Left nationalism: SSP - independent capitalist Scotland?

Sarah McDonald was one of 100 members who attended the Scottish Socialist Party's national council meeting

Around 100 delegates and observers attended the Scottish Socialist Party’s national council at Glasgow Caledonian University on Sunday August 31.

The most controversial item of the agenda was the 5,000-word document written by Alan McCombes, ‘After May 1: which way forward towards independence and socialism?’ Besides editing Scottish Socialist Voice the comrade functions as the strategic brains behind Tommy Sheridan and the SSP’s other MSPs.

McCombes insists that, despite the Scottish National Party’s lack of success in the last Scottish parliamentary elections, the mood for independence within the Scottish people is not dissipating. He argues that the SSP should be taking the lead in the independence movement and calls for the setting up of a convention similar to the one established to examine the practicalities of devolution in the 1980s.

The point of the SSP taking the initiative on this question would be in order to play a leading role rather than end up as “junior partner” in an SNP-dominated convention, which comrade McCombes is anticipating it will attempt to launch at its own conference next month.

He argues: “The combined second vote of the SNP, the SSP and the Greens represented the highest ever total vote in a Scottish election for parties which stand for an end to the union.” Although comrade McCombes does recognise that those who voted for the SSP and the Greens did not do so “primarily” because they were for independence, he is of the opinion that they “were certainly not voting against independence”. He also sees possible allies in Margo McDonald, Bob Crow and prominent Labour leftwinger John McAllion, who recently claimed in the Morning Star that up to 40% of Scottish Labour voters supported independence - quite where he gets this at best vague and certainly dubious statistic from is unclear.

Since the May elections comrade McCombes has been pushing the practicalities of Scottish independence to the fore. At the previous meeting of the NC he said that instead of criticising the party’s position on independence comrades should focus on how we can make it work. This paper, although it is the logical next step in the thinking of the SSP leadership, does raise issues that will not sit well with large sections of the membership. Although it is true that those of us who oppose the party’s established separatist policy are still a small minority, this paper actually represents a significant shift on the issue. What it effectively calls for is not an “independent socialist Scotland”, but independence, full stop.

The Committee for a Workers’ International, who agree with the “independent socialist Scotland” line, do not support this paper. It is of course typical of the CWI to put the word ‘socialist’ in front of a given slogan in order to make it acceptable and to postpone it to a future date. Philip Stott of the CWI argues that this latest turn means the dropping of any form of class politics from the demand. The document actually states: “We make it clear that we are fighting for a socialist republic, but that does not mean that we place any conditions on our support for independence. Even on a non-socialist basis, we should support independence as a progressive and democratic advance and a defeat for capitalism and imperialism on a world scale.”

In fact separation - with or without an abstract ‘socialist’ label - far from being a “progressive” move, would objectively represent a weakening of the working class movement in Scotland, Britain and internationally in its fight not just to weaken the UK constitutional monarchy state, but to smash it. For that task the unity of the working class is required, not its splintering along national lines.

The document was written for the NC and has had limited circulation within the party as a whole - most branches have not seen or discussed it. It is likely that even among those who support the “independent socialist Scotland” position there will be many who will not be able to accept the new line. It is also possible that this paper might smoke out the Socialist Worker platform over the national question - although for the moment the SW platform still appears to be sitting firmly on the fence.

Some comrades argued for the deferment of a vote on the paper until it had been read and discussed fully at all levels of the party - a more democratic way of dealing with such a dramatic shift in policy.

However, comrade McCombes was in a hurry to have the paper agreed before the SNP conference next month: so much so that it was leaked to the press in what was probably an attempt to push through a vote at the NC. Murray Ritchie writes in the Glasgow Herald  of  “SSP moves” to put a “convention on independence into action” (August 29).

The aim of this paper by comrade McCombes is obvious: to win over sections of the SNP. This is always an idea popular with the SSP leadership - although, while of course recruits to socialism are welcome wherever they come from, there is something seriously wrong when they are won on the basis of outdoing the nationalists on their own terrain. Our prime target audience should surely be the left of the Labour Party, class-conscious workers and trade unionists. However, given the increasing tartan coloration of the SSP’s socialism, maybe it is not so surprising.

Two votes were taken with regard to comrade McCombes’s paper: firstly a call to defer the vote to the next national council in October was massively defeated, with only 18 delegates voting in favour; the second vote was to accept the principle of the paper - ie, the setting up of a convention to look at campaigning for independence without having to accept the document word for word. This vote was passed with only 16 against. Those who voted for deferment were mostly the same comrades who opposed its content - the idea being that large sections of the party would oppose the idea if more time was allowed for it to be widely circulated and discussed. This latest turn represents yet another blow for those fighting for principled working class unity.

The meeting also heard reports on arrangements for the September 27 demonstrations against the occupation of Iraq in both London and Edinburgh, proposals for the 2004 SSP conference and the agenda for our annual school, Socialism 2003. Other items included a paper on developing the women’s network (a more effective way of developing the role of women within the party than the tokenism of 50-50 representation), the European Social Forum in Paris this November and various motions from branches.