Scottish Socialist Party: Dilemmas of separatism

The debate on Scottish independence at Socialism 2003 brought into sharp focus a number of issues that will be crucial for the progress of the Scottish Socialist Party over the next period. Nick Rogers reports

Firstly, Alan McCombes’s initiative for an independence convention is placing issues around Scottish national identity (ie, Scottish nationalism) even more firmly at the heart of the SSP’s politics. This reflects in part the leadership’s assessment that there is more hope of recruiting members from the SNP than from the Labour Party. Hence Hugh Kerr’s comment during the debate that the convention on independence provides a way for the SSP to reach out to the left wing of the SNP. And that the objective of the SSP is to replace the SNP as the major party of opposition at the next Scottish parliamentary elections - and to replace New Labour as the largest party in Scottish politics at the one after that.

Comrade McCombes is moving towards an interpretation of Scottish history that is much closer to that of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement than ever before - he said during the debate that the UK is a kind of “internal empire”, with England historically dominating Scotland, Wales and Ireland. He claimed that the union of 1707 had “distorted” capitalist development in Scotland and reaffirmed his thesis that the rupture of the existing states within Europe (not just the UK) on national lines will be part of the process of the creation of socialism.

Secondly, perhaps the most significant aspect of the debate was the strength of the SW platform’s opposition to capitalist independence. But the SW comrades did not openly reconfirm their previously stated support for socialist independence (either in the debate or in Mike Gonzalez’s paper, which was distributed at the meeting). If the SW platform not only maintains this position, but openly spells it out, the debate within the SSP on the national question will be less one-sided in future.

However, the question does arise - why is the SW platform shifting its position? Have the comrades been keeping their heads down up to now while they assess how to operate within the SSP? After all, they did say when negotiating entry at the beginning of 2001 that they had no problem with either the slogan of an “independent socialist Scotland” or the break-up of the UK.

Or is the SW platform reacting to developments in England and Wales, where a new electoral initiative involving George Monbiot and forces from the Stop the War Coalition may well pull in George Galloway - especially if he is expelled from the Labour Party. If comrade Galloway were to stand as an independent, or as part of the new initiative, it would be in Glasgow. He has said he is not interested in joining the SSP because of the party’s support for independence. And the SSP leaders will be reluctant to stand aside, let alone support comrade Galloway, if he remains outside their party.

Is the SWP considering an option of an all-Britain initiative that might put them at odds with the SSP? It might even put a question mark over its comrades’ membership of the organisation.

Finally, the fact that two trade union general secretaries spoke at Socialism 2003 was very significant - not only in its own right, but even more so perhaps in the context of the debate on independence and the SSP’s focus on the national question. Their presence brought the SSP face to face with the reality of an all-Britain working class and a struggle against the depredations of New Labour that does not respect national borders. Bob Crow of the RMT says if he were Scottish he would support independence. But he spent a large part of his address to the final rally talking about the issue of safety on London Underground following the two derailments. He obviously had no conception that the issue might be inappropriate for a conference of Scottish socialists.

Mark Serwotka of the PCS, speaking on the Saturday, went further. He specifically called on the SSP to play its part in building a socialist opposition across Britain. He made the point that in the absence of coherent socialist forces in England the movement to disaffiliate from New Labour would result in non-political trade unionism. He plugged the Socialist Alliance-sponsored Convention of the Trade Union Left, to be held in February, and asked the SSP to attend.

The SSP has yet to decide how it will respond.