SSP maverick ruffles feathers

Kevin Williamson, Scottish Socialist Party member and regular columnist for Scottish Socialist Voice, will be a familiar figure to readers. In February comrade Williamson used his regular SSV 'Rebel Ink' column to justify support for gender quotas for election slates that were then being proposed to the SSP conference. Following in the footsteps of evolutionary psychology, he argued that men and women have become almost two species - with different aptitudes, brain functions, emotional ranges, types of intelligence, etc, hard-wired into their brains as a result of their presumed - actually imaginary - roles in the Upper Palaeolithic some 40,000 years ago (see Weekly Worker February 28). Now turning his attention to the question of immigration and the rise of the far right in Europe, comrade Williamson has once again ruffled feathers. In Scotland, as in the rest of Britain, the British National Party is tiny. As well as attempting to win votes from Labour, it is also in competition with the Scottish National Party. Hence a rather pathetic and perfunctory attempt to relate to Scottish nationalist sentiment. Notable by its absence on the BNP's Scottish website is the union jack. In its place is a thistle, along with a section devoted to Scottish poetry. Special venom is reserved for the "phoney nationalist" SNP, which peddles a "divisive Scottish nationalism" as part of an "undoubted European Union-backed campaign" to precipitate the "break-up of Europe's powerful, individual nations". Standing on an all-Scotland list during the 1999 European elections, the BNP polled 3,700 votes - pathetic in comparison to the nearly 40,000 garnered by the SSP (which of course went on to pull in 72,500 votes in last year's general election). And though, following their success in Burnley, they are "strongly considering" standing in several areas in the local elections in 2003, including Ayrshire, Dundee, Edinburgh, Fife and Glasgow, the chances of any returning a BNP councillor are very slim (quotes from BNP Scotland website). Two related mistakes plague the left on this question. One is to lose all sense of proportion when assessing the extent of the far right threat, and the other is to fail to grasp its actual nature. Quite clearly it is wrong, as comrade Williamson says, to "view Le Pen's National Front, Pim Fortuyn's list and the BNP" as either being "the same or static entities" (Scottish Socialist Voice May 17). But, while all three have developed separately within a specific context and from different origins, there is a clearly manifested tendency towards anti-immigration electoral populism within the broad spectrum of European far right parties. The BNP, under the leadership of Nick Griffin, has been busy concealing its Nazi past in order to follow this approach. By and large the left has failed to recognise or react to this strategic turn, preferring to stick to what it views as tried and tested methods of work. However, recognising its significance, comrade Williamson criticises elements on the left that think in slogans without putting much thought into the politics behind them. In doing this he is undoubtedly making a valuable point. Simplistic denunciation of 'the Nazis' has clearly failed in instances such as Burnley. He cites the Socialist Workers Party's blind sloganeering. For him, "It is not enough to wave a placard saying 'Asylum-seekers welcome here', when the experience of many would suggest otherwise." It is true that the slogan is not a reflection of the views of most working class people, but that, in itself, does not necessarily devalue its worth. The problem is that the slogan does not begin to address the question of why this is not the reality. It does not challenge people's ideas, but rather wags a finger at them. Thus, rather than opening a dialogue with those who are hostile to asylum-seekers, it forecloses one. Limitations of this kind plague the article. While recognising, correctly, that support for the far right arises from material deprivation and alienation, he initially seems to suggest that the best way we can combat this is to put forward some sort of municipal socialism as an alternative. The left, he argues, should "cost out how much we need to deal with this situation and where that money will come from". Asking how many asylum-seekers "a country like Scotland can reasonably provide with decent homes, health, education, jobs and so on" was the logical conclusion of this rather dangerous line of thought. Needless to say, this implies that at some point comrade Williamson envisages a situation where Scotland must close its doors - the free movement of people will be just too expensive. In the May 24 edition of SSV comrade Williamson, suitably chastened by several criticisms, including in the letters column of the same edition, changed tack somewhat. He had been "playing devil's advocate" all along and had "screwed up". Comrade Williamson drew back from his previous line, albeit in something of a cack-handed manner. He was totally opposed to the idea that "there is not the finite facilities to provide every person in this country - native or recently arrived - with a good home and a decent standard of living", although "liberating and allocating those resources is another matter". However, it was left to Jo Harvie, also writing in the May 24 edition of the Voice, to make the obvious point: the question of 'How many?' simply should not even arise. It is not hard to pinpoint the unnamed target of comrade Williamson's critique. It is clearly the Anti-Nazi League, the anti-fascist 'united front' of the SWP and its Scottish offshoot, the SSP's Socialist Worker platform. Indeed, this is not the first time that the ANL has been the cause of controversy within the ranks of the SSP. Differences between the leadership and the SW platform flared up when the latter decided to relaunch the ANL in Scotland last year - without first discussing the question within the SSP or involving the party in any way. The SW platform was severely reprimanded. However, the SSP conference earlier this year marked a decisive shift on the part of the International Socialist Movement-dominated executive. Previously hostile to participation in the ANL and keen to chart an independent course for the SSP, the leadership adopted to a more accommodating stance towards the SW platform. Nevertheless, the executive proposal to affiliate the SSP to the ANL provoked heated exchanges at conference. In a way the ANL is something of a soft target, given that it is currently the organisational representation of just about everything that is wrong with 'anti-fascism', as currently conceived by the left. Among other faults its reactive strategy - attempting to knock the BNP on the head whenever and wherever it manages to claw its way to the surface - is fundamentally flawed and ineffective. When the BNP is on the verge of the sort of breakthrough - for example, the election of councillors - which is sufficient to get the ANL to flood the area, it is likely to have secured some kind of mass base within the local community already. More to the point, the BNP sets the agenda. Waving lollipops is actually a poor substitute for the much more difficult - but rewarding - job of building a working class party - only possible around a programme that differentiates us not only from the Tories and Liberals but Labourism too. The ANL's message of 'Don't vote Nazi' amounts to a call to vote for existing parties: ie, the parties of Duncan Smith and Blair. Charlotte Ahmed, a leading member of the SW platform and ANL activist, is thus right to point to the need to build the SSP "as a party rooted in every area that fights on every front" (SSV May 24). The SSP has a history of modest success in fighting xenophobia. In Sighthill, Glasgow, it took the lead in initiating a broad campaign against poverty and racism. However, if the SSP (and indeed the Socialist Alliance) becomes an organisation that fights on every front, then it begs the question of what the point of the ANL's existence is in the first place. It is not the broad organisation that its proponents rather wishfully claim it to be. In reality it is controlled by and almost entirely consists of SWP comrades. In response to Williamson, comrade Ahmed correctly flagged up the "socialist principle" of opposition to all immigration controls. This demand should not be forgotten or downplayed. It is not something that can only be achieved after socialist revolution: it is a demand which can theoretically be met under capitalism - although of course its very logic - challenging the right of bourgeois states to control the flow of labour in the interests of capital - would call into question the system itself. Hopefully comrade Williamson's controversial remarks will provoke some serious rethinking on the part of the left - and not just in Scotland. Anti-fascist work is, or at least ought to be, integral to the socialist task of fighting for a revolutionary programme. Sarah MacDonald and James Mallory