Cat Boyd and James Foley are activists in the International Socialist Group and have played leading roles in the Radical Independence Campaign. In this article, which is taken from the book ‘Time to Choose’ and published online for the first time here, they address the issues around reviving the left in Scotland.
A socialist strategy in Scotland must necessarily involve two parts. The first is a consideration of the objective possibility of and need for an anti-capitalist party in Scotland. This is the question of “political space”: how much room do we have for an alternative at the ballot box when we are squeezed between SNP and Labour? The second is about our own behaviour, the trust we have for each other and our legitimacy with social movements and working class communities. This may be called the subjective factor.
Our position is that there is space for a radical Left alternative in Scotland. There is a crisis in Scottish society, lying somewhere between the nationalisation of RBS/HBOS (economic crisis) and the referendum of 2014 (constitutional crisis). This Scottish crisis presents definite opportunities. But to anticipate and shape this process, we must face up to our own need for reform. Due to the SSP split, the left in Scotland has a toxic reputation that extends far beyond our own ranks. We do not think our own crisis can be resolved by the final defeat or victory of any sector of the left. What is required is a three step detoxification process.
In the short term, we must fight for left unity. This is not just about united action with the Greens, trade unionists, and so on. It means active steps to restore working relations in the post-SSP left. In the medium term, we must regain the trust of protest movements and the wider radical left currents in society: we may call this left renewal. Lastly, there is the broad task, to win the leadership of society in the battle to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. This hegemonic task clearly requires winning over “reformist” voices in the SNP, Labour, and the unions. We call this left realignment. These steps, we wish to argue, depend on each other. But they stem from a reading of objective difficulties in maintaining existing Holyrood alliances.
Space for the Left?
Scottish politics is often thought of as a “village” in which “everyone who is anyone knows everyone else who matters”. Few will deny that there are elites who shape the policy framework in Holyrood. But we also need to remember that Scotland is a capitalist, class society with staggering inequalities of wealth and power. One study, in 2003, showed that two Edinburgh districts have more millionaires than anywhere in Britain but Hampstead, London. “Blackhall is better heeled than Belgravia and Morningside is more upmarket than Mayfair,” reported The Telegraph. Contrast this to the figure that men in the Calton ward of Glasgow live to an average age of 54. With these facts in mind, we dispute any idea that Scotland has a distinctively “collectivist” civil society. The neoliberal trajectory in Scotland, like elsewhere, has led to extreme polarisations of income.
Reversing these trends is the goal of the anti-neoliberal left. The size of this group may be disputed. At the higher end of estimates, 43 percent of Scotland favours government action to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. In practice, this is unlikely to form part of the platform of either Scottish Labour or the SNP. But this should not lead to the conclusion that this group is liable to switch allegiances to the Left anytime soon. Winning this layer of Scotland to the left is the long-term goal. In the short term, we must seek to win back those who have deserted anti-capitalist politics in recent elections.
It is over-simplistic to attribute the decline of the radical Left in Holyrood to the SSP split alone. Clearly, there are objective socio-economic and political factors to account for. Some argue that the Left was always liable to get squeezed in the battle between the SNP and Scottish Labour, and thus view recent results as inevitable irrespective of contingent factors. Conveniently, this “objective” account draws attention away from our own flaws. There are certainly good reasons to look at objective circumstances. But the thesis is flawed in three respects.
Firstly, the fact that Scottish Labour is consistently positioned to the right of the SNP government puts the identity of trade union politics in question. Trade unions will not jump ship to SNP; such an arrangement would suit neither party. But their current link with Labour is not feasible so long as the neoliberal turn continues. The Left could, and should, play an active role in resolving Scotland’s crisis of working class representation.
Secondly, there is lasting evidence of anti-capitalist and left-of-Labour sentiment in Scotland. A decade ago, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was able to command 130,000 votes and 6 MSPs. The Greens secured a similar vote, roughly 7 percent, with 7 MSPs. The Iraq factor played a strong role in this. But it is evidence that there is a significant part of the Scottish electorate that can be won to leftist ideas. Anti-war sentiment in Scotland did not emerge from nowhere. It built on frustration with the “village” atmosphere of Scottish politics, especially the failings of Scottish Labour to tackle poverty and class inequality. These frustrations have only intensified recently. While we may disagree on the actions of the SSP in Holyrood, we can surely agree that they had some success in tapping into this current of anger.
Thirdly, the last few years have seen a significant revival of the extra-parliamentary radical Left in Scotland. The student movement against fees and cuts was the precipitating factor. But this has helped to reinvigorate other currents as well, such as feminist, environmental, and international solidarity campaigns. Many of the people involved with these campaigns will strongly disagree with us on the need for political organisation. But we ignore them at our peril. Our belief is that they can play a strong role in revitalising the Left, but only if the existing Left is ready to change its own habits and routines. We have as much to learn from the movements as they have to learn from us.
A crisis of radical Left politics is not peculiar to Scotland. All across Europe, the victories of anti-capitalist forces after Seattle and during the Iraq war have been pushed back for a decade. The organised Left has failed to offer a coherent challenge, system-wide, to the crisis, the bailouts, and the cuts post-2008. But the defeats have not been even. In some nations, the Left has positioned itself well to present a challenge to the dominant austerity narrative. If Syriza in Greece is at one end of the spectrum of left-wing success, Britain has most definitely been at the other end.
For these reasons, we believe there is no reason for fatalism. We are a victim of contingent events, largely of our own making. By contrast, there is a much more protracted, structural crisis of Scottish politics. Qualitatively new forms are likely to emerge from this. We can help to shape this process, by putting poisonous recriminations aside, by participating in grassroots campaigns, and by leading the battle for a break with Britain in 2014.
The Perverse Glocalization of Labour
Scottish Labour is at the centre of the Scottish crisis. Accusations of “machine politics”, of “negative campaigning”, and of “tribalism” are common in all accounts of Scottish Labour. It was widely accepted that Labour had to learn from its Holyrood electoral hammering in 2011. Iain Gray, a “flop” as a leader, was replaced by Johann Lamont last December. Lamont conceded that Labour had an image problem, coming across as “a tired old politics machine which was more about itself than it was about them.” But this dour public face is symptomatic of deeper factors.
Adapting factional local politics and “patronage networks” to demands to “think global” is a particular challenge. Hardly a month goes by without new reports of a hornet’s nest of factional antagonisms and interest group politics in Labour, often, but not always, grouped in the West Coast of Scotland. Most recently, Labour’s chief Scottish spin doctor, Rami Okasha, was suspended amid allegations of “insubordination”. This exposed East-West coast divisions, and also divisions been the Holyrood and Westminster arms of politics. These often express themselves as divisions within groupings, as the recent debacle over candidate selection for the Glasgow Council elections exposed.
At the same time, Scottish Labour is open for business when it comes to the amorphous benefits of “globalization”. It has proved far too intellectually timid to challenge Blairite norms. Gordon Brown summed up this new spirit: “The message London’s success sends out to the whole British economy is that we will succeed if like London we think globally…advance with light touch regulation, a competitive tax environment, and flexibility.”
A consensus held that London was a “model” to imitate for other urban economies. Glasgow City Council, in any case, had long been at the vanguard of neoliberal “urban boosterism” and place-marketing strategies. Thus, when Jack McConnell implored Labour to act as “the party of enterprise” in 2004, he was merely stating conventional wisdom and long-established practice. It is telling that Scottish Labour has not produced critical figures like John McDonnell MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP. They would almost certainly find other political homes in Scotland, perhaps even in the SNP.
There has thus emerged a perverse “glocalization” effect in Scottish Labour. On the one hand, there is a far more ingrained policy consensus in Labour than in any other organisation. The “race to the bottom” in regulation and the virtues of competition were accepted with little resistance. The only qualification was the need to preserve the “cherished values”, lying somewhere between “Britishness” and “social democracy,” of the Labour movement. A very British and very “global” consensus thus prevails. The monetarists won the intellectual debate; but social democracy still has “the right values”. There is no dissent from this flimsy intellectual framework.
But imposing neoliberal demands in practice needs a party machine built on a tough local fabric of council housing, local council employment, and trade unions. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw refer to a (mythologised) “Labour Scotland” that services Scottish Labour in this regard. These factors are still largely responsible for Labour’s core base of support in Scotland, despite decades of appeals to “professional” middle class voters through “modernization” policies. Trade unions, to take one key example, are still by far the biggest funders of Scottish Labour. The result is that loyalty to Labour is corrupting local representation with intellectual complacency and widespread factionalism. Although working class voters may be less inclined to vote Scottish Labour, the tissue of representation is still poisoned by its local feuds and its superstitious respect for “global market forces”.
The Lamont Moment
It might be argued that these factors culminated with the diabolical election performance of Iain Gray’s Labour in 2011. But we wish to extend this a step further. The apogee of Labour’s factional-intellectual crisis has arrived only this year, with Lamont’s attacks on universal benefits and Scotland’s supposed “something for nothing culture”.
Two factors have been identified here. The first is a lack of vision about Scottish taxation that Hassan calls “Block Grant conservatism”. The result of thinking of Holyrood in terms of fixed fiscal parameters is to regard funding as a zero-sum game between “middle class benefits” and tackling poverty. Of course, there is no intellectual wriggle room in this straightjacket, since any leeway is likely to lead to further calls for “fiscal autonomy”, a slippery slope to independence.
A second issue is that Lamont is trying to massage internal disputes between roving bands of councillors, MPs, and MSPs. The attack on “freebies” like free education and prescriptions may satisfy the need for daylight between the SNP and Labour in policy terms. But how will the public respond? The problem is that these “freebies” are inexpensive and highly popular.
The assumption that universal benefits are primarily a tax-break for the middle class, and a distraction from fighting poverty, is also highly dubious. Certainly, there is a problem of poverty in terms of direct material deprivation in Scotland. But often the deepest impact of poverty is the humiliation and stigma of it. Means-testing benefits, to save very meagre sums, will do what it always does: pile up bureaucracies and pile on humiliating poverty exams for the most vulnerable in society.
Even if Labour can successfully mount a defence of this policy, which seems unlikely, there is little prospect of any minor “cost savings” getting used to fight a war on poverty, in any sense of the word. Scottish Labour finds itself on the right of the Scottish government on almost every social issue, never mind Trident and war. At the same time, Labour’s roots and its funding base remains in the trade unions. This settlement is surely unstable and fundamental revisions in Scottish politics are possible.
The many hats of nationalism
While the Lamont factor has forced Labour further to the right, it has reigned in some of the more neoliberal tendencies in the Scottish government, at least temporarily. Education Secretary Mike Russell used a 2006 book to claim that Scotland should scrap universal benefits, as part of a sweeping set of cuts to the public sector. He was forced to retract these claims under pressure. “I am more than prepared to say today that my experience of the recession and the loss of 25,000 university places south of the border makes me believe I was wrong.” It would be foolish to read into this a change of heart from the SNP’s small, but influential, free market wing. What it represents is an attempt to unify the shifting imperatives between Scottish government, SNP party organisation, and the Yes Campaign for 2014. How these tensions play out will shape the future alignments of Scottish politics.
With a more or less fixed income from Holyrood’s block grant, Salmond’s team will be under pressure to make cuts as part of the Britain-wide austerity squeeze. There is no escaping this, all things being equal constitutionally. On the basis of its defence of the NHS, its opposition to tuition fees, and its defence of universalism, the SNP government has a legitimate claim to the identity of “real Labour” against New Labour. But this political manoeuvring does not change the social base of Salmond’s power amongst elements of the new middle class, small businesses, unorganised sections of the working class, and nouveau riche “entrepreneurs”. This clash between collectivist “values” and social structure was dramatised over the N30 strikes, in which SNP ministers happily crossed picket lines. The idea that N30 was an act of London-based “vested interests” with no relevance to Scotland was uncritically accepted in some sections of the Scottish broad Left.
Since the SNP membership is not, and cannot be, built out of trade unions, breaches like this are inevitable. However, this does not mean the SNP is a right-wing wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a party built on the class faultlines of a nationalist platform. There is clearly a very genuine enthusiasm for anti-war and anti-nuclear politics in the SNP ranks. This has been qualified by a sad oversight on Afghanistan, where leaders have stuck to mainstream complacency. But this is a telling contrast with Labour, where any anti-war politics is a dirty secret.
The debate on NATO clearly reveals the fractures of trying to win the public to independence. On the one hand, Yes Scotland repeats the official line: let us not talk about the precise details of a future nation, let us unite for today and all issues can be democratically agreed after 2014. But all the while the media and “civil society” demands answers about “security” after independence. The British establishment is adept at manipulating the politics of fear, and Yes Scotland has no basis to tackle this. Thus, the SNP is buying time with the Left using Yes Scotland’s sterile optimism, while shifting its own positions to make ground to the right in practice. This has already led to a humiliating public spat with the Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie. This wrangling has resolved itself, for the time being, but serious divisions remain over the function of Yes Scotland.
For the time being, the SNP is still clearly to the Left of Scottish Labour. Only the most dogmatic determinist would pretend otherwise. In a peculiar twist, the SNP got a majority of working class votes in 2011. It even managed to break Scotland’s Catholic community away: 43 percent voted SNP against 36 percent for Labour, testament to its break with a toxic perception of pro-Orange politics. But these factors cannot withstand the elements forever. Divisions have been held off for the time being. But after the 2014 referendum the SNP’s contradictions must start to unravel, or it will move back to the right of Labour under pressure from the pro-market wing of the party.
No consideration of the future of the Left can leave aside the question of the extra-parliamentary movements. There are two aspects to consider in this respect: trade unions and protest groups. We would defend the decision to consider these forces separately. Sadly, the evidence of surveys has suggested that these rarely crossover. While there are many honourable counter-examples, we feel these are two separate strands. It goes without saying that it is incumbent on trade union leaders, at the top and the bottom of organisations, to change this.
Trade union adaptation to devolved Scotland has been very uneven. The apparatus of the major, Labour-affiliated unions have been reluctant to acknowledge a Scottish dimension to politics. Many still deny that any substantial changes to the “united British working class” are worthy of consideration, or constitute anything more than a distraction. Labour tribalism is deep rooted in many unions. A huge proportion of trade union officials belong to Labour. Attitudes to devolution have thus often fallen into the same complacent, business-as-usual mode.
However, the STUC has a somewhat different approach. They have a long record of campaigning for devolution, and to some degree have shown willingness to work engage with “Scottish civil society”. This has led, in practice, to a tendency towards “popular front” mobilisations, which are often accused of defining “broadness” by how many priests they can put on a platform. A more radical case is the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which at one stage considered affiliation to the Scottish Socialist Party. The RMT actually affiliated to the SSP, before the split. Sadly these openings have been the exception, not the rule, and the Left has failed to capitalise on disenchantment with New Labour.
Not surprisingly, trade union officials have been awkward and stilted when responding to 2014. They have not given direct material support to Better Together, an openly reactionary coalition of interests which has been startlingly uncritical of the British status quo. An explicitly pro-British line would be difficult to maintain for the unions. Their core supporters are divided, and the most likely supporters of independence are the manual and routine working class. Thus, the unions have instead played a peculiar game of brinksmanship, flirting with devolution max while claiming to “facilitate debate”. Anecdotally, it is often claimed that many trade union leaders actually support independence, and privately they will vote for it. Of course, they can never state this publically, for fear of breaches with London central offices. But many are keeping their options open in this fluid Scottish conjuncture.
By far the most inspiring recent challenges to Scottish neoliberalism have come from outside the organised Left. There is a broad, confused ecosystem of protest movements that has become a significant factor in its own right. The catalyst for this was a highly successful student-led movement against cuts and fees in Scottish universities. This took its momentum from England, but unlike the English movement it was ultimately successful in forcing the SNP into a dramatic policy u-turn prior to the election. The context of anti-cuts protests was undoubtedly a huge factor in Labour’s heavy defeat in 2011.
A significant consequence has been the radicalisation of a layer of young people against the violent arm of the Scottish state, as campaigns have been mounted to defend student protesters against victimisation. But the youth-led protests have reinvigorated other dormant leftist trends: Palestine solidarity, feminism, and anti-racism to name but a few. Perhaps the most inspiring example was the sight of young activists from Coalition of Resistance and the Hetherington Occupation joining with community campaigners to save the Accord Centre in East Glasgow. Meeting the organisational and intellectual needs of this sort of “movement from below” is precisely the reason for rethinking old habits on the Left.
What needs to happen on the Left
Ironically, both the trade union and the protest movement have reached a similar dead end after the concessions post-N30. It is at a time like this when an organised Left is most needed. Sadly, our authority has been badly tarnished by the aftershock of recent splits. Only a Panglossian optimist would claim that the post-SSP left in Scotland has clarified anything about socialist strategy or tactics. The split has generated a volcano of heat and precious little light. Electoral programs of post-SSP groups have been nearly identical. Any promise that the split would bring new opportunities for the Left to relate to political movements has surely been refuted in practice.
We believe that restoring the health of the Left in Scotland requires three points. Left unity, the restoration of working relationships in the post-SSP fragments, is a logical first step. It is very difficult to build trust in wider society when paranoia and suspicion is rife in our own ranks. Some will object that any future moves towards unity, however desirable, must be made Britain-wide. But this does not take full account of the territorial changes in British governance. The Holyrood system offers far greater opportunities for the Left to gain a purchase in parliament. This may not be the end goal of revolutionary politics. But it is surely desirable to have a permanent voice of opposition to cuts, war, racism, and sexism in public focus.
The referendum in 2014, whatever the result, is another reason for restoring working relations in Scotland without waiting for consent to break out in the rest of the UK. The last thing we want is to end up like Scottish Labour, belatedly forced into accepting the need for Scottish organisation after years of pummelling defeats. Left renewal needs to happen. It is our job to ensure that left dis-unity is not a roadblock to the organisational needs of the movement from below. At present, the organised left has a toxic reputation. Only unity can solve this.
The subjective factor, the modification of habits and “behaviour”, is thus highly important. Objective factors do count. But when opportunities open up to shape the debate, the Left’s intervention will be lacking if we put our own bad blood over the needs of the movement. Even if we profess good intentions, an “end to sectarianism”, etc, we must prove it in practice.
A last factor is that the wider, societal left, i.e. those concerned with fundamentally changing the pattern of wealth and power in society, is fragmented across various organisations. Many belong to no group. To win the respect of this group is contingent on left unity and left renewal. That is to say, trade unionists who wish to see a radical left-of-Labour force will not take us seriously until we have won the right to represent the needs of the movement.
In Holyrood, the centre cannot hold, and things as they stand are liable to fall apart. One way or another, this is the trajectory of the 2014 referendum. The SNP’s credibility as a moderate party of government will come to a head with its credibility as a force of constitutional change. Labour’s base of financial support from nurses, school teachers, and cleaners will conflict with the needs to make Westminster the hub of pro-market politics in Europe.
We are not claiming to offer a blueprint for the sort of party we need in the future. It is merely our intention to say that the patterns of the last five years do not have to recur forever as in Groundhog Day. We can choose to put an end to this. Another five years in the ghetto is unforgiveable. The renewed radical left current in Scotland is already emerging from below, and there is space for it to grow. Unity is about ensuring that the toxic waste of past splits does not poison the future.
 On anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal programs, see Daniel Bensaid (2007), “The Return of Strategy”, International Socialism no. 113. See also Alex Callinicos (2003): An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Cambridge: Polity)
 Alf Young (2002), “The Scottish Establishment: Old and New Elites”, in Hassan and Warhurst (eds): Tomorrow’s Scotland (London: Lawrence and Wishart) pp. 154
 Tom Peterkin (2003): “Edinburgh is UK’s Millionaire Hotspot”, The Telegraph 06/02/03
 See Neil Davidson et al. (eds.): Neoliberal Scotland (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press)
 The figure for England is 34 percent. See John Curtice and Rachel Ormston (2011): “Is Scotland More Left-Wing Than England”, British Social Attitudes no. 42
 Iain MacWhirter (2012): “Scottish Labour’s Battles Could Spell the End for the UK”, Herald 20/09/12
 Gordon MacLeod (2002): “From Urban Entrepreneurialism to a ‘Revanchist City’?”, Antipode 34(3)
 Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw (2012): The Strange Death of Labour Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
 Gerry Hassan (2012b): “Let’s Start the Debate over the Future of Scotland’s Social Democracy”, The Scotsman 29/09/12
 Robin McAlpine (2012), “Is this the End of Scottish Labour?”, http://reidfoundation.org/2012/09/is-this-the-end-of-scottish-labour/
 Adrian Cousins (2011): “The Crisis of the British Regime: Democracy, Protest and the Unions”, http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/theory/37-theory/14906-the-crisis-of-the-british-regime-democracy-protest-and-the-unions
 Mark Irvine (2004): “Scotland, Labour and the Trade Union Movement: Partners in Change or Uneasy Bedfellows?”, in Gerry Hassan (ed): The Scottish Labour Party (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
 TNS-BRB (2010): “Independence Poll 13th December 2010”