All-Britain working class resistance

On April 1 the SSP launched its manifesto for the May elections to the Scottish parliament. But the prioritising of Scottish independence as a "key strategic objective" is likely to damage the SSP campaign, argues Tom Delargy

Regular Scottish Socialist Voice columnist Kevin Williamson used his first post-conference outing to celebrate the passing of one particular motion. That motion (from the Tay Coast branch) was targeted by the CPGB, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Workers Unity as the one we most wanted to defeat. Unfortunately, we queued up to intervene in the debate in vain. A Socialist Worker platform member called for the debate to be cut short, and conference voted to do that. That is one reason I think this motion was passed illegitimately. Many cast their vote for the motion clueless as to what they were doing. Yet by voting it through on the nod the Scottish Socialist Party entrenched its nationalism and put socialism on the back burner. Might the final goal disappear altogether? Yes. As Kevin makes clear in his defence of the new policy, socialism is no longer an intrinsic goal of our party; merely an optional extra that the Scottish people may turn to, after binging to its heart's content on the wonderful excesses an independent capitalist Scotland has in store for us. Never before has the party committed itself so clearly to such a miserable perspective. It is politically incoherent - an albatross around our necks. The party has not merely committed itself to a tortuous obstacle course: the path we have chosen will prove as welcoming as a swampland, with many political casualties inevitable. If an independent capitalist Scotland constitutes an unavoidable staging post on the road to socialism, socialists should ration our electoral interventions. Never again should we be so indulgent as to give workers a socialist choice come elections to Westminster or local councils, since they lack any proportional representation component. And where does this leave a second policy motion (a much better one) passed at this year's conference - the one from Kelvin branch affirming that the party will not sell our soul to the Scottish National Party in a kind of Lib-Lab pact? By the logic of the Tay Coast motion, we would have to do that. At least until after the SNP delivers a successful referendum vote and passes the necessary legislation through the Scottish parliament, before and after negotiations with Westminster, the EU, etc. That would mean Tommy Sheridan and our MSPs voting for many rotten compromises and who knows how many votes of confidence. These are the reactionary consequences that flow from this new policy, consequences that have to be faced up to, not swept under the carpet. That, alas, is what conference delegates agreed to do when they voted to cut short the debate. There were other reasons to reject this motion. It is littered with factual inaccuracies - implying, for instance, that Lenin advocated Scottish independence. In reality, Lenin proposed a different solution to the national question in Britain: a federal republic. Secondly, John Maclean is portrayed as an advocate of an independent capitalist Scotland. What Maclean stood for was a Scottish workers' republic, a position rejected by Lenin, but still a million times better than Kevin's. The motion should have been rejected because of one extremely bizarre proposition: in the absence of Scottish independence we lack the democratic machinery to move towards socialism! This must come as a surprise to most members of our executive, who spent their formative years in the workers' movement arguing against Scottish independence. What is it about the English that causes Kevin so much anxiety? Are they deemed congenitally incapable of supporting socialism? Answers on a postcard, Kev. Some of Kevin's views, as spelt out in his article, remind me of the worst kind of patronising rubbish peddled by apologists for British colonial policy, charlatans who also liked to portray themselves as 'forward-looking internationalists', even as they exported 'civilisation' to so-called backward peoples - as they claim to be doing in Iraq even today. The picture he paints of Scots mirrors that of xenophobes the world over, referring to us as "having made unparalleled (by any country of a comparable size) cultural, scientific, technical and philosophical advances that have enriched the whole planet". National supremacists everywhere describe their respective nations in similar terms. This kind of arrogant, patriotic chest-beating makes me want to vomit. The Scottish people are neither better nor worse than the rest of the human species. Kevin gets a little hot under the collar when forced to acknowledge that some SSP members remain unconvinced that championing Scottish independence is such a wonderful idea. He is no less frustrated by those who defend independence on the basis of tactical advantage, as most International Socialist Movement and Committee for a Workers' International comrades have thus far. According to Kevin, defending independence on that basis is an insult to Scots. As Kevin points out, the Tay Coast branch motion shifts the SSP from defending independence based on tactics to that of 'principles'. Like Kevin, those who lost the vote are democrats. We accept the rights of the majority to decide party policy, including drawing up election manifestos committing our elected candidates to an independent socialist Scotland. But that is no more the settled will of our party than the existing constitutional arrangement is the settled will of the Scottish people. Majorities come and go. We are patient, confident our day will come. And, when it does, Kevin Williamson will be free to remain, and to call for changing the policy back again. Democrat though Kevin undoubtedly is, his understanding of the concept leaves a lot to be desired. Defending the right of the Scottish people to self-determination does not mean advocating independence. A nation's right of self-determination is synonymous with their right to opt for an independent state, if they express a desire to do that, by means of referendum, for example. But nations have the right to opt for alternative solutions to the national question: for example, a federal republic or even a centralised state. Closing off alternative options is anti-democratic. Let the people decide. Kevin wonders why SSP members who accept the aspirations of Kurdistan and Palestine to independence raise objections to Scottish independence. As Leninists, we distinguish between socialists living in an oppressed nation, those living amongst the oppressors, and those beyond the national antagonism in question. For Marxists, even if the Scottish people were an oppressed people (and we are not), emphasis would be placed on maintaining, and strengthening, the unity of the organisations not of the British state, but of the British working class against that state. Our class automatically gravitates towards such unity, unity reactionaries are committed to wrenching apart. As principled trade unionists, striking firefighters in Scotland refuse to sell out their brothers and sisters in England and Wales. Even though their short-term interests suggest a better deal might be on offer from the Scottish parliament, instinctively they know it is not in their interests to go for a separatist solution to this class question. When trade union bureaucrats have misled workers down sectionalist blind alleys in the past, our class has paid a heavy price. During the miners' Great Strike of 1984-5, the Nottingham miners were used by the bosses to undermine the strike. In precisely the same way, in Scotland and Wales, area leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers exploited nationalism to divide miners into doing deals to keep 'their' nation's respective steel mills open. Nationalist poison has had far more lethal consequences elsewhere, and cannot be ruled out in Scotland. By no stretch of the imagination can Scottish separatism be held up as unequivocally progressive. Those who argue otherwise need to explain why Scotland's richest man, and homophobic bigot par excellence, Brian Souter funds the SNP. They need to explain why his multi-billionaire role-model, Rupert Murdoch, allowed the Scottish edition of The Sun to back the SNP for an extended period during the 1980s and 1990s. If the SSP is first and foremost a nationalist party, then by all means let us place independence "at the centre of our campaigning work". However, despite the nonsense peddled in the Tay Coast motion, the SSP remains primarily a socialist party. Class independence, not national independence, has to remain at the centre of all our campaigning work. In practice the short-term electoral needs of our party require us to downplay the 'independent' component of 'our independent socialist Scotland' goal. Those whose number one priority is independence will vote SNP. It would be tragic if we alienated the majority of those who will consider voting for us in May's Scottish parliamentary elections on the basis of class questions. This is perhaps the most pressing of many reasons our party must ignore this motion. I have no problem appealing for the votes of supporters of independence. But I want the vote of every worker who decides to register opposition to Blair's imperialist war. I want the vote of every single worker who appreciates that our party stands alone in Scotland in its principled defence of the Fire Brigades Union, and every other trade union, against Blair's anti-working class government. For socialists to place independence "at the centre of our campaigning work" in the run-up to May's elections, against the backdrop of Blair's imperialist warmongering, is to undermine our ability to attract towards us all but a fragment of our natural constituency. It is as tactically inept as it is unprincipled. On raising objections to the strategic goal of independence, I get reminded that implementing our party's radical programme requires independence. After all, without a sovereign Scottish parliament, our MSPs will be limited in what they can deliver. But is that really the case? If we have to stick to the constitutional straightjacket imposed on the Scottish people by Tony Blair, what was in the mind of Alan McCombes when he drew up an election manifesto that could not be implemented within these constraints? And what was in the minds of conference delegates who voted for that manifesto, with not a single vote against? The 200 policies our candidates will stand on have been carefully drafted: none of them taken in isolation breaks through this constitutional straightjacket. That said, it is explicitly recognised that the manifesto in its entirety cannot be implemented within the financial constraints imposed by Westminster. That causes no problem so long as we confine ourselves to an opposition within parliament. But our manifesto goes on to argue that, in the event of our being the largest party in parliament, we would not hesitate to pass an illegal deficit budget, one that embraced all our policies. But if we have the nerve to propose such an act of constitutional defiance, inevitably provoking Blair into mobilising the UK state against us, why stop there? Why not make clear that in the event of our forming a majority government, one not restrained by our having to rely on the votes of the SNP, Labour left, or left independents, we would go the whole hog? In other words, we would form a government committed to carrying out our entire maximum programme, the programme for a so-called independent socialist Scotland? Would that not be unconstitutional? Absolutely, but no more so than the existing policy defended to such good effect in our manifesto. What is more, my proposal is far more principled. Were we to win a majority of seats in parliament (meaning we must have won majority support within our class), why should we agree to tie one hand behind our back, and all but one little finger of the other hand? Must we do that just because Tony Blair insists we must? Could we really justify keeping our noses out of some of the most important aspects of politics? Of course not. There is simply no way we would sit back, as Blair continued to hold weapons of mass destruction on Scottish soil. We would demand that our new first minister, Tommy Sheridan, lead a team of weapons inspectors (democratically elected delegates from the trade unions, colleges, estates) through the gates of Faslane. Would the SSP executive tell us that this was not possible, at least not until after we win a referendum? And what about the anti-trade union laws? Would an SSP government really sit back, as firefighters were arrested for defying a ban on strikes, or as train drivers were arrested for striking to stop weapons of mass destruction being delivered to Iraq? What if workers in the private sector struck to force their employers to follow the example of public sector employers, delivering on our election pledge to increase the public sector minimum wage to £7.32 per hour? What if private sector workers occupied their workplaces until the bosses caved in? And what if Blair sent in the police and/or army to have them evicted, even thrown in jail? With our MSPs on the back benches, our rank and file would organise mass resistance. So can we really expect a majority SSP government to tell its members to go back to their constituencies and prepare for an independence referendum? I simply do not believe that Alan McCombes would do any such thing. Might it be argued that the scenario I have just painted means I advocate an independent socialist Scotland in all but name? I can understand the confusion, but that is not the case. Rather than declaring UDI, an SSP government should appeal for workers' solidarity across (and against) the United Kingdom state. No one should be in any doubt that Blair would deploy the full might of the British state, whether an SSP government promised to keep within the constitutional limits of the existing parliament or not. An all-Britain state would be wielded as an unrestricted weapon of mass destruction against our class and our party. An all-Britain class resistance would have to be mounted, prepared for well in advance. An SSP government should not merely welcome our brothers and sisters in England and Wales opening up a series of second fronts against the British state: as a matter of policy we should explicitly call for such solidarity. And if our appeals fall on deaf ears? Then of course we should not surrender positions won in Scotland until the struggle across the rest of Britain catches up. In such circumstances, a road to independence would open up. An independent socialist Scotland (or Scottish workers' republic) should then be accepted as a necessary, but temporary, staging post. But we cannot narrow our ambitions to an independent socialist Scotland, nor portray independence as in any sense progressive in and of itself.