I’m writing this in response to a number of remarks I’ve seen or heard that seem more at home in the old days of sectarian purity than in this forward-looking, inclusive left. It’s not that I’m surprised that we haven’t fully shaken off these weights from around our necks, more that we need to be vigilant and not simply fall back into old practices.
One thing I’m also clear of – I am not immune from making unhelpful utterances. When I do, please give me a friendly nudge and don’t just dismiss me. Hopefully I’ll just have framed something badly or need to take a second thought.
To me, this is the essence of the project. If difference is to be our strength, knowing that none of us has a monopoly of knowledge of anything we are trying to do, we need to get better at both taking and receiving criticism.
Take no heroes, only inspiration
When I say that nobody has a monopoly on knowledge that includes Marx. This is not divine wisdom but a scientific process. But let’s look more closely at some of what’s happening on the ground.
Let’s start with the big one, the SNP. You can’t be a real socialist if you’re in the SNP, can you? To me this falls into the trap of seeing the world as you want it to be, not as it actually is. This criticism tends to come from two distinct places: the residue of the left within the Labour Party and from those in proper socialist organisations.
The line goes that the SNP are a pro-capitalist party and, by implication, everyone in it must support capitalism. From Labour there is an obvious element of hypocrisy there, especially when those voicing this criticism consider themselves to be socialist. From those outside Labour and the SNP, it is a misunderstanding of where we are, a misunderstanding not just of the political awakening around the issue of Scottish Independence but also of the longer term decline of the Labour Party as an a vehicle for meaningful social change.
Over the last few decades, the SNP has successfully moved into a political space vacated by Labour, using both left rhetoric and delivering on more socially inclusive policies, such as tuition fees and prescription charges. Yet this left-leaning stance has distinct limits – critics will quickly point to SNP local councils cutting services, passing on Tory cuts, and the less-than-clear position on fracking and related technologies.
Yes rally, Calton Hill, 2013
Despite these criticisms, the SNP have hoovered up both votes and members that would have gone to Labour and are seen by many as the most progressive overall of the mainstream political offerings. The huge influx of new members after the Referendum however was driven not simply by the pull of the SNP but of the push of political engagement and the need to find a vehicle that would maintain the momentum of the Yes Campaign.
But, and it’s an important but, the Yes Campaign was not all about the SNP. The SNP now has amongst its ranks, members who were inspired by what was happening in that space outside the SNP, the space that dragged the entire campaign to the left to talk about jobs, poverty, Trident etc. These people can either transform the SNP to reflect their interests in the face of the party machine or, more likely, become frustrated and leave.
This is my opinion as is the fact that will be a process that endless heckling from the left will not help. By all means let’s call the SNP to account where they fail but tribal SNP bad-ism is part of the style of politics that we’re meant to have moved beyond. So, let’s continue work with SNP activists on the ground where appropriate and be critical friends.
If this is going to be an inclusive socialism, we have to deal with the question of the left in Labour and other organisations that didn’t support Yes. In the terms of the former, it’s no good just writing these folk off. I was recently challenged on this one by someone who suggested that, “Lots of RISE members will have lots more in common with Scottish Labour politicians like Alex Rowley” than certain members of the SNP.
He is quite correct but similarly Alex Rowley is likely to have more in common with people in the SNP than many in his own party, even with the Corbyn victory. I countered:
Anti-war demo, 2003
All my adult life I’ve experienced betrayal by the Labour Party. The lack of support for the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike, the failure to oppose the Poll Tax, the Iraq war (they even de-selected my MP for opposing the war), tuition fees and standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories in spreading fear and lies about Scottish independence (I could list a lot more). I used to be a member but left the party in the late 1980s. Still I cheered when Jeremy Corbyn got elected and hope he is successful. That said, I think Labour in Scotland is a spent force.
The reawakening of grass roots politics in Scotland as a result of the referendum campaign was in opposition to Labour. Some of that has at least temporarily benefited the SNP but it is bigger than the SNP. I have no illusions in the SNP but I understand why some people do and will continue to work with them towards a common goal.
It is not that Labour opposes Scottish independence but this sense of utter betrayal that undermines any Labour revival in Scotland, even if there are some good folk still members. That is not a sectarian position. We will still work with these people, in our communities, trades unions and elsewhere.
As a member of RISE, I’m sure we will face many challenges in our bid to reconfigure left politics in Scotland. Some people are not ready to come with us yet, some may never. There is a legacy of success and failure behind us and we need to determine what to take inspiration from, what to build on and what should be left quietly on a shelf – not destroyed, but there as a quiet reminder of what we don’t want to repeat.