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.

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.