad organisation of the SSA were blurred. Then, without discussion and agreement within our common organisation, SML arbitrarily changed its position. Its leadership proposed instead the setting up of the new Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). This would not, according to their proposals, be restricted to members of SML but would include all forces which were gathered under the banner of the SSA. They proposed to dissolve SML together with its full-time workers, branches, finances and fortnightly paper Scottish Socialist Voice into this new party.  Moreover, it was made clear that this party would not be affiliated to the CWI as SML was.

These proposals provoked intense discussion and opposition in Scotland, England and Wales, as well as internationally. While the majority of Scottish comrades favoured the SSP proposal, the great majority of Socialist Party members in Britain and CWI sections argued against the Scottish leadership’s strategy. Such was the concern within the CWI at the proposed measures that a delegation from its International Executive Committee (IeC) visited Scotland at the end of June 1998.

The Socialist Party proposed that the best way forward for our comrades in Scotland would be to adopt one of two options. The first, was to relaunch SML as a new revolutionary Marxist SSP. This new party would continue to collaborate with other forces in a broader alliance, involving industrial work, election platforms, etc. This was the option favoured by the IEC delegation and the Socialist Party national leadership. If this was unacceptable to the Scottish organisation, then the second option would be for the SSA to be launched as a broad SSP, which would be organised on a united front basis with SML continuing its own separate identity. This would allow the participation of different political organisations, groups and trends, as well as the SML comrades. The SML Executive Committee however, rejected these options and instead proposed a ‘hybrid’ SSP.

There were clearly profound differences between the two camps on how to approach the problems of the labour movement and particularly the left. We are always in favour of the maximum left unity, involving an element of the united front tactic which would mean collaboration between relatively small organisations at this historical juncture. However, this could never be at the cost of diluting and eventually winding up the historical conquest of a distinct revolutionary formation. History is littered with those organisations that became infected with the ‘unity bug’ – unity at all costs. These ‘experiments’ invariably end in disappointment. The same fate awaited the leadership of SML, although this was not evident to them at that stage. We foresaw the problems that they would have on the basis of the unprincipled turn which they were carrying out.

We did not write off the whole organisation but engaged in debates and discussions with a view to keeping the majority in the CWI. A certain compromise was arrived at with the formation of a new organisation called the International Socialist Movement (ISM), open only to former members of SML and those who agreed with the programme of the CWI. We warned, however: “The formation of this section, while a step forward, does not meet the requirements of a cohesive, separate organisation of Marxists within the SSP. Members of ISM do not have the right under the draft SSP constitution to have meetings restricted to members only, which are necessary to discuss and work out ideas to fight for in the broad SSP.” For these reasons, the majority of the members of the Socialist Party National Committee opposed the establishment of the SSP in the form that was being proposed. At the same time, we agreed that our comrades should engage in this endeavour which would be reviewed after one year.5 Events showed that this compromise would not hold as the SML leadership moved further and further away from our ideas and the CWI.

This became obvious from the very beginning of the life of the SSP, at its founding conference attended by 200 people. The 16-point programme adopted, while it had some good points, was weak in a number of places: “There was no reference in the programme, or from the platform of the conference, on the need for the working class in Scotland to keep and build links with workers in England, Wales and Ireland. Unfortunately,” as Hannah Sell pointed out, “it was left to a new SSP member to raise the need for links with English workers from the floor.” Bill Bonner – a former Communist Party member – argued that big business would be able to unite Europe and overcome national boundaries. In his introduction, he gave the impression that real democracy could be achieved in Europe, within the framework of capitalism.

Unfortunately, the resolution was passed. However, several CWI members spoke in the discussion, among them Philip Stott from  Dundee who reiterated the long held views of the Socialist Party and the CWI: “The only way to get a people’s Europe, a democratic Europe, is to get a socialist Europe.”6 It was quite obvious to those observing and listening to the arguments of the SML majority that they were well along the road to making concessions to nationalism, while watering down and even omitting to mention the programme of the CWI, which they had fully embraced in the past, particularly the emphasis on workers’ unity and a socialist programme.

After a period of political sparring, the majority of the leadership of our organisation in Scotland decided at a special conference in January 2001 to leave the CWI. Prior to this, at a meeting of the IEC of the CWI, Alan McCombes had proposed an “amicable divorce” between the CWI and the Scottish organisation. We pointed out that there were very few such divorces and certainly that was the case in the political arena. We were not prepared to pass over silently the grave political mistakes that had been made in Scotland by those at the head of the SSP formerly from a CWI background.

The special conference was attended by Hannah Sell and myself from the Socialist Party and the CWI, Per Olsson from Sweden and the late Peter Hadden and Joe Higgins from Ireland. All of these spoke against the proposals to leave the CWI. In particular, I explained that we had resisted any suggestion of expelling the comrades from the CWI in Scotland who disagreed with us. They had a tremendous record of fighting for the Marxist cause and Trotskyism over many years. We differed with them on the policies they were pursuing now but we believed that over time we would win these comrades and others back politically to the CWI. In any case, I stated future events will vindicate the position of the CWI and, at the same time, politically undermine the arguments of those who propose to leave our common Marxist organisation.

A quarter of those attending – it was not a delegate conference – voted to remain within the CWI. This included some of the pioneers of our party in Scotland, including Ronnie Stevenson, Philip Stott, Eric Stevenson, Jim McFarlane, Harvey Duke and others. Moreover, the ISM majority did not have the consistent support of any other section from among the 34 sections which made up the CWI at that point. Not one of our elected representatives outside of Scotland, including Dave Nellist and Joe Higgins, supported them. They were, in fact, very vocal in arguing against their position.