The second Republican Socialist Convention was organised by the Socialist Alliance (The Socialist Alliance is the small organisation still left in England after the defection first of the Socialist Party and then the Socialist Workers Party.) in London on February 14th. In its initial conception it was ambitious. With a General Election looming in the UK, the organisers attempted to bring together figures from the Left who might be offering an election challenge this year. Those invited included Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT and someone from the Socialist Party, both involved in the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, Robert Griffiths from the Communist Party of Britain (and formerly of No2EU), Peter Tatchell of the Green Left, and Colin Fox, co-Spokesperson for the Scottish Socialist Party (as well as Tony Benn, now seen as somewhat of a ‘national treasure’ by the British Left). They were all to be asked how they saw the relevance of campaigning on political or democratic issues, especially the demand for a republic.
The series of apologies given, some undoubtedly genuine, whilst others more probably sectarian in motivation, highlighted the over-ambitious aims held by the organisers. The Convention Chair, Steve Freeman, introduced Peter Tatchell as a ‘republican in spirit’. He made a useful contribution to start the debate. Peter outlined his proposed ten points for the republican reform of the British constitution. As with most of the British Left, the ‘Six Counties’ was missing from Peters’ contribution. He did think, though, that a federal Britain could solve the National Question in England, Scotland and Wales.
There was a formalism about the republican principles Peter advocated. This was because Peter had not analysed the real nature of the British unionist and imperialist state we were up against, and the anti-democratic Crown Powers it had its disposal to crush any serious opposition. Nor did Peter outline where the social and political forces existed to bring about his new republic. In particular, he did not really consider the role of republican challenges to the UK state, emanating from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Unfortunately, Peter had to leave for another meeting, whilst time for further discussion was curtailed, so Colin Fox was then left to put the SSP’s socialist republican case in somewhat of a vacuum.
Colin pointed out how the MPs expenses scandal has shown how unrepresentative they have become. James Connolly reminded those who aspire to represent working people ‘Rise with your class not out of it’. Some 650 MPs or ‘representatives’ are elected to Parliament. So why are they so unrepresentative? It has been subverted by the neoliberal consensus. Being an MP has become a career not a cause. Parliament is full of lawyers, businessmen, bankers, accountants and lecturers and that’s just the Labour side!
In 2005, the Queen opened her new £440m Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh. The SSP MSPs decided not just to boycott the event, but to organise an alternative. The SSP gave its support to the Declaration of Calton Hill. Socialist republicanism is at the heart of the SSP’s politics.
Events in Iran
The Convention then moved quickly on to the last morning session, introduced by Mehdi Kia (co-editor of the Middle East Bulletin). Medhi provided an overview of the events in Iran over the last 8 months. Initially he addressed some of the myths surrounding the recent presidential election and provided reasons for rejecting them. These included suggestions that the election was not fraudulent, that the protestors are mainly middle class, that this is another “velvet” revolution orchestrated by the US, that it is led by the reformists, and that the Iranian regime is in some way anti-imperialistic.
He went on to point out that the protestors come from a variety of backgrounds, the slogans are continuously changing and becoming more radicalised, the movement is in its very essence democratic and anti-imperialist, and within it is a growing secular republican movement (rejecting the Islamic republic) with increasingly radical slogans. He concluded that under the immense repression of the regime the tactic of street demonstrations has only limited potential and unless the various movements (women, youth, nationalities and workers) co-ordinate more effectively and adopt different tactics the movement will not succeed in its more radical aims.
The afternoon session was meant to introduce the perspective of ‘Internationalism from Below’ – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – which had united the contributors to the first Republican Socialist Convention held in Edinburgh on the 29th November, 2008. The SSP International Committee had to apply some pressure for this issue to be taken seriously by the London organisers. They accepted, given the prevalence of Left British Unionism in England, that a debate was indeed needed between representatives of this tradition and speakers from both Left Nationalist and ‘Internationalism from Below’ viewpoints. A mixture of the shortness of time, the lack of non-English contacts held by the Left in London, and various apologies limited the scope for this debate on the day.
Instead, Steve Freeman spoke about whether there was a National Question in England, beginning by considering the flags and anthems at the 1966 world cup, the Scotland-England rugby match in 1990 and the Euro football in 1996 when the flag of St George became prominent. The National Question involves issues of political institutions (parliaments etc) and identity. Whilst the National Question was recognised for Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Left had not examined the related situation in England. Steve considered that a British nation had been created after 1707 through the wars with France in the 18th century. He saw the UK as one nation and four tribes – the British-English, British-Irish, British-Scots and British-Welsh. Now the political institutions and the identity of the British English were being questioned. There was no British-English National Question in the past but now there were signs of an emerging crisis of politics and identity. From this a new English politics and identity could emerge. How should the Left relate to this?
Allan Armstrong, from the SSP’s International Committee (and a member of the party’s Republican Communist Network platform), then outlined some of the lessons socialist republicans could learn from the decades long republican struggle against the UK state in Ireland. He pointed out that there was now a National Movement in Scotland that is wider than the SNP. Indeed the SNP, like its equivalent parties in Quebec, Catalunya and Euskadi, is increasingly settling for Devolution-Max, and pushing the interests of local business within the existing corporate imperialist order.
Today, the British, American and EU ruling classes are united against any move towards Scottish independence. This is why any movement to win Scottish self-determination must be republican from the start. It must be prepared, in advance, to confront the Crown Powers that will be inevitably utilised against us. Because genuine and democratic Scottish independence represents such a challenge to British imperialism and the UK state, we need allies in England, Ireland and Wales too. We need to be committed to a strategy of ‘internationalism from below’. We are socialist republicans and link our political demands with social and economic campaigns. This was the course advocated by two great socialist republicans born in Scotland – James Connolly and John Maclean.
This session prompted the most debate, which has now continued on the RCN and the commune websites, and in the pages of the very Left Unionist, Weekly Worker. It was a pity that enough time wasn’t given to air this debate more thoroughly on the day.
The last session was a bit of a damp squib, since the SA had obviously seen it as an opportunity to get the same sort of unity around demands over democratic issues in the forthcoming General Election, that the Left can sometimes achieve (on paper anyhow!) over economic issues. Instead it was left to Colin Fox for the SSP and Joseph Healey, for the Green Left, to outline the nature of their parties’ proposed electoral campaigns. The absence of the other Left forces contesting the election meant the SA’s aims could not be achieved in this respect.
It was good to have a Republican Socialist Convention organised in England. It was traditional Left in its mode of organisation (platform and audience), even when there were only about 20 present, but everybody who contributed did so in a constructive manner. I feel that more could have been gained though if the Convention had concentrated on the debate between Left Unionism, Left Nationalism and ‘Internationalism from Below’. Maybe the next time!