A snapshot of Scotland's fast-moving left politics

April 22, 2016

Left-wing supporters of Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum campaign.

Is There A Scottish Road to Socialism?
Edited by Gregor Gall
Scottish Left Review Press
Third edition, 2016
£5.99, 164 pages

This is the third edition in a series previously published in 2007 and 2013. A range of left-wing activists and commentators debate the question of whether Scottish independence would help or hinder the prospects for socialism in Scotland.

Much has happened in Scottish politics since 2013. First, the September 2014 referendum on independence was much closer than anyone anticipated, with 1.6 million (45%) of those who voted supporting “Yes”, despite a coalition between the Labour and Conservative parties arguing for a “No” vote.

And as one contributor puts it, the “Yes” movement “saw an extraordinary blossoming of positive, creative, confident, innovative and imaginative participation of a great number of people, many for the first time”.

Second, after a vast influx of new members into the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), in the May general elections last year the Labour Party was all but annihilated in Scotland. It retained only one of its 41 Scottish seats, and the SNP won an incredible 56 out of 59 seats.

A majority Conservative government emerged out of the election, even though the Conservatives won only one seat in Scotland.

Third, opinion polls currently suggest that despite Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership of British Labour, the decline of Scottish Labour with the rise of the SNP and other pro-independence forces looks set to continue in the May 5 elections to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

The contributions to the book express a fascinating range of opinions about how progressives in Scotland should respond to this volatile situation. Nine of the essays are by non-SNP supporters of independence — including from Radical Independence, RISE, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), and the Scottish Greens.

One is by one of the SNP's new left-wing MPs, while six are by contributors associated with the anti-independence Labour Party or Communist Party of Britain. There is also a contribution from Lynn Henderson of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and an interesting chapter by Leanne Wood, the left-wing leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru.

Two main points stand out.

Firstly, some of the Labour Party contributors seem to suggest that the election of Corbyn as British Labour leader points towards an important change in the nature of Scottish Labour. For example, Neil Findlay, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament, says Corbyn's election obliterates the “Red Tory” label applied in recent years to Labour by the pro-independence left.

But this is thrown into doubt by facts cited by other contributors. In his editor's introduction, Gregor Gall points out that “the mass influx of new members into Labour before and after Corbyn's victory has not occurred in Scotland”.

Indeed, according to the Financial Times, “A Labour member is now four times more likely to be a Londoner than a Scottish resident”.

Moreover, Scottish Labour leaders only came round to embracing Corbyn when it became clear that he was going to win the leadership. SSP leader Colin Fox points out that prior to that, for example, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale claimed that “A Corbyn victory would leave Labour carping on the sidelines for years”.

Another contributor notes that of 43 Labour councillors in Glasgow, only two supported Corbyn. Although Corbyn's victory is very welcome for socialists, it is hard to avoid agreeing with Fox's comment that Corbyn's win further exposes Labour's crisis rather than solves it.

Corbyn's true allies in Scotland are on the whole not to be found in Labour, but in the pro-independence forces to the left of the SNP.

Secondly, one issue that the pro-independence contributors do not address adequately is that of the European Union (EU).

In a powerful chapter, Pauline Bryan of the Campaign for Socialism (inside Labour) argues that the EU is now an essentially neoliberal political project, membership of which is inconsistent with even modest social democratic economic policies.

Although Bryan is surely on shaky ground in her assumption that being part of Britain somehow makes dealing with the EU easier, she does a good job of outlining how neoliberalism is written into the DNA of the EU.

The PCS Union's Lynne Henderson makes the essential point very clearly: “As Syriza found twice to its peril, a democratic mandate and a majority support in a referendum for the [anti-austerity] programme were simply not enough against the non-elected capitalist power club of the [EU-European Commission-International Monetary Fund] Troika.”

Overall, the book provides a valuable snapshot of the fast-moving waters of the Scottish political scene.

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