McCombes or Sheridan, the problem is still nationalism

Peter Manson comments on the split of the Scottish Socialist Party

The split in the Scottish Socialist Party, first predicted by the Weekly Worker, is now complete. Tommy Sheridan, backed by the leadership of two of the eight SSP regions and with the enthusiastic support of the Socialist Worker platform and International Socialists (Committee for a Workers' International in Scotland), will formally declare the launch of his new party on Sunday September 3 at a rally in Glasgow's Central Hotel.

Less than a month after announcing his intention to oppose Colin Fox as SSP leader, and only a few weeks after demanding (successfully) that the annual conference be brought forward to October so that the whole executive committee could be replaced by Sheridan loyalists, Tommy states that "it is now only possible to take the socialist movement forward by immediately launching a new political party" - to be given the "interim name" of 'Solidarity - Scotland's Socialist Movement' (statement, August 28).

Sheridan's politics and those of the SSP's Alan McCombes are almost identical. Whether it be National Dum or National Dee, it adds up to nationalism. So what are the imperatives behind the split? The decision not to fight, but to cut and run?

While comrade Sheridan has been able to use the Scottish media to good effect - not least the Daily Record, which paid him £25,000 for his services immediately after his stunning victory in the defamation case against the News of the World - the internal propaganda battle has been won by the McCombes leadership, which has not hesitated to employ the entire SSP machine as a factional weapon.

Comrade Sheridan had publicly stated that he was seeking the support of at least 32 SSP branches in order to mount a takeover (there are around 70, some of which are inactive). But it is clear that he has not been able to garner anywhere near that number. For example, in Dundee, where both the CWI and SWP are strong, it had been thought that both branches would opt for Sheridan. But last week Dundee West voted to stay in the SSP - thanks to an alliance of pro-McCombes United Left comrades, the Republican Communist Network platform and independents - and the attempt to win Dundee East for secession was abandoned.

In the central belt, which includes Glasgow and Edinburgh, comrade Sheridan has the support of very few branches. True, two regions - Highlands and Islands, and Borders and Galloway - are to go with Solidarity, but the North East (which includes Dundee) now looks certain to stay with the SSP. Although Aberdeen has voted to follow Tommy, a meeting of Ayr branch was divided three against three.

Sheridan supporters have trumpeted the fact that a list of 24 union officials have announced their intention of going over to the new grouping. But a closer examination reveals they are almost all CWI and SWP members. The RMT, which spoke up for Sheridan at the acrimonious May 28 meeting of the national council, is now clearly having second thoughts.

At that meeting of the NC, the SW and CWI platforms were able to muster a disproportionate number of delegates - each branch, irrespective of size, is entitled to send two and in some branches platforms have frequently been able to ensure their comrades are delegated through the mobilisation of a comparatively small number of supporters. For conference, however, branches elect one delegate for every four members and neither the SW nor CWI platform has been able to win more than a small percentage of these.

In addition, while many non-aligned members have instinctively fallen behind Tommy as the SSP's most well known and charismatic figure, especially when he came under attack by the News of the World, a good number have baulked at the idea of splitting.

Last weekend, after discussions with comrade Sheridan, the SW platform and CWI announced in quick succession that they were quitting the SSP. Immediately national secretary Allan Green declared that individual SWP and CWI members "are no longer members of the party (unless, of course, they have resigned from the platform)". He continued: "These platform members have no authority to use party mailing lists, to access party funds, to call party meetings or to attend and vote at internal party meetings" (email to members, August 23).

He concluded by referring to "these London-controlled platforms" - a phrase that the SSP leadership has taken to using on every possible occasion. Comrades McCombes, Fox and Green, together with the MSPs, Carolyn Leckie, Rosie Kane and Frances Curran, have two main strings in their anti-Sheridan bow: unadulterated nationalism and the claim to 'the truth' over what Tommy did or did not admit regarding his sex life.

The SSP leadership has clearly decided to play the nationalist card for all it is worth. It is obvious to all that Scottish independence has hardly been the number one priority for either the SWP or CWI. Both opportunistically went along with the disastrous "independent socialist Scotland" line (and they have not opposed the slogan in the new Solidarity formation).

But McCombes et al know when they have hit a weak spot. According to comrade Fox, "We have taken independence away from a purely nationalist agenda and promoted a Scottish republic" (Letter to members, August 28). He told the BBC that, by contrast, the decision to split was "an indication that Mr Sheridan was abandoning his commitment to an independent Scotland" (BBC website, August 25).

A number of prominent members close to the leadership, with former press secretary Eddie Truman to the fore, have drafted a motion for the October 7-8 conference, which reads: "Given the historic opportunity for an independence-supporting parliament that faces Scotland next year, the SSP would like to emphasise that it unreservedly supports an independent Scotland, regardless of whether the Scottish people choose to elect a socialist government or not.

""¦. The membership would like to emphasise that independence is a major political party objective and not a matter of individual conscience. The SSP and in particular its elected representatives and office-bearers will take every opportunity to press the independence agenda in the run-up to this 'independence election'."

But the drive to unrestrained nationalism has not prevented Scottish Socialist Voice columnist Kevin Williamson calling it a day. In his final SSV article he announces his resignation from the party so as to devote all his energies to the openly class-collaborationist Independence First campaign.

He writes: "With the benefit of hindsight, the idea of uniting the left in Scotland into a single party was a mistake. The pro-independence left and the Brit left are two separate entities with separate political agendas. Which is why the SSP was doomed from the start."

He goes on: "For similar reasons Tommy's new Solidarity party - with its unstable marriage of convenience between Brit left opportunists and progressive pro-independence lefts - will also be torn apart over the question of Scottish independence."

As for comrade Sheridan, "Soon he will discover that he will either have to dance to [the SWP/CWI] tune on Scottish independence or face being dumped by them" (Scottish Socialist Voice August 25). I would have thought that the boot is more likely to be on the other foot.

The other string to the SSP leadership bow is the claim to uphold the truth. As the Scottish Socialist Voice editorial article put it, whereas Tommy "lied his way through the court case", the EC majority, as a matter of principle, told the truth: "The differences within the SSP centre on what is true and what is lies, on one man's battle to preserve his personal reputation at the expense of the reputation of his party" (ibid).

The article continues: ""¦ It has been said, and bears repeating, that the decision to ask Tommy to resign was never about whether or not he went to swingers clubs, or cheated on his wife. It was always about his attitude to the truth, in that he thought it was dispensable, and that comrades should collaborate in a cover-up. He saw no contradiction in being a 'working class hero' while lying to the working class. But the EC did, and voted accordingly."

It concludes: "Tommy Sheridan is attempting to build a new party on a landfill site of lies, and it is destined to sink into the muck on which it is founded." Thus, the official SSP counter-rally, called for Saturday September 2 (the day before the launch of Solidarity) in another Glasgow hotel, is entitled 'Unity, integrity, socialism' - 'integrity' being the operative word.

An EC statement confidently declares: "Tommy Sheridan's breakaway will fade into oblivion because it is based on a fraud", whereas the SSP, although "damaged by the events of the past three months, "¦ remains intact and is now poised for a full recovery" (August 20). Optimistic or what?

It never was as simple as the truth versus lies. It is perfectly principled for working class partisans to lie when necessary - and not just over questions of security. Since the private lives of our leaders are no-one's business except their own, it is quite in order for them to deal with prying personal questions as they see fit. However, what is not in order is for those leaders to expect their comrades to automatically follow their line - even to the extent of perjury - and then accuse them of treachery when they refuse. And, of course, it is essential to tell the truth to our class when it comes to politics - we do not deign to conceal our views on what we fight for and how we should organise.

But that is not how the SWP or CWI see things. They have not hesitated to encourage a split on an entirely unprincipled basis in order to further their own narrow agendas. Not to promote a revolutionary programme of working class power, which they both claim to adhere to, but to build a "broad party of socialism in Scotland" (Solidarity founding statement).

It seems that the SWP would have preferred to demote the word 'socialism', as it has done in Respect. Its August 20 aggregate of the SW platform called for a "new political formation that can answer the needs of the many socialists and activists in Scotland, embracing all strands of the movement, including muslim organisations "¦"

However, the CWI demanded that "any new party "¦ be expressly socialist in character, including in its name" (International Socialists press release, August 21). Comrade Sheridan clearly exercised his influence in their favour. Not that this alternative left nationalist, reformist formation can be called "expressly socialist" in any genuine sense. After all, the CWI comrades tell us that they "continue to defend the ideas of the Militant in Scotland" (including the idea that the Soviet Union under Stalin was some kind of workers' state?).

Solidarity's interim steering committee will consist of MSPs Rosemary Byrne and Tommy Sheridan, two individuals from each region and two each from the SWP and CWI. It will organise a founding conference in November. Its founding statement reads in parts like an amalgam of many of the two groups' favourite phrases. But its platform is virtually identical to that of the SSP.

So now we have two rival parties contesting the same ground and intending to stand against each other in the May 2007 Holyrood elections for all eight regional lists. As we have said, the Dum and Dee of left nationalism are doomed to a future of splits and disintegration. Solidarity is clearly highly unstable, with the SWP and CWI attempting to pull it in opposite directions - linking up with their own pet projects south of the border (the International Socialists would dearly love to draw Solidarity into the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, sponsored by the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

Presiding over the two sects will be the Bonapartist, unaccountable figure of Tommy Sheridan. While comrade Sheridan may well be re-elected in Glasgow, the SSP will almost certainly be decimated in May. It may well then be pulled even closer into the orbit of the Scottish National Party.