Aug 05 2002

You are the weakest link! The SSP Special Conference, the Left & the No to the Euro Campaign

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 03RCN @ 12:50 pm

Allan Armstrong (RCN), mover of the active boycott motion assesses the SSP Special Conference

How the debate was handled

The SSP SC on June 22nd, voted by a 4-1 margin to campaign for a no vote when Tony Blair finally decides to set the date for the Euro referendum. An extended morning session was given over to the debate. After some worrying moments, when it looked as if the Chair was going to rig the order of speakers; it became clear that she had made a genuine mistake and the debate was then handled very fairly. Equal time was given to those advocating a ‘no’ position and those wanting an active boycott campaign.

Active boycott motions came from independent Nick Rodgers of the Maryhill branch and from ourselves, the Republican Communist Network, through the Edinburgh South branch. Both were minority motions. The wider support for these motions came from independents. The only other organisations which gave support were the marginal CPGB and AWL, neither of which are directly affiliated SSP Platforms. They primarily intervene through the Workers Unity Platform, which appears to have a semi-detached relationship towards the SSP without regular meetings.

How the no camp presented their case

How was such an obviously sound proposal as an active boycott campaign well defeated at the Conference? The delegate numbers were both smaller and the composition was much more weighted to Platform members compared to the earlier SSP conference in Dundee. By far the greatest number of delegates came from the combined ISM, SWP and CWI Platforms, who all supported a no position. They could also count on the prominent support of Gordon Morgan of the ISG (which hasn’t registered as a Platform) and probably any delegates from an old orthodox CPGB or left Labourist trade union background.

The case coming from the no camp was very routine, and with the exception of the attempt to misrepresent and rubbish the very notion of an active boycott, hardly made any reference to the arguments advanced by ourselves. It was rather as if the no speakers from their various Platforms were repeating the particular arguments advanced in their own prior meetings. Here they wouldn’t have heard or had to deal with opposing positions.

As the debate progressed, Alan McCombes, SSV editor, shrewdly observed the growing problem for the leadership, the ISM and the no coalition. The no speakers had failed to deal with the arguments proposed by active boycott side. Independents were drifting our way. Therefore Alan joined the debate with his own clever manoeuvre. He pointed to a division in the active boycott camp, highlighted by former Labour MEP, Hugh Kerr’s intervention on our side.

Now certainly, until then, we had thought that Hugh, along with Allan Green, were supporters of a yes to the euro position. And it is indeed a rare occasion when Hugh is found voting for RCN proposals! We don’t know whether Hugh, who spoke to, or Allan, who voted for the active boycott, made a purely tactical decision, due to the almost complete absence of support for a yes vote within the SSP ranks. Maybe they were genuinely convinced by our arguments on this issue. Hugh didn’t use his intervention on our side to inveigle a yes position into the debate, so we genuinely welcomed his support. However, Alan McCombes hinted that Hugh was being more Machiavellian. Therefore the active boycott position was really a stalking horse for a yes campaign. And of course, Hugh, who is such a useful left Labour icon to the ISM, when it comes to presenting the SSP as the new old Labour Party to the wider public; is also a useful Aunt Sally for the ISM and others, when they need to brush up their re-re-revolutionary credentials for internal debates!

Divisions in the no camp

It was actually the no camp which was publicly split on the day. The motion from the Dumfries branch wanted to confine the no campaign to the shortest possible period. Now, John Dennis, leading Dumfries activist, has always preferred fighting on economic issues and is suspicious of politicking. Yet, you could sense John’s political fear that the SSP‘s no campaign wouldn’t be the only no show in town. If we campaigned too publicly or too long, we would be associated with some very nasty people. So, quickly in with a special issue of the SSV, a press statement, a few public meetings for sympathisers and then, quickly out before the Tories (or worse) showed up!

Yet it was another motion which got passed on the day which is likely to open up further divisions in the no camp. This was the motion which pledged the SSP to join with others in the fight against the euro. Gordon Morgan, the proposer of the main no motion was obviously worried about the charge the RCN had made in the pre-conference debate against the no camp. This was that any Left no campaign would get subsumed in a much larger Right no campaign and have the effect, as in Denmark, of increasing their – not our political strength.

Gordon emphasised that his proposed anti-euro alliance would only include anti-racist and internationalist groups. At this stage it wasn’t clear which particular no campaign was being proposed. However, in the pre-SC SSV, John Foster advocated a no vote on behalf of the Scottish Democracy Against the Euro campaign. Interestingly, this campaign didn’t officially come into existence until after our SC! It was launched at a press conference held in Glasgow’s City Halls on June 26th. Speakers here included Labour MP, Ian Davidson, Labour MSP, John McAllion, Labour former MEP, Alex Smith, Jane Carolan from the UNISON Executive and Arthur West from Kilmarnock Trades Council. The only political organisation which had affiliated was the Scottish Green Party. However, the SSP National Council, held in Glasgow on August 25th, voted to join.

Now this new affiliation wasn’t reported in the next issue of the SSV, so we have no public statement of the distinctive political position which the SSP leadership wants to put across, nor even of the proposed united front platform which will keep the campaign untarnished by the Right. But to give Gordon (and the SSP leadership) the benefit of the doubt, we can look to the Scottish Green Party news release which declared its own affiliation to Scottish Democracy Against the Euro.

It is important to stress that we Greens are pro-European, but anti- Euro. You don’t have to be a little englander to oppose the single currency – indeed its important for those campaigning for world-wide social justice to stand up to the Euro. We oppose this single currency, not because we want to save the pound, but because we believe the economic logic of the monetary union rides roughshod over our key social and economic concerns.

I don’t it think it would be misrepresenting Gordon to state that he could endorse this statement. Indeed the statement is principled. However, it is also politically naive. If the Scottish Democracy Against the Euro campaign also involves the political forces represented by John Foster, then such internationalism can not be taken for granted. John Foster is a member of the CPB. Along with its sister party, the Communist Party of Scotland, which operates out of the same Glasgow office block, the CPB has long been a supporter of the Scottish Campaign Against Euro-Federalism and its predecessors.

Linking up with the Right

These latter-day, stalinist-initiated campaigns have a long history of working with the Tory Right and other Right populists. When it became clear that the incoming New Labour government of 1997 was likely to push for greater integration with the EU, and for the euro in particular, a Congress for Democracy was organised on the 18th December in 1998. As well as long-standing Labour anti-EU Rightists, Austin Mitchell  MP and Lord Peter Shore, such staunch advocates of democracy as the Tories Michael Portillo, Bill Cash and David Heathcote-Amory, Business for Sterling, the Campaign for an Independent Britain, Sovereign Britain, the UK Independence Party and the Campaign for an Independent Guernsey (!) joined in opposition to the euro with representatives from the Morning Star, the Socialist Campaign Group (Labour Party), Scottish Democracy and the Green Party (it appears that the Scottish Greens’ southern partners aren’t quite so careful in the company they keep!)

That many of these organisations are openly hostile to workers’ aspirations is a mild understatement. That many of these organisations are union jackwaving, pro-imperialist, pro-monarchist, chauvinist nationalists is also well known. The only far right organisations specifically excluded were the fascist BNP and National Front. However, the links between the Tory Right, the populist Right and the fascists are well documented. These were recently highlighted by the BNP leader, Nick Griffin’s Tory father affair! So, although the Tory and populist Right diplomatically went along with the fascist Right’s exclusion from the Congress for Democracy, they are very unlikely to feel so constrained, when the much larger Right-initiated no umbrella organisations start up – particularly now that the BNP can offer significant votes in certain parts of England. The BNP is consciously trying to distance itself from German Nazism, preferring to emphasise its union jackwaving, British nationalism to make rapprochement with the Tory hard Right still more likely.

The flawed record of official and orthodox Communism

When the Labour Government held a referendum in 1975 over membership of the EEC, the then official Communists (still united in the Moscow-franchised CPGB) took a leading part in Britain in trying to organise the Left and trade unionists to vote no. Originally Gordon claimed that, since this political stance coincided with a period of great working class militancy across Europe, then clearly such a campaign didn’t undermine or split the working class. Nothing could be further from the truth and it is rather surprising that Gordon resorted to such an argument. If he were to look at the arguments then used by his own orthodox Trotskyist tradition, he would see the emphasis quite rightly placed on official Communism’s role in massively demobilising the major working class offensive of the time.

Furthermore, the promotion of chauvinist division within the working class and of nationalist unity with the Right was very much part of this. Many of the no to the EEC public meetings were held in CP-controlled Trades Councils. They were often adorned with union jacks and included Tories as platform speakers. This coincided with the period when the new Labour government was trying to promote wage restraint under a Social Contract with the trade union bureaucracy. The complicity of such prominent anti-EEC trade union leaders as the AEU‘s Hugh Scanlon in the demobilisation of workers’ action was justified by the need to defend a Labour government in the national interest. This was also the period when the Labour government, aided and abetted by anti-EEC Labour Party figures, was brutally suppressing resistance in Northern Ireland and upholding the Union, once more under the union jack. When Gordon downplays these dangers is he telling us that he will turn a diplomatic blind eye to our new Scottish Democracy Against the Euro allies’ anti-European, pro- British and sometimes pro-Scottish nationalist politics?

Right and Left linked

Therefore, despite Gordon’s undoubtedly sincere plea for an independent workers’ campaign, the reality is that there will be a linked continuum right across the political spectrum. The SSP joins Scottish Democracy Against the Euro, which includes members of the Scottish Campaign Against a Federal Europe, which promotes links to the Congress for Democracy, which has representatives from the most likely contender for the official No campaign – Business for Sterling’s Europe Yes, Euro No, which the Euro-sceptic right-wing Freedom Association wishes to join and which is not averse to working with the BNP. Which of the interconnected cogs will determine the direction of this political movement? Quite clearly you need to know the balance of forces involved.

In Scotland the lack of an immediate political threat from far Right populists and fascists can lead to a wrong assessment of the balance of class and political power within the UK state – and it is worth emphasising any euro referendum will be conducted throughout the UK. However, if you look to England, it is quite obvious that the Left there (which includes the anti-Euro ISM, Socialist Party and the ISG) is weaker than both the populist and fascist Right (the Tory hard Right, the UK Independence Party, the BNP and NF). Even if the political battle for the leadership of any proposed no campaign was to be confined to these Left and Right forces, the most likely victor would be the Right. This is exactly what happened to the Danish Green-Red Alliance when it lost out heavily to the Right populist Peoples Party, when it campaigned against the euro.

However, the situation is much more dangerous in the UK because significant sections of pro-imperialist, US-orientated big business, represented by the Tory mainstream, are also opposed to the euro being extended to the UK. Unlike the Tory hard Right they aren’t necessarily anti-EU (even Thatcher approved the Maastricht Treaty), or even anti the euro for the rest of the EU, since The City currently makes massive profits acting as an offshore bank handling the euro currency, just as the Isle of Man (and Guernsey?!) does for the UK sterling. This will be the principal force behind Business for Sterling’s Europe yes. Euro no campaign.

And all the indications are that the business-led Business for Sterling is the central cog which will determine the direction of the others. The Eurosceptic, left initiated, Congress for Democracy and the Eurosceptic right wing Freedom Alliance, have both declared they will water down their anti-EU stance to concentrate on the euro. This doesn’t mean there wont be a well-financed, ultra-chauvinist, openly anti-EU campaign. Multi-millionaire Paul Sykes intends to spend £5M on this. Whilst some no campaigners will no doubt be happy to see clear blue water between the two main campaigns, there will still be blue land on either shore – with Tories on both no sides.

The notion that the SSP‘s distinctive politics will stand out clearly against the media barrage from all these Right forces is very unlikely. If the media bother to report us at all, they will add us as the last line in reports of the large Right controlled campaigns. To make any impact we need to be saying something distinctive. Even in Scotland, mainstream Tories still represent a larger political force than the SSP. Although they don’t make much impression in Scottish or Westminster parliamentary politics, precisely because of this weakness, many ordinary members now resort to independent populist campaigns – such as the homophobic Keep The Clause (Section 28/Clause 2A) and the Countryside Alliance. At the UK level the Tories remain her majesty’s loyal opposition, still a significant, if ailing, political force. They will also be able to call on major sections of the press, particularly Rupert Murdoch, to support them.

Those SSP SC delegates who argued for a no position made no attempt to deal with the political nature of the wider opposition to the euro. Nor did they even consider the likely balance of forces involved. Yet, reality tends to assert itself even if unconsciously. It is quite clear that nobody in the no camp believes that Scottish Democracy Against the Euro can win control of the wider no movement. For neither in the motion, nor in the arguments put forward, was the only logical political aim advanced if such a winning scenario is envisaged. If the SSP and wider Left are to take the political spoils on the morning after a majority no vote in the referendum, then they must be ready to form a workers’ government and nationalise the banks! Otherwise, the morning after, it will still be Sir Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, appointed by Chancellor Gordon Brown, in full charge. He is no more accountable to the people of these islands than the head of the European Central Bank. He answers to The City (and Wall Street). George and his full-time officials have already declared their neutrality in any referendum debate, a considerable weakness for Blair’s Britain in Europe yes campaign.

The situation elsewhere in these islands

Furthermore, despite Gordon’s advocacy of an internationalist campaign, he doesn’t appear to have considered the even stronger position of the Right in England and Northern Ireland. If Gordon’s ISG comrades in England also have their heads in the sand, how about their comrades in Socialist Democracy in Ireland? The overwhelming political support for anti-euro politics in Northern Ireland comes from the forces of reaction – both wings of the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the loyalist PUP (and if they give it a political thought between their ongoing pogroms, the paramilitaries in the UVF, UDA and LVF too). Now of course, the nationalist Sinn Fein is also opposed to the EU – on paper. In practice, Sinn Fein knows that the EU is popular amongst the wider nationalist constituency and therefore confines its opposition to particular issues – such as the Nice Treaty (this threatens Irish neutrality – and also the large EU subsidies to Irish farmers!) Sinn Fein, however, was remarkably quiet when the euro replaced the Irish punt last January. Indeed, during the first few days of the euro’s introduction to Ireland, the nationalist response on the ground in Belfast seemed to be to get the Irish-faced euro coins circulating as quickly as possible as an alternative to British coins!

Socialist Democracy’s response to the result of the Irish Nice Treaty referendum was much cooler than the politics of their mainland ISG colleagues would suggest. This was despite an embarrassing political defeat for Fianna Fail government and a considerable increase in Sinn Fein’s electoral credibility. This is because Socialist Democracy comrades have been through a major internal debate to overcome their one-time overly uncritical attitude to the politics of the Republican Movement. They inherited this initial attitude from the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, which has always tended to tailend left nationalist forces – a tendency known as Pabloism to aficionados of internal Trotskyist politics. Pabloism like its Stalinist competitors dresses up left nationalism in socialist colours. Now, if Gordon thinks through the logic of his politics he should be calling for Socialist Democracy to approach Sinn Fein for a united no campaign against the euro. Remember the need to maximise the no vote across the UK! Yet what happens if the CWI‘s Socialist Party (6 Counties) invites the PUP to any proposed no campaign? Maybe the joint no campaign could hold meetings under the union jack and the tricolour – but don’t ask for any delegates from east Belfast’s Short Strand!

The changed political situation in Scotland

Despite Gordon’s still tentative support for Scottish nationalism, he doesn’t appear to have considered the important political shifts on the issue of Europe since 1975. Then the SNP joined with the largely Labour Left in supporting withdrawal from the EEC in 1975. This helped to contribute to the significantly larger no vote in Scotland, 42% compared with 33% in the UK as a whole. Nowadays the SNP is almost as pro-EU as the Liberal Democrats. One consequence of the SNP‘s pro-EU stance today, is that there may now be greater support for the euro here than in the wider UK. Now, if Gordon thinks that Scotland showed its lefter credentials in 1975 by voting no to the EEC in greater proportion, then what would a proportionally smaller no to the euro vote in Scotland next year represent politically?!

This political change in Scotland is one reason why Allan Green and Hugh Kerr would prefer to link up with Alex Neill on the SNP left in a more pro-European campaign. Alex Neill has also been an ally of Tommy Sheridan in the Scottish parliament. Interestingly, Tommy has remained very quiet over the Euro!

The problem the nationalist Left has, is highlighted by the SSP‘s SRSM. Do they support the no campaign advocated by the Independent Socialist Scotland ISM leadership, despite their justified fear of union jacks being given a new lease of life; or do they follow the SNP into the yes camp, where blue saltires are likely to be found in greater number, but still overshadowed by Britain in Europe’s union jacks! The SRSM have not been able to solve this great conundrum, since their delegates abstained at the Glasgow special conference. Yet Gordon could still find an anti-EU Scottish nationalist wing, although not a very reassuring one. It is ideologically dominated by the self-declared, ultra-nationalist, ethnicist, militarist Siol nan Gaidheal (Seed of the Gael), with its black saltires.

An internationalism without substance

Yet there was a further weakness at the Special Conference. Gordon’s pre-SC paper advocated a campaign that could call local meetings and regional and national rallies with labour movement speakers from Scotland, England, Wales, from other European countries and from Africa, Asia and South America. This seems to highlight the internationalist connections needed by any genuine socialist campaign. Yet, on the day of the SC (in contrast to the earlier conference) there were no official representatives from any of these places – not our European socialist allies, nor even the Socialist Alliance in England.

There was no shortage of internationalist rhetoric from the SWM at the SC . Speakers punctuated their contributions with regular references to the brilliant anti-capitalist movement, the brilliant demonstrations in Genoa and Barcelona, and of course, the brilliant Globalise Resistance. Yet, they too failed to use their national influence in the SSP to push for international speakers on the day. One possible reason for the failure to invite international speakers, is that many other European socialists don’t support the Brit Left’s anti-euro stance – seeing it as an accommodation to reactionary British nationalism. Whilst SSP,  ISM and SWP delegates now regularly attend various European socialist forums it just doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to seek political support for their anti-euro stance. Is this because they know they may face a political challenge from bigger political forces? – better leave the no campaign as a purely British or Scottish affair!

Blair’s real political game

Speaker after speaker for the no position argued that Blair was pushing the euro so that he could impose the Maastricht Treaty convergence criteria in the UK in order to cut public spending and open up the way for further privatisation. This reveals a completely wrong understanding of the reason behind Blair’s pro-euro stance. The UK, under Thatcher, Major and Blair, has gone further with and met the convergence criteria earlier than any other EU member country. Blair wants to join the euro, to put himself at the centre of a political alliance with Berlusconi and Aznar, the better to roll back the more advanced social provision existing in the EU. This provision is codified in the Social Chapter, but in reality only implemented where workers are well organised – particularly in Italy and France. The idea that there still remain better working conditions to defend over here is a bad joke.

Therefore the starting point of any genuine internationalist campaign is solidarity support for those millions of Italian workers who struck earlier this year to protect workers’ rights in smaller workplaces; and those workers in Spain who struck against pension cuts. The European Socialist left needs to draw up its own wider Workers’ and Social Charter and organise a series of massive international demonstrations against Blair/Berlusconi/Aznar and the Eurobosses in each of their capital cities. If the SSP throws its weight behind a no to the euro campaign this not only isolates us from our class’s main fighting forces in Europe. It also makes it harder to distinguish us from all the Right populist and fascist forces in Europe who oppose the euro.

The political preconditions for a successful campaign, which will emphasise the rights of workers and the oppressed, is a refusal to take sides with either wing of capitalism represented in the yes and no camps. This means an active boycott campaign. This was the one idea which many nos tried to pour scorn on. There were two main responses. The first was to deliberately misrepresent an active boycott campaign as passive abstention. The second was to pretend there could be no such political animal as an active boycott campaign.

The reality of active boycott campaigns

However, just the month before, 1,738,000 voters in France had spoiled their ballot papers, rather than vote for Chirac or Le Pen. This represented 4.4% of the electorate, despite the LCR advocating a vote for Chirac, and despite LO being slow to promote such an approach, and refusing to conduct a political campaign directed at the LCR‘s youth base, which was prepared to defy the LCR leadership over the issue.

Perhaps Gordon wanted to direct attention away from ISG‘s sister organisation, the LCR. By recommending a vote for Chirac in the French presidential election they have caused controversy inside the ISG. Fellow ISG and SSP member, Campbell MacGregor, was given space in Socialist Outlook no 56 to oppose the LCR‘s support for Chirac. Gordon is in alliance with the ISM leadership over the no to the euro position. The USFI is making overtures towards the ISM and he will be aware of the LCR apologetic article in their Frontline 7 – Political earthquake in France. However, it was Nick Clarke of the RCN who punctured some SSP delegates’ mocking non recognition of an active boycott campaign. He reminded the delegates that the SSP had organised its own active boycott in the face of Brian Souter’s ‘Keep the Clause’ referendum in 2002 and that this campaign had involved direct action and not a mere binning of the ballot paper.

So, where do we go from here? The debate was conducted fairly, even if we didn’t like the result, so the RCN will not be attempting to organise an independent campaign outside the SSP. Instead, as the contradictions of the no position become more apparent, we will highlight these, hoping to make other comrades see the folly of providing voting fodder for The City and the Right. In the meantime we must take the argument into England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where socialists still haven’t decided on the issue.

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One Response to “You are the weakest link! The SSP Special Conference, the Left & the No to the Euro Campaign”

  1. Emancipation & Liberation » Emancipation & Liberation, Issue 3, Autumn 2002 says:

    […] You are the weakest link! The SSP Special Conference, the Left & the No to the Euro Campaign, Allan Armstrong […]

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