SCOTLAND has a proud past of left-wing radicalism, but where is the Scottish radical left today and what influence does it have?

Scotland’s elder radical sons and daughters tell a story of rebellion and resistance against the established order. From the 1820 “radical war” to the Red Clydeside of the 1910s-1920s and the 1960-1970s, society in Scotland has thrown up some remarkable individuals who stood out as popular and respected representatives of wider social mass movements.

Protests and campaigns were deployed to build a counter-power for the exploited and oppressed. Though unions were the key part of this resistance, campaigns on housing, education, unemployment and women’s rights were also very much to the fore.

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The roll-call of these sons and daughters includes, among others, John Maclean, Mary Barbour, Willie Gallacher, Jessie Stephen, Helen Crawfurd, Jennie Lee, Margaret Skinnider, Keir Hardie, Agnes Dollan, Harry McShane, Mick McGahey and Jimmy Reid.

Though the Communist Party was influential in a number of unions in Scotland, it only ever had one MP – Gallacher, from 1935 to 1950 – with Reid failing to win a seat in Clydebank in 1974 after the successful UCS work-in of 1971-72.

Led by Jim Sillars, the Scottish Labour Party was a radical breakaway from the Labour Party in Scotland in 1976 but collapsed after the 1979 General Election, with many of its members joining the SNP and its 79 Group. More recently, there has been a shorter roll-call of less significant figures such as George Galloway, Cat Boyd, Rosie Kane, John McAllion, Carolyn Leckie, Tommy Sheridan and Alex Neil.

The return of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was meant to herald a new age where politics was “done” closer to the people of Scotland, especially with the use of proportional representation. With this, the radical left could expect to become a major influence on Parliament and the people. So, where is the living legacy of these forebearers of the radical left in Scotland?

In order to understand the situation in 2022, we have to go back in time to the 1980s. This requires dwelling upon Labour’s double-sided ditching of social democracy and embracing of neo-liberalism – and especially the same move by Scottish Labour which was formed as a nominally autonomous body in 1994. Unlike Welsh Labour, Scottish Labour has never put “clear red water” between it and British Labour.

The dominance of Labour in Scotland became most marked in the 1980s, and though there were the odd exceptions, such as MP Ron Brown, Labour stood accused of not standing up sufficiently strongly against the Tories. This led to the accusation that when Labour won 70% of the Westminster seats in Scotland at the 1987 General election, the “Feeble Fifty” was created – 50 Labour MPs who would not engage in civil disobedience or mobilise extra-parliamentary opposition.

The accusation came not just from the SNP which then had just three MPs, but also the likes of the Militant Tendency in Labour. The anti-poll tax protests from the late 1980s onwards crystallised this feeling, giving rise to the emergence of Sheridan as the key, new figure of the radical left and to Sillars’s spectacular Govan by-election victory in 1988.

The 1990s saw this process of political polarisation continue. The SNP began to gain wider traction, doubling their tally of MPs to six in 1997 and becoming the second-largest party in the first Scottish Parliament. Meanwhile, Militant in Scotland left Labour to set the scene for the creation of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998, with Sheridan being elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. He worked with McAllion and Neil to bring a radical left agenda to the Parliament which was now in the grip of “new” Labour with the LibDems playing a supporting role.

The SSP’s implosion at the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections following internal warfare over Sheridan’s personal conduct ended the most promising development for the radical left in a generation. Though still active, the SSP remains a shadow of its former self with many of its activists having joined the SNP, Labour or Greens after 2007.

As leader of his newly formed Solidarity party, Sheridan was not able to gain re-election on several occasions despite working hard within the independence movement as one of its star players. Solidarity no longer exists, having first essentially co-opted itself into the Action for Independence party. Action for Independence then wound itself up when Alex Salmond formed Alba in early 2021 and Solidarity was wound up in late 2021. It seems Sheridan’s time has now passed and, for many, he remains toxic.

The National: Tommy Sheridan at a poll tax rallyTommy Sheridan at a poll tax rally

However, a new radical Scottish left, led by a younger generation, did emerge around the 2014 referendum as a result of the Radical Independence Campaign. It gave rise to RISE – Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism.

But RISE did not rise, winning no seats in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. So, RISE’s key figure, Cat Boyd, was unable to then use the position of being an MSP to create a revitalised radical left in the way Sheridan had with the SSP from 1999 to 2003. RISE no longer exists.

Within the SNP, the left has never been well organised in recent times. The 79 Group saw its members expelled or forced to take vows of silence in the early 1980s. Since 1999, the SNP has had quite a few individual left MSPs, such as Lloyd Quinan, Sandra White, Campbell Martin, Bill Wilson, Jean Urquhart, John Wilson, Dorothy Grace-Elder, John Finnie and Margo McDonald but nothing more much.

Like Alex Salmond in his time as party leader, Nicola Sturgeon dominates the SNP. The party’s left needs to become organised on a coherent basis not only to exert influence but also to stop individual left MSPs quickly becoming isolated, as Quinan and others found out.

Since forming in 2016, the SNP Socialists group has never really got off the ground by having consistent activity. It remains more of a discussion forum than a force for action. The SNP Trade Union Group could pack a punch with its 10,000-plus members but concentrates more upon the case for independence in unions than the case for radical union action.

Of more significance was that the SNP Common Weal group made a brief splash in 2020 by winning seats on the SNP’s National Executive Committee. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat toothless body and by 2021 this advance had been undone either by leadership loyalists or by the departure of many left-leaning activists to Alba in 2021. Alba have now twice failed to make any electoral breakthrough and, though the party claims to be social democratic, its policies are not marked out as particularly radical or left-wing.

The radical left in Scottish Labour in the form of the Campaign for Socialism group has been an organised force but a small one since 1994. In 2014 and 2021, its MSP members Neil Findlay and Monica Lennon stood for the leadership of Scottish Labour but were soundly beaten either side of Richard Leonard’s short time as a left-wing Scottish Labour leader. Corbynism did not make much of a mark in Scotland as Scottish Labour remains dominated by Blairite forces. Today, the Campaign for Socialism has just four MSPs and 1000-odd members.

What of the Scottish Greens? Initially dominated by the affable but mediocre and moderate Robin Harper, the leadership through the ups and downs of losing and gaining MSPs has centred around Patrick Harvie. While to the left of Harper, his reign has seen the party’s radical left marginalised. Among its MSPs, Maggie Chapman is now the sole standard-bearer for the radical left. And the Scottish Greens now seem more than happy to work alongside the SNP not just in Holyrood but in some councils too. While it gives them prestige and legitimacy, any radical cutting edge seems to have been severely blunted.

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Outside of the Scottish Parliament, there are networks, publications and think tanks such as Common Weal, Bella Caledonia, Conter, the Scottish Left Review and the Jimmy Reid Foundation. They provide forums for discussion and policy development but, unfortunately, remain on the margins in terms of actual influence. At best, they can give sustenance to those looking for radical ideas and inspiration.

This brings us up to the present. The radical left is needed as society in Scotland remains scarred by economic, environmental and social injustice. The SNP, Labour and Greens show little aptitude or willingness to effectively address these challenges. And yet the state of the radical left – that has the ideas to address challenges – is a somewhat sorry one. Weak, fragmented and uninfluential, what are its prospects for change?

The radical left necessarily must live in hope – hope of becoming influential again and being able to generate radical and progressive social change as its forebears did. The SNP-led Scottish Government under Sturgeon has no radical intent beyond changing the constitution context. Sturgeon wants a successful Scottish capitalist economy – albeit an independent one. Social democracy, where the state intervenes in the economy to ensure equitable outcomes, is not part of her game plan. Scottish Labour under Sarwar only differs on the constitutional context for capitalism in Scotland.

With the cost of living crisis getting ever sharper, the radical left has a big opportunity to grasp. Unlike the austerity in public services that was unleashed after the financial crisis of 2008-09, the cost of living crisis has the potential to affect far greater numbers of people more quickly and in the same way at the same time. Austerity measures in the 2010s affected those relying upon certain services or needing to use them at certain times as well as those whose employment was in the public sector.

The cost of living crisis could be the great levelling down as inflation outstrips wage rises in both the public and private sectors. The radical left must not only proclaim that this is class warfare in practice but that it has the ideas and the ways and means to protect workers’ economic interests. Leading strikes and helping others to do the same is the most obvious route to take. But learning from the climate campaigners such as Extinction Rebellion, the radical left must also up the ante in order to widen the extent of effective protests.

For the pro-independence radical left, an additional task must also be undertaken. With the Tories now in continual crisis but Labour under Keir Starmer unable to take advantage of this with his reheated Blairism, this radical left has the responsibility to convince workers that their economic interests can best be served by breaking from neo-liberalism through independence. Independence here cannot mean the same capitalist set-up as the SNP wish to have but rather, and at the very least, a social democratic Scotland.

Professor Gregor Gall is the author of The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? (2005), Tommy Sheridan: From hero to zero? (2012) and the three editions of Is There a Scottish Road to Socialism? (2007, 2013, 2016)