Time for a Radical Scotland to challenge our forces of conservatism

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, June 1st 2013

Scotland has long prided itself on its radical and socialist traditions, from Red Clydeside and UCS to rent strikes, occupations and the campaign which achieved the Scottish Parliament.

This week Alex Salmond faced more criticism over his corporation tax policy from predictable quarters such as Johann Lamont and less predictable ones such as pro-independence supporters and economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert and Council of Economic Advisers member Professor Joseph Stiglitz.

This raises all sorts of questions: about the nature and dynamics of the independence project, Labour-SNP competition, and the characteristics of the Scottish left. Underneath this is the dilemma of who really speaks for and represents Scotland’s radical traditions? And who is looking at turning these into thinking and policies for today?

A gauge of some of this can be found in the recent publication, ‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism’, edited by Gregor Gall. There are good things in this such as the Cuthberts, and the inclusion of pro-independence and pro-union pieces illustrating the division of progressive opinion. But mostly, it is a revealing collection for another reason, illuminating the paucity of much of what passes for left thinking.

There is little awareness in the book of the existential crisis of the left across the West. This was once a project which was confident, outward-looking, sure that history was on its side, and the future was theirs for the taking. That is no longer the case; and it is surprising a whole range of voices in a collection ignore such a reality.

Then there is the triumph of right-wing ideas these last thirty years. How are these to be explained, understood and countered? In many left versions, this is either ignored or explained away in a caricatured account of history, centred around perfidious leadership and ‘betrayal’. Many on the left, simply, do not do ideology at all or very well.

Then in the Gall book, there is the conflation of social justice and socialism. These are not the same: one is about more equality and could be attained in a variety of ways; the other is a systematic transformation of society. The latter has happened nowhere in the world, but some are under the illusion that it might be possible in Scotland independent or not.

The most challenging essay in the book – by Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation – addresses the problematic culture and language of much of the Scottish left. He takes on what he calls the ‘anti-everything’ attitude which slams welfare cuts, illegal wars and injustice, which doesn’t connect or offer any resonance to most voters.

Too much of the left he observes offers an unappealing menu of aggression, angriness and narcissism. It entails a ritual of marching, demos, petitions and old-fashioned oratory which represent the hallmarks of a previous generation’s politics.

McAlpine believes that Scottish politics are shaped by ‘a giant political Berlin Wall’ between Labour and SNP and other progressives, but the biggest division is between those in the tiny political bubble, whatever their persuasions, and the rest of Scotland.

There are some creative signs of left activity, the Radical Independence Conference and National Collective, both pro-independence, but so far more interested in positioning and posturing than ideas and policy work. The sole exception to this is the work of the Jimmy Reid Foundation which cannot change a culture of the left and politics by itself.

The crisis is deeper and more historic than McAlpine’s analysis. Any belief that Scotland could make the transition to socialism has to be based on a set of assumptions about the state of the left, public opinion, and the nature of society and democracy.

However, Scotland is not and has never become a fully-fledged political democracy, and you cannot build socialism on the quicksand of elite power. A similar mistake was made by a previous generation of British left-wingers who fell for the British Fabian and labourist myths that you could build socialism on the foundations of the British Empire state and its narrow, atrophied democracy.

Scottish autonomy and distinctiveness was built in an age of pre-democracy from the union and the managed society which emerged in Victorian times. The preservation and practice of Scottish identity and autonomy through these times was articulated through ‘the holy trinity’ of education, law and the kirk.

To aid radical change in Scotland there has to be an understanding of the history, institutions and limits of democracy in our society – up to and including the era of the Scottish Parliament.

Talking about socialism and independence as abstracts prevents people from seeing past the mythologies of Scotland, and of the Labour and nationalist movements as radical forces when both are cautious, conservative and timid.

What a radical Scottish left has to do is understand the institutional dominance of Scottish life, the power of elites and the encroaching centralisation across public policy. It would challenge the comfort zones of entitlement society and our very own civic Scotland chumocracy, which is as incestuous, narrow and lacking in self-criticism as David Cameron’s Chipping Norton social set.

A radical left would talk about power and the strange lack of curiosity that Scots seem to have about who holds it, whether it is in the Catholic Church, Rangers FC or our various establishments. It would concern itself with the missing Scotland which doesn’t have a voice or influence in the politics and corridors of our nation. And it would challenge the mantras of going on about free tuition fees when a whole generation of bright working class children are excluded from our universities.

In short, a radical Scottish politics would not accept our current economic and social status quo as good enough. The Scotland we live in fails too many people, lets people down and leaves them behind. That isn’t progressive Scotland. Nor is selectively citing the likes of Stiglitz, while invoking trickle down, tax competition and neo-liberal economics, and pretending all this can be squared with social justice and reducing inequality.

To change this it requires the Scots left to stop being anti-everything, defenders of past gains, and profoundly conservative, and instead embrace democratisation and a different culture, less Presbyterian, and more shaped by fun, humour, play and imagination. Who knows it might actually be enjoyable and offer an attractive way of doing politics; and we might just begin to change Scotland in the process.