SUN: > Can you describe
(briefly) your political background and any positions you hold in the SSP/ISM
Nick: > I first became involved
in left wing politics in the 80s, 1987 in the aftermath of Thatcher's third
electoral victory, when still at school. I joined the Labour Party then the
Militant fairly soon after that. I have been active more or less
consistently in that time, sad as it sounds!, so I have been through the
process of launching Scottish Militant Labour, the Scottish Socialist
Alliance and the SSP.
In the mid nineties I was
convenor of the Scottish Defiance Alliance which organised illegal
demonstrations and civil disobedience against the Criminal Justice Act.
Since the SSP launched in 1998 I have been branch organiser in Glasgow
Shettleston. I was second on the list for the European elections for the SSP
in 2004 and in the recent General Election I was election agent for Glasgow
Central. I am an elected member of the Parliamentary and International
Committees and regularly write for the Scottish Socialist Voice.
SUN: > In the recent issue
of Frontline there is an interesting debate about the role of platforms, in
which you wrote a quite critical account of the ISM. Viewed from outside
Scotland it looks like- apart from publishing Frontline - the ISM has
effectively ceased to operate as a platform, would that be fair comment?
Nick: > Speaking personally -
and the Frontline article was only a personal view - I would say that is
fair comment. If by operating as a platform the ISM has a coordinated
Scottish wide approach or structures then no the ISM does not really operate
in that way. There are exceptions Glasgow - which is the strongest base for
both the SSP and ISM - still has regular platform meetings. These are more
of the role of educationals though.
It is important to state
though that the ISM was always a little different to most other platforms.
Its primary loyalty is to the SSP so it never promoted its own identity at
the expense of the party - not that all platforms do this. This approach -
which I believed to be 100% correct - came with the overheads of not really
promoting mass recruitment to the platform. But definitely in the last
period there has been an even deeper qualitative shift in the functioning of
the ISM as a platform.
SUN: > In particular you
wrote something I found interesting: "the ISM has not sought to impose
political lines on its platform members. This is refreshing and open and
arguably one of the reasons that the ISM faces no opprobrium over its
existence from the broader party membership." Do you believe that if the
ISM had sought to be a more disciplined body this would have inhibited the
earlier stages of the SSP's development?
Nick: > Yes I do. One of the
reasons that the majority of the ISM left the Committee of the Workers
International (CWI) - the ex-Militant international - was its inflexible and
frankly sectarian approach to organisation. Although the debate before our
split was carried out with arcane terms on "democratic centralism" and
"revolutionary parties" essentially it boiled down to how best intervene and
lead a broader socialist movement than previously experienced. CWI had
actually promoted these initiatives in the mid 1990s - I personally think
that of all the British based far left organisations they were the only ones
that could have really taken it forward at this time - but they took a
dramatic step back from this by the end of the nineties.
It's not simply about
discipline but about approach - do you go to meetings with a pre-arranged
line that you batter through at any cost or are you confident enough to
disagree, listen to others and maybe even change your mind. By doing this I
am convinced that the ISM has escaped the criticism that has been placed at
other platforms like the CWI and the Socialist Worker Platform.
SUN: > In the Australian
Socialist Alliance the largest platform, the DSP, seeks to combine working
to build a broad multi-tendency party, with its continued existence as a
democratic centralist group. The ISM did not adopt this approach: do you
think democratic centralism can still play a constructive role in platforms
in broad socialist parties?
Nick: > Depends what you mean
by "democratic centralism" or "broad socialist parties" and there has been
screeds written on those questions! Do I think that in the Scottish
Socialist Party you need a disciplined phalanx of revolutionaries who decide
their policies at closed meetings and then "intervene" in debates and
meetings in this way - definitely not. In fact the experience of the SSP has
shown that this has the opposite effect - those type of platforms become
weaker and are less likely to be successful.
However if you had a broader
formation than the SSP with a clearly reformist leadership which didn't have
the programme or the experience of the leadership of the SSP then people who
wanted to promote explicitly socialist ideas would need a degree of
organisation. I can't really comment on whether this is the case with the Oz
socialist alliance but if you look at the developments in Germany with Oscar
Lafontaine launching a counter weight to the SPD socialists would need to
organise in some form there if it becomes a full blown party.
However even when you needed
to organise I think the whole concept of "democratic centralism" needs to be
looked at. Platform meetings as a norm should be open to all party members -
there could be exceptions to this. Members of a platform should be able to
disagree in public - although I guess this is up to the platform itself.
SUN: > Gregor Gall's
Frontline paints a rather negative picture of platforms, mostly marching
to the beat of a drum outside the dynamics of the SSP. Do you think this is
a historically unavoidable stage in the development of left unity?
Nick: > I think there are
generalities you can make on left unity but every country when it launches a
far left organisation of the nature of the SSP will have its own particular
problems and history. In the SSP there is a negative element to some
specific platforms and the way they operate.
The CWI as a representative
of an International that is not really supportive of the SSP and in fact
argued against its formation mean that they have become a very small tightly
organised group of SSP members who always promote their platform whenever
The SW platform joined the
SSP two and a half years into its existence - there were teething problems
but many of this platform became fully committed SSP members. However there
are a number who have never really engaged with the SSP and what it
represents - in the recent period particularly since the anti-war movement
in 2003 this number probably wouldn't even see the SSP as the main focal
point for their political activity.
The Scottish Republican
Socialist Movement feels a need to exist as they want to defend the policy
of independence for Scotland. They feel this is threatened in an explicit
way by tiny groups (literally one or two SSP members) who promote a British
Socialist Party and in a more subtle way by groups like the SW and CWI who
have international leaderships in London.
And as explained the ISM has
had problems of its own existence and questions over its direction given its
approach to promoting the SSP and recent political developments. I think the
Republican Communist Network has had similar issues although I don't really
know enough to comment on that.
I've gone into a bit of
detail there just to show that all the platforms have developed in the seven
years of the SSP - I don't think there is anything inevitable about it. What
is positive is that all these forces on the left in Scotland are in one
organisation. In England I think there will be idiosyncratic developments.
Also it is important to note
that most members of the SSP are not in any platform nor see the need to
join one. I think most platforms memberships has either stayed the same or
fallen since the SSP has existed or since they joined the SSP which I think
tells a story in itself.
SUN: > In England, Respect
voted not to recognize platforms. There is a right for 20 members to submit
a motion to conference, but no right for anyone to attend the conference to
move the motion. Indeed, some motions last year would have fallen on
procedural grounds if other comrades had not moved them formally on behalf
of the originators, who were not present as delegates. Do you think that if
the SSP had not recognized platforms it would have been possible to attract
and retain comrades for example from the SWP or CWI?
Nick: > Well explicitly the
SW platform would not have joined if the SSP did not have its current policy
on platforms. If there were moves to abolish platforms these groups and
others correctly would argue against it.
But some platforms are their
own worst enemy - by their own behaviour: dominating meetings, promoting
their own literature at inappropriate moments and acting independently of
the SSP a ground can be prepared that would be open to the ideas of limiting
platforms. However the SSP shows that you can balance an open approach to
platforms with maintaining a unified pluralist socialist organisation.
The SSP has adopted an inclusive
approach, and although the inclusion of some of the platforms must be a
mixed blessing at times, to what degree do you believe uniting nearly all
the left organisations has increased the credibility of the SSP?
Nick: > Well I think I have
covered this but an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory. Come up to
a demo on Scotland and overwhelmingly you will see the left intervention
-banners, papers etc in the name on one party the SSP. Equally go from town
to town, city to city on a weekend - if there are left political stalls
overwhelmingly SSP. That sort of unity is invaluable - even if there is
limited dispute on the margins.
SUN: > In the experience
of the NLP, precursor of New Zealand's Alliance Party, apparently their
election poll rating dropped from 17% to 3% after their founding conference
was shown on TV, where some comrades were talking about socialist
revolution. Can you imagine, in the future, electoral pressure on the SSP
restricting the legitimacy of some issues being debated?
Nick: > I would be surprised
if that was the only factor in the Alliance drop in support. Electoral
success brings its own pressure as electoral failure or electoral abstention
does. What is clear is that the SSP needs to maintain its proactive
socialist programme in the face of pressure from the state. At the moment
very few SSP members if any would say that we should not debate issues
because of electoral considerations.
SUN: > You wrote: "In
the aftermath of Tommy's resignation there was a chance for the entire SSP
to debate the nature of political leadership in socialist organisations by
questioning whether the party needs a convener or some other structure.
However, the chance to do this
was stopped at a vote of the National Council in December 2004."
What conclusions do you draw from the operation of the ISM during this
Nick: > Well as the Chinese
Communist said about the French Revolution - its too early to say what all
the conclusions are that I have drawn but it was a critical period for the
party and for the ISM. I don't think either one is the same as it was before
that which given the inextricable link between both organisations is not
I think one of the things I
could say is that the ISM obviously had not built a Scottish-wide leadership
amongst the grass roots of the SSP which could cope well with such events.
Even though this was one of our stated aims. How we deal with that is
something I and others are still thinking about.
This sort of culminated in
the National Council vote of December which was confusing and for me
SUN: > During the Sheridan
resignation controversy, I was very surprised that other left organisations
in Britain showed rather less solidarity than might have been expected,
indeed Galloway even went so far as to invite Tommy to join Respect. Does
this reveal that members of some SSP platforms still need to be convinced of
the value of the SSP? Does this means the ISM needs to have a louder voice
in providing a theoretical defence of the broad party form of organisation?
Nick: > Well I think I have
said that some platforms have a limited engagement with the SSP or perhaps a
fairer way to put it some members of some platforms.
I think a theoretical defence
of the SSP - what it represents, its achievements and historical role - is
vital. Although SSP members should be positive and proud about this and not
defensive. Whether it falls for the ISM to do this is another question.
SUN: > In the recent
election for convenor, both candidates, Colin Fox and Alan McCombes, are
members of the ISM. I interviewed both of them for the Socialist Unity
with candidates for SSP convenor),
and it seemed to me that there were clear political differences. Was there
any formal internal debate in the ISM about this election?
Nick: > No, there was no
debate in the ISM as a platform over which candidate to support and we were
divided on that. But both candidates were also backed by members that were
not in any platform. If we had decided to formally back one candidate above
the other there would not be one ISM platform in existence now.
In a sense the ISM has done
the same before - in the Scottish wide vote on the European election list
there was not one candidate for all ISM members. On issues like gender
equality and constitutional reform the ISM also did not take a line.
SUN: > Do you think a
Marxist platform directly involved in campaigning at the grass roots level
is necessary to prevent the SSP being pulled towards parliamentary routinism
Nick: > Yes although I am not
sure what form that will take at the moment. I also don't think that the SSP
has been pulled inextricably to routinism or bureaucracy although you don't
want to shut the door after the horse has bolted.
SUN > It seems that the
ISM might relaunch as "a
new forum is required where all Marxists feel comfortable"
When you say "all Marxists" are you contemplating that members of other
platforms may join the ISM?
Nick: > This is one option
that has been discussed. Some have put forward other members from other
platforms joining. Again it can't be artificial. I think it is a process.
Those platforms that are closely tied to the dynamic of the party itself -
like the ISM, the Republican Communists and the Scottish Republicans - have
come through similar experiences. If some members join together excellent.
However it can't be "you must be a Marxist to join". I think it's important
that a new forum be egalitarian, take on board feminist and environmentalist
concerns, new education methods and importantly develop a grass roots
leadership for the Party
You also say: "it
simply cannot be a discussion circle within the SSP it needs to help develop
a local grassroots leadership for the party. In this there will be a direct
engagement of political theory and practical campaigning"
My experience in the English Socialist Alliance was that there was often no
connection between a comrade's formal adherence to Marxism and their ability
to make tactically correct judgments or operate in a constructive manner,
and many excellent members of the SA would not consider themselves Marxists.
To what degree do you believe it necessary that the platform is "Marxist"?
I agree and see my answer above.
I guess I used Marxism in my original article as partially defining my own
position. For me Marxism is about engendering critical thought and not
dogmatic adherence and ultimately that is what a new formation needs to do
amongst its membership. So I don't think you have to have a stamped
certificate from the Marxist Qualification Authority to join - you should be
engaged with the issues that are live for the Scottish Socialist Party