frontline 11

Independence Convention and Socialism

The May elections, the crisis in the SNP and the success of the SSP have all had an undeniable effect on Scottish politics. The SSP has adopted a strategy of appealing for an 'Independence Convention' which would bring together those forces who are pro-independence and provide a forum to debate how we see independence. This proposal has provoked some controversy in the SSP. Duncan Rowan, SSP regional organiser for North-East Scotland, examines the arguments.

Here we go again

Five years after the launch of the Scottish Socialist Party we now have 3000 members, 6 MSP's, a key Trade Union preparing to affiliate to us and core support of around 5% in elections and opinion polls. Establishment politics is in crisis. We have seen millions demonstrate against the Iraq war which most in parliament voted to support. New Labour is racked by growing divisions over its loss of popular support and the same can be said for the Tories and SNP. Voter turnout continues to fall as the "major" parties continue their stampede to the right. For the first time in a generation the potential exists to build a mass party of the working class and the SSP is poised to begin that process. So it's with a sense of despairing déjàvu many of us have watched the current debate over the Executive Committees paper "After May 1st: Which way forward towards independence and socialism?" dissolve into little more than round twenty four of the ongoing internal fight over the National Question. After a debate which has, as ever, produced more heat than light – its instructive to actually look again at the specific proposals that the National Council and E.C. have overwhelmingly voted to support and try to examine some the arguments around the Independence Convention.

A new policy?

"We should support the general aim of establishing an Independence Convention, a united front around the single issue of breaking up the British State and creating an Independent Scotland" The first point to note is that this proposal in no way represents a new policy as some leading comrades in the Socialist Workers Platform - Neil Davidson in his pamphlet "Is Independence a Road to Socialism in Scotland?" and Mike Gonzalez's' "The Debate that will not go away" - would have us believe. Even a cursory glance through our conference documents, manifesto's and the Voice show what our position is and has been. At this years annual conference the party, including SW comrades, overwhelmingly voted to support the Tay Coast Branch motion on independence. Once again it's worth looking at exactly what party policy on independence is, "Conference reaffirms that Scottish Independence is a key strategic objective of the Scottish Socialist Party and should be at the centre of our campaigning work"

This motion did not even represent a substantially new approach to the national question. In all three of our election manifesto's (99, 01, 03) we have committed ourselves to campaigning for referendums on independence and clearly described ourselves as a pro-independence party. In the 2001 Westminster Manifesto, produced as the SWP were in the process of joining the SSP, our position was made crystal clear, "The Scottish Socialist party believes that Scotland is a nation and has the right to control its own economy, its own welfare system and its own defence policy. We stand for a fully independent government in Scotland which has powers over the economy; the welfare state; taxation; employment and company law; overseas trade; interest rates; exchange rates; and defence." No mention of socialism in that section of the manifesto but a clear commitment to independence as a democratic principle, a commitment which was met with not a hint of disagreement from the SW comrades during or after the unity negations.

So the question arises having voted for it at conference, having campaigned for it at elections, why the attempt to present it as something new? Is it because E.C. paper moves beyond just restating existing party policy, to actually trying to turn it into practice? Could it be that whilst our commitment to independence remained just a slogan, just a conference decision, it could be safely ignored, but now that concrete proposals are on the table comrades are unable to hide their real opinions? Or is it the case that the proposals for the Independence Convention are such an irredeemably flawed conception, representing such debased socialist politics that it must now be opposed? It's not only the comrades from the SW who oppose the convention, the CWI, individual members of the RCN, Solidarity and those of no platform have all raised concerns about the policy. Given the limited space in this article and intending no disrespect to the other comrades, I'll focus on the objections from the previously mentioned SW comrades and the CWI platform in their pamphlet, "Scotland and the National Question" (1)

Smash and Grab?

The assumption is made in both sets of criticisms that the Independence Convention is primarily motivated and aimed towards a grab for discontented SNP activists and voters, Apart from a possible excess of cynicism, these readings of the EC paper derive from a misunderstanding of the context in which it was written. It's true that an analysis of the disastrous election result of the SNP forms a large part of the document, but then it was specifically written to address the political situation post May 1st. But the paper also refers to a wider section of the Scottish populace that such a convention would orientate towards, those sections of the radical working class and youth who already define themselves as being both pro- independence and left wing. However whilst the EC document does not really expand on this point, that role is performed by Gregor Gall's in his invaluable paper "Socialism, the "national question" and the Independence Convention in Scotland" (1). Through a thorough examination and analysis of the available information , Gregor identifies an intersection between the long-term growth in the support for independence, the increase in national consciousness and the increased levels of support for independence amongst those who describe themselves as being on the "left". This "wider radical milieu", which comprises those who are working class and on the left, who identify themselves as Scottish and who are pro-independence numbers up to a million. This group cuts across traditional party political lines on independence and comprises some of the most radicalised sections of the working class. This section of Scottish society sees the demand for independence as part and parcel of their desires to create a different, more progressive Scotland. It is not only the SSP that draws much of its support from this section of society, but also the anti-war movement, the anti-capitalist movement and those other campaigns and movements we're involved with. Taken together with the EC paper, Gregors analysis shows the full scope of the appeal of a potential Independence Convention, the sections of Scottish society and the class it looks towards, it's far more than just a simple grab at the membership of the SNP.

Where's the support?

This wider analysis also starts to answer the next set of shared objections to the proposals from the SW comrades and the CWI, where would support for the convention come from? Both seek to utilise the most recent data on levels of support for indepdence to argue that there is little demand or support for a Convention. Firstly it goes without saying that the popularity of any given issue does not determine whether or not socialists support and campaign for it. In each case we need to examine the progressive content of any demand. Both the CWI and SW comrades raise questions about the "progressive" nature of independence, which I'll attempt to address in the next section. But both also argue that since no outward manifestations of any demands for independence exist and that since there has been a relative fall in its support since 97 that any policy based around a convention is futile and ultimately counter productive. However as Gregor has shown there exists at any period a significant section of the population which is pro-independence, left wing and progressive in its attitudes. Whether or not this group forms a majority within society, a party with 3,000 members and on 5% of the vote should surely be making this group the focus of our campaigning. One of the ways to achieve this would be orientating to them via the issue of independence, as well as through our other campaigns. When Neil argues that there is no "movement" for independence, using the anti-war movement as a contrast, he's somewhat missing the point. Why would there be? The anti-war movement had a series of points around which to organise, the Labour Party conference, the actual outbreak of war, votes in Westminster - which supporters of independence have lacked. Its interesting to note that both Neil and the CWI both agree that the last spike in support for independence occurred in 97, at the point when constitutional issues were at the fore due to the devolution referendum. The support is there, what it has not had is a point round which to mobilise and organise. The Independence Convention has the potential to fulfil that role. But, as ever, the same question is always posed at this point – regardless of whether we can do this, should we? Is independence progressive?


Comrades will no doubt be only too familiar with the terrain over which the debate on the "National Question" is fought upon. The endless counterposing of positions; the break up of the British State vs. the break up of the British Working class, democratic advance vs. sowing nationalist illusions, Left nationalist vs. Brit Leftist and at its heart reform vs. revolution. I will leave to one side the stale repetition of positions that have almost been elevated from analysis to the status of theology. The key to approaching the question of independence is that of democracy. Independence would give the people of Scotland at least the possibility to exercise some control over many of the key questions that affect our lives; war, taxation, asylum, employment rights, etc. All these options are currently denied to us, we do not even have the illusion of running the country we live in. Within this context, as a democratic demand, its difficult to see why independence is any more controversial than the abolition of the monarchy, reform of the House of Lords or PR for local government. These are not socialist demands, but we've have always fought for the maximum extension of democracy even under capitalism. Were comrades in the past mistaken to fight for universal suffrage; was the sum of that achievement just to sow illusions in bourgeois democracy? Or was it part of a wider socialist strategy, linking class, economic and democratic demands for maximum effectiveness?

In opposing this democratic advance, comrades constantly raise the spectre that Independence will break the "historic unity of the British Working class". To try and prove this point Mike Gonzalez invents a completely new party policy - that of advocating the creation of separate Scottish Trade Unions. No such policy exists. Do comrades believe that working class unity so fundamentally weak, so unstable, that it can not, does not transcend national boundaries? Why do comrades believe that the democratic advance of achieving independence would cut across class unity? Are they suggesting that its only the continuing existence of the British State that holds working class unity across the nations of the UK together? This position is the result of a false either/or argument, independence or internationalism. Its perfectly possible for the democratic deficit in Scotland to be addressed whilst maintaining working class unity in what would become international trade unions. But, comrades argue that despite our aims, support for independence could lead to the creation of illusions amongst the class in nationalism and the ability of an independent capitalist Scotland to deliver real change. But this is in no way poses a new problem for the SSP, with six MSP's, with standing in elections, we constantly face the danger of building illusions with bourgeois democracy. But nobody ever said that working to a transitional programme was easy, its full of potential dangers and pitfalls. But to understand our position on independence is to see that it not only exists as a democratic demand in of itself, but also as part of a wider strategy to engage with the class and advance the cause of socialism.

But we've got better things to do!

Both the CWI and the SW comrades believe that to support an independence convention and to play a leading role in such an initiative would be a distraction from other, more pressing tasks. They cite the campaigns against PFI, abolishing the council tax, supporting the anti-war movement as the key campaigns, believing that these issues offer the best way to build the party and socialism. But because they look at the issue of independence in isolation, or in the terms of its relative decline since 97, the comrades fail to understand that in the consciousness of many of those we should be trying to orientate towards these issues are understood to be fundamentally interrelated. The democratic demand for independence, opposition to the war, the desire for social change are not discrete positions for that "wider radical milieu", but the basis for a coherent political viewpoint. In launching an Independence Convention we would be opening up another front, creating another point of engagement with that section of the population and class. We would not be dipping the banner of socialism, but extending our fight for socialism into a new arena. Comrades worry how we would combine a lead role in a broad-based convention, and still put across our vision of an independent socialist Scotland. We've just been through a period of mass protest, similarly broad-based, which we took the lead in. Did we dip the banner of socialism during the anti-war movement? No. It wasn't easy to combine the two, but given the experience and lessons of the past two years we know its not impossible and we have a far better idea of how to carry out that dual role. It also provides us with a method of combating any rise in nationalist illusions, from the heart of any movement or campaign for independence. As the EC paper makes crystal clear, this proposal complements our ongoing campaigns and commitment to building a mass party in Scotland. It is neither a substitute for that work, or a short cut to that aim. It does not represent a new priority for the party, but the implementation of already existing policy and its integration into an ongoing strategy.


It's within this context, the wider struggle for socialism and the creation a mass party of the working class in Scotland, that the proposals come into their own. They offer us another avenue of attack against the bourgeois, the staunchest opponents of independence. They enable us to relate even more effectively to the most radicalised section of Scottish society, working class and youth. Now that the NC has overwhelmingly supported these proposals, the challenge we now face is to turn them into reality. The debate we should have had within the party from the start, that hopefully now will emerge, is how we build an Independence Convention that can relate to that radicalised section, that isn't a recreation of the old "top down" Constitutional Convention and how we practically lead it, whilst promoting our vision of an Independent Socialist Scotland within its ranks.


1. The CWI statement can be found at their website here.

2. Gregor Gall's pamphlet "Socialism, the "national question" and the Independence Convention in Scotland" can be found here. Reproduced with the permission of the author.