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.