‘Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.
‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013
My sister received a leaflet from the local Scottish Socialist Party branch opposing the bedroom tax and saying it would be abolished by independence. It also announced a meeting which would show Ken Loach’s film ‘Spirit of ‘45’, which records the famous victory of the Labour Party in the 1945 election.
It is therefore ironic to note that the Labour vote in 1945 in Scotland was not very different from the rest of the UK. One observer noted that “The most Conservative of the big British cities is – Glasgow! And it did so by staying as it was before. London is far “redder” than Glasgow” (quoted in ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, p. 205).
When one considers that the only party ever to get an overall majority of the vote in a Scottish election is the Conservative Party in 1955 a claim for Scotland’s necessary or intrinsic progressiveness looks pretty weak. At this time many Scottish workers voted Conservative, the party having a membership of 250,000, and many were infected by Orange, anti-Catholic sectarianism. This strain in Scottish society has of course very much diminished but it has not at all disappeared.
Historically Scotland was a stronghold of the Liberal Party; in the19th century it won a majority of the vote in every of the 20 elections held between 1832 and 1910. Trade unions developed earlier in England and Scottish workers were lower paid and considered more docile. This may have built a head of steam for ‘Red Clydeside’ before, during and after World War 1, on which rests to a significant degree Scotland’s reputation for workers’ militancy.
However the main burden of the argument for a more left wing Scotland rests on the domination of the Labour Party in Scotland for most of the last 50 years. In 1959 the Conservative Party was still ahead of Labour but in the 1966 election Labour won 49.9%, the highest it was to achieve.
Subsequently the dominance of the Party relied more and more on the first-past-the-post electoral system and the limitations of its support were masked somewhat by the decline in the Conservatives, with that party being negatively affected by the electoral system. So in the 1992 Westminster election the Tories gained over one quarter of the vote but only 11 (15%) of the seats. In the following 1997 election its vote was 17.5% but it won no seats. The decline of Labour is reflected in the fact that its vote in Glasgow in 2011 was less than 24% of its vote in that city in 1951 and this is only partly explained by the decline of the city itself.
The Labour Party was never the ‘national’ party of Scotland not only because its strength was essentially regional, for example it only won Edinburgh for the first time in 1984, but because the country’s class differences meant that it would have been very difficult for any single party to play this role. It is this role that the SNP now hopes to take up but it can only succeed if class distinctions are buried. Victory in the referendum would help such a project.
Two authors put the strength of the Labour Party in Scotland down to the relatively large role of council housing, the size of the trade union movement in Scotland and the political patronage of the Labour Party in local government. They contrast this with the relative low membership of the Scottish party, which has generally been on the decline since the 1950s; its weak organisation, limited resources and relative lack of ideological ferment.
The decline in the three pillars of Labour is pretty dramatic: council housing fell from 54.4% of all homes in 1979 to 15.1% in 2005. Trade union membership fell from 55% of the Scottish workforce in 1980 to 39.2% in 1991 and 32.2% in 2010.
Its power base in local councils has also declined. In 1980 it won 45.4% of the vote, getting 494 councillors elected out of 1,182 seats and winning 24 out of 53 district councils while in the proportional vote election in 2007 it won only 28.1% of the vote, only 348 out of 1,222 seats and only 2 councils. This decline has run parallel with nepotism and corruption scandals damaging the party but revealing the rotten underbelly of municipal state ‘socialism’.
Some of these trends are not unique to Scotland. English council housing fell from a peak of 29% of homes in 1975 to 18% in 1985. Trade union membership across the UK fell from a density of 55.4% in 1979 to 23.5% in 2009. In English local government Labour had 9,630 out of 20,380 councillors (47.3%) in 1979 falling to 3,743 out of 18,216 (20.5%) in 2009. It controlled 169 out of 386 councils in 1998 (43.8%) and only 33 out of 351 in 2009 (9.4%).
Scotland has a proud history of working class struggle from Red Clydeside to the 16 month Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation beginning in 1971, to the 103 day sit-in in the Caterpillar plant in Uddingston in 1987 and the occupation of Timex in Dundee in 1993. All this is something to learn from and share with workers from every other country as part of the international struggle of the working class, not a claim to some special badge of righteousness on which to pin a nationalist programme.
These can be seen as proud episodes in working class struggle within Scotland and Britain but they should not be placed within some supposed innate Scottish empathy with the oppressed that contrasts a Scottish “desire for fairness and justice” to the English ”ideological base”. (‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’, p. 34) The Scottish working class never developed, even at the height of its militancy, a separate mass working class party or an autonomous political programme. The story of the Scottish working class movement is inextricably linked with that of the British working class movement as a whole. Within this framework each nation’s socialists can be proud of the history of revolt against oppression in their own particular country.
So while Scottish socialists can be proud of Red Clydeside, so English socialists can be proud of the Peasants Revolt, the Putney Debates, the Peterloo massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the General Strike in 1926, Saltley Gate, Grunwick and the heroic miners strikes in England, Wales and Scotland.
This is the history of the fight against exploitation and oppression that socialists across Britain should see as reference points in the fight for working class unity across the three nations.
Such an appreciation of the British class struggle would allow comparisons to be drawn between today’s referendum and previous elections. In February 1974 the Tory Party in Government called an election in the wake of the miners’ strike under the slogan ‘Who Governs Britain?’ and after another election in October it was clear that is wasn’t the Tories when a new Labour Government was elected. Today the independence referendum does not arise on the cusp of working class struggle in Scotland but is timed more to coincide with the 700th anniversary of a medieval battle.
A final argument can be put that, even if Scotland is not materially more left wing or progressive, left leadership can make the independence movement a progressive agent of change. This is supported by the fact that supporters of independence, it is argued, are disproportionately left wing: “. . . the vast majority of support for independence in Scotland comes from the most progressive sections of society – young people and workers in Scotland’s larger town and cities. On the other hand, who do we find lined up to support the British state? The elderly (!), the wealthy, and those whose business and political interests mean that they have most to lose from the break up of the British state – in other words, the most conservative and reactionary elements of Scottish society.” (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? p 53)
All three independent Scottish parties are on the political left and “believe in Scottish democracy” and Scottish nationalism now plays “a much more progressive role in recent decades”. (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? p 48 & 52). The SNP election programme contains “anti-imperialist pledges” it is claimed. (Time to Choose p. 36)
On the other hand even some supporters of independence would presumably regard this latter remark as nonsense, as the SNP “are a pro-capitalist party who favour neoliberal corporate control.” (Time to Choose p. 89)
Against the claim that the pro-independence support is relatively more left-wing others have argued that “only a minority of working people in Scotland currently support independence and most independence supporters do not have strongly socialist perspectives”. The “programmatic demands and slogans of the main pro-independence party, the SNP, are likely to weaken rather than strengthen attitudes of working class solidarity in the process of any independence struggle.” (p 92) Another author records an opinion poll which shows that of those supporting independence in 2002 46% were ‘left’ and 48% ‘centre/right’. (Is there a Scottish Road to socialism? P. 35)
Irrespective of left hopes of political leadership of the independence movement, it is the SNP which dominates in the real world. Those claiming that a left leadership can make all the difference need to explain how this works in reverse when this is not the case. Does right wing leadership not rob the demand for independence of progressive content if left leadership is necessary?
It is also the base of the SNP which is the bedrock of the independence vote – “elements of the new middle class, small businesses, unorganised sections of the working class, and nouveau riche ‘entrepreneurs’”. (Time to Choose p. 16)
Use of rather nebulous descriptions such as ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ allows all sorts of violence to political principle to be perpetrated. What matters is the objective significance of a political programme and practice. A demand becomes socialist not because a left wing movement takes it up. It is equally logically possible that the Scottish left is less socialist for its championing of nationalism.
It is not what people think they are that matters but the objective meaning of their political programme. Many women will be familiar with the guy who walks into a bar thinking he’s god’s gift to the opposite sex . . . Because parts of the left take up a cause it must therefore be progressive or correct needs to be demonstrated; it does not by itself stand as proof of anything.
The British working class – including its Scottish component – has suffered from ‘Thatcherism’ and the political retreat that this has engendered. The rise of nationalism amongst much of the Scottish left is the product of this defeat as its rise is hardly conceivable without it.
This is not at all surprising. What would be surprising would be that Scottish workers somehow resisted this shift, not by sticking to their traditional politics, but by embracing nationalism.
Were Scottish workers really so different, more radical and militant, this would be reflected in their ability to lead the rest of the British working class in resisting what is called neoliberalism. The left case for independence has arisen because it has been unable to do so not because it is – uniquely within these islands – in a position to play this role.
This failure has led to, for some, a collapse into narrow nationalism while pretending that somehow Scotland is more left wing. We will come to the proposed strategy that arises from this in the next post on the independence referendum.