Scottish Militant Labour

Chapter Forty-Six


A RADICAL mood was developing in Scotland which, we warned, would be harnessed by the SNP unless an alternative, socialist, pole of attraction was constructed. 

In the past, even in the early 1980s, the Scottish National Party was marooned in its rural outpost of northern Scotland and the Western Isles. The left held a majority on the leading bodies of the labour movement both at British and at a Scottish level. 

The Labour Party organised a mass demonstrations against unemployment, including one in Glasgow of a hundred thousand. As a result of this, Labour offered a genuine alternative to Scottish workers, unemployed youth and students.

At that time, unable to make a breakthrough, the SNP tore itself apart in a three-year civil war. The present leader of the SNP, Alec Salmond, was expelled in 1982 along with others for his membership of the left-wing 79 Group. 

However, the degeneration of the Labour Party under Kinnock allowed the SNP to recapture ground it had lost in the early 1980s.

 The SNP accordingly moved towards the left demanding renationalisation of industries privatised by the Tories, the wiping out of Scottish local authority housing debt, the building of brand new council houses, to replace every house which had been sold in the Tories’ “right to buy” legislation, the promise of a minimum wage and an increase in the state pension, the abolition of prescription charges, etc. Tory minister Douglas Hurd had accused the SNP of standing for “East European style state socialism”. Some commentators even accused the SNP of being “Scotland’s Militant tendency”.

Facing up to the clear danger posed by nationalism which threatened to infect a layer of the working class, particularly the youth, in the West of Scotland, we declared:

Scottish Militant supporters showed in the anti-poll tax struggle how nationalism can be cut across by vigorously campaigning on the class issues. We must do everything we can to draw the best workers and young people away from the SNP’s empty radicalism to a socialist programme. (1)

Battle of Turnbull Street

Militants in Scotland had prevented any warrant sales taking place.

 Mass demos combined with disciplined direct action – including occupations – had kept the Sheriffs at bay. 

In October 1991, ironically during a very right-wing Labour Party conference, Scottish Militant supporters, led by Tommy Sheridan, demonstrated precisely why they had built such a powerful position of support in Scotland. 

October 1 was the date when Scotland’s first “warrant sale” was due to take place. Tension had been building for days with council officials and Tory ministers believing this would mark the end of resistance to the poll tax. Press from all over Britain assembled at a police detention centre in the East End of Glasgow, where a sale was scheduled for 11am. 

It had been turned into a fortress, with masses of police inside. The anti-poll tax protesters massed at the Federation’s premises a few hundred yards away. Five hundred people, with Tommy Sheridan in the lead, marched the short distance to the detention centre. The day before Tommy Sheridan had been served with an interdict (an injunction) warning him that if he ventured within 200 of the warrant sale he would be arrested immediately.

The marching column arrived at the building and was confronted by huge iron gates, but proceeded to tear them down and pour into the courtyard behind. Inside stood a hired van, two sheriff officers in front and a stack of poinded (legally stolen) furniture in the back.

 Immediately this van came under siege. Then within seconds, scores of police came from inside and a mighty struggle erupted between the police and protesters. 

Completely unable to remove the 500 from the courtyard and with the prospect of hundreds more assembling outside, the police formed cordons in front of the van to protect the sheriff officers and the furniture. Stalemate ensued for an hour as both sides confronted one another. 

The police were clearly unhappy at the role which had been allotted to them. Ten minutes before the warrant sale was due, as police reinforcements built up outside, Tommy Sheridan was helped up on to a crash barrier. Tearing up his injunction and throwing the pieces of paper into the air, he said the Federation did not want to see any trouble but warned:

I am not prepared to stand back and watch this barbarism take place. We are warning the police now that as soon as these goods are released from the back of the van, then I, and I believe I am speaking for everyone here, will do everything in my power to prevent this sale taking place. (2)

The rest was drowned out in thunderous applause. The 500 demonstrators stood rock-solid in defiance of the police and actually advanced on the police lines. 

The police then had to choose, face another “Orgreave” in the centre of Glasgow or back down and abandon the warrant sale. Panic consultations took place between the police, sheriff officers and council officials, and a council official emerged from behind the police lines with a megaphone and stated: 

“The warrant sale scheduled to take place at 11am today has now been cancelled.” (3)

Wild scenes of jubilation swept through the protesters – as if Scotland had just won the World Cup. This spread to the streets outside as word began to filter through. 

But Tommy Sheridan insisted that the crowd would not move until the van had left the premises, and this was adhered to by the police. This incident was a landmark in the struggle against the poll tax and in the development of Militant in Scotland. 

It also was the incident which led to Tommy Sheridan later appearing in court and receiving a six month jail sentence. It was a fitting backdrop to the formation of Scottish Militant Labour in early December. (This story is told more fully in Tommy’s own book, A Time to Rage). We outlined the reasons for taking this initiative:

Twelve years after the inconclusive devolution referendum in 1979 the mood in Scotland has changed dramatically… As leading Scottish Tory ideologist Alan Massie admitted in the Daily Telegraph: “Scotland continues to see itself as socialist… many people in Scotland see the Tories as quislings.”

Pointing to the desperate social conditions in Scotland, we drew the conclusion:

As a result of the biggest campaign of civil disobedience in Britain this century – in which Scottish Militant supporters played a deciding role – the hated poll tax was destroyed, along with the equally hated prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

At the same time, we pointed out that

in all the big cities Militant supporters and sympathisers are barred from standing as councillors by an undemocratic panel system which gives local party bureaucrats the power to vet every candidate. 

The party’s youth section, the Labour Party Young Socialists, has now been effectively closed down by the party leadership in retribution for its support for Militant policies. 

The witch-hunt has even extended into parliament, with MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields now in line for expulsion and Ron Brown [from Leith] and John Hughes [from Coventry North-West] deselected. (4)

Even Tories, one writing in the Glasgow Herald, were able to score points at the Labour leader’s expense:

The present-day Labour Party would not allow a free vote on when to take a lunch break. I don’t know, nor little care, for Dave Nellist or Terry Fields. Yet I am astonished that two MPs who have served their constituents diligently can be tried and toppled by a kangaroo court. You couldn’t throw someone out of a bowling club that easily. (5)

At the same time, once powerful organisations such as the Communist Party had declined drastically. 

Yet there was a greater need than ever before for a fighting socialist organisation in Scotland, on the three points of John MacLean and the Red Clydesiders – educate, agitate, organise! However, it was made clear that Scottish Militant Labour was not intended as a conventional political organisation, immersed solely in fighting elections:

While electoral tactics may be necessary in certain circumstances, Militant Labour will devote most of its energies to the daily struggles of ordinary people in the workplaces and communities. (6)

Militants jailed

The formation of Scottish Militant Labour was greeted enthusiastically not just in Scotland but throughout Britain. 

One of its most important battles was still against the poll tax, which although officially declared dead had not yet been buried completely. Indeed, eight months after the end of the poll tax, the pursuance of non-payers for arrears continued. 

The All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation estimated that by November 1991, 117 people had been jailed by 46 councils. Shamefully, 26 of these councils were Labour controlled, including Burnley, which actually imprisoned 23 people. 

Thirty of those who had been jailed were unemployed and three of those were on invalidity benefit. At least ten pensioners had received sentences totalling 366 days and ten women had been jailed. Amongst these was Janet Gibson from Hull who refused to pay her poll tax and went to jail for two weeks. 

Other Militants who were jailed included Eric Segal, Ruby and Jim Haddow and Anne Ursell (Kent); Mike O’Connell and Mark Winter (London); John McKay (Basildon); Jim Bates (Milton Keynes); Andy Walsh and Pete Boyle (Manchester); Ian Thompson (Jarrow); Debbie Clark (Stonehouse); Mick Quinn (Caerphilly).

The courts were being clogged up on poll tax cases. 19,556 hours of court time had been used up by the end of 1991 on poll tax cases with 152,275 people turning up to oppose the granting of liability orders against them. 

A total of 4,258 people had been summoned for committal hearings and well over four million liability orders had been issued. While 2,000 warrants had been issued for the arrest of non-payers, three-quarters of the police forces of England and Wales were refusing to carry them out.

Militant accordingly launched a campaign for amnesty for the non-payers. Something like £5 billion was owed by the end of 1991 to local councils in accumulated poll tax arrears. And yet there was still one more year of the poll tax to go. 

The ending of the poll tax had actually led to more people refusing to pay. Therefore, 1991, a most eventful year in the history of Militant, ended against the background of tumultuous scenes in Glasgow in opposition to the poll tax, growing opposition on a British scale, shown in increased numbers refusing to pay this iniquitous tax, and the formation of Scottish Militant Labour as a rallying point to which all those looking for a fighting socialist lead could turn.


Meanwhile, in Sweden, our sister organisation, Offensiv, won three seats on the local council of Umea. In the course of the election campaign, 15,000 doors were canvassed:

Workers want a socialist alternative to the pro-capitalist policies being pursued by the present leadership of the social democrats. The election has established Offensiv as the major force in the Umea labour movement prepared to fight for such an alternative. (7)

Clearly, Marxism faced an entirely different situation in 1991, not just in Britain, but on an international scale.

Preparing for a General Election

In 1992 the Tories were bound to face the judgement of the electorate. A general election could not be postponed and the signs looked ominous for Major and his government. With 80,000 homes repossessed in 1991, 48,000 companies failing and a job loss rate of at least 60,000 a month, claims that “recovery” was on the way sounded hollow.

Tory Chancellor Lamont’s claim of just two months previously that the economy would grow by 2.25 per cent in 1992 had been scaled down to a likely 1.25 per cent growth rate. This followed an actual decline of two per cent in 1991. 

The whole of the capitalist world was now in the grip of recession, as Germany and Japan joined America and Britain in an economic trough. The recession in the early 1990s was the payment for the excesses of the Reagan/Thatcher boom of the 1980s. Recoiling from the inflationary hangover, capitalist governments had resorted to high interest rates and tight controls of the currency printing presses.

We predicted: 

“The trend of policy over the next few years will be deflationary and the result will be low growth.” Lamont, as if confirming our analysis, admitted: “Recessions… are an inescapable feature of market economies.” (8)

Yet the Labour leadership had fully embraced the “market” when it was patently obvious it was failing to deliver the goods. Kinnock’s “do nothing, say nothing” tactics as a means of winning the general election proved to be disastrous. 

This election, when it came, would take place in circumstances entirely different to any other which Militant had faced before. Scottish Militant had decided, with the enthusiastic support of the national Militant Editorial Board and a national conference of supporters, to stand Tommy Sheridan, the leader of the Scottish anti-poll tax movement, as a candidate in Glasgow Pollok.

A meeting was called in Glasgow to show opposition to the six-months jail sentence which had been meted out to Tommy for his breach of an interdict banning him from attending the Turnbull Street warrant sale. However, the Labour finance convenor for Strathclyde region, John Mullen, greeted the original sentence with the cry: “Justice has been done”.

Poll tax halted – legal chaos

Precisely when Tommy Sheridan was accused of breaking the law it had been revealed that the government had systematically broken their own laws in the way that they had sought to collect the poll tax. 

They tried to use the 1938 Evidence Act which covered magistrates courts. But this Act treats computer evidence as “hearsay” and does not allow its admission. The 1968 Civil Evidence Act, which sometimes allows computer evidence, was never extended to magistrates courts. We commented:

The Tories bent the law. When they got found out they changed it. Councils at present have two years after the date the poll tax became due to start applying for liability orders against non-payers. 

Now they’re going to make it six years. But they would never deal with 18 million non-payers or recover £1 billion lost revenue if they gave themselves 100 years. (9)

Tory Minister Heseltine had actually stated that he was going to amend the council tax legislation going through the unelected House of Lords to cover future cases. On this issue alone, if the Labour leadership had adopted a principled position, it would have been able to shatter the Tories in the run-up to the general election.

Dave Nellist goes Independent

Dave Nellist, meanwhile declared at the end of January that he was going to stand as a “Labour Independent” in the Coventry South-East constituency. 

Members of his constituency endorsed the decision by a five-to-one majority. A broad coalition of workers in Coventry was assembled in support of him. Representatives of the UCATT West Midlands regional council, MSF and APEX convenors at the local engineering works, the branch secretary of UCW Telecom, a pensioners’ trade union leader, the trades council vice-chairman, and the secretary of the Rolls-Royce Joint Shop Stewards Committee all expressed support. 

Moreover, 10,000 electors had been canvassed and 42 per cent of them expressed support for Dave Nellist. Seventy per cent of Labour voters were prepared to back him.

George McNeilage jailed

In Glasgow, George McNeilage, another prominent anti-poll tax leader in Scotland, was jailed for supposedly obstructing and assaulting the sheriffs. He gave a graphic explanation in our pages of his previous very difficult life, but also showed how he had been rescued:

When I got out [of prison] it was just like before – no job, no money and no light at the end of the tunnel, until I came across Militant, which gave me a goal in life.

In prison, George

went round discussing everything I knew: the poll tax, Liverpool council’s struggle, South Africa, Ireland, Scottish nationalism, Russian revolution, the rise of Stalinism, Historical Materialism, Drugs, Red Clydeside…

 in the billet at night I read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and debated politics… 

it was great having a TV in the billet. We watched sheriff officers being chased out of Glasgow’s East End, saw Tommy Sheridan say he’d stand for Parliament and announce the formation of Scottish Militant Labour. 

Great publicity! Next morning people shouted: “Free big George! Smash the sherriff officers! No warrant sales!” (10)

SML’s founding conference and Tommy Sheridan jailed

On 29 February 1992, Scottish Militant Labour held its founding conference generating great enthusiasm amongst those present.

A Scottish edition of Militant was launched with Alan McCombes as Editor. Within a short period of its launch it was to have a decisive effect on Scottish politics, particularly in the west of Scotland. But in early March, Tommy Sheridan lost his appeal and started his prison sentence. Minutes before he was sentenced, he defiantly declared,

I do not accept that a crime has been committed. However, you and I know that justice will not be dispensed in this court. What will be dispensed is class law and class bias against working-class people because it is a crime to stand up for the poor. (11)

Lords Ross, King-Murray and Marnoch then proceeded to uphold the six-month sentence for the “crime” of preventing a warrant sale. 

Two hundred ordinary working class people had crowded into the courts and showed their disgust at the treatment meted out to one who was defending them and their like. 

They cheered Tommy as he was led away to jail and a chorus went up: “No warrant sales”. One woman who lived opposite the prison came up and declared: 

“Tell his friends and supporters they can call in for a cup of tea whenever they’re visiting.” (12)

On 7 March, on the electronic scoreboard at Celtic Park, during the Celtic and Morton game, a message flashed up: 

“Happy Birthday, Tommy Sheridan, from three million friends and supporters. You’ll never walk alone.” 

Strathclyde Council Labour leader Charlie Gray was horrified:

“I think Celtic should think again about accepting that kind of political advertisement, since it is extremely one-sided.” (13)

However, outside the ground fans donated a total of £145 towards the campaign in favour of Tommy’s release.

Campaign Against Domestic Violence

In early March the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV) assembled over 500 delegates and visitors at a highly successful conference in Queen Mary College, London.

The organising of this conference, initiated by Militant supporters as a campaign to secure the release of women like Sara Thornton, jailed for murdering her violent partner, answered those who have argued that Militant ignored the problems of women. 

It has been claimed by some opponents that, while Militant recognised there are special problems and conditions affecting women, the solution to these must be “postponed” until after “socialism had been achieved”. 

No organisation has fought harder to defend and extend the living and working conditions of women, while at the same time explaining the need for a socialist society to complete the liberation of women. The initiative taken on domestic violence was just one expression of this.

At the conference, Julie Donovan, who was the secretary of the campaign, spoke about the medieval laws that sent women to prison for the crime of self-defence. Judges, she said, were unwilling and incapable of understanding the position facing women in violent relationships:

The home is the single most dangerous place for a woman. The most likely place for a woman to meet her death is in her own bedroom at the hands of her partner. 

We reject the idea that women get a thrill out of domestic violence. They don’t enjoy being beaten, punched, kicked and raped. Many have nowhere to go. We need a political campaign to get the resources, refuges and childcare that we need.14

Many moving accounts were given of the harrowing experiences of women who suffered and survived domestic violence. A Liverpool delegate said:

I’m the mother of seven children and had a drunken, violent husband who regularly beat me up and smashed up our home. 

The violence was regular. I’ve been beat up umpteen times and I’ve brought the police to him umpteen times. They came in and gave a bit of lip service: “It’ll be OK. You’ll be alright now.” 

As soon as they went, he’d kick off again. I knew this and I tried to tell the police but they just left. Once, three policemen came. The sergeant in charge was a man of about 50 and he actually smelt of drink himself. 

He went and spoke to my husband and they were like mates. I could hear them from the lobby. He was saying: “Oh you’re alright, Stan. F…ing women. They’re all the same!”15

Naturally, a few delegates, particularly those who had suffered at the hands of brutal men, disputed whether domestic violence occurred as a result of class society. 

They were answered by delegates, expressing the views of a majority present, who thought that although violence occurred across the classes, nevertheless, the roots of domestic violence lay in capitalist society and the resulting attitudes of men towards women. The working class can begin to change all this.

Fiona O’Loughlin, from Ireland, reported on the case of the 14-year-old young woman who was refused an abortion after being raped: 

“The judges are totally out of touch. Two-thirds of people in Ireland say that there should be abortion facilities.” (16)

She spoke of the fight against the influence of the church on abortion law in Ireland. The conference concluded with a pledge to take the issue of domestic violence to every parliamentary seat in Britain with debates organised by local groups. Campaign organiser, Razina Boston, told Militant:

Our task is to change for good the conditions facing men, women and children. We’ll take personal relationships out of the gutter and raise them to the level of mutual co-operation, to create a society without domestic violence. (17)

The CADV also launched a campaign against Tory proposals for what became the Child Support Act (in 1993).