Reminded by recent separatists’ events in Catalonia, here is an echo of an earlier manifestation of left-wing nationalism nearer home in Scotland. The notion of progressive nationalism remains a contended issue on the Left with varying reductionist objections, unionist sentiments and dogmatic delusion in appointed leadership amongst the many hues of self-proclaimed socialists. [Text of 1979 article describing the far left in Scotland Here ]
The 79 Group was a faction that sought to persuade the Scottish National Party to take an active left-wing stance, named after its year of formation, 1979. 1979 was a watershed year. It was firstly a year of crisis, not only for the SNP, but for Scottish nationalism and hopes for self-government in Scotland. On 28 March 1979, SNP votes helped bring down a minority Labour government in a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. Under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, the Tories went on to win the General Election. The SNP lost all but two seats in the election. There are those who have a visceral hatred of the Scottish National Party and never forgave the SNP for voting with the Tories. Tribalism in politics is not restricted to the sectarian left.
The Scotland Act 1978 made provision for a referendum on devolution. Although the March 1979 referendum found a majority of those voting in favour (1,230,937 – around 77,000 more than those against). The referendum had a 64 per cent turnout, and therefore with 51.6 per cent voting yes, it only amounted to 32.9 per cent of the registered electorate. It was not enough to secure devolution in 1979 because of the Labour Party’s Scottish MP Robin Cook’s qualification clause in The Scotland Act. The Scottish parliament was eventually formed after another referendum in 1997.[i]
Gordon Wilson, a key figure in the SNP for decades, serving as assistant national secretary from 1963 to 1964, national secretary from 1964 to 1971 and executive vice-chairman between 1972 and 1973, took over the party’s leadership following the failed 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution.
One of the outcomes of the SNP’s decision vote against the government was the rise of a new generation of SNP politicians in the left-wing ’79 group’, a faction within the party. The idea for the 79 Group came from Rosie Cunningham, then assistant research officer for the SNP, and her brother Chris, during the devolution referendum in early 1979. The 79 Group, which included Alex Salmond, Rosie Cunningham and Margo MacDonald, attempted to pull the SNP further to the left. At the SNP national council meeting a few days after the result of the referendum, Margo MacDonald argued that because working-class Scots had supported devolution and middle-class Scots had opposed, the SNP , the 79 Group called on the SNP to target urban working-class voters as a radical alternative to the unionist Labour Party.
It seemed clear that the 79 Group’s aim of transforming the party was going to be a long, difficult one, however, opposition to the Thatcher-led Tories during the 1980s encouraged an equation of Scottish interests with left-wing politics. The 79 Group spent several years unsuccessfully arguing for more radical policies within the SNP. Its three guiding principles were nationalism, socialism and republicanism.
The following sketch draws heavily on the work of David Torrance, biographer of both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, who has chronicled the development of the 79 Group.
A group of eight SNP members who shared this opinion met on 10 March 1979. Before they could meet again, the SNP lost nine of its 11 seats in the 1979 general election; the poor result prompted a period of internal questioning by many SNP members about the direction the party should take. More than 30 attended a second meeting at the Belford Hotel in Edinburgh on 31 May which agreed to set up an “Interim Committee for Political Discussion”. This interim committee later became the 79 Group. … Three spokespeople were appointed, including Margo MacDonald and Alex Salmond. Stephen Maxwell became the group’s principal political theorist. (He authored the policy paper case for leftwing nationalism .)
They began producing campaign material in support of their policies, and standing for internal SNP posts. The established SNP wing, referred to as “traditionalists”, disliked the party appearing ideological. Winifred Ewing eventually formed the ‘Campaign for Nationalism in Scotland’ as a second internal SNP group to oppose the 79 Group. The party was riven by internal conflicts in the first four years of Wilson’s leadership over the emergence of the 79 Group that formulated a left-wing vision for the SNP and the ultranationalist Siol nan Gaidheal, described as “proto-fascist” by the party’s then leader, Gordon Wilson. The broad based membership were not committed to the establishment of a “socialist and republican Scotland”. At the 1979 SNP conference, 79 Group candidates were heavily defeated by those in the SNP who put achieving independence over all other policy considerations.
The 79 Group were reinforced when in 1980, the former Labour MP and founder of the Scottish Labour Party (SLP), Jim Sillars, joined the SNP. The following year at the 1981 SNP conference, five members of the 79 Group were elected to the SNP National executive. It marked an increase in influence and, after a speech by Sillars, conference supported a motion calling for “a real Scottish resistance” including “political strikes and civil disobedience on a mass scale”. The new policy, dubbed “Scottish Resistance”, was unveiled in September 1981 with a logo consisting of figures with raised clenched fists. Sillars, who was elected as the SNP’s Executive Vice-Chairman for Policy, was put in charge of the campaign with the details planned by the Demonstrations Committee. He led the campaign on 16 October 1981 by breaking in, with five other 79 Group members, to the Royal High School in Edinburgh which had been converted to be the Scottish Assembly. The intention had been to symbolically read out a declaration on what the Scottish Assembly would have done to counter unemployment, but the participants were arrested before they had the chance, and a planned later mass demonstration was cancelled. Sillars was later fined for wilful damage by breaking a window to get in.
Radical symbolism, and rhetoric used exaggerated the political conversion to left and radical politics. The activities and political thrust of 79Group were presented as divisive and harmful by the SNP leadership. The 1982 conference of the SNP voted to ditch the civil disobedience campaign “Scottish Resistance” policy.
Gordon Wilson, the leader of the SNP at that time, warned delegates in the conference hall in Ayr, “I’m now convinced that the party will not recover its unity until all organised groups are banned,” he storms. “Those of us who put Scotland and the party above narrow personal or political obsession cannot and will not tolerate behaviour which is divisive and harmful.” [ii]
Wilson threatened to resign unless the conference passed a motion to proscribe all organised political groupings within the party passed by 308 to 188.
In light of the conference resolution, the 79 Group tried to circumvent the resolution and formed an interim committee as a “Scottish Socialist Society” outside of the SNP. The interim committee was nearly the same as the executive of the 79 Group. The National Executive declared that membership of this committee was incompatible with that of the SNP and moved to expel the leading 79 Group members. Alex Salmond, Kenny MacAskill, Stephen Maxwell, and others were expelled after unsuccessful appeals (later altered to suspensions that paved the way for their reinstatement). Roseanna Cunningham was not expelled, on the grounds that she was not a member of the interim committee. Margo MacDonald was not expelled but resigned from the SNP in protest. Other members of the 79 Group in party offices were left alone.
There was a diversity in this internal political opposition that lack a coherence to reshape the SNP. David Torrance noted, “the 79 Group suffered internal divisions of its own. A major point of disagreement was republicanism. Pushed by Rosie Cunningham and Gavin Kennedy, other members, such as Mr Salmond did not consider it a priority. Other social issue were treated similarly: a proposed opposition to a back-bench abortion bill at a 1980 meeting, the minutes record Mr Salmond querying the issue’s political relevance to the 79 Group.[iii] In terms of the party’s ideological outlook, the 79 Group’s impact was hard to detect, at least in rhetorical terms its analysis was evident during the referendum campaign. Over time, Salmond’s “socialism” softened to become “social democracy”. The group’s fervent Republicanism contrasts to Mr Salmond’s later support for the Queen. He pledged to keep the monarchy if there was a Yes vote for Scottish independence.
The SNP are to the left of Labour on many issues. This does not mean they are a socialist party; pragmatism has got the SNP this far. There is the absence in the struggle for independence of a wider ideological framework. The assertion of the rights of small nations can often fall to a romantic notion. The 79 Group did not recast the SNP as a radical left-wing alternative to Labour, it did make the Nationalist movement more politically professional and moderately left-of-centre competitor. Nowadays the SNP talks of “independence within Europe” (a position raised by Stephen Maxwell) and is proposing a social democratic anti-austerity agenda and is standing by its commitment to get rid of trident nuclear missiles. When the effect of the 79 Group is judged in an electoral context, the Group can be seen as central to the party’s mainstream, at least in terms of personalities. The group was eventually banned and its leading members were expelled in 1982. Its members were subsequently readmitted in the late 1980s and Salmond won the leadership contest in 1990. Many attained senior positions in the Scottish Government after 2007; former First Minister Alex Salmond (2007-2014) was a leading member of the group, as was Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice minister. Stewart Stevenson was transport minister and Roise Cunningham – the 79 Group’s original secretary –minister for the environment.
In November 2014, Nicola Sturgeon succeeded Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP after the previous month’s referendum result saw Scotland vote against becoming an independent country by 55.3% to 44.7%. On a turnout of 84.59%, some 1,617,989 [44.7%] voted YES, while reflecting the division within Scottish electorate, a majority 2,001,926 [55.3%] voted No to the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
Pro-independence outside of the SNP
The SNP has seen a number of left and far left groupings that advocated independence and the question asked has been what would it take to ‘bring the pro-independence left together’? Projects to unite the pro-independence left in campaigns and organisations have, so far, flounder on the political contradictions between the consistent groups. Unlike in the broader-based SNP where politics was often subsume to the singular expression of independence sentiment, and any focus on what post-independent Scotland would represent remains a vague ambition, the political nature – and preferably republican and socialist – is contested within the more polemical pro-independence left groups. They are not interested in promoting a nominally ‘independent’ Scotland in which little or nothing has changed but merely exchanges the union jack for the saltire. Many of these groups have tried to work within the SNP, and like the 79 Group were unsuccessful in bringing about a transformation in the SNP that shaded red its tartan nationalist sentiments.
Formed in 1973, the Scottish Republican Socialist Clubs, based initially in Glasgow, predated the 79 Group with a similar mission to introduce socialism to the Scottish National Party (SNP) and grow support for Scottish independence among the left. Inspiration was drawn from the politics of Scottish Marxist, John Maclean and expressed support for James Connolly and Irish republicanism. There was a split the following year that resurrected the name of John Maclean’s Scottish Workers Republican Party. In 1976 most of the members of the SWRP joined former MP Jim Sillars’ Scottish Labour Party active between 1976–1981. When the SLP disband its members scattered; some re-joined the Labour Party, others chose to join the SNP, including both Sillars and Alex Neil, former UK Labour Party’s senior Scottish researcher.
After the expulsion of the 79 Group from the SNP, a substantial section of the SRSC split to form the Socialist Republican Socialist League. The other section of the Republican Clubs were instrumental in the formation of the Scottish Republican Socialist Party in 1982. In 1993 the SRSP created the Scottish Republican Forum.
Towards the end of the last century, the SRSP joined with the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) reforming as a cross-party movement in a small activist group, the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement. There was some dual membership with activists of both SRSM and the SNP. This came to an end in December 2004, when the SNP leadership designated the SRSM as a proscribed organisation.
The SNP national secretary Dr Alasdair Allan explained “Membership of this organisation [SRSM] has in the past not been viewed as inconsistent with membership of the SNP.However, as this organisation is now advertising itself as being affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party, the NEC has deemed the SRSM to be a political party. Consequently, members are advised that membership of the SRSM will no longer be treated as consistent with membership of the SNP.” [iv]
The SRSM itself disengaged from the SSP in October 2006, when the SRSM announced that it was disaffiliating from the Scottish Socialist Party, citing unhappiness with unionist elements within the party and the failure of their third attempt to entrench a commitment to independence in the party constitution.
“…..However, the wider reason for our decision is the Party’s minimal activity on the national question. While there is no doubting the SSP’s unequivocal stance for a Scottish Socialist Republic that has been made clear in manifestoes, there is doubt within the SRSM about how the Party intends to carry it forward. We believe that our cause has been relegated behind a list of issues rather than made central to these issues. I do not mean to open up a long political argument. I merely intend to at least give you the courtesy of a reason. This was a majority decision. A minority of SRSM members, myself included, intend to stay in the Party as individual members. I trust that the SRSM’s status as a cross-party movement will mean that this should not pose a conflict.“[v]
February 1996 saw a coalition of left-wing groups come together in the Scottish Socialist Alliance in which the largest group was Scottish Militant Labour, previously part of a trotskyist group operating inside the UK Labour Party.
The fragmentation of the left was a historical legacy that saw different groups left of the Labour Party, existing with sectarian “divisions within divisions”, all working against each other. The success of Sheridan and SSP policy co-ordinator Alan McCombes, two of the founders of the SSA, was to unite most of the elements of the left under one banner. Scottish Militant Labour (CWI), formed the majority of the SSA and then SSP leadership, had once been firmly in the Left British unionist camp. However, in 1998 they changed their position. In 2001 a split in CWI breakaway, International Socialist Movement constituted the majority of the SSP leadership. Other UK Left forces represented in the SSP were the small Workers Unity Platform (WUP) (CPGB-Weekly Worker, Alliance for Workers Liberty and Revolutionary Democratic Group), and the larger Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who joined the SSP in 2003. (The SWP has since abandoned its unionist position with its continuation of the UK state to maintain working class solidarity and given its support to Scottish self-determination and independence.) Individual members of the Communist Party of Scotland, formed in 1992 when the CPGB disbanded, joined the SSA although there was no formal affiliation between the two organisations. This unity of the left highlights an obvious point: if the SNP were truly a “radical” left-wing force, none of the other parties would have room to exist.
The decision was taken to transform the SSA into a party to contest the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament, when, as the Scottish Socialist Party,Tommy Sheridan, then convener of the party, was elected in Glasgow. The period following that election saw sustained growth for the SSP, where it doubled in size in twelve months, and the RMT trade union affiliated to the party. In 2003, the SSP was buoyed by the election of five additional MSPs across Scotland. It lost all MSPs in the 2007 elections.
That the differences between the component organisations were retained with the SSP was clear following the forced departure of Sheridan, after a trial about his personal life where fellow executive members testified for the crown prosecution; group warfare spilled out into the public domain. The SSP began to unravel in the face of the media circus around the trial. Sheridan was associated with, for a short time, a new organisation, Solidarity that launched itself in 2006. One contested analysis of the debacle that followed was provided by the participant Republican Communist Network in its 2011 analysis, Beyond The SSP and SOLIDARITY – ‘Forgive and forget’ or ‘Listen, Learn and then move on’? [vi]
Founding members of the Scottish Socialist Party in 1998 , the far left Republican Communist Network, associated with Allan Armstrong who writes extensively on the subject of republican communism, produced a journal called Emancipation and Liberation. The Republican Communist Network (RCN), which is in the socialist republican and ‘internationalism from below’ traditions of James Connolly and John Maclean, were first constituted as a platform in the newly founded Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) in 1996.
It formally disaffiliated from the Scottish Socialist Party in 2012 explaining that in its judgement the SSP no longer united the majority of the Left in Scotland, taking the opportunity to work with majority of socialists, who by then were outside SSP (and Solidarity) ranks and that a new organisation would be needed to bring about such unity in the future. In that spirit RCN was an active participant in the non-party-political campaigning organisation, Radical Independence Campaign affiliating at its first conference in Glasgow in November 2012. Its slogan was “Another Scotland is Possible.” It was active on issues of social justice, sustainability, democracy, equality and peace, and welcomed activists from all parties and none. RCN remained a small but consistent voice for left wing republican nationalism in the pro-independence movement. However in May 2016 RCN declared that it was no longer an interventionist political organisation, but would continue as a forum to encourage political debate amongst the Left.
Outside of the SNP, the pro-independence radical trend has continue to create new vehicles and movements, realigned activists into new (albeit temporary) relations. It was new small but youthful organisation – the International Socialist Group (ISG) (a breakaway from the SWP) – to take the initiative which brought the majority of the Left in Scotland together in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) launched on November 2012.
RCN observed that “RIC is a coalition that includes revolutionaries and non-socialist reformers. This is as how it should be in any genuine united front formed in a non-revolutionary situation. The non-socialists in RIC, e.g. from the SNP or the Greens, are openly organised independently outside RIC, as well as having individual members within RIC to put across their views. The RCN, SSP and SWP are affiliated to RIC, whilst Common Weal, which promotes Nordic-style social democratic politics, is also affiliated.”
Amongst the most recently RISE (representative of its values: Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism) have asserted a more ostentatiously left-wing agenda in favour of independence and in which Scotland’s lively arts scene plays an important part. Born from the Independence referendum, launched in August 2015, it again brings together an alliance of socialists, campaigners, trade unionists, community activists, cultural figures and academics. It presents itself as “Scotland’s Left Alliance”.
In October 2017, RISE issued an optimistic statement “unequivocal in its support for the independent republic of Catalonia”.
“RISE believes the international community must now recognise Catalonia as a sovereign and independent state. In particular, we call on the Scottish Government, the UK Government and the European Union to recognise Catalonia’s new independent state status based on the right of nations to self-determination.
“This vote was the only possible democratic response of the Catalan Parliament to the violent repression of the Spanish state of the 1 October referendum and its attempt to impose direct rule through article 155.
“All attempts by the Spanish state to destroy the independent republic of Catalonia must be resisted internationally. RISE will be participating in protests and other forms of solidarity to show that supporters of democracy across Europe and the world stand with, and will defend, the Catalan republic.”[vii]
In the 2014 Referendum debate the overwhelming majority of the Left in Scotland opted to give critical support to the ‘Yes’ campaign. The SSP was permitted (along with the Green Party) to join the official SNP front – ‘Yes Scotland’ but producing their own arguments in THE CASE FOR AN INDEPENDENT SOCIALIST SCOTLAND.
Sheridan, shunned by the SNP leadership, launch his own strongly Scottish nationalist ‘Hope over Fear’ road show. The small minority of the Left, who were in the ‘No’ campaign in Scotland, consisted of the Red Paper Collective (an alliance of Labour Lefts and the Communist Party of Britain), the Left populist, George Galloway, and the Glasgow South branch of the Left Unity Party. Both the SSP and the breakaway Solidarity led by its Tommy Sheridan opted to join the ‘Yes’ campaign.
When Scotland has voted against becoming an independent country by 55% to 45% it did not lay the question to rest. The murmur of another referendum remains as the SNP argues that it is strongly committed to giving Scotland a choice at the end of the Brexit process. In a speech given by Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House on Scotland’s future in March 2017, she laid out a near future where the Scottish Government would not introduce legislation for an independence referendum immediately, suggesting that at the end of Brexit negotiations the Scottish Government would set out its judgment on the best way forward – and on the precise timescale of the people of Scotland having a choice on their future.[viii]
[i] On its return to power in 1997, Labour set out its plans for a Scottish Parliament and a referendum in September that year. 1,775,045 (74.3 per cent) voted in favour of a Scottish Parliament, with 614,400 (25.7 per cent) against; and 1,512,889 (63.5 per cent) supported giving the Parliament tax-varying powers, with 870,263 (36.5 per cent) against. The Scottish Parliament was established in 1999. It was a dozen years before the SNP could break labour’s hold and in the 2011 elections the SNP won a resounding victory.
[ii] David Torrance , SNP fall-out that saw Salmond expelled but put Party on new path .The Scotsman March 18 2009
[iii] David Torrance , SNP fall-out that saw Salmond expelled but put party on new path .The Scotsman March 18 2009
[v] Letter to the SSP [National Secretary Pam Currie] from the SRSM [Gerry Cairns Convenor SRSM] October 29, 2006
Photo of Edinburgh RIC banner – Patricia Kirk and John Lanigan
- Torrance,‘The journey from the 79 Group to the modern SNP’, in G. Hassan (ed.), The modern SNP: from protest to reaction (Edinburgh, 2009), pp. 162-7.
- Torrance, The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum (London, 2013)
- Maxwell, Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked issues (Edinburgh,2013)
- Geoghegan, The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland will never be the same again (Edinburgh 2015)
- Macwhirter, Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won A Referendum but Lost Scotland (Cargo Publishing 2014)
- Pittock, The Road to Independence? Scotland Since the Sixties (London 2008)
- Macdonell, Uncharted Territory: the story of Scottish Devolution 1999-2009 (London 2009)
- Scott & I.Macleay,Britain’s Secret War: Tartan Terrorism and the Anglo-American State (Edinburgh, 1990)