The creation of the new party, Alba, essentially Alex Salmond's SNP, to take on Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, has crowded out almost all other comment on the upcoming Holyrood election. As a result, a significant story is being missed; the absence of the Scottish left as credible participants.
The image of Scotland, spread assiduously by left-wing commentators, is of a social democratic/socialist country in contrast to you-know-who on the other side of Hadrian's Wall. This always dubious analysis can now be dismissed entirely. In the 2003 Holyrood election the left, represented by the Scottish Socialist Party, won six seats. (The Greens, in some ways on the left, won another seven – a number they have failed to reach in the following three Holyrood elections.) This proved to be the highwater mark for the SSP and the left. The reliance on Tommy Sheridan's charismatic but hugely flawed leadership led to the loss of all six seats in 2007.
Since then, the story has been one of continuous failure even though external political circumstances for the left seem to have improved. In particular, the spectacular economic collapse of 2008 and the absence of a full recovery created an opportunity which was missed. Further, there is close to a consensus that the levels of inequality in Scotland – as across the developed world – need to be tackled. Another occasion where the left has failed to take advantage.
There are several reasons for the left's ongoing failure. There is no credible political party. The SSP still exists but is electorally moribund. For the 2016 Holyrood election, it merged with the RIC (Radical Independence Campaign) to form RISE. As a vote winner, this failed totally. In fact, this episode appears to have seriously damaged the self-confidence of many activists. Going through the motions is the phrase that comes to mind in describing their activities over the last five years.
Similarly, there is no leader. Tommy Sheridan remains the template that others have failed to emulate. Leaders are important, as the Tories have discovered since Douglas Ross replaced Ruth Davidson as de facto leader.
As across the rest of Europe, the left has come to be dominated by middle-class activists with little connection to the old working class. These are often unsure whether to try to rebuild bridges or to seek an alternative to class politics. Put simply, both approaches have been tried without much success. The economic division of our society means that middle-class activists simply do not meet many working-class people except in their roles in the service industries; e.g. selling them coffee in Starbucks.
Even more problematic is the lack of imaginative thinking. Here, the influence – or lack of influence – of the referendum campaign in 2014 is crucial. This was viewed as an opportunity for political debate; an opportunity to 'let a thousand flowers bloom'. There was certainly a huge amount of political activity but, of forward thinking, there was little.
Abandoning unionism and supporting independence has proved to be another cul-de-sac for the left. Politics allows self-deception in a way that sport does not. Activists can and do retreat further into a bunker where success and revolution are just round the corner. Neil Lennon must wish such a comfortable alternative was open to him.
Recent events emphasise the indifference to intellectual matters. In the uncrowded field of Scottish left thinking, Robin McAlpine – of Common Weal – and Andy Wightman – a Green MSP – stand out. Both have been 'purged' recently for failing to toe the 'progressive' line demanded of them. For the left, self-indulgence rules. The internet, which the middle-class left got into early, has also proved disastrous for the left. Small groups, who had previously gathered outside supermarkets to sell their paper or to win converts, found they could contact like-minded people across Scotland. Far from expanding the left's reach, it led to a contraction, as these individuals and small groups forgot their isolation. The 2016 annihilation of RISE was when reality hit home.
Interestingly, the most successful online political platform, Wings over Scotland, is aggressively hostile to the 'woke' agenda so much of the left has bought into.
A final question needs to be asked about the Scottish left: is it politically serious – how much does it want political power and influence? My answer would be; not very much. It is quite comfortable with the status quo and its role as denouncer-in-chief; denouncing Boris; denouncing austerity; denouncing neo-liberalism; denouncing the 'failed British state'. The last is very popular though the rollout of vaccines has somewhat dented its credibility. The price paid for this stance is that when it decides to sit out an election, as is happening now, few even notice. And, if a serious leader or thinker emerges, they will find that the re-entry into politics can not be taken for granted. Left-wing Scotland, like Yeats' romantic Ireland is 'dead and gone'. I think that is a pity but politics is a rough old game.
John Scott is a retired teacher who lives in Leith