Scottish Socialist Alliance divided on Scotland Forward

The Scottish Socialist Alliance came together for its second annual conference on June 14. About 90 members, mostly Scottish Militant Labour, attended and the day was marked by comradely and open debate. The most contentious issue - predictably enough - was the question of a Scottish parliament and what our attitude should be to Blair’s referendum and Scotland Forward, the establishment umbrella group set up to campaign for Blair’s sop parliament.

Allan Green, secretary of the SSA, presented an amendment to the statement on Scottish self-government which proposed advocacy of the type of proportional representation that would enable the left to have representation in line with their percentage vote and also allow women equal representation. He also proposed an amendment to the effect that should a Blair-type parliament be set up the SSA would campaign for its charter within it. Both of these amendments were passed with little discussion.

Then the debate moved on to the attitude we should have to the referendum. Bill Bonnar, in presenting the position of the majority of the National Council, argued that the campaign for a Scottish parliament must be central to the SSA’s work. Within debate on the nature of that parliament the SSA had to project a vision of a body which is strong, sovereign and democratic. But although Labour’s referendum is a “travesty”, it is the “only” campaign and therefore the SSA should get involved in it. To call for a boycott is nonsensical and the politics of unreality, he said.

Mary Ward (CPGB and Campaign for Genuine Self-Determination) moved two amendments: firstly, that instead of supporting a ‘yes, yes’ vote we should organise an active boycott around the slogan, ‘Self-determination, nothing less’, and further deploring the action of the majority of the National Council in advocating involvement in the “jingoistic, cross-class collaboration of Scotland Forward”. The SSA should not water down its commitment to a sovereign Scottish parliament with full powers and become subsumed by the Labour Party and the Scottish establishment. Joining Scotland Forward will mean that we will be “tarred with the same brush” and line ourselves up with the “worst form of popular frontism”.

Alan McCombes, a leading member of SML, put forward the usual argument that the boycott tactic plays into the hands of our opponents. Significant sections of the establishment were against the parliament and Blair himself would like nothing better than to see the referendum defeated. We should not refuse reforms on the basis of their being sops because at the end of the day all reforms are sops - from the right to vote to the NHS. More than that, in McCombes’ view any parliament is an extension of democracy, which can only be good.

Eddy Truman of SML and Edinburgh SSA argued that there was a danger of becoming obsessed with the parliament when there were far more important questions, such as poverty and unemployment. Although he was in favour of a ‘yes, yes’ vote he argued that the SSA should not sign itself up to Scotland Forward - an organisation where Tories are more welcome than socialists.

The opposition of Edinburgh SSA to involvement in Scotland Forward became more apparent with their amendment to the statement on Scottish self-government. Bob Goupillot argued that the Alliance should campaign for an ‘independent democratic republic as an option in the referendum’ - for the maximum possible rather than the lowest common denominator. Again the debate came down to whether you jump on board the ‘only show in town’ or whether you fight for an alternative. George Mackin argued that we would simply be called wreckers, just like those who destroyed the opportunity of a parliament in 1979. But, I argued, we were not the wreckers - it was Tony Blair who was pouring cold water on the democratic aspirations of the Scottish people. Instead of addressing the democratic deficit he was out to perpetuate it. The Labour government actively wants a ‘yes, yes’ in this campaign. In reality Scotland forward is a government campaign with Tories and Liberal Democrats (and soon the SNP) on board - and unfortunately also large sections of the left.

I pointed out that the SWP had offered its unequivocal support at the Dundee launch, only to be told by Ian McKay, campaigns organiser, that he was not really interested in them, at the same time making a call for “members of the main parties to join the discussion, rather than the left”.

Although both amendments were defeated, the discussion continued both in our fringe meeting at lunchtime and later in the afternoon during the debate on future campaigns. About 20 attended the fringe meeting, which heard Allan McCombes, Mary Ward and Allan Armstrong develop their positions on the referendum.

McCombes began by saying that clearly not everybody in SML had the same view and that he disagreed strongly with Eddy Truman from Edinburgh SML who believed that economic issues were more important. It was necessary to have a serious treatment of the national question, within which tactics were variable depending on conditions - but if we did not vote ‘yes, yes’ we were basically opting for the status quo. Even a Blair-type parliament would be a small but modest victory. An active boycott campaign could be a legitimate tactic if the SSA had MPs and thousands of members but, given the weakness of our forces at the moment, it was a non-starter, he said.

Allan Armstrong argued for a working class campaign which links republican and social issues. He said it was nonsense to believe that the establishment did not want this parliament - anything but. This was a concerted effort on their part to limit any notion of a Scottish parliament to this narrow agenda.

Mary Ward said we should be in no doubt that Blair was trying to suppress the democratic aspirations of the Scottish people through active advocacy of a ‘yes, yes’ vote in this rigged referendum. It is the gloved hand rather than the iron fist, but we should not delude ourselves that it is anything but a measure to shore up the stability of the UK capitalist state. Unless we put forward a distinctive alternative we will only give credence to the Scottish establishment, no matter how many ‘health warnings’ we put in our papers.

Rather than being cowed by small forces into liquidating ourselves into Scotland forward we need to build the SSA through an active boycott. The courage we showed in standing in the general election should be emulated, not retreated from.

Back in the conference the debate on involvement in the ‘yes, yes’ campaign reached an interesting climax. Alan McCombes introduced the discussion on future work with a clear commitment to building the SSA as a mass working class party. He said we were the only real “political opposition to Labour, especially in Glasgow” and would in time inspire thousands of working class people: “It is those that take risks who make history.” A strange attitude for someone who is proposing the ‘safe’ option of Scotland Forward.

Catriona Grant of SML and Edinburgh SSA argued that she and others had very grave concerns about getting involved in Scotland Forward. She had been present at their founding conference and had seen that this was not some umbrella group but a Labour Party stooge where business and establishment cuddled up to each other. The Tories present on the day were given a standing ovation and SNP members did not even mention independence. While she agreed we should go to their meetings and put our point of view, we should not work within the campaign. An amendment was put forward to delete the sentence from the campaigns resolution committing the SSA to involvement in local and national structures of Scotland forward. When the vote was taken, the conference was split right down the middle. A recount showed 34 for the amendment and 38 against with three abstentions. It was a narrow defeat for those who to one degree or another are recognising the logic of involvement in a ‘yes, yes’ campaign. And such a slim victory for the majority of the National Council shows that this argument must not be dropped.

Another no less contentious issue was the question of the SSA’s attitude to Irish self-determination. Two substantial amendments to the discussion document had been submitted - one from the CPGB and one under the name of Richie Venton - perhaps the most sectarian of the SML leaders. Allan Green moved a procedural motion to remit these amendments for discussion in the branches and only to put the actual demands in the discussion document to the vote. This was clearly an attempt to circumvent discussion on the day, while at the same time to railroad those like ourselves with differing views into an ‘agreed’ position without having put forward our arguments in full.

On closer examination it became clear that comrade Venton’s demands were almost identical to those in the discussion document - suspiciously like a way of getting SML’s official position imposed through the back door. However, the majority of the conference was against the leadership on this and it was agreed to convene a conference on Ireland so that a proper debate could be had and a position agreed. The procedural motion was overwhelmingly defeated.

Other resolutions passed included a commitment to approach the SWP with a formal invitation to get involved in the SSA and also a motion in support of a woman worker sacked by Labour’s Bradford City Council because she is a lesbian.

The conference on the whole gave the impression both of an organisation that is going forward and one that is committed to debate and tolerance of minority views. Nationalism and reformism are still big questions which have to be fought out within the SSA and questions such as the ‘yes, yes’ campaign and Scotland Forward need to be vigorously pursued.

Nevertheless, as was shown on the day, many comrades from SML are opening up far more to debate. There are big division on Scotland forward and the strategy of building the SSA. There are undoubtedly those in the ranks of SML who would dearly like to turn their backs on the SSA and follow Peter Taaffe’s line in England and Wales of building a sectarian ‘small mass party’. The majority seems for the moment to be building something more serious and more useful. It is these anti-sectarian forces that we want to encourage in our fight for rapprochement.

Anne Murphy