The emergence of left-wing nationalism: the '79 Group 40 years on

To mark its 40th anniversary, former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill and Scottish political journalist Jamie Maxwell reflect on the pivotal socialist current within the SNP

SEPTEMBER 2019 not only marks the anniversary of Scotland’s independence referendum, but of another key moment with implications even the most far-sighted of political observers could not have foreseen.

The SNP, already in turmoil after the debatable loss of the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum and the disastrous General Election which saw their MPs reduced and Margaret Thatcher brought to power, gathered at its party conference in Dundee to vote for a new leader to replace Billy Wolfe.

The contest was more than a choice between candidates, but between competing philosophies of Scottish nationalism – a divergence which, however evolved, continues to this day.

Standing against the party veteran Gordon Wilson was Stephen Maxwell, erstwhile director of the SNP’s campaign in the devolution referendum, author of ‘The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism’, and house intellectual of what would become known as the ‘79 Group, a socialist faction within the SNP convinced that independence could only be achieved from the Left.

“There’s a reasonable case to be made for the ‘79 Group as the point at which Scottish nationalism matured politically.” Political journalist Jamie Maxwell

Its members read like a roll-call of major SNP and pro-independence figures for the next several decades – politicians such as Alex Salmond, Margo McDonald, Jim Sillars, Chris and Roseanna Cunningham, Kenny MacAskill, and the Scotland-based Irish writer and historian Owen Dudley Edwards. While Maxwell would lose the leadership election and the ‘79 Group would eventually be expelled, the influence of their ideas – a vision of national sovereignty that united nationalism, socialism and republicanism – would prove far more difficult to suppress.

Speaking to CommonSpace, the Scottish political journalist Jamie Maxwell, son of Stephen, reflects: “I think the ‘79 Group set a strategic marker for the nationalist Left. First of all, they introduced a new generation of young left activists into the mainstream of nationalist politics – Alex Salmond, Kenny MacAskill, Chris Cunningham, Roseanna Cunningham – who had a sense of the importance and centrality of class.

“It was the moment the Left started to assert itself within the SNP, in a way it hadn’t done up until then,” Maxwell continues. “This new generation of activists had absorbed the main lesson of the ’79 referendum, which was that the only real route to independence lay through, on the one hand, the Scottish industrial working-class, and on the other, replacing Labour as the dominant party of the centre-left in Scotland. Salmond launched his leadership on exactly that point, and over the course of the following 30 or so years, he seemed to understand that independence couldn’t be achieved unless working-class Scotland was persuaded of its merits.

“You can debate the extent to which the SNP’s success over that period was a result of it shifting to the Left and embracing a more pronounced social democratic identity, or Labour shifting to the Right and embracing a more neoliberal one – and more or less just handing the SNP the Central Belt on an electoral plate. But that was the core strategic insight [of the ‘79 group], and to that extent, I think it really was a pivotal moment in nationalist politics.”

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The ‘79 Group emerged from a Scottish political culture that had become an unlikely hothouse for left-wing nationalist thinking, with writers and political theorists such as Tom Nairn and Neal Ascherson bringing fresh, analytical perspectives to the British state that informed a post-1968 idea of Scottish independence. And yet, in contrast to more dogmatic or doctrinaire socialist organisations of the period, it did not possess a detailed programme as such. While Maxwell’s pamphlet ‘The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism’ was treated by some as the faction’s foundational document, the 79 Group’s status as an ideological current was loose and fluid.

According to former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill there was “in my recollection, no set-down philosophy; it was whoever you spoke to, because each would’ve said something different.”

The ‘79 Group, MacAskill remembers, was less about defining its ideological position than bringing about a broader change in the SNP’s direction – which inevitably led to some clashing personalities.

“Some of it was generational,” MacAskill remembers. “The ‘79 Group did tend to be younger. It could have been seen as the Young Turks wanting a new way as opposed to those in charge.

“It probably was, like a lot of these things, a lot more middle-class in some ways – it was the radicalised university graduates, as opposed to the ordinary punters. It was never huge in membership.”

Maxwell also finds the generational aspect of the ‘79 Group’s emergence noteworthy by placing it in the context of the state of the Left beyond Scotland: “There’s a reasonable case to be made for the ‘79 Group as the point at which Scottish nationalism matured politically,” Maxwell says. “It shook off some of its dafter romantic tendencies and began to engage with the peculiarities of capitalism and the collapse of the post-war settlement. It wouldn’t have done if the party had been left in the hands of people like Gordon Wilson and Winnie Ewing.

“The SNP had to be a progressive left-of-centre party, and therefore that battle had to be fought and won.” Former 79 Group member Kenny MacAskill

“One of the aspects of Scottish nationalism’s development in the 1970s which I think is underplayed is the extent to which there was a pronounced Gramscian influence. My Dad for instance was very much a part of the ’68 generation – he was at the LSE at the height of the sit-ins and the radicalism and the disruption. He was deeply invested in those debates, and in the early 1970s a group coalesced around my Dad, Tom Nairn, Neal Ascherson and Owen Dudley Edwards. They thought in theoretical terms about the national question, and that came out in their writing.

“1979 was this landmark moment in Western politics, structurally; the post-war settlement was breaking down and a profoundly ideological New Right, with a very clear political project of its own, was rising. That sense of dislocation was felt in Scotland, and those trajectories are linked. 1968 had a residual, rather than direct impact on Scottish nationalism, so I suppose the question is: to what extent was the SNP a uniquely hostile environment for that kind of mentality?”

The growing profile of the ‘79 Group within the SNP following Stephen Maxwell’s bid for the leadership provoked controversy and opposition from the party’s fundamentalist wing, which saw the battle for independence as transcending considerations of Left and Right, and were deeply resistant towards any efforts to take the SNP in a more socialist direction. This opposition culminated in Winnie Ewing’s Campaign for Nationalism, an explicit attempt to frustrate progressive elements within the party.

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According to MacAskill, the battle between the ‘79 Group and its opposition did not inflame passion on a mass-scale: “I think a lot of ordinary SNP members were bemused by it,” he admits. “But the party was in a bit of a tailspin and it wasn’t going well. The internal debate took over the external.

“The ‘79 Group did put forward a positive vision, or so we might think; we probably did have sharper elbows, we provoked and made waves, there was maybe even a hint of arrogance. On the other hand, the reaction from the Campaign for Nationalism was a bit bonkers and probably a bit reactionary. So that was the maelstrom. It all happened over a very short amount of time. At the conference, Gordon [Wilson] overreacted, and the party just contemplated its navel for a year or so.”

The overreaction in question was Wilson’s attempt to end factionalist in-fighting once and for all; by the time of the 1982 SNP conference, Wilson was threatening to resign unless the party passed a motion proscribing all political organisations within the party. He won the vote, but did not settle the issue: the ‘79 Group’s key members staged a walkout, and many were duly expelled.

Recalling the walkout in which he took part, MacAskill remembers it as an impromptu expression of outrage: “It wasn’t planned at all. I went with the intention of sitting through it. I think it was Andrew Currie who stood up, and I thought, ‘If he’s standing up, I’ll go too.’ It wasn’t coordinated in any shape or form, it was spontaneous. Looking back, it didn’t serve any point. Gordon mishandled it, but we didn’t help it. It was unedifying.

“But it focused matters and made us a lightning rod. The SNP had to be a progressive left-of-centre party, and therefore that battle had to be fought and won.”

“The core lesson of the ‘79 Group was that the SNP couldn’t ignore the issue of class, just as the Labour Party came to realise they couldn’t ignore the national question.” Political journalist Jamie Maxwell

Of course, few of those expelled from the party would remain outside the SNP for long, and Scotland’s political history over the past 40 years reveals the heights to which many of them rose. Deciding whether their involvement in the ‘79 Group was just a spasm of youthful radicalism or a defining event in the party’s history depends on what view one takes of its subsequent impact.

In a 1985 essay reflecting on the ‘79 Group, Stephen Maxwell wrote: “The Group failed to achieve its most ambitious aim: to convert the SNP into a socialist party. It is doubtful whether it achieved its more realistic ambition of strengthening the left-wing voice within the SNP.”

And yet, in 2018, Jim Sillars looked back and decided: “I think, by and large, the ‘79 Group has won.” Where does the truth lie?

In MacAskill’s view: “Stephen’s being harsh there; the SNP was never going to be converted into a socialist party. But you were able to get a discernible left wing. We didn’t win as such, but we broke the back of the opposition and therefore we had to get back in. Alex [Salmond], myself and all the others who were involved to an extent became the leadership.

“The ‘79 Group moved the SNP into being a moderate, left-of-centre party, which is the position that was necessary, and laid the groundwork for how it could begin to challenge Labour from the Left and the grassroots. And that culminated in 2007. I don’t think 2007 would have come about if the grassroots hadn’t been swung around and come on board.”

For Maxwell, the influence of the ‘79 Group over the modern independence movement may be minimal, but its lessons have been absorbed: “The core lesson of the ‘79 Group was that the SNP couldn’t ignore the issue of class, just as the Labour Party came to realise they couldn’t ignore the national question. 

“That was inherent in the Radical Independence Campaign’s understanding of how the referendum could be fought. They went to post-industrial Scotland, the ‘forgotten fifth’ of Scotland, during the referendum campaign, and the driving forces behind the ‘79 Group would have appreciated that.”

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Asked whether the Scottish Left in 2019 is in a better or worse condition than it was 40 years ago, MacAskill argues that the conditions of neither era were Scotland-specific: “I think the Left worldwide is in a bit of a state. It’s a bit like comparisons with football – I don’t think you can necessarily compare what you have now with what you have then. You’ve lost industry, you’ve lost the trade union base, and the Left ideology is in a difficult position. I mean, the ‘79 Group came into being when the Soviet Union still existed, solidarity was coming through and we had heavy industry.”

“Left-wing nationalism has now supplanted old-fashioned British socialism and the industrial British labour movement - some of it by its intellectual ideas, some of it because the industrial base just doesn’t exist.”

Reflecting on an era of nationalist discourse informed by theoretical heavyweights like Maxwell, Nairn and Ascherson, MacAskill concedes the absence of equivalent figures might be to the detriment of the modern Scottish Left: “But then, I think the same applies to the socialist movement worldwide. The ideas are coming from the third world, from Varoufakis or whatever – I don’t see them erupting out of the Labour Party, Momentum or otherwise. The socialist movement is having to reassess for a society that has been changed by deindustrialisation and globalisation, and Scotland’s no different.”

Maxwell adds: “You could argue the Scottish Left was in a very healthy state in the run up to the independence referendum – healthier than it had been for a long time, because it had worked out how to articulate a radical case for an independent Scottish state in popular terms, and it was positioning itself as a radical influence on a post-independence national government.

“In the absence of independence actually being achieved, there have been various failed electoral experiments, and unless the radical Left can recapture some of the momentum it experienced in 2014, it’s very difficult to see how it’s going to achieve anything in the short term.”

Picture courtesy of Ninian Reid

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