Radical Nostalgia Scotland and Why We Can’t Go Back to the 1970s

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, February 5th 2014

Scotland’s current debate on independence comprises many conversations. They centre on what we were, are and could be, and who did what to whom in the past, and what it means about where we are now, and what we could become in the future.

Many of these aspects were to the fore last week at a Jim Sillars-Alex Neil event to launch Jim’s new book, ‘In Place of Fear II’, under the auspices of ‘Yes Airdrie’. On a cold Thursday night, nearly 300 people attended, a five man only panel (with David Hayman, Pat Kane and the chair), and for two hours of discussion in which every question from the floor was asked by a man. Pat understandably baulked at this, apologised and after his contribution, gave his place to a woman in the audience (who got to make a one minute intervention over the course of the whole evening).

Sillars book is fascinating. It is a real curate’s egg, buzzing with ideas, eclectism and frustration (both about Scotland and personally). Many of the suggestions are a bit dotty (the Robert Burns hospital ship), but many are interesting, and some even heretical (such as self-governing state schools). It is in a deeper sense, a sign of the Scottish times: of a culture which has awoken to the power of the pamphleteer, both old and new, and the floating of numerous vessels and platforms.

Yet this was a revivalist meeting of the left of a certain age, wanting to believe in a pre-Thatcher Scotland and have it re-affirmed who the villains were, and that despite everything, it was all going to be alright in the end.

How this was going to happen was through that magical formula: left leadership and ‘men of steel’ and ‘men of iron’ (with the occasional woman, perhaps). In Sillars’ speech and exchanges, it seemed that no problem was too difficult to be surmounted. There is something inspiring in that, as Jim talked of the philosophy of ‘In Place of Fear II”, the importance of confidence, and how ‘Project Fear’ invited us to be feart of ourselves.

Yet, the cumulative effect was the opposite, as problem after problem could be solved by human will and diktat: the crises of housing, easy; of the construction industry, no bother; of young people, unemployment and alienation, Jim had a handy scheme based on an American style Scots Environmental Corps; even the issues of state investment could just be solved by borrowing ideas from Islamic finance.

There was, for all the references to change and a different Scotland, the constant invoking of the 1970s, and a feeling that the whole evening was living in the past, and happier there than in the present day. Sillars and Neil batted away points about 1974 and 1979, and cited research called ‘Born to Fail’ published in 1973.

The prism through which social change was understood matched this. ‘Thatcher’ carried out this and that evil to Scotland, killed industries and communities, only matched, Sillars said, by Blair who ‘killed the Labour Party’. One missing account from all of this was the failures of the world pre-Thatcher, and the Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan governments. ‘The socialist movement has stopped retreating’, said Sillars, and ‘the long retreat of socialism reversed’.

Alex Neil’s comments over the course of the evening were populist and playing to the audience’s comfort zones. He recited numerous facts, nearly every one incorrectly, for example, claiming twice London has a population of 15 million (it is actually just over 8 million). He even got things wrong he was involved in, bizarrely claiming that Labour didn’t win an overall majority in the October 1974 election (it did; narrowly).

Worryingly, Neil who is Health Minister and responsible for the NHS in Scotland got nearly every health fact he cited wrong. The most alarming of these was when he completely misunderstood and misrepresented ‘the Glasgow effect’: a phrase used to denote how worsening health inequalities developed post-1979, claiming it showed that our deteriorating health record was all down to Thatcher and unemployment (when the research does not). He also said that it was undertaken by Harry Burns, Chief Medical Officer until recently, when it was actually done by researchers at Glasgow Centre for Population Health.

The ‘Sunday Post’ had a field day when they found this out, declaring in a headline that Neil said, ‘Thatcher Drove Scots to Drink’ (February 2nd). But he also misrepresented lots of other things in his brief: claiming the health divide in Glasgow life expectancy was 20 years, when it is 28. At another instance he stated that Scotland had gone from having the lowest rates of cirrhosis of the liver in the world (not even the developed world) in 1986, to now having the highest (when it isn’t even true of the developed world). It was a bit of a worrying insight into Neil’s grasp of his multi-billion pound brief.

Sillars and Neil pinned their hopes of change in the future on a revitalised and radicalised Labour Party. This was continually stated to the point of becoming a mantra, with Sillars observing that Labour would have to change post-independence when all its Westminster MPs have to come home ‘and live with us’. That seemed a bit simplistic, and led one member of the sympathetic audience to ask, ‘where the new leaders’ of this bold new Labour would come from.

This outlook seems to view independence not as an end in itself or even a way of changing Scotland, but first and foremost, as the best way to resuscitate the Labour Party and wider movement. It does seem a bit of a long shot and diversion of energies to put it mildly.

All evening we had talk of the need to appeal to the ‘organised working class’, a ‘well educated political community’ and ‘political education’, and it seemed Jim and Alex were still living and evoking the South Ayrshire of their younger days. It made me realise that we have been here before, with the Sillars-led Scottish Labour Party of the 1970s.

In his pre-1979 study of the Sillars party, Henry Drucker observed of Sillars and Neil that, ‘They mistook South Ayrshire for Scotland’ and their biggest ‘failure [was] to realise that Scotland was changing rapidly’. The old mining communities of Scotland of the 1960s and 1970s were fast disappearing then; they have vanished completely in 2014.

This then is the Scotland of easy answers; of being stuck in a timewarp – of a land pre-Thatcher anchored in the thinking of the 1960s and 1970s. In its culture, politics and perhaps as much, its attitudes and lifestyles, it is a Scottish version of ‘Life on Mars’ (the TV drama not the song) – of no women in authority, everybody knowing each other, of run down social clubs, lots of voluble men and copious amounts of drink.

I wondered with my equally bemused friends what to make of all this and what a similarly male only, aged ‘Better Together’ left-wing meeting would look and sound like, and whether in fact for all the differences on ‘the big question’, it might be rather the same. Would it evoke the same yearnings for a golden age of the past, and the certainties which people now evoke of it: a sort of radical nostalgia which tells more about where we are today?

I think we would find huge commonalities. A book by anti-independence left-wingers from last year identifies the main way to advance political struggle as going back to the inspiration of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders of the 1970s (when this was a time of majority trade union membership and left-wing optimism).

Do some people want our debate to be competing visions of the 1970s? Not even an attractive, stylish one either, bereft of Bowie, Marc Bolan, glam and more, but instead a grubby, miserablist, male world. A different Scotland is possible, some younger left-wingers say today. Maybe a different left Scotland would be a start.