The Party in Scotland
The big mystery is, why did the Socialist Party of Great Britain take so long to become established in Scotland? After all, when the London Impossibilists formed the party in 1904 socialist ideas were not completely absent north of the border. The probable explanation is that the Scottish Impossibilists, because they were surrounded by heavy industry, fell for the Industrial Unionism ideas of the Socialist Labor Party of America. So it was the SLP which flourished in Scotland instead, and not until that organisation had shot its bolt after the first world war did the SPGB make any impact.
Even so, it is surprising that the party had no branches in cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow before the 1920s. Edinburgh branch was formed first, in 1922, but never really established itself and after an in-and-out existence died just before the war in 1939. In Glasgow the story was entirely different and while the party’s ideas were slow to take root there, once they did they dug deep and, except for a brief spell in the late twenties, there has been a strong branch in the city ever since.
Now comes another mystery. Edinburgh was not the party’s first branch in Scotland. Incredibly, this was in what was then the small fishing town of Fraserburgh in the north-east. The details of this branch first appeared in the Socialist Standard Branch Directory in August 1910 and vanished after May 1911. Who this small band were and what happened to them remains unsolved and no other record of them exists in the party.
Glasgow branch was not formed until 1924, although there had been individual members in the city before then. Times were harsh with much unemployment among members but gradually the branch began to make itself known. Outdoor meetings were held in and around Glasgow and members made their presence felt at meetings run by other organisations. A whiff of the political atmosphere of the period can be had from a lengthy report in the Socialist Standard for August 1931 of a street corner debate with the Communist Party. It is extremely doubtful, for a variety of reasons, if a similar event could be held today.
Inevitably, the branch produced its share of stalwart personalities. John Higgins was the first branch secretary and remains in the party today, having given a lifetime’s service for socialism. John’s indoor and outdoor meetings provided an introduction to socialism for many future members and his efforts were crucial in establishing the party in the city.
Then there was Alex Shaw. Whatever his failings, Alex was everybody’s idea of what an outdoor orator ought to be. Alex didn’t speak, he roared and could keep it up for hours with every sentence guaranteed to have the audience either in a rage or, much more likely, in stitches. He had a turn of phrase that was unique. For example, listeners would be warned of the reformist proposals made by “Tory diehard, Labour blowhard, gasbag Trotskyite and Communist blatherskite”! Alex made so many appearances on our platform down the years that local wits referred to us as “the Shawcialist Party” and he spoke for the branch only two days before he died in 1966.
Thanks to the work done by the branch the socialist message spread and branches were formed in Hamilton and Dundee in the mid-thirties. Neither survived the war but the present Edinburgh branch still holds meetings in Dundee and we shall surely see new branches of the party in these and other towns.
If anything, socialist activity in Glasgow hotted up during the war and speaking engagements in the city were much sought after by London speakers eager to get away from the bombing in the capital. Eventually the branch was strong enough to have its own headquarters where public meetings and education classes were held. There was a plan to contest the 1945 general election but it was not until 1962 that the first genuine socialist candidate stood in Scotland, when North Kelvin Ward was contested in the municipal elections. This campaign broke new ground for the party when Tony Mulheron became our first representative to appear on British television. In the next four years the branch contested five municipal and three parliamentary elections. Night after night members canvassed the entire area, sold large amounts of literature and distributed mountains of leaflets and manifestoes. It was a tremendous effort although the returns from it, other than the few votes we got, were disappointing.
Today, the work of the party goes on. Edinburgh branch, now re-established and with its own speakers and writers, continues to hold outdoor meetings throughout the summer at The Mound in the heart of the city. There the locals and many overseas visitors, especially during the Edinburgh Festival, hear the case for the abolition of the wages system and its replacement by production for use.
In Glasgow a high level of indoor and outdoor meetings, debates, literature sales is maintained although the local authorities seem determined to make the holding of political outdoor meetings as difficult as possible. However, this method of communicating is probably doomed anyway, and new methods will have to be developed by both branches.
Does our resolve never weaken? The truth is that sometimes is does: some members simply give up because they cannot see socialism coming in their lifetime. But recently a few Glasgow members visited a veteran comrade in the city, and although practically disabled his mind is still as sharp as ever and we sat and talked, over a few drinks, about old times. Inevitably, we got around to talking about the future society and what it would be like. Our old comrade observed that he would never live to see socialism but he had no regrets. He told us “The most wonderful experience of all would be to live in socialism. The next best is to spend your life fighting for it”. Those words perfectly sum-up the socialist attitude and no resolve could stay weakened for long in the face of inspiration like that.
The party has had over fifty years of struggle in Scotland and despite the hard work and sacrifice all we have won is a foothold. But we survive and are determined to ensure that the socialist case will continue to be heard in this part of the world.