The first in a two part series on the British Left and its relationship with Scotland
For the first time in a long time, the Con-Dem government has delivered us a government which none of us really voted for. The unruly alliance currently running the country is a timely reminder of just how broken British democracy is. For the past 50 or so years, the left in Scotland has slowly been developing an alternative analysis of what kind of country we want. One of the things we’ve come up with is the establishment some sort of correlation between what we vote for and what we get – something the ancient Greeks called democracy. This idea is not universally accepted in Scotland yet but it’s gaining currency especially amongst the what you might call “the political left.”
The idea that democracy might be quite nice often seems to have even less weight in England – a situation which can only be dangerous. The return of the almost-defunct English Defence League to national prominence is a symptom of the failure of the British state which we must not ignore.
For successive generations, the organised left in the UK has vehemently opposed the extension of the democratic rights enjoyed by citizens in most other countries to the subjects of Britain. Westminster is not – and will not be – a vehicle for any kind of progress in our society. The left in England could be arguing for the establishment of a new progressive state in England; but they’re not. Instead we have the same line we’ve always been fed – that our collective gains (or what’s left of them) are best defended by staying in Britain. The fact that Britain has no purpose now – other than managed decline – is no problem for the left. Their solution is always the past. If the left could only go back to 1984 and win the miners’ strike; back to 1979 before Thatcher; back to 1945 to rebuild Britain after WWII; back to the days when Labour was Labour and everything was definitely OK; back to yesterday because it was definitely better than today or tomorrow.
The dividing lines of the referendum debate are becoming clearer. On the one side we have the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, the BNP, the Lodge, the entire right-wing establishment of both Scotland and Britain. On the other we have an emerging political movement fighting for a progressive new state (and the right wing of the SNP…boo hiss!).
The English left are still mostly on the wrong side. When pushed, they still line up with the unionists to tell us it would all be “better together” in the past, or that we’re almost definitely racists or selfish or just confused about what’s best for our country. We’re told that wanting a democracy makes us nationalists. Failure to understand things they are not directly involved is a classic left-wing trait – outmoded theories are placed onto events rather than what’s actually happening being used to shape our understanding of the world. Our allies in England should seize this opportunity to look at what’s really happening in Scotland, engage with it and get on board. Neither far-left vanguardism nor soppy-left Guardianism are attractive alternatives for England, nor will these ideas be of any relevance to the ever increasing numbers who are piss-poor and pissed off. They need to break their bad habits and stop leaving ideas about ‘what England is’ to the far-right. They need to realise that we can do what we all want to do and make the British state a thing of the past. Watching so-called left-wingers line up to defend the British state is a strange sight, they clearly need to relearn all the stuff they’re already supposed to know about how power works.
Looking at exactly what is wrong with the English left in general is not what I’m here to do. Instead I’m going to try to focus on why they get Scotland so wrong time and again. In order to do this, it may sometimes be necessary to delve a little further into their underlying attitudes.
I’m going to begin today by looking at the assorted vanguards of the British far-left who’ve made politics so hellish for anyone who’s vaguely progressive in Scotland for the last few decades. With this comes an obvious disclaimer. If you’re not interested in why dusty pamphlets by obscure members of ‘Judean Peoples Front’-type organisations are definitely wrong about Scottish Independence, you can skip to the next part about some more familiar faces on the English left, most notably Owen Jones. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys reading lists of initials and waiting in eager anticipation for a mention of the one you are (or were) in – this is probably the one for you.
The far-left in Scotland has had a very troubled relationship with their British counterparts over many years. While I could go all the way back to John MacLean, I’d rather look at some of the forces whose direct presence is still felt – for better or worse – on the Scottish left.
While there are a plethora of sects jostling for position and/or defending their silly positions, the defining battle on the British far-left has always been between the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), otherwise known as the Militant and these days, the Socialist Party; and the rival Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Both are “democratic centralist” organisations – a principle laid out in a pamphlet written in 1901 about how socialists should behave when working to overthrow a Tsar in a peasant state. This definitely completely timeless theory has been understood in practice to broadly mean doing as you’re told and liking it. The democratic part is usually sidelined and genuine debate is frowned upon. Publicly stating you have a slightly different or more nuanced view about any of the million issues these groups insist they’re always right about is a disciplinary offence. These groups are also centralist in another sense, in that most of the power rests in the hands of a small London-based elite. This geographic model of operating is familiar to Scots, because it’s how the whole rest of our society works. Another very British trait these groups shared historically was their desire to colonise the world and enforce their own values with branches of both groups were established across the globe – all taking direction on everything from their London masters.
It’s perhaps not surprising that an organisation with an essentially imperial structure would object when their Scottish group suddenly began declaring that they wanted to do their own thing. This was the fate staring the CWI in the face in the 1990s in Scotland. The London Party didn’t like Scottish Militant Labour’s desire to talk to people outwith the revolutionary Marxist bubble (which had pretty much burst anyway). SML were instead working to build a new political alliance in Scotland. The desire of Scottish Militant Labour to turn this alliance into the explicitly pro-independence Scottish Socialist Party was the final straw.
If you have more time than is healthy for a balanced human being you can read all the stuff about the role of Marxists and the revolutionary party yada yada here. . To sum up what’s said, the SML proposed a new party and the CWI say “Trotsky” over and over again (12 times in their initial reply to the proposal). Organisations like theirs enjoy making things intentionally academic and confusing in the hope of boring people into assuming they must be very clever and therefore right. Thus a later document assessing the SSP begins:
The ‘International Socialist Movement Political Committee (PC) Reply to the Factional Document and Platform’, written by the International Socialist Movement PC of the Scottish section, was supposed to be a reply to ‘The Platform of the Minority [of the International Socialist Movement]’ (Scotland). Because of the issues raised in the International Socialist Movement PC’s document the International Secretariat [of the Committee for a Workers’ International] considered that it was necessary to write a substantial reply.
Anyone? No? Me neither.
Despite what I assure you are some very substantial replies, the vast majority of Scottish Militant Labour left the CWI, and the few who remained loyal to London had to join the SSP anyway or be left behind. They always said they supported independence, except never actually did. Anyone else who supported independence was a “nationalist”, whilst they supported independence exactly the correct Marxist-Leninist amount. Whatever that was.
The other London-based Trotskyist sect was the Socialist Workers Party. They maintained their position that as Scotland didn’t meet the strict Leninist criteria of an “oppressed nation”, it was best that it just continued to be governed by unelected Tories. The words of the infallible bearded ancients as laid out in the Marxist manuscripts were elevated over any attempt to understand what was actually happening in Scotland. Despite this, the SWP – like the rump of the CWI – were also eventually forced to join the SSP and call everyone else in it “nationalists” all the time. The SWP maintained their opposition to independence in the face of reason, and became increasingly irrelevant within the SSP in the period prior to the split/Tommygeddon.
What happened next (and I’m going to focus on what I’m talking about, independence) demonstrates a lot about how the British sects operate. The SWP hated independence and the CWI were none too keen on it either. The SSP split officially had nothing to do with independence, but the character of the two fragments which were left is telling. Tommy took with him into his new fanclub “Solidarity” (lol) both the CWI and the still explicitly anti-independence SWP. Those who remained in the SSP were from more predominantly pro-independence backgrounds.
Then something strange happened. I got a leaflet through my door for Solidarity and on n it was a person who I knew hated independence. The leaflet claimed they were a campaigner for an independent Scotland – this must have been their first campaign. Call me a conspiracy theorist but it looked a lot like they were lying about their support for independence to protect Tommy Sheridan‘s image. Obviously, Tommy would never ask anyone to lie for him about anything solely to protect his image, so it’s probably fine. But suddenly, the SWP pure loved independence.
The failure of the unholy alliance to get Tommy elected saw Solidarity go away for a while – we‘d hoped forever but it seems not. This allowed the SWP to focus on their other pet project of constantly falling out with and then running back to George Galloway. At the time, Gorgeous George had the idea of standing for the Scottish Parliament and the hastily but accurately named CAC (Coalition Against Cuts) was formed to allow George to control everything. George’s main platform seemed to be rambling about Britain and “British Labour values” whilst also putting well known Brit slogans like “Hail Hail” on his bright green leaflets. Playing the Brit overlord and the Irish rebel simultaneously to try to get elected in Glasgow went down about as well as his (much more convincing) performance playing a cat.
None of this bothered the SWP even though they were now officially in favour of independence, or something. The same people who had suddenly appeared on leaflets as independence campaigners a few years earlier were now hoping to become MSPs on the back of George, who’d made clear he would use his seat at Holyrood to hound supporters of independence. Having an explicitly anti-socialist, misogynistic unionist windbag as their main man was grand, so long as they got a bit closer to the limelight; they were prepared to do literally anything to survive.
Amidst the Galloway debacle yet another split loomed: one day in what seemed like a completely unexpected event, almost the entire activist base of the SWP in Scotland just got up and left. They formed the International Socialist Group (Scotland), the ISG. At the time no-one really knew what the split was all about. Vague statements about internal democracy were cited, alongside the general feeling that perhaps being tied to a London based Trotskyist faction limited the ability of members to engage with the actual left in Scotland. There are clear parallels with what happened in the 90s when Scottish Militant Labour removed themselves from the old CWI. Scottish Militant Labour threw themselves headlong into building a broader grouping in the Scottish Socialist Party. The ISG seem intent on playing the same role in mobilising broader left wing forces in Scotland.
On the question of independence, it’s fair to say the ISG didn’t crown itself in glory in the beginning. Its opening statement again repeated the SWP’s proclamation that getting George Galloway elected to the Scottish Parliament was definitely what we should all be doing. In fairness, they also had folk already on the ballot paper with Galloway. The alternative would have been asking voters not to vote for their own members – which is out there even by far-left standards. Since discredited George faired no better than discredited Tommy 4 years earlier, the ISG thankfully just walked away and clarified their position on independence pretty quickly. I’m quite happy to write off these initial flirtations with total wankers since the ISG are actually bothering to build the pro-independence movement in Scotland (and later told Galloway to basically fuck off). Their crucial role in making sure the Radical Independence Campaign took off is to be welcomed by us battle-weary oldies.
Given their past form for doing whatever creepy, powerful men want, sects like the SWP and the CWI could easily turn round tomorrow and say we were all just “nationalists” all along if and when the need arises. For the moment it makes sense for them not to stand in such direct opposition to the political wind. They remain deeply opposed to actual independence, however they position themselves vis-à-vis Scotland and Britain. People acting independently is what they fear most.
The SWP and the CWI are merely the far-left remnants of the failed British political project. Their attempts to colonise Scotland have failed, as have their ideas about Scotland and its place in the world. Their model is largely based on that of the rest of the old British establishment: centralised decision making, old men in London deciding everything, opposition to anything new they simply can’t understand or control. They are living proof of how privilege can lead people to think they are much more progressive than they actually are. For years they have consistently been on the wrong side when it comes to people being self organised. Feminist/gay rights/black and minority ethnic organisations couldn’t be so easily controlled by (male, straight, white) Marxist hacks so they were simply denounced as a distraction from their very important revolution/class struggle. It’s no surprise they always viewed Scottish independence in a similar derisory light. Independence for other people means less control for them and they don’t like that at all.
Although I’ve been rightly negative about the legacy of far left sects, it’s useful to point out the actual effects of their behaviour has been their own members rebelling to create separate, more progressive Scottish organisations with a much broader appeal than those of their ortho-trot masters in London. Every time the British far-left has tried to exercise their dominion over Scotland, their activists have declared their independence. Whether it was the ISG or SML before them – it’s good to see people telling outdated, backward British structures to do one. Like any time people take their independence, it’s not perfect but it’s undoubtedly better. It also usually forces those you’ve left behind to move on as well – a theme I’ll examine in more detail next time.
In many ways this horror story of the far-left should be a cheery rather than a cautionary tale. The Scottish left has witnessed a slow burning bonfire of the sects for the last 20 years and we should keep at it. We’ve come to realise the importance of independence from the British political system. We’re also beginning to create more diffuse and democratic alternatives. Independence isn’t voted for – it’s won and we’ve started learning how to win it.
There is no going back for most of the Scottish left. There were no glory days; only difficult lessons painfully learned which we can’t afford to forget. The majority of activists from the “CWI tradition” are now pro-independence and wouldn’t want anything to with what’s left of the CWI. The same is true for the SWP. This could be a once-in-a-generation chance for the far-left to abandon the hangover from the British sects of yesteryear and get on with building a better future for Scotland. See if Leon Trotsky or Tony Cliff wouldn’t have liked that…
who gies a fuck?