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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Is there a Scottish road to Socialism?

‘Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism?’ This is the question posed in the third edition of this SLR Press book. The format is the same – a range of contributors from across the left wing spectrum in Scotland attempt to answer this question.

The last edition was in 2013, pre-dating the independence referendum and the General Election. These have been turbulent years in Scottish and UK politics, so a new edition is certainly justified. There are 18 contributors, excluding the Editor, Gregor Gall, who has his own unique analysis. They can be grouped into some broad camps with similar approaches.

We have the far left camp, including those grouped into the latest attempt at partial left unity, RISE, including Cat Boyd, Neil Davidson and Colin Fox. Together, or not, with Tommy Sheridan of Solidarity and Philip Stott of Socialist Party Scotland. Their analysis predictably sees a space caused by Labour’s demise for the far left in Scotland that the Greens cant fill because they have little appeal in working class communities. The fact that their vote rarely secured more than 0.4% doesn’t appear to have dented their optimism. Independence remains the priority, particularly for Tommy, and almost everything else is secondary.

Maggie Chetty and John Foster give different communist perspectives, recognising that they were on different sides of Indyref. Maggie emphasises the opportunities of independence, while John promotes progressive federalism with a strong section on class consciousness and national identity.

From a Labour perspective Neil Findlay/Tommy Kane, Lesley Brennan and Katy Clark point to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the transformational change while exposing the contradictions in SNP policy. It’s a point acknowledged by other contributors, even if they doubt its impact in Scotland. Pauline Bryan topically focuses on the EU. Lyn Henderson places more emphasis on extra parliamentary activity, including the People’s Assembly, to give her some optimism for the future.

Jim Cuthbert sets out his criticisms of the Smith agreement and the difficulty of achieving fundamental social change in the current constitutional settlement. Margaret Cuthbert looks at a range of Scottish Government initiatives, and while making the case for greater economic levers, finds the Scottish Government’s use of current powers unexplainably weak.

Peter McColl argues that the Scottish Green’s have moved from being the environmental conscience of the other parties, to being a radical participatory movement around ideas like a citizens Income, land reform and radical democracy. The dead hand of middle class environmentalism has apparently been lifted to reveal the true radicalism of Green politics.

Chris Stephen’s left SNP perspective, gives us a reasonable analysis of where Labour went wrong and how independence could come about, but notably doesn’t make the case that the SNP is the route to a socialist Scotland. Austerity may help fuel the demand for a second referendum, but that still doesn’t tell us how the SNP can move from being a social democratic (or social liberal as Gregor Gall argues) force, to one that embraces fundamental social change. Leanne Wood from Plaid Cymru gives us a similar structural analysis for Wales, but without an ideological road map.

My own chapter continues where I left off in the second edition. As someone who didn’t take a position in the referendum, I set out my views of both campaigns, but Labour’s in particular. The failure to grasp the strategy suggested by the trade unions was hugely damaging, even if Labour’s problems pre-dated the referendum. While I have been brutally honest (probably too brutal for some comrades!) about Labour’s failings, I focus on where next for Scottish Labour. The changes in Scottish Labour may have happened under the radar, given the impact of Corbynmania, but it is none the less significant.

I make the case for big and bold policies and point to early signs of progress. Since the book was written we have had the boldest of policy shifts with the 1p on income tax policy. This positions Labour very firmly as the anti-austerity party and the SNP in the centre ground where most of its leadership is comfortable. I am always amused to see how closely the SNP follows the New Labour text book. It may be electorally successful, it may even some day deliver independence – but socialist it isn’t. I conclude that Scottish Labour, for all its failings, remains the only realistic prospect for socialism in Scotland. 

The nature of a book like this, with eighteen contributors, doesn't leave the reader with many consistent themes. It may also drive you to despair, given how much energy is spent finding difference, when the actual policy gap between the contributors is not that great. However, it has the advantage of being a bite sized read and does give a fair picture of where the left in Scotland is at today. 

You can purchase a copy of the book at the very reasonable price of £5.99 at Scottish Left Review Press.

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