Celtic soul brothers

Tara O’Sullivan reviewed a book on traditions of internationalist solidarity across the Irish Sea in Issue 45 (September 2011)

Allan Armstrong, From Davitt to Connolly: ‘Internationalism from below’ and the challenge to the UK state and British Empire 1879-95 (Intfrobel Publications)

Earlier in the year we witnessed much discussion of relationships between Ireland and Britain. Some was of interest, but the worst of it was that the debate was occasioned by the visit of a certain over-privileged woman with a big house in London, and accompanied by moronic assertion that acquiescing in such a parasitic presence was some sign of maturity. But the histories and destinies of these two islands are linked in plenty of ways infinitely more relevant than the backslapping banqueting of the rich and their retinues.

Allan Armstrong’s book examines such a part of our history, a history of combined efforts to break such power and privilege and end the injustices that working people laboured under. The official take on the period covered here focuses on the Westminster cattle trading between Parnell and Gladstone, the vagaries of the Liberal/Home Rule alliance up to the point where it notoriously ended in tears. Here, however, we see what could have been the makings of a very different kind of alliance, aiming for real political democracy and radical change in social and economic relations.

The book opens as the land war does, a sustained militant move­ment to overthrow landlordism in Ireland, which inevitably fused with the attempt to win greater national independence. As outlined here, Michael Davitt personally had higher ambitions than others in leading positions: he wanted the land nationalised, not just taken from the landlords, and an Irish republic rather than home rule within the British empire. But this point of view was only one minority strand within the movement, and one which was continually subordinated to more moderate aspirations. The author puts his finger on “Davitt’s main political weakness—his overriding concern to maintain public unity” (p 58). Again and again we read of Davitt agreeing to hush up his more radical demands, so as to prevent a common front to the enemy. The unity of the land war was firmly based on this low common denominator. In view of this, the following characterisation of Parnell’s position seems to miss the point (p 42):

A different strategy was already forming in his mind—a slower transition to peasant proprietorship and to Irish Home Rule. He was planning his own ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’—the ‘revolution’ being “The Fall of Feudalism”, or the breaking of landlord power; the ‘counter-revolution’ being the cementing of bourgeois political, economic and social power in Ireland, with the backing of the larger tenant farmers.

The Land League’s stated aim was to win ownership of the land for tenant farmers instead of landlords, while the Home Rule party had the explicit object of an Irish parliament subordinate to Westminster. Parnell’s strategy was nothing new, only a continuation of the agreed strategy: sticking to the original aims of the revolution (in so far as it can be called such), not a counter-revolution. It was the strategy of Davitt and his allies that would have broken new ground, extended the revolution further—and it was their failure to organise openly and independently for that which deserves blame for it not happening, not Parnell doing what came naturally to himself and the class he represented.

A particular quality of the period is well highlighted, drawing a lesson that needs reiterating today, on both sides of the Irish Sea (p 24):

Migrant labour played a key role. The constant changes in the class composition of the ‘lower orders’, leading to the fall or rise of certain categories of labour, initially made working class organisation more difficult, as employers deliberately promoted ethnic or sectarian divisions amongst their workforces. However, migrant labour also brought its ready-made traditions of struggle, imported by workers from other nations and regions. These traditions were drawn upon and modified in the course of struggle. They contributed to the political awareness and fighting capability of a new ethnically mixed working class.

The existence of such a contribution has been noted before, of course. Anyone who ever read a history of trade unions in England knows that if you removed all the Celtic names you would have precious little left. Armstrong doesn’t present this as just a pleasant multi­cultural curiosity, however, but recognises it as a powerful dynamic in the making and renewal of the working class, a dynamic which should be evident in struggles of our own day.

But is it the case that “From the early 1880s an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance, of Irish social republicans and Scottish, Welsh and English Radicals, was created” (p 25)? Though a deal of evidence is presented here, it doesn’t back up such a sweeping claim. We read repeatedly of links made from time to time between struggles of working people in those four countries, but nothing that constitutes anything as strong or as lasting as an alliance.

In fact, a strange construction has sometimes to be placed on the material to make it fit this interpretation. In 1886 Davitt addressed Welsh miners and condemned the exploitation they faced. This is portrayed as “further strengthening the link between land and labour” across national boundaries (p 82). But he was electioneering on behalf of a Liberal Party candidate, in the hope that a Liberal government might grant a more generous measure of home rule to Ireland—hardly a radical alliance forged in the heat of class struggle.

This leads to wondering why—apart from the intrinsic interest of the events themselves—the period 1879-95 is chosen. Sympathies and common action between radicals in Ireland and Britain, en­compassing Irish independence and social justice, were evident in earlier periods, after all. Left-wing Chartists and left-wing Young Irelanders stood together in 1848. In the 1860s and 70s radical Fenians and the International Working Men’s Association made common cause. So why 1879-95 specifically?

Armstrong explicitly argues here and elsewhere (see ‘The need for internationalism from below’, Red Banner 33, for instance) for a mutual internationalist alliance of socialists in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, in answer to the concerted efforts of those who rule these countries. While myself and Allan have had a friendly dis­agreement around whether Britain and Ireland should form an especial framework of activity for socialists (see our letters in Red Banner 34 and 36), it is a noble aim which socialists here in the western reaches of Europe can only welcome.

There is something problematic, however, about reading this perspective back into history. The concept of an “internationalism from below” alliance is entirely the author’s own, not one that ever emerged in the actual struggles of the time. Solidarity with Irish struggles was widespread, but more often on an all-British basis than consciously Scottish, Welsh or English. The emergence of these national questions was more prominent in 1879-95 than before—which presumably explains the book’s focus on the period—but Britain, even the United Kingdom, still formed the dominant terms of reference.

This is evident among Marxist thinkers of the time too, who Armstrong either criticises or claims as supporters—but the proof for their support is weak. He presents Friedrich Engels in 1891 being “in support of a federal republic for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales… He now advocated a federal republic for the four nations” (p 131-2). In reality Engels had written (in a well-known critique of a German socialist programme) that such a republic “would be a step forward” compared to the UK, while still advocating a decentralised unitary republic for Britain and elsewhere. Similarly, “Connolly pursued a ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to socialism’” (p 21). But while of course insisting on Irish independence, Connolly’s assault on the UK never envisaged an independent Scotland or Wales, or separate socialist organisations in Britain’s three countries (despite the option of establishing a Scottish Socialist Labour Party being wide open to him around 1903).

Again, the argument is more concerned with the early 21st century than the late nineteenth. The author makes no bones about this, as in his characterisation of many British Marxist responses to the issues (p 17):

They either see the ‘National Question’ as a diversion from the ‘real struggle’, or begin by giving their support to liberal unionist options to defend the UK. When the ‘National Question’ refuses to go away, some ‘Marxist Radicals’ end up tailing the more liberal sections of the British ruling class, when they call for more powers for the existing devolved assemblies. A few go so far as to advocate a new federal arrangement between the constituent parts of the UK.… They hide behind the formulation of support for the ‘right of national self-determination’… take their political lead over the UK constitution from the liberal wing of the British ruling class, or sometimes from the Nationalist parties…

There is much here that we can regrettably recognise, left-wingers who would prefer if questions of political democracy would con­veniently go away and leave them to the bread and butter they know best. Not alone do such issues refuse to go away, however: we shouldn’t want them to. Demands for political democracy are an integral part of our work, often powerful elements in undermining the system we oppose and developing the desire for an alternative.

But is their demand for less than full Scottish and Welsh independence the problem? Take the case of Wales. The only trouble with demanding an independent Welsh republic is that few of the people living there want one. At the moment, most of Wales wants a certain level of self-government—more than it has at present—without breaking away from England completely. This can change, of course, and any decent socialist will fight for Wales’s right to separate as soon as it wants to. But until such a time, our job is to support the Welsh people’s right to vary, weaken, or sever that link as they see fit, to determine their own national future. Socialists support the right to divorce absolutely, but leave it up to people themselves whether they want to break up or not.

This doesn’t amount to defending the UK or a reformed version of it. The grave of the United Kingdom is one every socialist should want to dance on. This forced union, presided over by acres of feudal mummery, belongs in the museum, with its Union Jack torn up for dishrags. But does it have to be replaced by discrete Scottish, Welsh and English workers’ republics, or could a socialist Britain with full autonomy and the right to separate not do the job? The oppression of Ireland has always been greater, and its partition inherently sectarian and anti-democratic, but there are a host of reasons—geographic, economic, cultural and others—why the nations which inhabit Britain might want to share a workers’ republic which accommodated their diverse needs.

If we look to mainland Europe and further afield, it is hard to find many state boundaries that don’t perpetuate some kind of injustice. The map is dotted with nations, nationalities, ethnic and cultural groups whose existence is denied and marginalised by undemocratic capitalist states. Socialism—both as a future society and as a move­ment aiming for it—will have to come up with various ways to respect their rights, and independent statehood is only one solution among many. Proposing it as the only or primary solution fails to do so, especially in cases where it isn’t wanted by the peoples involved themselves. For instance, a socialist England or Britain should go out of its way to facilitate as autonomous a relationship as Cornwall wants and to support the use of the Cornish language—but proclaiming an independent Cornish republic that hardly any Cornish people want would only be dodging the difficulties involved.

From Davitt to Connolly goes to the heart of such debates, spurning a bad tradition on the left of ignoring tough dilemmas which defy banal answers. It throws light on a crucial period of history for Ireland and its neighbours, one which contains lessons for us today. It is clearly written, not by someone bestowing his private enlightenment upon lesser mortals, but a socialist concerned above all to build a movement of equals that can take capitalism on in these islands and beyond. It deserves to be met in the same spirit.

Twenty years after the poll tax

In June 2010 Allan Armstrong looked back at how Thatcher’s flagship attack on the working class was beaten, in Issue 40.

It is twenty years since Thatcher’s Tory government tried to impose the poll tax in England and Wales. Officially termed the Community Charge, the poll tax amounted to a flat-rate tax that individuals had to pay to their local councils regardless of their income. Previously, local councils raised much of their revenues to pay for the services they provided through the domestic rates, related to the value of people’s property, meaning they were a broadly redistributive tax. However, under the poll tax, a cleaner living in a one-bedroom flat was to pay the same as the lord living in a stately home. The queen didn’t have to pay a penny! King Richard II was the last person to try to introduce a poll tax in England, in 1381, and it led directly to the Peasants’ Revolt!

There were important political aspects of the poll tax. It was designed to prevent local councils implementing progressive social policies through higher domestic rates on the better-off. Under it, the least well-off would contribute proportionately far more of their incomes than the rich. The Tories wanted severe cutbacks in those services that benefited the disadvantaged: the unemployed, pension­ers, the disabled and single-parent families. The accompanying register was designed to monitor the movements of all poll tax payers (not just property owners, as before), so it represented a major extension in state surveillance.

The poll tax was introduced a year earlier in Scotland, in 1989, as a test run for the abolition of domestic rates throughout Britain. (Even the Tories had more sense than to try to introduce it in Northern Ireland in the context of the ongoing republican resistance there!) The poll tax brought well-off Tory supporters in the leafy suburbs of Scotland’s cities the financial rewards they craved, despite the government only enjoying a small and shrinking elec­toral base here. Thatcher also wanted to demonstrate the ‘benefits’ of the Union to those Scots with money and the impotence of the official Labour ‘opposition’.

What gave the Tories the confidence to test out the poll tax in Scotland, where they enjoyed so little support, and then to extend it to England and Wales? Over the previous few years, the ‘Iron Lady’ had been able to ride roughshod over once powerful left-wing institutions, Labour-controlled local councils including Edinburgh District Council, Lothian Region and the Greater London Council. Industrial action undertaken by trade unions to defend their members’ pay, conditions and jobs culminated in the great miners’ strike in 1984. Although this heroic struggle involved thousands of miners and tens of thousands of supporters, Arthur Scargill always looked to the Labour Party and the TUC to deliver the knockout blow. The miners waited in vain and the NUM went down to defeat in 1985.

The Tories now felt invincible. Seeing no further than the official bodies of the labour movement, they felt they could take on the whole of the working class without any fear of concerted opposition. The Tories had the measure of the official opposition. To begin with, the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Trade Union Congress promoted the ‘Axe the Tax’ campaign and organised the first marches. However, a Scottish Labour Party special conference held in March 1988 in Glasgow refused to back non-payment, marking the end of official Labour opposition. However, what the Tories hadn’t calculated on was the possibility of our class organising in­dependently of the official movement, and this is exactly what happened.

By the beginning of 1988, local anti-poll tax groups were formed, and the very first regional organisation was set up, the Edinburgh (soon to become Lothians) Anti-Poll Tax Federation—or ‘the Fed’, as it became widely known. Very soon federations were formed in Strathclyde (where Glasgow is located) and in every other region of Scotland. Glasgow became the heartland of the campaign and the centre for the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Whilst the local groups always retained a high degree of autonomy, the overall strategy, tactics and co-ordinated actions were discussed and debated at the regional Fed meetings and the national conference. These were attended by delegates from local groups, and usually met monthly. The Feds certainly brought together many political activists and trade unionists, but outside their usual official structures. However, they also brought together many more people who were not involved in formal politics or in trade unions: house­wives, pensioners, unemployed and non-unionised workers.

The initial tactics used by the Fed were focussed upon two bodies which had already been tamed by the Tories. Labour councils were pressured by petitions, demonstrations and occupations of council chambers to adopt a policy of non-implementation. Trade unions with members involved in the administration of the poll tax were called upon to adopt a policy of non-collection. However, having already caved in before successive Tory attacks, neither the leaders of the Scottish Labour Party or the STUC were prepared to move beyond token protests.

Fortunately, the anti-poll tax groups anticipated the weakness of the official movement, and had another tactic that generated widespread support. Non-payment proved to be the real backbone of the campaign, and massively contributed to the undermining of the poll tax. To be effective, non-payment needed community organisation at an unprecedented level. Community anti-poll tax groups came together on a regular basis (weekly or fortnightly).

An early tactic which was discussed was non-registration. This was to provide a focus for activity in the period before the tax was implemented. It proved to be controversial, because some activists thought that people would ‘disappear’ from the electoral register too. Nevertheless, with or without the advice of the Fed, many people did not register. This marked the beginning of a collection nightmare for the authorities. Their registers proved to be in­accurate, whilst registration officers soon found they were most un­welcome in many areas, anticipating the later reaction to sheriff officers.

Anti-poll tax groups organised stalls, flyposting, mass leafleting, public meetings and many other events. People put up “I’m not paying” posters in their windows. This gave confidence to others to follow their lead. Phone trees were put in place to warn of the activities of the sheriff officers employed by local councils to enforce payment. Street demonstrations were mounted and houses were occupied to prevent any seizures of personal belongings (or ‘poindings’). Local groups produced hundreds of thousands of leaflets, posters and other imaginative material. Colourful local banners were made for use on demonstrations. In some areas, such as the pit villages, such action was able to draw upon long-established community traditions, whereas in previously largely anonymous areas in the cities new communities came together for the first time.

The Feds organised region-wide demonstrations and occup­ations of local council chambers, sheriff offices, and a mock poinding at the house of Tory Scottish Secretary of State Malcolm Rifkind. The Feds also produced the initial material for the new groups, and provided the link between the local groups and the Scottish (and later the All-Britain) Anti-Poll Tax Federation. As well as organising conferences with delegates from many constituent anti-poll tax groups, the Scottish and All-Britain Feds organised huge demon­strations. Over 10,000 people marched on the first Scottish demon­stration in Glasgow on 18 March 1989. Just over a year later, on 31 March 1990, 200,000 marched in London whilst a further 50,000 marched in Glasgow. Furthermore, non-payment levels had reached such massive proportions that the authorities no longer had any realistic prospect of collecting the hated tax.

The Scottish National Party leadership opportunistically took advantage of the mass movement to win a stunning by-election victory in Glasgow Govan on 10 November 1988 with a 38% swing, but their vision was confined to making further electoral gains. The levels of non-registration and non-payment in Scotland, coupled with the ever-widening ‘no-go’ areas for sheriff officers (and Labour Party canvassers!), brought about levels of civil resistance not seen since the mass civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. The regional and Scottish federations saw the necessity of spreading the action to England and Wales on the basis of inter­nationalism from below. Speakers were sent south.

It was the knockout blow delivered in the very heartland of the UK state by the riot in Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990 which prompted the ruling class to ditch both Thatcher and the poll tax. This was truly a stunning victory for independent class action. So what did the left learn from this?

In many areas, the activities of the anti-poll tax groups brought them into conflict with Labour local councils, which had become the Tories’ principal agent on the ground enforcing the hated tax. What soon became clear was that the local groups, with their regularly weekly or fortnightly meetings and usually monthly regional meetings, formed a far more extensive and better-supported network than the Labour Party with its ward, district and regional meetings. The basis of a new independent political movement was there for any serious socialist who was prepared to see what was before their eyes.

The largest political grouping in the anti-poll tax movement was Militant. After the bruising experience of trying to take over the Labour Party in Liverpool, they began to question previous strategy. It wasn’t easy for them. A Militant member-sponsored motion to the short-lived East of Scotland Anti-Poll Tax Federation called for it to be a condition of membership that you supported the Labour Party! Even the Militant leadership opposed this. Nevertheless, when local groups agreed to put forward Keith Simpson—a recent Labour councillor in Musselburgh and Militant member—as an independent anti-poll tax candidate in 1990, Militant opposed them. The local groups went ahead nevertheless, and Keith won over 20 per cent of the vote. Scottish Militant eventually learned some lessons, and put forward candidates in Glasgow and Strathclyde in 1992, winning four District and one Regional Council seat.

Many of the political forces which came together to form the initial Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1996 were from the anti-poll tax federations. The SSA went on to become the Scottish Socialist Party in 1998, winning its first seat in the new devolved Holyrood in 1999. Its highpoint was winning six seats in 2003. Virtually the whole of the left in Scotland were united in the one party, and the opposition to the Iraq war was at its peak. Since then the left in Scotland and the UK has once again been in retreat—but that’s another story!

The success of the anti-poll tax campaign highlights the necessity to build independent organisations for our class. Some­times this will mean continued work in sections of the official move­ment: there were individual Labour Party and trade union branches which supported the anti-poll tax federations. However, in such cases the main job is still to try and win their memberships over to independent class politics.

There is another vital lesson for us today. Class struggle in the late 1980s was at a low ebb after the defeat of left Labour-led councils and, in particular, of the miners. Nobody anticipated the success of the anti-poll tax struggle. Today, in the face of massive attacks in the aftermath of the so-called ‘credit crunch’, many workers still feel cowed. However, they also feel very angry. The massive rejection of the Social Democratic/Left Green Alliance gov­ernment’s banker bailout in the referendum in Iceland, and the major strikes and confrontations between workers and the Greek Socialist government and state forces, show how quickly the mood can change. Trade union leaders, however, only want to renegotiate the draconian cuts, not oppose them on principle. Success means reviving independent class organisation and building international­ism from below on an even wider basis.