Myths, half-truths and a moderate climate Tommy Sheridan, Alan McCombes Imagine Rebel Inc, 2000, pp223, £7.99
Imagine is a book designed to win the working class in Scotland to the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party in the fight for an "independent socialist Scotland".
The authors set the scene in the first 10 chapters - describing capitalism, the gaps between rich and poor and the gross inequality and undemocratic nature of 21st century society. While the book shows the myths and contradictions within the system, the trawl through pages of facts and figures has a smothering effect. Far more important, however, than the overwhelming detail is the fact that this is an opportunity lost. Any chance of a positive vision is thwarted by the political trajectory of the authors, as they continue their effortless slide into the nationalist mire.
The aim, according to comrade Sheridan, is to argue "the case for an independent socialist Scotland and a global challenge to the rule of capitalism in language that ordinary people will understand" (Introduction, pxv). It is "a call to everyone in Scotland to look beyond the hype of modern capitalism and to consider the possibility that things could be different" (ibid. pxix).
Different in Scotland that is. Despite the reference to the need to challenge global capitalism, there is little concern to make links with the plight of the working class in the rest of Britain. In fact the opposite. Comrade Sheridan and his co-author, Alan McCombes, have as their aim the encouragement of separatism and association with a Scottish, nationalist, identity. They positively argue for a breakaway state and claim that Scottish people "rightly support independence because they believe that an independent Scotland would be more egalitarian, more leftwing, more socialist in outlook than 'cruel Britannia'" (p127).
The reader is informed that people in Scotland are more progressive, socialist, leftwing and less conservative. According to nationalist logic, all this makes it legitimate for Scotland to separate from the rest of 'backward' Britain. Comrades McCombes and Sheridan do not even try to present any comparative evidence for their assertions. They simply want to flatter the Scottish working class with tales of their radicalism so as to encourage national pride.
Accuracy is a secondary consideration. The post-war Tory-voting Scotland goes unmentioned. Instead we are treated to a mythologised account of the past that bizarrely tells us that Scotland has been a nation since the 13th century - "one of the oldest nations in Europe" (p178). The authors then go on to give a potted history of the 'struggle for independence' from William Wallace to 'Bonnie Prince Charlie'. They claim that it was the reactionary ruling class who, since the rise of the British empire, "started to turn more and more Anglified", while within the working class and progressive movements there "remained a powerful yearning for home rule" (p180).
The formation of the British trade union movement is not mentioned, but that of the Scottish TUC as "a radical breakaway from the British TUC" is (p181). The important role of the Communist Party of Great Britain in Scottish working class politics is also absent, but that of the "tiny Scottish Workers' Republican Party" is emphasised. What is paramount for the authors is the need to separate the Scottish working class off from the rest of the British working class historically, while perpetuating myths of nationhood and oppression.
Anything British is painted in the imperialist colours of the union jack. The "militant struggles to establish the first industrial trade unions, the 1926 General Strike and the three dramatic clashes between the National Union of Mineworkers and the Tories in the 1970s and 1980s" are all given as examples of either the 'progressive side' of Englishness that should be reclaimed (presumably by English nationalists) or of a Scottish history to be proud of, rather than what they really were, examples of what can be achieved through working class unity on an all-Britain level (p186). The miners' Great Strike of 1984-85 is also used to show the lengths that the state is prepared to go to - fundamentally in order to warn that the future independent Scottish socialist government will need to be vigilant. The shared history of the working class movement in Britain is obscured from view.
We are told that while "it would be foolish to pretend that Scotland is somehow morally superior to England ... there is no doubt overall that Scotland is gradually becoming a more tolerant society" (p200). Sectarianism is on the decline (no doubt due to the peace process in Northern Ireland) and homophobia is less pronounced than in the past (notwithstanding that almost a quarter of the adult population voted to keep Section 28 in Brian Souter's referendum).
The authors are clearly at pains to show that Scotland is ripe for its own socialist government. But the question still remains as to why, even if Scotland were in the vanguard of the struggle for socialism and human emancipation, it would have to mean separation. Surely if the movement in Scotland were more advanced it should spread its radicalism throughout the rest of the working class in Britain? But the authors have become so subsumed in nationalism that this question is not even asked.
Comrades McCombes and Sheridan assert that for "those fighting against capitalism, the disintegration of the United Kingdom should be a cause for celebration rather than mourning" (p123). This is intended as a point against the so-called 'Brit left', who dare to question the idea of nationalist meltdown as a short cut that socialists should advocate. The creation of an independent Scottish state led by the SNP, despite having the same class nature as the British state, is portrayed as a step forward - a move towards socialism. Independence should be supported by socialists in order to pave the way for the SSP: "Democratic socialism, stronger today in Scotland than in any other part of the UK, would then be poised to become the main opposition force, and eventually the dominant force within an independent Scotland" (p184).
Unlike the Balkans, where nationalism is described as "aggressive, tribalistic and inward-looking, ... the demand for national independence [in Scotland] is about opposing nuclear weapons, standing against inequality, and prioritising public services over private greed" (p182). Scottish nationalism is somehow inherently socialist in nature, rather than reactionary. It is superior to and far more civilised than the nationalism of the Balkan peoples. Sounds ominously like national elitism to me.
What is more, Scotland already boasts "the material conditions ... for a thriving blossoming socialist democracy ..." These include "land, fish, timber, oil, gas, electricity ... a moderate climate ... a clean environment ..." (p189). "This is not the impoverished Nicaragua of the 1980s, which was brought to its knees by an American economic blockade" (p188). An independent democratic socialist Scotland "will stand up to the forces of global capitalism and become an international symbol of resistance to economic and social injustice" (p189).
So much for the global working class making socialism ... all we require is "land, fish, timber, oil, gas, electricity" and "a moderate climate".
The reader is told in no uncertain terms that Scottish nationalism is a good thing, that Scotland is an oppressed nation, that you can get socialism through parliament and that the fight for independence is crucial. We are fed a concoction of myths and half-truths along with a load of nationalist flattery about Scottish superiority, economically and socially. It is a tragedy that those who call themselves socialists can stoop so low.
Wry memories emerge of the outrage CPGB members encountered in Glasgow in 1997 when we dared to criticise comrades Sheridan and McCombes for their embrace of national socialism. There were plenty, even among our own comrades, who said we should not be so harsh in our condemnation. Unfortunately the SSP leadership, with alarming speed, is proving that we were right.
Read this book for the proof.