Allan Armstrong sees recent setbacks for the SSP as part of the wider international Left’s retreat in the face of an imperialist, ‘liberal’ counter-offensive

Why have the SSP retreated?

It is three years since the massive international demonstrations, held on February 15th 2003, in protest against Bush and Blair’s’ impending war in Iraq. These were the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the world. And, just three months later, the SSP won six seats in the Scottish Parliament, a fact widely recognised as a substantial breakthrough for the international socialist movement.

Conventional wisdom in our party thinks that everything was going well, until the crisis occasioned by Tommy Sheridan’s resignation in November 2004. Accusations were levelled against the party of internal bickering, backstabbing and treachery. Needless to say, things were considerably more complex. Nevertheless, whichever side comrades took in the ensuing debate, there appears to be common agreement that the resignation and its handling blew our party off course, and that it is still suffering from this.

And then, just last month, we had the Dunfermline by-election. The Lib-Dems pulled off an impressive victory, anticipated by virtually no one. New Labour, and Gordon Brown in particular, were humiliated. Yet the Lib-Dems had entered the campaign with only a caretaker leader, a scornful press relishing the party’s recent history of internal bickering, backstabbing and treachery, and making the most of accusations of alcoholism, resort to rent-boys, and personal denials of sexual orientation!

Although the earlier press attacks on our party were unpleasant and malevolent, they were not as sustained as those the Lib-Dems experienced recently. Yet, these attacks didn’t seem to derail the Lib-Dems in the same way. So perhaps we should be looking elsewhere, at more fundamental reasons, for the fall away in support for our party. This will involve looking at the SSP in a wider, international context.

Weaknesses in the opposition to the war

First, it is necessary to look at the other side of the massive February 15th 2003 demonstrations. Unlike the post-1968, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, these were not mobilised on a specifically anti imperialist basis. Support was sought on liberal pacifist lines. No matter how massive, such protests left the US and UK ruling classes with much more room for manoeuvre, since they didn’t challenge their interests fundamentally.

Illusions were built up in a possible UN solution, despite the UN being run by a Security Council, which answers only to the major imperial powers. Some even saw France, which opposed the war in Iraq, as showing the way. Of course, the French ruing class only opposed the Iraq war for its own particular imperialist interests. It has been up to its neck in imperialist ventures in Africa (including sharing some culpability for the notorious Rwanda genocide) and it supported the US-led overthrow of the elected Aristide government in Haiti. Even though the widely welcomed electoral defeat of the Conservative, Aznar-led, government in Spain did lead to the removal of Spanish troops in Iraq, many were redeployed to Afghanistan and Haiti, by the incoming ‘Socialist’ government. They helped out US imperialism in another role.

The longer-term danger, of dependence on liberal pacifist opinion, was highlighted, in both the USA and UK, by their principal anti-war movements’ wooing of the Democrats and the Lib-Dems respectively. These are both very much pro-imperialist parties. Both parties believe they offer imperialism a better, less foolhardy, strategy than that being pushed in Iraq by Bush’s Neo-Cons and Blair’s New Labourites. Not surprisingly, the Democrats and Lib-Dems have been highly ambiguous in their ‘opposition’ to the war. However, the anti-war movements’ strategy of trimming demands to what was acceptable to these pro-imperialist parties’ leaderships had the effect of building them up as a credible electoral opposition. This fitted in well, with ruling class attempts to marginalise the anti-imperialist component of the movement.

The ruling class reclaim lost ground

The international Left, including the SSP, hasn’t appreciated the current imperialist strategy. The Left has concentrated nearly all its attentions on Bush and Blair, or the Neo-Cons and New Labourites.

However, the western ruling classes have learned lessons from the earlier massive mobilisations of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements. They could see the threat posed by an international mass movement, outside the control of the mainstream political parties. They know how important it is always to have a safe government-in-waiting. Thus they have deliberately created a political space for a soft liberal imperialist alternative. This has meant a sustained political and media offensive to present such parties as the US Democrats and the British Lib-Dems as more caring and less belligerent.

The international Left has fallen for this right across the board; not only in the USA where it has traditionally been weak, but in France and Italy too, where it has been much stronger. The Left has concentrated its attentions on the ‘big, bad wolf’ – Bush Blair, Le Pen or Berlusconi, conceding much of the political terrain to the ruling classes’ officially-promoted liberal ‘alternatives’.

John Kerry
The Democratic Partys candidate wanted even more troops sent to Iraq than Bush

At the time of the November 2004 US presidential election, the antiwar movement fell in behind the Democratic candidate, Kerry. Yet he argued for even more troops to be sent to Iraq, and was even more pro-Israel than Bush! Prominent anti-war activists also argued for a vote for Lib-Dem candidates in the June 2005 UK general election. The reason liberal ‘opposition’ candidates are usually the best placed to win elections, is that they are the most acceptable to the ruling class, and are actively promoted by their media, the better to undercut more radical challenges.

In the French presidential election, the majority of the Left ended up giving its support to Chirac as a ‘lesser evil’ to Le Pen. Yet Le Pen enjoyed no significant French ruling class support and was hardly in a position to launch a fascist take-over with a Mussolini-like march on Paris. The Left’s capitulation allowed Le Pen to appear as the only ‘opposition’ to the French ruling class.

This year, in the forthcoming Italian general election, Rifondazione Communista is not only arguing for a vote for Prodi’s Blairite Olive Tree Coalition against Berlusconi, but is even considering an offer of entering a wider governmental coalition! The last Olive Tree coalition government collapsed in ignominy, after launching major attacks on workers.

The liberal ‘opposition’ in practice in Scotland

In Scotland we have the ‘privilege’ of seeing how a liberal ‘opposition’ behaves, when it takes office. For, of course, the Lib-Dems are already in coalition with New Labour in the Scottish Executive. NATO use of Scottish airbases for the war in Iraq, US ‘rendition’ flights, undermining the right to protest against the imperialist warmongers at Gleneagles – for the Lib-Dems it is either outright acceptance, or only the most timid of reservations.

In Scotland, we have also seen just how far the ruling class is prepared to go to marginalise the Left. At last year’s G8 Summit, held at Gleneagles, the ruling class made a deliberate attempt to colonise the opposition. The ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign, led largely by charity organisations, was adopted and promoted by New Labour. Blair and Brown in no way felt threatened by the officially-sanctioned activities on July 3rd, 2005. Rather they saw the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Edinburgh, and the concert-goers in Hyde Park, as constituting a mass lobby for New Labour’s efforts at Gleneagles. Blair and Brown wanted the G8 leaders to pursue a better strategy to promote imperial interests worldwide, particularly in Africa. Geldof and Bono merely acted as their populist running boys, with the ear to the rich and powerful on one hand, and another for a concerned populace, safely assembled on tightly-policed demonstrations or cocooned in pop concerts.

We, in the SSP, got one indication of how far the ruling class is prepared to go to beat down any principled opposition to imperialist designs. Our MSP’s mild parliamentary protest was met with an unprecedented attack on democratic rights. The Scottish Executive (at the undoubted prompting of Blair and his allies) launched this attack.

Once the British ruling class (including its Scottish component) had indicated what they considered to be limits to any protest, the liberal ‘opposition’ – the SNP and the Greens, ever eager to appear acceptable – joined in the attack. After all, they too want to follow the footsteps of the Lib-Dems, and enter into a future government coalition, here they would bow to the needs of US and British imperialism and the global corporations. The official attack on the SSP presented the SNP and Greens with a perfect opportunity to show off their respectable credentials.

Nusrery nurses fought a spirited campaign in 2004
Nursery nurses fought a spirited campaign in 2004

Current lack of working class opposition

Of course, a key factor, which has contributed to the growing marginalisation of the Left, in Scotland, the wider UK, and Ireland, has been the lack of sustained working class opposition to the current ruling class offensive. The nursery nurses ran a spirited strike campaign in 2004, but were unable to break out of the isolation imposed by a UNISON leadership, wedded in partnership to New Labour. Even our own excellent parliamentary campaign of support could not overcome this weakness. Similarly, the government has found it relatively easy to divide those forces which threatened it over pensions. Some on the Left (including the CWI platform) have even gone along with deals which have divided workforce from workforce, and long-established workers from the newly-employed. In Ireland, last November, a massive strike and demonstration took place to challenge Irish Ferries’ attempt to smash the minimum wage and give them control over those they employed. Yet it too failed to deliver a knockout blow. This campaign remained firmly under the control of a union leadership wedded to government in a partnership deal.

The much-vaunted Awkward Squad has turned out to be not that awkward – well at least as far as New Labour and the employers are concerned. Many such leaders have backed down and now only seek a more prominent place for themselves in the designs and dealings of any Labour government. Winning leading trade union officials to the SSP will not necessarily enhance our reputation with the rank and file, who have become cynical over the continuous unnecessary compromises and retreats. Our policy of having a worker’s MP on a worker’s wage is both principled and popular. It is about time our leadership stopped shilly-shallying over the policy of having trade union leaders earning the average wage of the members they represent. This would also help to provide a longer term basis for building up a genuine rank and file movement in the unions.

False hopes

Currently, the SSP faces a similar situation to the wider international Left. A ruling class counter-offensive has rolled back many of the gains we made in the first years of this decade. The Left is once more relatively marginalised. It is this, more than anything else, which explains the current doldrums, the SSP faces, particularly when contesting elections.

Even if Tommy were to come back as SSP leader, it is very unlikely that this would overcome the wider problems we face. There were many in the SNP, who thought that the return of Alex Salmond would revive their party’s fortunes.

Recent poor results, in by-elections in West Lothian, Cathcart and Dunfermline, have shown the falsity of this argument. At the moment, the US and British ruling class are fully committed to New Labour’s policy of ‘devolution-all-round’ and know it would be hard to find a party more committed to promoting wider imperial and corporate interests. The SNP still have some way to go in convincing these powerful forces that their ‘independence’ project would offer them a better deal. Nevertheless, the SNP leadership is falling over backwards to demonstrate its pro-imperial and pro-corporate intentions.

Of course, the SSP can not follow a similar path and try to gain acceptability by showing that we too are ‘sensible’, ‘responsible’ and ‘acceptable’. To pursue such a path would end the most impressive political gain we still retain – socialist unity in Scotland. Unfortunately, the current marginalisation of the SSP has led to various strategies being promoted, which would threaten this unity.

The SSP’s nationalist wing (the SRSM and Kevin Williamson), which wants to turn the party into a pressure group on the SNP, represents the most obvious immediate threat to unity. The SNP Rightwards trajectory is obvious to most. Despite this, the SSP’s nationalists now want to consign the party’s hard-won democratic republican orientation to some distant future. We can remain sentimental republicans but republicanism would have no real bearing on our current strategy.

Instead we should follow the SNP’s forelock-tugging constitutionalist path of pursuing a referendum on ‘independence under the Crown’! This would permit the SNP to pursue its strategy of simultaneously enhancing the position of Scottish capitalists and better integrating them into the workings of the ‘New World Order’, without facing any real Left challenge.

Routinism and sectarianism

There are other dangers too facing the SSP. The SW platform has now got itself into a bit of a rut. More than any other Left force, it has been responsible, both in the anti-war movement and anti globalisation movements, for bowing to liberal pacifist sentiment. The argument behind this is to build the biggest possible ‘opposition’ to Bush and Blair. This strategy demands the building up of one demo after another. Even though the liberal forces have largely abandoned the streets for an occasional visit to the voting booth, the same tactics are pursued without questioning their continued usefulness. Demonstrations get smaller; but this isn’t compensated for by being more consciously anti-imperial and militant.

Another worrying feature is the method the SWP uses to insulate itself from Left criticism. It sets up one party-front organisation after another – the Anti-Nazi League now mutated into the Anti-Fascist Alliance (better name, but no better politics), Globalise Resistance, and now the Campaign Against Climate Change. These are answerable only to the SWP’s Central Committee. The SSP was partly created to develop new democratic and non-sectarian ways for uniting the Left. Our party needs to make clear to the SWP that its bureaucratic and sectarian methods are not acceptable. SWP members should be quite capable of arguing their distinctive politics at democratically constituted meetings, and accepting united front principles when it comes to providing leadership for campaigns.

Lack of principle opens the door to reactionary forces

At present, the SWP is still basking in George Galloway’s victory in the Bethnal Green seat at the last general election. However, Galloway’s misguided personal decision to participate in Big Brother highlights some likely future problems for the Respect alliance. At present, SWP hopes are mainly pinned on the forthcoming local elections in England. The SWP has failed to resolve the real political nature of Respect. Nor are there any democratic mechanisms in place to ensure the accountability of any potential councillors. Tensions have already emerged in Tower Hamlets in London over the SWP’s desire to have its leader, John Rees, adopted as a local council candidate. A substantial section of the local Bengali Muslim community wanted to put forward their own candidate.

The SWP might want to promote Respect as an electoral front, which offers Old Labour politics and is also firmly opposed to Islamophobia. However, other forces, representing a reinvigorated political Islam, seek a new deal for Muslims in Britain – with better state funding for their religion, enforced bans on perceived ‘anti-Muslim’ activities (including books and plays) and their own schools. The SWP has got itself into a position of not being able to challenge this other political agenda, since to do so would be tantamount to ‘Islamophobia’!

There is a marked parallel between the position of the new Muslim communities in Britain and the position of the largely Irish Catholic communities in Scotland, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

Socialists fought to win Irish Catholics to socialist politics, whilst Labourists accommodated themselves to the Catholic hierarchy, in order to win votes. In the process, the Catholic hierarchy achieved a relatively privileged position for itself in the Labour Party, effectively operating a veto over some progressive social policies. Any attempts to challenge this were met with, what amounted to, charges of ‘Catholicophobia’. The SWP seems to be currently pursuing the Labourist, not the socialist, path.

SSP also dodges awkward issues

Quite independently of the SWP, the SSP leadership has come to a somewhat similar conclusion with regards to ‘religious’ issues in Scotland. Religion is being more and more politicised by the Right (encouraged by New Labour). Yet faced with the continuation of state-funded Catholic schools, and now the possibility of state-funded Muslim schools, our party has remained almost silent in public. Socialists have long been committed to secular education, whilst championing the right of people to practice their religion without facing discrimination. We need to be far more vocal in upholding this policy, otherwise we give the religious Right a free rein, increasing the possibility of both sectarianism and racism.

Difficult issues, such as opposing religious separatism, or defending those fighting for a democratic and secular, united Irish republic, can not be avoided. At present, our leadership seems to be concentrating on one particular strategy – defending the six seats we have in the Scottish Parliament. Yes, it would be good if we could achieve this. However, if such an attempt is made by lowering our political sights, and by ignoring or downplaying controversial issues which may alienate potential voters, then this is far too high a price to play.

The Left still hasn’t produced a convincing socialist alternative

No easy recipe can be found to help the Left overcome recent setbacks. The fact that this is happening in much of Europe shows that there is a common underlying problem. Yes, the Left made considerable gains during the earlier anti-globalisation and antiwar protests. Yet, it proved relatively easy for the imperialist ruling classes to recapture much of their lost ground.

It was much easier for the Left to oppose particular ruling class strategies and policies – neo-liberalism, privatisation, deregulation, or the Iraq war – than to offer a positive alternative. The statism and partyism, which formed the underlying basis for both the official Communist and Social Democratic versions of socialism up to 1989, has collapsed. There has not been a wholly coherent socialist alternative to replace this. Indeed much of the current Left’s thinking is still tied to aspects of the older models – state control and welfarism. This makes it relatively easy for the ruling class to recuperate aspects of some of these measures and appear more ‘liberal’, when under some pressure; or to denigrate them when they feel confident.

John McAllion enjoys campaigning for the SSP in the recent Dunfermline & West Fife by-election
John McAllion enjoys campaigning for the SSP in the recent Dunfermline & West Fife by-election

Creating socialists, not just winning votes

A major job for the SSP is the education of a new generation of socialists. This means the SSP hasto provide a much better educational programme than at present for its members. We also need to begin a debate on what exactly we mean by ‘socialism’ – something which is quite distinct from Old Labourism or State Communism. Just trying to say we differ from the past models because we are ‘democratic’ is not very convincing. Social Democracy and early Communism made democratic claims too.

We need to be able to outline a convincing democratic alternative, which offers the majority in society real control over all aspects of their lives – political, economic, social and cultural. We also need to be able to link this vision to a convincing contemporary process of political and economic transformation, rooted in today’s conditions. Republicanism and secularism today are two vital bridges to a future society. They also provide us with a viable alternative to challenge the ruling class’s current antidemocratic and socially divisive strategy.

Dodging difficult issues, in the here and now, may enable us to win a few more short-term votes, but will not help us to develop a sound, longer-term base of support. It is far better to enter electoral contests with the primary aim of putting across more difficult, but principled, politics to a smaller number, in order to win active recruits to socialism, than to gain mainly passive voters for the SSP.

Furthermore, ‘clever’ voting strategies, suggested either by Kevin Williamson or our Executive, are just as likely to backfire. If we convince voters that the SNP’s ‘independence referendum’ strategy offers the best way forwards, they are very likely to give both their votes to the SNP in 2007. We took quite a substantial vote from the SNP in the 2004 Scottish elections. John McAllion found this to his cost, when we stood down to give him a free run in the Dundee East seat!

The winning of one-time SNP voters could provide us with a base for gaining more of their supporters to a specifically republican and socialist party, as the SNP continues its gallop rightwards. The Calton Hill Declaration and the demonstration on October 30th 2004 showed the possibilities. Now is not the time for the SSP to lose confidence in socialist politics or to abandon principles.


  • This article is not only hopelessly out-dated, it is utterly ignorant of basic facts. There is no such body as the ‘Anti-Fascist Alliance’. The ANL still exists and has been integrated into Unite Against Fascism. The Campaign Against Climate Change is not run by the SWP, nor to my knowledge does it have extensive SWP involvement. And much less is it “answerable only to the SWP’s Central Committee”. You can see a full list of its officials here: Finally, if this article was not comical enough already, it belabours the SWP for not challenging the rightward drift of Labourist elements in Respect on the basis of ‘Beautiful Soul’ politics, as if there had not been a massive split over precisely this issue – an artefact of it being ridiculously out-of-date, not to mention out of touch with reality.

  • r.e. out of date: This article was originally published in Spring 2006. We had fallen behind publishing them on the website and so are catching up on the blog.