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Socialism's comeback

At the beginning of the century, the chances of socialism making a return looked close to zero. Yet now, all around Europe, the red flag is flying again.

 

"If socialism signifies a political and economic system in which the government controls a large part of the economy and redistributes wealth to produce social equality, then I think it is safe to say the likelihood of its making a comeback any time in the next generation is close to zero," wrote Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, in Time magazine in 2000.

He should take a trip around Europe today.

Make no mistake, socialism - pure, unadulterated socialism, an ideology that was taken for dead by liberal capitalists - is making a strong comeback. Across the continent, there is a definite trend in which long-established parties of the centre left that bought in to globalisation and neoliberalism are seeing their electoral dominance challenged by unequivocally socialist parties which have not.

The parties in question offer policies which mark a clean break from the Thatcherist agenda that many of Europe's centre-left parties have embraced over the past 20 years. They advocate renationalisation of privatised state enterprises and a halt to further liberalisation of the public sector. They call for new wealth taxes to be imposed and for a radical redistribution of wealth. They defend the welfare state and the rights of all citizens to a decent pension and free health care. They strongly oppose war - and any further expansion of Nato.

Most fundamentally of all, they challenge an economic system in which the interests of ordinary working people are subordinated to those of capital.

Nowhere is this new leftward trend more apparent than in Germany, home to the meteoric rise of Die Linke ("The Left"), a political grouping formed only 18 months ago - and co-led by the veteran socialist "Red" Oskar Lafontaine, a long-standing scourge of big business. The party, already the main opposition to the Christian Democrats in eastern Germany, has made significant inroads into the vote for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in elections to western parliaments this year, gaining representation in Lower Saxony, Hamburg and Hesse. Die Linke's unapologetically socialist policies, which include the renation alisation of electricity and gas, the banning of hedge funds and the introduction of a maximum wage, chime with a population concerned at the dismantling of Germany's mixed economic model and the adoption of Anglo-Saxon capitalism - a shift that occurred while the SPD was in government.

An opinion poll last year showed that 45 per cent of west Germans (and 57 per cent of east Germans) consider socialism "a good idea"; in October, another poll showed that Germans overwhelmingly favour nationalisation of large segments of the economy. Two-thirds of all Germans say they agree with all or some of Die Linke's programme.

It's a similar story of left-wing revival in neighbouring Holland. There the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), which almost trebled its parliamentary representation in the most recent general election (2006), and which made huge gains in last year's provincial elections, continues to make headway.

Led by a charismatic 41-year-old epidemiologist, Agnes Kant, the SP is on course to surpass the Dutch Labour Party, a member of the ruling conservative-led coalition, as the Netherlands' main left-of centre grouping.

The SP has gained popularity by being the only left-wing Dutch parliamentary party to campaign for a "No" vote during the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty and for its opposition to large-scale immigration, which it regards as being part of a neoliberal package that encourages flexible labour markets.

The party calls for a society where the values of "human dignity, equality and solidarity" are most prominent, and has been scathing in its attacks on what it describes as "the culture of greed", brought about by "a capitalism based on inflated bonuses and easy money". Like Die Linke, the SP campaigns on a staunchly anti-war platform - demanding an end to Holland's role as "the US's lapdog".

In Greece, the party on the up is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), the surprise package in last year's general election. As public opposition to the neoliberal econo mic policies of the ruling New Democracy government builds, SYRIZA's opinion-poll ratings have risen to almost 20 per cent - putting it within touching distance of PASOK, the historical left-of-centre opposition, which has lurched sharply to the right in recent years. SYRIZA is particularly popular with young voters: its support among those aged 35 and under stands at roughly 30 per cent in the polls, ahead of PASOK.

In Norway, socialists are already in power; the ruling "red-green" coalition consists of the Socialist Left Party, the Labour Party and the Centre Party. Since coming to power three years ago, the coalition - which has been labelled the most left-wing government in Europe, has halted the privatisation of state-owned companies and made further development of the welfare state, public health care and improving care for the elderly its priorities.

The success of such forces shows that there can be an electoral dividend for left-wing parties if voters see them responding to the crisis of modern capitalism by offering boldly socialist solutions. Their success also demonstrates the benefits to electoral support for socialist groupings as they put aside their differences to unite behind a commonly agreed programme.

For example, Die Linke consists of a number of internal caucuses - or forums - including the "Anti-Capitalist Left", "Communist Platform" and "Democratic Socialist Forum". SYRIZA is a coalition of more than ten Greek political groups. And the Dutch Socialist Party - which was originally called the Communist Party of the Netherlands, has successfully brought socialists and communists together to support its collectivist programme.

It is worth noting that those European parties of the centre left which have not fully embraced the neoliberal agenda are retaining their dominant position. In Spain, the governing Socialist Workers' Party has managed to maintain its broad left base and was re-elected for another four-year term in March, with Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero promising a "socialist economic policy" that would focus on the needs of workers and the poor.

There are exceptions to the European continent's shift towards socialism. Despite the recent election of leftist Martine Aubry as leader of the French Socialist Party, the French left has been torn apart by divisions, at the very moment when it could be exploiting the growing unpopularity of the Sarkozy administration.

And, in Britain, despite opinion being argu ably more to the left on economic issues than at any time since 1945, few are calling for a return to socialism.

The British left, despite promising initiatives such as September's Convention of the Left in Manchester, which gathered representatives from several socialist groups, still remains fragmented and divided. The left's espousal of unrestricted or loosely controlled immigration is also, arguably, a major vote loser among working-class voters who should provide its core support. No socialist group in Britain has as yet articulated a critique of mass immigration from an anti-capitalist and anti-racist viewpoint in the way the Socialist Party of the Netherlands has.

And even if a Die Linke-style coalition of progressive forces could be built and put on a formal footing in time for the next general election, Britain's first-past-the-post system provides a formidable obstacle to change.

Nevertheless, the prognosis for socialism in Britain and the rest of Europe is good. As the recession bites, and neoliberalism is discredited, the phenomenon of unequivocally socialist parties with clear, anti-capitalist, anti-globalist messages gaining ground, and even replacing "Third Way" parties in Europe, is likely to continue.

Even in Britain, where the electoral system grants huge advantage to the established parties, pressure on Labour to jettison its commitment to neoliberal policies and to adopt a more socialist agenda is sure to intensify.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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Extreme Scottish nationalists: hunting lapdogs and traitors

The Scottish government has pledged to keep the next referendum debate "informed" - but not all independence supporters agree. 

This is one of a two-part series. For the article on extreme Scottish unionists, click here.

In 2014, David was fresh out of university and in his first job. A Labour MP, Jim Murphy, had decided to tour Scotland, with the plan of holding 100 public meetings in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. David, a Better Together campaigner, was part of his team.

Initially, the meetings were rowdy, but civil. But that began to change, as the same group of Yes supporters turned up in high street after high street. 

Then one day, David found himself in Kirkcaldy, a coastal town north of Edinburgh once known for its linoleum factories. The Yes supporters were waiting.

“It was genuinely terrifying,” David remembers. “The Nats had formed a tortoise formation the way Romans do with shields, but with Yes placards. They were just advancing towards us.

“You just think ‘this is mental’”.

Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists

That day in Kirkcaldy would ultimately lead Murphy to suspend his tour, after an onlooker pelted him with eggs. But for David and the other campaign workers, this wasn’t the worst of it. 

Yes supporters would frequently abuse them as “traitors”, “quislings”, and tell them to “go back to England” (the campaigners I interviewed were both Scottish). They filmed them at meetings, and began to identify David in particular as “Murphy’s lapdog”. He received a death threat, and the police advised him to step down from the frontline campaign. 

“The worst thing that happened  was when I had one day off in the campaign,” says David. “I was walking down Sauchiehall Street [one of the main shopping streets in Glasgow] with my mum.

“I had my No badge on, and as I passed a Yes stall this man pointed at me and went “there goes Murphy’s lapdog’.” 

“They crowded around me. One asked my mum: ‘Are you proud of your son? A traitor to your country?’”

Ultimately, the “traitors” were in the majority. Scotland voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK, and David found a new job. But with a second Scottish referendum looming, he worries this behaviour will return. 

But where does this aggression come from? Unlike the traditional left and right, the independence movement does not have an obvious extremist reference point. Were the Yes centurions in Kirkcaldy merely caught up in the heat of the moment, or representative of something else? 

Settlers and swords

Screenshot from the Siol Nan Gaidheal website

The Scottish National Party likes to present itself as the moderate, liberal face of civic nationalism. But in the early 1980s, when it was a protest party, the modernisers rubbed shoulders with ethno-nationalists like the Siol Nan Gaidheal.

Gordon Wilson, the SNP leader at the time, called them “proto-fascists” and kicked them out of the party.

“People throw plenty of abuse about the SNP’s nationalism,” Wilson says when I call him. “But it has never countenanced any solution except the democratic route.

“When people come along with objectional views on that or ethno-nationalism they get hammered.”

But the SNP and the independence movement are not one and the same. Siol Nan Gaidheal survived its expulsion, and still exists today in a rejigged guise. Its latest incarnation, according to its website, seeks "to liberate the Scottish people from the worst excesses of English/British Cultural Imperialism" but will "leave party political action to the Scottish National Party". However, during the Scottish referendum, The Telegraph reported that Siol Nan Gaidheal activists were deliberately disrupting Jim Murphy's tour. 

SNP modernisers have also tried to play down the jingoistic elements of Scottish nationalism. “The one thing you always have to keep an eye open for is militarism,” says Wilson. “Thankfully the Siol Nan Gaidheal were only equipped with swords and dirks.”

Violent Scottish nationalists may have had more in common with a historical re-enactment society than the IRA, but they could still be intimidating to their targets.

Recently, the Daily Record reported on Sonja Cameron, who was a member of the group Settler Watch in the early 1990s (“white settlers” is a slur for English-born Scots; Cameron herself was originally German). The group daubed the homes of English families with graffiti. 

Cameron’s onetime friend, Andrew McIntosh, took more drastic measures. Dubbed “the tartan terrorist”, he was jailed for 12 months in 1993 after carrying out a letter-bomb and bomb hoax campaign. 

"Go back to England"

As Wilson is keen to stress, these cases occurred in the 1990s (although embarrassingly for the SNP, Cameron’s story recently came to light after she passed the party’s vetting process for council candidates). 

Most of the post-2014 independence movement subscribes to a blend of Scottish patriotism, mixed with anti-austerity and anti-Westminster rhetoric. 

Its leaders have tried to distance themselves from anti-English sentiment ("English people for Scottish independence" is a popular Facebook group). Nevertheless, on the ground, the feeling persists. Another Better Together campaigner I spoke to told me about an incident on Murphy's tour: “This English photographer was just taking pictures, he didn’t express a point of view, and these men shoved him and shouted ‘You go back to England’."

A second strand of extremism overlaps with sectarianism. The links between Scottish independence and Catholicism are not exclusive – Murphy, the beleaguered Better Together campaigner, is a practising Roman Catholic – but have been talked up by some political tribes. The press officer for Scottish bishops, Peter Kearney, also appeared to handle press enquiries for SNP top dog Jim Sillars during the referendum campaign. (You can read about sectarianism and the pro-union campaign here).

David Scott, of the anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth, says some independence campaigners used “dog whistle” language to appeal to a sectarian base. He points to former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond’s claim that Catholics voted Yes, and the links drawn by grassroots groups between Scottish independence and the Irish republican movement. 

This kind of language is likely to increase if the polls are tight, Scott says: “Particularly as you get closer to elections, in my experience, politicians will tell you anything to vote. A nudge and a wink saying ‘I’m one of you’.”

In fact, it seems after the referendum, this kind of rhetoric has not gone away. In March, Brian Wilson, a former Labour MP and director of Celtic, accused independence campaigners of a “deliberate attempt to sectarianise Scottish politics”. 

A new religion

Setting out her demand for a second independence referendum in early March, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged that any vote would be about “informed choice”.  She has previously condemned abuse by independence supporters as “wrong”. 

According to Scott, Sturgeon “doesn’t do faith” in the way her predecessor did, which may leave the twigs of sectarianism unkindled for now. The discipline the SNP leadership wields over the party is legendary. 

The Better Together campaigners I spoke to, however, are not optimistic about the quality of a second debate. 

David, the campaigner who received death threats, believes the independence movement itself has become “the closest thing to a religion”. 

He says the atmosphere of the Scottish referendum is incomparable to the EU referendum, divisive as it was: “In the depth of feeling and level this went to, it was a world apart from the EU referendum.”

As for his colleague, a veteran Labour campaigner who had “never experienced that sort of hatred” before, she has only one thing to say about a second referendum: “I think it will be worse.”

Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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