Stan Crooke reports from the Scottish Socialist Party conference which took place at Glasgow Caledonian University on 7-8 October.
“Three hundred years ago next year, the English ruling classes and a section of the Scottish ruling classes began the colonisation of Scotland. The Scottish people lost their democratic rights. Since then, Scotland has been plundered. It bankrolls the Westminster Treasury. And it provides young men to die overseas.”
This was how a member of the “Pro-Independence Platform (Temporary)” began his speech motivating a pro-Scottish independence motion at the Scottish Socialist Party conference, attended by about 350 SSP activists in Glasgow last weekend.
An alternative motion, taken in the same debate, argued for the SSP to withdraw from the “Independence Convention” (in which the SSP is allied with the SNP) and instead to concentrate on seeking to help build an all-Britain socialist party.
The latter motion was given short shrift by its opponents. Only recently the SSP had been the victim of “organisations which take their orders from London.” The “main enemy of the working class” at the moment is US imperialism. The British state is a “lapdog” of US imperialism. If Scotland was independent, then no longer would young Scots fight and die in the frontlines of US imperialism’s wars.
A rousing closing speech by another member of the “Pro-Independence Platform (Temporary)” challenged the argument that Scotland had benefited from the Act of Union: the speaker’s ancestors had been forced to emigrate from Ireland, and he lived in Govan. How could anyone claim, therefore, that the Act of Union had brought benefits to Scotland?
The pro-independence motion was passed, with only a handful of delegates voting against. In many ways the debate on the motion summed up the current state of the SSP.
The debate was open and democratic. Both sides of the argument were given equal speaking rights. Politically, however, the pro-independence arguments were essentially populist and demagogic.
What democratic rights did the population of Scotland lose in 1707? Was post-1707 Scotland a colony of the British Empire or an integral part of its centre? What’s wrong with a political organisation – or a trade union – being based in London? Can the last three hundred years of Scottish history really be reduced to Govan and emigration from Ireland? Is independence for Scotland really a blow against US imperialism?
In previous years the SSP’s support for Scottish independence has been couched mainly in class terms (i.e. it will be of benefit specifically to the working class). There was certainly still an element of this at this year’s conference. But, arguably, there was also a much stronger emphasis on independence being good-in-itself, plus a spurious ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric of a type normally associated with the SWP.
The upshot of the pro-independence motion will be to consolidate the SSP’s bloc with the SNP in the “Independence Convention” and “Independence First”. With next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections coinciding with the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric and Scottish populism are likely to become even more strident in SSP campaigning in the months ahead.
By way of contrast, the sole motion on the agenda concerning trade unions, apart from an RMT motion calling for support for the Trade Union Freedom Bill, evoked none of the passions aroused by the ‘anti-imperialist’ vision of an independent Scotland.
The two-paragraph motion applauded “the excellent work conducted by the SSP National Trade Union Organiser” in “a variety of unions across the country and beyond” and called for a “one-day workshop for SSP trade union members”.
Ironically, the motion was moved by a member of the PCS trade union – whose leadership was applauded by the SSP and it National Trade Union Organiser when it abandoned its campaign of industrial action in defence of members’ pension rights.
The fact that the motion applauded the efforts of just one SSP member, did not challenge the position taken by the SSP on the public sector unions’ pensions campaign, and proposed no more than a one-day workshop on trade union work, reflects poorly on the significance attached to organised intervention in trade unions by SSP members.
The total absence of any debate at the conference around this solitary motion on trade union work – save for a contribution from an AWL member – only further emphasised the same point.
A motion to revive the Gaelic language, on the other hand, triggered some particularly passionate contributions. It was an “abomination” that Gaelic was in decline. There was a link, delegates were told, between language diversity and bio-diversity. And a delegate who had the temerity to suggest that Gaelic was the historic language of the Highlands rather than of Scotland as a whole was told to go away and read a history book.
An amendment to a motion on prostitution turned out to be surprisingly controversial – and ultimately unsuccessful.
The amendment supported the trade-unionisation of prostitutes. Opponents of the amendment stressed that they supported the self-organisation of prostitutes – but not in the form of a trade union. This was because prostitution was contrary to the values of the trade union movement, above all its commitment to ending sexual harassment in the workplace.
Although the vote on the amendment went to a card vote, the amendment was easily defeated by a margin of two to one.
In the closing session of its first day the conference passed two motions supporting “boycott, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel”.
References in one of the motions to “dismantling the Zionist state of Israel” were deleted. As a result, the stated purpose of the boycott campaign would be to force Israel to make concessions (such as a return to 1967 borders and dismantling settlements) and to comply with international law and universal principles of human rights.
Israel, delegates were told, was an “apartheid state” which had set up “bantustans”. While Israel had the right to exist, it had no right to practice apartheid. Hence the need for a boycott campaign. Another speaker argued Israel had been created as an outpost of British imperialism in the Middle East.
In deciding to back the pro-boycott motions a majority of delegates seem to have accepted the argument: Israel does bad things (as indeed it does); therefore it should be the target of a boycott. Vague – and simply wrong – analogies with apartheid South Africa also appear to have carried some weight.
The problematic nature of a boycott campaign – extensively discussed in the former AUT trade union, for example, and also raised in the conference debate itself – was ignored by the conference.
On a more positive note, however, a meeting held during the lunchbreak of the second day of the conference agreed that it was long overdue to put into effect the SSP’s policy of building support in this country for Iraqi trade unionists. Although the meeting was not well attended, it was at least a first step in the right direction.
The overall background to the conference, of course, was provided by the Tommy Sheridan saga and the formation of “Solidarity – Scotland's Socialist Movement” by the SWP, Sheridan, and the “Committee for a Workers International” (whose sole unifying feature is their mutual loathing of one another).
The issue was dealt with in the opening session of the conference on the Saturday morning. The motion passed by the conference applauded the track record of the SSP, condemned the breakaway, and left the door of the SSP open to anyone who had split with Sheridan to re-join the SSP.
A second motion recommended that SSP members should avoid resorting to the bourgeois courts when under attack by the state or the media, and that they should likewise avoid resorting to non-party media when making allegations against other SSP members.
The only discordant notes in the debate were struck by a member of the RMT delegation, who argued that the SSP Executive Committee should have backed Sheridan’s court case, and a member of the Republican Communist Network, who raised the issue of SSP member George McNeilage having sold a certain videotape to the “News of the World”.
The position of the SSP leadership regarding the latter is: they knew nothing of the videotape; they do not approve of it having been sold to the “News of the World”; McNeilage acted as an individual; and the SSP will not accept the proceeds of the sale as a donation.
In their statements to the media, however, the focus of the SSP MSPs in particular has so far been on confirming that it is indeed Sheridan speaking on the tape, rather than on condemning McNeilage for selling the tape to the “News of the World”.
The Sheridan split also provided the background to most of the motions discussed on the second day of the conference. These largely dealt with internal organisational matters and proposed a variety of measures, including the promotion of ongoing discussion throughout the party about possible new forms of organisation, in order to minimise the risk of another Sheridan fiasco.
Overall, the mood at the conference was buoyant. Many SSP members were clearly glad to see the back of the SWP. The way in which the SSP had dealt with Sheridan’s libel trial, it was felt, had been vindicated. The task now was to prepare for next year’s Scottish parliamentary and council elections.
But whether the policies adopted at the conference actually put the SSP in a better position to mount an election campaign based on independent working-class politics is another question.
• Click here for details of the 28 October Workers' Liberty Scotland dayschool on the way forward for Scottish left.