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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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