Scotland: Independence, socialism and tasks facing the ‘pro-indy’ Left

Scottish independence rally, George Square, Glasgow, 2019 (Photo: LornaMCampbell/Wikimedia Commons)

The impending explosive struggle over the right to indyref2 [a second referendum on independence for Scotland] is dominating the outlook of all classes and political tendencies in society. There are widening divisions, both inside the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) and among the pro-independence left. At root, this reflects differences over how to confront and overcome the ferocious resistance of the capitalist class to the growing threat of the break-up of the British state.

Boris Johnson’s Tory Westminster government is currently facing down timid appeals to respect democratic mandates from a pro-capitalist SNP leadership who fear a mass movement of the working class for self-determination.

In contrast to Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, et al, Socialist Party Scotland (CWI) calls for the building of precisely that type of campaign. Workers and youth need an independent force, including a mass party linked to the organised trade union movement, that will combine the movement for self-determination with the struggle for socialism.

Reflecting growing criticism of the nationalist leadership, new organisations are also being formed, such as Now Scotland, which is based largely on the All Under One Banner movement. Now Scotland has been lauded by, for example, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) as an opportunity to fight for a “radical alternative” for the independence movement. Now Scotland could play an important role but, thus far, the SWP falls well short of explicitly putting forward the case for Now Scotland to adopt socialist policies and methods of struggle.

At the same time, organisations that played a prominent role in the first referendum in 2014 have been dissolved. These include the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and its belated and short-lived electoral off-shoot, Rise – Scotland’s Left Alliance – which contested the 2016 Holyrood election.

RIC played a prominent role in the 2014 indyref. It was set-up and led by self-defined revolutionary socialists in the form of the International Socialist Group (ISG) (a 2010 split from the Socialist Workers Party). Both RIC and Rise also involved sections of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). Much of the leadership of the SSP had formally been Marxists and members of Militant (the predecessor of Socialist Party Scotland) and the Committee for a Workers’ International. They split from the CWI in 2001 after rejecting the need for a distinct revolutionary organisation and programme and took the SSP in a left reformist and nationalist direction.

We made public our disagreement with the way the SSP leadership dealt with one of its most prominent leaders, Tommy Sheridan, in 2004, which played a key role in the undermining of the party. At that stage, the SSP had six Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) but by 2007 had lost its electoral base.

Rise was wound down and then removed from the register of political parties in November 2020, with no explanation. Indeed, the ISG was wound up in 2015, reflecting the pressures on the left, including the revolutionary left, towards dissolution and the abandoning of a consistent class and Marxist programme. It is, however, politically dishonest and illustrates a lack of political confidence in your ideas if you do not openly explain why organisations like Rise and RIC are no longer deemed necessary.

There is, at the time of writing, no clear explanation of what caused the “excessive factionalism”, which was given as the central reason for winding up RIC in the motion to its recent AGM, proposed by former ISG member, Jonathon Shafi.

Genuine working class united fronts and campaigns can, of course, be time-limited, in line with developments in the class struggle. Effective unity is only possible on the basis of clarity of programme and with the freedom to debate and raise ideas. But a genuine democratic collaborative approach also must extend to explaining fully why principled unity is no longer possible.

Defending a class and socialist position

Socialist Party Scotland proposed to Tommy Sheridan and Solidarity, in 2012, the need to launch a socialist campaign to carve out a distinct pro-working class, trade union campaign for an independent socialist Scotland for the 2014 indyref. This was rejected by Tommy and Solidarity, at the time.

However, when it became clear that the official Yes campaign, dominated by the SNP, with the Greens and the SSP providing a “left” cover, would exclude Sheridan and Solidarity, Hope Over Fear – The Socialist Campaign for Independence was launched. We took part in this very successful movement which organised mass meetings numbering tens of thousands throughout 2014 while putting forward our own distinct policy and programme.

The aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum tested all organisations on the Scottish left. There was mass politicisation in society, during and after the referendum, when 1.6 million people, overwhelmingly working class and young people, defied British capitalism’s Project Fear to vote Yes.

Tens of thousands were looking to get active and join pro-independence parties. Time was of the essence. Socialist Party Scotland was alone in calling immediately after the result for the launching of a new party made up of the forces around Hope Over Fear and working-class people and youth who wanted to fight.

On September 21 2014, we made an appeal to Tommy Sheridan but also to RIC which had mobilised significant support. We said: “If this call is made in a clear way – including by Tommy Sheridan, leading trade unionists, Socialist Party Scotland, Solidarity and other socialist organisations in Scotland – it would attract thousands of new working-class people and young people to its banner within days. Including many who participated in politics for the first time during the referendum through groups like the Radical Independence Campaign and other Yes campaigns.” https://socialistpartyscotland.org.uk/2014/09/21/launch-new-mass-working-class-party-now/

This open policy of explaining our political positions and programme contrasts markedly with that of the former leaders of RIC and Rise. They seem to want to cover up their political mistakes, particularly a tendency to tail-end the pro-capitalist SNP, which has led repeatedly to missed opportunities for the left in Scotland.

Rise was only formed in 2015, long after tens of thousands had joined the SNP seeking a political vehicle to continue the struggle. A reluctance to act in good time resulted in a missed opportunity. Moreover, it also reflected a tendency to capitulate to illusions in the SNP leadership that existed at the time – and to see the struggle around the national question as separate and distinct to the fight for socialism.
First, winning national independence for Scotland and then, at a later stage, the struggle for socialism can commence is known as the ‘two stages theory’. In practice, it means leaving the movement for self-determination in the hands of pro-capitalist nationalism with all the consequences that flow from that. As we can see today with the SNP leadership incapable of leading a struggle to confront capitalism’s opposition to Scottish independence.

The two stages approach – the antithesis of Marxism – was not confined to the leaders of RIC. Tommy Sheridan and Solidarity went even further and called for a vote for the SNP in the 2015 general election, and has done ever since. It was this turn away from fighting to build an independent working-class political force that led to Socialist Party Scotland leaving Solidarity in 2015. Again, we did not do so quietly. We made clear the political reasons.

For the 2021 election, Solidarity has signed up to the Action for Independence electoral platform (AFI). AFI has no socialist content and is calling for a vote for the SNP in the constituencies

The rapid decision to close down RIC is also an extension of a top-down method, a shutting down of debate and bureaucratic maneuvers that are alien to the genuine traditions of the workers’ movement. Taking up this approach is important because those who adopted these methods have some limited positions in the independence and trade union movement.

Fear of debate

The rightward movement away from Marxism is seen by the largely petty-bourgeois character of the former ISG, as was evident in their early material (some of which is now unavailable on their former website), which emphasised ‘student power’ and “the precariat” over the power of the organised working class. They claimed that “old methods” of organising to build revolutionary parties among youth and workers, and orientating to the trade unions with a programme and a newspaper were redundant.

Writing in the Scottish Left Review about the launch of the ISG website ‘Communique’ (now dissolved), they said: “As Scotland enters into the most important political period of its history, a break must be made with the past: empire, tradition and old methods of agitation. The days of the revolutionary paper are over. Communiqué seizes new technologies to unleash radical left-wing ideas for the new left, delivering an analysis of capitalist society in Scotland and beyond which rejects the consensus that austerity at home and war abroad is the best our generation can expect.” (12/9/12 https://www.scottishleftreview.scot/a-comunique-from-new-scotland/)

In Chris Bambery’s article, The Two Souls of the Trade Unions, from 2012, one-sided and premature conclusions were drawn about the impacts on the working class and trade union movement of neoliberalism and deindustrialisation.

Significant changes have taken place in Britain and in the advanced capitalist countries yet the trade unions retain enormous potential power. The Covid pandemic has reinforced the key role the working class plays in production and services and therefore society. The trade unions, despite the main right-wing leaders repeatedly failing to lead struggle over the last decade, are still the mass organisations of the working class, as seen by the numbers flooding into unions like the NEU, Unison, etc under COVID.

Cat Boyd, a  former leading member of ISG and now also part of the rightward moving, Pro-Mark Serwotka officialdom in the PCS trade union, currently challenged by the Broad Left Network, gave the following argument for winding up RIC: “Independence, we argued, was a class issue and it would be won in Scotland’s working-class communities; not among business lobbies or boardrooms. Beneath that were deeper ideological differences (in RIC) about popular sovereignty, economics, and the European Union.” (‘Radical Independence Movement shows there’s an opportunity for new political alliances’, Cat Boyd, the National 4/2/21).

David Jamieson, writing in Conter, an online journal set up by former ISG/RIC supporters, (‘RIC was the future, once’, 2/2/21) commented: “The pandemic and its concomitant economic and social crises has shredded the official prospectus of the independence movement. The SNP Growth Commission with its advocacy of austerity (long after it became popularly reviled) and opposition to a Scottish central bank or independent currency is a bad joke in an era of massive money printing, furlough schemes, and state assistance. But it must be admitted that the left is yet to produce a fleshed-out alternative prospectus”.

But none of this is new. It would have been more honest to have debated these issues out in 2014 and since; about the class nature of the EU, the neoliberal character of the SNP’s ‘white paper’ for independence, the limitations of the reformist ‘Nordic model’ for Scottish independence. The latter was largely adopted by RIC and others, including the Common Weal project. Boyd and Jamison seem to have hit the brick wall of the reality of the SNP’s turn to the right in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, epitomised by the Sturgeon-backed pro-market Growth Commission report.

Also related to the end of RIC, the current factional civil war in the SNP between the ‘gradualist’ Sturgeon wing and the populist Cherry/Salmond wing – trying to base themselves on the more SNP-critical sections of the independence movement – are united in their support of capitalism but divided over independence strategy.

The internal opponents to RIC being wound up highlight either top-down organisational methods or a refusal to discuss one element of the current civil war inside the SNP – the Gender Recognition Act debate. It is instructive that a genuine democratic discussion cannot be had in these organisations around the GRA. Not least because neither side can put forward a class position against identity politics.
Socialist Party Scotland supports an extension of the GRA, including the right for trans people to self-identify. We also call for a united struggle against the Tories and the SNP for health and anti-domestic and gender-based violence services, for all, cutting across attempts to divide women and trans people.

Brexit

Neither RIC nor Rise took a position on the 2016 EU referendum, which was to appease the pro-Remain SNP, Greens, and SSP. They were not prepared to recognise the working class, anti-establishment character of the Brexit vote, which even found expression in Scotland, with up to 400,000 Yes voters supporting Brexit. The vote to leave the EU was highest in the poorest areas.

They cited the far right and right populist elements in the official Leave campaign but were not prepared to join socialists and trade unionists who were actually taking on UKIP and others. It was possible to stand for a fighting, socialist opposition to the EU and campaign independently. Socialist Party Scotland did do this alongside trade unions like the RMT, Bakers Union, Aslef, and others.

Cat Boyd now says she cannot be in a campaign that shares the pro-EU position of the SNP leadership and Greens who want to rejoin the capitalist trading bloc. But in 2018 she criticised the “ineffective Lexit” campaign in her National newspaper column (27/11/18) and advocated abstention in the referendum on BBC Question Time in 2016.

Significant numbers of radical young people and a number of trade unionists in Scotland did attend and participate in the RIC conferences in Glasgow. Large numbers of SNP and Green members were mobilised. The largest was around 3,000 in November 2014 after the independence referendum (the SNP held a rally next door the same day that attracted 8,000). The launch in 2012 attracted 700.

Socialist Party Scotland engaged in a critical but fraternal way with RIC, raising our programme and ideas. This can be seen from our report of the RIC launch (Radical Independence Conference a missed opportunity, Matt Dobson, 26/11/12):  “Virtually absent from the radical rhetoric of the speakers was criticism of the SNP’s record of implementing austerity cuts and the official YES campaigns relationship with big business. The impression was that this Radical Independence Campaign was, in fact, going to give the SNP-led YES campaign a radical cover. The conference proposed “an environmentally sustainable economy, a modern republic, a social alternative to cuts.” These laudable ideas were presented as possible without the need for a radical break from free-market crisis-ridden capitalism.”

Rather than raise clear class politics, as Jamieson and Boyd claim, the founding declaration of RIC, read out by musician and activist Pat Kane, gave the impression the “Scottish people” were a progressive united entity. These limitations were repeated by RIC in their subsequent conferences and in their campaigning.

It is an exaggeration to say, as the ISG dissolution motion claims, that RIC sank real roots in working-class areas. The political material RIC produced also did not point to the need to organise a mass working-class struggle and making it clear the working class and its organisations, the trade unions, are the most powerful force in society to struggle for independence and socialism.

Instead, the slogan “Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours” was RIC’s key message. This left-nationalist slogan had no chance, for instance, of gaining the ear of working-class people concerned about breaking links with their families and the workers’ movement in England and Wales.

Hope over Fear/The Socialist Campaign for Independence was far more explicit about raising the need for fighting socialist policies to unite the working class in its material and on platforms. This campaign was more firmly rooted in working-class areas than RIC, speaking to tens of thousands of working people in many housing scheme meetings across Scotland.

Scottish Syriza

During the referendum campaign, the ISG raised the need for a “Scottish Syriza”. Syriza and Podemos, the left-populist formations in Greece and the Spanish state, were uncritically celebrated by the ISG and the SSP, and given platforms at RIC conferences. A Syriza MP from the right-wing of the party spoke at the launch of RIC. Rather than calling for a working-class struggle against the Troika, he called for the EU to implement a new Marshall Plan.

The CWI called for a critical vote for Syriza in the Greek election that saw them swept to power in January 2015. But we warned that a full-on confrontation with the Troika and the EU was inevitable. The Greek working class had shown its willingness to fight, with twenty general strikes up to that point.

We explained that Syriza should carry out a programme of nationalisations of the banks and main levers of the economy, and to implement measures to stop capital flight, such as capital and credit controls, and a state monopoly of foreign trade, alongside mobilising the Greek working class for a showdown with the Troika.

Inevitably this would have involved a rupture with the EU, but a fighting left government would have appealed for the support of the working class internationally. The Greek workers and youth, and even radicalised sections of the middle class, heroically said no in a mass referendum vote to the Troika’s austerity memorandum. Yet the Syriza government utterly capitulated

So vicious was the austerity program they inflicted afterward that the right-wing New Democracy are now back in power, with the Greek workers’ movement only now beginning to recover.

Contrast what we said during the Greek crisis to ISG leader Jonathan Shafi, writing in the National in August 2015. “In Greece, that will mean opposing the implementation of the proposed deal. At the same time – whatever the criticisms of Tsipras – we should also recognise that the situation has deteriorated in part because of the lack of “Syrizas” across Europe.”

The ISG also saw Podemos in Spain, and particularly its “anti-party” horizontalist structures, as a model for Rise. Podemos now is in a capitalist government in Spain with the social democracy, attacking the working class and the right to self-determination in Catalonia.

It was completely correct to recognise the potential for the new left formations that sprang up after the 2007-8 capitalist crisis. The responsibility for socialists was to raise a programme about how this potential could be fulfilled and the dangers of left governments not carrying out a rupture with capitalism

Lack of democracy and socialism

Rise, despite some radical left policies, did not stand on a socialist programme or call clearly for the powers of the Scottish government to be used to fight Tory cuts. Debating with SPS members in Edinburgh, in 2016, SSP leader Colin Fox claimed this was justified to meet the then low level of class consciousness. An aim of Rise, Cat Boyd stated in the National, was to bring “diversity” to Holyrood.

Rather than a democratic federal structure with the right of organisations to put forward their positions, the only organisations that were allowed to join Rise were the SSP and ISG, in a “coalition of social movements”. Socialist Party Scotland met the ISG before the Rise launch and was explicitly told we could not affiliate or join.

In the 2016 Scottish election, Rise was not able to distinguish itself from the SNP and the Greens. Cat Boyd even alluded to the need to vote for the SNP in constituencies “Tactically, use your first vote for the government you want; morally, use your list vote for the values you want in politics” (19th April 2016, The National).

Unlike the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, which clearly opposed the SNP’s cuts programme and which polled credible votes, Rise polled 0.5% on the regional lists across Scotland.

Rise came under pressure from the Corbyn surge into Labour (the SSP quietly left the Rise formation). This was not as profound in Scotland but again it is instructive that a layer of Rise activists, similar in social composition to Momentum, left to join Scottish Labour despite its wrong position on the national question.

Boyd and Shafi were actually attacked by independence activists for correctly calling for a vote for Corbyn’s radical left programme in the 2017 and 2019 general elections. Rise had previously dismissed Corbynism when Rise was launched in 2015.

After winding up RIC and Rise, the ISG and SSP have given no clear indication of how they approach key tasks for workers and youth in Scotland. TUSC has written to both inviting discussion about a principled anti-cuts socialist challenge in the forthcoming Holyrood elections but has, at the time of writing, received no response.

The SWP has pulled out of TUSC and is now putting forward the vague, weak slogan, “Vote Left for Independence” in the elections. Socialist Party Scotland, as part of TUSC, is challenging the SNP and other capitalist parties by standing as widely as resources will allow. The twin pillars of demanding a socialist recovery for the working class after Covid and the building of a mass campaign for indyref2 form the core of our manifesto.

In a major article for the Socialist Worker website (10 February) the SWP lays out their approach for the next phase of the struggle for independence. They do call for a mass mobilisation to confront the Tories refusal to grant indyref2, although they do not clearly explain the central role that should be played by the trade union and workers’ movement.

However, nowhere do they argue that socialist ideas and methods are an integral part of that struggle if it is to be successful. Instead, they simply say: “The fights against austerity and racist scapegoating or for radical Green New Deal cannot be subordinated or deferred until after we win independence.”

Marxists should be calling for a socialist Green New Deal, based on democratic public ownership and workers’ control of renewables, energy, and fossil fuels industry. Simply echoing the Keynesian wing of the capitalist class and the Scottish Greens leadership is not sufficient.

They go on in the same vein: “We are fighting for more than a Scottish capitalist state….In Scotland, there is a palpable sense that change must come—and that the opportunity for that change is now, not later.”

What kind of change are they referring to? What is “more than a Scottish capitalist state” if it’s not socialism? Why not spell out clearly what is meant? Left in the hands of the SWP, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, socialism is relegated to “a society that dare not speak its name.” (https://swp.org.uk/long-read-scotland/).

The lack of confidence by sections of the Scottish left that it is possible to win the working class to a socialist programme is mirrored by the retreat of much of the reformist left internationally. It is also evident in left formations like Syriza, Podemos, and the Left Bloc in Portugal, as well as the leadership of Corbynism.  Alien class pressures on socialists have also affected even those claiming to Trotskyist (for example, the ex-members of the CWI, who, in 2019, split from us and have evolved even further away from a revolutionary socialist perspective).

Chris Bambery, a key influence on the former ISG, writes in Conter (5/2/21) on how Now Scotland should imitate the ANC, the cross-class Catalan independence organisation that played an important role in the events around the 2017 referendum.

But there are no warnings as to the political limitations of that organisation. Nor was there the drawing out of the lessons as to how the mass movement, including general strike action by workers, posed the greatest threat to the Spanish capitalist class. The absence of a mass workers’ party in Catalonia, with a socialist programme on the national question, aimed at unifying the working class, Catalan and Spanish, was the key factor in the Spanish state being able to repress the independence struggle.

Learn from the past – prepare for the future

Learning the lessons of the mistakes of socialist and left organisations is not an exercise in sectarian nit-picking. They are of crucial importance in helping to prepare for the next phase of the mass struggle, one which will see the SNP leadership exposed like never before. The attraction of socialist ideas will grow substantially in the months and years to come; therefore the vital importance of putting those ideas forward consistently in the movement against capitalism and for an independent socialist Scotland.

The outcome of the Scottish election in May is likely to trigger a massive eruption in conflict over the right to indyref2. Crucially, that also means building a new mass working-class party as a necessary vehicle to conduct that struggle.

We hope this article can be discussed and debated as a contribution to the vital tasks facing socialists and the working-class movement today.

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