Socialism 2003: Tensions rise to surface

Over the weekend of October 18-19 at Glasgow Caledonian University the Scottish Socialist Party held its fourth annual school. Sarah McDonald was there

Over the weekend of October 18-19 at Glasgow Caledonian University the Scottish Socialist Party held its fourth annual school. ‘Socialism 2003 - another Scotland is possible’ was well attended, with around 500 people turning out over the two days.

Sunday’s sessions were the most controversial and reflected more openly the tensions over the leadership’s drive towards an independent capitalist Scotland. The morning sessions included: ‘Is Scottish independence progressive?’ - a debate between Neil Davidson of the Socialist Worker platform and Alan McCombes, SSP policy coordinator and (formal) editor of Scottish Socialist Voice; Colin Fox on ‘Five years of the SSP’; and Catriona Grant on ‘The communist manifesto: relevant today?’ The afternoon session dealt mainly with discussions on Europe - the European Social Forum, the European Anti-Capitalist Left, ‘fortress Europe’, racism and the far right, and the EU and the national question. The exception was ‘The Russian Revolution: blueprint for the 21st century’, a debate between Philip Stott and Kevin Williamson, which drew out various positions on that old question, reform or revolution?

Around 100 people crammed into the session on ‘Is Scottish independence progressive?’ - arranged just a few days before. Comrade McCombes insisted that a convention on independence would pull the ground from under the feet of the Scottish National Party. Comrade Davidson’s answer to the question contained in the title of the debate was that independence is not inherently progressive and, while the SW platform is still supporting (at least in formal terms) the official SSP line for an independent socialist Scotland, it seems that capitalist independence would be a step too far for the comrades (a similar position to that of the Committee for a Worker’s International, although the CWI has been a lot more open in its criticism of the SSP’s position).

Comrade McCombes stated that the SSP’s backing for independence per se was nothing new - he claimed (correctly) that the argument had already been made in his book, Imagine, co-authored with Tommy Sheridan. He wondered why, in that case, the SW platform had kept quiet about it up to now. Comrade McCombes pointed out that in the discussions with the Socialist Workers Party prior to its joining the SSP the SWP comrades had said they had “no problem” in principle with the break-up of Britain.

In a sometimes heated debate, SW comrades paid lip service to the unity of the British working class, but of course did not spell out the logical corollary - a single, all-Britain socialist party to take on and smash - not weaken - the UK state. It was left to Sandy McBurney of Workers Unity and other speakers from the floor to make this point - to the fury of the ultra-nationalists. Afterwards Eddie Truman of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement claimed on the SSP discussion e-list that there had been an attempt by ‘unionists’ to shout down innocents like himself. In fact, despite some heckling and roused passions on both sides, the debate was conducted in a reasonably comradely spirit.

The fact that it was staged at short notice says a lot about the open and democratic culture of the SSP. Whatever you may think about the nationalism of comrades McCombes, Sheridan et al, you cannot accuse them of running away from an argument. What a pity that this culture is not shared by the SW platform itself, which more often than not prefers diplomatic silence to honest criticism. The SW comrades should come out and say bluntly what they really think about Scottish separatism.

This debate was actually begun - rather subliminally - the previous day, in the session on ‘Revolution in 17th century Scotland?’ and this time Allan Armstrong of the ultra-nationalist Republican Communist Network platform was facing comrade Davidson. The discussion frequently seemed quite narrowly centred on historical detail, but there was no doubting the real agenda: the nationalists’ attempt to rubbish comrade Davidson’s thesis - propounded in his book Discovering the Scottish revolution 1692-1746 - that the bourgeois revolution in Scotland helped set the scene for a single, all-Britain working class. The conclusion comrade Davidson draws from this is that “it is unlikely there is going to be another Scottish revolution separate from one in Britain as a whole” (Weekly Worker October 16).

Unsurprisingly, Allan Armstrong argued that there is a distinct Scottish revolutionary tradition - the comrade insists on tracing Scottish nationhood back to the 17th century Covenanters (before the union, obviously). Comrade Davidson, however, argued that in Scotland it is impossible to locate mass revolutionary movements before the existence of capitalism - the Scottish bourgeois revolution was carried out from above, he stresses.

There was a diverse range of topics on Saturday. Morning subjects included Iraq, Palestine, the ‘new American century’, Chile 1973, Colombia and GATS. Afternoon discussions were centred around trade union issues, such as the ‘awkward squad’, trade unions and political parties, and PFI - the exception being Mike Marqusee’s opening on his new book Chimes of freedom on the politics of Bob Dylan. Later debates included: ‘Do women in parliament benefit women in Scotland?’; prostitution tolerance zones; the impact of Malcolm X and the Panthers; the stereotyping of young people; disability access; racism; and gay rights. On the whole a good range that covered party and workplace politics, and social and cultural issues.

Over the course of the two days there were three plenary sessions: basically rallies with guest speakers. The first took place on Saturday morning around the theme of imperialism and war with Mike Gonzales, author of No war, no more carnage and a member of the Socialist Worker platform; Michael Lavalette, Socialist Alliance councillor in Preston; and Hilary Wainwright, author of Reclaim the state and editor of Red Pepper. All made brief speeches, dealing with the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements, the left in Europe and change from below. The second plenary on Saturday lunchtime was on socialism and the trade unions. Speaking were Carolyn Leckie, SSP MSP; Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary; and Bill Spiers of the Scottish Trades Union Congress - for the first time speaking on behalf of the STUC in an official capacity at an SSP event. The third plenary - on Europe and socialism - featured François Duval of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, François Vercammen of the European Anti-Capitalist Left and another of our MSPs, Frances Curran.

Socialism 2003 was on the whole a very successful event with lots of useful discussions around a wide range of topics and featuring a diversity of views. It was also valuable in that contradictions over comrade McCombes’s drive to make the SSP the main nationalist party in Scotland has started to force the SW platform to make a stand.

This seems to have given the small, anti-nationalist minority confidence to attempt a counter-offensive. Hopefully next month’s relaunch meeting of the Workers Unity platform will give this some substance.