This article was first published by Uncivil Society under the same title on 14/02/2015. Please click on the link for the original text . Additionally, please follow Uncivil Society on Twitter or find them on Facebook for more articles and discussion.
The left in Scotland has experienced a resurgence in activism since 2011. In England, by comparison, little has changed, and the culture of anti-war and anti-cuts activism remains the dominant site of debate and protest.
The vocal sections of the Scottish Left’s independence supporting contingent expect to see gains for the SNP and the Greens in May, and significant victories for independence supporting parties further to the left in 2016’s Holyrood elections. The behemoth of a continuously swelling Scottish National Party has thus far put pay to any talk of a ‘Yes Alliance’ and it seems at face value that far too many of the foot soldiers of the Yes campaign are now sporting the yellow and black on the campaign trail.
In amongst this there is a narrative trend which sees the British Left as a separate entity, though for brevity it is wise to look only at England and Scotland for now. The English Left, and the Scottish Left – are they really so different – and if so, how has this manifested since September 2014?
The biggest event for both constituents since the Scottish Independence Referendum did not occur in Britain at all but in Greece last month. The radical importance of Syriza’s election remains to be seen, but cannot be dismissed as anything other than momentous. This was an impressive event in part because of the sheer number of young activists from Britain who travelled to Greece to help, or more cynically simply to get their photos taken under the gaze of the Parthenon waving a red flag.
The Greek elections allow an insight into the trajectories of the two activist forces. The English Left has maintained business as usual with the critically pro-Labour Left favouring a pro-European anti-austerity message that supports the undulating views of the recently elected Greek PM Alexis Tsipras.The difference between the two lefts however is one of long term intent, a difference which sees the Scottish Left use the Greek narrative of change to push the idea that ‘This is what Scotland can be’. It seems now that any threat to the status quo in Europe is a boon for the Scottish Left with little analysis to back it up, as Conor Cheyne writes for the Scottish Left Project:
“On the back of the referendum we have a unique chance to build something that could mount a challenge first to the status-quo in Britain and then the status-quo in Europe and the World. We must join Syriza on the world stage and only then can we show true solidarity as only then can we fight with them against the power of the capitalist elite.”
‘Only then can we show true solidarity’ is a line which sets up the ultimate precondition of independence to act in the global fight against capitalism. But to argue that the fight against capitalism must be international-institutional is to move worryingly far from the lives of the majority of working class people in Britain – in particular the English urban working class. It relies on the idea of Scottish sovereignty as the only way to act on the global stage, which is unquestioningly accepted as the ideal place for the Left to be.
Currently this situation provided by the prospect of Scottish independence maintains a sense of freshness for the British Left and appears normal to socialist sympathisers throughout the country who grew fervent in light of the constitutional threat to ideas of Empire and capital that independence purportedly presented. Despite this there is a tendency to conflate the conditions of Scotland with that of countries like Greece, all the while failing to adequately represent the shared struggles with places like England. The Scottish Left thrives on this comparison, and sets out on a global stage with the winds of change in its sails, but this is not true of Scotland and Greece, nor is it true of the Scottish Left and groups like Syriza.
Much like Syriza the Scottish Left is a coalition of greens, socialists, social democrats, and mixed centrists. Unlike Syriza it is not well organised now that independence has taken its ball and gone home, and furthermore it has no real ideological coherence, a charge equally applicable to the English Left. What the Scottish Left does have are groups like the Common Weal and The Scottish Green Party who espouse a palatable minimal class politics that is whispered in hushed tones, seeking to imbibe social democratic ideals via the side door.
Cartoon figures like Robin McAlpine seek to push a notion of a positively divided English and Scottish Left that can come together only once Scotland has nipped out to the shops and never returned. This was evidenced recently when he announced his ambassadorial trip to England to meet George Monbiot and others on the English Left who apparently entirely live and work in London. Robin stated that:
“There are people on the English left who genuinely refer to the ‘Scottish miracle’. For a lot of activists in England the kind of open, non-party campaign in Scotland that threw up lots and lots of active, radical campaigning groups was a revelation.The English left has been so beleaguered that the Scottish precedent has been a real shot in the arm and there has been much more communication between campaign groups on either side of the border than most people will realise”
This idea that there has been a revitalisation in exchange of ideas between the Scottish and English Left is a convenient fantasy. This is something that has existed and flourished since the very birth of the labour movement and has born just as much fruit on the right as on the left, perhaps more.
Then we have more interesting proposals such as the Scottish Left Project, who despite doing little of note since the referendum do seem to be the successors of the relatively influential Radical Independence Campaign which engaged in interesting class focused politics, yet ultimately fell in line behind a constitutionally focused credo that now affects all on the Scottish political stage. Repeated comparisons with Syriza and Podemos fall somewhat flat given those organisations have policies and largely coherent economic plans; something even the traditional heavyweight parties are struggling with in Scotland.
The biggest political change therefore is that whilst England’s left wing may well still be holding onto the life vest of the eternally disappointing Labour Party, their Scottish equivalent is gradually moving laterally towards the SNP. All the while peripheral groups act in the interests of the SNP leadership in Scotland and Labour leadership in England. The result is that we find ourselves with a stifled yet very familiar consensus in both nations.
The Scottish Left now finds itself uniquely placed to chart a new course by openly criticising the policies, processes, and undue pandering to Civic Scotland that directly or indirectly stymie the interests of working people across Britain. This will not be achieved by basking in the momentary jubilance afforded by those parties opposing European austerity, it will be found in effectively utilising the constitutional powers that Scotland has.