Starting a new political organisation, aimed at uniting the Left, is always a difficult process. Furthermore, the Scottish Left has still to fully recover from the last attempt to do this – the Scottish Socialist Party. The SSP imploded in 2004, just a year after registering real promise with the election of 6 MSPs – 4 women and 2 men – in 2003.
It is worth remembering that, back then, the SSP made its advance at the expense of both the Labour Party and the SNP. Just weeks before ‘Tommygate’, the SSP initiated the very successful and overtly republican ‘Declaration of Calton Hill’, at a well supported demonstration protesting against the royal opening of the new Holyrood parliament building, on 9th October, 2004.
Yet there were already political divisions emerging in the SSP over whether it saw itself as a Left pressure group upon the SNP, with a perspective of gaining political leverage by offering its MSPs as support for a future minority SNP administration; or whether it should develop as an independent class party, with the republican and socialist perspective of taking the leadership of the campaign for genuine Scottish self-determination from the SNP.
Today, in the aftermath of the SNP’s crushing electoral victory, winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster on May 7th this year; it is harder to imagine the Scottish Left getting itself into its promising position in 2003.
However, RISE has real potential. It doesn’t just represent another attempt to reconfigure the existing Left, but comes directly from Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’. This followed the huge mobilisation that took place during the Scottish referendum campaign. Politics were taken out into housing schemes, and to small town and village halls throughout Scotland. People began to look elsewhere, other than the hostile BBC and unionist press, and to actively participate in the new independent media. When official cultural bodies like the Edinburgh Festival decided, in 2014, that the issue of Scottish self-determination was a taboo subject, this snub merely acted as a spur for many cultural initiatives, throughout the length and breadth of Scotland.
The impact of Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’ can be seen in the 97% voter registration and the 85% who actually voted on September 18th. Autonomous campaigns, such as the National Collective, Women for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) drew together socialists, radical nationalists, radical greens, feminists, movementists and others, in a very vibrant campaign, well beyond the control of the SNP’s official ‘Yes’ campaign.
RIC took the initiative, which others followed, by extending voter registration to city housing schemes long abandoned by Labour. RIC also attracted supporters from Ireland, Wales, England, Catalunya, Euskadi, Greece, Spain and took its campaign to these countries. The essence of RIC is not Scottish nationalist but Scottish internationalist, believing not only that, ‘Another Scotland Is Possible’, but that ‘Another World Is Possible’.
However, despite the defiant and widespread anger amongst ‘Yes’ voters after September 18th, it was the SNP that was able to hoover up the overwhelming majority of active campaigners. This ability was greatly assisted by the earlier collapse of the SSP as the party uniting the Left in Scotland.
Yet, it is quite clear that RIC made a really significant contribution to Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’, something registered in the British Electoral Survey, which found that 14.5% of Scots, compared to 9.8% of English are in the “most Left category”. Jonathon Shafi (RIC and RISE) has explained this.
The referendum opened up a political space which was outside the formal parameters of mainstream politics and people genuinely felt empowered (The Herald, 3.8.15).
The British ruling class realised the significance of the challenge facing them. Their overriding aim has been to roll-back this ‘democratic revolution’. Panicked by the drift of potential voters towards ‘Yes’, Gordon Brown had ‘promised’ a new federal UK, if people only voted ‘No’. Once a ‘No’ vote was achieved, Cameron appointed that safe establishment figure, Lord Smith of Kelvin, to ditch this ‘promise’ and to dramatically lower political sights. His commission ditched not only the federal ‘promise’, but also ‘DevoMax’ and opted for a minimal ‘Devo-Plus’. When the Commission reported, it was met by the then Cameron/Clegg government’s official response. This watered Smith down even further, with the assistance of the Miliband-led Labour ‘opposition’, and their new right wing Scottish leader, Jim Murphy.
The SNP leadership entered the 2015 Westminster election campaign with the immediate strategy of propping up an anticipated Miliband Labour minority government, in exchange for ‘Devo-Max’. In Scotland, the SNP’s electoral success was beyond their wildest dreams. Elsewhere in the UK, Miliband’s capitulation before the Tories and UKIP ensured a conservative unionist surge in England and Wales. Meanwhile reactionary unionism advanced in Northern Ireland. The SNP leadership’s strategy stymied, their hopes are now pinned on a reformed Labour party under possible new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, only 47 of Labour’s 232 MPs joined ‘Jez’ in voting against Tory austerity!
The SNP’s 56 MPs have become the Westminster opposition. Under Harriet Harman, Labour has continued its policy of ‘Better Together’ with the Tories, rather than join with the SNP to defend even their own very limited record of opposition. Nevertheless, neither opposition to the Tories’ stepped-up austerity offensive, nor meaningful advances towards greater Scottish self-determination, can be achieved within the Westminster prison.
Panoply of anti-democratic forces
During the referendum campaign, growing numbers of people lost faith in such state institutions as the BBC, and also in many aspects of the Westminster set-up. However, they were only given the merest hint of the full panoply of anti-democratic forces the British ruling class has in reserve, shielded from any democratic scrutiny by the UK state’s Crown Powers. Cameron was recently forced to reveal one of these. He told Westminster that British military forces had been active in Syria, despite a parliamentary vote against this last year!
Therefore the immediate aim of the SLP should be to reinvigorate Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’. This will mean challenging not only the conservative and reactionary unionism, represented by the Tories (with Labour and the Lib-Dems) and UKIP (with the Ulster unionists and loyalists) but an SNP which sees its mandate coming from holding office within Westminster and its devolved institutions.
If a ‘Yes’ vote had been won last September, the SNP government wanted to bring MSPs from the three unionist parties into their Scottish team to negotiate with the Tory/Lib-Dem government over their ‘Independence-Lite’ proposals. These proposals already accepted the monarchy (hence the long reach of the UK state’s Crown Powers), sterling (hence economic control by the City of London) and the British High Command and NATO (hence continued participation in US/UK imperial wars).
Syriza found the Troika an impossible nut to crack, even without bringing Greek bankers into their negotiating team. EU sovereignty effectively lies with a European bankers’ cartel. Equally, an SNP government, which accepts the UK’s anti-democratic principle of the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament, and pledged to maintain the current global order and the rUK, would soon have found their already compromised proposals ridiculed and further diluted by the UK state and unionist parties.
In contrast, RIC saw any ‘Yes’ vote as an exercise in the republican principle of the sovereignty of the people. RIC was prepared to organise a popular movement mobilising those whose political consciousness had been raised in the many autonomous ‘Yes’ campaigns.
Without RIC or Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’, it is unlikely that RISE would exist. RIC is a movement that has united disparate radical political forces for particular purposes. However, RISE is a distinct political project, which should seek neither to replace RIC nor to control it. Instead, by becoming the most consistent advocates of political, economic, social and cultural struggle, and linking with others on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’, RISE should attempt to win political support for continuing the ‘democratic revolution’.
An all-islands vision
Where the SNP leadership look to British Labour in Westminster to advance their current liberal unionist strategy, the SLP should seek support in England, Wales and Ireland. The ongoing Irish water charges campaign and the recent stunning victory in the gay marriage referendum, both mobilising beyond the parliamentary confines, points to our need for an all-islands vision.
RISE must have a democratic culture. The RCN certainly do not have all the answers, and we are happy to test our ideas against those with a different perspective. And, just as we have learned much from those autonomous organisations, which became involved in the Scottish independence referendum, so we look forward to working in a political organisation, where different experiences can contribute to a new shared higher level of understanding and activity.
Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’ can not be realised within Westminster’s anti-democratic prison house, nor by ‘Yes’ supporters becoming passive cheerleaders for 56 SNP MSPs. The RCN does not see RISE as being merely an electoral alliance, nor a pressure group upon the SNP. We will campaign for the RISE to become a new party to take the lead in the battle for genuine Scottish self-determination. In the face of global capital’s multi-facetted crises, a shared struggle for democracy is the best school of learning for the creation of the new world we so desperately need.