Allying with the nationalists

Nick Rogers looks at the key issue before this weekend's SSP annual conference

The March 4-5 Scottish Socialist Party's 2006 annual conference is likely to witness the party taking a decisive turn away from working class politics. Motions on the agenda in the name of the executive committee open the way to (at the very least) a de facto electoral alliance with the Scottish National Party in the May 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections.

On November 30 2005 the long-awaited Scottish Independence Convention was finally launched with the backing of the SSP, the SNP and the Scottish Greens. Within the SSP the idea of corralling the so-called 'pro-independence' parties into a political bloc has gained strength since the May 2003 Scottish parliamentary elections.

Those elections saw six SSP MSPs returned, together with eight Greens and 27 SNP MSPs. Although the SNP suffered a loss of seats compared to 2003, the SSP leadership (and particularly key strategist Alan McCombes) observed that the number of MSPs formally committed to independence had risen. Labour and the Liberal Democrats returned to their desks in the Scottish executive but, surely, reasoned the SSP, a 'pro-independence' majority beckoned in 2007. The SNP must realise that an electoral system based on PR made an SNP majority government unachievable. Only by linking up with the SSP and the Greens could the SNP hope to bring their nationalist project to fruition. Within such a forum the SSP, as well as contributing to the breakthrough to independence, could promote its "radical" politics.

The idea of a convention campaigning for independence and discussing the mechanics of a national constitution was born. Alan McCombes drafted the first proposal in August 2003. Now, finally, the SNP leadership has taken up the SSP's offer of cooperation.

The executive committee's motion to conference (No50) reveals something of the ideological hoops through which the SSP's leadership have leapt in order to consummate a strategic alliance with the petty bourgeois SNP. According to the motion, the launch rally was of a "leftwing and internationalist character", confirming that the "independence movement in Scotland is overwhelmingly anti-war; opposed to nuclear weapons; concerned about global and domestic inequality of wealth; and in favour of a diverse, multicultural Scotland where asylum-seekers are welcome".

The dangers of the SSP becoming cheerleaders not only for the supposedly 'progressive' nature of Scottish national sentiment (long the position of the leadership), but also for the major political representative of Scottish nationalism, the SNP, are clear. As a motion from Dundee West (No52) - inspired by the Committee for a Workers' International - observes, "Neither the SNP nor the Greens can be described as leftwing parties. The SNP use every opportunity to advocate their vision of a free-market Scotland that would emulate the so-called 'Celtic Tiger' of the Irish economy. Neither do the Greens put forward an economic or political alternative to capitalism. Nor are the SNP, in any sense, a consistent anti-war party."

The executive's motion states that "the SSP's goal of an independent socialist republic will not be achieved in one single leap, but will involve multiple battles en route to that goal." So an "independent socialist republic" is not just a stepping stone to a socialist world, or a "transitional demand" that will expose the fallacy of trying to build socialism in one country - as some argue - but the SSP's ultimate "goal".

Elsewhere, the executive motion asserts that "the SSP's vision for a future independent Scotland is radically different from that of the SNP or the Greens." Well, the SSP does have a range of economic and social policies that go well beyond anything the SNP or Greens advocate. But, in a convention that will be focussed on constitutional questions, democratic deficits and, above all, Scotland's place in the world, what an opportunity wasted to counterpose genuine working class internationalism to the petty bourgeois nationalism of the SNP.

Even if you accept the position of the SSP leadership that breaking up the British state is an inherently democratic, anti-imperialist step, should not socialists be making propaganda against all illusions that nations serve any long-term rational purpose in a globalising world?

Socialists accept the right to self-determination of nations, including, of course, Scotland. Sometimes we advocate that self-determination be exercised in favour of separation. When one nation is oppressing another, independence not only liberates the people of the oppressed nation from their subjugation, but also serves to challenge the chauvinism of the oppressing nation.

What socialists should never do is pander to any sense of loyalty to nation. An affinity to your own culture, to your own language, to the places and people you know is one thing - perfectly understandable - so long as it is accompanied by a respect and openness towards other cultures, languages, people and places. But a 'pride' in your 'nation' is essentially irrational.

Do you endorse the behaviour of every citizen of that nation of which you claim to feel proud? Or do you just claim a higher proportion of worthy citizens for your nation? Do you celebrate the achievements, historical or contemporary, of other members of your nation? Does the fact that someone invented a technology, made a scientific breakthrough, wrote some poetry, painted a picture, or won an Olympic medal - just because they happened to be born within the same borders you inhabit - prove your inherent inventiveness, artistry or sporting prowess? Of course not. For socialists it should also be self-evident that we have everything in common with the workers and the oppressed of other nations and nothing in common with the capitalists and oppressors of our own nation.

So within the independence convention what will be the SSP's contribution to challenging the national myths that for several hundred years have been one of the principal tools in the armoury of the bourgeois ruling class? Unhappily, we know that, when it comes to challenging the nationalism of the SNP, the SSP thinks it is a clever wheeze to accuse the SNP of not being sufficiently protective of Scottish national interests. On Europe the SSP condemns the SNP's slogan of "independence within Europe" and its support for the euro. Rather than making the case of a socialist European Union and a socialist European currency, Alan McCombes advocates a separate Scottish currency that is subject "neither to Westminster nor Brussels".

Comrade McCombes cites approvingly the Bolivarian constitution of Venezuela as an example of "the kind of principles that could inspire mass support for an independent Scotland" (Scottish Socialist Voice December 9 2005). He overlooks one of the most important principles of the Bolivarian revolution: the ambition to politically unify Latin America. A markedly different approach to comrade McCombes's strategy of smashing the European Union and fragmenting the existing nation-states of Europe.

And on the basis of polling evidence that shows relatively small differences between the Scottish and English working classes on a range of social attitudes - such as wealth redistribution, nationalisation and the role of trade unions - the SSP leadership has constructed some national myths of its own. The more leftwing and radical dispensation of the Scottish working class, for instance. Thus is justified, on spurious socialist grounds, the drive to separation and the break-up of a historically constituted British working class.

The executive's motion goes on to argue that "the establishment of an independent Scottish state would be an important democratic advance and can accelerate the drive towards a socialist republic". Elsewhere, Alan McCombes suggests that a Scottish constitutional assembly charged with drafting a constitution for an independent Scotland would "draw up the most democratic constitution in the world" (ibid).

Given the political conditions in which such an assembly would be established, this is likely to be a body dominated by forces closely allied to the SNP. The assembly, moreover, would be designing a constitution for an independent capitalist Scotland. The constitution might well contain a number of progressive features. But to imagine it would the "most democratic constitution in the world" points either to gross nationalist illusions in the inherent democratic credentials of Scottish politics or to the kind of hyperbole often associated with the Committee for a Workers' International tradition and too often repeated in the SSP.

Comrade McCombes does argue in his SSV article that the SNP's proposal to hold a separate referendum on the question of the monarchy - rather than make a republic intrinsic to the new constitution upon which the Scottish people would vote - is a democratic travesty. Amendments from Edinburgh South, inspired by the Republican Communist Network, delete much of the existing executive motion and - in line with the RCN motion passed at last year's conference - insist that the convention should take an explicitly republican and anti-Nato stance.

However, the key point is that independence for Scotland in itself would not be a democratic advance. The Scottish people, by virtue of being part of Britain, a multinational state, are not deprived of any of the political or social rights that are enjoyed by the people of England. In other words, Scotland is not subjected to a form of colonial oppression that would be brought to an end with independence.

To the extent that no mechanism is in place for the Scottish people to exercise their right to become independent should they desire to, there is a constitutional (and democratic) deficit. That is why the CPGB, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Revolutionary Democratic Group advocate a federal republic. Socialists need to incorporate an answer to this issue within a range of democratic demands that challenge the monarchy, the unelected House of Lords and all the ways in which power is undemocratically exercised in our society. But these demands are urgently relevant for the whole of Britain - and, for that matter, the European Union.

The executive committee's motion insists that "involvement in the independence convention does not mean signing up to an electoral pact, nor to a future coalition government". However, the political logic of the SSP's collaboration with the SNP is brought into sharp focus in two motions from the executive committee that deal with electoral strategy for next year's Scottish parliamentary elections. Motion 19 changes the constitution so that the SSP is not obliged to stand in every seat in public elections and allows the party to decide a specific national strategy for particular elections.

The reason why the constitutional change is being brought forward becomes clear in motion 20. In it the executive, for the purposes of next year's elections, "strongly advise[s] each region to concentrate on the list votes and to only stand in constituency seats in exceptional circumstances". The motion argues unconvincingly that the 2003 Scottish parliamentary elections provided evidence that standing a candidate in the first-past-the-post seats in an electoral region reduced the vote for the SSP in the list vote. But, as an amendment from Dundee West points out, "in seven of the eight regions in Scotland our regional list vote was higher than our constituency votes". It is true that the big personal vote for Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow Pollok was not matched by the list vote for the SSP in the same constituency. Elsewhere, however, many activists felt that providing voters with the opportunity to vote SSP with both of their votes bolstered the list vote.

Tight financial resources and an activist base that is no larger than in 2003 are probably more honest explanations of the considerations behind the executive's strategy. However, the electoral consequences of the SSP's commitment to the independence convention must also enter the executive's thinking.

In other words, how to achieve the much-vaunted "pro-independence" majority. For withdrawing from the contest for the first-past-the-post seats raises the question of who the SSP will advise its supporters to back. There can only be one answer. Kevin Williamson and Hugh Kerr in the pages of Scottish Socialist Voice are explicit in calling for support for the SNP.

The Dundee West amendment and another from Motherwell and Wishaw oppose any support for the SNP. From the executive there is silence But how else is a "pro-independence" majority to be delivered other than by maximising the support for the SNP in the first-past-the-post seats. The Greens, after all, will not be standing in more than one or two of them. The consequences for the political evolution of the SSP are dire. The SNP is yet to make any kind of significant electoral breakthrough in Glasgow or in much of the central belt. Its support base is the rural middle class in former Tory seats. As a petty bourgeois formation that positions itself just left of centre, the SNP is similar in many ways to the Liberal Democrats.

The success of the SSP in capturing the support of the working class electorate disaffected with New Labour - achieving an average in 2003 of close to 15% across Glasgow - has been a factor in blocking the advance of the SNP in these areas. But, by vacating a huge swathe of electoral space to the SNP, the SSP risks undermining its own vote and consolidating the SNP's electoral base.

More seriously the SSP subordinates itself politically to the agenda of the SNP. Having helped maximise the SNP vote, what is to happen after May 2007? Most likely, Labour and the Liberal Democrats will be returned to office. That is the lesson of last month's Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, which saw the "pro-independence" vote squeezed, as both the SSP and SNP returned disappointing results. In that case, another four years of manoeuvring within the independence convention await.

But, if the SNP, Greens and SSP are returned with a majority of seats between them in the Scottish parliament, what kind of administration does the leadership of the SSP envisage? Again, the logic of the independence convention is that the SSP will sustain the SNP in office. Although presumably voting down the bills it most strongly opposes, how will the SSP's parliamentary group vote when it comes to finance bills and votes of confidence? The question posed at this year's conference is how appealing a future as an external ginger group to the SNP is to the SSP's working class and revolutionary activists.

Dundee West's motion (No52) concludes by calling "for a full debate on our tactics within the independence convention". It is left to Cathcart West (motion No53) to chart a clear path away from political opportunism. It explains that "the independence convention project is a populist and nationalist one, seeking to unite the SSP with nationalist parties such as the SNP and appealing to the 'Scottish people' rather than the working class". The motion demands that "the SSP should withdraw immediately from the independence convention and reaffirm that it is a socialist party dedicated to overthrowing the rule of the capitalist class". It also demands that "the SSP should take a leading role in initiatives to form a British socialist party, including calling a conference on the issue, together with other groups who have declared themselves in favour of a new party".

Only the Cathcart West motion makes the case for socialists to effectively confront the existing British state rather than organising to challenge a Scottish state that - despite the best efforts of the independence convention - may never be born.