Following the national road
Defeat for the SNP in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election is probably a foretaste of what will happen in the general election, yet much of the left still clings to petty nationalism. Mike Macnair offers a radical alternative
With the October 5 by-election, the Scottish National Party went down to an absolutely decisive defeat. Labour took 58.6% of the vote, the SNP 27.6%, the Tories and Liberal Democrats as well as the Greens losing their deposits, and the rest also-rans. The turnout was down from 66% in the 2019 general election to 37%, but this is completely normal in by-elections.
This paper recommended a critical vote for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate, Christopher Sermanni, who got only 178 votes (0.6%). The other left candidate, Bill Bonnar of the Scottish Socialist Party, got 204 (0.9%). These poor results are unsurprising. It is obviously unhelpful and too stereotypically sectarian to have two rival left candidates with marginal political differences between them, as Scott Evans pointed out two weeks ago.1 This has been a pattern for decades now. But also, in this election, the left candidates will have been squeezed, as the Tories, Lib Dems and Greens were, by heavy tactical voting to defeat the SNP.
Tactical voting has not been unique to this by-election. It also featured strongly in the July by-elections in Selby and Ainsty (Labour win) and Somerton and Frome (Lib Dem win), though the Conservatives held off Labour in Uxbridge by their pro-driver campaign.
This marginal success has shaped their subsequent tactics. The Tories have chosen to attempt to retrieve their desperate situation in the polls by US Republican-style culture-wars campaigning. This already began with the ‘trans’ issue, on which they have had considerable success in knocking down Nicola Sturgeon and embarrassing the Labour leadership. It has also been reflected in the increasing ‘double or quits’ commitment to the harebrained ‘imitate the Australians’ scheme of sending migrants to Rwanda, even if this means breaking with the European Convention on Human Rights (and thus identifying the UK with Russia and Belarus).
It is reasonable to expect that the consequence of this Tory choice to embrace the role of the ‘nasty party’ will result in more tactical voting to get the Tories out at the general election that is due in 2024. In this situation, in Scotland tactical voting to get the Tories out at Westminster will also be tactical voting against the SNP, since it is plain that there is now a real possibility of Labour winning.
Hence, it is by no means impossible that, as some senior pro-capitalist electoral commentators assess,2 the next general election could see the SNP hammered. And in consequence the salience of the Scottish national question in politics would be significantly reduced for a few years. Phil Burton-Cartledge argues: “Before anyone gets too exuberant, that is not going to happen” - explaining the result by the specific circumstances of the constituency and the SNP’s troubles over the police investigation of its finances. This seems to understate the SNP’s political difficulties after 16 years in Scotland’s government and without a credible path either to independence or beyond independence. And it seems to understate the Britain-wide political dynamics involved.3
The British left is basically characterised by ‘If it moves, salute it’ opportunism and tailism. It is this that has taken groups originally openly opposed to Scottish nationalism into the nationalist camp. This is true of the old Militant, which gave rise to both the SSP and Tusc; and to Socialist Appeal, whose opportunist turn to Scottish nationalism only followed the 2014 referendum campaign. It is true of the Socialist Workers Party, and its offshoots in Counterfire and Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century. It was an earlier opportunist turn that took the old International Marxist Group into Jim Sillars’ Scottish Labour Party in 1976, though a minority faction of the IMG already before this turn argued for Scottish nationalism as part of their general perspective of “breaking Labour’s monopoly hold of electoral representation of the working class”.
On this basis, one might expect that the practical defeat of the SNP’s political project, and a possible radical reduction in its electoral weight, will result in the various left groups drawing back from their nationalism. After all, these groups mainly claim descent from Trotskyism, which was defined (among other principles) by the rejection of the ideas of socialism in a single country and ‘national roads to socialism’.
Not yet; and possibly not at all. Anti-Capitalist Resistance (ACR), which is the remote descendant of the old IMG, seems to remain nationalist in principle. Iain Bruce, writing originally for the related site, ecosocialist.scot, referring on September 28 to the Tories’ decision to go ahead with the Rosebank oilfield under the headline “The UK’s suicidal Rosebank decision - Scotland needs a stronger response”, offered an entirely internal critique of the SNP’s failure to oppose this decision explicitly. He called for an announcement that “any government of an independent Scotland would make a priority of closing down Rosebank and any other new fields, without compensation”.4 But what on earth does he expect from a party - the SNP - which for years argued that ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’ in order to support their claim that an independent Scotland would be economically viable? They did so, moreover, rightly at the time, in the sense that there is no way in which an independent Scotland could be economically viable without either oil exports, or Alec Salmond’s fantasy of a Scots ‘Celtic Tiger’ financial centre, like Ireland before the 2008 crash.
Geoff Ryan of ACR on October 3 shows the same nationalist commitment applied to Wales, which is not only far less likely to be economically viable as an independent state, but has never in recent years got above 30% support for independence and in most polls shows a clear majority against.5 Ryan’s article is mainly directed against the Tories’ deployment of their pro-driver, anti-children culture war against the Welsh devolved government. But the Welsh government is only one of the bodies targeted by the Tories’ campaign to defend the rights of rat-runners to kill child pedestrians: London and many other English local authorities are also targeted. Moreover, the Tories are not external to Wales: they hold 16 of the 60 seats in the devolved Senedd and 14 of the 40 Welsh constituencies in the UK parliament. The idea that Welsh independence would help with the problem of Tory culture wars is thus completely delusional.
Socialist Worker on October 5 (the day of the by-election) carried a story, ‘Why I left the SNP - and joined the socialists’. This is a report of the views of three activists, from Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, who are now in the SWP. All three are pro-independence. Dugald Macfarlane of Dundee says that “Imperialist Britain will never dissolve the union, and a new Scotland needs to be a socialist Scotland.” (Socialism in one country, anyone?) Beinn Grant of Edinburgh says: “The British state will not allow independence through parliamentary democracy; we clearly need stronger action.” Maryam Hally from Glasgow has the merit of identifying the SNP’s support for Nato over Ukraine as her “last straw”; but “I joined the SNP because we link independence to a wider struggle for social change.” The SWP thus presents itself as pro-independence; but its alternative route to independence is merely bigger and better demonstrations (and strikes) and they have no more credible path beyond independence than the SNP.
Chris Bambery, writing for Counterfire, comments on the Rutherglen by-election, mainly descriptively, but ending with this claim:
Leaving aside the never-ending decline of the UK state and economy, which created the rebirth of the national question in Scotland, if discontent grows with Starmer in office, the SNP are in place to offer themselves as a more left alternative. That requires sorting out a party in which internal democracy has been hollowed out, where continuity with Sturgeon is not possible, and Yousaf either needs to shift direction or go.
Meanwhile, polls show support for independence is at 50% plus, despite the SNP’s travails. That suggests the potential for a grassroots, pro-independence movement like the Catalan National Assembly. Scotland is crying out for that.
The first paragraph is essentially internal to the SNP. And what use, exactly, has the ‘Catalan National Assembly’ been?
SSPer Richie Venton’s ‘initial thoughts’ on the by-election downplay its significance.6 He emphasises the fact that this was a historic Labour seat, and was retaken by Labour in the 2017 general election, though lost again in 2019. He stresses the low turnout as showing voter dissatisfaction with the major parties (as Phil Burton-Cartledge notes, this argument is useless, since voter turnout is always down in by-elections). He blames Tusc for splitting the left vote. The article - and the campaign - seems from his report, in fact, to have been mainly about the ‘socialist’ aspect rather than about independence. This is also a feature of Philip Scott’s and Matt Dobson’s report of the by-election for The Socialist (October 6): “… it was an election that did not see independence feature heavily. It was the cost of living and the economic problems facing the working-class majority in the constituency that dominated.”
About half of their article is directed to the critique of the SSP (Venton only made a dismissive reference to Tusc). But the line is still very much pro-independence:
In none of the SSP material we have seen was there any criticism of the SNP’s strategy around fighting for self-determination. Scottish Tusc said clearly: “Unlike the SNP and the Greens we fight for socialism. To win self-determination means convincing a big majority our lives would be better. We have no illusions that a bosses’ independent Scotland, where big business controls the economy, would deliver for the working class. That’s the SNP vision. We want to see an Independent Socialist Scotland.”
Once again, anyone for ‘socialism in one country’?
No short cuts
The SNP and its broader pro-independence camp did not lose the 2014 independence referendum because of the defects of ‘parliamentary democracy’ or even because of the defects of plebiscitary ‘democracy’ - referendums as an instrument of fraud, which Cameron’s 2014 campaign certainly was. They lost because they were unable to offer a credible path forward for Scotland beyond independence: the oil largely running out and radically undercut by cheaper producers, the dreams of Scots finance capital destroyed by the 2008 crash, the certainty that Spain and France would veto European Union membership for an independent Scotland.
‘Socialism in one country’ in Scotland is absolutely no alternative. The new regime would be utterly impoverished and under ‘sanctions’ - and attacked by US and British-sponsored sabotage and subversion operations - from the outset.
And yet, the SSP and SP(S) commentators on the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election are correct to say that what is needed is socialism. The problem is that we need to approach socialism in a radically different way to hoping that bigger demos will bring it about. Actually, to break out of the capitalist order, we need action on a continental scale (for us, a European scale). Before we can get to that point, we need to build up our organised forces under capitalism - through trade unions, through coops, and so on; and, most importantly, through the organisation of a Communist Party that does not seek short cuts to socialism, but aims to build up the organised movement and undermine the political authority of the constitutional order.
Tail-ending the nationalists is actually the opposite of the sort of policy that might begin to offer a real alternative.
‘Give Tusc critical support’ Weekly Worker September 2: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1460/give-tusc-critical-support.↩︎
Eg, J Curtice, ‘By-election trouncing shows SNP could be reduced to a rump’ The Telegraph October 6; P Kellner, ‘Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election is a major turning point for Scottish politics’ Scotsman October 7.↩︎