Twenty years ago, the Scottish Parliament reconvened after 300 years. That election for me, was an election that showed that radical politics COULD make a difference as the Greens and the new Scottish Socialist Party made, what were at the time, surprising and ground shaking breakthroughs.
One idea, one seed of change germinated and broke through the barren, concreted landscape of the politics of the elite as Labour gave way to Etonian New Labour and liberalism seemed to expand and envelop into the Blair Witch Project and as the Manic Street Preachers sang,
“The liberal left destroyed
Every bit of our youth
Left with the barest of bones
Leaving us all with holes.”
And the SSP grew, flowered, bloomed and shone brightly and then was poisoned by the drop of toxin it had been built around.
Personally I was never impressed by Tommy Sheridan. His left populist firebrand style reminded me too much of the politics that has blighted the North of Ireland, where I had lived for 27 years and when he let us (working class people hoping for a better Scotland) down, I wasn’t *that* surprised. But this isn’t about that tiny footnote of a badly constructed lie. The left in Scotland are over him as we move closer to our independent Socialist Republic, which is much closer than it was back in the heady activity of the early minutes of a new nation.
Coming to Scotland from warring, sectarian, murderous Northern Ireland for me, was a relief from the politics of obfuscation, forked tongues, hatred and demagogues. I had hoped I was coming to a Scotland of real politics, politics that spoke of equality, poverty, demilitarisation and anti nuclear policies. A place, I hoped, where people didn’t have to hide behind history or the pretence of carefully chosen, “reasonable” words and instead, spoke openly, argued, and found common ground in order to change the order of the world. And meeting as a mature student at Stirling University, people who did exactly all of that – debated, listened, argued – passionately about things that mattered, things that could change the world, was like breaking out of prison. And political conversations were not just part of the elitism of academia. I worked in charity shops and in bars and hotels, and politics was spoken about in a way that would have had me lying in a ditch somewhere, broken, in Northern Ireland.
I had voted for Labour in the 1997 General Election knowing that it wasn’t the brand of Labour Party I longed for, and by 1999 I couldn’t find a party I fully agreed with, or felt comfortable with. Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats where, at the time, to the left of Labour on many aspects (hard to believe nowadays!) so my votes in the new Scottish elections went to them, and the new party in town, the Scottish Socialist Party (my choice of the Lib Dems was perhaps lazy, as I was looking after a two year old all day, which didn’t give much time for me to engage fully in politics!).
It’s hard to believe I hadn’t yet voted SNP by that stage, though I had been persuaded that an independent Scotland was an imperative by friends, activists and experience. The SNP were too far to the right for me. I was not a nationalist. I was a socialist. My first vote for independence was on the “list vote” for the exciting new party of the working class, the party that was the equivalent of exciting indie music… the new rock ‘n’ roll… socialism.
The SSP entering the Scottish Parliament was theatre, with Sheridan raising his fist in a socialist salute while being sworn in. But the party when they were installed, made one of the most important and progressive contributions of the first Parliament–the Abolition of Poindings and Warrant Sales Act 2001. These sales hit the poorest in society in the worst possible way… My wife still talks about her childhood friend sitting on the pavement outside their house while bailiffs raided their belongings and evicted the family from their house. The work of the party abolished these dreadful sales and in doing so, attacked the heart of a system that punished people for their poverty.
The following year I decided to investigate the party properly after hearing members Rosie Kane and Richie Venton speaking. I began to realise that despite the press and perhaps the SSP self generated publicity, that the party was much more than the cartoonish Sheridan.
I spoke to members at a stall in Glasgow and then, at a rally on the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, and I again saw Rosie Kane speak (and scattering the ashes of the left wing playwright Freddie Anderson). Her speech was witty, and heartfelt and about real change and how that change would help the whole of our society. Kindness shone out of her.
I met other SSP members that day, people like Donald Anderson and others who went on to influence an interest in radical Scottish history including that of John Maclean, the Rent Strikes and the history of the independence and Anti polaris movements in the sixties. And people who explained this Left Unity project was one that was tackling the awful, idiotic left sectarianism that blighted progressive politics- summed up by Monty Python and the People Front of Judea…
Shortly after that, I went to another meeting, I’m not sure where it was or what it was about, and Richie Venton was introduced. Richie had roughly the same accent as me (he was originally from West of the River Bann, I’m from East of that river in the province of Ulster), and he too spoke with honesty of kindness in politics, not something I was used to hearing from a northern Irish political voice!
I committed to joining, but didn’t join a branch until 2003, after the historical election of six Socialist MSPs to the Parliament that year. Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie, Frances Curran, Colin Fox, Tommy Sheridan and Rosemary Byrne were elected on a wholly socialist manifesto, something during the opening of the New Labour years that seemed impossible as Blair and others fought to suppress the left.
When I saw Rosie being sworn in with her hand raised, and the message, “My Oath is to the People,” written across her palm, I knew this party could change the world. I knew Scotland had entered a new, exciting era.
The changes the SSP forced in Scottish Politics have ensured even nowadays Scotland enjoys free prescriptions, free education and free school meals and policies from those early manifestos are still debated and discussed. Free public transport, an abolition of the council tax and other revolutionary ideas to protect the most vulnerable in society are still being fought for- and really don’t seem out of reach in the way they did Twenty years ago.
The first time I spoke in front of a large event was at an SSP conference, when my wife, me and others wrote a motion on banning smacking children (possibly one of the first party policies written entirely via email by people who hadn’t physically met, but who had met on an SSP online forum). After that conference, the SSP were the first party in the UK to have that as a policy. The new policy hit the pages of the press–the Herald carried it on its front page- that’s how much importance Scottish Socialist Policy was given. We were a party truly concerned with the vulnerable and weakest in society. My wife went on to write a piece of research that proves that smacking young children is detrimental to their health… Which is one of the core documents in the recent legislation now being passed across the devolved UK institutions.
At that podium, my voice shook, and before the vote I was asked to go up again and sum up, which I was too nervous to do… And the wonderful Fiz McGarvey took my placeand did that totally unprepared.
Many working class people found their voices in Scottish political discourse through the SSP in its branches up and down the country, discussing big ideas and themes and engaging with the public at stalls and events, supporting striking fire officers and nursery nurses and the party led the radical uprising during the G8 Summit in Scotland in 2005, and many activists from that period of left unity have gone on to join other parties or push for change in their workplaces or through local and national movements and campaigns. The SSP was not just about listening to working class people, the vulnerable and campaigners -it was about giving us confidence to make societal change, change in our places of work and our communities.
The SSP was one big radical activist University, putting on “Socialism” events annually, and radical education weekly in branch meetings..
The legacy of that version of the Scottish Socialist Party lives on in the SNP and the Greens who both moved to the left in order to attract the left voters and activists who gave their list vote and political activity to the pre-Sheridan Show split SSP. And those voters (and socialist members and representatives) ensure those first manifestos of the SSP live on in councils and in both the Scottish Parliament and Westminster.
We currently don’t have a party like the project we had between 1998-2007, but I feel once Scottish independence is won, a party that holds the broad spectrum of the left will be needed once again. One that allows dissent, disagreement and is a synthesis of ideas from the ranks, rather than a cadre chosen by a small elite.
I’m not a member of any political party nowadays, but that’s the kind of party I would be proud to be part of.
And I am hugely proud to have been part of the Scottish Socialist Party, which was exactly that.
Below is the first page of the old SSP Constitution of 2007.
AIMS & PRINCIPLES
1 Our name is the “Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)”.
2 The SSP stands for the socialist transformation of society. To replace capitalism with an economic system based on democratic ownership and control of the key sectors of the economy. A system based on social need and environmental protection rather than private profit and ecological destruction.
3 The SSP provides political support and solidarity to all those who are involved in fighting back against injustice, whether it be trade unionists, community organisations, tenants groups, anti motorway protesters, anti nuclear protesters, animal rights campaigners, anti racist organisations and other campaigns and protest movements.
4 The SSP opposes and actively campaigns against discrimination in any form on the basis of race, religion, language, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability.
5 The SSP campaigns for an independent socialist Scotland with the aim of establishing a Scottish socialist republic in a broader alliance of democratic socialist states. Recognising that in Scotland sovereignty resides, and ought to reside in the people, the republic will always seek the people’s prior consent to any transfer of powers outwith Scotland.
6 The SSP actively promotes the international solidarity of the working class and oppressed to defeat capitalism and imperialism. While preserving its political and constitutional autonomy the SSP will build the closest possible links with socialists in England and Wales, across Europe and world wide. The SSP stands ultimately for a new socialist world, where poverty, starvation, environmental destruction, exploitation, war and racial hatred are eradicated.
STRUCTURES & PROCEDURES
The SSP is a developing party ready to learn from our members’ experience of campaigns and struggle, as well as from those outwith the party. We envisage that our structures will continue to develop over time in the light of circumstances, experience and full consultation with the membership.