The RISE of the Scottish left

September 15, 2015

During the run-up to Scotland's 2014 referendum on whether to secede from United Kingdom, the Scottish left formed the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) to campaign for a "yes" vote on a radical left basis. While the independence referendum lost by a narrow margin, the RIC tapped into a deep social radicalization to the left of the dominant party in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP)--galvanizing workers, youth and social movement activists on an anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal and anti-oppression platform inside the broader struggle.

Afterward, many of the socialist organizations inside the RIC began discussions about launching a new socialist alliance in Scotland. They came together on August 29 for the first conference of a new formation to be called RISE, which stands for four founding principles: Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism.

Neil Davidson is a member of revolutionary socialism in the 21st century (rs21)/International Socialists Scotland (ISS) and the author of numerous books, including most recently We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions. After the RISE conference, Davidson talked to Ashley Smith about the implications of the new formation. His interview builds on the analysis Davidson provided to in "Lessons from Scotland's Independence Battle" and his New Left Review article "A Scottish Watershed."

WHAT'S YOUR assessment of the conference to launch RISE?

IT WAS a great success. Between 600 to 700 people attended, making it probably the biggest launch conference the Scottish left has ever had and maybe the largest the British left has ever had. It wasn't intended to be a policy-setting day, but one where we had discussion, workshops, speeches from international observers, and some "how to organize" sessions. I think a conference of this size, with such a wide range of people, both young and old, was a successful start for the new formation.

Around 200 people have already joined RISE, and we're aiming for membership of a thousand before our policy conference in late November. For the moment, RISE is an alliance, rather than a new party, since it includes the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which still exists as an independent organization.

My personal view is that RISE should develop in the direction of a party, but these are debates that need to be had once we've established ourselves: our first task is to mount a credible left electoral intervention in the Scottish parliamentary elections next May. Any subsequent development will only be made on the basis of collective agreement by all our constituent parts.

The founding conference of Scotland's Left Alliance RISE
The founding conference of Scotland's Left Alliance RISE (RISE)

HOW DID RISE develop?

IT REALLY emerged during the struggle for a "yes" vote in the independence referendum. That movement's left wing, embodied in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), united most of Scotland's radical left, including the Greens, the left of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the far left in a fairly unprecedented way.

RIC was and continues to be a united front-type of operation involving people from different parties and none, with very different positions on various questions, but agreement on a radical, non-nationalist case for Scottish independence.

In the process, it became obvious to some of us that we needed to establish a vehicle bringing the specifically socialist elements together. So eight months ago, comrades who had formerly been in the International Socialist Group (a formation that had split from the British SWP in 2011), rs21/ISS, and some other people in RIC started discussions about uniting the socialist left in Scotland in what was then called the Scottish Left Project.

We all understood that it was very important to get the SSP on board. That took a bit out of time, but about two months ago, the SSP did in fact join us, and since then played a pivotal role in getting RISE off the ground.

Not all socialist groups have been invited to join RISE. Maximum unity is important, but agreement about policy is not the only issue; there has to be a degree of trust, and that is lacking for some sections of the left.

Most obviously, Tommy Sheridan once played an important leading role in Scottish left politics, but more recently, he has allowed his own ego and the defense of his self-image to take precedence over the needs of the movement. He intends to stand in the Scottish elections in May 2016 on the Solidarity ticket, which is unfortunate because it could split the left vote.

The British SWP and the Socialist Party are still outside RISE. Their members are welcome to join as individuals, but not as platforms or "parties-within-parties." The reason for this is quite simple: On the basis of past experience, they will treat the new alliance primarily as an occasion to sell papers, recruit to their own organizations and then abandon the project when instructed to by their Central Committees in London.

These exceptions aside, RISE has grouped together most of the socialist organizations in Scotland. We did so not out of some generic project of left regroupment, but because we underwent the experience of an actual social movement, without which regroupment would have had no basis.

WHAT ARE the core principles of RISE?

ITS NAME embodies them--Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism. Those are the fundamental elements of the platform.

We included Respect to address not only principles of anti-racism, transgender rights and other commitments to fighting oppression, but also the way we behave internally toward each other. We want to leave behind some of the less healthy aspects of some groups on the far left--tendencies toward bullying, shouting and generally behaving in ways that make it unattractive for people to join.

Obviously, Independence is part of our platform as well. It is not something that we did for the referendum and then dropped. It has become an integral part of the program of the Scottish radical left. But our conception of independence is not nationalist but anti-imperialist: we want to weaken Britain's ability to act as a military and diplomatic prop for American imperialism.

We should be clear, though: British imperialism isn't the only reason for supporting Scottish independence--otherwise we would be retrospectively arguing that revolutionaries should have supported it back in 1921 or 1792, and I certainly don't agree with this. In my view, resistance to neoliberal devolution of the austerity regime is equally important.

We included Socialism in our name because it was essential that we be explicit that we are not just a radical or even just a broad left alliance. We want to put forward a democratic conception of socialism as the only alternative to capitalism.

Finally, we thought it essential to include Environmentalism as a crucial issue for socialists. We wanted to stress that it is not a separate question from the fight against capitalism that only Greens can deal with. Instead, it's an essential element of socialism, especially in the context of capitalism's threat to the habitability of the planet through climate change.

Of course, we will want to ally with the Greens on certain issues, but we do not want to concede to them that environmentalism is their property. The issue of the environment is everybody's, and we want to address it from a socialist vantage point.

WHAT PLANS does RISE have over the next year?

AS I'VE said, we want to stand candidates in the Scottish elections in May 2016 under the list section, in which you get seats allocated depending on the size of the vote: These will be crucial for the further development of the independence movement and the left.

But we are not just an electoral alliance. At the conference, many emphasized that our slogan, borrowed from Podemos, must be "one foot in the parliament a hundred feet in the street." We want to be involved in activist campaigns and union struggles.

We are setting up local groups across Scotland, which we are going to call "circles," rather than branches, in order to make them more attractive to people who have been put off by previous left formations and have simply never been involved in politics before.

We are also going to set up meetings in the circles in a different way than usual. For example, we're not going to have someone speak for 40 minutes and then open it up to discussion. Instead, we want to open the initial discussions around the principles that have brought RISE together. We want to emphasize maximum participation in the discussion. We don't want a top table of speakers dominating the whole thing.

All of this organizing will culminate in the formal establishment of the party at our first conference in November. That will be a democratic event, which, unlike the launch, will be attended solely by members in order to make decisions about policy, elect people to accountable--and recallable--positions, and discuss party structures.

WHAT KINDS of things will RISE do to maintain the balance between electoral work and activist campaigns, including work in the unions?

WE WANT to maintain our relationship with RIC. Many of our members are in RIC, and we see it and RISE as being complimentary formations. RIC is focused on independence. Obviously, it has policy on a number of things it wants to see happen after independence, but that is its key focus.

RISE has that focus as well. But we have a broader set of policies and a specifically socialist approach to the question of independence. We are very explicit that we are not a nationalist party. We seek independence as a strategy for advancing the cause of socialism and not because we are nationalists.

So we want to relate to the independence movement and other movements such as the environmental movement and bring a socialist perspective and strategy to them. We hope to win people to RISE through this work as well as the election.

Now this approach has raised some arguments inside RIC among people who are slightly put out by the emergence of RISE. They believe movements should be autonomous and not connected or related to political parties. We are obviously going to have a debate about this with such comrades while continuing to work alongside them. We cannot simply abandon electoral politics to our capitalist enemies and to reformist forces.

In the conference we tried to begin the process of relating our electoral work with social movements and trade unions. We had representatives from different sections of the movement speak from the platform. They are not members of RISE yet at but spoke as representatives of their movements, including Black Lives Matter activists from the U.S.

We also want to make connections with the new left parties in the rest of Europe and beyond. We had comrades speak from Germany, Poland, Quebec, as well as Greece. So we had a very impressive platform showing that international solidarity with parties and movements outside Scotland and the UK.

WHAT DO you think the prospects are for RISE?

WELL, I don't think we will find ourselves in power next May! But our initial hope is to get a couple of seats and establish ourselves on the political map.

The highest point for the left in Scotland electorally was in 2003, when there were six SSP, seven Greens and several independent candidates in the Scottish parliament. This disintegrated partially because of the crisis that the SSP suffered around Tommy Sheridan, as well as the emerging dominance of the SNP.

But the achievement back in 2003 sets a precedent for us. We need to get back to that kind of situation, then take it further. We hope that with a couple of members of Scottish Parliament to begin to form the basis of a new left bloc in parliament. To make this happen, we will have to have some discussions with the Greens. The objective is to try to form a left opposition to the SNP in parliament.

The Scottish Labour Party has lost most of its credibility because of its British nationalist opposition to Scottish independence, which led it to ally with the Tories. It has already lost all but one Scottish seat in the British General Election and looks likely to lose all its first-past-the-post seats in the Scottish parliamentary election, which means Labour will be contesting with us and the Greens for the list seats.

The goal is to put down a mark for explicitly socialist politics and get out our voice in the parliament and local councils in Scotland. We want to put socialism on the agenda and move all parliamentary and broader political discussion to the left. The SNP has done this to an extent, but they haven't really done much in terms of actual policy. Much of their leftism is rhetorical.

Our goal is to push the dynamic further to the left and enact policies to advance our agenda. We have a big opportunity to do this. The whole mood in Scotland has already moved to the left. Something like 15 percent of the people in Scotland identify themselves as "far left." That is very, very high. We have a big opportunity to appeal to that fairly large radical minority in Scottish society and bring them into RISE.

WHAT IMPACT has Jeremy Corbyn's insurgent campaign for the Labour Party leadership had in Scotland?

CORBYN'S CANDIDACY has come as a shock to everybody. In a way, it is the English equivalent of our independence referendum, which mobilized masses of people and radicalized them. The Corbyn campaign initiated a similar dynamic inside the Labour Party leadership election.

We were all asking: What would the comparable issue to Scottish independence be in England? What would spur the discontented majority into action? Would it be housing? Or defense of the National Health Service?

No one would have predicted that a campaign for the leadership of the British Labour Party would have been the pivotal issue. But Corbyn's campaign has pulled all these young people to rallies and brought former members back to be involved in it, on the basis of opposition to austerity and imperialism.

In Scotland, Corbyn's impact has been very different. He did speak to large crowds. In Glasgow, for example, he drew 900 people, but they were older in general, very different than the young audiences he's found in England. The youth here in Scotland aren't going back to Corbyn's Labour Party, but have already joined the SNP, the SSP, the Greens and now RISE.

Why? Because the Labour Party is far more right wing in Scotland than in, say, inner London. For all these reasons, I don't think there is going to be a revived Labour Party in Scotland. The radicalization here has found channels outside the Labour Party. But Corbyn's campaign will give a boost to some on the left of Scottish Labour, and we will have to find a way to work with them.

That said, we should be clear that Corbyn has a pretty bad position on Scottish independence. And on the basis of what he said in his meetings here, he is also unclear as to what issues have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. He is certainly not in favor of a second referendum.

So on specifically Scottish issues, it will be difficult. On the issue of austerity, however, clearly, there is common ground. Everyone on the Scottish left, including the SNP, has said that of course we will work with a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

NOW THAT you are in the process of setting up a new left alliance, what lessons have you drawn from the experience of other similar formations in Europe and elsewhere? Most importantly, what conclusions have you drawn from SYRIZA?

WE HAVE all been following these organizations closely as they can teach us what works and what doesn't. We had many representatives from them speaking at our conference, including a very moving speech from a SYRIZA member in Scotland who was obviously very distressed about what has happened in Greece.

So we are very conscious about the need to learn from their experience. RISE has not drawn its own conclusions about the lessons and what they mean for us yet--we will make a start at the November conference.

At this point then, I can only speak personally, and of rs21's viewpoint. We think you have to have a much more coherent set of policies that the party has agreed to in advance of winning office. The party and its representatives have to be clear on what they are accountable to do if elected, and the party must be able to discipline its elected officials if they do not.

SYRIZA had neither of these mechanisms in place. They had only one strategy, which was to try to reason with the Troika--which is, in fact, beyond reason, wherever this contravenes the neoliberal order. So they had nothing left, no plan B. And they had no ability to control Tsipras, his government or its decisions.

So one lesson is that if a party is going to stand for election, you have to have clear agreement about what your program is going to be. You have to be able to do something that will improve people's lives and have a plan to get it through in face of the opposition that you will face from the EU, the local state apparatus and so on.

We are not going to be in government any time soon. But we may eventually find ourselves there in a possible alliance with the Greens or the left of the SNP. That means we have to be very coherent, with a set of positions that everyone has signed up to, even in an alliance. And the second lesson is that we must have mechanisms to hold elected officials accountable to the party, its program and its democratic procedures for making and changing strategy.

We have to try to learn a lot from what happened in Greece. Obviously, we are not in the kind of desperate situation that it is in, but it does pose a lot of questions, including membership of the EU. Any moderate set of demands like renationalizing the railways or nationalizing the oil industry will fall afoul with the EU rules on state expenditure. That kind of stuff will have to be worked into the policy discussions we have to have.

The point of this is that we are very conscious of this. Nobody is ignoring what has happened in the rest of Europe.

WHAT IS the role of revolutionaries in RISE and similar broader left parties?

FOR ME and other comrades in rs21, we have to form a revolutionary center or core to influence people within RISE. That would mean all Marxists and their organizations inside RISE have to organize with one voice to make systematic arguments about the state, reform and revolution, and so on.

Obviously, rs21/ISS members want to win influence for our ideas, but our role is not primarily to push our little group, but to get together with other Marxists and form a core to make revolutionary arguments about policy and educate people in the tradition in a systematic way. We should not see this as forming a party within a party, but as a core of Marxists who have some experience in struggle, in trade unions and so on, and who are trusted by the broader membership.

In particular, we have to distinguish between what is currently still relevant and what is of historical interest in our traditions. Capitalism still needs to be overthrown, but is ludicrous to pretend that the conditions under which we are trying to do this are those of 1917 or 1968.

I see no evidence that building mass revolutionary parties from recruiting the ones and twos has ever worked historically. So I think we have to think seriously about this and develop a strategy accordingly. I think the key is to build on the basis of the movement. That helps wield together the left and build it. And we have overcome the unnecessary fragmentation of the left and unite revolutionaries who agree on 95 percent of everything.

Now, of course, there are many bad examples of such an approach. But I am very optimistic about the possibilities to do this in Scotland because of our experience in RIC, the solidarity it forged on the far left, and our further collaboration in launching RISE. That has welded us together in an unprecedented fashion. The challenge will be how to continue this collaborative dynamic between revolutionaries to orient a larger party in struggle, elections and educational work. I think this is the only way that the revolutionary left can make a breakthrough.

WHERE IS the struggle in Scotland headed?

ONE KEY element will continue to be the struggle for independence. That said, a majority agree that we don't want to rush into another referendum that we might lose, since a second defeat would kill the mass movement, as it did in Quebec. Our position is that if we do have a referendum, we want to work toward it and not for it to happen immediately, but after more time for organizing, so that we put ourselves in the best position to win.

As part of this, I think we need to focus on the campaigns and the trade unions in particular. Unionization rates are very low at the moment, especially in the private sector. RIC did very good work going into working class communities to mobilize people and conduct voter registration drives, but it didn't really go into workplaces and talk to people as workers and trade unionists--and that's as much my fault as anybody else's, of course.

RISE must overcome this weakness, and we have some opportunities to do so. There has actually been a significant uptick in workplace struggle recently. There was a series of successful public sector strikes over the last couple of months in Dundee and Glasgow. This is very unusual and very hopeful. I think some of the workers' confidence to fight is rooted in the radicalization and sense of possibility that the referendum campaign opened up.

So we have to orient RISE on doing this work. That's why we had some strikers from these and other fights, speaking on platforms at our conference.

So I think it's the time to go forward on two legs, the electoral and activist, and involve ourselves in various campaigns--for example, against fracking, which is going to be a big issue here, as well as workplace activity. We will develop a more specific strategy and set of orientations at our conference in November.

But in sum, we are oriented to the working class, we see ourselves as a specifically socialist organization, and we see ourselves as an internationalist organization. We want to work with people in the rest of the UK, but also the rest of the world when we can. We want to orient to the 15 percent of people that think they are "far left," win them over, and aim for radical majority. I am uncharacteristically optimistic.

Transcription by Robin Horne

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