All is not lost

Kevin Williamson observes the wreckage of the SSP/Solidarity project and argues that while it may be an unedifying sight, it does not mean there is no hope for the Scottish left.

When I was first asked to write this article I can’t say I wept with joy. It’s not because the subject doesn’t engage my thoughts (it does) but because there’s a bad smell wafting out from a section of the Scottish left. Thankfully some other poor soul has been handed the poisoned chalice of making sense of the complex legal and political issues raised by the two Sheridan court cases. I wish them luck. You’ll be damned if you take one side and damned if you take the other. And doubly damned if you sit on the fence.

As someone who was involved in the foundation of the SSP, and someone who, until 2004, was actively involved in formulating and promoting its drugs policy, it depresses me to see friends and former comrades constantly at war with each other, barely able to sit down in the same room without emanating visceral hostility. I still keep it touch with many on both sides of the SSP divide. I hear and read what is being said about “the other lot”; in private, in public, or on social media. And one thing is clear: as it stands there is more hope of Lionel Messi signing for Hibs in the next few years than any re-unification of the SSP and Solidarity.

The short term prospects for peace and reconciliation are bleak. Some of those involved fully intend to take undying hostility towards their enemies to the grave with them. Nor does Sheridan’s imprisonment mark any sort of closure. Two more legal appeals means the saga could become The Never Ending Story.

The forthcoming Holyrood election highlights the scale of the problem. The SSP and Solidarity camps intend to stand against each other in the regional List votes, despite neither having a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anyone elected. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that either party will improve on the derisory votes achieved in previous elections. Some observers may think, wishing the socialist left could get its act together, why bother? SSP leader Colin Fox went on record recently as saying there are no significant policy differences between the two parties. If so the obvious question arises: Colin, why are you standing against someone with the same views as yourself?

Perhaps the largest component of the Scottish left (this writer included) operates outside the structures of traditional political parties.

This is a bit like asking Cold War dinosaurs of old why they didn’t support unilateral nuclear disarmament. Both would simply shrug and reply: “We can’t or the other lot would win”. The Cold War is over but the damage – in the form of nuclear arsenals – are still with us. A them-and-us siege mentality is difficult to get out of. It creates walls by default.

All is not lost though. Pockets of activists around both the SSP and Solidarity – who see the futility of a prolonged and bitter war of attrition – have made contact with others in the opposite camp, and beyond. Lines of communication and dialogue have opened up. The online journal Democratic Green Socialist, set up by a group of Solidarity members, is one such ray of hope. Hopefully these non-partisan spaces will spread and grow.

It is not within the remit of this article to go into all the dots and commas of the fractious SSP split. But one crucial aspect of the SSP’s history is often overlooked. By late 2004, before the original News of the World article it was becoming increasingly obvious to anyone involved in the SSP that a damaging split was opening up on the question of Scottish independence. Truth is, if a wound hadn’t opened up around Tommy Sheridan, or Scottish independence for that matter, then something else would have torn the party apart. It was built on shaky foundations.

The rise and fall of the SSP was not a unique phenomena. If we look southwards a similar left unity project was attempted under the banner of Respect. It also fell apart in an acrimonious split, ostensibly around the personality of George Galloway. But scrape away the veneer of personality politics and the main underlying obstacle to any such left unity project soon becomes apparent. It was the Militant Tendency – in its re-jigged guise of Scottish Militant Labour – who were in the driving seat when the SSP was formed. In England it was the SWP who had their hands firmly on the rudder. To their credit both organisations were trying to think their way out of a political cul-de-sac and attempted to build bridges towards other lefts. But Scottish Militant Labour and the SWP had something else in common: both were unashamedly Trotskyite organisations. For decades the leading lights of both organisations had immersed themselves in Trotskyite methodology and inevitably they brought this ideology, along with their old practices, into both projects. It was like bringing a ticking time-bomb into a marketplace of ideas.

The SSP and Respect went through similar development curves. The Trotskyite methodology ensured that each project would be launched in a fanfare of excitement and enthusiasm at grandiose gatherings of interested parties. The top table of speakers, the interim office bearers, and the obligatory steering committees, would, of course, materialise through prior ‘caucuses’ and ‘working groups’. SML and SWP activists pulled enough strings to ensure their choice of candidates were safely ensconced in most leading positions. The seeds of self-interest were thus sown into the original fabric of both the SSP and Respect.

Trotskyism encourages personality politics and builds cults around certain individuals. A leadership fetish nurtures celebrity Pied Pipers in order to engineer some initial electoral successes. And build up party membership. Then, as sure as night follows day, a split occurs, seemingly from nowhere, with the celebrity politician(s) often at the centre of it. Before long minor political differences are amplified into spurious ‘principles’ and the initial project lies is in ruins, leaving all those who invested hope and hard work depressed and back to square one. For non-Trotskyites this is a unique and terrible experience to have to go through. They can’t believe how such-and-such could behave like that. For seasoned observers it’s depressingly familiar.

If any sort of Scottish left unity project is to be forged it cannot be driven forward by those who utilise this destructive methodology. The SSP was one Trotskyite balls up too many. Its time for all on the Scottish left to raise our voices and say enough is enough.

The Scottish Greens, on the other hand, far from being in disarray, are looking forward to the 2011 election with great confidence. And little wonder. They have retained a core presence in the Scottish Parliament for the last twelve years; they effectively influence policy where they can; take part in direct action campaigns; push a radical pro-ecology, anti-war and anti-corporate agenda; support Scottish independence; promote non-hierarchical forms of organisation, as well as non-patriarchal modes of communication; and stand consistently against the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxies. The Scottish Greens could justifiably consider themselves to be the main standard bearers of the left, yet it is a consistently appealing feature of the Greens that making such grandiose claims to centrality isn’t in their political DNA.

If the radical left is serious about mounting an effective struggle against the neoliberal consensus it would make sense that any re-organisation of the Scottish left involved the Scottish Greens from day one. If there was strategic joined-up thinking on the Scottish left the SNP and Greens would be given a clean run at the unionists on 5 May.

Defining the boundaries of the left remains problematic for some. The SNP government is one of the most left-leaning governments in Europe with a broadly social democratic agenda. The SNP membership consists of many individuals who consider themselves socialists or leftists. The same could be said for the Labour Party. Challenging neo-liberalism means mapping out new spaces for constructive dialogue and actions, spaces where old tribal loyalties aren’t deemed important enough to create unnecessary obstacles.
Perhaps the largest component of the Scottish left (this writer included) operates outside the structures of traditional political parties. This includes many thousands of trade unionists, community activists, co-operative members, social businesses, human rights lawyers, civil libertarians, peaceniks, and single issue campaigners, as well as Scotland’s formidable wealth of talent among its creative thinkers and independent media.

It is against this backdrop that the writer Pat Kane has captured the zeitgeist more than most and mapped out an emerging network of energised and imaginative Scottish thinkers and radicals. ‘Thoughtland’ is an imagined space where individuals are engaged in constructive non-programmatic dialogue, developing radical ideas and lines of cultural and political advance. Although not entirely disconnected from political parties closer inspection notes that ‘Thoughtland’ is not hampered by the restrictive pressures of groupthink and the need to defend a party line.

Although still relatively small this fascinating network is crystallising outside the mainstream media and political parties. This emerging space may grow to include cultural projects, social forums, community projects, music festivals, as well as social media, online publications, etc.

It is important to identify this development in order to juxtapose it to the traditional structures and institutions of power. Similarly if the concept of a Scottish left is to have any meaning it may need to be considered as an emerging fuzzy entity rather than ring-fenced in advance by rigid absolutism or fixed ideology. On the big questions – such as Scottish independence, neoliberal orthodoxy, social democracy, a centralised state, decentralisation of power – alliances may need to be forged with those of differing viewpoints if the status quo is to be effectively challenged.

These are all areas where strategic thinking and constructive dialogue may have a far greater pay-off in the medium-long term than isolationist posturing which demands that all boxes be ticked in advance.