Scotland: Socialists debate the way forward

The 2003 Scottish Socialist Party conference met recently against the backdrop of a likely war in Iraq and two months before the Scottish parliament elections.

250 delegates and over 50 visitors attended on the first day and 230 delegates and a number of visitors on the second.

Support for the SSP has grown significantly in the last month. The latest poll has the SSP at 10% in the PR based regional list vote. If this was reflected in the vote on May 1st the SSP could win up to 10 MSP’s.

The first day of conference was dominated by the prospects for the May 1st elections. The SSP’s manifesto was debated and passed overwhelmingly.

The SSP has produced six "fast track policy pledges" for May 1st. They include scrapping the council tax and replacing it with a re-distributive income based Scottish service tax. Free school meals for all children. A 35 hour week for all public service workers. A £7.32 minimum wage for all public sector employees. Cancellation of all PFI/PPP projects. And opposition to war.

These demands will get significant support in an election which will be dominated by the Labour, SNP and other pro-market political parties.

There were over 200 specific proposals drawn up geared to the current powers of the parliament. Many of these the International Socialists/CWI supported. But we also drafted amendments, including on the wider issues of socialism and the national question, which challenged the increasing tendency to see the struggle for socialism from an isolated Scottish standpoint.


The draft manifesto reflected a qualitative shift away from an internationalist socialist position. It stated; "We repudiate the fictional claim that in the new globalised economy an independent Scotland would be powerless to tax the rich, wipe out poverty" etc. "We reject the scaremongering of those who claim that Scotland is too weak, or to poor to go it alone".

It is significant that in these passages no mention is made of a socialist Scotland. The manifesto instead talked about "Our long-term goal is to create an independent Scottish socialist republic." There was no reference in this section to linking the struggle in Scotland to workers in England, Wales, Ireland or internationally.

There was instead an increased tendency to see the acheivement of independence for Scotland as a neccessary first step before socialism could be built. In other words a stages approach. Or as SSP MSP Tommy Sheridan put it in his column for the Scottish Socialist Voice: "this party stands for an Independent Scotland and that the people of Scotland, with whom sovereignty would ultimately lie, can then determine for themselves whether it will go down the socialist road or not."

Reforms can be won through campaigns and by using the powers of the parlaiment. But it is essential that socialists explain that it would not be possible for an "independent Scotland", on a capitalist basis, to stand up to a globalised economy and tackle poverty, low pay and inequality without breaking with capitalism and linking up with workers internationally. On a capitalist basis the banks, financiers and big business would still, as they do now under devolution, control the economic levers of power.

This trend was further underlined by a motion from one of the SSP branches on prioritising campaigning for independence that argued: "Independence will provide the Scottish people with the democratic machinery to support their struggle for socialism".

The CWI opposed this motion but it was supported by the leadership, many of who are former members of the CWI who left us because they were no longer prepared to fight for the programme of the CWI or to build a Marxist organisation within the politically broader SSP.

It marks a significant retreat from a clear class and internationalist position that they would have defended in the past. It can also have a material effect on the approach the SSP takes for example towards an SNP administration in the Scottish parliament.

Socialist alternative

The CWI put forward an amendment through Glasgow Cathcart branch that argued "We stand for an independent socialist Scotland that would seek to work with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland in a free and democratic socialist confederation or alliance." "While standing for an independent socialist Scotland we advocate the maximum possible unity of the working class in Scotland with workers throughout the rest of Britain. The current FBU dispute is a clear example of the potential strength of the working class on an all Britain basis"

Our amendment also argued for public ownership and democratic working class control of the economy.

In contrast the SSP ’s manifesto then went on to highlight the examples of Norway and Denmark as models of countries where higher top-rate taxation has led to "some of the most impressive public services in the world".

This clearly reflects the outlook of many in the leadership of the SSP that fighting for increased taxation on the rich, by itself could deliver significant advances for the working class in the short term. This can foster illusions that on the basis of capitalism a more equitable form of society is possible.

Marxists, while supporting increased taxation on the rich and big business, have always sought to explain the limitations of such an approach. Capitalists will always seek to avoid paying an increased share of their wealth through taxation. They will resort to either tax avoidance or a "strike" of capital -where they refuse to invest. What this then poses is the need to take over completely the wealth and the means to produce wealth. i.e the major companies and banks that control the economy under democratic working class control and management.

In a recession-ridden world economy the possibility of lasting reforms through tax changes, without decisively breaking with capitalism is an illusion. We fight for every reform possible that can be won through struggle. But we must link that to a movement to overthrow private ownership and control of the economy and establish a socialist planned economy.

Although our amendment was defeated SSP members could see a clear difference in approach beween the CWI and the leadership towards the national question and the overall struggle for socialism.

The Socialist Workers platform (SWP) supported the leadership’s position on all these issues and voted against the internationalist and clear socialist amendment from Glasgow Cathcart.


As with previous SSP conferences a heated debate took place over the party’s guidelines which call on party members to only sell the party paper, the Scottish Socialist Voice. The CWI has consistently opposed such an approach. In a broad-based party, with many different tendencies and groupings, the right to sell and distribute your own material is essential.

As we pointed out at the conference the International Socialist was the only newspaper on sale at the anti-war demo that argued for a socialist alternative to war. The SSV did not even mention the word socialism, far less put forward a socialist programme. While fighting to build the SSP we also have the right to put forward a clear internationalist and socialist programme to the working class and youth in Scotland.

This year new guidelines were proposed which would apply to elected representatives of the SSP. They said: "All elected members must vote in in with party policy even if they disagree with the policy." We proposed alternative guidelines that stated, "All elected members must be prepared to defend and advance the interests of the working class and socialism."

This was to take account of the inevitable differences, including in parliament and the councils that will exist. We also explained that the CWI proposed guidelines would make it more difficult for the SSP, or sections of it, to put forward ideas that would be damaging to the interests of socialism. The SWP supported the guidelines proposed by the leadership, even though everyone recognises that they break them on a regular basis.

Anti-war campaigning

The SSP executive committee supported a motion from the CWI that put forward the need for a socialist alternative to the war. We welcome this. However it is essential that the SSP and the SSV incorporate such an approach into the SSP’s public material. This has not been the case so far.

We also moved an amendment through Glasgow Kelvin that put forward our opposition to al-Qaeda and Saddams’ regime in Iraq. It clearly condemned the September 11th attacks and the Bali bombing.

It argued for support for a democratic and socialist Iraq and for Saddams overthrow. It also put forward some key demands for the anti-war movement.

This was an amendment to an SWP inspired resolution from Edinburgh North and Leith that said whatever our opposition to to Saddam or Islamic Fundamentalism we cannot treat them as equivalents to Bush and the US ruling class.

The SWP also moved another amendment during this debate which called on conference to "ensure our anti-war slogans and propaganda emphasise that the main enemy is at home and the violence of the oppressed is not equivalent to the violence of the oppressors." While this is true there are nevertheless methods and reactionary ideologies that socialists must oppose. Such as individual terrorism and the ideas of groups like al-Qaeda.

The political opportunism of the SWP was exposed during this debate. They seek to avoid criticising reactionary political Islam at all. For months after September 11th they refused to condemn the actions of al-Qaeda. It would not be possible to build a mass anti-war movement among the working class unless clear opposition to such ideas and methods was made clear.

The SWP were heavily defeated and the Kelvin amendment was passed.

Middle East

Last year the SSP’s position, drafted by the SWP, for a single secular Palestinian state to replace Israel and the Palestinian Authority was passed by conference. This year that position was defeated by 140 votes to 80.

The motion that was passed in its place is a confused position. It calls for support for the Palestinian struggle and argued for a socialist state in the future on the land that was Palestine pre 1948. In the meantime it supported a step in that direction by calling for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This was a motion that came from Glasgow Govan and the ISM grouping who were formerly members of the CWI.

One leading member of the ISM, and the SSP’s international officer, Frances Curran argued that it was not our job to put forward solutions to the Middle East conflict from Scotland but to offer support to the Palestinians’ struggle.

CWI member Jim McFarlane in moving a motion that called for a socialist Israel and a socialist Palestine as part of a socialist solution to the Middle East crisis explained that "this is not a programme written from thousands of miles away. But one that is being fought for by socialists and members of the CWI day-in and day-out in the region."

During the debate it was widely recognised that the arguments of the CWI in relation to the right of the Israeli’s to a state as well as fighting for the national rights of the Palestinians which would invlolve the need to overthrow all the reactionary capitalist and feudal regimes in the region were decisive in undermining support for the SWP’s position. The Dundee West motion was not voted on as it automatically fell when the Govan one was passed.

Mass party

The SSP is likely to make an important advance in the May elections. CWI members in Scotland will be campaigning for a big SSP vote and we would welcome a breakthrough for the SSP on May 1st.

Our differences with the SSP leadership are not on incidental points, but go to the heart of how socialism and a mass partyof the working class can be built. We believe that in order to be succesful the struggle for socialism requires a clear international socialist and Marxist programme.

The CWI campaigns to build the SSP as part of the struggle to build a mass party of socialism. We also fight to build a Marxist organisation and programme at the same time.

We are confident that while struggling against war, capitalism, poverty and inequality the ideas of the CWI will grow and play a decisive role in the struggles of the working class for a socialist future-both here in Scotland and internationally.

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March 2003