A Time for Boldness and Honesty: 21st Century Scottish Radicalism

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, July 23rd 2014

The independence referendum has seen an explosion of radical and progressive thinking and activism. Where there was once silence and disillusion, now there is hope, excitement and imagination.

There is the generosity and pluralism of National Collective, the breadth and reach of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), and the energy and dynamism of the Jimmy Reid Foundation. Then there is a wider set of trends looking at how to develop a deeper democracy from the work of So Say Scotland and its Citizen’s Assembly, ‘the art of hosting’ processes, and the Electoral Reform Society’s work on deliberative democracy.

The above – with all its undoubted positives – has to be put in historical and political context, understanding the shortcomings and failures of the left generally, and the Scottish left in particular. This is an essential prerequisite if this outburst of energy and radicalism is to have a lasting effect on the Scottish body politic.

This week is the 20th anniversary of Tony Blair becoming Labour leader, the advent of New Labour, its three election victories, and the shockwave it had on British politics. The Blair legacy is a complex one – its successes and huge failures are not seen in the round by its detractors or supporters. For the former, Blair is ‘Bliar’ and New Labour seen as the embodiment of neo-liberalism; no further explanation is required. To the latter, in the words of Blairite John McTernan what was called ‘modernisation’ was more accurately ‘setting the country at ease’.

McTernan is surely right when he states, ‘Tony Blair still gets under our skin for the same reason as Margaret Thatcher, the only other memorable Prime Minister of our era …’ The words Thatcher and Blair are signifiers of the huge economic, social and political change we have witnessed these last few decades. This is why they divide and still feel contemporary: they elicit true faith in their believers, and fury and anger in their opponents.

The one-dimensional dismissal of Thatcher and Blair carries much more traction in Scotland. Both to differing degrees felt to large parts of Scotland like an imposition and betrayal of Scotland’s political traditions (leaving aside the argument that intellectually Thatcherism and New Labour were home grown north of the border; and also that New Labour was for a period quite popular).

If Scotland’s new radical wave is to fulfill its potential it has to understand and challenge the limits of the left generally, its broken economic paradigm which has similarities with neo-liberalism, the left view of human nature as something infinitely pliable and malleable, and the inherent elitism in most left politics, in which the left poses as an ‘elect’ and the people a mass to be mobilised.

The left in Scotland, the UK and West has been in retreat for over 30 years – since the reconfiguration of the global capitalist order in the 1970s and the end of the managed post-war era of Bretton Woods.

The predominant left reaction from the Labour Party to far and ultra-left to this has been to fight a bitter defensive war. They have tried to protect and then have had to retreat and abandon what were once seen as permanent gains such as progressive institutions (large parts of the welfare state) and values.

This reactive mindset has become internalised and a way of doing politics these last few decades in the face of right-wing populism. The left has become associated with a politics of ‘protecting jobs and services’, ‘defend the NHS’ and ‘stop the bedroom tax’, all worthy aims. However, these have frequently become mantras in place of thinking. Take the example of the campaign against the bedroom tax where it has ignored the much more pernicious sanctions regime against the unemployed; or a sizeable part of the left’s lack of interest in challenging supposed progressive institutions and their inherent bureaucratisation (such as the NHS for example).

What most of the left hasn’t done is recognise the need to embrace and shape change, choosing instead to fight it. In this the caricature of the last 30 years as ‘Thatcher’ and ‘Blair’ is a hindrance, not a help. Radicals have to find ways of going with the grain of society and social change. In this there are lessons which can be learned from the successes of past progressives in very different eras: from Attlee to Roosevelt’s New Deal and the German and Swedish Social Democrats, along with the success of the right, and Thatcherism and Reaganism in particular.

The Limits of ‘Red Scotland’

This brings us to the role of the Scottish left historically and how it has bought into an account of Scotland which has not aided radicalism. This ranges from the myth of ‘Red Clydesidism’ to the appeal of ‘workerism’ which has been well-documented, to the frequently cited belief that Scotland is with all its injustice, inequalities and poverty, somehow, a social democracy.

A counter-left argument stresses that as the UK has shifted rightward from the 1970s onwards, Scotland’s left has put democracy centrestage and critiqued the power and elites of public life. Jamie Maxwell recently articulated this view in response to an earlier piece I penned. He said that the nationalist left since the 1970s had challenged our limited democracy and politics; this is from the time when many reference the publication and influence of ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’ edited by Gordon Brown in 1975.

Yet, ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’ is a salutary lesson on parts of the left wanting to buy into the world as it would like it to be, not as it is. It was mood music, not a thought out programme for change. It fed into the folklore of ‘Red Brown’ in the 1970s (subsequently reinforced by lots of Westminster commentators and mainstream journalists), and did not contribute to the small selective flowering of ‘new left’ ideas in the late 1970s and 1980s. Evidence for this is all around: ‘The Red Paper’ had 29 contributors all male, and the Scots left was for long very dismissive of feminism, while there was a lack of municipal radicalism in Labour councils in the 1980s (Edinburgh and Stirling being brief exceptions).

History, context, understanding the contours of Scottish public life and elite power and how the latter has cloaked itself in progressive credentials needs to be understood. The strengths and weaknesses of radical left Scotland then and now have to be recognised. It always even at its peak spoke for only a minority of Scotland, and the language of ‘Red Clydeside’ was used as much by the right to scare middle class voters (the old ‘Red Scare’ tactic).

‘The Red Paper’ did not have or outline a left strategy, nor did it have a programme or set of priorities, or a real political anchor and base. There are some similarities between its ambition and that of today’s Common Weal project, which springs from dozens of voices and contributors, but which at the moment, over-states its depth and influence.

There has been an upsurge in political and radical imagination in the independence referendum. It is generational, one which is motivated by the nadir into which conventional party politics has fallen, and the lack of boldness, inventiveness and originality on what has passed for the left – mainstream and revolutionary.

Today’s radicalism as well as the time honoured ‘educate, agitate, organise’ trope, needs a sense of timescales and priorities, and an awareness of social location which builds long-term bridges with trade unions, academia and civil society. It needs to know what are the first tentative steps to heal our society and challenge both the grip of neo-liberalism and ‘the settled will’ of complacent, conservative Scotland?

How does a left avoid the blanket defensiveness which has seen it retreat not just in the UK, but Nordics, Western Europe, and across the developed world? How does it embrace going with the grain of social change in a way which assists progressive ideas? How can people begin to challenge not just the contacting out, crony capitalism of the new class, but the rather prevalent in Scotland, paternalist, managerial authority, which is nearly as much a problem? How does it talk about wealth creation, innovation and entrepreneurship – subjects the Scots left has traditionally shied away from? And crucially, how is it possible to break out of what sociologist Colin Crouch describing the British state calls ‘a polity so unbalanced by plutocratic power that it seriously compromises the idea of liberal democracy’?

A radical politics has to know that assertion, will power and rhetoric are not enough to address complex trade-offs and choices. It isn’t an accident that across the developed world, not one country has turned the tide on the market fundamentalism which has turned the entire planet upside down. Not even Greece with Syriza. Nor Spain. Not even the Nordics who feel in progressive circles that they are losing ground in the face of global capitalism.

The crises of our age are not just of the right, but all our political traditions, including the left and centre-left. It has shown the inequities of neo-liberalism, and absence of radicalism in social democracy.

A vibrant radical politics which addresses this cannot just repeat the old mantras and practices of the left, but has to reach well beyond the left and its comfort zones. The appeals of a kind of Pot Noodle radicalism – of believing your own hype, the trap of the politics of the echo chamber, and thinking that Anglo-American capitalism is so rotten it will collapse in the face of rhetoric – and that you just add water for instant political change, is a road which only leads to disappointment.

A different kind of radical politics is needed for 21st century Scotland than repeating the 19th and early 20th century notions of the left. The values which shaped those radicals and dreamers of ‘equality, liberty, fraternity’ need reshaped in a way which embraces change in society, isn’t defensive, and in so doing becomes tomorrow’s Scotland. That isn’t a project just for left-wingers, but greens, feminists, egalitarians, self-determinists, and radical liberals: a very different politics to one of just left v. right.

That would be a Scottish contribution to a worldwide debate. It is uplifting to think we could play a part in that. To do so we have to have a politics and a language which allows for doubt, ambiguity and unsureness, and which talks openly about the strengths and weaknesses of Scotland’s radical imagination past and present. Such an approach would herald the beginning of a new exciting and very dynamic politics. Part of Scotland’s new radicals have shown that they want to embark on this journey, but others have illustrated that they want to cling to a world of simplicity and declaration. We have to bring this debate into the open, and develop a very different kind of radical politics shorn of triumphalism and elitism.

What could be a more challenging and emboldening project than this, but for it have any chance of taking on Scotland’s ‘forces of conservatism’ and the ‘safety first’ politics of SNP and Labour, there has to be honesty, an awareness there are no easy answers and shortcuts, and not believe its own populist rhetoric. This after all should be a project not just for September 18th, and the day after, but the challenges of the next two decades and beyond.