60. Split in the Scottish Socialist Party



The split in the CWI in Scotland, dealt with earlier, meant that there were now two distinct political trends with their political antecedence in the CWI within the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). The International Socialist Movement (ISM) in the majority within the party, was represented by Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes. The International Socialists, the minority, whose main spokesperson was Philip Stott, had remained within the CWI alongside pioneers like Ronnie Stevenson and others. The debate which had taken place within the CWI, and in which we clearly differentiated from the political trajectory of the majority of the SSP, now developed on a wider scale to a battle of ideas for a socialist programme in the party.

This was a crucial issue as elections to the Scottish Parliament loomed in 2003 in which the SSP was expected to make gains. However, its draft manifesto reflected the qualitative shift away from a socialist internationalist position, which Tommy Sheridan and others in the majority had supported in the past. Philip Stott, in the CWI’s criticisms of the manifesto, quoted from an article from Tommy Sheridan in the SSP’s journal Scottish Socialist Voice: “[The SSP] stands for an Independent Scotland and that the people of Scotland, with whom sovereignty would ultimately lie, can then determine for themselves whether it will go down the socialist road or not.” 

CWI delegates to the SSP  conference drafted amendments, including on the wider issue of socialism and the national question, which challenged this position of the SSP’s leadership. There was no reference in the manifesto to the need to link the struggle in Scotland to the workers in England, Wales, Ireland and internationally. As Philip Stott pointed out: “Instead, there was a tendency to see the achievement of independence for Scotland as a necessary first step before socialism could be built.”

In a motion from one of the SSP branches supporting the leadership it was argued: “Independence will provide the Scottish people with the democratic machinery to support their struggle for socialism.” It was pointed out by CWI members that it would not be possible for “an independent Scotland, on a capitalist basis, to stand up to a globalised economy and tackle poverty, low pay and inequality without breaking with capitalism and linking up with workers internationally”. On this basis the CWI opposed this motion, but it was supported by the SSP leadership. The CWI argued and sought to persuade the SSP to include public ownership under democratic working class control of the economy as the only means of carrying through lasting reforms.

The SWP in Scotland were also part of the SSP at this stage but in a completely opportunist fashion supported the leadership on all these issues. Moreover, they also helped to defeat an amendment from the Glasgow Cathcart branch which put the position of the CWI: “We stand for an independent socialist Scotland that would seek to work with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland in a free and democratic socialist confederation or alliance… While standing for an independent socialist Scotland we advocate the maximum possible unity of the working class in Scotland with workers throughout the rest of Britain.”

They also took an incorrect approach on international issues. The SSP executive did support a motion from the CWI that put forward the need for a socialist alternative to the war. The SWP moved an amendment during this debate which called on the SSP to “ensure our anti-war slogans and propaganda emphasise that the Split in the Scottish Socialist Party main enemy is at home and the violence of the oppressed is not equivalent to the violence of the oppressors.” These were nevertheless methods and reactionary ideologies which socialists would definitely oppose.

Their amendment was heavily defeated. At the previous conference in 2001, the SSP’s position, drafted by the SWP, for a single secular Palestinian state to replace Israel was passed. This year, however, its position was defeated but the motion passed in its place was confused and wrong. It called for support for the Palestinian struggle and argued for a socialist state in the future on the land that was Palestine pre-1948. In the meantime, it supported a step in that direction by calling for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This motion came from the ISM grouping of ex-members of the CWI.

One leading member of this group was the SSP’s international officer, Frances Curran, who argued that it was not our job to put forward solutions to the Middle East conflict from Scotland but to offer support to the Palestinians’ struggle.

CWI member Jim McFarlane answered her by pointing out that a socialist Israel and a socialist Palestine as part of the socialist solution to the Middle East crisis was the way forward. He explained that “this is not a programme written from thousands of miles away. But one that has been fought for by socialists and members of the CWI, day-in and day-out in Israel and the region.” Despite the differences that our former Scottish comrades had with the leadership of the SSP, which they would continue to put forward, we nevertheless concluded that the SSP was likely to make important advances in the forthcoming May elections. CWI members in Scotland would be campaigning for a big SSP vote.1

“Spectacular gains for the Scottish Socialist Party” was indeed the headline in The Socialist reporting on the election’s outcome. There were big advances for the SSP and the Greens, who between them won 13 seats, an increase of 11. Moreover, four independents were elected, including left ex-Labour MP Dennis Canavan in Falkirk with the biggest majority in the Scottish Parliament. This  was in contrast to the massive rejection of New Labour and the SNP. Turnout fell below 50%, while Labour’s vote fell by 4% on the first poll – their lowest vote since 1931 – and 5% on the second proportional representation based party list vote!

It was the SSP and the Greens which captured the imagination, winning between them 250,000 second votes. The SSP stood in 70 out of 73 first past the post constituencies, winning 6.2% of the first vote. The party polled over 5% in 43 seats with Tommy Sheridan winning 28% of the vote in Pollok. Well over 100,000 people voted SSP on the first vote and 130,000 people voted SSP on the second vote – trebling the SSP’s vote compared to 1999. Independent left and anti-establishment candidates, the Greens and the SSP, took an incredible 20% of the second vote and 10% of the first vote. While welcoming the great success of the SSP, we warned that it was essential that the party should fight for public ownership of the major sectors of the economy under the democratic control of the working class. This was the solution to poverty and inequality which scarred Scotland then and is even more so today.2

The CWI within the SSP continued to dissect the policies of the party and warn about the inadequacies of its programme. For instance, Norway and Denmark were held up as models for Scotland. Tommy Sheridan indicated this in a BBC interview before the election: “A number of countries… have a successful mix of public ownership and high-taxation… like Norway and Denmark they manage to combine high levels of public ownership with high taxation for the wealthy.” It has long been a hallmark of the SWP and others on the ‘revolutionary left’ that they baldly call for such a measure but do not link this up with other demands, such as nationalisation of the banks, democratic state control of all imports and exports and nationalisation of the major monopolies to stop the rich from fleeing abroad with their ill-gotten gains.

Tommy Sheridan, as the main Parliamentary spokesman for the SSP, put forward a programme which made significant concessions to this idea of left reformism. In an interview with The Herald3 he was asked what role the market would play if he was in power. His answer: “We very much believe in a mixed economy.” Reporter: “It doesn’t sound like it, Tommy.” His reply to this comment was, “Well, our mix is different from New Labour’s mix. Labour would like to add a wee drop of whisky to the Atlantic Ocean and say that’s a mixed economy. We think that’s wrong. We think there’s a larger role for the public sector to play.”

The idea of a mixed economy was precisely the way that the right wing of the Labour Party in the past had described capitalism. When 80% is in the hands of big business and 20% is in the hands of the state (it is much less than this today) the 80% will dictate to the 20% and not vice versa. This position had been adopted by Militant almost from its beginnings and was an idea that Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes had consistently argued for over decades. Now they were clearly adopting a reformist approach, which we predicted would be the inevitable outcome of their rupture with the CWI. It did not stop us working with these comrades, but we consistently argued against their mistaken approach. It ultimately led to the shipwrecking of the SSP and the squandering of another golden opportunity to establish a real mass socialist alternative in Scotland.

Tommy unfortunately compounded his error in the above interview when he was asked: “Would you nationalise Tesco?” He answered: “I don’t think there’s a need to nationalise Tesco right now. What I think there’s a need for is to impose on Tesco proper wages and employment conditions. What we would be doing is regulating business. You don’t have to own it, you just regulate it.” Our Scottish comrades pointed out in answer to this: “Tommy Sheridan’s statement about not nationalising Tesco flows from the idea that you can’t deal with multinational companies in a Scottish context, other than by “regulating” them. It is a recognition that within the limits of an isolated Scotland there would be limits on what could be achieved. But it is wrong to view it in that way. If the socialist transformation of society takes place in Scotland first, which is by no means certain, the long-term survival of a socialist Scotland would depend on the spreading of a socialist revolution internationally.”4  Any differences with Tommy Sheridan, however, did not prevent us from defending him when he came under sustained attack from the Murdoch press later, which was unfortunately supported by former comrades like Alan McCombes and Frances Curran.

The Scottish Socialist Party attracted 400 delegates and visitors to its 2004 conference in late March. This was the fifth and largest SSP conference and the first since the party’s election success the previous May when six SSP members were elected to the Scottish Parliament. Moreover, the Scottish Regional Council of the RMT had affiliated to the party. The Edinburgh Number Two branch of the Communication Workers Union had also agreed to affiliate. The SSP’s membership stood at this stage at around 3,000, an indication not just of growth but also the potential for the party.

Contrary to the myth that the CWI opposed the formation of this party, we participated and took a leading part in the debates at the conference itself, counterposing the policies of the CWI to those of the leadership of the SSP. They had previously supported CWI policies but were now distancing themselves from them. Alan McCombes introduced the draft manifesto for the upcoming European elections, which he described as “red-blooded socialist” in character. However, CWI supporters pointed out that it marked a big shift away from the clear socialist policies supported by him and other former members of the CWI in the past. It entirely avoided calls for the public ownership of big business and the multinational corporations that control the Scottish and European economies. Instead, the SSP pledged itself to build a “social Europe” rather than a socialist one.

We had predicted at the time of their split from the CWI that these comrades, having abandoned a distinct Marxist policy and organisation, would evolve in an opportunist right-wing direction. This conclusion was entirely justified by their contributions at this conference. Sinead Daly, from Dundee SSP and a CWI member, explained that “the term ‘a social Europe’ is even used by some capitalists in Europe, by the right-wing trade union bureaucracy and by governments to justify their policies. We have to be clear that it is another form of capitalism.” She was supported by Ian Fitzpatrick, a delegate from Motherwell SSP who explained, pointing to the cuts carried out by the Brown government, that the SSP had the “responsibility to explain that socialism is the only answer to the attacks on the working class”. Alan McCombes replied: “We need a manifesto for the long term and the short term. These amendments are arguing that nothing can be done until we have socialism. We can’t let the rich off the hook in the short term.”

This attempt by Alan McCombes to separate so-called “shortterm” demands from “long-term” solutions was precisely the way classical social democracy put forward the ‘maximum’ demands for the long term and the ‘minimum’ policies for the short term. This represented, in effect, the going over of the SSP leadership to a social-democratic position, precisely at a time when the basis for social democracy was being undermined because capitalism is no longer capable of accepting lasting reforms.

The CWI amendment was supported by 50 of the delegates but there was a verbal commitment by the SSP executive to redraft the manifesto with some reference to public ownership before the election. There was also a debate on the national question, in which the SSP had proposed a convention that would “help to build support and confidence in an independent Scotland”. The CWI, while defending the programme of an independent socialist Scotland, opposed this move. We explained that there would be little support in the working class at that stage for a campaign to fight for an independent Scotland. Moreover, there was a danger that the SSP leadership would be seen arguing for an independent, capitalist Scotland as a route to ending poverty and inequality. The CWI resolution opposing the launching of the convention and defending the programme of an independent socialist Scotland which would voluntarily link up with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland was defeated but with 40 to 50 delegates again voting for the CWI position.5

Notwithstanding this, the SSP faced the possibility of a substantial growth of influence and members, particularly if it could be persuaded to develop a clearer, more rounded out socialist programme and perspective. But that was before the bombshell of Tommy Sheridan’s resignation as SSP convenor in November 2004. SSP members were stunned when he announced he was stepping back from frontline politics in order to be “a hands-on father”, as his partner was expecting their first child the following year. The catalyst for his resignation was a meeting of the SSP executive the day before, which discussed allegations about Tommy’s private life that were expected to appear in Rupert Murdoch’s rag, the News of the World, the following Sunday. Tommy had insisted that he intended to deny the allegations and seek legal action. This prompted the SSP’s Executive Committee to pass a motion threatening to remove him as national convenor unless he abandoned this strategy by the following Saturday. He therefore resigned the next day and, following publication of the article in the News of the World, he announced his pursuit of a libel action.

We opposed the measures of the SSP Executive Committee. The CWI, despite its openly expressed differences with the SSP leadership including Tommy, had welcomed the impact that the party had made, which was attracting a new layer of workers prepared to fight for the ideas of socialism. We condemned anything which undermined this as a block to the socialist movement in general. Moreover, our Scottish comrades stated that if the EC had not given the ultimatum to Tommy to drop his denial and then made it clear publicly that the right-wing tabloid’s allegations were an attempt to undermine the SSP and Tommy Sheridan, the whole situation could have been avoided.

Incredibly, the SSP EC acted even before seeing the Murdoch hirelings’ claims. We did not deny that, on occasions, the personal conduct of a leading member of a political party can damage, sometimes fatally, the reputation of a party. But these tabloid allegations against Tommy Sheridan, which were completely unproven, did not fall into this category. The CWI recognised that Tommy had significant authority amongst working-class people in Scotland, which these allegations, if answered properly, would not substantially alter. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion from this event that there were people in the leadership of the SSP with a personal axe to grind against Tommy. They took the opportunity to remove him from positions of influence without any recognition that this would strengthen the Murdoch press and the bitter opponents of all those who fight for socialism.6 Subsequent events demonstrated that this was the case as the SSP went into a spiral of decline, which was quickly reflected at its 2005 conference.

This conference was entirely different from previous SSP events, with the authority of the leadership considerably undermined by the events surrounding Tommy’s effective removal as the party convenor. A veiled dogfight took place over the vacant crown with Colin Fox attempting to distance himself from the majority of the leadership, standing against Alan McCombes. He had the support of Tommy Sheridan and won by a large margin of 252 votes (62%) to 154. The poll for the chair of the conference was topped by Rosemary Byrne, SSP member of the Scottish Parliament. She had openly criticised the EC’s action in calling on Tommy Sheridan to stand down. Tommy Sheridan topped the poll for the male list to the EC.

Delegates from the CWI platform played a leading, at times decisive role in the debates. The issue of Iraq was taken first with a motion to the conference inspired by the Socialist Worker platform, which called for uncritical support to the Iraqi ‘popular resistance’. The only amendment to challenge this came from Dundee West SSP from CWI members. The amendment called for the removal of all occupying troops and support for mass resistance to the occupation, through the building of workers and farmers’ militias that sought to unite all the different ethnic and religious groups in Iraq. It also called on the SSP to oppose the reactionary anti-working class forces that made up part of the ‘resistance’ in Iraq. Sinead Daly declared: “We cannot as socialists give our support to those forces in Iraq whose ideas and methods are anti-working class, anti-women and who, in some cases, are intent on trying to provoke a civil and sectarian war in Iraq. We should support a movement to unite the working class and the poor based on a struggle for a living wage, healthcare, education, and basic services, as well as opposition to the imperialist occupation.”  This amendment was opposed by a long succession of SWP members, who claimed that “the working class are not able to struggle just now” and that the “trade unions are too weak and strikes in the public sector are banned”. They also opposed and tried to remove the reference in another motion that called on the SSP to “support the organised working-class and trade union movement as the most important part of the resistance”. The SSP leadership adopted an abstentionist position. Philip Stott’s report of the conference said: “Without doubt the CWI’s amendment went a long way to saving the SSP from a storm of media and political attacks had the SWP motion been passed unamended.”7

What followed was the slow decline of the SSP, which was a gift to the Scottish National Party (SNP), who had been in difficulties at this time. In the 2004 European elections, the SNP’s share of the vote fell to 19%, its worst since the 1987 general election. Its previous electoral highpoint was in 1994 when it polled 33%, followed by a 28% score at the inaugural election for the Scottish Parliament. However, in the 2003 Scottish elections the SNP lost one fifth of their MSPs as their vote fell to 23%. The claimed membership of the party also fell significantly to just over 8,000 members from more than 15,000 in the 1990s. This was a consequence of the move to the right by the SNP leadership of the previous few years, which involved embracing a business tax and pro-market ideas modelled on the ‘Celtic Tiger’ in Ireland. This had been shown to fail in building a mass base.