Signs of a left revival in Scotland

The independence debate is breathing new life into Scottish socialism.

For a while, the fallout from the Tommy Sheridan affair and the virtual collapse of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) threatened to put an end to the organised left in Scotland. Between 2003 and 2007, the SSP’s share of the vote at Holyrood fell from nearly seven per cent to less than one per cent, while a surge in support for the SNP, fuelled in part by Alex Salmond’s targeted appeals to social democracy, almost completely eclipsed other radical alternatives like the Greens.
 
Today, Scottish socialism seems to be in ruder health. Last weekend, as many as 900 left-wing activists gathered in central Glasgow for the Radical Independence Conference (RIC), an initiative aimed at providing the left with an opportunity to make its own distinctive case for Scottish self-government. Delegates included trade unionists, journalists, students and environmentalists, among others. Keynote speeches were delivered by Scottish CND’s Isobel Lindsay, Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and commentator Gerry Hassan. Contributions from Quebecois, Basque and Greek socialists helped locate the event in the broader context of the international anti-austerity movement.
 
Two other recent developments have added momentum to this nascent left revival. The first was the formation of a new Holyrood parliamentary group composed of veteran left-nationalist Margo Macdonald, Green MSPs Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone, and independents John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, who quit the SNP in October following the party’s decision to embrace NATO. The second was the refusal of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) to affiliate to the pro-Union Better Together campaign despite what must have been heavy pressure from the Labour Party.
 
The catalyst for the revival itself is the debate surrounding Scotland’s constitutional future. Whether Scotland has secured enhanced devolution or seceded from the United Kingdom altogether, RIC organisers view the 2016 Scottish elections as a moment of potential breakthrough. If an overwhelming majority of Scots vote No in the independence referendum, the SNP may fracture, leaving a block of non-aligned nationalists and social democrats which could form the basis of a united left front. If there’s a Yes vote, some elements of the Labour left, impatient with Scottish leader Johann Lamont’s chronic lack of ambition, may be tempted to join a new socialist/Green alliance. Either way, popular discontent in Scotland over public spending cuts is likely to find formal political expression sooner rather than later.

The challenge for RIC will be to keep its loosely assembled coalition, which includes members of Sheridan’s Solidarity organisation, the Socialist Workers Party and the SSP, together long enough to turn it into a sustainable electoral force. This could be difficult: in recent decades Scotland's radical left has proved every bit as fractious as its English and European counterparts. Jim Sillars' break-away Scottish Labour Party, formed in the mid-1970s, collapsed under the weight of Trotskyist factionalism. The socialist 79 Group was expelled from the SNP in the early 1980s because of its alleged links to Sinn Fein. Ten years later, the splintering of Militant Tendency in Scotland saw the birth of Scottish Militant Labour, a precursor group to the SSP.

But here RIC has a couple of significant advantages. Most of its organisers are under 30 and therefore largely free from the sectarianism of their predecessors. Delegates even reported a sense of transition at the conference – a ‘passing of the baton’ from one generation of Scottish leftists to the next. Crucially, in its support for independence, RIC has a clear, unifying purpose. These are encouraging signs. Considered alongside Holyrood’s new left-leaning working group and the apparent weakening of Scottish trade unionism’s commitment to the British state, you could be forgiven for thinking socialism might be set for some kind of comeback in Scottish politics.

Veteran left-nationalist Margo MacDonald is one of the leaders of a new Holyrood parliamentary group. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era