Oct 15 2008

The Defiance Of Science

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 7:45 pm

Rod MacGregor looks at science, secularism and the role of religion

In his book about oil depletion, Half Gone, Jeremy Leggett, one-time oil company high flier and former chief scientist with Greenpeace, tells of a particularly bizarre conversation he had with a lobbyist from the Ford Motor Company at a conference on climate change.

The man from Ford tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Leggett that, far from being four and a half billion years old, the world was, in fact, only 10,000 years old. Not only did he sincerely believe this, he also accused Leggett of being a disciple of the anti-Christ, then further informing him that pouring ever increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere did not really matter, as Leggett and all his fellow followers of the anti-Christ would be vanquished in the battle of Armageddon by the forces of God, after which they would ascend to heaven.

One thing that this outlandish dialogue between Leggett and the man from Ford does demonstrate is the resilience of religious fundamentalism.

Although the power of religion over the masses in western advanced societies has been seriously diminished since its mediaeval high point it would be foolish to think that it is no longer a relevant and powerful force in today’s world. In the United States, any politician with desires for high office ignores the Religious Right at their peril.

As science advanced and factual observation and calculation challenged faith based religion, the churches themselves did not just meekly accept that the game was up with the dawning of the age of reason. In fact, they fought tooth and nail in the face of the advance of scientific discovery and theory.

One of the most famous battles took place between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church in the 17th century. This particular fight had its roots in the previous century, when the Polish astronomer Copernicus had theorised that the Earth and all the planets revolved around the sun, opposing the then orthodox view that the Earth was at the centre and everything revolved around it.



This view was taken up by Galileo, an Italian physicist, astronomer and mathematician, who, among other things, invented the astronomical telescope. His invention allowed him to see the appearance of the planet Venus going through phases, thus proving that it was orbiting the Sun and confirming Copernicus to be correct.

Scientifically this was what we would nowadays call a breakthrough. But personally for Galileo, in his own time, it was a discovery which would cost him dearly, as it brought him into conflict with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition in the 17th century.

An explanatory word about the inquisition. Originally established in 1233, it was a tribunal, the purpose of which was to suppress heresy, originally by excommunication. It operated in Italy, Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire, and later extended its reach to the Americas. Following the Reformation, it was particularly active. Trials were held in secret, often under threat of torture, and punishments ranged from fines and flogging, through to imprisonment and death by burning.

In 1616 the Inquisition had heard from a committee of consultants that the Sun being the centre of the Universe and the Earth having an annual motion were absurd in philosophy, at least erroneous in theory, and formally a heresy. This was bad news for Galileo.

He was summoned before the Inquisition on several occasions, including one in 1633 when he was formally interrogated for eighteen days regarding his book Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems.

To cut a long story short Galileo’s clash with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition saw him endure house arrest, despite failing health, until his death in 1642. The Catholic Church did, however, eventually, and somewhat reluctantly and belatedly almost come round to his way of thinking when it finally conceded that he might, he might be right. This magnanimous partial acceptance took place in 1983!

Now, lest anyone thinks that this is an anti-Catholic rant, in the interests of balance it should be pointed out that the Protestants were actually on the ball regarding Copernican theory nearly eighty years before the Catholic Church let the Inquisition loose on Galileo.

Luther himself said of Copernicus that The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside down, and he considered the words how and why to be dangerous and infectious questions.

We can see from this that in the hundreds of years from Galileo and the Inquisition right up to today with neo-cons in America and, till recently, Blair in this country, religion is by no means an irrelevance.

What, then, should our attitude, as secular socialists, be towards religion?

Consenting adults

Personally, in my own ideal socialist world, I would treat religion like sex. That is, let those of a religious persuasion do what they like, but let them do it in the privacy of their own homes among consenting adults. If they want to have prayer meetings or whatever with fellow believers of whatever faith, fine. And if they behaved themselves and their priests/imams/rabbis, &c., were not too meddlesome, I would even let them out once a year at Christmas/Ramadan/whatever for a bit of public worship.

The link with church and state would have to go, though. I wouldn’t go for an outright ban on religion as it has proved itself a stubborn beast where its eradication has been attempted, and an outright ban would give it a power that benign tolerance and state indifference would not. So, the question arises, does religion have any radical role to play in today’s world?

One thing springs to mind. Quite often, where there is political repression, populations will gather round a religion to express dissent. There are numerous examples of this, most recently the Buddhist monks of Burma, who took to the streets in protest at their own government in the absence of a political opposition. Other examples could include the Catholic Church in El Salvador in the 1980’s, and even the Islamic fundamentalism which replaced the Shah in Iran in the 1970’s.

But as socialists we should be careful about siding with any religion just because it opposes things which we as socialists, too, may oppose. Many religions come with baggage that should be unacceptable to anyone on the left. Should we have supported the ayatollahs of Iran simply because they were opposed to the Shah, a despotic and particularly vile puppet of American imperialism? How could we square away giving unqualified support to Ayatollah Khomeni with Islam’s approach to women, gays or the death penalty?

Or in El Salvador, how could we have unquestioningly backed the Catholic Church, given its views on abortion, homosexuality or birth control. While we may detest the autocratic, undemocratic regimes that these religions opposed, we could at best offer only limited support to them, given the power structures that are at their core.

These are, indeed, classic examples of why we should be careful about siding with our enemies’ enemies. They are not necessarily our friends.

But I believe that there is at least one very good and important lesson that secular socialists can learn from religious fundamentalism, albeit what could, perhaps, be described as a negative one. It is this. We, too, as socialists, have our fundamental beliefs; we, too, have our tracts that our (hugely) godless faith holds sacred. But we must be prepared to add to those tracts, taking into account changing times and different circumstances.

Different people in different areas of the world may respond differently to situations that they find themselves in. What works in a relatively wealthy first world country may be quite different in character to what will energise and attract people to socialist values in a third world country or in a country which, once relatively wealthy, has fallen on hard times.

In this context I would like to point up two examples.

In his book Heroes John Pilger describes, in an article written in 1985, the struggles of the Eritrean people for independence from Ethiopia. Since 1961 the Eritreans had, while at war with Ethiopia and in isolation, despite appalling poverty, built a society which was, of stark necessity, self-reliant, but one which also placed essential value on literacy and humanity.

No young Eritrean was allowed to become a fighter in their armed struggle until they could read, write and understand what they might very well have to die for one day. And though in a permanent state of shortage, any prisoners taken were treated according to the Geneva Convention. The Eritreans’ belief was that the young Ethiopians they were fighting against were themselves victims of the same system which was trying to obliterate them.

In the years from 1961 to 1985 Eritrea’s enemies defied ideology. Both imperial and revolutionary Ethiopia had waged war on Eritrea, which had been a pawn in a superpower chess game, with America and the Soviet Union, with their client states, Israel and Cuba, weighing in for good measure.

Pilger points out that even their dogma, which he describes as a mish-mash of basic Marxism, had been reshaped by years of war and betrayal. A teacher who had studied in Britain explained it to him thus,

It may sound preposterous to you, but we have no left-wing and no right-wing. These are European concepts which have no application in Eritrea, or probably anywhere in Africa. How can we possibly use these stupid terms? We have been let down too often. We are ourselves: and we have no political debts.

For the record, Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in May 1993.

The second example is that of Argentina. In December 2001, the Argentinian economy collapsed, throwing a quarter of the workforce out of work.

Movement of Recovered Companies poster

Movement of Recovered Companies poster

Movement of Recovered Companies

Out of this industrial holocaust something remarkable emerged, known as the Movement of Recovered Companies. It is still not huge, six years on it covers only 170 companies and 10,000 workers, but what these workers have achieved is quite astonishing.

There existed a legal framework whereby the workers could, through time, expropriate ownership of the companies. This they achieved by occupying the shut-down factories and bringing them back into production.

Put like that it sounds quite simple, but the Recovered Companies movement is a tale of occupation, eviction and re-occupation, most of the time with intimidation and violence from the former owners and police always lurking in the background.

By far the most common form of control is by setting up a co-operative, where decisions are made by assembly, with everyone having their say. In one factory, in the middle of the floor are forty school desks, so that workers who have to keep the machinery working, can have their say as they do so.

But the interesting thing is that the people who occupied these factories and brought them back to life did not start from a political viewpoint. Their sole aim in the beginning was to earn money to feed their families. Many, however, become politicised by their struggles.

The left, when they turned up to offer their support, were quite often viewed with something approaching suspicion and the workers themselves did not want to be co-opted on to anyone’s political agenda. Indeed, in one factory they were eventually asked if they would mind supporting them from outside the factory gates!

As one worker put it,

We formed the cooperative with the criteria of equal wages and making basic decisions by assembly; we are against the separation of manual and intellectual work; we want a rotation of positions and; above all, the ability to recall our elected leaders.

Some on the left feel that the co-operatives fit too comfortably into what is still a capitalist system, and call for nationalisation of the co-operatives. As one worker pointed out, however, while not theoretically opposed to nationalisation at some time in the future to do so currently would mean having a right-wing capitalist as their ultimate boss.

An interesting argument.

Though different in nature, what happened in Eritrea and Argentina (one a war, the other an economic catastrophe) had a common thread running through them and that thread’s name was necessity, as people rallied to a common cause and left the political theorists either stranded on the sidelines or chasing events as they happened.

We must keep our minds open to new ideas, to new variations on familiar themes. Not to do so will leave us with nothing but rigid dogma. If we do not embrace change which enhances our core beliefs, however unexpected its origin, then two millenia from now (though, hopefully the revolution will have occurred by then) we would find future socialists quoting from ancient texts and Marxist tracts from the 19th century.

They will preach to an audience which will regard them with every bit as much incredulity as Jeremy Leggett could ever muster in the twenty-first century when conversing with an executive of the Ford motor company, quoting from tracts which were themselves written 2000 years and more before.

Adapt, adopt, evolve—these are the things which socialism must do (with integrity) if it is to stay relevant to the citizens of the future.

SSP Policy

(Agreed at Oct. 2007 Conference)

Conference resolves that:

  • 1. While religious schools continue to receive state funding, all suitably qualified teachers should be eligible to apply for all posts within them.
  • 2. Religious or denominational schools should be phased out as they result in separating children on the grounds of faith, which can only serve to alienate them from one another.
  • 3. That we wish to end the practice of collective worship in school assemblies.

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Oct 15 2008

Letter agreed (10.3.2008) at SSP International Committee to be sent out to organisations in Ireland, Wales and England

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 7:30 pm

The Scottish Socialist Party is inviting your organisation to send a speaker to Socialism 2008 to be held on …………… at ………………

Our last Conference agreed to arrange a meeting of socialists in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. It is clear that the ruling classes of the UK and Ireland have come to a shared understanding of the need to adopt a common strategy to promote global corporate interests and profit maximisation (e.g. tax cutting, privatisation and deregulation).

The political framework for this strategy is provided by the UK and Irish governments’ promotion of ‘Devolution-all-round’ and a ‘Peace Process’, which together cover the whole of these islands. Furthermore, this political partnership is supplemented by the current ‘social partnership’ between trade unions, government and business. Trade union leaders are wheeled out to hail the benefits of both partnerships. Meanwhile they organise no effective action to protect their members, subject to constant attack.

Furthermore, this political strategy enjoys the backing of successive US governments. Both UK and Irish governments have accepted their role as agents of US imperial domination. British troops form a prominent part of the occupying armies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Military bases in the UK and Ireland are being used by US troops and for rendition flights. Irish constitutional neutrality is under threat.

In the aftermath of the 2007 elections to Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, Stormont and the Dublin Dail, we now see regular meetings, involving Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, Welsh First and Depute Ministers, Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones, and Northern Ireland First and Depute Ministers, Iain Paisley and Martin McGuinness. One of their aims is to further cut business taxation to make their countries are attractive to the big corporations. Meanwhile Salmond and Paisley compete for Donald Trump’s golfing/ gated residential complex in Aberdeenshire and Antrim.

Socialists have suffered a number of setbacks recently. Nevertheless, we feel that when our political adversaries are clearly organising their activities across the whole of these islands, should begin the process of countering their activities. The SSP believes that we could all benefit by greater cooperation.

A first step would be for us to come to some shared understanding of the political strategy being used by our class enemies, so that we can more effectively resist this. We can also share our experiences in acting as socialists in the new political situation we face. Therefore, we hope you will consider sending a speaker to Socialism 2008.
Scottish Socialist Party

Oct 15 2008

Motion Passed at SSP Conference in October 2007

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 7:26 pm

The SSP agrees to contact socialists in England, Ireland and Wales to discuss a republican socialist
strategy to counter current US and British plans to maintain imperial control over these islands on behalf of the global corporations. If the initial discussions prove fruitful then the SSP should, if possible, organise a conference in 2008 to bring together socialists from across the UK and Ireland.

The SSP suggests the following discussion points (to which others could add):-

  • a) A socialist republican strategy to challenge US/UK imperial plans & to advance the break-up the UK state.
  • b) Opposition to NATO and the ‘Partnership for Peace’.
  • c) Opposition to the British state’s Crown Powers and plans to reform the UK constitution to stabilise imperial control of these islands.
  • d) Opposition to moves by the nationalist parties, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein, and the Irish government, to collaborate with US/UK imperial plans.
  • e) Support for the socialist principle of ‘People not Profits’ and opposition to ‘Social Partnerships’.
  • f) Support for the republican principle of ‘Citizens not Subjects’.
  • g) International support for the principles of the Calton Hill Declaration.
  • h) Support for republican socialist advance in these islands based on the principles of democracy and secularism.

If the SSP organises a conference in 2008 to discuss a republican socialist strategy then the International Committee should decide on a full list of organisations and individuals who are to be invited to participate.

Oct 14 2008

Socialists And The Republic

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 8:37 pm

Taken from SSP website

Soon to be included in a forthcoming RCN pamphlet.

When people are asked what is meant by the word ‘republic’ they usually answer, A country without a monarch. In today’s world this covers a great variety of states, including the USA, France, Germany, Russia, Israel, China, South Africa and Cuba.

At first glance, then, ‘republic’ would not appear to be a very helpful term for socialists, who want to distinguish between more or less progressive social and political systems.

The pursuit of ‘honours’

Therefore, despite the fact that we, in the UK, live in one of the few remaining monarchies in the world, what significant difference could the ending of the monarchy bring about? Certainly, the existence of the Royal Family helps to buttress a more rigid class system here, where class is understood in its older sense of hierarchical privilege, with upper, middle and lower classes. The desperation with which some Labour politicians and trade union leaders pursue ‘honours’ is one indication of the hold of this oldstyle class privilege within the UK.

Nevertheless, a quick examination of the world’s most powerful republic, the USA, shows us that the lack of a monarchy is not necessarily a barrier to the promotion of huge income differentials between an obscenely wealthy elite and the downtrodden poor. So, why should socialists consider themselves republicans at all, rather than just ignoring the monarchy until we have achieved our real aim, the creation of a socialist republic? Answering this question means taking a closer look at the political nature of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The UK is a constitutional monarchy, which means, in effect, that the Queen exerts little power in her own right. Yes, the Royal Family enjoys massive privileges in terms of property, income and status, but these are rewards given for its role in supporting and promoting the interests of a wider British ruling class. The fragility of royal political influence was shown over the Windsors’ inept handling of the ‘Princess Di Affair’. Diana was seen by the public to be much more in tune with the modern day, neo-liberal requirements of a celebrity monarchy. Tony Blair saw this ruling class need for a ‘New Monarchy’, and quickly labelled the late Diana, the ‘People’s Princess’. The Windsors, however, were still seen by most to be an extremely dysfunctional family, out Socialists And The Republic of touch with the present-day world. Since then, they have had to put a lot of effort into trying to repackage the monarchy.

So, does this mean that the long-standing infatuation of the British public with the Royal Family, which long prevented even the old Labour Party from challenging royal privilege, is at last waning? It probably does, but that does not get to the root of the problem. Far more important than the Royal Family itself, is the political system it fronts. Despite the existence of a parliamentary democracy centred on Westminster, with its new devolved offspring at Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont, it still has very real limitations. These lie in the state’s Crown Powers, which are wielded, not by the Queen, but by the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has a wider circle of advisers, from the world of finance, industry and the media, who help him adopt strategies and form policies to promote their needs, without too much democratic scrutiny. We can see some of those pressures in Gordon Brown’s handling of the Northern Rock collapse, where defence of City interests has been paramount. If anyone thinks that defence of small investors is Brown’s first interest, just ask the victims of the collapse of the Farepack Fund, run by Halifax/Bank of Scotland.

Beyond public accountability

Business leaders have also ensured that the bidding for the government’s many lucrative PFI contracts, amounting to billions of pounds of public money, is conducted in secret. This means that whole swathes of the UK economy, ostensibly under the control or supervision of Parliament, in reality lie way beyondany effective public accountability.

All this unaccountable economic influence has to be supplemented by other anti-democratic political means. This is why senior civil servants, judges, and officers and ranks in the armed forces, all swear their allegiance to the Queen, not to Parliament, and certainly not to the people. The ruling class may require their services, acting, when necessary, against the interests of the people, or even Parliament. Of course, it is not the Queen herself, who wields this power, but the Prime Minister, acting on behalf of the ruling class. This is all done under the Crown Powers.

The UK’s constitution even has provision for the suspension of Parliament in ‘extreme situations’, with resort instead to direct rule by the Privy Council. This very select band of former and existing senior government ministers is chosen for its reliability in upholding ruling class interests. Its members all enjoy close contact with the world of business, whilst some have had direct dealings with military officers, MI5 and MI6.

It was no surprise that Ian Paisley was recently made a Privy Councillor, nor that his deputy, Martin McGuiness was not asked! The fact that Alex Salmond is now a Privy Councillor too, shows that, beyond the inflamed public histrionics, through which party political competition normally takes place in the UK, the British ruling class inner circle still consider him reliable enough. Indeed, Salmond enjoys his own close links with the Scottish finance sector, which has wider British interests to defend. More importantly, Salmond’s acceptance of a Privy Councillorship indicates that he will play the political game by Westminster rules, in the developing struggle for Scottish self-determination.

Way back in the late 1970’s, before the British ruling class came to the conclusion that ‘Devolution-all-round’ (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) was the best strategy to defend its interests in these islands and the wider world, key sections were still bitterly opposed even to the very mild devolutionary proposals put forward by the then Labour government. In the lead-up to the 1979 Devolution Referendum, the ‘non-political’ Queen was wheeled out to make a Christmas broadcast attacking Scottish nationalism. Senior civil servants were told to ‘bury’ any documents, which could help the Scottish nationalists. Military training exercises were conducted, targeting putative armed Scottish guerrilla forces. The security forces became involved on the nationalist fringe, encouraging anti-English diatribes and actions, to discredit any notion of real Scottish self-determination.

The long arm of Crown Powers

However, unlike Ireland or Australia, Scottish nationalists did not then have to face the full panoply of Crown Powers. It was not necessary, since the SNP opposition was so mild and constitutionalist in nature. In the ‘Six Counties’, the Republicans, and the wider nationalist community, felt the force of her majesty’s regiments, including the SAS, the UDR (with its royal patronage) and the RUC, and the Loyalist death squads, all backed up by juryless Diplock Courts, manned by Unionist judges, and by detention, as required, in ‘her majesty’s special prisons. Those sections of the state, which provide the ruling class with legal sanction to pursue its own ends, are prefixed ‘her majesty’s’ or ‘royal’. Self-styled Loyalists include those who prepared to undertake certain illegal tasks when called upon by the security services.

Back in 1975, Gough Whitlam fronted a mildly reforming Labour government, which wanted to keep US nuclear warships out of Australian ports. He felt the long arm of the Crown Powers when the British Governor-General removed him from his elected office. More recently the Crown Powers have been used to deny the right of the Diego Garcia islanders to return to their Indian Ocean home, when they won their case in the British High Court. Unfortunately for them, Diego Garcia is now the site of a major US military base. Current British governments are even more subservient to US imperial interests than they were in the 1970’s. We should take seriously the warning from Lisa Vickers, the new US consul in Edinburgh, when she 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!

SNP: pro-monarchy

Alex Salmond has finally come out and declared that the SNP is a pro-monarchy party. As Colin Fox has said, Salmond wants the ending of the outdated 1707 Union of the Parliaments, only to return to the even more antiquated, 1603 Union of the Crowns. Of course, there are still Scottish republicans to be found in the SNP. However, they are a bit like those ‘Clause 4 socialists’, once found in the old Labour Party. For them socialism was a sentimental ideal for the future but, in the meantime, a Labour government had to be elected to run capitalism efficiently, in order to provide enough crumbs to finance some reforms for the working class.

Today’s SNP ‘independistas’ passionately believe in a future independent Scotland, but believe the road is opened up, in the here and now, by an SNP government managing the local UK state in the interests of big business. They are going to be disappointed as the old SNP turns into an ‘independence-lite’ ‘New SNP’, just like its counterparts in Quebec, Euskadi and Catalunya. The SNP leadership is not going to challenge US or British imperial power, so it will not be able to deliver genuine independence. This political measure will be strongly opposed by resort to whatever Crown Powers are seen to be necessary. Being prepared to counter those Crown Powers has to be central to any socialist strategy, which opens up a prospect of real democratic advance, in the struggle for Scottish selfdetermination.

The Crown Powers have also been used by Prime Ministers to declare wars without parliamentary sanction, and to mobilise troops to break strikes when necessary. Therefore, it should be clear why socialists have an interest in promoting republicanism – it increases people’s democratic rights, whilst undermining the anti-democratic powers in the hands of the ruling class. Socialists living under fascist dictatorships, or in countries with major restrictions on trade union rights, don’t say life would be no better under parliamentary rule, or with legally independent trade unions, because the ruling class would still run things. Socialists place themselves at the head of the struggle for greater democratic rights, but don’t stop at the more limited forms compatible with capitalist rule. Socialists see republicanism today as a part of the struggle for the socialist republic tomorrow.


Oct 14 2008

‘Celtic Tigers’ And ‘Celtic Lions’ Both Pussycats For Big Business

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 8:18 pm

I have come to Dublin to set our aspirations for Scotland’s future.
Alex Salmond, speaking at Trinity College, Dublin, 13.2.2008

There two official economic visions currently being offered to the electorates of these islands. The first has been promoted by Blair, Brown and New Labour. Their British imperial vision involves bowing and scraping before the rich and powerful, and subordination to the interests of big business, whilst flying the union jack.

The second vision initially had a more limited appeal – to the electorate of the 26 counties of the Irish Republic. Successive Fianna Fail governments have bowed and scraped before the rich and powerful, and have subordinated themselves to the interests of big business, whilst flying the Irish tricolour. This ‘alternative’ vision has been labelled the ‘Celtic Tiger’.

The night before St. Valentine’s Day, Alex Salmond declared his love for the ‘Celtic Tiger’, when he made a keynote speech to politicians, businessmen and union leaders, at Trinity College, Dublin. Only in Scotland’s case this vision is to be marketed as the ‘Celtic Lion’, and is to be labelled with a saltire. Salmond hopes to build a wider alliance, bringing in the new administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland, to promote a common front of ‘Celtic Tigers’, ‘Lions’ ‘Dragons’, and perhaps, ‘Red Hands’, against the beleaguered British New Labour vision, now clouding over after the collapse of Northern Rock.

So, what can we expect in Scotland, if we go down Salmond’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ road? Scotland’s right wing Policy Institute has highlighted what it sees as the key policies in Ireland’s economic success story. Ever since the launching of the 1987 National Economic Plan, Irish governments have pursued a policy of slashing corporate taxes, so that they now lie at 12%. It has very low inheritance tax. It has encouraged a huge speculative property boom, mightily helped by some of the loosest planning regulations to be found anywhere. New infrastructure projects are done under PFI schemes. In other words, Irish governments do whatever big business wants. A series of corruption charges, going to the very highest levels of the Irish government, have underlined this.

A key feature of this pattern of development has been the neglect of social investment in housing, education and health. The private sector has been given responsibility for dealing with this and, as usual, is highly selective in its approach. Increasing swathes of society are left trapped in poor quality peripheral housing schemes. The labour shortfall is made up by importing migrant labour, forced to live on low wages in sub-standard, overcrowded accommodation.

Poor shape

A decade ago, Ireland’s outdated physical infrastructure was in a very poor shape. Now, with business interests demanding change, new motorways are being rapidly built. This is being done with total disregard for Ireland’s historical heritage, particularly in the case of the new M3 near the ancient Celtic site of Tara. The Irish government now allows National Monuments to be destroyed, if they interfere with the plans of big business. Where people need new infrastructure, however, there is no such haste, as the scandal of Galway’s contaminated public water supply has highlighted.

However, perhaps the starkest example of the ‘Celtic Tiger’s subordination to big business, has been Shell’s development of the Corrib gasfield, located off the coast of north Mayo. Ray Burke, former Minister of Communication and Energy, now facing corruption charges, made the following deal, when in office. The Irish state undertook to pay Shell’s exploration and development costs. Shell would pay no royalties to the Irish government. Shell was given executive powers to undertake compulsory access and purchase orders for the land it wanted at Rossport to build a new refinery. Irish citizens became, in effect, Shell’s corporate subjects.

A North Mayo mural of Ken Saro-Wiwia, campaigner against Shell, executed by Nigerian government.

A North Mayo mural pf Ken Saro-Wiwia, campaigner against Shell, executed by Nigerian government.

Mike Cunningham, former director of the Irish Statoil, said that, No country in the world gives as favourable terms to the oil companies as Ireland. The World Bank considered Ireland to be a softer touch than even Nigeria. It was here that Shell had brought about devastation to the Niger Delta lands occupied by the Ogoni people. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni’s best-known public advocate, was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995.

In 2005, the Rossport Five were imprisoned for 94 days by the Irish government, at the behest of Shell. They had protested against Shell’s proposed seizure of their land in Mayo, and the construction of a dangerous high pressure gas pipeline, near to their homes and community. They were only released after massive protests. Nevertheless, Shell got their way and are proceeding to build an onshore refinery, against the wishes of the local community, who campaigned for one built offshore – ‘Shell to Sea’.

Hey Mac - just do as youre told!

Hey Mac - just do as you're told!

Policy Scotland and Scotsman writer, Bill Jamieson, made the following observation, when comparing Ireland and Scotland. The loose planning system… is in marked contrast to attitudes in Scotland. The planning regime is much stricter. Well, that is until the US property tycoon, Donald Trump, made his demands. Then, the SNP administration, and fawning local media, went into hyper drive to bulldoze local objections to Trump’s proposed development of the environmentally sensitive, Balmedie Beach, on the Aberdeenshire coast.

Trump wants to build 2 championship golf courses, a 5 star luxury hotel, 1000 holiday homes, and 36 luxury villas. He even has the nerve to invoke his one-time, croft dwelling, Lewis mother, as an inspiration for a development that will amount to a new ‘clearance’, as far as public access goes. ‘Mactrump Towers’ has all the hallmarks of yet another exclusive gated development for the very rich. Trump has also pushed for the cancellation of the proposed offshore wind farm, important for the development of renewable energy. It might offend his ‘guests’. And, just like Ireland’s National Monuments, so Scotland’s Special Sites of Scientific Interest, may well prove expendable too, if Trump gets the final go-ahead.

Of course, Jack McConnell, when he was Scottish First Minister, personally lobbied Donald Trump in New York. Under the new SNP administration, any ‘McTrump Towers’ reception centre may have to fly the saltire instead of the union jack. But whether its New Labour, SNP, or Fianna Fail, ‘It’s business as usual’.


Oct 14 2008

Paisley’s Legacy

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 8:09 pm

An article on the Socialist Democracy website by US socialist, Matt Siegfried

After 45 Years as Northern Ireland’s leading demagogue the 82 year old sectarian preacher, Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley, has exited the political stage. He has resigned, as of May, his position as Stormont’s First Minister as well as Leader of his Democratic Unionist Party.

He is Reverend of the Free Presbyterian Church, which can only be described as a shrill caricature of fundamentalist hokum and evangelical brimstone. He will hold on to his honorary Doctorate in Divinity bestowed upon him by the racist Bob Jones University.

Since his rival, David Trimble, and the Ulster Unionists, along with the Good Friday Agreement fell, in large part, to his opposition, Paisley reconstructed the GFA with the pliant agreement of Sinn Fein into an even more sectarian and unionist agreement. Through the provisions of the October, 2006 Saint Andrew’s Agreement Ian Paisley became First Minister in a devolved Stormont regime. The structures of this regime are premised on a sectarian division. To create positions to fill it has more ministers, more members and more expenses than any other political entity its size. This large bureaucracy is perfect for handing out positions and sweetening pots. The Welsh and Scottish Assemblies have much more self rule than the one that sits in Ireland. Northern Ireland’s union with Britain is guaranteed by the Agreement and the Assembly itself carries a dual Unionist/British veto. It’s always potentially only a phone call away from collapsing if the Fenians ever get out of line.

Knee slap with George Bush

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has taken the job of Ian Paisley’s Deputy. Together they have become known as the Chuckle Brothers as they knee slap with George Bush and cut the opening ribbon to tacky shopping developments in Belfast. McGuinness’s lack of dignity not withstanding, the former IRA Commander sits as a Minister of the British Crown. This erstwhile revolutionary who once was at war with the very idea of a Stormont administers its rule. Sinn Fein still have the shamelessness to claim to be socialists as they partner with Ian Paisley, who believes the world is four thousand years old, the pope is the anti-Christ and who once led a Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign. The DUP is the most right-wing party in power in Western Europe and Sinn Fein chuckle as they administer the rule of a thoroughly capitalist British state with them.

Ireland of today, North and South, is vastly different than it was even ten years ago. The war the IRA waged against British rule is clearly over. Southern Ireland’s integration into the European Union has seen it grow economically. This once economic basket case now has one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Immigration trends have reversed, and instead of Ireland being a point of departure for the New World or Australia, it has become a place of arrival for hundreds of thousands of workers from the newly EU countries of the east like Poland and Lithuania.

Rebalancing sectarian privilege

But Ireland remains partitioned and Northern Ireland remains firmly British. Northern Ireland cannot help but be based on sectarianism because partition, British rule, requires it. What has been achieved in the North is a rebalancing of sectarian privilege not its destruction. Sinn Fein has readily accepted this formula, which necessitated their abandonment of all but the title of Irish Republicanism. But the problem with basing solutions on sectarian privilege is that it requires consensus and in the Stormont context that means a reactionary neo-liberal policy with no opposition.

It is also the nature of sectarian division to be unequal, otherwise there is no justification for the division. The unionist will always have the veto and the British state to back them up on whatever question should arise. The use of that veto to scuttle the attempt at an Irish Language Act late last year proves the point. If even the Irish language isn’t to be recognized how can Irish speakers? Sectarian benefits are doled out with precision. EU funds in particular are apportioned out to any number of projects defined by community or intercommunity, which can amount to the same thing since it is also premised on sectarian division. More than a few former guerillas now man these well funded community centres. Foreign investment and economic growth have not led to a single integrated school in Ireland or a single one of the Peace Walls to come down.

As I watched BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight on Tuesday as the substance of Paisley resignation began to seep in I was struck at the tone of the Unionists about Paisley’s legacy. Nigel Dodds of Paisley’s DUP and potential successor as party leader made it perfectly clear that from his perspective what was to celebrate about Paisley’s life was Paisley’s commitment to the Union and Unionist dominance within that Union. Far from a surrender to Sinn Fein, Dodds said, Paisley and the DUP had got them to not only drop their opposition to British rule but to be junior partners in its administration thus tying them politically to the fate of the union. Ironically, this is the same critique that many Republicans who disagree with the strategy Adams and McGuinness would invoke. His tone was one of bigoted triumphalism over the defeated nationalists. They would never see a united Ireland he said, and their leaders had even agreed to it.

Whos laughing now?

Who's laughing now?

Worst kind of divisions

There is nothing to celebrate in the life or politics of Ian Paisley. He has represented the worst kinds of divisions wrought by imperialism on Ireland. And no attempt to stand on the St. Andrews Agreement as history’s vindication will work. The agreement institutionalized a state that is a labyrinth of sectarianism and meaningless dispensations. It closes hospitals, cuts funding to education and pursues all of the devastating policies of neo-liberalism. Paisley’s gift to Ireland was almost 50 years of fighting for Protestant supremacy and Unionist rejection. That he became First Minister in his old age of a state with his former enemies that enshrined supremacy and rejection is no sign of change.

Though the war is over and I can’t imagine the circumstances that could reignite it, the state in the North is unstable. The pressures from within one side or the other could break down the consensus required to the balancing act. Due in large part to Sinn Fein’s malleability the balancing act may continue to work for a time. No balancing act lasts forever.

Unlike another Ian in another British colony Paisley wouldn’t go down like Rhodesia’s Ian Smith. Whatever clouds he may leave under and whatever may befall his party and their government one thing is clear after thirty-five years of strife; Ian Paisley won the war.

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Oct 07 2008

Ken Livingstone: The End of Road

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 7:13 pm

Gerry Fitzpatrick (Socialist Resistance), provides a personal memoir of the evolution of ‘Red Ken’ the first celebrity socialist. Today he has betrayed the Black, Irish and socialist activists who battled against the ‘Met’ – the corrupt police force ‘Red Ken’ now defends.

Some years ago in the early 1970s – it seems a very long time indeed now – a new police chief was appointed head of London’s Metropolitan Police. This was Sir Robert Mack and the job he was appointed to do was to clean up the Met after its links with organised crime had been exposed.

A left wing cartoon at the time portrayed him as a dustman collecting the ill-gotten gains in a small barrow. Mack’s ‘clean up’ operation was mostly for public consumption; very few police officers were prosecuted. Most were allowed to leave the force on full pensions and to keep their spoils through a ‘lack of evidence’. The political payoff for the police was an agreement that they would get the power and equipment they needed to deal with the political and industrial unrest.

‘I’m not racist but….’

This new political generosity produced the Special Patrol Group and its role in policing political and industrial disputes. It is also produced the story of the ‘SUS’ laws (if an officer suspected that an individual was about to commit a crime he could make an arrest on that basis) which helped the police dealing out more ‘heavy manners’ to the Black Community.

Not much explanation was needed to justify ‘heavy manners’ for the black community, for the simple reason that public discourse on the subject of the black community was completely dominated by the ‘concerned citizen’ – the self appointed ‘I’m not racist but….’ bigot, who wanted to punish black people for changing London and for producing more black people. They wanted especially to collectively punish black young people, for being proud of who they were and for being politically aware (most of that generations fathers and mothers had come to England with genuine love for the country, only to be sadly disappointed at the reception they received).

Only there was a problem, those who had been marked out for victim-hood did not respond as they were expected to. First, in reaction to the huge increase in the amount of police arrests and brutalisation of young black people under the SUS laws, a new radical militant sub culture was born involving both black and white working class people. Part of this sub culture was the setting up of ‘law centres’ to help black and working class people with the new aggressive policing. This produced people like Lee Jasper, a brilliant south London based lawyer who destroyed many a police case that should never have been brought to court. He was part of the political culture of the time that supported broadly Trotskyist politics. This milieu ultimately produced Ken Livingstone who cut his political teeth also in working class South London in bitter fights with the police and the traditional time servers in his own party.

Banning The Carnival

In the summer of 1976 all these aspects came together with the campaign to have London’s Noting Hill Carnival banned. Leading the fight against the Carnival were Tory residents of Kensington and Chelsea. Their very large petition was publicly endorsed by the local police commander. The police however did not support an outright ban for two reasons; first, being that it would have been extremely difficult to contain the subsequent angry demonstrations against the ban; second, they did not wish to loose the opportunity to practice their new methods of crowd control. The method of control they did opt for was a form of strangulation. This writer witnessed the effects of that strangulation as practised on the Children’s Carnival before the main event where the children’s steel bands – alone on the virtually empty streets – were tightly enveloped by police cordons. The top of each one of these police cordons there was gap for a police inspector with a clipboard announcing and pointing out where the children should be going.

It is now a matter of history what happened when these tactics were practiced on the main carnival. Out of the ashes of that year Ken Livingstone was able to build and maintain an original political alliance between black and Irish voters (his campaign for peace talks with SF was extremely effective with Irish electors who until that point had not been a radical force in Labour Party Politics). Another of his movement’s achievements was to give some support to the black communities’ insistence that the police, when using the SUS laws – were out of control. The SUS laws were eventually scraped after a number of high profile cases were thrown out, such as the Mangrove case were all the members of a community café were collectively charged effectively with conspiracy. A large number of these cases were won by Lee Jasper with important follow up campaigning by black labour politician Bernie Grant. Grant Like many of Livingstone’s London supporters successfully carried on their campaigns as Labour MPs after the GLC and the other labour controlled metropolitan boroughs were abolished by the Tories in 1986.

Red Ken falls back into Labour embrace

Red Ken falls back into Labour embrace

The Return of Ken

When out of power Livingstone never lost the opportunity to remind his critics that it was his policy to talk peace with Sinn Fein. He also reminded the Irish community that he opposed the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the anti Irish hysteria that caused miscarriages of justice. Letting the Irish of London know they had a champion in Ken Livingstone was, and remains, a decisive part of Ken’s political strategy. And it proved successful in returning Livingstone to power as London mayor in 2000 when he stood as an Independent against the Labour Party candidate. He repeated that success in 2004, though he was then back within the party.

The Return of SUS

For a period of ten years beginning in late 1990s armed police units were involved in number of ‘extra judicial’ killings in British cities. In each case the police revived the ‘SUS’ defence. Two of these were simply SAS style assassinations of unarmed republicans. One was of a recently released prisoner (not a republican) shot and killed by police in 1998 while sitting in a car. The most notorious being the Hackney shooting, also in 1998, where a man – Harry Stanley – was shot dead on suspicion of being Irish and armed (he was in fact Scottish and the ‘gun’ was a chair leg in a plastic bag). After a very long fight the Stanley’s family got the coroners ‘open’ verdict overturned and ‘unlawful killing’ was entered as the cause of death. Two police officers were charged, yet later released due to ‘insufficient evidence’. Other cases of shoot to kill were a schizophrenic in Liverpool who was shot dead by police for wielding a sword and the infamous Bennet case where a black man was shot dead in Brixton for holding (then dropping) a lighter shaped like a gun. Lee Jasper, in his official capacity as senior policy adviser on policing to Livingstone, said in 2000 of the Bennett case, ‘Given the explosion of black gun crime within the black community our message to people is that if you are carrying a toy gun as a fashion accessory then that is a very dangerous thing to do.’ And actually shooting and killing someone on suspicion they were armed is also a very dangerous thing to do.

There were two factors driving these killings. First was the deployment prior to 9/11 of RUC special branch ‘shot-to-kill’ tactics and two, the new prejudice and impunity that accompanied the new ‘war on terror’ on London’s streets, where someone could be killed on suspicion of being a Muslim terrorist. That is what happened in the summer of 2005 when Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, who was suspected of being a suicide bomber, was killed by armed police. Much was made of the fact that he had to be surprised and could not be alerted to what was happening to him. This was later shown to be part of the police’s media management strategy after the event as was shown later when it was leaked that Mr Menezes was actually being held by another member of the police unit while he was being shot.

Since the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes his family like the Stanley family have fought for justice and even went further and sued the police on the grounds that police ‘suspicion’ of who Jean Charles de Menezes was – was not cause enough for the police to publicly execute him. They eventually won that case. Not among their supporters was the mayor of London Ken Livingstone who instead insisted on backing Ian Blair, the now beleaguered metropolitan police commissioner.

Part of Ken Livingstone’s appeal was that he survived the many attempts to defeat and ‘abolish’ him. In the end the only person who succeeded in defeating and abolishing Ken Livingstone was Ken Livingstone himself.

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Oct 07 2008


Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 6:59 pm
by Rod MacGregor

by Rod MacGregor

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Oct 07 2008

Respect Split

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 6:55 pm

Ed Walsh, (Irish Socialist Network) gives his personal views on the recent split in Respect

Originally printed at http://www.irishsocialist.net

The British Left has now experienced two acrimonious splits in the space of eighteen months. After the grim transformation of the Scottish Socialist Party into two bitterly-divided camps (The SSP split has been covered in back issues of E&L including an article by the Irish Solidarity Network entitled Crisis in the SSP, Emancipation & Liberation No. 14, Spring 2007), their comrades south of the border now have their own feud to manage.

Whatever else happens, it seems clear that the two factions emerging from within the Respect coalition will not be working together in the same organisation for a long, long time.

57 varieties – still unfit for human consumption

If you listen to the Socialist Workers Party, it would appear that the vitriolic parting of the ways between themselves and virtually every other prominent figure in Respect is the result of a left/right divide. The SWP are the left wing, while George Galloway and his allies represent a rightwards-moving, communalist, electoralist tendency that had to instigate a witch-hunt against Britain’s largest Trotskyist grouping in order to smooth the path for their own march towards the centre ground.

Unfortunately for the SWP, very few people outside their own ranks give this theory the least bit of credence. It’s quite true that there are notable political differences between George Galloway and the SWP, and you’d expect that any group chiefly shaped by the thinking of Galloway would be quite distinct from one in which the ideas of the SWP played a dominant role. But that doesn’t seem to have been what provoked the falling-out.

Rather, the immediate cause of the split was organisational. Questions of organisation are themselves deeply political, of course, but not always in the sense that one faction is more radical, less given to compromise in the pursuit of left-wing goals than the other. In this case, former allies of the SWP in Respect have levelled accusations of authoritarian control-freakery against the organisation – they claim that the SWP would have preferred to destroy Respect rather than give up total control over its structures. Previous experience with the Socialist Alliance in the UK counts against the furious denials of the SWP leadership (as does the track record of numerous campaigns in Ireland).

This article is not going to waste much time on SWP-bashing (you can find plenty of it in the community of leftist bloggers if that’s what you’re looking for). It’s more useful to ask what political conclusions might be drawn from a trail of broken alliances and wrecked campaigning fronts. It doesn’t seem very plausible to assume that the SWP (or any other far-left group with a similar record) does this sort of thing for the craic, because they really enjoy sabotaging political initiatives.

The root cause appears to be the lack of democracy in the ranks of so many Trotskyist organisations. All too often, we find radical groups to be dominated by a permanent leadership faction which marginalises or co-opts dissenting figures within the ranks. Without a healthy culture of debate and disagreement inside the party, it’s going to be very hard to establish a good working relationship with non-members – chances are, the leadership is going to import the same high-handed, autocratic methods and try to establish its own hegemony through manipulation. This sort of behaviour is made all the easier when the average member is unable to challenge the approach of the leadership without exposing themselves to the threat of expulsion.

Theoretical arrogance

Along with this democratic deficit, you would have to include as a factor an odd kind of theoretical arrogance – the belief that one group (be it the SWP or anyone else) represents the vanguard-in-waiting, already armed with the correct ideas to lead the working class to victory. It can’t be said often enough – nobody active on the Left today has worked out the perfect strategy, otherwise they would have settled accounts with capitalism long ago. We all have an awful lot to learn, the best we can manage is to set out with a fairly solid set of guide-lines based on the experience of the past and keep our eyes and ears open for new trends as they emerge.

Anyone who believes they know all the answers already and can trace the path to be followed in advance is going to be sorely tempted to take authoritarian short-cuts – if we know what conclusions people should end up drawing, why not save the time and trouble and do the job for them? The best safeguard against this tendency is the firm conviction that all the bother of thrashing out political differences and contending with views you consider mistaken is not a tiresome distraction from the real business of socialist politics – on the contrary, it is a vital and indispensable part of the socialist project, which requires that millions of people learn to think for themselves and shed the passivity nurtured by the power structures of capitalism. Any project of radical change which is steered to victory by a handful of infallible leaders will simply replace one system of elite rule with another.

Wrong direction

If you’re familiar with socialist history, and appreciate how closely the modern day Trotskyist groupings model themselves on the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky, you’ll find it very hard not to think of the critical points made against Bolshevism by Rosa Luxemburg and other socialists of her day so many years ago. The evidence that far-left authoritarianism can be traced back to its roots in the Leninist tradition appears very strong. This is not to say that every group which comes out of that tradition is bound to be authoritarian – the French LCR, for example, practices genuine pluralism, and many sincere opponents of undemocratic chicanery in Respect and the Socialist Alliance come from a similar background. But more often than not, the influence of Bolshevik theory and practice has pushed radical socialists in the wrong direction.

Some readers may be starting to groan at the prospect of yet another discussion of 1917 and all that, so don’t worry, this is not the time. It’s frustrating that we still have to spend time debating issues that appear very remote from contemporary politics – there’s so much in the modern world that demands hard thinking from socialists, and it seems more useful to spend our time discussing recent events in France, Bolivia or Palestine than rehearsing old arguments about Red October and its aftermath. Leninism still casts a powerful shadow over the organised radical left, though, and can’t just be ignored.

New directions

It’s far too early to say what will emerge from the fracturing of Respect. The SWP has pledged to carry on with its own version of Respect, despite having lost all its significant allies – how long they will persist is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t seem as if the modus operandi of the party will change. Its top-down, ultra centralised style of organisation will continue to frustrate its own potential and antagonise its would be allies. Ken Loach’s remark that the SWP leadership want subjects, not comrades cut right to the heart of the matter.


The Respect Renewal current, which gathers together the likes of Galloway, Loach, Salma Yaqoob and the Socialist Resistance group, is more unpredictable. A lot will depend on George Galloway himself. Galloway does not have a good track record when it comes to matters of democracy and accountability. He has been saying the right things on this score since the faction fight exploded over the summer, but it’s not at all clear if he means it, or if he’s just saying what he thinks people want to hear. As the best-known public face of Respect, he can do a lot of good or a lot of harm.

To be very cynical, the socialists in Respect who have lined up with the Scotsman had a simple choice. They could trade off the very real possibility of being shafted by Galloway at some point in the future, against the certainty of being shafted by the SWP right now. The choice they made was understandable, and they can reasonably argue that Respect minus the SWP is not just a Galloway vehicle – it includes other figures like Yaqoob and Loach with a high public profile, and might now be able to reach out to left activists unwilling to work with the SWP.

One common denominator between the left-wing crises in Scotland and the rest of Britain was the involvement of a leader who became a media personality and ended up making a complete arse of themselves in the public eye. While Tommy Sheridan appears well-set for a career of undignified but lucrative clowning-around (reports of his stand-up show left people gasping in disbelief), Galloway has gone some way towards repairing the damage inflicted by his turn on Celebrity Big Brother. It’s not clear though if he’s really acknowledged what a disaster it was.

Tabloid fodder

The experience of Sheridan and Galloway shows the dangers for the Left inherent in a heavily mediatised society. Not only do we have to worry about the hostile propaganda of right-wing newspapers, we also have to reckon with the possibility that prominent left-wingers will end up becoming tabloid fodder if they don’t watch themselves. The record of Joe Higgins as a TD suggested one way to avoid this peril – he earned plenty of column inches by coming out with great quotes in the Dáil, while projecting a rather austere, puritanical image that seemed to protect him from being lampooned. The lack of a permanent tan did Higgins no harm either.

While clearly not as radical as Sheridan, Galloway or Higgins, Ken Livingstone is another left-winger who has learned to handle the media in his own way, after finding himself one of the tabloid hate-figures of the 1980s. Ironically for someone who earned himself the undying hatred of New Labour, Livingstone’s media image has endured better in the long run than the spin-obsessed Tony Blair. The Left needs to spend time studying examples like this, and figure out the best (or the least worst) way to use the mainstream media as a platform without allowing it to suffocate our movements in a haze of glib, personality-driven nonsense.

As long as Galloway remains the best-known figure in the re-organised party, we can expect to hear plenty more talk about his notorious visit to Baghdad. It’s only fair to point out that much of this criticism has come from hypocritical pro-war commentators – their own champion Tony Blair has a much grosser record of cosying up to tyrants, from Suharto of Indonesia to Karimov of Uzbekistan, yet that doesn’t appear to bother them.

Nor is Galloway the only progressive figure who has demeaned himself in such a manner. The Sandinistas supported the Polish military dictatorship of Jaruzelksi, while Nelson Mandela offered a fawning tribute to General Suharto during a visit to Jakarta while the murderous occupation of East Timor was still in progress. More recently, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have done their reputations no favours by exchanging compliments with unsavoury figures like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

But there’s only so far you can go with qualifications and caveats of that sort before acknowledging that Galloway’s Iraqi performance will always be a black mark against his name. The key point, surely, is that his current position and reputation owes so much to his role in the anti-war movement. Arthur Scargill supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was shameful, but it wasn’t directly relevant to his leadership of the miners’ union during its titanic battle with Thatcher. Galloway has opposed the Iraq war all along and put himself on the line to do so – it’s bloody tragic that he has tainted that creditable record of activism by a compromising appearance in pre-war Iraq.

The best hope for Respect Renewal seems to be that Galloway will take a step back and allow other figures to take a leading role. His behaviour in the past encourages scepticism – but Galloway does have strengths as well as weaknesses, so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that his better side will win out. Only time will tell.

Islamophobia and the Left

One of the most striking things about Respect’s development to date has been its ability to win support from a significant layer of British Muslims – both in terms of its voting base and its activist cadre. This has also been the source of much criticism. In the more ludicrously over-charged rantings of some journalists, Respect has been presented as an alliance between Islamo-fascists and the far left, akin to the BNP. More restrained critics have spoken of communalism, or accused Respect of watering down left-wing principles and forming dubious alliances.

There is more than a grain of truth in such criticism (at least in the more balanced stuff, not the hysterical diatribes). Socialists who have always opposed imperialism and the war on terror, and who recognise the need to combat Islamophobia, have been critical of the approach taken by Respect in its efforts to win Muslim support – Gilbert Achcar and Tariq Ali being two notable examples.

But critical comments need to be qualified by recognition that left-wingers can make even more damaging mistakes in the opposite direction. The French radical left has totally failed to mobilise support from Muslims in France who are at the sharp end of racist discrimination, harassed by the state and demonised by the far right. It sat on the fence while the Chirac government introduced its hijab ban with hypocritical calls for Muslims to “integrate” into a society that largely treats them as second-class citizens. The LCR section in Saint-Denis even turned down an application for membership from a young Muslim woman, because she wore the hijab and that would have been bad for the party’s image…

So while it’s important not to compromise with conservative and reactionary tendencies that undoubtedly exist in Muslim communities, it’s equally vital that the Left doesn’t adopt its own version of mainstream prejudice and see all practising Muslims as fundamentalist bigots. Christianity has more than its fair share of bigotry, but that hasn’t stopped leftists from embracing Christians in all kinds of progressive struggles. The same principle should apply to Muslims.

The achievements of Respect deserve to be stressed as well as its errors. British society is saturated with anti-Muslim racism. The recent controversy involving Martin Amis, one of Britain’s best-known novelists, showed how bad things have got. Amis made a number of explicitly racist comments directed against Muslims, advocating their persecution by the British state. He treated his audience to smug lectures on the superiority of western civilisation of the sort that should have died with Rudyard Kipling. When left-wing academic Terry Eagleton tackled Amis for his racism, he was booed and hissed by a large section of Britain’s literary intelligentsia, who were quite happy to let the novelist off the hook after he slithered his way out of responsibility for his comments and responded to Eagleton with vulgar abuse.

From the high-falutin’ literati to the dregs of the tabloid press, it’s become acceptable to say things about Muslims that would never be tolerated if Jews, black people or homosexuals were in the verbal firing line. A study commissioned by Ken Livingstone recently established that over 90% of references to Islam in the UK media were negative. Muslims in Britain and other European countries form one of the most impoverished and down-trodden sections of the working class, and the Left badly needs to connect with their experience. Nor should it be a question of enlightened socialists bringing their ideas to the benighted Muslims – we have at least as much to learn as we have to teach.


Oct 04 2008

Prospects For Socialists In Scotland

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 4:53 pm

Allan Armstrong interviews Alan McCombes, a key influence on the theoretical direction of the SSP and a member of the SSP national executive. He gives us his views on Salmond’s SNP government, the future prospects for socialist unity, and the SSP’s constitutional conference.

Alan McCombes

Alan McCombes

How do you assess the current situation with the new SNP government?

In the short term this creates problems for the SSP. I saw this recently when canvassing for our council candidate in Cambuslang. As socialists we often look from on high and see the whole terrain. The people on the ground don’t have the same perspective.

There is still a fairly positive perception of the SNP Government. It has abolished graduate endowments, begun to reverse the centralisation of hospitals, extended free school meals, started the process of scrapping prescription charges, abolished bridge tolls, and it opposes nuclear power. The SNP are doing the sort of things that Labour once did. However, Scotland’s last Labour administration, under McConnell, was too frightened to upset their puppet masters at Westminster, and take advantage of the devolved powers at its disposal. The Labour Government in Wales (and it called itself that) did more, despite the Welsh Assembly having fewer powers.

However, we have to look beyond this to assess the overall political situation. When I was a member of Scottish Militant Labour, in the early ‘90s, there was real class anger. The Tories under Forsyth were hated. Labour were just seen as collaborators, afterthe poll tax. SML was able to win council seats in first-past-the-post elections in the housing schemes, and get up to 25% of the vote elsewhere. There was a strong consciousness of class even if it wasn’t always socialist.

In 2003 the situation was different from today. The SNP was in a mess, and there was the mass movement against the war in Iraq. The SSP made its big electoral breakthrough.

Now there is a certain passivity. Even the change from Blair to Brown has encouraged some to think that the worst excesses of New Labour in Westminster are over, and there will be a gradual pull-out from Iraq. Economic changes have also had their effects. Poverty and inequality has been mitigated by the prolonged upswing in the economy. Cheaper consumer goods and easy credit have given the illusion of prosperity.

All these things make things more difficult for us in the short term. This isn’t any endorsement of the SNP, just a recognition that socialists face a different situation today. That will change in the future, maybe in a quite accelerated timetable given the global credit crunch, rising food and energy prices and galloping climate chaos.

How do socialists deal with this situation?

Well obviously we have faced a major setback after the split. Even without the split, the SSP would still have faced problems, but the split has magnified these problems many times over.

This means we have to return to politics and a period of introspection. We cannot artificially create big national campaigns, although these may emerge. There will be local campaigns SSP branches can relate to. However, in this period we have to seriously address, discuss and debate the big issues, such as the Environment, Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights.

The Eco-socialist argument is vital. With global warming and potential environmental catastrophe, the issue of ownership and control of resources is more relevant than ever. In a recent interview, the environmental guru of the past James Lovelock claimed that it is too late to reverse global warming. Instead we have to concentrate on survival in the face of inevitable climate change. Its likely that the ruling classes internationally go more and more down that road – damage limitation and the survival of capitalism on its own terms. It’s a potential nightmare scenario. They will be prepared to write-off millions of people in the Third World. There will be mass movements of population and a proliferation of wars over land, food and water as whole tracts of the planet become uninhabitable desert. I think we need some kind of a red-green alliance that will be antibig business, anti-capitalist– not in the sense of an electoral pact between the Green Party and the SSP – but on a broad campaigning basis. More and more people around green movement are going to come to the conclusion that its not enough just ask people to change their lifestyles or appeal to big business and governments to be kinder to the environment.

Before the split, the SSP could legitimately claim to be the party of socialist unity. Now we back to being the party for socialist unity. How do we rebuild that lost unity?

The project to build a specifically anti-capitalist party cannot be abandoned. The SSP represents a real gain in Scotland. A good example of a successful anti-capitalist – and not merely anti-neo-liberal – organisation today is the Portuguese Left Bloc. It is, in effect, a party, like the Danish Red/Greens and the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) in France. The Portuguese Left Bloc has 350 councillors and 10 MPs and is a real political force to be reckoned with.

In Germany and Greece new left formations such as Die Linke and Syriza have made big electoral gains, which is big advance for the left. They have helped to change the political atmosphere in their countries in a positive way. But the ideological basis of these parties,is less clear-cut – they’re not so much parties as electoral alliances.

In some countries, such an electoral alliance may be a step forward.

In very broad terms you can divide politics into three main trends:-

  • The dominant neo-liberals, whether it be Tories or New Labour, Blair or Brown, Republicans or Democrats, Clinton or Obama. They want to reduce public expenditure and taxation, and to create a more favourable environment for the global corporations.
  • The reformists who want a fairer capitalism.
  • The anti-capitalist bloc, which includes socialist parties, anarchists, sections of the Greens, Castro and Chavez. The weakness is, that although we all oppose capitalism, we have no shared agreement about what should replace it.

However, some political parties can straddle these particular trends. The Greens, for example, have a largely reformist leadership. However, they include some genuinely anti-capitalist elements, more so in England, with Derek Walls using Marxist arguments, and Carolyn Lucas being on the Left. This is different from the situation in Scotland, where the reformists appear to dominate the Green Party.

The SNP straddles neo-liberalism and reformism. There are some anti-capitalist individuals, but they are marginalised at this stage because of the euphoria surrounding the SNP government which has affected not just the SNP left, but even some socialists who in the past were critical of the SNP. Right now it seems the pull of the SNP on the Left is currently greater than the pull of the Left on the SNP – although I would expect that to change in the future because of the state of the economy. It was a different story in 2003, when the SNP appeared to be in disarray and some SNP members joined the SSP.

We need a wide discussion on how we relate to reformist groupings. We can work with people who are not necessarily socialist, or anti-capitalist, but who are prepared to challenge neo-liberalism on a kind of social democratic basis – in other words all those who are to the left of the four main parties. That doesn’t mean we have to unite in the same party – there can be co-operation on specific campaigns and policies, and possibly even electoral pacts or alliances on agreed terms.

In any election where the SSP does not put up a candidate, what would be your advice be to members on how to vote, particularly in a contest between Labour and the SNP?

I believe that when we aren’t standing, there doesn’t need to be a party line. Local factors come into play. Sometimes you might give your support to a Left Labour candidate with a fighting record against a right wing SNP candidate. Concretely, if I had been in Coatbridge during the last Holyrood election, I’d probably have voted for Labour’s Elaine Smith, a member of the Campaign for Socialism who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, opposes nuclear weapons and has supported SSP bills to for free school meals, and to scrap warrant sales and prescription charges. I can’t think of any others though.

Where do you see the SSP’s potential support coming from if we are to rebuild principled socialist unity?

Well first we still have a big cloud hanging over us, as long as the police investigation is continuing. We don’t know what will happen to Solidarity. We still don’t fully know how damaged the SSP project is. Is it recoverable? The split did more than damage the SSP (and Solidarity too). Splits discredit the whole Left. This is equally true of the recent split in Respect in England, whatever its political basis. Splits lead to demotivation, demobilisation, and ultimately apathy.

However, the SSP has to look to those 200,000 people who gave us their vote over 10 years, as well as to the young people who didn’t have the vote, but were drawn into activity, particularly over the War. This is still a potentially big constituency. Despite my earlier assessment of the overall political situation, the economy now looks like it is about to take a nosedive. We have to address this too. How we do these things remains an open question.

Looking to the existing political parties, there are elements in the Labour Party, Solidarity, the Greens and the SNP which could contribute to a new united socialist party.

The Labour Party

I recently attended a Campaign for Socialism meeting addressed by John McDonnell. He said that Marxism, far from being redundant, is now more relevant than ever, with the problems of the Third World, the credit crash and global warming. He said that the space in the Labour Party for debate between anti-capitalists and reformists had now gone. The neo-liberal agenda dominated everything, so there was no opportunity for the Left to influence the Labour Party.

However, some of the Scottish Labour members present at this meeting claimed there was still some democratic space here, although they weren’t that optimistic. Sooner or later I expect a break. It’s not the numbers that will be significant, but the possible impact on the trade union movement. Will the Morning Star make a break with Labourism at last? The next Holyrood election or local government elections may concentrate minds. I expect some discussions to start next year.


First of all there needs to be open discussion on this issue in the SSP. People mustn’t get over-excited. There are elements in Solidarity whom I could work with. Some people joined Solidarity because of where they lived and who they knew rather than because they had thought through and understood all the issues.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, the experience of the SWP and the CWI was negative. We needed to go through that experience to learnthe hard way. The problem with these two organisations is that they operate on the basis of Democratic Centralism, or more accurately, Bureaucratic Centralism. I know from my direct experience in the CWI. The imposed centralised line isn’t just applied nationally, but within their wider international sections too.

This means their members didn’t engage in the internal debates of the SSP in an open and constructive way. They arrived with a predetermined line, which others couldn’t influence. This led to the loss of a number of new, more inexperienced SSP members, who found an atmosphere of sectarian point scoring in some branches unappealing.

In the SSP’s 50:50 debate on women’s representation, the SWP argued and voted as a block, despite some internal disagreement. Now, in this case, I agreed with many of their arguments. But, you know that the line was handed down from the SWP Central Committee. If the line changed next week, all their members would just vote the opposite way!

The CWI is little better, it’s just that it is smaller. This doesn’t mean of course that there weren’t times when I also agreed with some of their positions, – but that’s the point. You consider all the arguments, and don’t just arrive determined to force through your point of view, without considering other arguments. Don’t misunderstand me. I believe in robust political debate, but we must get beyond their failed way of operating.

When it comes to a question of Solidarity members being readmitted to the SSP, I have no problems with many of the individuals concerned. However, it would be a different matter with those who vociferously called for a split and led a malicious public campaign against many good comrades in the SSP.

The Greens

The Greens are a very small party. A report of their recent conference suggests no more than 50 members were present. However, the Green Party represents the political wing of a much wider movement, including the likes of Friends of the Earth.This is where the Greens get their wider electoral support. The SSP has more members, more branches, and more vibrant conferences, but we don’t have this wider periphery. The old Labour Party used to have a periphery of active trade union branches; we don’t.

The current Green leadership in Scotland, especially Robin Harper, wouldn’t touch the Left with a barge pole. They believe a Red/Green alliance would cost them votes, and undermine their project of joining mainstream government coalitions. However, comrades in Glasgow tell me there are a number of excellent Eco-socialist Greens they have come into contact with, over the old M77 and the new M74 campaigns.

I don’t have enough experience in this particular political arena. Once again though I believe the SSP should initiate a wider discussion on our relationship with the Green Party/Movement. I’m sure splits will emerge amongst the Greens, and that the Eco-socialist argument will develop much greater purchase in the future, challenging the Eco-capitalism of the Green’s leaders.


There is a Left, but it is marginalised at present. Four things are working in favour of the SNP leadership. First, Salmond is a highly skilled political operator. Secondly, they have become the beneficiaries of the soft protest vote in Scotland, in a similar manner to Centre or supposed Centre parties elsewhere, e.g. in Italy and the USA. Thirdly, the unresolved National Question colours most politics in Scotland. A wide range of issues are viewed through the distorting lenses of Unionism and Independence. Fourthly, Holyrood doesn’t enjoy substantial power, so a lot of politics just involves making gestures.

This all aids Salmond’s populist approach to politics, with the SNP Government promoting policies both for big business and the people of Scotland. In as far as anyone can see into the future, I believe the SNP will strengthen its position in the next election. An SNP majority government could well emerge. This is one reason why I am so pro-independence. Only when we have Independence will a more clearly ideological differentiation occur.

The 1st Calron Hill demonstration, by Myra Armstrong

The 1st Calron Hill demonstration, by Myra Armstrong

What is your assessment of the various projects the SSP has been involved in to have a say in the resolution of the National Question?

I was strongly in favour of the republican Calton Hill Declaration. We faced two sorts of opposition within the party. First, the CWI opposed it because the Declaration didn’t specifically mention socialism. Secondly, I remember some SSP members were unhappy about the Declaration dealing with social issues, wanting it to concentrate on Scottish self-determination on the grounds that it would exclude people. I disagreed with both criticisms.

I think the first Calton Hill demonstration was a major success. We were given a real opportunity with the official state opening of Holyrood by the queen. We related to a deep-seated anti-monarchist sentiment in Scotland. However, right after this, the crisis hit the party. It was this, rather than deliberate negligence by the executive and national council that led to the lack of follow-through activity.

I share with the RCN a strong identification with republicanism. It emphasises the SSP’s democratic approach to politics. I think Salmond misjudged the feeling in Scotland, when he declared the SNP’s support for the monarchy. A recent survey in the Daily Express showed that, if Scotland were to become independent, then over 50% would want it to become a republic.

Where I disagree with the RCN is that I believe we should support independence without any preconditions. I think, although that’s not what Blair wanted, devolution has undermined rather than strengthened the union. Similarly, whatever Salmond thinks, Independence will open up the road to both a Republic, and provide an opportunity for socialists to make a real impact again. There is an underlying dynamic to all this. That’s not to impose a rigid stages theory which a priori excludes moving directly to a republic, which would certainly be my preference, but to recognise that even if an independent Scotland didn’t start off a republic from day one, there would be a momentum in the direction of a republic. It would be certainly open up a mass debate around republicanism or monarchism – a debate which is unlikely to happen on that scale while the United Kingdom appears secure and permanent. If not in the run-up to an independent Scotland, then at least immediately after an independence referendum is victorious, the momentum towards a republic could be unstoppable – especially if republicans and socialists prove their credentials by being seen to fight for independence in a non-sectarian way, rather than cutting ourselves off with an ‘all-or nothing, our way or no way’ approach.

Now looking to the Scottish Independence Convention and Independence First, I believe these still have a positive role to play. When the SIC was formed, support for Independence was greater than support for the SNP, and this was represented in Holyrood by the SSP, the Greens and some Independents as well.

Today, with a new confident SNP Government, the situation has changed. The SIC experienced a splinter, with the formation of the more moderate Scottish Constitutional Convention. This tension amongst Independence supporters mirrors that which split devolutionists, when faced with the rising strength of the Labour Party in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. Only now it’s the SNP leadership calling the shots, but over independence.

However, Elaine C. Smith is now convenor of the SIC – in the past she’s voted SSP as well as SNP, and has a reputation as an outspoken working class left wing feminist. It’s positive that the figurehead of the broad independence movement represents progress and equality rather than conservative middle class nationalism.

Without MSPs it’s more difficult for the SSP to play a decisive role in the broad independence movement; if we had even a small foothold in the parliament we would now have much more clout than in the past given the precarious balance of forces in Holyrood.

I agree with you that the SNP leadership aren’t that keen to press forward with an IndependenceReferendum, for fear of losing – that’s why it’ important we have organisations like Independence First and the Independence Convention – to keep up external pressure.

The SSP should not dilute its republican socialist message. I hope we can build something positive around the Calton Hill Declaration. However, I think that party members need to take more of their own initiatives and not expect the leadership to deliver everything. An example of a good initiative from below is the SSY’s latest film on knife crime. This can be taken to community centres, etc, and then we can really begin to engage people in debate.

The mainstream parties, whether unionist or nationalist, are now cooperating within the current devolved UK framework. For example Alex Salmond meets with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. How do you think socialists in these islands should coordinate their activities?

The SSP is now committed to the RCN-initiated motion, which calls for coordination. This is policy so we will act upon it. My reasons for opposing this at the last Conference were practical. I support the principle.

The problem is the fragmentation of the Left. Taking England, you now have two Respects, the Socialist Party, the SLP, the Labour Coordinating Committee, and a trade union opposition focussed mainly on the RMT. In Ireland things are more confused with the problem of the North. In Wales the situation has changed. The SSP related in turn to Cymru Goch, the Socialist Alliance, and then Forward Wales, which has now disappeared.

The SSP is not in as strong a position to influence and shape things as it was a few years ago. If we were in a stronger position then things might well be different. Therefore I see the issue of such coordination as being a question of timing.

What do you think are the important issues at the forthcoming SSP Conference?

I haven’t yet had much time to go through the agenda, the motions etc.. I also believe that we have to look wider than our own internal affairs and discuss how we communicate with the people out there.

One motion to Conferences says that the SSP should drop its provision for Trade Union affiliations. This seems to reflect a certain tension between whether the SSP should be a socialist or a labourist party. What is your view?

I don’t have a fixed position. We need to have an open debate. There are those who argue that trade unions should be independent of all political parties. However, there is also a growing realisation that trade unions no longer enjoy any real political representation. The politics of this is complex, with people politically split a number of ways.

Another key debate, after our party’s previous experience, is whether or not we need a single leader. What is your opinion?

Again I have no fixed view, but I would want to encourage real debate. In the English Green Party, which has had a more collective leadership, Carolyn Lucas now wants a single leader. In a world where getting media attention is important, we have to recognise that they will focus on individuals. Even as socialists, we tend to celebrate key individuals, like Che Guevara or James Connolly. This doesn’t mean we need to depend on a charismatic superhero figure. Both the Portuguese Left Bloc party, and the Greek Syriza alliance have performed well without such a leader.

There is also a motion to end Platform rights in the SSP. Do you support this?

No, I don’t agree. The old Communist Party banned platforms, but was awash with factions. If platforms were abolished, this would represent a political step backwards. It would then be a short step to a more repressive internal regime and probably lead to expulsions. It would represent a move back to the discredited old-style parties. When a party grows, different political groupings are bound to arise. I think it would be a step forward if the CPS or CPB joined the SSP as platforms. The rights we had in the pre-split SSP were healthy, but were abused by certain Platforms. It may be necessary to define those rights and duties more clearly.

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