Socialism or Scottishism? The political direction of the SSP

Submitted by martin on 9 September, 2008 - 6:39 Author: Dale Street

The lynchpin of the SSP’s politics is its call for an “independent socialist Scotland” or a “Scottish socialist republic.”

[This is a longer version of this article than in the printed paper]

In the small print – and, to be fair to the SSP, not necessarily just in the small print – these slogans are qualified by statements such as “a fully-fledged socialist society could never be achieved within the borders of a small country such as Scotland.” The independent Scottish socialist republic, therefore, turns out to be a country with “a socialist government,” and “a socialist economy with an emphasis on social ownership.”

In some versions of this vision of the future “it is an open question... whether the people in Scotland will follow a trail first blazed elsewhere.” In other versions, it appears that the independent Scottish socialist republic will be the first country in the world to enter upon the path of socialist transformation and will serve as a “beacon of hope” to workers throughout Britain/Europe/the world.

The SSP’s support for an independent Scotland is not dependent on an independent Scotland being a socialist republic. That is to say, the SSP sees an independent Scotland as ‘better’ than the maintenance of the current UK state (in any form – in the bi-polar world of the SSP there is only one choice: the blood-stained Union, or independence).

The SSP’s support for an independent Scotland is not to be confused with support for Scotland’s right to self-determination. Since somewhere around the middle of the eighteenth century, and arguably even earlier than that, independence for Scotland has had only minority support (and sometimes an extremely small minority). Right now, support for an independent Scotland continues to have only minority support (albeit a minority that continues to grow). Currently, independence is not the form of self-determination which most people in Scotland want.

Recognising Scotland’s right to self-determination is one thing. Advocating that that self-determination must take a particular form (i.e. independence) is quite another. The former is the recognition of a basic democratic right. The latter is an element of a political programme. There are three basic reasons – or so it seems to me – why the SSP sees independence for Scotland as being ‘a good thing’ in and of itself. And they are all wrong.

Firstly, the creation of an independent Scotland would be an act of anti-imperialism. It would be a blow against (British) imperialism. It would continue the work begun by Connolly in the Easter Uprising of 1916. It would stand in the tradition of John Maclean’s opposition to the inter-imperialist slaughter of the First World War. It would free Scotland from the British-American militarism.

As issue 216 of the SSP’s paper put it: “Being British means being a mercenary for President Bush, dispatching our youth to colonial frontlines in Afghanistan and Iraq and rendering ourselves the most dangerous and aggressive state in Europe today. If there was only one argument for independence, surely it is this: we must disengage ourselves from the UK/US war machine, through breaking up the British state.”

Conceptualising the creation of an independent Scotland as an expression of ‘anti-imperialism’ is fundamentally flawed – partly because Scotland has been an integral part of the imperial centre throughout the history of the British Empire, and partly because, if the creation of an independent Scotland really was an act of ‘anti-imperialism’, then this would make the staid bourgeois leadership of the SNP … the ‘anti-imperialist’ vanguard!

More fundamentally, however, it makes no sense to pose the creation of an independent Scotland as a blow against imperialism for the simple reason that the British Empire has long since ceased to exist.

In fact, the reason for the growth in support for independence for Scotland is the disappearance of the British Empire and the decline or disappearance of institutions directly or indirectly linked to the existence of the British Empire. It was the existence of that Empire and its associated institutions which helped ‘hold together’ the British state.

(One can certainly still talk meaningfully of British imperialism. But this is obviously not the high imperialism of the British Empire. Invoking the Easter Uprising as the forerunner of the creation of an independent Scotland, as the SSP does, confuses two very different historical periods. The significance of the Easter Uprising was that it took place at the very heart of the British Empire. Eighty years later, the Empire is no more.

In any case, no-one – not the SSP, not the SNP, and nobody else – is suggesting independence for Scotland will be achieved through launching an armed uprising and seizing the General Post Office in Glasgow. Independence for Scotland is something to be achieved through the more sedate mechanism of a referendum and inter-governmental negotiations.)

The second reason why the SSP sees independence for Scotland as being ‘a good thing’ per se is that its socialism is essentially a reactionary socialism (in the sense in which Marx talked of reactionary socialism in the “Communist Manifesto”).

Inherent in the SSP’s overall conception of socialism is the notion that socialism is not something that arises out of capitalist development but something to be achieved by undoing capitalist development and turning back the clock of history.

Thus, it is not just Scottish withdrawal from the UK which the SSP advocates. It also advocates Scottish withdrawal from the European Union, plus also the creation of a separate Scottish currency. Indeed, one of the SSP’s main lines of attack against the SNP is: “Nor could the SNP's alternative to devolution - independence in Europe within a single European currency - offer genuine independence.”

(It is worth noting, in passing, the use of the expression “genuine independence.” For the SSP, political independence is not enough. If independence is to be “genuine”, it must be not just political but also economic!)

If socialist advance in Scotland requires withdrawal from the European Union – which is, after all, the SSP’s policy – then socialist advance in all other European countries must likewise require withdrawal from the European Union. This break-up of the European Union would be a step forward for the working class. As one SSPer put it: if the national bourgeoisies compete against each other rather than co-operate with each other, then that makes them weaker.

(Yes, it is unfair to tar the SSP as an organisation with a comment by one of its members. In this instance, however, the comment makes explicit the thinking behind the SSP’s approach to the European Union – and multi-national states in general.)

A third reason why the SSP backs independence for Scotland, albeit one not as clearly spelt out as the above two reasons, is the idea that Scotland is more left-wing, more militant, more socialist in its values than England. An independent Scotland would therefore allow this more left-wing, more militant, more socialistically-minded Scotland to come to the fore.

The stock response to this argument from, say, the SWP, is to point out that the miners’ strike in England was just as militant as in Scotland (in fact, arguably more militant, given the Communist Party leadership of the NUM in Scotland), and the poll tax campaign was just as militant in England as in Scotland (in fact, arguably more militant – there was a ‘riot’ in London, but there was never a riot in Scotland).

In fact, the arguments are more complex. One need only compare, for example, the low level of support for the Tories in Scotland with the much higher level of support for the Tories in England. But then again, anti-Toryism in Scotland is not the result of some inherently Scottish quality. It is the result of the fact that the Thatcherite policies pursued by successive Tory governments were felt more brutally in Scotland than in England (because the public spending, the industrial subsidies, and the role of local authorities which the Tories targeted played a more significant role in Scottish economic and social life than they did in England).

Even allowing for all such qualifications, it is difficult to see any basis for an argument that working-class organisation (e.g. levels of union membership, levels of strike activity, effectiveness of union organisation in the workplace, vitality or otherwise of ‘branch life’ in different unions) is substantially ‘better’, if ‘better’ at all, in Scotland than in England.

(And if it was, then that only makes it all the more curious that the invocation of a more combative working class in Scotland continues to be based on what happened eighty years in one particular locality in a limited number of industries which have long since ceased to exist, i.e. Red Clydeside, 1914 to 1919, but even during those years only spasmodically.)

In any case, even if the Scottish working class was more militant, left-wing and combative than its English counterpart, there is surely no particular logic which requires the more militant section of the working class to be ‘hived off’ into a separate state. Why, instead, should the more militant sections of a currently unified trade union movement not campaign and organise to revitalise, in this case, the UK-wide trade union movement?

The SSP’s support for an independent Scottish socialist republic, which, in the here and now, translates into support for an independent capitalist Scotland, is not just a matter of what the SSP advocates in terms of the constitutional relationship between the national groupings of the existing UK state. It also relates, in a very convenient manner for the SSP, to the question of socialist political organisation in Scotland.

Scotland should be independent. (At the moment it isn’t, but it should be.) This means that socialists in Scotland must organise independently of socialist organisations in England. (I’m not sure why that ‘must’ be so, but, apparently, it is.) Moreover, socialists in the other parts of the UK must recognise that Scotland should be independent, and, consequently, that socialists in Scotland must maintain their independence of socialists in the other parts of the UK.

The only socialist organisations outside of Scotland with which the SSP could have any kind of relationship are therefore ones which endorse the SSP’s policy of independence for Scotland, and which, consequently respect the SSP’s right to maintain its own organisational independence. To put it more bluntly: the SSP has declared Scotland a no-go area for any political organisation not based solely in Scotland. (Everything else is sophistry.)

But Scotland is a small country. This means, according to the SSP, that there is no ‘space’ in Scotland for two socialist parties.

(The SSP has yet to explain whether Scotland is too small for more than one socialist party because of its size or because of its population. Nor has it yet defined the point at which, either by virtue of its population size or its physical size, a country would be entitled to have more than one socialist party. Another peculiarity about this argument is that it’s strange that the bourgeoisie can have four political parties in Scotland, but the working class can have only one.)

Given that there is already a socialist party in Scotland – the SSP, as Sheridan-Solidarity does not count – the SSP finds itself in the happy situation of being the only socialist organisation in a region which can accommodate only one socialist party, and to which all other socialist organisations based in other parts of the UK are to be denied access (unless they agree with the SSP’s policies, in which case their members should join the SSP).

The SSP’s support for an independent Scotland – preferably in the form of a socialist republic, but, failing that, a bourgeois independent one – provides the political framework for its more general political programme.

(This does not necessarily apply to all aspects of the SSP’s policies. On international issues, for example, it tends towards adopting various conventional left wisdoms, often of a Stalinist hue. The SSP are uncritical supporters of Cuba. They are uncritical supporters of Chavez. They support a boycott of Israel. For Iraq and Afghanistan they propose ‘troops out’ or ‘troops out now’. In Nepal they support the Maoist guerillas.

Having said that, there is a linkage between the SSP’s support for an independent Scotland and its approach to some international questions, most obviously its support for Scottish withdrawal from the European Union. Similarly, its support for troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan is linked to its call for Scottish independence: an independent Scotland would not have troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is also an obvious empathy for Cuba (small and supposedly socialist) and Venezuala (lots of oil and supposedly on the road to socialism) arising out of the SSP’s vision of an independent Scottish republic (small, socialist, and lots of oil).)

The fact that the SSP’s line on a future independent Scotland determines its more general political programme, at least in relation to Scotland, does not necessarily mean that the SSP thinks that there is nothing to do or nothing to be achieved this side of independence (other than campaigning for independence itself).

What it does mean is that the defining framework for the SSP’s general politics and day-to-day activities is inseparable from its particular policy in support of independent Scottish statehood. That particular policy is so well-entrenched, so rooted in the very basis of the SSP’s political programme, that if you do not agree with it, then, given that its merits should be blindingly obviously to anyone who considers themselves a socialist, you must be from the planet Zog.

(I am from the planet Zog.)

This makes the SSP different from, say, the old Socialist Alliance (SA), or any Socialist-Alliance-type organisations which might emerge in the future. In the SA there was some general agreement about certain basic issues. On specific policies (e.g. the Euro) there were differences. But, for a time at least, the differences on specific policies did not outweigh the agreement on more general issues. And whatever differences we might have had with the individual policies of the SA, they were certainly not an obstacle to promoting SA candidates in elections.

In relation to the SSP, on the other hand, we have a fundamental disagreement with their overall politics. The SSP’s support for independence is not simply a single self-contained policy which can be isolated from its broader political programme. It is a policy which shapes and defines that programme. Putting it crudely: we talk about class, they talk about Scotland.

(Whilst that might be crude, it’s not particularly unfair. To put that claim to the test, one need only read copies of the SSP’s paper on its website. To be sure, there’s a lot of material in the paper about rich and poor, capitalist injustices, and so on. (There’s also coverage of industrial disputes. But the SSP’s trade union work is a personal fiefdom of the SSP’s trade union organiser, an unreconstructed ex-Militant full-timer) What counts, though, is how this all fits together in terms of the SSPs’ political outlook.)

Take the example of the recent Glasgow East by-election.

According to the SSP’s principal election broadsheet, its candidate “has no expensive possessions. She doesn’t own a house, but lives in a top-floor rented housing association tenement. She has no car, no expensive furniture, no loot stashed away in a personal bank account. You may not agree with everything Frances Curran says. But even her opponents admit she’s one of that rare breed of politicians who has never been seduced by glitz, wealth, and celebrity.”

(After the hero cult of Sheridan the Sinner – the cult of the venerable Saint Frances of Baillieston!)

Nothing wrong with that in principle, even if it’s pretty grossly overdone. (So anyone who lives on a worker’s wage cannot expect to own a car, be an owner occupier, or have even the odd expensive possession?) It relates to the fact that the retiring MP employed various members of his family in various capacities (a well-established tradition amongst Labour MPs in Glasgow.)

The first question addressed to the candidate in the centre-pages of the election broadsheet is not why are you standing but “what connections do you have with the East End?” Answer: “My mum and dad were both from big extended East End families – the Burns from Barrowfield and the Currans from the Calton. I was brought up in Barlanark. Three generations of my family lived there. My grandparents were the first family to move into the scheme when it was first built, (etc., etc. etc.).”

Again, nothing wrong with that in principle, even if it’s rather overdone. It’s a by-election, so why not stress your local connections?

But what about the politics of the campaign?

“Do you support independence for Scotland?” reads one question.” Answer: “Yes, I do, totally. I don’t believe Scotland is too weak, too small or too poor to go it alone. Exactly the opposite. We have oil reserves in the North Sea worth half a million. Where I disagree with the SNP is that I believe in a socialist Scotland.”

“Do you have any chance of winning?” reads another question. Answer: In a by-election anything can happen. … One advantage of voting for the SSP is you can protest against Labour – and at the same time pile the pressure on the SNP government at Holyrood to stand up for working people in areas like the East End of Glasgow. If you want a small change for the East End, stick with the SNP. But if you want a big change, vote SSP.”

From the final side of the election broadsheet the reader discovers that “Scotland is a fabulously rich country, with oil, gas, land, forestry, fish, coal, thousands of miles of coastline, wind and tidal power. Yet too many of our people are living on low pay and poverty benefits.” There then follows the SSP’s 12-point plan for an independent Scottish socialist republic (including the policy that “supermarket prices will be frozen”).

A smaller election leaflet (“An East-Ender Who’ll Fight for the East End”) covered the same ground as the election broadsheet, albeit in less detail, and in a more sober fashion (gone was all the stuff about the SSP candidate living in sackcloth and ashes on a worker’s wage), but with a page headed: “Scotland’s Oil Wealth Plundered – Did You Know?”

This informs the reader: “Scotland has enough oil under the North Sea to give every man, woman and child in the land £500,000. … Most of our oil is plundered by foreign multinationals. And what’s left over is squandered by Westminster on wars and weapons of mass destruction. Frances Curran and the SSP want to take the wealth of the North Sea oil into public ownership. The black gold under our coastal waters doesn’t belong to the tycoons or the London politicians. It belongs to the people of Scotland – and it’s the people of Scotland who should benefit.”

I do not dispute for one moment that in an election, or by-election, campaign, campaigning material will necessarily be pretty basic and avoid more complex arguments (or break down complex arguments into more basic ideas, and possibly at the expense of political clarity.)

But the election material produced in this campaign was Scottish populism. The material did not actually raise the slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil”, but everything in it to do with oil amounted to that slogan (with a slightly left-wing gloss on it – it’s the oil of the people of Scotland).

I’m all in favour of nationalising the oil industry. But why not raise that as an demand, right now, on the government in Westminster rather than, as is clearly the case in the election material, as a policy to implemented by the government of an independent Scotland? (Answer: Because "It’s Scotland’s Oil.”) In fact, all the policies put forward in the above-quoted election material were for implementation … the other side of Scottish independence!

In other words: If you wanted to see any of the specific policies implemented (e.g. higher taxes for the rich, free school meals, publicly owned public services), then the way to see them implemented would be to support independence for Scotland.

This was not an election campaign run on basic class politics (‘class’ was absent from the election material, and is largely absent from SSP publications in general, and so too, unless I missed it, was even a single reference to trade unions) with a bit of Scottish populism grafted on here and there, together with a few other policies we might not agree with.

This was an election campaign in which the election material flowed – logically and consistently – out of the SSP’s overall politics. It had nothing to do with the struggle to re-build independent working-class political representation as we understand it. Quite why we would want to give any credence to all this, let alone show any degree of enthusiasm for it, is beyond me.

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