The Left in Scotland: Finding the Future

Only in future years will historians be able to look back on the events associated with the 2008 crash and reflect on the degree to which capitalism faced a fundamental crisis. In the here and now it feels more measured to talk about a crisis within capitalism rather that a crisis of capitalism.  But events are still unfolding and the desire to return to business as usual and continue with vaulting capital accumulation makes much uncertain.  Part of this continued instability is caused by the belief that unbridled free market economics should take precedence over the political.  Profit is seen as much more important than the ‘little people’.  Those that keep the City of London and the other centre of global finance going have Fukuyama’s ‘dictum’ firmly lodged in the back of their minds.

The question is; is their certainty assured? Is history over? Or does the Left have a future, particularly at this time when capitalism’s contradictions are causing so much concern. Twenty first century neoliberal capitalism may yet hurtle us toward something similar to the 1930’s but if this happens there is no guarantee that it will be the Left that picks up the pieces. The ‘riots’ seen in England’s cities earlier this year, need to be considered in this regard.  This article attempts to take this into account as it looks at the health and prospects for the Left in Scotland.   In doing this British, European and global politics cannot be ignored but as requested the focus will primarily be on Scotland.  The article will also attempt to identify some causes for measured optimism and tentatively suggest potential opportunities for resistance and change.  But before that there is a need to briefly discuss the changing anatomy of the Scottish Left today.

Finding the Left

Simply listing the many different organisations of the ‘self proclaimed’ Left, their superficial strengths and weaknesses is an exercise in futility.  This is because part of the reason for the success of the “neoliberal revolution” over the last thirty years has been its ability to locate itself within the forward current of mainstream British culture (Hall, 2011).  Scotland has not been immune to this.  Indeed in spite of some countervailing forces, it has been exposed and contributed to, an existence dominated by individualism and consumerism.   By contrast over the same period of time the Left has largely stood outside this mainstream.  Although occasionally it has acted as an opposition (the poll tax/anti-war) and more rarely provided the beginnings of alternatives.

One reason for this imbalance has been the slowness of many on the Left to see the importance building a living (counter) culture that can generate ideas, participation and meaningful action.  The other major reason for not adequately engaging in this ‘community building’ is well known. Too many of us saw our own party, organisation or faction as holding all answers. Thinking that all we needed to do was build our organisations, hold out for the right conditions and the rest would be history.  It wasn’t.

Added to this, again primarily at UK level, but with a deadening impact on Scotland we endured the advent of New Labour.  From 1997 onwards this destroyed any prospect of Labour, ‘the mass party of the working class’, being a vehicle for Left advance. Something that some had, at least in part, emphasised in contrast to the community building approach suggested above.  This was done by Blair’s all too quick embrace of neo-liberalism globalisation, a scorched earth approach to ‘old-times’ hinterlands, and engagement in imperialist war.  Anything that housed the culture of old Labour was abandoned as New Labour sought to be the dominant ‘legitimate’ part of the “political class” (Oborne, 2007). All those that had once pinned their hopes on Labour being a bridge to power were left on the margins.  The fact that these political changes took place in parallel to fundamental changes in the nature of work only served to increase the impact of the hammer blow.

Very briefly the democratic changes associated with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament got us, least in part, beyond the above. The importance of the Left’s relationship to these radical democratic moments and its involvement in the YES YES campaign for the Scottish Parliament (19997), alongside others, requires to be studied again.  The politics of the alternative, muted by the contemporary conditions were briefly a significant part of the mainstream during what was a dynamic political period.

I will return again to Labour, but I want to argue that those looking for a future of the Left in Scotland should start from somewhere else.  Some will suggest that the Scottish National Party (SNP) are acting now acting in a more social democratic fashion than Labour did when in government in Edinburgh with the Liberal Democrats. But the May 2011 election of a majority SNP election at Holyrood and its desire to be business friendly illustrates its apparent limitations.  Whilst it can be argued that the SNP are not a ‘natural’ home for the Left and, as a party not an automatic vehicle of socialist progress; as the Scottish Government it should not be ignored.  And as a significant part of the referendum campaign it will be of great importance.

Others have looked to the Greens. In Scotland the party has a different demographic make-up, internal culture and politics to its sister party in England and Wales. At this year’s conference in Aberdeen however Patrick Harvie identified a vacuum.  In response social issues were moved up the agenda and independence is seen as being about more than nationalism.  The Greens’ attachment to localism especially where it includes alternatives to the market has something to offer those on the Left that want to practically oppose big business.  And individuals from within the Green Party can add to actions and a culture that begins to build a Left that engages with the future. They are well placed to ask how the referendum out-come will impact on where people live their lives.  Particularly if they can, work with others to build connections in working class communities.

Those organisations and individuals that have survived or are struggling to survive Sheridan the fall-out need to consider where they go next. At its height the ‘united’ Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) added something to Scottish politics and culture.  This took its reach beyond the Left and contributed to the many ‘second vote socialists’.  Discussion about the need or otherwise for a charismatic leader may continue, but it is the struggle, space and ideas that were created in addition to this phenomena that now need to be re-focussed upon.  Arguably the activity that took place in common with others, as distinct from what happened in the party, is what is important.

For others being part of a London based organisations that hold on to ‘democratic centralism’ will provide its own challenges.  Some here will look to the electoral advance of the Left in the Irish Republic.  It is important not to assume that lessons can be mechanically imported.  But this does point to the possibilities of consistent and determined locally based campaigning within specific electoral conditions.

There is more to politics than parties, but …

Beyond the parties the role of the unions and their memberships remains vital to the Left’s future. To varying degrees the major unions (Unite, Unison and the GMB) remain wedded to the Labour Party and ‘the union’ that holds the UK together.  Recent events however have seen the STUC increase the space for progressive estrangement.  In and around the ‘There is a Better Way campaign’ there is the possibility for opening up space that relates to a more specifically Scottish, but also potentially Left agenda.  In and around the major unions, and other STUC affiliates, ideas about alternative economic strategies are being revived and created anew.

Added to this in spite of the ankle deep Glasgow rain the October 1st demonstration had an atmosphere of marching for something different as well opposing the cuts. Echoes of this could be detected at Hetherington and at in some of the ‘occupy’ activities.  All this suggests a Left culture that is note one of “banking education” where people are told what to think (Freire, 1970).  Rather we might be glimpsing something both renewed and new.
This provides the potential for alliances that create alternative pictures of how we organise our country.  Some will feel they have been here before.  But what is different is the relationship between trades unionists and the Labour Party has never been exposed to the dynamics of an ‘independence’ referendum.   This makes it important for new organisations like the Jimmy Reid Foundation to articulate their ideas in the language of the future.  In addition organisations and individuals that at present do not see themselves as anyway as part of the Left in Scotland, for example the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum or Engender Scotland need to be engaged in discussions about reality beyond the neo-liberal project. Academics and educational institutions also need to be challenged to contribute here.

Moreover there is no guarantee the future governments of Scotland (devolved or independent) will automatically move away from prioritising the interests of capital.  Therefore a re-emerging Left needs to support Keynesian demands for public spending in the here in now. Like John Swinney’s recent demand for increased public spending on construction.  But also we need to be part of the anti-cuts campaigns and industrial action that questions the basis of continued societal inequality.  And further it needs to build a movement that can challenge in; workplaces, communities, the media, local government and culturally.  Unquestionably this is easier said than done.  How we respond to the events of November 30th will be central to this.

Reclaiming Scottish Politics

Some see the future of the Left in Scotland inexorably tied-up with independence.  Others retain what feels like an increasingly nostalgic attachment to the ‘unity of the British working class’.  Whilst this latter position has merit it seems like an insufficient reason for defending the ‘integrity’ of the British state.  There are of course other positions that lie between and beyond these.  However the conditions created by the referendum campaign and its outcome will shape the role that the Left can play in Scotland over the coming years.  A significant factor in determining these conditions will be the position taken by the Labour Party.

At the time of writing it looks like Labour may move on from a bland defence of the union; thus avoiding a too close association with the Tories and Liberals.  Their preferred option appears to be a ‘home-rule’ alliance with the unions and parts of civic Scotland.  Whilst this could be seen as a step forward there is the question of whether Labour will win others to enthusiastically join them.

For the Left a priority must be to push for both the YES and NO campaigns to meaningfully discuss how their view of Scotland’s future will be different for working class communities and people across the country.  Moving the debate on from the needs and views of business will be no easy task.  However this is the democratic space we need to open up to discuss; housing, health, employment, education, trident, inequality and monarchy.  And discussion cannot be divorced from campaigning on these issues.

Campaigning beyond a simple yes or no will provide the scaffolding on which to build a renewed Left.   A Left that includes a range of organisations but that also includes members of Labour, the SNP and the Greens.

There is no shortage of plans, programmes and strategies to replace marketised models of social organisation. However what is needed is sufficient organisational agency, located in Scotland’s cultural reality.  To do this the Left needs to reclaim its place in Scottish politics.  In other words we need a plural network of Left responses that work together to convince people that they are we are part of their lives.  At this point of time the future of the Left is as much about how we get there as where we are going.


  • Freire, Paulo (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Books
  • Hall, Stuart (2011) ‘The Neoliberal Revolution’ in Soundings issue 48, Lawrence and Wishart
  • Oborne, Peter (2007) Triumph of the Political Class, Simon and Schuster

This article first appeared in Frontline.

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