Opportunity for advance

Neil Davidson, author of 'The origins of Scottish nationhood', is now a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, along with his comrades from the Socialist Workers Party in Scotland. Sarah McDonald interviewed him for the Weekly Worker

How do you feel the Scottish Socialist Party?s election campaign went?

I can only speak first-hand for Edinburgh, but the street stalls in particular got a good response. People know who we are (not just because of Tommy), and we?ve been able to recruit to the party. Virtually no-one - even people who said they were going to vote Labour - was prepared to defend what Blair has done.

I think that the entire experience has been enormously exciting and shows there are possibilities opening up for the SSP which have not existed for the left in Scotland since before World War II. I am confident that the final result will be quantitatively different from left interventions in previous elections. Of course, it would have helped had the Socialist Labour Party not mounted their sectarian wrecking operation, as they did in my own constituency in Leith, for example.

Is there anything you would change about the campaign - eg, the issues that were focussed on or the way in which the campaign was conducted?

Some more centralised coordination might have been helpful, but it?s understandable that not everything is going to run absolutely smoothly when you have an extremely new party undertaking this size of a task.

One important issue is the involvement of members. The SSP had around 2,000 members when the election was announced, and that must have increased by several hundred during the campaign - the Socialist Worker platform comrades certainly made a conscious effort to recruit during election activity - but only a minority of those members were involved in activity. Had the majority been involved, then our impact would have been that much greater. This is partly a question of organisation more generally, but I think that one of the tasks which the party should set itself is to stimulate greater membership involvement.

The general election was a focus for the Socialist Workers Party coming into the SSP. Do you think that the work involved in the campaign has helped to dispel the fears of those who were uncomfortable with the merger?

An election is obviously a fairly unusual circumstance under which to join any organisation, but it has been a positive experience in that it allowed us to show our commitment to the SSP more decisively than would have been possible under ?normal? conditions. You would have to ask non-SW platform comrades, but I think that those who have been active alongside platform members were impressed at how we have approached selling Scottish Socialist Voice, the SSP paper, and recruiting people to the party.

There have been big Saturday street events in Argyll Street in Glasgow with Tommy Sheridan, in which platform members have played a numerically important role. Of course, there are some SSP comrades, mainly on our nationalist wing, who will never be comfortable with the SW platform, no matter how much we do, unless we renounce all our existing positions on Scottish history and politics, but I don?t think they influence more than a tiny minority.

Do you think that with time the character of the SSP will change as a result of the SWP joining (given that the SWP is a revolutionary organisation of a relatively substantial size which operates on an-all Britain basis)?

Although the SW platform still has close links with the SWP (necessarily, because Scotland still forms part of the British state), we are no longer members, so it isn?t entirely true to say that the SWP operates on an all-British basis any longer.

In terms of how the SSP might change as a result of our joining, I think there are two main areas. The first is how the party intervenes. Comrades who were in the SWP have a certain approach to activity - paper sales, using petitions, street meetings, and so on - which is a bit different from that which a majority of members are used to. This isn?t just a technical question: it?s about how you engage people in political discussion. We are obviously arguing, by example, for that approach to be adopted in party branches.

The second is political. Like other platforms, we have a series of positions to which we hope to win the party as a whole. For example, we don?t agree with a two-state solution in occupied Palestine, we don?t think that Cuba is a socialist state (although we obviously think that it should be defended from US imperialism on grounds of national self-determination) and we don?t think that Scotland is oppressed within the UK. Equally clearly, we do believe that socialism can only come through revolution, not parliament. These are all issues over which we hope to engage comrades in fraternal debate over the coming period.

Do you think that after the general election the Socialist Alliance will become a party?

I hope not. For the SA to turn itself into a party at this stage would simply create a forum for different sects to denounce each other for economism, or whatever: a prospect more repulsive to working class people moving left would be hard to imagine. More seriously, the SWP believes in the need to build a Leninist organisation: many people who are now joining the SA do not share this view, and to deliberately set about creating a party in which we all coexist is a recipe for splits on the one hand or paralysis on the other.

It is surely more effective to apply the principle of the united front and continue an alliance where comrades maintain their own organisational or independent positions, but act together over issues where there is agreement. The situation is different in Scotland, where the SSP was already an established fact. It would have been sectarian lunacy for the SWP not to join, particularly since we were actually invited to do so by the SSP leadership.

If the Socialist Alliance and Welsh Socialist Alliance moved towards party-type organisations can you see any reason for having separate organisations in Scotland, England and Wales?

Well, I don?t think the move to form a party is going to happen, at least in the short term, so the question doesn?t arise. Coordinated activity between the SSP and the SA is obviously desirable wherever possible.

You say in the current edition of Frontline that socialists ?should not oppose [Scottish] independence on the basis of defending the UK state?. Surely we can both defend working class unity, while recognising the right to self-determination, and oppose the UK state through the call for a federal republic of Scotland, England and Wales?

The question is obviously much larger than I can deal with here, but I think that an absolutely correct desire to secure the unity of all workers within the UK should never allow itself to be compromised by the suggestion that this depends on state forms rather than class solidarity. The demand for federalism is precisely such an attempt to defend the UK state by putting it on a more ?modern?, rational basis - which is presumably why it is supported by the Liberal Democrats. To insert the word ?republic? is meaningless, because it either implies a stageist theory of socialist revolution, whereby we eliminate the - supposedly archaic, but actually very modern - paraphernalia of the British state before moving on to socialism, or it assumes that even under a socialist republic the national question will still be a live issue - an outcome I find inconceivable, given the link which exists between nationalism and capitalism.

In a situation where the working class is triumphant the issues which have historically made nationalism an issue for the Scots (and to a far lesser extent the Welsh) will no longer be relevant. And although nations should have the right freely to choose whatever relationships they want, during the transition period I don?t think that Marxists should argue for anything other than a centralised republic governed by directly elected worker?s councils.

In the same issue of Frontline your comrade Keir McKechnie says: ?We should welcome nationalist reflexes that lead people to challenge the system.? What is your view on this statement?

I imagine what Keir meant by this is that, in Scotland, because of the high level of national consciousness, there is tendency for issues (such as plant closures, for example) to be seen through a kind of nationalist grid, where they would be treated on a simple class basis in England. But if people are nevertheless led to question how the system works as a result of this quasi-nationalist opposition, our attitude to them should not be to denounce their chauvinism, but to express solidarity with their concerns and seek to show, through joint activity and discussion, how the nationalist side of their consciousness in fact holds back effective anti-capitalist activity.

The SSP will focus on the Scottish elections in 2003 where it is likely to be quite successful. Another party that is likely to do well in 2003 is the SNP. How should the left regard an increase in the nationalist vote?

We should be concerned by any significantly increased SNP vote. Previously, some working class people voted for the SNP - mistakenly, in my view - under the impression that it stood for the social democratic values which Labour were abandoning. In fact, the SNP were never a social democratic organisation - no nationalist party can be - although its rhetoric has occasionally gestured in that direction.

But it is now clearly moving to the right under Swinney, towards a convergence with the other bourgeois parties over the need for markets, labour flexibility, support for the police, and so on. It will never wholly abandon the radical side of its rhetoric - no nationalist party can do that either - but the trajectory is clear: the real debates in the SNP are no longer between left and right, but between those who want to settle for autonomy on the Catalan model and those who still want independence as classically understood (ie, outright secession).

Whatever one thinks of it, people whose socialism is mixed up with nationalist ideas now have a home in the SSP. Experience suggests that the majority of these are attracted more by the ?socialist? part of the SSP?s name rather the ?nationalist? part, and where the latter is dominant I am obviously in favour of challenging it, for reasons I have spelt out in the ?afterword? to The origins of Scottish nationhood.

The result, however, is that the SNP can no longer pose as the left alternative to Labour in Scotland. A vote for the SNP now is to vote for the status quo in everything except constitutional issues. Naturally this doesn?t mean writing off every member of or voter for the SNP, but it certainly means that alliances with the SNP over anything other than very specific demands will be increasingly problematic.

What do you think are the priorities for the left after the general election?

I think that it is vitally important that the SSP and the SA continue to sink roots in the British working class, consolidating the break with Labour which a small but growing minority have already made.

Three audiences in particular are important. The first consists of existing Labour Party members and supporters who are disgusted but not yet confident enough to leave - they were looking at how well the SSP/SA performed in the election and both organisations need to move fast, possibly with an open letter or some similar device, to invite them to join us. For this group in particular the size of our vote is important.

The second are the anti-capitalist movements. This is the first truly international generation of activists to arise since the period from 1968-1975 and, while many individuals already belong to the SSP (and were active around Faslane, for example), the party needs to place itself at the centre of these activities - otherwise we risk losing all that idealism and energy to the dead end of anarchism or autonomism (Ya Basta, etc).

The third are the vast numbers of working class people who are not politically involved at all - and perhaps have not been since the anti-poll tax campaigns: the third or so of the electorate who are denounced as apathetic because of their refusal to vote for the politicians who scapegoat them for their own failures. Again it is not simply a matter of trying to unleash the energies and frustrations of people trapped on the estates: it is vital that we provide an alternative to the racists and fascists who will otherwise seek to give them a political lead.

These are the people we have to reach - I think the opportunities for doing so are better than at any time in the 25 years I?ve been involved in politics.