Scottish Militant Labour: from Labour to SNP?

Having broken with Labour does SML now want to find a home as the left wing of Scottish nationalism?

For decades Scottish Militant Labour - in its various guises and manifestations - happily existed within and loyally supported the Labour Party. Socialism in Britain, the comrades dogmatically insisted, would and could only come through the Labour Party and a Labour government. Peter Taaffe, like the proverbial stuck clock, programmatically demanded a TUC “24 hour general strike” in order “to force a general election and bring a Labour government to power on a socialist programme” (P Taaffe Militant: what we stand for London December 1981, p2).

As it does life moves on. Thankfully such illusions have been left behind. Now Labour is rightly characterised by SML, and their co-thinkers in Taaffe’s Socialist Party, as a party of the establishment, a party committed to capitalism (not something that results from Blair’s success in rewriting clause four as the comrades hint, but surely proved beyond doubt by Labour’s inclusion in Lloyd George’s war cabinet in 1916 and the record of every Labour government from 1924 to 1979).

Labour’s organic links with the trade unions and mass base amongst the working class plus its reactionary leadership define it as a bourgeois workers’ party. In my view Blair’s New Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party - it is on the far right of that band in the political spectrum and shows all the signs of moving to a (re)merger with liberalism.

Much of the left - official and unofficial communism included - need to designate the Labour Party a bourgeois workers’ party to provide an orthodox alibi for their automatic ‘vote Labour, but’ call at every general election. Such a conclusion is and always was wrong. Critical support for Labour, support like the “rope supports the hanged man”, is a Leninist tactic not a strategic principle (naturally we reserve the right to use it whenever appropriate).

Nowadays of course, SML simply designates Labour a bourgeois party - with no proletarian conjunctive. Frankly this has nothing to do with science. The comrades must change the Labour Party in their heads in order to justify changing themselves - above all the decision to field independent parliamentary and council candidates. We, it should be stressed, have no such problem. However, given that Labour is designated by our SML comrades as a party of the enemy class it is worrying, to say the least, to see Scottish Socialist Voice urge its readers to “vote Labour to oust the Tories” (March 21 1997).

Obviously there exists deep fault lines between SML and some of their Socialist Party co-thinkers. Dave Nellist, after some pressing candidly admitted his position: “I can’t put my hand on my heart and with a clear conscience advise people to vote for the Labour Party - they only want to be a more efficient party at running capitalism than the Tories” (Weekly Worker March 27 1997). He is undoubtedly correct - and not only about Blair’s Labour government in waiting but, as written above, every Labour government from the first to the last, from MacDonald to Callaghan.

Let us be perfectly clear about what is at issue. For the Communist Party of Great Britain there can be no support for any candidate standing on Blair’s manifesto. To all intents and purposes it is indistinguishable from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, ie, it is thoroughly reactionary and anti-working class. If a Tony Benn or a Dennis Skinner were to break ranks and defiantly present the electorate with a left-reformist programme we would look upon such a development very favourably. Under today’s circumstances it would be perfectly principled to consider calling upon voters to support such Labourite politicians. It might be good tactics.

That on the one hand SML designate the Labour Party a bourgeois party and on the other hand call upon people to vote for them shows how theoretically adrift the comrades are - even in their own terms. They have according to their own analysis violated the elementary principle of working class political independence from the capitalist class and have thereby strayed deep into the territory of opportunism. SML’s break with the Labour Party is a highly contradictory phenomenon.

Effectively SML is telling voters that one party of the enemy class is to be favoured over another, that the Tories are the greatest evil, therefore virtually anything is preferable to them. Such a rotten method took our CPGB - when it was dominated by an opportunist leadership - into the Popular Fronts of the 1930s and in the 1940s to the side of Winston Churchill and British imperialism (class collaboration was advocated in the name of anti-fascism).

If New Labour has qualitatively evolved into a standard bourgeois party - which, to repeat, in my estimation it has not - SML is on a slippery slope by calling upon people to vote for it. Where next? After advising a Labour vote in Tory marginals like Stirling and Ayr, Scottish Socialist Voice, pregnantly, and not at all innocently, informs its readers that in “other parts of Scotland, the main opposition to the Tories is the SNP.” The message might be Delphic but it seems to me that SML is urging a SNP vote - if that is not the case I am sure the comrades will put me straight.

Interestingly the same edition of Scottish Socialist Voice carries an important article by Nicky McKerrel which asks whether or not the Scottish National Party remains a tartan Tory party. The cross-head points out that as Labour has swung to the right the SNP “has reinvented itself as Scotland’s left opposition”. Before examining what sort of political formation the SNP represents I must refer to the nationalist reinvention of SML itself.

Communists fight for Scotland’s right to self-determination but we also fight for that self-determination to be used to facilitate the closest possible voluntary unity of the working class throughout Britain in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the United Kingdom state. That is why we boldly raise the demand for a federal republic. In contrast SML now openly advocates the ‘break-up of Britain’ thesis and an independent capitalist state in Scotland.

My comrades in Scotland inform me that in a recent internal SML document Alan McCombes makes the dire consequences of this perspective of weakening not overthrowing the United Kingdom state crystal clear. Faced with a choice between Labour’s plans for devolution and the SNP’s “independence in Europe”, McCombes would prefer the latter. To “line up with Labour and Liberal Democrats against independence in a referendum campaign”, would, in his view, allow the SNP a “completely free hand to influence and lead the most radicalised sections of the working class.”

This nationalist turn has the blessing of Socialist Party top Lynn Walsh and SML councillor Tommy Sheridan (the most extreme enthusiast for national socialism). There is opposition from other quarters, not least Colin Fox in Edinburgh. However at present these comrades find themselves in a minority and without a coherent alternative. So will SML line up alongside the SNP?

Strategically it is incumbent upon communists to critically support revolutionary nationalists. Hence, unlike SML, we take the side of Sinn Fein/IRA against the British state and army. When it was founded in 1920 the CPGB unequivocally stood for a defeat for British imperialism and in the few years thereafter rendered direct material aid to Irish republicans. In Ireland itself communists like Roddy Connolly fought side-by-side with the IRA in the revo1utionary struggle for self-determination. Today the CPGB considers the demand for the unconditional withdrawal of British troops and Irish freedom a matter of principle. As with Marx, Engels and Lenin we too defend those who have taken up arms to achieve that democratic and progressive end.

Sinn Fein says it is committed to a united socialist Ireland. Evidently the “Christian” socialism of Eire Nua is utopian and in many ways reactionary. Nevertheless communists quite rightly support the democratic and anti-imperialist content of Sinn Fein’s programme. If communists do not take such a stand they objectively join with imperialism and betray the cause of socialism.

To the extent that nationalists struggle against imperialism, to that extent the CPGB is resolutely for them, because we are the most resolute and determined enemies of oppression. However to the extent the nationalism stands for bourgeois and narrow national interests we are against them.

What then of the SNP? It is certainly nationalist. But is it revolutionary and anti-imperialist? Can Marxists give it - its programme - critical support?

The SNP, unlike Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, is committed to Scotland’s right to self-determination. That is a demand we communists champion with the utmost intransigence - SML be warned, we will definitely not trade it for the sake of Blair’s sop parliament. By definition and the whole of its history the SNP want the people of Scotland to exercise that right of self-determination in order to establish an independent class state. We communists only support separation in the most exceptional circumstances - Ireland being one. In fighting for Scotland’s right to self-determination the CPGB will consistently and steadfastly argue for the unity of the working class in England, Scotland and Wales in the struggle for socialism - something bound up with the struggle for a federal republic.

So it is quite possible, even likely, that communists will find themselves taking the same side as the SNP in any argument about Scotland’s right to self-determination with the pro-United Kingdom parties. However we sharply part ways with the SNP about how that right should be exercised. To employ an analogy from another area - marriage. Communists support as a matter of principle the right of partners to divorce. But that does not mean we advocate every couple separate. Each individual should be free to decide whether to begin, continue or end a relationship - communists need make no apology for positively favouring loving, voluntary and mutually beneficial unions.

So what sort of party is the SNP? What class interest does it advocate?

It has a wide popular following both rural and urban. Yet it would be a fundamental mistake to equate electoral support with the class nature of a party. The Tories after all have a huge following amongst politically backward sections of the working class. It is politics that are crucial.

Social life is complex, therefore class and party rarely neatly coincide - especially at the outset. When the SNP was formed in 1934 it had a definite petty bourgeois coloration but occupied no clear or distinct place in the political spectrum. The SNP resulted from a merger in 1934 of the ‘leftwing’ National Party of Scotland, formed in 1928, and rightwing Scottish Party, formed in 1933. It was an uneasy but real meeting of left nationalists and those whose sympathies lay with Mussolini and Hitler - the fascistic Siol nan Gaidheal, the Seed of the Gael, was only “proscribed” in September 1981 by the SNP’s National Executive Committee. The brilliant communist-nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid (CM Grive), a founder-member, put it this way: “I’ll ha’e nae haufway hoose, but aye be whaur extremes meet” (quoted in M Lynch Scotland - a new history London 1992, p434).

Since those early days the SNP has plied a steadily narrowing, albeit zigzagging, course. Now its real extremes are represented by nothing more than on the one side tartan Toryism and on the other European-type social democracy (the left nationalist faction Liberation recently split away to align itself with the Scottish Socialist Alliance). Officially the SNP describes itself as a “moderate left of centre party” (I Bayne ‘The impact of 1979 on the SNP’ Tom Gallagher [ed] Nationalism in the nineties Edinburgh 1991, p60).

It is in this humdrum context we must consider the “expulsion” of the left in the early 1980s - Stephen Maxwell and Alec Salmond were suspended for six months in 1982 - and then the subsequent victory by the Salmond wing over Margaret Ewing and the traditionalists a short time after in 1990. True, this means that on many issues the SNP is formally to the left of New Labour. Yet that proves more about the Labour Party than the SNP.

Unless we are to fall for the method of choosing the ‘lesser evil’ it must be recognised that the SNP is a mainstream European regional party fully committed to the capitalist system of exploitation. Typically it rails against the consequences of capitalism - poverty, inequality, unemployment. That, as Blair well knows, is a luxury a pro-capitalist party which is content with permanent opposition can afford. When push comes to shove in office SNP councils in Scotland have cut services and jobs just like their Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory colleagues.

Needless to say different ends dictate different means and vice versa. The SNP wants an independent capitalist Scotland. Its Ian Bayne makes this perfectly dear: “the SNP’s whole raison d’être” is he says “not the creation of a ‘social democratic’, still less of a ‘socialist’ or a ‘Tory’ Scotland, but the creation of a democratic, self-governing Scotland” (ibid p54). An independent class state, it should be emphasised, for the SNP goes hand-in-hand with the European Union, Nato membership and Queen Elizabeth II of Scotland.

Such a respectable goal dictates respectable means. The SNP is decidedly non-revolutionary - it refuses to side with the IRA against the British army (to do otherwise would at the very least stir up the dormant sectarianism inherent within Scottish society). Naturally in the Gulf War the SNP supported the US, Britain and other imperialist powers. In fact the SNP wants to constitute Scotland as a minor, or junior, imperialist power like Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium. There is in other words nothing anti-imperialist about the SNP.

Hence we communists say there should be no vote on May 1 for candidates standing on the SNP’s pro-capitalist manifesto. We have no interest in choosing the butcher.

Jack Conrad