The ‘National Conversation’ prepares the way for further reform of the

What do the results of the recent elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, and the Irish Dail, mean for the future of the UK? What is the political significance of Salmond’s ‘National Conversation’?

This is a contribution by the Republican Communist Platform in the SSP to the debate. It questions the SSP leadership’s approach through an examination of two Frontline articles – Scotland’s Independence Election by Andrew Grey, and Celtic Tigers? The SNP In Government by Nick McKerrall, both members of the former ISM Platform.

The ISM and the SSP

How does the SSP leadership view the current situation in Scotland? Since the old ISM platform folded, in March 2006, you have to look to key articles in Frontline to find out more about their underlying thinking. ISM members formed the majority of the past leaderships of the old SSA and the SSP. Ex-ISM members form the majority of the current SSP leadership. Frontline represents an ISM political afterlife of sorts – a ‘Continuity ISM’.

ISM politics have dominated the SSA, the united SSP and, despite the ISM’s demise, still dominate the post-split SSP. They also still inform Tommy Sheridan’s views about Scotland. He is the only public voice of the 2006 SSP breakaway, Solidarity, when it comes to their line on Scotland. This remains the case, despite any reservations held by his current CWI and SWP allies concerning Tommy’s Left nationalism.

Left nationalism sees any moves to devolve power from Westminster as a useful step towards an independent Scotland, whatever class makes the proposals, for whatever reasons. Left nationalists claim that an independent Scotland would allow the Scottish people’s more left-of-centre politics to naturally assert itself, leaving the way open for a ‘Scottish road to socialism’.

ISM splintered over the years of its existence for a number of reasons. One reason, of course, was that, since it dominated the SSP leadership, some of its prominent members felt no need for a distinctive Platform to argue their politics. Another, though, was the political trajectory of those who had come from the Militant/CWI tradition.

Originally, Militant had rooted itself in the Left Labourist milieu. It proclaimed itself – in public anyhow – to be in the tradition of the ‘good old Labour Party’, as established by Keir Hardie[1]All Hail the Workers’ Republic and the Struggle for a Communist World – A contribution to the debate on Scotland in the Scottish Socialist Alliance (AHtWR) pp. 3-23, The Communist Tendency in the Workers Republican Movement, 1998. Not surprisingly, this placed Militant within the wider Left unionist camp, which equated the unity of a British working class with the unity of the British state. They followed a ‘British road to socialism’.

Later, influenced by the struggle against the poll tax and the movement for greater democracy in Scotland, Militant moved away from Left unionism – in Scotland at least, if not in Wales, and certainly not in Northern Ireland. The CWI adopted the formally Left nationalist position of an ‘independent socialist Scotland’.

For the CWI leadership, however, this was only ever a paper policy to be wheeled out for propaganda purposes, whenever the SNP appeared to be gaining significant political influence. Nevertheless, the CWI’s initial approval of Scottish Militant Labour, followed by the setting up of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, in 1996, eventually led to the breakaway ISM being formed in Scotland, in 2001. This was led by Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan, and was supported by the majority of former Scottish CWI members. The new ISM took the CWI’s ‘independent socialist Scotland’ slogan more seriously.

The political move away from Left unionism began a process, which pushed the old ISM leadership towards more fully Left nationalist positions. It is difficult, though, to move coherently from Left unionism to Left nationalism. The trail is strewn with individuals, stuck at various points between these two poles. The CWI rump in Scotland, which didn’t follow the ISM majority, is still to be found at the Left unionist pole, notoriously so with regard to Northern Ireland (although quite a few former ISM members still hold on to aspects of their old CWI training over this issue.)

Furthest away, at the Left nationalist pole (not counting Kevin Williamson, who has quit the pro-party ISM tradition altogether and become a prominent spokesperson for the non-and-cross party, ‘Independence First’), is Tommy Sheridan of Solidarity. He, more than any other key individual, from the now defunct ISM, looks to the SNP to open up the road to socialism in Scotland. Despite his own shattering personal defeat on election night, Sheridan welcomed the victory of the SNP. One of his closest advisors is ex-Labour MEP, Hugh Kerr. Back in 2005, Kerr raised the prospect of the SSP standing down in the first-past-the-post seats, in the forthcoming Holyrood election, in favour of the SNP. He backed down when he saw how unpopular that was going to be amongst SSP members. Nevertheless, the 2005 Conference went on to ensure that such a political course was specifically rejected.

Ironically, both the Left unionist CWI (and SWP), and the Left nationalist Sheridan, are now to be found together in Solidarity. The majority of ex-ISM members, though, have remained in the SSP. Their members are still to be found at various points along the Left unionist/Left nationalist line.

Colin Fox perhaps best represents those few ex-ISM members who still look back to Kier Hardie and the old Left Labour tradition. Sometimes Colin invokes the notion of a ‘British Republic’; at other times, he goes along with the ‘independent socialist Scotland’ line. Colin knows, however, that he must now look outside the ranks of the old ISM to find much political support for his views on the National Question.

Alan McCombes, the SSP’s key political strategist, most clearly represents those ex-ISM members, still in the party, who have moved furthest along the Left nationalist line. Alan acknowledged the influence of the avowedly Left nationalist, Scottish Republican Socialist Movement upon his thinking at their Convention, held in Glasgow, on August 3rd. Also present was Carolyn Leckie, one of our former MSPs (although never in the ISM). She is a passionate believer in the Scottish nationalist road to socialism. Left nationalist thinking, along the lines adhered to by Alan and Carolyn, dominates Frontline, when it comes to addressing the situation in Scotland. Other writers, though, do express some reservations about how far the SSP should accommodate the SNP.

Although Frontline usually adopts a Left nationalist stance, it does make an occasional nod towards a sentimental republicanism. The RCN has undoubtedly played a key part in dragging republicanism from the margins towards the mainstream of the SSP ’s thinking – if not so much the SSP’s practice!

It is significant that, when a choice had to be made between pursuing a Scottish internationalist republican, or a Left Scottish nationalist strategy, at the SSP’s last united conference in 2006, both Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan (despite having fallen out personally over Sheridan’s egotistical, anti-party behaviour) got up to support the latter course of action. Alan and Tommy both opposed the RCN’s continued defence of the SSP’s republican strategy enshrined in the Calton Hill Declaration. This strategy had been agreed, by a large majority, at the 2005 SSP Conference. Instead, Alan and Tommy argued for the SSP to fall in behind the liberal nationalist, Scottish Independence Convention (SIC)[2]The SSP and the Scottish Independence Convention – A Scottish internationalist and republican response (SSP and SIC) – Republican Communist Network, 6.5.06. Conference followed their lead.

When key SNP members put the SIC on hold, the SSP leadership’s next port of call was ‘Independence First’[3]The SSP , ‘Independence First’ and the Scottish Independence Referendum – A Scottish internationalist and republican response (SSP and IF), Republican Communist Network, 2.12.06. This populist organisation, which has support from the Communist Party of Scotland on the Left, through the Greens, to the neo-liberal, Scottish Enterprise Party and the Right militarist, Siol nan Gaidheal, campaigns for an independence referendum. ‘Independence First’ is led by those nationalist fragments, which the SNP leadership wants to keep firmly at arm’s length.

Despite the now profound and often intense personal divisions between leading figures in the
SSP and the breakaway Solidarity, both Carolyn Leckie and Sheridan shared the ‘Independence First’ platform at its March 31st pre-election rally, earlier this year. When it comes to Left nationalist thinking, leaders in the SSP and the leader of Solidarity still share a common approach.

Frontline on the ‘Independence Election’ and the SNP ‘Celtic Tiger’

So, how does the present, ex-ISM dominated, SSP leadership view current developments in Scotland? The front covers of the two recent issues of Frontline, Volume 2, nos. 3 and 4 (pre and post May 3rd Holyrood election) are quite revealing[4]Frontline, An independent Marxist voice in the SSP , Volume 2, Issues nos. 3 & 4.

The pre-election, Frontline 3, is bold and confident. It has a socialist red masthead, and a cover photograph from the very successful republican Calton Hill demonstration held in Edinburgh on October 9th 2004. It shows an SSP banner depicting John Maclean – the leading advocate of a Scottish Workers’ Republic as part of a new world communist order. Behind the banner is shown ‘Edinburgh’s Folly’, the uncompleted Parthenon-style monument on Calton Hill, meant to celebrate Britain’s imperial victories over France in the Napoleonic Wars. (Today it’s not the British war memorials, which remain uncompleted, it’s the ‘victories’ themselves which are unachievable.)

In contrast, the post-election Frontline 4 has a more subdued Scottish nationalist blue masthead. The photograph on the cover shows two supporters, from an ‘Independence First’ demonstration, holding a banner depicting Scotland’s royal standard – the lion rampant. Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel (the old North British) is in the background.

However, if you examine the political lead articles, highlighted on the covers of these two consecutive issues, it becomes easier to understand how Frontline’s change of tone came about. Issue 3 proclaims, Scotland’s Independence Election – no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’ – and certainly no question mark. Issue 4 is more tentative and questioning – Celtic Tigers? The SNP In Government.

The attitude the SSP should take towards, what was then, the still forthcoming Holyrood election, is shown by the Editorial in Frontline 3. Many in Scotland may not have come to conclusions about socialism yet many feel that Britain doesn’t work for them and want to see radical change. For them, to vote for independence is an expression of that. The Editorial is immediately followed by the article, Scotland’s Independence election, written by editorial board member, Andrew Grey. It looks forward to what the May elections will mean for Scottish politics.

Andrew’s introduction begins with Sir James Ogilvy’s famous quote, made upon the signing of the Act of Union, in 1707. Now there’s ane end of ane auld sang. However, Andrew goes on to look forward to the 2007 elections to Holyrood, which may prove to be the first note in {the Union’s} long-delayed swan song.

Andrew follows this with an assessment of the SNP’s electoral prospects – SNP Surge. His prediction of the SNP emerging as the largest party, but not winning an overall majority, has turned out to be accurate. He then goes on to examine the likelihood of the SNP being able to form a coalition government, seeing this possibility as being dependent on the Lib-Dems. Over both these predictions, Andrew draws similar conclusions to the RCN before the election[5]SSP and SIC, op. cit., pp 5-7..

Andrew continues with his third section – The SSP. This takes on the SSP ’s Left unionists, although here he seems to be mainly addressing the arguments of the ex-Socialist Worker Platform. Their members have now decamped to Solidarity, where, as long as they continue to sing Tommy’s praises in public, they can openly operate as the Socialist Worker Party.

The question Andrew poses to the Left unionists is, Does a call for Scottish independence advance or hinder the movement for socialism? He answers this question affirmatively in his fourth section – The End of the Union? Andrew builds up the argument. When {not if} a referendum takes place, the majority of the Scottish electorate would incline towards the dissolution of the Union. Every poll taken since June 1998 has shown a lead for the pro-independence position. But how many of those polls gave other options, such as more devolved powers or a federal UK? And, what does Andrew now make of the September 2nd TNS System 3 poll on independence, which only gave this option 35% support, despite the SNP itself riding at its highest levels of support ever[6]Referendum: 50% would vote No 35% Yes, Paul Hutcheon, The Sunday Herald, 2.9.07?

This section of Andrew’s article does express the reservations he then held about the SNP’s immediate electoral prospects. But Andrew can’t restrain his euphoria for long. It is surely odds on that the May election will signal the start of a seismic shift in the Scottish political landscape. Serious debate about constitutional arrangements will… become a live issue for a wide layer of the working class. Independence, so long the subject of abstract argument, is beginning to look like tangible reality. Yes, the earth is beginning to move for Andrew!

SNP electoral advance – Left gain or setback?

The problem here is that Andrew equates the working class’s future prospects with significant SNP electoral gains. Now the SNP did make progress on May 3rd, but most of this was at the expense of the Left (and Independents) rather than of Labour. Furthermore, a Right-moving SNP has every interest in ensuring that the independence issue remains an abstract argument, perhaps supplemented by resort to such New Labour-type platitudes as ‘modernisation’ and ‘greater prosperity’. If the SNP were to link the issue of independence to any programme, which seriously addressed working class needs, its new-found big business support and funding would disappear more quickly than sunshine in Dunoon last summer!

Andrew moves down a gear in his fifth section – Independence and Socialism. Arguing for the much greater prospects that Scottish independence would bring, he cites the case offered by that New Labour creation, the Holyrood Parliament. Devolution, while very limited, was a clear democratic advance that the SSP was able to exploit, building the party into a vibrant progressive force both nationally and on the wider European stage.

Then Andrew’s buoyant enthusiasm spills over once more. The rupture of the union {represented by Scottish independence} would be a political earthquake, calling into question the legitimacy of political institutions that have seemed set in stone, and creating fertile ground for a party offering radical ideas about the transformation of society. Yes, it’s a ‘second coming’ for Andrew!

The major gains, made by the SSP in May 2003, were against the background of massive international anti-war demonstrations, not least the 100,000 who marched in Glasgow on February 15th that year. Just as importantly, the SSP had united nearly all the Left in Scotland in one organisation – no mean achievement.

The failure of the Anti-War Movement to prevent the invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent defeats of the FBU-led firefighters, and the UNISON-led nursery nurses in Scotland, have all contributed to an overall decline in working class confidence and consciousness. With or without ‘Tommygate’, 2007 was going to be a hard year for the Left in Scotland. Just look at the setbacks for Left and radical-appearing parties elsewhere, without such internal problems. On May 27th, Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party lost his seat in the Irish Dail. Sinn Fein also lost a seat and their vote fell back badly in Dublin. In Scotland, the Greens did not fare too well either on May 3rd.

In his final section, Fighting for Votes, Andrew does make an important observation. As a result of our earlier Holyrood successes, At times we have come close to falling by default into a unconscious parliamentary left-reformist position. However, Andrew misses a key point, which helps to explain some of the SSP’s electoral decline. The degree to which our individual campaigns, whether over the council tax or free school meals, develop a popular appeal, is the degree to which such policies are taken over, in watered down form, by Labour, the Lib-Dems, or the SNP. Therefore, the SSP has to win wider support for its full socialist aims, if we are to extend our base more effectively.

Andrew half recognises this when he approvingly quotes an old Militant pamphlet. The way to the masses is through unconditional and determined support for every partial reform movement… all the time posing the general socialist alternative to the piece meal gradualism of the reformists. Our socialist, ‘People not Profit’ campaign is designed to perform this role. The problem, though, is that unless this is supplemented by an active campaign over the SSP’s other Conference-agreed, policy, ‘Citizens not Subjects’, the field is still left clear for the constitutional politics of the SNP.

The SNP’s version of independence can appear to be all things to all people, but in reality it is designed to advance the interests of Scottish business in a world dominated by the executives of the global corporations, whose priorities must be accepted. Without fighting for key democratic, secular and republican demands in the here and now, independence remains either somewhat abstract, or a populist cover for continued dependence on business tycoons and NATO, clerical interference in the affairs of the state and hence and our lives, and subjection to the UK state’s anti-democratic Crown Powers.

Moreover, the Left’s failure to end the war by means of independent mass action has led many one-time SSP voters, (and voters for other radical parties, elsewhere) to look to softer parliamentary options. This May, the SNP were able to take advantage of that shift. They hoovered up the protest vote. The SNP did well because they weren’t New Labour, just as New Labour did well in 1997 because they weren’t the Tories. This also helps to explain the gap in the polls between support for the SNP and for Scottish independence. Significantly though, both the SNP in 2007, and Labour in 1997, had previously won significant business backing. With plentiful funds, both parties were able to campaign as the party most likely to defeat the discredited incumbent government. In the absence of any wider movement other parties fell by the wayside.

In 1997, the newly founded Scottish Socialist Alliance knew it was fighting against the New Labour tide (and most of the rest of the Left) when we put up candidates. Nevertheless, we confidently looked to the future, and reaped our reward in 2003. In 2007, we still put up candidates, but the SSP never attacked the SNP’s political strategy. We ended up tailing their call for an independence referendum. Our Conference policy of ‘Citizens not Subjects’, got a brief airing in Scottish Socialist Voice[7]Scottish citizens not British subjects, Mary McGregor, Scottish Socialist Voice, 23.3.07, but was then dropped without trace. Many in the SSP appear to share similar illusions in the SNP today to those once held by the rest of the Left in New Labour – remember Vote Labour without illusions!

The SSP split and the politics of denial

Lastly, whilst Andrew does mention certain difficulties, such as the SSP is not in as good shape as it might have been, he never once mentions the disastrous split, which entirely undermined a large part of our appeal in 2003 – the SSP’s ability to unite the Left. Furthermore, if soft electoral options appear to be one choice for a demoralised electorate, another is voting for would-be saviours – be they ‘Tommy’, or ‘Gorgeous George’ in England. The SNP also played upon the cult of the personality, with its ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’ to head the ballot papers.

Solidarity is responsible for the split which decimated the Left vote in May. Nevertheless, Solidarity’s populism and personality-cult polled better than the SSP’s socialist politics. As yet, the SSP has not properly addressed the woeful politics behind populism, and why, as a consequence of its appeal, it was the SSP which apparently ‘took the most hits’, in terms of electoral support, as a consequence of ‘Tommygate’.

As it turns out, although the good ship SSP lost all of its above deck fixtures in the May 3rd electoral conflagration, it will probably survive. The crew’s main loyalty lies with the ship. The gaudily decorated, end-of season, cruise boat Solidarity, initially looked less damaged, but suffered much more lethal damage ‘below the waterline’, when Sheridan failed to get re-elected. There are already signs of some of its crew taking to their ‘Party lifeboats’ before Solidarity goes under.

However, the SSP has to fully address its own weaknesses too. The current departure and likely future demise of Solidarity will not solve our problems. Anyone who looks to the state’s police enquiry, or to the News of the World’s court appeal, to restore the SSP’s fortunes, has little understanding of how these events will be understood by the working class. Instead of the SSP being exonerated, many workers will only see a legacy of unprincipled division and back-biting on the Left, and either lose interest in politics, or offer their support to other parties like the SNP.

Andrew’s article is able to finish off on a note of optimism by not taking the consequences of the hugely damaging split into consideration. He claims that the forthcoming Holyrood election can be used to consolidate {our} potential support {in the communities and workplaces} and recruit a proportion of its members to the party. At least Andrew doesn’t try to invoke a climax akin to Scotland’s away win against France in Paris – more like a win in Kaunas against Lithuania. Yet, when SSP members woke up on May 4th, it felt far more like a drubbing by the Faeroes at Hampden Park!

After the election – new doubts …

By the time Frontline 4 appeared, ex-ISM members had time to take stock of the new political situation. Another editorial board member, Nick McKerrell, quickly glosses over the massacre of the SSP vote, concentrating instead on the SNP’s (still limited) ability to muscle into traditional New Labour territory.

Nick downplays the source for many of the new SNP votes – one-time SSP supporters. Perhaps he adheres to the notion of an anti-unionist alliance, where the only significant voting shift is from unionists to nationalists. Yet, there is no political reality behind the idea of a shared anti-unionist alliance. Back in 1997 the newly-founded SSA did not believe it held anything in common with New Labour and the Lib-Dems, just because we too were recipients of the anti-Tory vote. New Labour already bore much more similarity to the detested Tories; just as the SNP today has more in common with the discredited unionist parties. The SNP has been quick to form Local Council coalitions with the unionist Lib-Dems.

The striking feature about Nick’s article – Celtic Tigers? The SNP in Government -compared to Andrew’s, is its more measured tone, reflected by that question mark in the title. It looks at the prospects for Scottish society and politics as the Scottish National Party take power for the first time in the Scottish Parliament. Nick’s hesitation shows up throughout his article. He chronicles the Rightwards moving trajectory of the SNP with its business backers.

Nick’s introduction mentions the new political situation created by the formation of a minority SNP/Green administration, which nobody, including the RCN, predicted. Salmond’s government has enjoyed a honeymoon period, with press providing plaudits for his promotion of a new consensus politics. Back in 1997, New Labour enjoyed a similar honeymoon period, with press and celebrities giving their public backing for the new politics in ‘Blair’s Britain’ – remember the embarrassing ‘Cool Britannia’ hype!

The SNP has also quickly introduced a number of welcome measures, particularly the saving of the Accident and Emergency units at Monklands and Ayr, in response to strong grass roots campaigns in the area. However, back in 1997, the incoming New Labour government at Westminster also introduced the minimum wage. The first New Labour-led Scottish Executive scrapped the homophobic Section 2A, and introduced the Land Reform Act, upholding the right to roam.

However, as with New Labour in the past, so with the SNP’s own reforming measures today, they do not alter the true nature of the new administration. Despite those small concessions made after 1997, New Labour knew that its real job was to continue the Thatcherite offensive, after the Tories had lost all credibility. Its business backers demanded as much. The SNP has yet to win as much heavyweight business backing as New Labour, and have a long way to go before they win over Murdoch’s media in Scotland, but they are following a similar neo-liberal trajectory nevertheless.

Nick’s contribution is good when it outlines the early danger signs already shown by Salmond’s actions and words. Nick makes the following astute observations. Salmond’s populist election campaign has been followed by a Scottish Government with an element of Bonapartism in it… At one level this is very similar to Blair’s style of leadership. Salmond’s first Parliamentary address was littered with phrases like, ‘We see barriers to business as barriers to national progress’. And, perhaps most worryingly of all is his allegiance to the monarch, which gained him the support of Ian Paisley.

If Gordon Brown can have tea with Margaret Thatcher in September, Salmond seemed quite comfortable joking with the Queen, at the royal opening of Holyrood in July – much to New Labour’s chagrin![8]Salmond’s speech angers Labour, The Herald, 21.7.07 He has already met the queen at least half a dozen times. Back in June, Salmond received a letter by royal command… graciously asking him} to join the Privy Council[9]Blair makes contact with Salmond, The Herald, 15.6.07. This is the body with the power to run the UK when Parliament is suspended. Another recent member is Ian Paisley!

… and renewed illusions

Yet, despite all his warnings, Nick still falls back on, There is a radical element which the SNP leadership cannot escape and this is the struggle for independence. Although Nick mentions the SNP’s attempt to dampen expectations, he goes on to argue that, If the SNP leadership seek to back down on the {independence referendum} or water {it} down… this could spark a revolt within the party and the broader struggle for independence.

Well, Salmond has done exactly that. The independence referendum has been watered down to become the ‘National Conversation’, outlined in the Scottish Government White Paper, Choosing Scotland’s Future[10]A National Conversation: Independence and Responsibility in the Modern World, Scottish Executive, 2007. Yet, there is little sign of a revolt within the party. Both the party’s rank and file ‘independistas’, and the non-Party ‘Independence First’, need an SNP government a lot more than it needs them. Salmond’s sights are quite deliberately focussed elsewhere. He knows the more he ignores the wishes of his ordinary party members, the more support he will get from big business and key sections of the press. It’s a trick he has learned from Blair.

Salmond is currently the smartest political operator to be found in Scotland. He has run rings around New Labour here. He also knows, though, that his high personal ratings cannot last forever. But it took ten years before Blair was ousted as New Labour leader. That’s a long time in politics. This could allow an ‘independence-lite’ SNP, committed to running the local economy on behalf of global capital, to take deeper root. But, if any internal opposition does emerge in the SNP, Salmond can take heart from the failure of John McDonnell to mount a challenge to Gordon Brown, or the Scottish Labour ‘Campaign for Socialism’ to even find a candidate to challenge Wendy Alexander! Any real opposition to the ‘New SNP’ project will have to be formed outside the SNP.

Salmond knows how to handle any potential internal party dissent. He made sure that there was a definite manifesto commitment to introduce a White Paper with a promise of a later independence referendum in the first hundred days of an SNP government. That was enough to stop any dissident SNP figure addressing the ‘Independence First’ demonstration on March 31st in Edinburgh. It turned out to be smaller than their first demonstration held on September 30th, 2006, and a tenth of the size of the Orange Order’s demonstration, held the previous week, on the same streets, to celebrate 300 years of Union[11]This shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the relative strengths of support for independence and the Union. Salmond had persuaded most party members that mobilisation for an independence referendum was unnecessary. The Orange Order, on the other hand, fears any reform of the Union, and detecting further unwanted changes, took to the streets. It was the only force in Scotland to mobilise and publicly celebrate 300 years of Union. Grand Master, Ian Wilson, addressed the rally. Our parade today will be led by Scotland’s ancient saltire, and the colours of the Union. It is Scotland that put the blue in the Union Flag. See

Salmond’s ability to check the SNP’s ‘independista’ wing was further demonstrated at the SRSM’s August 3rd Scottish Republican Convention.Dr. Bill Wilson, one-time Left nationalist contender for the SNP leader’s post, sent his diplomatic apologies for not being able to attend. Since then, ‘Independence First’ has welcomed the ‘National Conversation’, seeking only to organise a new referendum – in order to push the government to hold the referendum it promised! Is this the “spark” Nick thinks will set the heather alight?

The build-up of anti-independence referendum forces inside the SNP

With few exceptions, the only forces now calling for an early independence referendum are those hostile in their intentions. Both the former Tory Scottish Secretary, Lord Forsyth and the current Labour MEP, David Martin, want a referendum now because they believe that independence would be defeated[12]Why England must heed the skirl of the pipes, Magnus Linklater, The Times, 15.8.07. SNP financial backer, Sir Tom Farmer, also thinks it would likely be defeated, but wants the way cleared for the SNP to get on with its real job – showing ‘responsibility’, or enhancing the position of Scottish business in the global economy[13]Farmer calls for immediate independence referendum, The Herald, 21.8.07.

Salmond has dismissed the prospect of any early referendum, saying there will only be one, when he thinks the time is right. He has gone on to reassure the British Establishment that he doesn’t want to run endless referenda. If defeated, independence would be set aside for a generation[14]Independence referendum is now “once in a generation”, Kevin Schofield, The Herald, 26.4.07, whilst the SNP got on with managing the local economy.

Of course, being in a minority at Holyrood, and facing New Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem opposition, Salmond has a quite reasonable excuse for not delivering the SNP’s independence referendum electoral pledge. This is quite convenient, since it disguises the extent of the opposition to this policy within the SNP itself. This opposition comes from a number of sources, and not only from the SNP’s influential new business backers. Their views are reflected in the SNP leadership. This includes the neo-liberal Right, Michael Russell, the SNP’s ex-Chief Executive. In May, Russell regained the MSP position he had lost in the 2003 election, and was immediately appointed the SNP’s new Minister for the Environment. Opposition has also come from former SNP firebrand, Kenny MacAskill. He is now a thoroughly tamed social democrat, as well as being Depute Leader of the Scottish Parliament and Minister for Justice.

This political convergence, between Russell and MacAskill, reflects social democratic capitulation internationally to a world run in the interests of US imperialism and the global corporations. It is certainly not Russell who has changed his political stance. He has long been quite open in his espousal of neo-liberalism and support for NATO. Any independent Scotland, which he could support, would have to create an even more favourable political environment for big business, whilst offering more crumbs to Scotland’s small businesses too, and continue to be a haven for US armed forces, ‘when necessary’. Russell has linked up with Canadian businessman, Dennis Macleod, to write a Scottish neo-liberal manifesto, Grasping the Thistle[15]Grasping the Thistle, Michael Russell and Donald MacLeod, Argyll Press, 2007. He opposes any independence referendum, seeing this as a diversion from advancing his pro-business agenda.

MacAskill has also written a manifesto, Building a Nation – Post Devolution Nationalism in Scotland[16]Building a Nation – Post Devolution Nationalism in Scotland, Kenny MacAskill, Luath Press, 2004, which seeks to woo perplexed social democrats in Scotland, who are beginning to question Labour’s lack of national, as opposed to personal, ambitions. MacAskill also accepts a world dominated by US imperialism and, like Russell, wants Scotland to remain a member of NATO. He wants not to abolish, but to renegotiate, the Union. Therefore, he wants to delay any independence referendum to a second term of SNP government. US imperialism, the UK state, and the global corporations all have to be persuaded first of the SNP administration’s ‘responsibility’. In other words, the SNP has to offer all these forces a better deal than New Labour!

A parallel, to this mounting internal opposition to the SNP’s official independence referendum policy, is that which grew inside the Labour Party before the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum. These divisions helped contribute to the failure of that particular referendum. It took the experience of 18 year’s of Thatcher rule before this internal opposition was overcome. By then the political situation was very different and Devolution-all-round had the support of the majority of the British ruling class, the better to preserve the UK, in changed circumstances.

The missing global context

One thing that has been missing, from nearly all SSP leadership considerations of the National Question in Scotland, is any attempt to locate political developments within their wider global context. The RCN criticised the SSP leadership’s own acknowledged separation of its campaign for an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ from the opposition to the ‘New World Order’, at the time of the anti-G8 protests in Scotland in July 2005[17]SSP and SIC, op. cit., pp 14-15. There is a similar oversight in both Andrew’s and Nick’s articles.

Since ‘9/11’, the world has been dominated by Bush’s gung-ho US imperialist politics and wars. He combines neo-liberal economics with neo-conservative social policies. These are best encapsulated in ‘The Project for a New American Century’. However, this attempt, to project unilateral American power throughout the world, is currently being buried in the sands of Iraq. It is facing mounting opposition within the USA itself. The unbounded selfishness and greed of US corporate leaders, highlighted by the Enron affair, and by Dick Cheney’s links with the Halliburton Corporation, is also now being questioned by millions of Americans. The crisis facing poorer American home-buyers is adding to all of this.

Instead, serious consideration is being given, by significant players, to a project to adopt a more ‘liberal’ imperialism. Global financial speculator, George Soros[18]The Bubble of American Supremacy, Correcting the Misuse of American Power, Public Affairs, 2003, and The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terrorism, George Soros, Public Affairs, 2006, and former World Bank, Chief Economist, Joseph Stiglitz[19]Making Globalization Work, Joseph Stiglitz, W.W. Norton, 2006, want considerably more reform of the ‘New World Order’ to establish a more convincing looking, liberal imperial world.

One thing which would have to change is the failing policy, of unilateral military intervention, that the US state has imposed through NATO. This means NATO fully reforming itself into a two-tier ‘Partnership for Peace’. NATO’s organisation would then more closely match that of the two-tier UN. Here, US interests are safeguarded by its domination of the Security Council and its veto. In a two-tier ‘Partnership for Peace’, the US would still remain in overall control of any modified NATO Allied Command. This body, though, would seek prior agreement from the other imperial participants in the UN Security Council before any new military interventions.

At present, the SNP leadership is ‘burdened’ with a policy, which could cut it off from any participation in this particular imperial reform. Party policy is to withdraw Scotland from NATO. However, to ditch this openly would be like New Labour coming out against the National Health Service. Labour leaders have got round their ‘difficulty’ though, by ensuring the principal funding for the NHS remains in state hands, whilst offering private business a veritable bonanza of profitable contracts, guaranteed and paid for by the tax payer.

If a future SNP government could get an undertaking to remove NATO’s nuclear bases from Scotland, then its leaders could persuade Conference to sign up for the ‘Partnership for Peace’. Scottish regiments, wearing saltire-flagged blue UN helmets, could then serve imperialism’s interests, just as Irish troops did in Congo and continue to do in Lebanon. The SNP is very proud of Scottish regiments’ past imperial exploits. A commitment could still be made to allow NATO’s first-tier military forces to use Scottish bases in an ‘international emergency’, in much the same way as the Irish government currently lets NATO use Shannon Airport.

A ‘No nuclear bases in Scotland’ agreement could be made acceptable to US imperialism. There is no longer the same strategic logic for these bases’ current location, compared to the period of the old US/USSR Cold War. However, British governments, whether New Labour or Tory, are not likely to accept the threatened closure of nuclear bases in Scotland. Continued possession of nuclear weapons is linked to their desire to maintain the UK as an imperial power.

Although British nuclear weapons can no longer be deployed independently, successive UK governments have tried to bolster British power in the world, by taking on a junior role, acting on behalf of US imperialism. Therefore, the UK maintains nuclear and non-nuclear forces considerably in excess of those held by other larger and similar sized states. As a result, the UK state has been awarded the North East Atlantic ‘franchise’ by successiveUS governments. The UK can offer the best political ‘tender’ to maintain global corporate interests in this area, backed by the most lethal and up-to-date military technology. As part of the ‘deal’, the UK state is also allowed to retain certain ‘concessions’ elsewhere in the world, dating from an era when it was ‘top gun’.

Faced with any prospect of having to directly confront British imperial interests, the SNP leaders will probably back down over their Party’s current anti-NATO policy, despite the internal opposition. The SNP leadership’s current strategy is to slowly win more powers from Westminster, holding out the promise of this leading to eventual ‘independence’ for Scotland. This means trying to persuade both the global corporations and a future US government that a ‘Scottish Free State’ could still protect their interests.

In order to further this, SNP leadership will have to get the Party either to ditch, or to downgrade, its ‘withdrawal from NATO’ policy. Rebranding NATO as the ‘Partnership for Peace’ is designed to facilitate this process. It could be hinted that withdrawal from NATO still remained an aspiration for the future, just asSNP leaders used to hint that the abolition of the monarchy could be achieved in a ‘post-independence’ Scotland. The ground is already being prepared for a future climbdown over NATO. Opposition to membership did not appear in the international section of the SNP’s Raising the Standard document, released on St. Andrew’s Day, 2005[20]Raising the Standard – There shall be an independent Scottish Parliament – A consultation paper on Scottish Independence, SNP, 30.9.05.

Apart from Scotland’s continuous participation in imperial wars, there is another problem for socialists and democrats, associated with continued membership of NATO. Being a member allows even more direct US intervention in Scotland’s affairs to ensure that its imperial and corporate interests are protected. This is why the new American consul-general in Edinburgh, Lisa Vickers, attacked the SNP’s formal anti-NATO policy. I don’t think you just wake up one morning and say ‘we are going to pull out of NATO’. It doesn’t work like that – a not so veiled threat![21]

The SSP is committed to active opposition to US and British imperialism, and to NATO and its wars. There is a parallel between NATO’s suggested ‘Partnership for Peace’ and the ‘social partnerships’ between government, employers and trade union leaders. The SSP understands that ‘social partnerships’ are merely an alternative way to control the working class. ‘Social partnerships’ are New Labour’s substitute for the Tories’ many direct confrontations with our class. Just like ‘social partnership’, ‘Partnership for Peace’ is an attempt to move beyond gung-ho, confrontational politics, but its purpose is the same – to protect the interests of corporate capital and imperialism. And just as those Tory anti-trade union laws are still held in reserve, so too are those nuclear weapons!

Therefore, the SSP must also be to the forefront of the opposition to the ‘Partnership for Peace’ and other attempts to reform imperialism’s key institutions. We must never become a pressure group to push the SNP leadership to do what it is incapable of doing – fundamentally challenging imperialism’s ‘New World Order’.

There are several kinds of unionist and they are not all intransigent

ISM members have fallen back on another argument to get the SSP to tail-end the SNP’s political strategy. They equate unionists with deep reaction. Hence, they think that being on the same side as the ‘anti-unionist’ SNP automatically places the SSP on the side of the angels. An image is conjured up of unbending unionist intransigence. It is almost as if, when faced with any challenge, unionists will automatically dig their heels in and just say ‘No’ to any changes.

Therefore, Nick, in order to justify linking the SSP to that radical element which the SNP leadership cannot escape… the struggle for independence, falls back on the hoary old argument first put forward by Alan McCombes during the 1998 Devolution referendum campaign[22]Scottish Independence and the Struggle for Socialism, Alan McCombes, Scottish Militant Labour, 1998 and reply in AHtWR, op. cit., p. 20., and raised again at the time of the G8 gathering at Gleneagles[23]Two Worlds Collide – power, plunder and resistance in a divided planet, p. 55, Alan McCombes, SSP, 2005, and reply in Two Words Collide – Nationalism and Republicanism, Allan Armstrong, Emancipation & Liberation, no. 11, p.12. He claims that the majority of big business leaders and unionists are intransigently opposed to constitutional reform. Following Alan’s earlier examples, Nick focuses today on the current opposition of Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, leaders of the CBI and finance capital to any changes in the present constitutional set-up. Mind you, after ‘Northern Rock’, Mervyn’s star is waning!

Unionism, however, takes more forms than intransigence. The truth is the majority of the British ruling class, and most Scottish editions of the press, gave their support to Blair’s 1997/8 Devolution-all-round proposals, whether enthusiastically or not. They gave their loudest support to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, because the UK state had been challenged much more fundamentally by Republicans in ‘the Six Counties’ than anywhere else. A measure of Welsh devolution was, however, only grudgingly accepted to give the appearance of constitutional symmetry. This was because divide-and-rule politics, setting Welsh and English speakers against each other, still seemed a viable political option in Wales. In Scotland, though, Dewar’s devolution campaign, ‘Vote Yes, Yes’ completely outgunned the hapless intransigent Tories’ ‘Think Twice, Say No’ campaign. On May 28th 2002, the queen herself endorsed the ‘unity through diversity’ approach under devolution, when she addressed the Scottish Parliament, then meeting in Aberdeen, whilst on her golden jubilee tour[24]Surprise as Queen endorses devolved power, Murray Ritchie, Robbie Dinwoodie and Graeme Smith, The Herald, 29.5.02.

Today, most Tories support Scottish devolution. Some want to go further. Scottish Depute Leader, Murdo Fraser, and the renegade, Brian Monteith, have both considered a tactical alliance with the SNP to win fiscal autonomy for Scotland (thus paving the way for major tax cuts for the rich)[25]Tory MSP in party breakaway call, and Comment, Brian Monteith – Tories must change or die, Sunday Times, 8.9.06. Only the UK Independence Party wants to scrap the Scottish Parliament – name one widely-known Scottish member!

Also, look at Ian ‘No Surrender’ Paisley, that figure who most appears to represent total Unionist intransigence. Even he has cut a deal with Sinn Fein, in order to become the First Minister of his beloved Stormont. More than a quarter century of Republican resistance meant there was no going back to the pre-1972 Stormont. Paisley very reluctantly decided that some reform was necessary, if Stormont was ever to be re-established. A DUP/Sinn Fein-led Northern Ireland Executive became possible after the Paisley had pressured the UK government to overturn some key features of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which they considered too generous towards Irish nationalists. The last prominent intransigent unionist, Robert McCartney, former UK Unionist Party MP for North Down, who opposed the Paisley-negotiated, 2006 St. Andrews Agreement, was trounced in all six seats, where he stood, in the recent elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Certainly the intransigent UVF and UDA are still in business, continuing their sectarian and racist attacks. Yet, they have now largely succumbed to bitter internecine feuds. One reason for their continued influence is the financial and political life-support they receive from the UK government. However, the UDA has plans in reserve, should they ever feel totally abandoned by ‘Britain’. They would go for an Ian Smith, Rhodesia-style, Unilateral Declaration of Independence, followed by repartition and the ‘nullification’ of Catholics in order to create a ‘perfect’ little, white Protestant ‘Britain’ in Ulster – utterly reactionary, yes; but hardly intransigently unionist!

The British ruling class have come to learn the high price they paid for earlier unionist intransigence. Tory and Ulster Unionist opposition to Irish Home Rule, before the First World War, eventually led to the loss of twenty-six Irish counties from their Union. Tory and Labour refusal to enforce the kind of Civil Rights reforms in Northern Ireland, that even US governments were prepared to make in the American South, in the 1960’s and 70’s, led to civil war in ‘the Six Counties’ and bombs on the streets of England.

Thatcher’s imperial intransigence, in 1982, over some ‘rocks’ in the South Atlantic, may have politically paralysed Labour leader, Michael Foot, but was no help in the prolonged negotiations to protect the City’s financial interests, when the much more valuable Hong Kong left the Empire in 1992. This required the flexible negotiating skills of Chris Patten.

Thatcher may have faced down the Irish Hunger Strikers in 1981, but the election of Bobby Sands MP, and the ensuing Sinn Fein electoral breakthrough, was hardly the outcome she expected. As a consequence, it was Thatcher who made the first tentative steps towards New Unionism, in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Her successor, Major, developed this further, by bringing the Irish Republicans onboard, through the Downing Street Agreement of 1991. Blair arrived at the fully developed New Unionist project of Devolution-all-round, for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. New Labour delivered this between 1997-8. Blair even wheeled out that flexible Tory Patten, once more, to dangle the prospect of a reformed and nationalist-friendly RUC/PSNI before the eyes of Sinn Fein. Making the necessary changes to preserve the Union is now hard-wired into the consciousness of the British ruling class.

By 2007, Blair had certainly lost much contact with reality. He did seem to think that Scotland’s 1998 Devolution settlement was a final event, not part of a process. John McTernan, Blair’s witchfinder-general, was sent up north during the Holyrood campaign, in order to stymie any autonomous Scottish Labour activities. This led to outrageous, over-the-top, ‘Nat-bashing’ behaviour by New Labour and its supporters in the media.

So, at first glance, New Labour’s approach to the 2007 Holyrood election appears to buttress the notion of continued unionist intransigence. This behaviour, however, mainly reflected the attitudes of all those Labour time-servers, whose careers were entirely tied up with the offices they held, whether at Westminster, Holyrood, or in Local Government. But when New Labour do want reform, e.g. of Scottish Local Government, they have showed that they can come up with the necessary measures to smooth the transition, i.e. ‘financial inducements’ to silence the ‘intransigent’ opposition.

In their handling of this year’s Holyrood elections, Labour blew it and they soon knew it. Blair could not bring himself to congratulate Salmond after the SNP’s election victory. Brown quickly congratulated Salmond, though, when he became the new First Minister[26]Brown congratulates Salmond, stresses commitment to union, The Herald, 17.5.07. Back in January, Brown showed some hesitation over which team, England or Scotland, he wanted to win the World Cup[27]Brown tripped up by Auld Enemy Question, James Kirkup, The Scotsman, 20.1.07. On September 13th, he was quick to congratulate Scotland after its victory over France[28]PM praises Scotland victory, The Herald, 13.9.07.

Labour in Scotland has also begun to do some serious soul-searching. New leader, Wendy Alexander, initially adopted a very cautious approach, seeking only to rebrand ‘New Labour’ as ‘Scottish Labour’. There can be little doubt, however, that intransigent defence of the current Union status-quo, will not be Labour’s final contribution to the ‘National Conversation’. Gordon will give Wendy the nod and wink, enabling her to move on.

The ‘National Conversation’ – building a ‘reform the Union’ alliance…

The world situation is changing – and fast. Brown knows it, Alexander knows it, and Salmond knows it. They all want to defend the interests of big business, so they also know that further constitutional changes will need to be made. A robust, but where necessary, flexible political framework is needed so that the global corporations can maximise their profits on these islands. The current balance of political forces means that any likely resolution of the apparent ‘stand-off’ between New Labour at Westminster (along with their Scottish allies) and the SNP at Holyrood, will most likely lead to the further reform of the Union.

The most politically coherent constitutional reform, to maintain the Union, ‘Devolution-max’, would be a move from Devolution-all-round to Federalism all-round. The Westminster Parliament would be retained for imperial affairs, ‘defence’ and some all-UK domestic matters, whilst Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England would have parliaments with the powers to address their most of their own domestic issues. This could help to deal with the problem of any ‘English backlash’ directed against MPs from outside England, who can vote at Westminster on English issues, despite MPs representing English constituencies not being able to vote on matters reserved for the Scottish Parliament. A federal solution for the UK constitution is the policy of the Lib-Dems, and has even received recent support from the Tory Mark Field, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster[29]Tory MP wants federation of UK parliaments, The Herald, 9.9.07.

Two significant political commentators, Will Hutton, of The Observer[30]How Scotland could end up with the best of both worlds, Comment, Will Hutton, The Herald, 15.8.07 and Ian MacWhirter of The Herald[31]Alexander must take on the city state of London, Iain MacWhirter, The Herald, 26.8.07, both supporters of the Union, have suggested political courses for New Labour, that would involve using the SNP’s current political strength to isolate Labour’s own ‘intransigents’ and to advance further reform of the UK. Hutton pushes for the federal option, using Canada as a precedent. Hutton takes the SNP’s ‘National Conversation’ middle option, ‘Devolution-max’, as his starting point. He argues that, repatriating more fiscal powers to a strengthened Scottish Parliament, would in effect create a Scottish state within Britain rather like Alberta or Ontario within Canada.

MacWhirter argues for the new Scottish Labour-anointed, Alexander, to take the chance offered by the recently British Labour-crowned, Brown. Brown is making the most radical constitutional reforms to the UK in a generation. Alexander needs to call for a second cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention… The SNP should, of course, be invited. Alexander should also be given the freedom to develop an independent political agenda, and the authority to ram it down the throats of the unionist old guard – those unionist intransigents again! Then, looking to the SNP as potential allies of a sort, MacWhirter claims that, the threat of an independent Scotland is actually a source of strength for Wendy Alexander. If Scotland broke away, the UK would lose a lot of its clout in international forums, and it would also lose valuable oil and renewable energy reserves. Why should it be left to Alex Salmond to play the Scottish card.

There are real material grounds underlying these proposals for reform of the UK constitution. Yes, many in New Labour (especially those already safely placed on the career-ladder) saw the 1997 Devolution measures as the ‘final solution’ to the nationalist challenge. People holding such views include George Foulkes, Baron of Cumnock, and the Defence Secretary, Des Browne. They will continue to put up an intransigent defence of the unionist status-quo – until ordered otherwise, if they hold significant government office.

Before May 3rd, when New Labour also managed the ‘local branch offices’ in Scotland and Wales, loyalty to the Westminster ‘head office’ could be assumed and any further ambitions dismissed. Ten years on from 1997, though, some junior managers are hungry for new career advancement. These people are neither loyal to Westminster nor to Millbank House. New Labour no longer controls Holyrood and has had to share office with Plaid Cymru, in the Cardiff Bay Assembly.

The grounds are being prepared for a possible Labour/nationalist rapprochement. There are Labour-supporting junior managers, whether involved in national politics, the Scottish Office, local government, the various quangos, or elsewhere, who see the current devolution set-up as a training opportunity for further ‘career advance’. This is also the SNP’s attitude.

‘Devolution-max’ is Salmond’s real political goal. The ‘National Conversation’ is designed to build a ‘reform the Union’ alliance. Intransigent unionists will be politely dismissed. Republicans and anti-imperialists will be vigorously excluded, or if that becomes impossible, vehemently denounced – and worse!

A key part of Salmond’s strategy is a political offensive to peel off of those Scottish Labour figures who believe that ‘devolution is a process not an event’. This means winning the support of those Labour nationalists, who have further ambitions and are irritated by metropolitan condescension or dismissal.

Salmond’s decision to open the third session of the Holyrood Parliament with a programme, which included the National Theatre of Scotland’s superb production of Black Watch was a clever move. First, as well as the performance provided for politicians and their friends, there were two other free showings, one for the public and one for pensioners. Secondly, Salmond showed that it was the SNP, which could take up the baton, and build upon one of Holyrood’s success stories – the National Theatre of Scotland. Thirdly, Black Watch is politically ambiguous, being both anti-war and pro-Scottish soldier. It chimes perfectly with the current liberal imperialist mood to pull back from gung-ho Bush/Blair style imperialism, but still leave the way open for Scottish regiments to play another role.

There are already signs that some Scottish Labour politicians are entering into the spirit of Salmond’s ‘National Conversation’. When Labour’s Henry McLeish was ousted from his position as Scottish First Minister, he began ‘to go native’. He has been working alongside the SNP’s Kenny MacAskill to cultivate Scottish expatriate business support in the USA[32]Wherever the Saltire Flies, Kenny MacAskill and Henry McLeish, Luath Press, 2006. He welcomed the ‘National Conversation’. His latest book advocates extensive reform of the Union[33]Scotland – The Road Divides, Henry McLeish and Tom Brown, Luath Press, 2007. McLeish describes himself as a nationalist with a small ‘n’. He has been invited to join the SNP-initiated Scottish Broadcasting Commission.

Even Jack McConnell has let his dissatisfaction be known over the behaviour imposed on Scottish Labour by Blair during the elections. McConnell is also beginning to come out of the closet as a Labour nationalist. Salmond has been astute in cultivating potential Labour nationalists. But the end-game is quite clear, i.e. the renegotiation of the Union, not its abolition, or making a reality of the slogan coined by Scotland’s initial New Labour First Minister, Donald Dewar – ‘Independence in the Union’!
… and dealing with the ‘excesses’ of neo-liberalism.

There are also signs of movement on another controversial New Labour policy, largely inherited from the Tories – Private Public Partnerships (formerly Private Finance Initiatives). These have allowed big business to rip-off the public in big style. The latest of many scandals is the PPP Metronet contract covering the London Underground. This £17 billion contract, pushed through by Chancellor Brown, in the teeth of London Labour Mayor, Ken Livingstone’s opposition, has now ‘overspent’ by a staggering £2 billion. Livingstone is getting closer to his original wish of raising money through floating bonds, a lot less costly policy[34]It’s what happens when the Iron Chancellor’s big idea hits the buffers, Torcuil Crichton, The Sunday Herald, 9.9.07.

The SNP, are also known to favour this method of funding. They dropped the PPP proposals to fund the new Low Moss Prison at Bishopriggs. Scottish nationalist, Alex, has met anti-Scottish nationalist, Ken, to discuss future cooperation over the use of public bonds. The decision to abandon the compulsory tendering process for the Highlands and Islands ferry services, and to retain Calmac as the provider, is another indicator of the SNP’s more flexible approach towards neo-liberal shibboleths.

There could well be competition between the SNP and New Labour to see which party can project the cuddlier capitalist image. Will SNP Finance Minister, John Swinney, drop his flat tax proposals, which favour the rich, and hit instead the massive pay awards for senior managers of, and consultants to, public bodies? Will Gordon Brown continue his love affair with big business tycoons, or will he instruct Alistair Darling to take action against the tax-dodging activities associated with equity capital, and the very loose financial arrangements pursued by certain mortgage companies?

Both the SNP and New Labour may even try to compete over a reactionary social agenda? Which party is more committed to promoting the educational apartheid favoured by the influential Archbishop Mario Conti and by increasing numbers in the Islamic business community? Or will they try to compete on a fluffy environmental agenda? Which party can promise to reduce carbon emissions by the greatest percentage – sometime in the distant future? Adopting Right or Left populist measures could be useful to either party, when trying to ease the transition to a less obviously malignant capitalism.

There are definitely grounds for cross-party cooperation to get round the embarrassing economic and social disasters bequeathed by the worst excesses of neo-liberal, free market, turbo-capitalism. The SSP must ensure that the crimes of global capitalism are located at source, and not just allow the sacrifice of a ‘few bad apples’ to give the false appearance that all will be well in the future.

Salmond seeks wider allies to renegotiate the Union

The SNP will retain a sentimental attachment to the idea of an independent Scotland – sometime in the future – just like the Labour Party once had a sentimental attachment to Clause 4. Increasingly though, the future prospect of an independence referendum is only seen by some party leaders as a way to keep the support of the SNP rank-and-file, whilst a Scottish Government gets on with the real job of increasing Scottish business participation in the global economy. This is why they wanted to delay any independence referendum. Even if a referendum was finally to be organised, some SNP leaders would be privately unconcerned, if the independence option went down to defeat. They could use this excuse to abandon any real commitment to seeking an independent Scotland and avoid any awkward ‘scrap Clause 4’ moment at Conference.

Salmond still represents the ‘Kinnock/Smith’ phase of SNP leadership. The SNP has yet to become a full-blown ‘New SNP’. Nevertheless, the political trajectory is clear enough. Quebec, Euskadi and Catalunya have long had nationalist administrations, some enjoying absolute majorities. Parti Quebecois, the Basque Nationalist Party and Catalan Convergence leaders have all accepted their role as local political managers for global and small business capital. These parties now push for constitutional reforms acceptable to the dominant ruling class and state parties. The SNP, given its constitutional nationalism, will follow the same political path.

Salmond knows that Devolution-all-round enjoys the support, not only of all the main UK unionist parties, but also of successive US administrations and the EU. He knows that the political conditions do not exist for a tame constitutional party, such as the SNP, to win an independence referendum, against all these forces. However, if a majority in the British unionist parties could be persuaded of the need for some further reform of the Union, then the way could be open for a new constitutional deal. The actual measures adopted could be fine-tuned to meet the different political situations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Salmond has congratulated Plaid Cymru for joining with New Labour in a coalition government for the Welsh Assembly[35]Salmond congratulates Plaid Cymru on joining Welsh government. He met both Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness, at Stormont, for mutual support in negotiations with the Westminster government, to enable Northern Ireland and Scotland to adopt more favourable tax regimes for big business[36]Salmond in Stormont for talks.

Salmond is a shrewd political operator. He does enjoy increased support from junior managers in public bodies, and even from some ambitious Scottish business figures, eager to get a bigger share of global corporate booty. He also has the continued support of most SNP members, buoyed up the SNP’s electoral victory (and probably Scotland’s recent football victories!). Beyond this, though, the SNP’s support is more fragile, since it remains largely a protest vote.

Salmond is also a known gambler. He knows when to cash in his chips. He can see that the British government has largely tamed both the one-time revolutionary nationalist Sinn Fein and the intransigent unionist DUP. He will try to maximise support from Labour nationalists, Lib-Dem federalists and Tory mavericks, as well as from the parties leading the administrations in the other devolved Parliaments and Assemblies. Renegotiation of the Union is Salmond’s best hand. However, depending on the play made by his main unionist competitors, he may still have to settle, not for his ‘Devolution-max’ jackpot, but for small change.

The retreat from republicanism to nationalism

The SNP has never been a republican party. However, in the past, the leadership has given the republicans amongst its membership the impression that the SNP would initiate a further referendum on the future of the monarchy, after it had first won an ‘independence’ referendum.

Salmond has now openly rejected that possibility. He wishes to maintain the Union of the Crowns, even after any SNP Government-initiated abolition of the Union of the Parliaments. In effect, Salmond is now both a Scottish nationalist and a Scottish unionist! Thus, he is moving closer to those Labour nationalists with a small ‘n’, who arrive at the same point, but from the opposite direction!

Many people do not understand the real meaning of republican opposition to the monarchy. To them, anti-monarchism only means opposing the dysfunctional, snobbish and over-privileged royal family. However, the royal family is not the central issue. There could even be circumstances under which a genuinely reforming government allowed the continued existence of the monarchy through its privatisation. The queen and her family could be encouraged to form a private company, supported only by the funds from her loyal fan-club, backed by advertising in a royal fanzine like Majesty.

When republicans oppose the monarchy, however, the focus is primarily on the UK state’s Crown Powers. These provide the British ruling class with a whole number of anti-democratic means to get round either popular, or even parliamentary, sovereignty. It is these Crown Powers, which the ruling class would place at the disposal of unionist opposition to counter the threat of political independence in any possible future independence referendum.

The Crown Powers were used to ditch the mildly reforming Labour government of Gough Whitlam in Australia in 1976. He was considering denying US nuclear warships access to Australian ports. The Crown Powers were also used to derail the Labour Government’s own earlier Devolution proposals which, after 1977, no longer enjoyed majority support from the ruling class. By 1979, they had also been used to completely marginalise the hapless nationalist ‘opposition’ represented by the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP.

By accepting the continued role of the monarchy, Salmond isn’t ‘boxing clever’, to bring the queen on board for a return of the pre-1707 Union of the Crowns (help ma boab!). He is signalling his intention to abide by the UK’s constitutional rules. Furthermore, he is indicating his intention not to take the sovereign powers, needed by a genuinely reforming government, to begin a real challenge to the power of big business.

For the SNP leadership, the idea of republicanism was mainly associated with ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Therefore, as a thoroughly constitutional party, republicanism needed to be kept at arm’s length. This even led to the total ignoring of the brutal activities of those Scottish regiments occupying ‘the Six Counties’. It is only with the ending of ‘The Troubles’ that the SNP has begun to hold up the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy as a model.

Ironically, it is now the Irish Republicans, who look to the SNP to provide the political model for their own future approach, after Sinn Fein’s setbacks in the Irish Dail elections, held on May 24th. Jim Slaven, of the James Connolly Society, wrote an article, in An Phoblacht, to try and persuade the Sinn Fein leadership to see the importance of developments in lowly Scotland[37]British state is in constitutional flux, Jim Slaven, An Phoblacht, 23.8.07. This is because they usually look up to the governments of the USA (hopefully Democrat), the UK (especially Labour), and Ireland (preferably Fianna Fail). The SNP’s idea of a ‘National Conversation’ on Irish unity has now been taken up Sinn Fein strategist, Tom Hartley[38]National conversation on Irish unity, Tom Hartley, An Phoblacht, 6.9.07.

Following this approach, republicanism gets put on the back-burner, the better to form a pan-nationalist alliance. Such an approach could lead no further than reform of the Union and closer cooperation between the UK and Irish governments, within an accepted US/British imperial framework. Hartley has already tried to politically rehabilitate those Irish soldiers who fought for British imperialism in the First World War, following the call of John Redmond, leader of the Irish Home Rule Party[39]Republicans must recognise reality of Irish who fell at Somme, Tom Hartley, An Phoblact, 16.3.06. This gets dangerously close to the position of those Irish revisionist historians and pundits, who argue that Irish independence was a bad idea, and that Irish unity could have been maintained by Home Rule under the Crown!

How should the SSP relate to the new situation in Scotland?

The SSP is still in a weak state and no longer represents a united Left in Scotland. This partly reflects the poor state of the working class movement, not only in Scotland, but throughout the UK, Europe and the USA[40]SSP and IF, op. cit., p. 2-3. In addition, ‘Tommygate’ has reduced our electoral influence to that of the sects. This means that the SSP itself cannot immediately organise large-scale opposition to retreats the SNP will make over its own declared policy of seeking political independence for Scotland, or to the forthcoming attacks on services, jobs and conditions, emanating from the Scottish Government.

And attacks there will be. We got the first taste of these when Edinburgh City Council’s Lib-Dem/SNP coalition tried to get approval for major cuts. They proposed the closure of 22 schools, even before any local ‘conversation’ took place. The ‘hoi polloi’[41]Jenny Dawe, the Lib-Dem leader of Edinburgh City Council, wanted the council leaders to “set themselves apart from the hoi polloi” by reinstating the ceremonial robes. This was at the height of the Lib-Dem/SNP coalition’s moves to close 22 schools. Set us apart from the hoi polloi, Brian Ferguson, Edinburgh Evening News, 29.8.07 of Edinburgh thought that the SNP had already made its opposition to the previous Council’s education cuts quite clear in the run-up to the May 3rd Local Council elections. As it turned out, it needed the strident ‘shout’ of a one day UNISON strike on August 23rd, followed by further parent protests and school student strikes, before SNP councillors could hear the message and back-off. A genteel ‘conversation’ it was not!

The forthcoming Westminster-imposed Budget Review will force the SNP-led Scottish Government to make similar unpleasant choices. Several important lessons were learned in Edinburgh. Lesson 1 – ordinary members of the public are not given an invite to join the SNP’s ‘conversations’; Lesson 2 – only widespread mass action can make our voice really heard. Lesson 3 – New Labour will go to every length to appear to be the ‘opposition’!

Behind New Labour politicians will be Labour-supporting, local government trade union officials, ready to call off action, if it helps to re-establish their ‘social partnership’ with restored New Labour-dominated councils. The SSP will have to both ‘shout loudly’ to challenge New Labour hypocrisy, and act patiently to regain our credibility with both rank-and-file trade union members and community activists.

However, the SSP must aspire to more than building up the party once more, by means of consistent trade union and community work. We must challenge the SNP’s political agenda too. ‘Citizens not Subjects’ is as important as ‘People not Profits’. One thing that has becoming increasingly clear, is that throwing our forces into organisations with other political agendas, whether it be the imaginary ‘anti-unionist alliance’ of the Scottish Independence Convention or Independence First, will not build support for the only strategy which has a chance of breaking-up the UK and challenging British imperialism.

Renew the movement for the Calton Hill Declaration – ‘Citizens not Subjects’

We need to patiently build an anti-NATO and anti-Crown Powers alliance. The Calton Hill Declaration was based on firm Scottish internationalist and republican principles. Its further development should have been the first step in this process. The SSP leadership, however, abandoned the Calton Hill Declaration, in favour of chasing after ‘anti-unionist’ chimera.

What would a renewed Calton Hill Declaration do? The chance, provided by the queen’s opening of the new Holyrood Parliament, on October 9th 2004, to organise the very successful counter-demonstration, will not necessarily be offered again soon. Furthermore, the post-split SSP has far less political clout now, when it comes to initiating such a demonstration.

In the days of reaction, following the failure of Labour’s Scottish devolution proposals in 1979, opposition to the Tories and to their intransigent unionism, initially took on a cultural form. There was a veritable renaissance in Scottish cultural activity, much of it socialist and/or republican in its political inspiration. Figures as diverse as Alistair Gray, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Irvine Welsh came to the fore. Maybe some of these writers, and others today as well, could be persuaded to become involved in cultural activities organised under the principles of the Calton Hill Declaration. In addition, there are many other artists, including musicians, who would probably be interested.

Colin Fox has already shown the potential for this type of alternative cultural approach with the excellent work he has done in reinstating the People’s Festival in Edinburgh. The very successful 90th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution night, held at The Stand, on October 9th, was a good example. Colin’s plans for Edinburgh SSP to organise educational/cultural visits to places as varied as the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre in Aberdeenshire, the Robert Burns birthplace in Ayrshire and Robert Owen’s New Lanark, is a further example of the approach required.

But, of course, any long-term success for an organisation, based upon the Calton Hill Declaration, eventually means taking to the streets too. One possible opportunity could be provided by the SNP’s reneging on its promise to introduce a November 30th St. Andrews’ Day holiday. Now, as socialists, we should want nothing to do with St. Andrew. However, November 30th is also the anniversary of the death of John Maclean. Socialists in England had to make May Day a symbol of international socialism, by providing an alternative to the maypole and Morris dancers. The SSP should do the same with November 30th, renaming it John Maclean Day.

Given our small forces at present, a start could be made, by organising a Calton Hill Declaration, John Maclean contingent on the STUC’s anti-racist demonstration held on or near St. Andrew’s Day. However, the longer-term aim would be to get people to take November 30th as a holiday, whether officially sanctioned or not, and to organise a whole array of activities on that day.

Last, but certainly not least, the SSP needs to look to what is happening elsewhere in these islands. The British ruling class has strategies and plans, to maintain its control, which involve the cooperation of governments and parties in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Even the nationalist SNP has started to make links beyond Scotland, including Livingstone and Paisley! The SSP needs to build on the principle of ‘internationalism from below’ and work with socialist republicans in Ireland, Wales and England too. This is why the RCN has put forward a motion to the October 2007 Conference calling for the SSP to organise an international conference inviting socialist republicans from each of these countries.

Many socialists beyond Scotland looked to the SSP for inspiration, after our success in uniting the Left, and our tremendous electoral breakthrough in 2003. The recent big collapse in SSP influence has also been passionately discussed and debated by socialists beyond Scotland, particularly in Ireland. The SSP split has also encouraged the forces of sectarianism and petty division once more.

The SSP needs to take a lead once more. Providing a focus for those forces of socialist republicanism, throughout these islands, would be a higher-level political achievement, than merely being the unity icon for many on the wider Left, before the split. An opportunity was missed then, as the political path followed by the SSP became increasingly Left nationalist.

When we change course, it should not be a return to the Left unionism of Kier Hardie’s Labour Party, spawned in the heyday of British imperialism. We need to follow a Scottish internationalist and republican course. John Maclean and James Connolly are the figures in the ‘internationalism from below’ tradition we should take for our inspiration.

October 9th, 2007



1 All Hail the Workers’ Republic and the Struggle for a Communist World – A contribution to the debate on Scotland in the Scottish Socialist Alliance (AHtWR) pp. 3-23, The Communist Tendency in the Workers Republican Movement, 1998
2 The SSP and the Scottish Independence Convention – A Scottish internationalist and republican response (SSP and SIC) – Republican Communist Network, 6.5.06
3 The SSP , ‘Independence First’ and the Scottish Independence Referendum – A Scottish internationalist and republican response (SSP and IF), Republican Communist Network, 2.12.06
4 Frontline, An independent Marxist voice in the SSP , Volume 2, Issues nos. 3 & 4
5 SSP and SIC, op. cit., pp 5-7.
6 Referendum: 50% would vote No 35% Yes, Paul Hutcheon, The Sunday Herald, 2.9.07
7 Scottish citizens not British subjects, Mary McGregor, Scottish Socialist Voice, 23.3.07
8 Salmond’s speech angers Labour, The Herald, 21.7.07
9 Blair makes contact with Salmond, The Herald, 15.6.07
10 A National Conversation: Independence and Responsibility in the Modern World, Scottish Executive, 2007
11 This shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the relative strengths of support for independence and the Union. Salmond had persuaded most party members that mobilisation for an independence referendum was unnecessary. The Orange Order, on the other hand, fears any reform of the Union, and detecting further unwanted changes, took to the streets. It was the only force in Scotland to mobilise and publicly celebrate 300 years of Union. Grand Master, Ian Wilson, addressed the rally. Our parade today will be led by Scotland’s ancient saltire, and the colours of the Union. It is Scotland that put the blue in the Union Flag. See
12 Why England must heed the skirl of the pipes, Magnus Linklater, The Times, 15.8.07
13 Farmer calls for immediate independence referendum, The Herald, 21.8.07
14 Independence referendum is now “once in a generation”, Kevin Schofield, The Herald, 26.4.07
15 Grasping the Thistle, Michael Russell and Donald MacLeod, Argyll Press, 2007
16 Building a Nation – Post Devolution Nationalism in Scotland, Kenny MacAskill, Luath Press, 2004
17 SSP and SIC, op. cit., pp 14-15
18 The Bubble of American Supremacy, Correcting the Misuse of American Power, Public Affairs, 2003, and The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terrorism, George Soros, Public Affairs, 2006
19 Making Globalization Work, Joseph Stiglitz, W.W. Norton, 2006
20 Raising the Standard – There shall be an independent Scottish Parliament – A consultation paper on Scottish Independence, SNP, 30.9.05
22 Scottish Independence and the Struggle for Socialism, Alan McCombes, Scottish Militant Labour, 1998 and reply in AHtWR, op. cit., p. 20.
23 Two Worlds Collide – power, plunder and resistance in a divided planet, p. 55, Alan McCombes, SSP, 2005, and reply in Two Words Collide – Nationalism and Republicanism, Allan Armstrong, Emancipation & Liberation, no. 11, p.12
24 Surprise as Queen endorses devolved power, Murray Ritchie, Robbie Dinwoodie and Graeme Smith, The Herald, 29.5.02
25 Tory MSP in party breakaway call, and Comment, Brian Monteith – Tories must change or die, Sunday Times, 8.9.06
26 Brown congratulates Salmond, stresses commitment to union, The Herald, 17.5.07
27 Brown tripped up by Auld Enemy Question, James Kirkup, The Scotsman, 20.1.07
28 PM praises Scotland victory, The Herald, 13.9.07
29 Tory MP wants federation of UK parliaments, The Herald, 9.9.07
30 How Scotland could end up with the best of both worlds, Comment, Will Hutton, The Herald, 15.8.07
31 Alexander must take on the city state of London, Iain MacWhirter, The Herald, 26.8.07
32 Wherever the Saltire Flies, Kenny MacAskill and Henry McLeish, Luath Press, 2006
33 Scotland – The Road Divides, Henry McLeish and Tom Brown, Luath Press, 2007
34 It’s what happens when the Iron Chancellor’s big idea hits the buffers, Torcuil Crichton, The Sunday Herald, 9.9.07
35 Salmond congratulates Plaid Cymru on joining Welsh government
36 Salmond in Stormont for talks
37 British state is in constitutional flux, Jim Slaven, An Phoblacht, 23.8.07
38 National conversation on Irish unity, Tom Hartley, An Phoblacht, 6.9.07
39 Republicans must recognise reality of Irish who fell at Somme, Tom Hartley, An Phoblact, 16.3.06
40 SSP and IF, op. cit., p. 2-3
41 Jenny Dawe, the Lib-Dem leader of Edinburgh City Council, wanted the council leaders to “set themselves apart from the hoi polloi” by reinstating the ceremonial robes. This was at the height of the Lib-Dem/SNP coalition’s moves to close 22 schools. Set us apart from the hoi polloi, Brian Ferguson, Edinburgh Evening News, 29.8.07