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Tommy Sheridan MSP taking the parliamentary oath of allegiance in 1999

20 years since the SSP breakthrough: The lessons for today

From the May edition of Socialism Today, the theoretical magazine of the Socialist Party England and Wales

The Scottish Socialist Party began with a strong base in working-class areas and the trade unions. But, over time, it saw its support slide – as it watered down its programme and working-class orientation, making concessions to left-nationalism. As Philip Stott explains, this has many lessons for us today.

Monday, May 6, marks 20 years since the inaugural election to the modern-day Scottish parliament. Among its 129 elected members (MSPs) was Tommy Sheridan, representing the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). Tommy had been a leader of the mass anti-poll tax movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s and was then still a member of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – the international organisation the Socialist Party is affiliated to).

Four years later, the SSP increased its parliamentary representation to six, winning an impressive 128,000 votes across Scotland. However, by 2007 those gains were wiped out following a court case and a major split. No candidate standing under a distinct socialist banner has been elected to the parliament since.

The rise and fall of the SSP is rich in valuable lessons. Especially for how socialist and Marxist organisations navigate the current complex political terrain while resisting the pressures to water down a principled socialist programme. There is therefore much to be learned for the new generation of workers and young people seeking a socialist alternative to the chaos currently engulfing the capitalist establishment internationally.

At its height, as well as six MSPs, the SSP boasted 3,000 members, scores of branches and the support of important trade union organisations. In 2003, at its annual delegate conference, the Labour-affiliated Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) trade union voted to allow its branches to affiliate to the SSP.

The then RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, said: “The union movement would be ‘kicking up hell’ if the Tories had introduced some of Labour’s current policies. Our position at the moment is that we will remain affiliated to the Labour Party until somebody else comes along. That could well be the SSP. If they are going to campaign for stopping Caledonian MacBrayne [ferry services] being sold off, if they’re going to fight for the renationalisation of the railway, I think our members in Scotland will look to support the SSP”.

As retribution, the Blairite-dominated Labour Party expelled the union from the party. Partly in response, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) Scotland No.2 branch, with 4,000 postal workers, also affiliated to the SSP. These examples illustrated the potential for the SSP to develop as a party with significant trade union support. But the mistakes of its leaders, who by 2001 had broken with the CWI and their political past, led to the ruination of this potential.

By 2006, and following the split in the SSP, the RMT disaffiliated, as did the CWU branch. Only with the emergence of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in 2010 – an initiative of the Socialist Party with Bob Crow and other leading trade unionists – did the RMT begin to re-engage in the struggle to build a working-class and socialist political alternative.

Militant roots

For the newer generation of class-conscious workers and socialist-inclined young people in Scotland the SSP is a vague memory. Nevertheless, the key political lessons of the SSP’s collapse and the reasons for it are important for those looking towards socialist ideas today. And, indeed, for all Marxists grappling with the current complications of the temporary lack of mass workers’ struggles and a relatively low level of socialist consciousness.

The overwhelming majority of the SSP’s leadership had been supporters of Militant – today, known as the Socialist Party. Militant emerged as the largest Marxist and Trotskyist organisation in Britain in the 1980s. We led mass struggles, including spearheading the anti-poll tax movement which at its height involved 18 million people refusing to pay the tax.

Militant in Britain had significant influence in the trade unions and the Labour Party. Three of our supporters, Pat Wall, Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, were elected as Labour MPs, living on the average wage of a skilled worker. Militant earned the hatred of the ruling class for our uncompromising stand in defence of the working class. Particularly as a result of our leading role in the Liverpool city council of 1983-87 when we inflicted a savage defeat on Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. What a contrast to today when you can barely find a single Labour councillor, never mind a council, who will refuse to make the cuts.

In Scotland, Militant also built a powerful position in the workplaces, a number of trade unions and the Labour Party, particularly the Young Socialists, Labour’s youth section. Scottish Militant Labour (SML) was set up in 1991 following a lengthy debate in the Militant and the CWI over a proposal from the leadership to establish an open organisation in Scotland. This marked a departure from our many years of work in the Labour Party.

The open turn

By the early 1990s, Labour had largely been transformed from a bourgeois workers’ party – with a pro-capitalist leadership under pressure to carry out reforms from its working-class, trade union base – into an out-and-out party of capitalism. It was losing its working-class membership and the democratic structures of the party had been largely extinguished. The left, specifically Militant supporters, had been expelled from the Labour Party by the right-wing leadership, egged on by the capitalist press. The Labour Party Young Socialists was shut down and was relaunched as a conveyor belt for budding careerists.

Under these conditions, the CWI and Militant leadership in Scotland and Britain recognised that building largely outside of the Labour Party offered the best way to build the forces of Marxism. Comrades in Scotland, in conjunction with the Militant leadership at a British level, produced a document arguing for an ‘open turn’ in Scotland. A major debate took place, including the formation of a minority faction around Ted Grant and Alan Woods, who wanted to stay in the Labour Party. Following the debate and the overwhelming agreement in favour of the open turn, they split from the CWI. The documents relating to this debate can be read at www.marxist.net/openturn

SML made a number of important gains in the early 1990s as a result of our leading role in the anti-poll tax campaign. It was Militant who had spearheaded the mass non-payment strategy and was the driving force in helping to establish the anti-poll tax unions and federations that led and organised the struggle.

Tommy Sheridan was catapulted into the leadership of the mass movement and this helped give SML huge impetuous. Tommy’s jailing in 1992 for defying a court order not to attend a mass demonstration that prevented a warrant sale by sheriff officers backfired spectacularly against the ruling class. From prison, he won 6,200 votes standing for the Pollok seat in Glasgow – coming second and defeating the SNP at the general election. A month later he was elected from his prison cell to Glasgow district council – a result that sent shock waves through the political establishment in Scotland.

SML achieved some stunning election victories and, by the end of 1992, we had four district councillors in Glasgow and two on Strathclyde regional council. Between May 1992 and February 1994, SML had secured an average of 33.3% of the vote in the 17 elections we contested. In the June 1994 European elections, Tommy Sheridan, standing for SML in Glasgow, polled over 12,000 votes, 7.5% of the city-wide vote. This compares very well to the 18,500 votes (7.6%) he polled in 1999 when he was first elected to the Scottish parliament as an SSP candidate.

Class consciousness thrown back

These successes could not be fully sustained, however, especially given the complex and difficult political conjuncture that followed the collapse of the Stalinist states in Russia and eastern Europe in 1989/90. It was a challenging time for socialists and Marxists internationally. Peter Taaffe, a leading member of the CWI, summarised it in his book, Marxism in Today’s World:

“The situation in the 1990s proved to be difficult terrain for the CWI and others who stood on the left, particularly the socialist and Marxist-Trotskyist left. The collapse of Stalinism ushered in an entirely different period to that which had confronted previous generations in the 20th century; it was the most difficult, in a sense, for 50 years. No other Trotskyist ‘International’ understood so quickly and clearly the main features of the situation which flowed from the collapse of the Berlin wall as the CWI. With the Berlin wall collapsed not just Stalinism but also the planned economies of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The collapse of Stalinism did provide world capitalism with the possibility of indicting ‘socialism’ as an ‘historic failure’ – it falsely equated socialism with the Stalinist regimes.

“This, in turn, provided them with the opportunity to conduct a ferocious ideological campaign against the ideas of socialism. At the same time, they argued from a thousand platforms that only the ‘market’ could provide a permanent model for humankind. This was summed up by Francis Fukiyama’s ‘sophisticated’ assertion that ‘history has ended’.By this, he meant that liberal, capitalist democracy could not be improved upon. It was, therefore, the only form of organisation of society which was now possible or desirable”.

The throwing back of socialist consciousness among broad sections of workers and young people was accompanied by a swing to the right and towards a neoliberal capitalist position by the leaders of the Labour Party in Britain – and their counterparts in the ex-social democratic parties internationally.

It was clear to the CWI that the process by which these parties were being transformed into capitalist formations necessitated the building of new mass workers’ parties. However, we also defended the need to continue to build distinct and cohesive revolutionary Marxist organisations at the same time. The pressures to dissolve distinct revolutionary organisations and programme were intense. Increasingly, SML leaders succumbed to these pressures and drew the conclusion that it was no longer possible or even desirable to build a Marxist organisation.

The split in Scotland

In early 1998, Alan McCombes wrote a document agreed by the SML executive committee called Initial Proposals for a New Scottish Socialist Party. This proposed “to wind up Scottish Militant Labour in favour of a broader socialist party”, to prepare for the 1999 Scottish parliamentary elections. More accurately, it was a call to dissolve SML by transferring all the full-timers, offices and equipment to a new Scottish Socialist Party and to wind up the cohesive revolutionary organisation that had been built in Scotland over decades.

The overwhelming majority of the leadership and the national sections of the CWI opposed this. The CWI leadership proposed two alternatives instead. Option one was to relaunch SML as a Marxist SSP affiliated to the CWI. Option two was to support the creation of the SSP as a broad socialist party but to maintain an organised and well-resourced Marxist force within it. After six months of debate and discussion, however, the SML majority voted to go ahead with launching the SSP while maintaining a loosely-organised platform for CWI members in the broader party. (Many of the key documents from the “Scottish debate” can be read at marxist.net/scotland)

In reality, the debate in the ranks of the CWI over the launch of the SSP was about the need to maintain a revolutionary party, policy and programme. The Scottish leadership had drawn the conclusion that this was outdated, outmoded and historically redundant. Their abandonment of the revolutionary party was a direct result of the experience of the 1990s, the throwing back of political consciousness and the certain isolation faced by Marxists at that time.

The leaders of the SSP, in launching the party in the way they did, were already breaking from a consistent socialist position and seeking to liquidate the Marxist forces that had been built under the banner of Militant. Ironically, the success of the SSP in its initial stages had been overwhelmingly based on the political authority and base of support built up by Militant and SML. Alan McCombes and the other SSP leaders, including Tommy Sheridan – by this time an MSP – left the CWI in January 2001. They claimed that, “the [Trotskyist] model they [the CWI] have tried to apply is obsolete, if indeed it was ever a credible project”.

Even before they left, the SSP leaders were proposing new ‘guidelines’ for the SSP which insisted that organised groups in the party should not sell their own magazines or newspapers publicly. The guidelines also said there should be no ‘party within a party’, and “platforms should not enter party discussions with a predetermined line”. These methods, as we pointed out at the time, bore more resemblance to those used by the Labour Party right wing against Militant in the past than to the methods of Marxism.

Political backsliding

In early 2000, a minority of CWI members in Scotland formed a faction to fight for the rebuilding of a Marxist organisation. Following the split, the minority faction became the Scottish section of the CWI – now called Socialist Party Scotland. From the beginning, we found ourselves in opposition to the political backsliding of the SSP leadership who were moving rapidly away from the political ideas they once stood for. This was reflected in a number of key debates over the political programme and direction that the SSP should take.

There was an increased emphasis by the SSP leadership on electoral politics before and also following Tommy Sheridan’s election as an MSP in 1999. This was underpinned by a political adaptation to reformist ideas. For example, Alan McCombes, in his draft of the SSP’s European manifesto for the 2004 elections, omitted any reference to the need for public ownership of big business and the multinational corporations that control the Scottish and European economies.

Nor were there any demands for the renationalisation of those industries privatised in the 1980s and 1990s. The manifesto said that the aim of the SSP was to build a ‘social Europe’ rather than a socialist Europe. McCombes and the SSP leaders opposed amendments from SSP branches where CWI members had major influence, calling for the party to stand for a socialist Europe. Instead, the SSP leadership, much like the reformist left of the Scottish independence movement today, highlighted the examples of Denmark and Norway as models for how an independent Scotland that taxed the rich could operate. Denmark has “some of the most impressive public services in the world”, claimed the manifesto.

This was no more than support for a 1960s-type of Scandinavian social-democratic model for capitalism, with socialism pushed off into the dim and distant future. This was done specifically to appeal to what they saw as ‘current consciousness’ and to gain further electoral positions. The CWI platform in the SSP, in contrast, argued for support “for increased taxation on the rich linked to a thoroughgoing programme for democratic public ownership of big businesses and for a socialist Europe as the only long-term solution to poverty and unemployment”.

Today, the pressures continue on socialists and Marxists to lower our programme by omitting class and socialist demands. In particular, to place less of an emphasis on the role of the working class as the key force to change society and build a socialist future. In the case of the SSP 20 years ago, this was reflected in a turn to left-nationalism that emphasised capitalist independence as a solution for the working class.

Scottish independence

Alan McCombes claimed in his book Downfall, published in 2011, that he and others had worked to gradually push SML from 1995 on towards “a more clear-cut pro-independence stance”, which the CWI leadership only supported through “gritted teeth”. Yet Militant and the CWI have always taken a sensitive and principled position on the democratic right of nations to self-determination, basing our approach on the analysis made by Marxists, including Lenin and Trotsky.

They fought for a policy that advocated the right of nations and minorities to self-determination, up to and including independence. They argued against outstanding revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg who felt this was a concession to nationalism. At the same time, the Bolshevik Party they led stood implacably for the unity of the working class, regardless of nationality or religion. This was summed up in their idea of a voluntary and democratic socialist federation of states.

The decision taken at the SML conference in 1998 – to update our programme on the national question and support an independent socialist Scotland – was backed by the CWI leadership. The change was an attempt to reach those growing sections of workers and young people who looked to independence. We did so by putting the idea of independence in the context of socialism while explaining the need to unite the working class by linking the struggles of Scottish workers to those in England, Wales and Ireland. Even then, while being extremely sympathetic to people who had illusions in nationalism and supported independence, we always sought to link it to the struggle for socialism as the only lasting solution to the nightmare of life under capitalism.

However, after breaking from the CWI, the SSP leaders took the party in a left-nationalist direction. Increasingly this saw them drop the ‘socialist’ and promote the supposed ‘benefits’ of capitalist independence. For instance, SSP MSPs put an amendment to the parliament that argued that “the problem of poverty will never be solved until there is a fundamental redistribution of income and wealth which requires an independent Scotland” (September 2003). We countered that, by omitting any reference to socialism, this could only sow illusions that independence on a capitalist basis would be a solution to the problems facing working-class communities in Scotland.

“The clearest route to independence is the fast, broad highway of the independence convention, involving a united front of the SNP, the SSP, the Greens and other pro-independence forces”, wrote Alan McCombes in 2004. Effectively, he was proposing a political bloc between the SSP and the SNP. This was actually implemented in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum when the SSP joined the Yes Scotland campaign alongside the SNP and the Greens.

Prior to the 2015 general election, SSP leaders like Colin Fox and others called for an electoral pact with the SNP to avoid pro-independence parties standing against each other. Today, Tommy Sheridan openly calls for a vote for the SNP. This is in spite of the role of the SNP in implementing savage cuts budgets in the parliament at Holyrood and in local councils

These and many other examples indicate the fundamental rupture by the SSP leaders from the basic ideas and approach of Marxism. The CWI in Scotland countered this by arguing for support for an independent socialist Scotland, linked to a socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland. We sought to ensure the SSP’s political independence from pro-capitalist forces, including the SNP.

The collapse of the SSP

By the time the November 2004 crisis erupted over tabloid stories about Tommy Sheridan’s private life, the SSP leaders were in headlong retreat from the ideas and principles they once defended. Disarmed politically by their shift to the right, they capitulated in the most abject manner when the Murdoch press came calling for the SSP’s leading figure. They decided that Tommy Sheridan should be sacrificed to ‘protect the party’ and asked him to resign as the convener of the party. In doing so they ensured the destruction of the SSP.

Following his victory in the defamation case against the now defunct News of the World, the SSP split. Tommy Sheridan left to form Solidarity, which the CWI supported in an effort to salvage something positive from the train wreck of the SSP crisis.

We backed Tommy in the battle against the Murdoch empire, as the overwhelming majority of class-conscious workers did. We opposed the actions of the SSP leaders who gave evidence against him in court, twice, leading eventually to Tommy’s conviction for perjury in 2010. As we commented at the time: “It’s a matter of historical record that the prosecution of Tommy Sheridan was only possible with the active and conscious collaboration of the SSP leadership with the police, the legal establishment and the Murdoch press”.

Today, the SSP is a shell of its former self, as expressed by its national secretary when he resigned from the party in 2018: “The SSP feels more than ever like an organisation in terminal decline in both political and practical terms. It is a shadow of the organisation I joined in 2013, let alone what it was at its peak 15 years ago”.

Most of the former leaders of Scottish Militant Labour have retired from active political struggle against capitalism. For a time, the wreckage that resulted from their political and theoretical abandonment of genuine Marxism created a barrier to those looking for socialist ideas in Scotland. They did not begin with such a plan but the cumulative effect of conceding, bit-by-bit, to the relative isolation facing Marxists in the 1990s left them vulnerable to alien class pressures. Lenin pointed out in 1921: “A mistake always begins by being small and growing greater. Differences always begin as trifles. Everyone has at times suffered a tiny wound but, should this tiny wound become infected, a mortal disease would follow”.

We are completely confident in the success of the future socialist revolution. Not least because of the intractable crises facing capitalism on a global scale. But that requires two things: a working class prepared to fight to the end against capitalism, allied to a mass revolutionary party based on the programme of genuine Marxism. By defending the ideas and concepts of the revolutionary party, the CWI strengthened itself politically as a result of the ‘Scottish debate’. Such a scrupulous and principled approach to clarifying and analysing political ideas is as important today, if the struggle to forge a mass Marxist international that can liberate human society from capitalist chaos is to succeed.