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.
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, after the 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 anti big 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 learn the 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 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.
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 Independence Referendum, 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.