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An Appeal for Republican Unity in Scotland

unity is strength
Deasachaidh (Editorial),
Spàirn 1, An Geamradh 2011
4 February 2011

Failte gu Spàirn

On behalf of the Spàirn editorial collective, we welcome you all to this first edition of our new publication. We have taken the slightly unusual step of releasing the editorial before the rest of the paper in order to clarify to other organisations our intentions in launching Spàirn.

“We”, by the way, are Saorsa, a socialist republican group based in Inverness. As a political organisation our objective is the national liberation of Scotland and the social liberation of the working class. For a Scottish Republic and socialism. We believe that the ‘Labour must wait’ approach has failed the working-class movement, and that here in Scotland, in Ireland, Wales and across the industrial world the time is long since past for the workers movement to be relegating our interests as a class behind the interests of other classes and the continuation of capitalist rule. We believe that by calling for the integration of the struggles for national liberation and socialism we stand in the anti-imperialist tradition established by James Connolly and John MacLean.

However we are launching Spàirn not as a ‘party paper’ to push our line, but as an open forum to explore the possibilities of, and provide some form of framework for, republican unity and the advancement of the republican struggle in Scotland.

Republicanism in Scotland and its working-class roots

Firstly though let us sketch a very brief outline of the components of the republican movement in Scotland, starting with Scottish republicanism in its organisational form.

By the end of the 18th century Scottish society was changing rapidly. The old feudal conditions were being swept aside as capitalist modes of production gave rise to new classes in society which would change the nature of resistance to the Union. Inspired by the French revolutionary goals of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ the banner of the Scottish Republic was first raised at this time by the radical democrats around Thomas Muir in the Scottish Friends of People. In the face of British oppression, and following attempted rebellions in 1794 and 1797, its work was then continued clandestinely by the revolutionary United Scotsmen, before being carried into battle once more by the Scottish Union Societies during the General Strike and Insurrection of 1820. From its infancy real and organic links existed between the republican movement and the fledgling trade union organisations.

Eventually John MacLean and the Scottish Workers Republican Party advanced the struggle from these early days by taking the banner of the Scottish Republic and fixing it firmly to the revolutionary struggle of the working class through the demand for a Scottish Workers Republic.

Since this time republicanism in Scotland has been almost exclusively (in terms of political organisations) the preserve of the Left through three versions of the Scottish Socialist Party (and a recent split, Solidarity), two Worker’s Parties of Scotland, another Scottish Workers Republican Party, the Communist Party of Scotland and the Scottish Republican Socialist Clubs, Leagues, Party and most recently Movement. There have also been further groupings such as the John MacLean Society and 1820 Society, which have cemented this position on the Left.

So clearly it can be seen that Scottish Republican politics have been to the forefront of contemporary progressive politics from the earliest advanced democrats through to the Workers Republican position of the Marxist internationalist John MacLean. It is also clear to us that since the time of the United Scotsmen republicanism has been based amongst the men and women of ‘no property’ whilst other classes have benefited from, and propped up, the imperialist regime in Scotland. As socialism remains the most advanced political thought of our time we believe that it remains the natural location for the republican movement.

Irish Republicanism in Scotland: United in Principle, Divided by Tactics?

Despite being far weaker than our comrades over the water, and dealing with different conditions, in many ways our history of national struggle has reflected currents within Irish republican politics. It is also clear that during the most recent phase of the Ireland’s struggle a number of different groups have arisen as, to some extent, demoralisation has led to fragmentation. This has been reflected in the formation of various support groups in Scotland but – and in terms of these supporters in Scotland it’s an important but – all share the long-term goal of a united 32-County Democratic Socialist Republic.

This is obviously a simplistic approach but we believe this means that, on paper at least, in terms of long-term political principle all have the same objective – but – and again we realise that it’s a very big but, especially for those directly involved in the disputes of the past – they remain divided principally by what must then amount to tactical considerations (leaving asides for the time being differing interpretations of what a Socialist Republic might actually mean).

Let us state clearly that we have no desire to get involved with the internal struggles of Irish republican politics. However we believe that in Scotland - if not in Ireland - we must be able to find some form of common ground which will allow the wider republican community to work together for the greater good. A way of working which will not compromise the individual priorities of its various components but which, through active engagement in the Scottish republican struggle, will actually complement the struggle in Ireland.

It will be the purpose of this publication to work towards that goal with any and all interested parties. Furthermore we look to such issues as marches and commemorations or anti-Irish racism as being areas which cross partisan divides and where all republicans should be able to find a way of working in co-operation and respect.

The Scottish Left and Republicanism

So if the possibilities exist to unite Republicans on a Left basis can the Left be united on a Republican basis? This should surely be easier, no leftist is going to defend the British monarchy, and developments over the past decade or more have left few even defending the British political union. However things are rarely that straightforward, and having arisen from the quagmire of political sectarianism the majority of the Left in Scotland seems hell-bent on descending head-first back to where it came from.

Political sectarianism on the left, especially the Trotskyist left, has often done more harm than good to the working-class movement. Certainly the ‘Life of Brian’ style parody on the Peoples Front of Judea is an image that has stuck in the public mind, yet in Scotland during the 1990s efforts were made to break this trend and unite the left, starting slowly through meetings and the formation of an Alliance before eventually forming the Scottish Socialist Party, based on support for independence and socialism.

In doing so they had to overcome political sectarians that may have agreed on 95% of their programme but then held up the 5% they disagreed on as a point of undying political principle leading to isolation and irrelevance. The SSP achieved admirable short-medium term success in overcoming this, the lessons of which should not be lost on the republican left.

Unfortunately due to the history of Social Imperialism amongst the Left in Scotland, Scottish Republicanism was too often downplayed to accommodate Unionist factions like the Socialist Workers Party, whilst Irish Republicanism was treated as a flip-side of loyalism in a ‘plague on both your houses’ scenario. Unsurprisingly many republicans made little engagement with the SSP due to this mistrust, particularly with Militants previous record on the national question in Scotland and Ireland, whilst those that did were too often frustrated by the manoeuvrings of various ‘Brit Left’ sects.

This contradiction was not properly addressed before the proverbial shit hit the fan and the politics of Connolly and MacLean remained isolated rather than central to the SSP’s whole struggle. We believe this led to a weakness in the SSP on the nature of British imperialism and by association the true nature of loyalism/ fascism in Scotland and Ireland. This in turn gave rise to a failure to unequivocally promote republicanism as the true democratic solution to the national question.

Besides, if the early success of the SSP was built largely on its project of socialist unity it is clear that the circumstances which gave birth to that unity are now finished. Whether either the SSP or, less likely, Solidarity survive will be seen in the fullness of time but there will be no reconciliation between those involved. Unlike previous generations of socialist splits there is not even the 5% of political difference in this split. With George Galloway adding his considerable ego to a mix that still contains the fading star of Arthur Scargill, the reformist, electoral road is looking increasingly cluttered.

Nevertheless in the face of savage spending cuts from a Tory government with no electoral mandate in Scotland the need for a militant republican and socialist opposition firmly rooted in working-class communities has not been so great since the dark days of the Thatcherite dictatorship.

The question for the republican left then is what approach they adopt in these changed circumstances?

The Future for Republicanism?

When we in Saorsa announced the launch of Spàirn  and asked for contributions one of the central concerns we raised was the fragmentation of republicanism into well over a dozen separate organisations, a situation we believe which breeds a lack of confidence in our potential combined strength. We therefore view it as a matter of pressing importance that some degree of unity is forged amongst the republican community in Scotland.

Let us be clear that we are not talking here about parliamentary politics, indeed we believe that the matter of elections would best be avoided, at this time, in order to avoid unnecessary conflict between supporters of differing electoral strategies.

Furthermore when we talk of unity we don’t mean unity in the sense of organisations giving up their organisational integrity, but rather unity in the sense of being able to work together collectively to achieve common goals. Not a unity of the lowest common denominator either – but a unity of principle – based on a commonly agreeable programme acceptable to all shades of republicanism. We recognise that this may be easier said than done, however we would suggest the following short list of basic demands as the basis for future discussion:

Basic Demands for any Anti-Imperialist umbrella organisation

o        an independent Scottish Republic

o        All land, resources and wealth of the Republic recognised as  the collective property of the Scottish people

o        Support for National Liberation & Socialist struggles internationally. 

        ·       In particular a 32-County Irish Republic

o        Opposition to all forms of British Imperialism- political, economic, military or cultural


We realise that such discussions would be far from straightforward and anticipate older arguments between the popular front and united front or perhaps more relevantly between left republicanism and republican socialism.

We hope in the future to look in more detail at the frustration of the Irish Republican Congress in the 1930s to fulfil its potential as a warning of the failure to overcome such divisions, and the subsequent weakening of working class republicanism.

However our arguments for this process are not based on the conditions of 1930s Ireland but of 21st century Scotland. We believe that by uniting around such demands we can build a movement capable of confronting British Imperialism in Scotland in a way that left reformism and constitutional nationalism have been unable to do.

With this goal in mind we have invited contributions specifically on three matters of importance which may provide possibilities of future organisation from three comrades with many decades experience of republican politics in Scotland.

  • Scottish Independence Struggle and the Broad Front
  • The Republican Socialist Convention
  • History of the Scottish Republican Clubs

Elsewhere we will have a piece from the Communist Party of Scotland on the open meetings they have held recently under the banner of Alert Scotland on such topics as Scottish independence and British cultural imperialism.

There will also be a contribution from the Scottish Support For Political Prisoners on the important work they have been carrying out raising awareness of, and building support for all Republican POWs in Maghaberry as well as showing solidarity with others arrested for political activities in Scotland.

As with the work being undertaken by the CPS and others this is the spirit of co-operation and solidarity that we believe points the way forward for republicans in Scotland.

However this is far from an exclusive list. As we have stated previously we only want to assist in this process. We have brought forward some proposals and put them before the republican community; however we now hand responsibility over to others to engage with this initiative.

Without the support of the wider republican community this project falls at the first hurdle so we make a last appeal to all interested organisations and individuals to get involved, and welcome all messages of support and solidarity for what we are trying to achieve.

‘Unity is Strength’

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