Revamping old formulas

Issue: 115

Iain Ferguson

Gregor Gall (ed), Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism? (Scottish Left Review, 2007), £9.99

Growing up in the West of Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s, I commonly heard people remark at election time that if you stood a monkey on a Labour Party ticket, the monkey would be elected. To the best of my knowledge, the theory was never put to the test and, in fact, support for Labour was probably never quite as automatic or unthinking as this suggests. What the saying did identify, however, was the profound loyalty that a majority of working class people in Scotland felt towards the Labour Party over several decades in the post-war period. In many communities support for Labour was, as one journalist recently put it, part of the emotional wallpaper. In a very real sense, Labour was “the party of the working class”.

The elections for the Scottish Parliament of 4 May 2007 show the extent to which that has ceased to be the case. For the first time in more than 50 years Labour is no longer the majority party in Scotland. That mantle is now worn, at least temporarily, by the Scottish National Party (SNP) which, under its leader Alex Salmond, won 47 seats to New Labour’s 46 in the new parliament. It is true that the defeat for New Labour was less devastating than widely predicted (it lost four seats). It is also true that the election itself was a travesty of democracy, with complicated voting forms and problems with “e-counting” of votes resulting in 100,000 “spoiled” ballot papers and comparisons with Jeb Bush’s Florida elections of 2000.

The SNP’s victory was, nevertheless, a -historic one, and more than a flash in the pan. The fact that only a month previously the general council of the Scottish Trades Union Congress had agreed by a majority of just one vote to support New Labour in the election campaign provides, if anything, even more convincing evidence of just how much New Labour’s grip on the working class movement in Scotland has slipped in recent years.

In this context, a book which took a fresh and critical look at how socialists and campaigners against war, Trident missiles and neoliberalism could engage with the challenges and opportunities of the new political terrain would be both timely and welcome.

Unfortunately, a fresh and critical look is precisely what Gregor Gall’s edited collection fails to provide. For the most part, the book feels rather old and tired. One reason for this is the choice of contributors. At least a third of those included adhere to one or another of the offshoots of the defunct British Communist Party, and at times there is an uncanny sense of being transported back to the Communist Party’s internal debates of the 1970s.

Thus David Purdy is given space to restate his view that greedy workers were -responsible for the rise of Thatcherism, John Foster extols the politics of the popular front, and, in a real gem of unreconstructed Stalinism, Eric Canning suggests that the examples of “Cuba, Vietnam, Mongolia, China and North Korea” prove that “socialism can obviously develop in relative isolation and within a single country”. By contrast, there are no contributions from those who led the huge protests against the G8 summit at Edinburgh and Gleneagles in 2005, despite the fact that several chapters acknowledge the profound importance of these events for the development of the left in Scotland.

More generally, many of the 14 chapters rehash the lazy and erroneous assumptions that make up the ideological furniture of much of the Scottish left. Chief among these are the notions that Scotland is an oppressed nation, that Scottish workers are more militant than their brothers and sisters south of the border, that an independent Scotland would inevitably be left wing and that independence would provoke a crisis for the British ruling class. All of these arguments are expertly refuted by Neil Davidson in what is by far the best chapter in the book (see also his contribution to the previous issue of this journal).

In fact, the SNP’s success in the Scottish elections in May owed little to its policy of support for an independence referendum, which its leader consistently downplayed during the campaign and from which he has continued to backtrack since. Instead it was due to the fact that it presented itself at every opportunity as the anti‑war, anti‑Trident party, committed to essentially social democratic policies. As its billboard posters proclaimed, “More hospitals and schools, not Trident missiles.” It offered the voters, in other words, an Old Labour programme much more in tune with their values and aspirations than the pro-market, pro-war policies of New Labour. The result is that the level of expectation in an SNP-led government is likely to be very high indeed. At the same time, to its wealthy business supporters, the SNP presents a very different face, as a party fully committed to neoliberal policies whose model is the Irish “Celtic Tiger”. If the left in Scotland can engage with that contradiction and insist that an SNP-led government lives up to its anti-militarist pretensions—for example, by ending all army recruitment in schools and colleges—as opposed to debating tired and irrelevant old formulas about independence, the prospects for the coming period could be very good indeed.