Scotland, social trends and socialists

Gregor Gall is a member of the Socialist Worker platform of the Scottish Socialist Party. At last year's Communist University he argued strongly in favour of Scottish independence as a way to get to socialism

The interest outside its own borders in what is happening in the socialist project in Scotland is very welcome. Much of this interest was generated as a result of the Scottish Socialist Party's success in the May 2003 elections to the Scottish parliament, when, as you know, there were 130,000 SSP votes and six SSP MSPs elected. With this - one of the most significant developments in Britain in the post-war period - comes a responsibility, in the sense that people can now credibly look at the SSP as a party which has a level of representation in public life which was not the case previously, and have consequent expectations of it. That means that the SSP and its members must take far more seriously what they do - their orientations, and how they respond to problems. And there is an expectation of responsibility in relation to the left outside Scotland as well. So the position of the SSP is relatively strong compared with what we have seen elsewhere in Britain. We should not forget, however, that we have only six MSPs out of 129 and it is clear that what any group of MSPs of that size does must be more orientated towards things outside parliament. Obviously, the possibility of passing legislation is very small and dependent on other parties. I would argue that the SSP, in this sense, is still largely powerless, and the aspiration to become a mass socialist party is, however you quantify it, many years off - possibly many decades off. It is difficult to say how things will unfold. But we know that at the moment the SSP is a small, but important, force. Therefore, the question to me becomes: how can the SSP start to become a mass party, even a small mass party, given the context of the decline of the left, and the number of defeats the working class has suffered during the last 20 years? What I am concerned about is the SSP as a socialist party. It is not homogeneous, and in fact, contains some that are fairly nationalist. There are others who are characterised by some as nationalist, but I would not agree with that. A number of people in the SSP, particularly in the leadership, operate implicitly on the basis of the transitional method. It is not always clear at first sight what basis they are operating on and that is why some people may see them as being reformists or nationalists, which I think is unjustified. But, that said, how does the SSP relate to larger numbers, and specifically how does it relate to a body of opinion that I think does exist, a body of opinion that is of the most radical in Scotland, and which is also pro-independence? In my book The political economy of Scotland (published June 2005) I draw on information from the annual British Social Attitude Surveys and also the Scottish Social Attitude Survey, which started five or six years ago. I make the point that national identity in Scotland should not be confused with nationalism. It should be seen as a form of national consciousness which does not necessarily express itself in terms of nationalism, particularly competitive nationalism. Scottish national identity, such as it is, is comprised of views which are not necessarily socialist, but are progressive and leftwing. The common configuration of those views is very much bound up with the rejection of and antagonism to the Thatcher and Conservative governments from 1979 to 1992, as well as the response to Labour holding power after 1997. Support for independence amongst working class people has increased. In 1992, 30% of leftwing opinion supported independence: that went up to 46% in 2002. So already in 1992, it was a reasonable body of opinion, but it has increased subsequently since then. Whether or not it has gone down slightly after the Scottish parliament is not particularly significant, since we are talking about a longer-term trend. Revolutionary witticisms of Colin Fox, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie MSPs Introduced and edited by Gregor Gall. Published by Word Power Books (2004). pp80, £5 The political economy of Scotland Gregor Gall's new book is to be published in June 2005. University of Wales Press, pp211, £19.99 If support for independence in terms of social group (categories which are not as simple as working class and middle class) is examined, certain trends are revealed. For routine non-manual workers, it increased from eight percent to 25% between 1979 and 2002. Among skilled manual workers, it went up from five percent to 24%, among semi-skilled manual workers from eight percent to 54%, and among unskilled manual from eight percent to 54%. So, whatever we may think about this body of opinion, I think it is important to recognise that it exists, and that it is greater than it was previously. So there is support for independence amongst working class groups, and also amongst the left (what comprises the left can be gleaned from certain social values that are surveyed: do you support the trade unions; do you support benefits to support the unemployed?, etc). The other leg of this configuration is that support for independence amongst those who identify themselves as being Scottish is much greater, and Scottish identity is primarily seen in terms of leftwing values, and of being working class. There is an intersection of those three circles, as it were - Scottish identity, support for independence and holding leftwing values. This is the body of opinion that the SSP needs to relate to and to be able to able to engage with, in order to move out, and solidify from those 130,000 votes it won in 2003. While this is not the only milieu that the SSP needs to relate to, it is arguably - in numerical, if not always in tangible, terms - the biggest single constituent body of opinion in Scotland. That desire for independence - that desire to have a more progressive, leftwing, social democratic society - is one which is relatively vague, it must be admitted: it is not coherent or concise; it is subject to change. But it is the expression of the desire for a different kind of society, based on needs and not profits, a society that is more socially just. This is the body of opinion to which I would like to see the Independence Convention, launched in August 2004, try to relate. There is no guarantee that we will be able to do so, because the SSP is working with other people in this convention, and there will be a power battle to establish the lines around which it will operate. It is important to understand the contemporary nature of Scottish society as it is presently constituted. There is an argument that Scotland as a society, as a nation, is more leftwing than England and Wales, or certainly more leftwing than most of Britain. I think the way we have to look at this has to be quite sophisticated and nuanced. It is necessary not only to examine some of the evidence that supports this, but to qualify it so that we do not come away with generalisations that have no validity. Out of the elected government regions of Britain, Scotland has always been in the top four in terms of the level of strike activity, industrial disputes, union density and collective bargaining. That is in spite of the decline that is taking place across all those regions, which is far from uniform. Within the decline, there is unevenness. Different regions have been more resilient than others. The same kind of picture is true when you look at attitudes to trade unions, attitudes towards welfare distribution, attitudes towards nationalisation and social justice. I would not argue that Scotland is any more radical than England: I would say that Scotland is at least as radical as some of the more radical regions - the north-west, the north-east, as well as Wales. But what is significant about Scotland is that all those relatively radical social opinions can coalesce around the issue of Scottish national identity, which, except for Wales, cannot be true for other regions, where there is only a (not particularly strong) sense of regionalism. In Scotland, there exists a sense of self-identity described in class terms. More working class people in the objective sense describe themselves as working class in the subjective sense. Funnily enough, that is also true for people who are objectively middle class, but whose self-description is working class. In addition, people describe themselves as being more Scottish than British, or as being Scottish rather than British - an attitude which has increased from 59% in 1992 to 68% in 2001. In terms of social attitude by identity, the more people regard themselves as being Scottish, the more radical their opinions are. I believe that this body of opinion could be the bridge out of the ghetto for the SSP. By using a transitional method - not a programme which is very fixed and obvious and stated, but a transitional method - this body of opinion, which does aspire to a different society, a more radical society, can be related to. Employing a transitional method would mean developing a body of opinion, engaging with people, highlighting the limitations of the struggle that can be undertaken at present and opening up the possibility of a more plural form of mobilisation towards a socialist society. In doing so, the possibility of achieving significant reforms along the way should not be underestimated. A transitional method would obviously seek to raise demands that can be both realised and not realised as a process of class mobilisation. It is very much erroneous to believe that the body of opinion I have described is somehow related to the Scottish National Party. If that body of opinion was solely supporting the SNP, it would be much smaller and much narrower, and it would also be a body of opinion that has been in decline in recent years. On the contrary, it straddles parties, and encompasses many of those who not vote in elections. It includes SSP, SNP, Labour, Green Party supporters and others. So it is far wider than the SNP, and that is what makes it important. The fact that it does not necessarily comprise the majority of the population should not matter in absolute terms. Socialists have never engaged with movements on the basis of whether they comprise the majority body of opinion. Certainly, this particular body of opinion is subject to fluctuation in its level of support. But there is a hard core within it, even if political events and developments in future years may lead to some of that subsiding or growing. Whether that happens is partly up to socialists. What about the argument that independence is not socialism? Well, this does not trouble me at all, for the simple reason that the forces of the left are at present so weak, and so divided, despite the SSP and Respect, that reforms within capitalism ought to be welcomed not only on the basis of improving people's living standards and so on, but also on the basis of trying to regenerate, to recreate, some notion of collective confidence and combativity on the part of workers in organisations - whether it is unions, community campaigns and so on. While there can be no guarantees, I do have a longer-term vision of the movement for independence developing into something else. As an aside, it has always been clear that a transitional programme, a transitional method, may actually reinforce the particular kind of consciousness that you hope to move beyond. I accept that, but, given the current state of the left and the working class movement, my estimation of the risks involved in that is that they are not sufficiently high to prevent us from wishing to go along this road. I do not accept the argument that independence has to be socialism. There are a number of stages that can be envisaged on a fairly long and winding road to achieve not only a better society, but a socialist society, without this having any ramifications for replicating Stalinist stageism. I obviously believe myself to be a revolutionary, so I am not talking about a social market economy or anything like that. People will argue, what is the point of exchanging an all-Britain capitalist state for a capitalist state in Scotland? If you just take that argument in the abstract, I think I would probably agree with it, but the problem is that we cannot only deal in abstractions or generalities: we have to apply concrete solutions to conditions in Scotland. The struggle to achieve an independent Scotland will allow room for engaging with the debate about a more just society, if not the material conditions for moving towards such a society. I repeat, the struggle for independence could open up the road to something else. One of the advantages of an independent Scotland (not necessarily an independent socialist Scotland) would be that a number of questions would be resolved. Many things would be taken out of the equation. For example, it would be a lot easier for the left to demand that an independent Scotland carried out a certain foreign policy, whether it be over Kosova, Afghanistan or Iraq. If the foreign policy implemented was not to the liking of the left, then there would be no case for putting it all down to British imperialism. This would very much hammer home the point and I think that would be useful. My argument is quite different in terms of priorities and orientations from the argument made by the SSP leadership, concerning the breaking up of the British state. The reason I do not put so much emphasis on this is that I am not sure that independence per se would be the great blow to British imperialism that some think it would. Since what I have been arguing is about the transitional method and the necessity of engaging with people, I am not sure that independence would be attained in a manner which would lead to a blow against the British state. The only circumstance in which I can envisage that being the case would be where a certain type of post-independence settlement was achieved, allied to a certain type of society in Scotland - not a socialist society, but a certain type of social democratic society different from what which we have in the rest of Britain and possibly the rest of Europe. Again, the argument about breaking up the unity of the working class is potentially correct in the abstract. But I do not think that is what we are dealing with. I do not think we are dealing with a situation where the working class is strong, vibrant or combative. We are dealing with a situation which is in effect the reverse of all those things. The organised working class is a depleted force, and we have to deal with it as it is, and as it has become. It is not the case that whether strikes are won or lost depends on the British working class being united - there are much more mundane reasons. If there were an independent Scotland, industries that operated north and south of the border would still have to be opposed by a parallel trade union organisation. That is why the argument about breaking up the unity of the working class and the unions is a complete red herring. Equally, it is a very crude form of argument to say that the demand for independence is nationalist and because we are internationalist we are against that demand. Look at what the term 'internationalist' actually means. 'Inter' means 'between', so 'internationalism' means 'between nations'. What people are talking about when they say they are internationalists is really transnationalism, as opposed to intra-nationalism - within nations. The debate about whether the demand for independence is correct has to be bound by the specific circumstance within which we find ourselves today in Scotland. To me the issue is one of tactical and strategic orientation much more than it is about historical principles. As I have outlined, I see the issue of independence in general and the Independence Convention in particular as a way of trying to relate to a wider body of opinion that can be drawn towards the SSP, drawn towards socialists. And that is not about giving ground: it is about engaging in a general sense with where that body of opinion already is. Scottish identity and national consciousness are not the same as Scottish nationalism or Scottish national socialism. To the extent that there is a Scottish nationalism - and it does exist - it is predominantly competitive and oppressive, and it is a tiny part of current developments. I have outlined to you that I see this issue in terms of a transitional method. I think that has a lot of validity. It also goes without saying that I do not see socialism coming in a 'big bang' explosion. I do not see us repeating a rupture in terms of the October 1917 revolution. Therefore, I see things rather in terms of some kind of encroachment leading to dual power (I use this term advisedly). In the new millennium the context of our struggle, of what has happened to the left in Britain, is very important. I support the demand for independence in Scotland, but that is not to say I would necessarily support the demand for independence in other countries at the moment - or 10 years ago or 10 years hence. While we must apply certain principles that we know to be useful and true, it ill befits the left to start quoting what Marx or Engels said about Poland in regard to Russia back in the 19th century. I do not think we can simply hold up extracts from letters that were written between individuals and crudely apply them to different circumstances. We have to be a lot more sophisticated than that. See related article: * Expel him from the SW platform