Election Special: The Caledonian Sleeper

Isn’t the Caledonian Sleeper a fine analogy for the Scots electorate? This thought formed itself on the eve of polling as I boarded at Euston, curled myself up on the soft seats and drifted off to the throb of the engines. All the drowsy bodies in cramped and overheated carriages cruising towards a destination they know so well, with complimentary earplugs and blindfolds to limit interruptions by unwelcome sights or noises – they are taking the most romantic and uncomfortable way to return to the homely familiarities of Scotland.

The Scottish citizenry was only stirred awake by the noise of the referendum. An explanation for this was recently made by Richard Tuck in The Sleeping Sovereign, a book exploring the relation between democratic sovereignty and government. Constitutional referendums bring the sovereign people to life so that they may reset or change the terms of government, but that such referendums and similar occasions are the only cases of direct democracy in modern states – the rest of the time the citizenry is fast asleep. Voting in elections, when people choose which parties will govern, is a drowsy gesture rather than an exercise of sovereign power. On this account, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was attributing too much liberty to English people when he said that they were only free during the election of members of parliament every five years. The freedom of the people is a much rarer and more dangerous privilege than that. Roughly awakened by the referendum and given power for a day, the people have returned to their stupor. As we describe in Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland (our newly published book which you can order here): ‘The clear dividing line between politics and people, briefly smudged by the referendum, has been boldly re-drawn. Across the country, in the streets and pubs and public halls where the people had talked in utopian ways of constructing the future, the political lights switched out once more.’

Now the SNP are both guards and driver, not to be removed. They are crafty at passing and manipulating policies which keep the carriages sedate. Their mastery of the ‘art of politics’ is reassuring or infuriating, depending whether civic peace with modest advances is what you’re after. The Lallands Peat Worrier insists that ‘politics and government is about… what you achieve, and only passingly about who achieves it’ – and whilst none of us can effectively weigh up the policies of all the parties, ‘there is a great deal to be said for voting for folk whose judgement you trust’, especially Nicola Sturgeon. With a critique that cuts against Lallands’s deferential hat-doffing, Darren McGarvey (alias Loki) used an article on Sceptical Scot to attack politicians’ disingenuous and hypocritical methods, scorning those ‘clever people’ who talk about the ‘art of politics’. Sturgeon’s photograph with a copy of The Sun that endorsed her, just days after that paper’s lies regarding Hillsborough were undeniably exposed in a court of law, ‘tells us that she has to engage in the same, often underhand, political tactics as every other mainstream politician.’

The argument whether the ‘art of politics’ is to be lauded or loathed is old hat. In Gorgias, Plato’s dialogue on rhetoric, the sceptical Socrates cannot bring himself to call the practices of politicians an ‘art’ at all. He calls it a knack: an ability to produce things which people can be duped or flattered into buying, but which do them little good. Cosmetics and pastry-making are knacks. Politicians flatter folk into admiring their policies and skills of government. But doing good by the people and winning their votes have never been one and the same. To sell their wares, politicians must make them appealing – they need to mix the chemicals, twist the pastry, and form the policies to make them into a pleasing solution. The unsettling truth is that those politicians whose judgement is trusted are crowd-pleasers. Free degrees, a little more childcare, and a state-provided starter-pack for newborns are the tacky toilets, lumpy seats and complimentary sleep-pack of the Parliament. It all seems to be a fair standard of travel for those unused to anything else.

The SNP’s core election message urges voters to blindly cast #bothvotesSNP. Their mawkish insistence that this is the ‘most important election’ since the creation of the Scottish Parliament is a facile placeholder for a vacuum of commitments, and most of the public will feel few material changes after this election. The Scottish electorate is something like a sleepwalker. The official advice for dealing with a somnambulator is to take them by the arm and guide them back to bed. Waking a sleepwalker can leave them startled, confused or agitated. In Scotland’s case, this is just what we need.

Cailean Gallagher (@CaileanG)

Une Revolution sans Revolution: Scotland & the Panama Papers

This article was originally published in the St Andrews Economist

In the early days of the French Revolution, a curious phenomenon occurred. Aristocrats who held provincial privileges, titles, and rights to land, legislated to destroy their own privilege. Later they would explicitly ban insignia adorning houses: coats of arms and weathercocks. Did they partake in this masochistic act because they were scared of the people? Seemingly not. Impossible as it is to step into their minds, the process seems to have been one of joyous self-flagellation. It was a new way to appear on the public stage, a new signifier of virtue, and the nobility all wanted a slice.

A month before the Scottish elections, the Panama Papers scandal occurred, leaking eleven and a half million documents pertaining to the activities of the richest people in the world. The information that was now available was not surprising to the campaigners who had been haranguing the government about tax justice for the last decade, but it immediately proved itself useful as a goad for unpopular politicians. David Cameron was the first to suffer, with suspicions that he had directly or indirectly benefited from tax avoidance schemes. Soon came the demand for him to publish his tax returns, which he partially published, resulting in a second scandal due to the appearance that he had dodged inheritance tax. Now journalists were baying for blood. The first taste of tax returns had been unimaginably glorious. Now they wanted Osborne’s tax returns, and those of anyone else who looked shifty – why not some high profile public service managers while we’re at it?

In Scotland, a few leaves stirred. Of what importance was capital to the hills and glens? Somewhere in the shadowy chamber of Holyrood, the ears of some of the less sleepy MSPs twitched. Kezia Dugdale, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, was the first to make a move. She published her tax returns (and was therefore able to make a virtue out of the rather dubious accolade of being first). Her tax returns are, frankly, boring. She has a total income of £57,465, some of which she donates to charity. She pays around £10,000 in tax. Apart from this being (to my mind and hers) astonishingly low, there isn’t much to see here.

Not to be outdone, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party published hers, closely followed by Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Nicola Sturgeon sealed the deal the same day. Now we had four tax returns. Ruth Davidson’s also showed charitable donations. Nicola Sturgeon had foregone pay (as did Salmond before her) to contribute to ‘public spending’. It was all very virtuous, very uninteresting, and rather desperate. Like the French aristocrats before them, the Scottish party leaders had exposed themselves, in a fit of public-facing virtue.

The difference was, no one cared.

Bemused, the Scottish public turned back to Cameron and his Downing Street cadre. They wanted to see what was happening where the money was. In London newspapers scandal rumbled – people were going to fall because of this. The claim that knowledge is power was beginning, in a roundabout way, to make sense. The virtue of the Scottish politicians was completely irrelevant – after all, these people not being millionaires they had little opportunity to not be virtuous. The worst thing that can be pinned on Nicola Sturgeon as an individual is the embarrassingly bourgeois fact that she owns a very expensive coffee machine.

Kezia Dugdale, realising the disinterest of whatever ephemeral group she had identified as her core voter base, commented on the scandal:

Not since the MPs expenses scandal has there been such palpable anger at the sense of unfairness at the heart of our society.

Politicians need to not only play by the rules, they need to be seen to be playing by the rules.

Of course, the comparison with the MPs expenses scandal is absurd. After the 2009 scandal, MPs were ordered to pay back 1.2 million pounds. In contrast, the National Audit Office estimates that the UK loses £2.7 billion a year from tax avoidance and £4.4 billion per year from tax evasion. That’s 7,100,000,000 a year – compared to 1,200,000 for the expenses scandal. Or in other words, tax evasion and avoidance costs the UK five-thousand-nine-hundred-and-sixteen times more per year than one year of unfairly claimed MPs expenses.

This is not to say that MPs who over-claim expenses aren’t doing anything wrong, but simply that this is a different order of expropriation. Rather than joyfully publishing their tax returns, it would have been entirely possible, if more uncomfortable, for Scottish politicians to talk about how to deal with companies that don’t pay taxes. This isn’t, as Kezia Dugdale implies, a matter of improving public scrutiny of politicians. It’s not about accountability, it’s about one of the biggest problems facing state finances in this century. It’s about a globalised world where capital is mobile enough to slip through the fingers of even the most evangelical state. In terms understandable to the Scottish Parliament, it could be about, for instance, pushing through the land reform that we’ve been promised by the Scottish Government for so long – the Panama Papers have demonstrated that 1000 square miles of Scotland’s land is owned offshore.

Scottish politicians will be pleased to stand up and shout ‘I’m clean!’ But there’s more to governance than that. In the few weeks before an election a scandal like this should be used by political parties and the people to drive forward debate, and discuss what is to be done. Instead, the Scots have had to suffer the guff of the party leaders’ dirty linen – their 57 grand salaries – which nobody wants waved in front of their face.

The French nobles who so enjoyed the beginning of the revolution received a nasty shock after a few years. Their displays of virtue were scrutinised by canny sans-culottes and shown to be baseless. Even in such a sleepy polity as this one, we might live in hope that years of inaction by our politicians might one day lead to their glorious downfall. For without terror against the owners of Capital, as Robespierre would surely have enjoined had he been with us today, virtue is powerless.

Amy Westwell

THE NUT-PICKERS GUIDE TO SCOTLAND: WHY LAND MATTERS MORE THAN WELFARE

This article was originally published on rap and stow.

Scotland’s forms of land ownership have always been askew from the forms found elsewhere. For some, including Karl Marx, this was a point of some interest. Marx believed the clearances demonstrated particularly well the way in which the development of industry could fundamentally overturn existing forms of society:

What “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property, under which the embezzled lands were held.

This ‘peculiar form of property’ was the clan system, in which land was owned and used in ways that did not accord to the traditional laws of private property. In some senses, claimed Marx, Scotland was one of the last bastions of this system of pre-feudal ownership which had at one point been widespread across Europe. Some communists, including Marx, believed that pre-feudal systems of common ownership that were still in existence in Russia and in pockets of Europe could bypass the capitalist stage of production via a great leap, and realise new forms of ownership which would challenge the very foundations of system of private property.

Sometimes land activists in Scotland advocate something similar – community buy-outs of land leading to communal ownership – and in doing so they challenge not just the specific owners of land but the principle of private property. Their tactic is alien to most modern political forms, and grates against the 21st century in an interesting way. In the past few years the Scottish political debate has veered between the subjects of sweeping constitutional change, disastrous welfare cuts, and insufferable bad work. In amongst all this, Scotland had a land debate, always in the background, occasionally raising its head. Land ownership in Scotland is bizarre – feudalism was abolished in 2004, and it is claimed that 50% of the private land in rural Scotland is owned by around 430 people, and that Scotland has a more concentrated pattern of large scale private land ownership than is found in any other country in the world. The land debate has a propensity to more directly target the principles of private property than many other debates that socialists are engaged with in Scotland today.

From 1770 to 1810, radicals in Britain were responding to changes in the conditions of working people and the French Revolution, but had not yet become overly focussed on the organised labour movement. The debate around private property at this time amongst both moderates and radicals near-universally considered private property to have arisen after a stage of communal ownership. This was justified by Enlightenment luminaries both conceptually, in that it was considered impossible to maintain private property before a suitable collective power had been instituted to enforce it, and historically, in that many histories described such a state of communal ownership. More persuasively to the early modern mind, those people who were at what were considered to be earlier stages of the development of civilisation seemed to hold property in common. In the 18th century the past was indeed a foreign country, which could be accessed by encountering indigenous peoples in North America or, embarrassingly for many of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, going to the highlands.

This idea of the original common ownership of property, and particularly land, was the foundation for many of the proto-communist movements in the British Isles up until the early 19th century. Gerard Winstanley’s True Levellers had set the tone in 1649, declaring the earth ‘a common treasury of livelihood for all mankind’. In 1776, Thomas Spence declared that since land had originally been owned in common, the purpose of radicals should be to realise this state of affairs again. In the catchphrase of the time, this was for him, as for many of his political allies, common sense. Spence used his own nut-gathering experience to persuade people of the absurdity of the private ownership of land.

In order to show how far we are cut off from the rights of nature, and reduced to a more contemptible state than the brutes, I will relate an affair I had with a forester in a wood near Hexham. Alone by myself a gathering of nuts, the forester popped through the bushes upon me, and asking what I did there. I answered gathering nuts. Gathering nuts? said he, and dare you say so, yes, said I, why not? would you question a monkey, or a squirrel, about such a business? and am I to be treated as inferior to one of those creatures? Or have I a less right? But who are you, continued I, that thus take upon you to interrupt me? I’ll let you know that, said he, when I lay you fast for trespassing here. Indeed! answered I, But how can I trespass here where no man ever planted or cultivated, for these nuts are the spontaneous gifts of nature ordained alike for the sustenance of man and beast that choose to gather them, and therefore they are common. I tell you, said he, this wood is not common, it belongs to the Duke of Portland. Oh! my service to the Duke of Portland, said I, nature knows no more of him than of me; therefore, as in nature’s storehouse the rule is, “First come, first served,” so the Duke of Portland must look sharp if he wants any nuts. But in the name of seriousness, continued I, must not one’s privileges be very great in a country where we dare not pluck a hazel nut? Is this an Englishman’s birthright? Is it for this we are called upon to serve in the militia, to defend this wood, and this country against the enemy?

But there was another radical narrative going on at the same time (and one that we might say eventually won). This was the narrative of Thomas Paine, connoisseur of the American and French revolutions, and superbly popular pamphleteer. After he had pretty much lost interest in the development of the French and American revolutions, Paine wrote a pamphlet entitled Agrarian Justice. This pamphlet took the line that the original relationship of the earth to mankind was one of common ownership – property, as every good radical knows, is theft. But Paine’s solution was not redistribution: instead the owners of land needed to make up for the original appropriation of land for private use by paying a rent to society. This rent would be distributed among the landless as welfare payments. If we are to place Paine and Spence side by side, it’s pretty clear that Paine’s idea is the more popular today. Social democratic states require a rent from the owners of land and capital which is then distributed among the poor, but they rarely if ever challenge private ownership itself.

Proponents of both the universal basic income and of states with a strong system of welfare payments are excited by Paine’s early formation of the idea of state ‘benefits’. The original idea of welfare payments – Paine’s idea – was based on the concept of the original appropriation or theft of land, and the compensation that must be therefore payed to the landless. It is seldom asked today what the moral basis for our redistributive welfare system is. For some it is very similar to Paine’s conception: the rich appropriate capital and surplus labour, and therefore owe something back. For others it is a moral duty of society to support those who struggle through times of need, and those who can most easily bear the burden are the rich. And for certain people it is more economistic – labourers need to be fed, healthy and able to reproduce, and so taxation should provide the welfare payments which allow this harmonious state to be maintained.

Paine’s proposals were considered a great insult by Spence and his allies the ‘Spencean Philanthoprists’, since under Paine’s system the landowners would be allowed to keep 90% of their proceeds. Spence made a long list of the distinction between Paine’s system of Agrarian Justice and his own system. His points add up to a curiously fitting critique of the 21st century welfare state.

Under the system of Agrarian Justice [Paine’s system], The people will, as it were, sell their birth-right for a mess of porridge, by accepting of a paltry consideration in lieu of their rights.

Under the system of the End of Oppression, The people will receive, without deduction, the whole produce of their common inheritance.

Under the first, The poor must still look up for aristocratic benefactions of rotten potatoes and spoiled rice, and other substitutes for bread in the times of scarcity, to preserve their wretched existence.

Under the second, What with the annihilation of taxes and the dividends of the parochial rents, together with the honest guardianship of their popular government, we may reasonably suppose that the people will rarely be driven to the dire necessity of using a substitute for bread.

Under the first, After admitting that the earth belongs to the people, the people must nevertheless compromise the matter with their Conquerors and oppressors, and still suffer them to remain as a distinct and separate body among them, in full possession of their country.

Under the second, After insisting that the land is public property, the people’s oppressors must either submit to become undistinguishable in the general mass of citizens or fly the country.

Under the first, The rich would abolish all hospitals, charitable funds, and parochial provision for the poor, telling them, that they now have all that their great advocate, Paine, demands, as their rights, and what he exultingly deems as amply sufficient to ameliorate their condition and render them happy, by which the latter end of our reformation will be worse than the beginning.

Under the second, The quarterly dividends, together with the abolishment of all taxes, would destroy the necessity of public charities; but if any should be thought necessary, whether to promote learning, or for other purposes, the parochial and national funds would be found at all times more than sufficient.

Most of Spence’s problems are rather obviously existing problems in the British welfare state, and with ideas of welfarism such as the ‘Universal Basic Income’. People receive some compensation for living in a world that exploits them, but not enough to make it bearable. In times of austerity and disaster, the continuing power of the rich becomes bleakly obvious, and the people are forced to beg. There is still a powerful elite controlling politics and capital, considered to have a rightful place at the bargaining table. And most starkly, systems of social provision like education and healthcare can be tampered with and destroyed by governments, with the excuse that the system of Universal Credit provides quite enough to prevent people falling out the bottom of society.

The idea that those who benefited from the appropriation of land would give back a proportion of the gain they got from it seemed to the Spenceans to fly in the face of all common notions of justice. Why, they asked, was the correct solution not to give the land back into common ownership? Communists level a similar argument against the welfare state and the UBI today. These solutions are dangerous in their lack of acknowledgement of the injustice of original appropriation, as well as leaving power in the hands of the rich.

In the end, Paine’s idea won and Spence was forgotten. Land gradually became a curiosity rather than a fundamental aspect of communist thought, as urbanisation and industrial development made the city into the primary site of the struggle. The end of the romantic ideas of the Russian commune and the clearances seemed to signal the end of the radical issue of land.

Yet in Scotland, land must be a consideration for communists, and is too often forgotten by those who rarely consider the Scottish population that lives outside the urban centres. There is a sort of consensus in Scotland that the issues of most relevance to working people are issues of welfare payments and taxation. But the land debate persists, and contains a strange seed that might uproot the very principles of private ownership. I hope that this seed can be nurtured on Rap and Stow in the coming months: the radical potential of land in Scotland has been ignored for far too long.

Amy Westwell

RIC Conference 2014: A Class Act?

RIC_photo

There was a touch of class about the Radical Independence conference: slick presentation, businesslike suits, and bold stage-lighting that shone a pinkish tint on the pale faces that packed the Clyde Auditorium one bright November day. If the job was to give RIC a new sheen, the organisers can be pleased with the result. There is a fresh coat of varnish on the rough jigsaw of local events, campaign groups, political parties, and mass canvasses that was pieced together into a recognizable brand over the course of two frenetic years’ campaigning.

No question, RIC has reasserted its institutional and radical identity after the referendum defeat – but there remains a lingering doubt that a gloss of leftish optimism and the pinkish glow of high-power bulbs concealed the superficiality of this new left-wing populist movement. Did a classy style belie the classless substance running through RIC’s veins? Colleagues in Labour and in the media have dismissed the ‘new radicals’ already – but most of them failed to attend the conference, where the tubthumping speeches and heated break-out sessions contained substantial politics as well as the usual sheer idealism. Should we join cynics on the Labour left who denigrate RIC and call it void, nationalistic, petty-bourgeois grandstanding by yuppie trots who do nothing more than gnash on the leash of their nationalist masters?

I hope not – given the uncertainty surrounding the future of Scottish Labour and the labour movement, class-focussed socialist politics urgently needs other active bases, including Radical Independence and its fellow travellers. Nor do I think so – for the organisers of this amorphous movement are intelligent and conscious of the need to distance themselves from the nationalist movement, and to win votes by fighting with the SNP. Furthermore, its leaders’ refusals to adopt the SNP mantle for electoral gain seems more than tactical: the independent spirit of a left that is recognized as new, serious and free from past failures is worth a million votes under an SNP banner. RIC does not intend to be subsumed into the nationalist movement, and is committed to a radical, confrontational politics the SNP will never condone. (At any rate, this was what organisers kept telling me between sessions and later between pints, in the endearing way that radicals tend to rehearse a line and repeat it for all its worth to win you over. Like their Trotskyite counterparts, they possibly protested just a wee bit much.)

National Populism: The Hydra in the Hydro

Of course the ‘new radicals’ will insist on their distinctiveness again and again, but the power of movements can overwhelm the intentions of sincere activists. Even if they speak and act in their own right, from what source do they draw political life? Are the creatures of the radical independence campaign not various heads of that strange beast of nationalism – the Hydra in the Hydro whose snarling malice towards any potential political challenge remains hidden behind the smiling masks of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond? The SNP seek to promote national unity, but in the audience, twelve thousand Scots sneered at class politics, spat when the Labour party was mentioned, and cheered when Sturgeon declared that ‘democracy rocks’. These types take their cue from their independence dream, and that suits the SNP down to the ground. They think nationalism has them at heart and they’re right: the vague, classless demands of enthusiastic activists are the lifeblood of the many-headed monster.

A few weeks ago, when the RIC tickets had sold out, one of the more sceptical organisers confessed his belief that the RIC conference would be packed with left-nationalist types who also sneer at class politics and believe the people’s interest can be delivered in the programme of a nationalist government. When it can attract 3,000 people to a concert-hall on a Saturday, there is good reason to think RIC thrives on nationalism, albeit a more critical kind than the gaudy tinsel show of half-rate pop stars and clinical speeches on show across the square. It worries me that radicals deny their movement’s nationalism – one of the mantras of Cat Boyd, Patrick Harvie, Colin Fox et al – for it is imperative that Radical Independence accept that their ‘radical’ ambitions are often framed in national-popular terms rather than class terms.

National populism thrives by chaining together lots of separate demands and aspirations which produce the ‘people’, who have a share in the national party’s agenda. This is the most powerful and dominant kind of politics in Scotland presently, with the potential to absorb every challenge into its limitless aspirations: ‘when we have the “master keys” of independence…’. RIC is in a well-placed position to attack this national populism – to break the chains that can bind together the ambition for corporate control and the ambition for lower corporation tax. One of RIC’s primary aims must be to expose the limits and contradictions of the SNP’s agenda: anti-austerity without raising more revenues or taxing the rich; commitment to environmental justice without passing word or deed on fracking. It should state an ambition for independence on confrontational terms of class interest. For these reasons it is good if nationalists join RIC and are corrected; but it is dangerous if nationalist contradictions infiltrate the radical agenda.

This is not to say that RIC should reject every form of populism. By creating its own set of demands and defining the people in its own way, there can be a radical populism which is good in practice if not in theory. The point here is the imperative of having a distinct agenda and an autonomous basis of support, opposed to nationalism. The commitments spelled out in the ‘People’s Vow’ were a start (not Alan Bisset’s swirling organismic poem, but the 5 commitments that Cat Boyd read which are further down this page). Radical Independence has to resist the SNP, not just by citing differences, but by fighting nationalist interests (in fracking, inequality, land, finance etc). If it fails to do so, it will be consumed by nationalism, or else remain weak and shrivelled, starved of attention by the people in whose name it fights.

The SNP is willing to sustain any group that does not attack the beast. Its attitude towards threatening opponents has rarely been tested. Throughout the campaign, the tenor of Yes Scotland’s attitude towards RIC was in line with Nicola Sturgeon late remarks: “I do not agree with everything they say, but their campaign work was great”. From my perspective in Yes HQ, the more radical the Radicals became, the more Yes Scotland, under SNP command, moved to distance itself from them. The day they distributed the ‘Britain is for the Rich, Scotland Can be Ours’ propaganda in Glasgow, Yes Scotland insisted on RIC’s separateness from other parts of the campaign. They were resourced only when it suited the SNP, and they were dispensable as soon as they posed a threat or challenge. If the nationalist monster is willing to bite off any head that dares challenge the unity of national purpose, then RIC has to break away, keep its distance, and only approach when it has a fighting chance.

So, after the long coalition with the SNP and the support built up on the back of the referendum campaign, can the left-wing part of the Yes campaign break away from the monstrosity of Scottish popular nationalism and commence a new radical politics of class? It is already distinguishable from the SNP – but the test is whether it can be completely distinct. This distinction will come not from its press statements, not from its ideas or policies, but from its confrontation and autonomy. RIC’s distinctiveness must relate to the material needs and conditions of working people, unserved by nationalism. It must have class as its basis.

If you identify with RIC but reject the language and aims of class politics, then you are part the problem. This article is not for you; in fact it’s against you. There were plenty such people at the conference this weekend. Indeed, in each of the break-out sessions one of the main debates was between those who don’t posit class as an important category, and those who do. (This latter group was itself broken into those who think class is an important category for policy and political reform but do not believe the class is the agent of that reform, though unfortunately this fundamental distinction was implicit and never developed.)

The Class Sessions

One session addressed the class make-up of the SNP, which was broadly agreed to be a multi-class party reflecting the circumstances of post-industrial society. It incorporates some socialists into an ideology that, to use Neil Davidson’s phrase, expounds ‘social-neoliberalism’. Another speaker suggested that at some point class will begin to impact on the SNP, which will probably respond as Labour did by insisting that the working class, must wait – in this instance, until independence. This fair analysis was taken as an affront by many delegates. One woman, when asked to describe the class make-up of the new intake of members into her local SNP branch, made her case repeatedly and tautologically: ‘I don’t recognize class differences in my branch. The people who joined are people – people who care about Scotland and the people of Scotland’ – the yellow blur of nationalism. These folk who refused to recognize the importance of class also tended to believe in independence first, at any cost. ‘We must’, they insisted, ‘buy the house and decorate afterwards’ (a metaphor whose obvious flaws are exposed as soon as you identify what particular we would own the house.)

Another session addressed the Labour party, trade unions, and class in Scotland. Lynn Henderson, a Yes-voting Labour member, made a robust argument that the strength of the Yes campaign grew from compromise and dynamics outwith formal structures, creating one movement (and party) bigger than Scottish Labour could ever be, yet containing in it various contradictions: for instance, SNP campaigners branded Labour’s ‘failures’ on the living wage as a betrayal of the workers, while the same campaigners were outraged when PCS criticized the 1% pay rise in the Scottish civic service at SNP conference. The SNP trumps class interests and stays a step left of Labour to form its national hegemony, Lynn said.

It was another good and serious talk that could almost be described as a lecture – not confrontational, but well-grounded and even-handed. Yet no sooner had she stopped than an angry man interrupted the session to complain about the discussion of the Scottish Labour party. Aghast at the mild defence of Labour and the criticism of the SNP, he declared that he would leave the room if that line of thought continued. In short, the tribalism and unity of purpose with the SNP extended deep into the conference halls.

Sarah Collins, Unison activist and ISG member, then gave her presentation; she insisted class consciousness is on the rise, then insisted on RIC’s success as an autonomous movement campaigning for independence – with momentum which trade unions will have to adopt if they are to survive and thrive; and she suggested that unions should disaffiliate from Labour. Later, John Davidson, PCS activist and HMRC worker, argued that the SNP are not class-based, but ‘in fairness’ never claimed to be, so that there is ‘no natural home’ for the trade union movement in Scotland – and, now that a whole new group of people know what a movement is, there is potential for new forms of organizing. The wish that unions detach themselves from the Labour party was echoed by others, including one-time Labour staffer and now SNP member Tommy Sheppard. My unasked question was whether the political wing of this new trade union movement would permit the inclusion of nationalist objectives as well as working class objectives – becoming another wing of nationalist hegemony?

The point of this account is to illustrate the crucial tension in RIC between the nationalist outlook it supports and the class politics it requires. Of course there will be tugs both ways, and people will be involved in both movements. But RIC cannot resist the pressure of the SNP and nationalism without great effort. There are tactical attractions to resist too: I asked one organiser to defend the pathetic appearance of Sandra White, an SNP MSP who took the ‘independence-at-all-costs’ line to extremes when she said she was almost certain there would be another referendum in 2017. He defended it on the grounds that drawing SNP members to the RIC campaign will erode the unity and power of the SNP, and in turn will help draw the SNP to the left. But the draw of the SNP is much stronger than ours, and the decision to welcome Sandra White was enough to worry those activists and campaigners who have good reason to despise the SNP. My worry is that, despite assurances, RIC’s organisers overestimate their own ability to keep their own distinctiveness and their own momentum.

Leaving the Nationalist Solar System

This takes us to Robin McAlpine’s argument: that the radical left is, and should remain, a critical friend of the SNP. This is, he said, not just a form of ‘solidarity’, it’s a question of ‘physics’. According to McAlpine, ‘the simple physics of politics is back in play – people [will stand] against each other [if they] don’t have the unifying factor’ – and so we must ‘remember what solidarity felt like’ and ‘all find common ground’ to ‘make independence inevitable’ and ‘win’. But the same ‘physics’ can help explain why we ought to be enemies. To respond with pseudo-science of our own, we need to resist the ‘unifying factor’ for exactly the same reason that McAlpine says we should be drawn in. The gravity pulling objects into the SNP’s orbit is much stronger than momentum away from it, especially with the fading of the nationalist moment that gave the objects momentum of their own. This is just what McAlpine wants: RIC is part of the constellation at the heart of which is the SNP. (He is even building his own orrery: the Independence Convention, which, he said, is going to meet next year to redefine the planets: WFI can be Venus, the bringer of Peace; Newsnet Scotland can be Mercury, the messenger; McAlpine’s Common Weal will be Neptune, a blue gaseous Mystic…)

McAlpine’s mystical science was supplemented by another magician of the left, Tariq Ali, who was given a prominent place to muse on a subject he clearly knew nothing about. As we know, he sees everything through his own enchanted glass, the imperial project of Britain. Ali was given the antepenultimate speech, and apart from (deservedly) praising the organisers, he debunked the BBC and attacked the Scottish press. Then he urged the audience to back pro-independence candidates in the next elections – even if that means voting SNP.

From their elated ovation, it was obvious that the kinds of people who came to RIC were the same kinds as flooded to the Hydro to hear the new leaders of the SNP. The question is not whether RIC’s activists are socially distinct, whether they are more or less working class, or whether they campaigned harder for Yes – it is whether RIC is more able to create a new kind of politics and educate people in class politics. There is no doubt RIC has started working to develop a new political class – with leaders, intellectuals, propagandists and many followers of their own. Whether it can stop itself from being subsumed in nationalist politics, wrest itself away to stand distinct, and form a new class of politics, remains to be explored in detail.

Clearly RIC was based on independence; that was the source of its momentum; indeed it proved that the movement for independence was not about one party, as the organisers are so fond of saying. Now it’s over, RIC might all too easily slot itself into the ongoing movement for independence. If it does so, then it is a useless vehicle for the left, it will burn up the fuel of support it has worked hard to win, and, in short, it should be criticized, attacked, resisted and undermined. But if it can resist the urge of nationalism and criticize the Scottish hegemony with half the fervour it uses against the ‘British state’, it could find a new political path of its own. Deeds will reveal whether RIC’s shell contains the radical kernel of a new class politics.

Cailean Gallagher
(@CaileanG)

What radical exception can break Jim Murphy’s rule?

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What should we expect from the civil war in Scottish Labour? Some veterans of Labour’s last civil war, still haunted by the machiavellian menace of Blairism, see Jim Murphy’s leadership bid as part of a long-term plan to revive the right-wing of the Labour party. If/when Labour lose in 2015, brother Ed will resign and brother David (whose campaign for the Labour leadership was coordinated by Murphy) will fly back from the US to take his place as heir to Blair. After a few years in the Scottish wilderness Murphy will return to London in the name of Progress and become, say, foreign secretary – the last of the Scottish Raj, carrying with him a new centrist Scottish majority to join David Miliband’s ‘progressive alliance’.

But for the time being, as Blair’s old spin-doctor John McTernan explains on Progress’ Lord Sainsbury-funded website, Murphy’s leadership in Scotland is just what Ed Miliband needs. Armed with new-found patriotism and the language of equality of opportunity, Dinosaur Jim is making the Right, Honourable choice to leave Westminster and turn Scotland’s median voter into the fulcrum of Labour’s new ‘Scottish bloc’. Jim Murphy is the shadow cabinet’s candidate for Scottish leader, and his acrimonious relationship with Ed Miliband doesn’t change the fact they offer a similar agenda with regards to Scotland: to return most of the Scottish seats in 2015 then take control of the Scottish Parliament from the SNP in 2016.

So far, so typical – for what else should Labour do but aim to win elections? Is that not the only way to rebuild the party’s fortunes? It is the clear objective of Jim Murphy’s faction to return to where the party was before the SNP took Scottish politics from its control – don’t worry about the crash, lets get back to the nineties and dance to the old D-Ream. Murphy is to use his profile and character to win support for Labour on the basis of static expectations, to assure the traditional middle- and working-classes that he can lead the country with a refound confidence and ability to articulate ‘Labour’s values’ and steady the politics of Scotland after the disruption of the last few years. For Murphy, the problem is not Labour’s approach, or the ambitions of the Scottish party. Nor is it the public, who will return to Labour in due course. All we need is a leader to deliver it to them – on a crate, if you will.

The evidence suggests this will be disastrous for Labour. It is no wonder that a fifth of people who voted Labour in 2011 intend to vote SNP in 2016 if Murphy becomes leader. Murphy will win back none of the ground Labour has lost. The big hemorrhage in the party’s support was between 1999 and 2003 – before the supposed rise of nationalism. That was the period when Labour remade itself, when Tony Blair thwarted people’s great expectations about the potential for a Labour government, and installed a timid and toothless Labour Executive that made Scottish domestic politics equivalent to household economics. There are reasons the people keep looking to the SNP. Many of these reasons were created by the New Labour project, which failed to rebalance power in the labour market or to change the distribution of wealth, taking the country into a war against the rules of democracy and international law, while talking about a country free from poverty and injustice, with better opportunities for everyone. Scottish Labour’s chambers echo with these phrases once again.

In any case, the public, the party and the press expect the Blairites to win. But even as the media holds the crown above Murphy’s head, the civil war rages within the party. The conflict has another side, less disciplined and proficient, more fraught and keen: an insurgency with potential to defeat the establishment, upturn devolution, and to use Scottish Labour’s post-referendum crisis to reforge the party out of tougher stuff, that can give Scottish Labour back its identity and purpose. Its momentum has already exceeded expectations: Neil Findlay’s leadership campaign and Katy Clark’s bid for deputy already have the backing of trade unions and the significant resources they bring. The question is whether their campaigns can embody a popular and distinctive force that Scottish people can envision voting for in 2015 and 2016.

It is encouraging that both candidates have put power ahead of personality. Announcing her candidacy Clark fired a round at Murphy’s egoistic campaign spin, declaring that the leadership campaign is “not about individuals” but “the vast majority of people [who] want a secure job, a decent home and access to good quality public services” which are “prevented for too many by wealth being held in the hands of a minority”. This language and these demands are not the standard Scottish Labour fare of education, health and provision of public services, but are priorities hitherto excluded from the politics of devolved Scotland. People want job security and better wages, but do not expect to receive them from Scottish Labour. Findlay and Clark need to create new expectations about what the party can deliver, with a set of demands (for work, services, wages and so on) to be presented to the people.

These campaigns have to create a programme for Labour that is distinctive from the politics that the party has represented since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999. Given that the public and the membership believe Scottish Labour has lost its way, they need to restate the purpose of the party, based not on making devolution work but on autonomous socialist strategies and a new commitment to addressing the basic issues of wages, work and wealth. This rebellion has to struggle against Murphy’s slick campaign with confidence in policies for full employment, and with a bold challenge to corporate control, as well as an explanation as to why such policies will enable Labour to stand up to the SNP in Holyrood. The campaigns must resist temptations to appeal to members with mild social policies, or to focus on their opposition to the SNP’s universal benefits, however correct that position may be. Nor should they tell stories about how Neil and Katy personally embody Labour’s tradition. Their merits are not personal but political: the power they demand is not government in itself, but for the common good of the people – whose support is the foundation for each and every successful rebellion. Machiavelli’s chief lesson to the Prince was not to stab your opponents in daylight, not to pursue your ends with mock concern for the people, but to win the confidence of those you serve and make the people the foundation of your rule.

Putting jobs, work and wages first is fundamental, and the language has to be at once radical and ordinary. The public talks more about the lack of work than politicians do these days. Exploitation is conventional but what parliamentarian makes an argument on the exploitative methods of employers? Fighting economic injustices, which is displaced from Scottish politics, needs to become Scottish Labour’s raison d’être. Policies need to confront power imbalances – starting with legislation in Scotland to rebalance workplaces through collective bargaining. Securing economic justice demands not just action in Scotland, but recognizing that as things stand Scottish Labour can and must wield force in Britain to make an impact. This was one of the truths Labour addressed in the referendum: change can only be made beyond Scotland.

Nobody expects the next Scottish Labour leaders to break new ground, but the public’s expectations could hardly be worse: they are no foundation for a radical party. Socialism itself is non-existent and unexpected. Most people don’t know what they need until they see it. Their radical campaigns must describe the society that the party would aspire to create under their leadership. Successful rebellions are dismissed and ridiculed until they are in reach of power. Civil wars are hard to win, but an alliance of determined members can build up demands and win authority on the basis of assured conviction, backed by trade unions and other organizations, as well as their collective effort. It is not expectations but exceptions that create political change, and an exceptional campaign could demonstrate the capacity of socialists to lead Scottish Labour.

Scottish Labour has, in Clark and Findlay, a leadership team capable of winning power in the party and in Scotland, not for the sake of parliamentary ends that have stifled the Labour party for generations, but to deliver a kind of Home Rule that will allow us to get out of the bind of devolution. These candidates could use their leadership to win power from interests that control and determine the conditions and aspirations of the Scottish people, as part of a wider insurgency in the Labour party across the British isles. Katy Clark, with a record of attacking banks, promoting good employment and exposing exploitation, represents the outward battle. On the home front, Neil Findlay can make economic justice the mainstay of Scottish Labour’s politics. Together they urgently need to win this civil war and retake the Scottish Labour party.

Cailean Gallagher (@CaileanG)

Findlay For Leader: On The Monstrous Possibilities of Scottish Labour

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Antonio Gramsci, long a hero of the Scottish left, wrote that a crisis exists when “the old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.” Scottish Labour is – perhaps to the surprise of some – not a world unto itself, but nevertheless seems to be faced with a similar predicament today.

Dinosaurs, Monsters, Scarecrows

It’s not ridiculous to wonder whether Scottish Labour’s new world will come forth at all. Former Labour finance secretary Andy Kerr described the situation memorably on BBC Crossfire: “If I was a dinosaur I’d be quite offended to be compared to some of these [Scottish Labour] MPs. Dinosaurs left the planet and there was some hope for life afterwards. These people are not going to leave any hope for life in the Scottish Labour Party.”

And it is a time of monsters. In the leering, long-limbed form of Jim Murphy, the spectre of Blairism haunts page after page of speculation about the next Scottish Labour leader. Gordon Brown’s revitalised acolytes worship, seemingly to no avail, at the altar of the Big Beast. Monsters are often evil, or frightening – but not always. To consider the monstrous is, by implication, also to consider what it means to be not-monstrous, to be ordinary; and what is ordinary in Scottish Labour is barely worth considering.

Brown and Murphy are not ordinary, but they remind us of the joke about the scarecrow that won a Nobel prize for being out standing in his field; they are political scarecrows, hollow monsters, frightening off the scavengers without moving a muscle. The ordinary – Sarwar, Dugdale and Marra – have all ruled themselves out. Brown has done the same.

But there is another contender, by no means ordinary, hovering at the edge of the field, with an inkling that the remaining scarecrow may in fact be nothing more than a suit full of straw. The candidacy of Neil Findlay MSP, shadow health secretary and lifelong socialist, would certainly be monstrous. It would also be the best thing to happen to the Scottish Labour Party – perhaps even Scottish politics – in a very long time.

Telling Tales

To be monstrous is to be unexpected, to fill the void which emerges between the things we accept or understand as they fragment and separate. The world is full of monsters today partly because it is so full of failed understanding. The vast, apparently cosmic, forces of globalisation and crisis are transforming the world, but our understanding remains almost insurmountably parochial and nationally grounded. People whose lives, lifestyles and livelihoods are under threat are fettered by a disorientating combination of global forces and local ideas, and react in a suitably confused way. We end up with a range of bizarre symptoms which few can properly explain: UKIP, Russell Brand, ISIS, even the Yes campaign, are all vaguely a part of this. Nobody seems to know where it’s all coming from, or what to do about it.

Against this, we tell stories. Real monsters must be sublimated into fictions, lest we lose our minds or at least our hope. The monstrous state of the Labour Party today must not be explained as the inevitable fate of social democracy in global capitalism, for then the remaining options become unpleasant – as Luxemburg put it, socialism or barbarism – and people get their nice houses expropriated. Labour’s decline must instead be slotted into a narrative that preserves an easy way out: The Scottish nationalist story tells us that Labour will either decline, irreversibly, or will be absorbed peaceably into the new order; what is assured is the restoration of craved economic and social security under the civic-national banner, and a new political hegemony with the “Yes Alliance” at its centre. One social democratic star wanes, another rises, and darkness, with all its terrible monsters, never truly falls.

Jim Murphy would fit snugly into this story. He would conclude the right-wing takeover of Scottish Labour, long seen as reluctantly lagging behind London, and condemn them to the final loss of their remaining working class supporters. Murphy’s deposition of Price and Lamont cements his image as the London Labour candidate, reasserting Westminster control in a party threatening to find its own distinct voice. The nationalist stereotypes of Labour would be confirmed, one by one.

The Shock of History

A key and particularly mendacious part of the nationalist fairy tale is that Labour never really wanted powers to lie in Scotland; that they handed limited power over reluctantly in the face of an insurgent SNP, regretted it soon after, and are now paying the price. This is an act of wilful ignorance towards the history of the Scottish labour movement and their turbulent relationship with the Labour Party. A truer, but altogether less optimistic, account of Labour’s decline in Scotland would go like this:

The radical challenge of devolutionary socialism flourished on the trade union left and influenced the Scottish Labour Party during the 1970s, but withered in the face of intransigence from the Labour right in the 1974-79 governments. This was followed by the obliteration of the forces which sustained it in the labour movement’s defeats of the early and mid-1980s. Following the miners’ strike, and the end of a widespread belief in the labour movement that industrial action could successfully challenge government policy, a left-ish civic nationalism became the predominant force in Scottish politics.

Spearheaded by the STUC, Labour was joined by the SNP, the Liberals, the Churches and local government institutions in arguing for a defensive shield for the material interest and allegedly distinctive values of Scottish society. Rather than the “workers’ parliament” the STUC leadership had argued for at the time of the UCS work-in, the devolution that was popularised at this time was defensive and conservative, rather than forward looking and transformative. It has been within the environment shaped by these prerogatives that the SNP have flourished, and Labour have been unable to out-nationalist the nationalists in a contest based on “defending Scotland” and preserving a limited welfare settlement rather than redistributing wealth or power.

Nationalists could claim that this is just another story. And it is, to an extent. Writing or studying history is not in itself a useful form of politics; it changes some minds, but few. Walter Benjamin wrote that “the true picture of the past whizzes by”; that “to articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” For Benjamin, true history was not one long story, through which some grand progressive intention was revealed, but a kind of interruption; history is precisely the real monster which bursts out of the inevitable gap in the conventional, ideological narrative and forces everyone to pause and realign themselves to the world. History seeks revenge against those who try to hide from it.

This, then, should be a central goal of radical politics; not to take the long march through history, building a narrative and movement that gradually imbues the people with left-wing values, but to ride in on the back of a monster with a shock intervention in the accepted order of things, exposing and exploiting the contradictions and inconsistencies of those in power to alter the fundamental coordinates of political possibility.

Why Findlay Should Run

Neil Findlay’s candidacy would be at the very least a form of interruption, if not quite a radical reorientation of politics. It would unsettle established forces and trajectories in his party and in Scottish politics, which are unprepared for someone like him precisely because he is so profoundly unlikely. His election to parliament on the regional list in 2011 was a surprise itself, coming from the SNP’s shock triumph across Edinburgh and Lothians constituency seats; but he has proven himself in parliament, rising quickly to shadow health and wellbeing secretary and holding the SNP to account from a principled left-wing position.

And he can win. As possibly the only Holyrood challenger to Westminster’s Jim Murphy, he would command the support of a significant number of MSPs and some MPs. It’s possible, even probable, that several unions would back him. The left wing of the party membership would do the same. Odds were duly slashed after Brown ruled himself out.

What forces might he unsettle? His candidacy could blow Labour open, with the help of the trade unions, the Red Paper Collective and others, and demonstrate that amidst the cobwebs there still exists a principled, imaginative left in the Labour Party. The “civil war” predicted by the Scottish Daily Mail should be welcomed, not feared. Getting Scottish Labour back on its feet won’t be done without a bit of rough and tumble.

His leadership, if secured, would be hard to fit into the story of Scotland told by the now-established and increasingly hegemonic SNP and many of their “Yes Alliance” sympathisers. Nationalists, facing a rejuvenated challenge from the left, would be unable to realistically condemn Scottish Labour as ‘red Tories’, and would struggle to monopolise centre-left and working class votes. Findlay’s motions on the living wage and blacklisting earlier this year exposed the SNP’s conservatism on crucial issues for the working class, and his recent article for the Morning Star demonstrated a keen awareness of the potential and necessity of socialist, class-oriented politics in a faltering party. The anti-Labour left, who generally accept the nationalist narrative en masse, would find it hard to legitimately portray Labour under Findlay as something to be destroyed; they would have to either consider the party on its real merits or expose their underlying nationalism. Findlay’s leadership will help socialists to clarify certain lines of division.

But most importantly, it’s as a socialist that Findlay can understand the need for Labour to exit the civic nationalist discourse they have been so complicit in creating. He can and must represent that tradition in Labour which has been forced underground: one that does not seek to build an illusory consensus by hiding or suppressing division, but identifies the real conflicts in society, points them out to everyone else, and comes down firmly on the correct side. If Labour’s degeneration into just another extraneous party of the fading middle classes is halted under Findlay’s leadership, the party may even be able to halt the degeneration of Scottish politics into total nationalist hegemony by providing a rallying point for a dissenting, conflict-focused left. Neil Findlay should run for Scottish Labour leader, and – along with the whole Labour Party – the Scottish left should support him.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)
Ewan Gibbs (@ewangibbs)

Common Weal, Limited

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The Common Weal has big plans for the future: it has already appointed a 16-member board of prominent businesspeople, academics, activists and so on, and it is currently raising funds to set up some coffee shops and an app, among other things.

Whether any of this is of use to socialists and the labour movement is for another article, but we were disturbed to discover some inconsistencies, outlined below, in the way the organisation has been presenting itself to the public.

In a short article entitled “Doing It Right…” on the Common Weal website, McAlpine writes that “Common Weal Ltd is a Company Limited By Share.” However, a look at the company’s incorporation documents, signed off by Robin McAlpine and publicly available from Companies House, reveals that they are currently a Company Limited by Guarantee with no share capital. This is not just pedantry.

The next section of McAlpine’s article states:

The Board is made up of 16 individuals selected from Scottish society to reflect the purpose of the organisation, along with the Director. They have the full management and financial responsibility for the organisation. Each will be a Company Director and shareholder during their period on the Board. They have the full responsibility for setting and approving the work programme of the organisation and for its financial management.

But a Company Limited by Guarantee ordinarily has no shareholders. Legal responsibility lies with the guarantors/members, of which Common Weal Ltd currently has one. The article goes on: “The Board has full responsibility and as shareholders carry legal responsibility”. But to this date, as far as the Companies House records show, this simply isn’t the case.

Now to the constitution of the Common Weal, at the end of the same article:

The ultimate decision-making body of Common Weal will be its Board. The Board will normally consist of seventeen people, eight male, eight female, and the Director… Members of the Board will be Directors of Common Weal Ltd for the duration of their membership and will hold one share limiting their liability to £1.

This all sounds good. The “board” features leading lights of the Yes campaign like RIC’s Cat Boyd, Bright Green’s Peter McColl and National Collective’s Ross Colquhoun, among others. When the board was announced we had hope that as co-directors and board members these people would be able to influence the direction of the organisation in useful ways, against McAlpine’s will if need be.

But again, this isn’t the case as things stand. If we look at the actual incorporation documents of Common Weal Ltd, we see just one director, and one member: Robin McAlpine.

His organisation has advertised the appointment of a diverse board from across Scottish society and particularly across the activist community, and has already begun to take donations. Supporters’ faith in a board of that quality is surely a factor in the decision to donate. But Robin McAlpine, as sole member and director of the organisation receiving those donations, currently retains the power to unilaterally appoint – or exclude – any “board member” at will. Furthermore, the only person with legal and fiscal responsibility for those donations is currently Robin McAlpine, not the board as a whole.

It’s possible that they’ve simply not got round to updating the company’s status and membership with Companies House. But if that’s the case, McAlpine could and should have waited to complete the process before asking for money, rather than potentially misleading his donors and supporters about the nature of the company they’re giving money to. This, on top of his recent split from the Jimmy Reid Foundation, raises serious questions about whether he is truly committed to the values of consensus, mutual respect and compromise that his organisation espouses.

The central problem with the Common Weal’s slogan “All Of Us First” has always been the problematic definition of “Us”. Does it mean Scotland? In which case, does INEOS boss Jim Ratcliffe get to come “first”, or do his workers? What about postcolonial reparations: if Scotland is as wealthy as the Common Weal insists, how much of that wealth is dependent on our imperial legacy and our (inextricable) privileged position in a stratified global order? Surely if it’s nations (“all of us” within a given cross-class community) that are coming “first”, “we” are amongst the least deserving? These questions are the reason Roch Wind’s politics put class (perhaps best expressed here as “most of us”) before nation. But when it comes to Common Weal Ltd, there’s only one person who comes first just now.

04/10/14 – Update: we put these concerns to Robin McAlpine in an online Q&A, and his response is below. He doesn’t appear to answer the question, but does have some things to say about our motives. Alas, we don’t have the time, connections or resources to build up an organisation capable of producing long policy documents and so on, but that’s beside the point. For us, politics isn’t about a small group of people coming up with policies and asking the class currently in power to implement them; we think the first priority is to find ways of radicalising and empowering the working class so it can take power itself, internationally and nationally. What matters is who is in power; the question of how they use it comes second. This applies at the macro (the state, the economy, international institutions) and the micro (parties, trade unions, organisations, universities) level. And it’s much harder to analyse and criticise the existing distribution of power at a micro level when organisations like the Common Weal send such mixed messages about their own internal affairs. 

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They Rogues

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It’s a thocht that wad gar our rottans,
Aa thae rogues that gang gallus, fresh and gay
Tak the road an seek ither loanins
wi their ill ploy tae sport and play”
     Hamish Henderson

Having a mind that is always keen to hook a thought onto the Freedom Come Aa Ye, it struck me, reading the Peat Worrier’s latest notes on the Scottish elite’s confidence in Britain, that his “well-heeled, black-coated gentlemen” who “feel perfectly chipper and self-assertive within the UK” are among those we would like to see removed from their place in an independent Scotland, and packed off to sport their ill ploys in some other places. But would, or could, a Yes vote precipitate the gradual eviction and replacement of Ye Old Incompetences at the heart of Scotland’s establishment?

The view that many of them fear the consequences of a Yes vote, and the popular confidence it would represent, finds evidence in the likes of Hugo Rifkind’s appeal to them to come out from their nice houses and public schools to save the union, and the forced and bitter reticence of representatives in the CBI and Law Society. This quiet fear fuels the ‘radical’ nationalist belief that Britain is for the Rich, but Scotland can be Ours.

Materially it is also true that “Edinburgh’s bourgeois tribes” enjoy many “wages of privilege” which incline them to favour the constitutional status quo – whereas, for the common Scot who does not share the “unselfconscious confidence in the exercise of power” enjoyed by doctors, judges, mandarins and so forth, “allegiance to the British state is – perhaps disturbingly – provisional”. A popular shift away from established institutions that a Yes vote represents does seem destined to weaken the elite.

So, although Lallands does not explore in depth the reasons for the elite’s fear of rising popular confidence, his argument does suggest that Scotland’s elite, content in Britain, would find no solace in a Scotland where the “overwhelming majority of folk, unsteeped in what can sometimes seem like the uncritical hive mind of the Scottish establishment”, decide to take things into their own hands. So far, so promising that Henderson’s ambition may be advanced if the many are confident enough to vote Yes in September.

Yet, as Roch Wind has pointed out before, while a No vote may be in the best interests of the rich, plenty of the Scottish elite believe an independent Scotland would suit them at least as well as the status quo. Edinburgh townhouses would remain the best places in Britain to live. And what kind of threat to their stimulating comfort could possibly be posed by a nation-state financially in thrall to London, under a government that has thinned out social democracy so it means little more than business as usual with social perks? The prospect for them to carry on in this new free Scotland with more power and money must seem ideal in some respects: to shed the galling robes and underwhelming titles that come with of administering a sub-state under London’s auspices, in an artery far from the beating heart, and for the Edin-burghers to rule a nation-state in their own right.

It is not as if their interests find no representation in the highest level of Scottish administration. The First Minister himself embodies these rogues. Smart Alec not only captures the confidence of this class about an independent Scotland; he convinces the masses that they, too, can be confident in the former’s quiet supremacy. Alec knows he has managed to reassure the elite there is no serious or unusual risk in his offer: on one hand exuding confidence in Scotland ‘with every fibre of his being’ (as he put it in an interview with Russia Today which has lingered uneasily in my mind) and on the other carrying out a project to put security of property in place of fear, especially for businesses and their owners. Just bear in mind, ye radicals, that our independent country would be founded by a former bank researcher whose consistent political belief has been the ability of Scotland to be a wealthy and prosperous country without any significant adjustment of its social structure.

This need not be an intractable problem so long as we are ourselves mindful that the enemy will remain within an independent Scotland. For after a Yes vote we would begin the enterprise of clearing away our cloistered places and exposing the hidden people’s incompetence and interests. Once the administration of Scotland is under independent scrutiny (which should be a priority of all authentic radicals) then their fallacies and indulgencies may be laid bare, and their undeserved rewards may start to be rebuked and ultimately be confiscated by a public that is more attentive to the spending of its monies and the potential of its own self-government. At this point, if we are swift, the elite will start losing the confidence that Alex Salmond has worked so hard to generate. For the privileged are confident in themselves as long as they believe their position is secure. But once the many start to challenge the few, and highlight their inadequacies, established confidence will begin to fail.

Such faltering resolve bears a curious resemblance to the Peat Worrier’s description of the moments when he says “the spirit of confidence deserts [him]”. This cloistered elite (with whom both he and I are all too familiar) are the kind of people who, despite insecurities and doubts about their abilities, know they are more equipped with copious words and arguments – not to mention money and privilege – than anyone around them. These bluffers easily can speak and impress people in the room; but as soon as doubt enters their minds, they waver and shake, and the warm confidence, about which they sometimes harboured doubts, evaporates to leave them in a cold sweat. And if ‘ordinary’ folk, who do not share their stage and status, begin to raise public doubts about their privileges, so that the elites realize that their own capacities are not much more extraordinary than those of the common folk criticizing them in the towns and cities, then these ruling tribes will find their time has come, and their rewards, hitherto concealed, will be in the open air. At that moment they’ll run to save their skins.

They will be allowed to go. For although the Freedom Come Aa Ye describes a revolutionary moment, it is clear all along that the elite are not to suffer much. The gallows are brought down, not wheeled to George Square for a different use.

Of course, some will fear this would start the process of a devastating capital flight – but short-term capital withdrawal becomes long-term capital replacement. In his account of his trip to America, Robert Louis Stephen determines that when we consider solutions to the social problems around us, we surely must lament poverty, but it is dealing with the self-serving and the undeserving capitalists that should concerned us first and foremost. Their removal may owe more to the capacity of the many for social organisation than to any challenge to their power per se. Social change and collective ownership threatens the rich, destroys exploitation on which alone they thrive, and thus drives them out – so they leave almost of their own volition.

It is elite confidence that keeps power with the few. Seeing the correlation between confidence and power, confidence is bandied around on the left in Scotland as if it is a first principle of radical politics. But although confidence follows power and protects it, the elite’s crisis of confidence will come not when the masses summon up the confidence to join the Scottish elite and share in rising expectations for every class, but when they assert their material demands against those who hold court.

At this point, witnessing the success of their reaction to unjust indulgence and incompetent power of others, the many can develop confidence themselves. This moves them to control themselves what others formerly controlled at a higher cost; and, finding they have more than the requisite ability to administer a society and economy and nation, the many start to build on solid ground the kind of institutions that in the past were built by an elite to satisfy the masses’ discontents. Finding these constructions solid and secure, the people gain more confidence to topple the old structures and institutions of the rogues, who, finding themselves bereft of work or wealth, begin to take their ploys elsewhere.

Of course, they rogues will find other lanes. But though the entire world revolves at once, the history of modern European societies suggests, for now at least, that revolutions will be national. Even that should gar oor rottans.

Cailean Gallagher

 

A Former Trade Minister on the Condition of British Labour

les_huckfield_march
Les Huckfield (right) on a march in 1979

This week I met Les Huckfield, Labour trade minister in the 1970s, who today (Sunday 6th July) declared his support for a Yes vote. From our wide-ranging discussion, his comments on the condition of Labour struck me as prescient for those on the radical socialist wing of the party who believe in a No vote.

Some people will not vote for independence because they have ‘touching faith’ in a British Labour government, said Les. But most Scots do not understand what’s happening in England, where the rate of worker exploitation and social degradation is much more advanced and more severe than it is in Scotland. Many party supporters do not see that Labour has developed weak ambitions that will leave the party unprepared to heal a nation in chronic decline. In short, even if Miliband wins in 2015, society will not be protected.

Politically, Ed Miliband is the best that Labour can hope for; a more left-wing candidate than other competitors like Balls or Burnham. He understands that the changing labour market runs under every part of policy. He will confront zero-hours abuses, yet he is not committed to basic and modest proposals advanced by the unions, like renationalizing the railway, bringing parts of the English NHS back into public control, or resisting Juncker’s plans for unlimited marketisation of services and production across Europe, through the TITP. His public sector pay-freezes and spending plans are as bad as the Tory government’s.

Structurally, Labour no longer represents its members, and constituency parties have almost no power to deliver their own suggestions into the policy agenda. Ed Miliband’s changes to the trade union link were fatally misunderstood by activists as being a revision rather than a rupture of the relationship, and thus faced inadequate resistance. After the next election there will be great difficulty for Labour members to keep any democratic control they have left in Labour, or to exert any influence over things like reselections, or to demand feedback from MP’s experience in Parliament or surgeries. Within the unions, Left control will diminish almost as quickly as unions lose their influence over the party.

As for Labour’s aspirations, they have recently been laid out in a series of documents with very cautious, pro-establishment measures which propose a degree of service and investment devolution on strict, centrally-directed terms: power for cities to spend greatly reduced budgets on dwindling services; benefit changes that place the biggest burden on those who have never worked, and look to solve the labour market problems by ‘building relationships’ locally. Adonis’ report suggests Labour keeps hold of the coalition’s tight strings on regional funding, with access on less democratic terms than before. Meanwhile the overall aspirations as set out in the IPPR’s Condition of Britain report are bleak and timid – what we have in Scotland now is better than the full set of policies it proposes.

The message from this former Labour minister was simply this: the UK won’t be OK with Labour, and the faith in a Miliband government, touching as it is, risks leading a movement and tradition in Scotland that is finally able to make its own demands back into the endless echo-chambers of a Westminster Party which stopped listening to its members or considering its doctrine a very long time ago.

Hard as it is for a committed Labour member to admit, Les Huckfield has a point.

Cailean Gallagher

Scotland and Utopia

Utopia

Scotland has been in a political union for the entirety of its formative years, so the process of imagining its onwards progression as a state is a difficult one. No real state remains to be revived with independence, beyond that which has been shakily constructed on the back of devolution. Scottish political traditions, having been expressed through a British state apparatus, are in their statist form inseparable from the British state.

But this does create the potential for one particular kind of left thought. Utopianism. Utopianism isn’t imagining the impossible, nor is it setting out a programme to a better society. Utopianism is a process of identifying the bonds that hold a society together, and in place of their inevitable decay, reimagining these bonds as strong and fit for purpose, and then describing the superstructure that might correspond to this foundation.

One early example of utopian thinking was Plato’s Republic. He identified societies as operating on the basis of social roles – men, women, governors, cobblers, farmers. Plato saw that social roles gave men and women an understanding of the part they were required to play in their society, and when people fulfilled their social roles correctly, there would be social harmony, because the roles perfectly fitted together into a State.

Plato’s utopia was based on this idea. In the Republic, Plato laid out the responsibilities and characteristics of different social roles that would form an ideal society, and how the society would in turn create people to fulfil these roles – through education, structures of governance, and lines of responsibility. Plato’s Republic was a utopia, because it showed a perfect unity between the social foundation of society and the social structure of society. And the Republic had an important relationship to reality, because the social roles which formed its foundation were in fact present in an imperfect form, and imperfectly related to each other, in the society that Plato saw around him, and indeed today.

Now let’s go forward to 1516, and the thought of an Englishman, Thomas More. He gets to his fundamental principles, the equivalent of Plato’s roles, by looking at the decline of social cohesion in England. This boils down to the use of land and the nature of work. Noble folk own property and live off rents, while the greedier ones remove tenant farmers in favour of sheep. “Each greedy individual prays on his native land like a malignant growth… Thus a few greedy people have converted one of England’s greatest natural advantages into a national disaster.”

For More, the bonds that hold society together are land-based and agricultural. Humans live off the same land, and ideally should use it rationally and to their mutual benefit. Thus, More’s Utopia involves a high degree of agricultural knowledge among citizens, the practice of working on the land, the abolition of property and a strong identification of the city with the hinterland. As was the case with Plato, More was drawing on politically-relevant and real social relationships that were determining the direction of society, and became particularly prominent during the period of the True Levellers.

Rousseau’s Social Contract also exhibits these features of utopian thought which we are investigating. Rousseau’s work on constitution-forming and interest in constitutional-legal thought lead him to consider how a society would ideally function with a politico-legal social contract as its basis. The most fundamental social link we have is a political one, the practice of governance and the democratic development of the state. Rousseau’s utopia emerged from an era when constitutional thought was becoming extremely important in France, culminating with the French Revolution.

With the advent of Marxism, utopian thought became less common. Marx still identifies a fundamental basis for society: human needs which must be satisfied by civil society (but not necessarily political society). But he does not construct a utopia on this basis, as his project is less philosophical. Instead, Marx identifies in civil society certain laws which will determine its development, and theorises how this might transform the social relationship itself. And Utopian thought is meaningless if we accept a basis for society which has its own principles of change, rather than one that patiently stands still so that we may construct superstructures to complement it.

Marx destroyed utopian socialism, and utopianism largely fell out of practice. It emerged again in mainstream Left thought recently, with Eric Olin Wright’s idea of “real utopias”. But Olin Wright’s utopias are constructed on so many different bases that the only consistent feature is utopianism itself, and his many varied examples tell us little about society or how to work within our own polis.

You might now begin to see why I say that utopian thought could be revived in light of the national question in Scotland. Civil society stands still, everyone ignores world economic change, and the Scotland of the future is projected onto an eternal world-as-we-now-know-it. Everyone is asking what a future Scotland will look like, meaning the institutions, the laws and the roles. We could be living pre-sociology.

The Common Weal is an interesting example. Robin McAlpine in fact identifies common needs as the basis for all society (this is not quite Marxian, since it includes too little sense of the relationships these needs necessarily bring us into, but it is surprisingly close). His vision for the future of Scotland based on this idea envelops universalism, an All-Of-Us-First idea, and a model for industrial development. It’s all quite neat.

But it’s strange this is the only one. Utopianism has proven to be an influential political strategy for the Common Weal, not for the merits of the programme itself, but because Scotland is ripe for utopian thought. Other thinkers in Scotland might be canny to follow the utopian approach and develop their own utopias based on more radical social ideals – using ideal bases for society which are far less familiar, and not preached by the liberal Right. Where McAlpine uses the ideal of social harmony between people and the market, challenges to his utopia might instead assert ideals of land or work

The advantage of utopianism is that it allows the proponent to clearly demonstrate the core principles of their thought. For instance, folk like Andy Wightman could take a leaf out of Thomas More’s book, and propose a radical use of land, in a way that demonstrates the current relevance of land use to most people, and how it forms the basis for the way many people live in Scotland.

This would overcome the difficulty in making people who do not live in Applecross or run social enterprises understand the relevance of land-ownership. Scottish Labour talks incessantly about community ownership, but it is extremely unclear what land ownership might mean in a city or indeed why it is important for those parts of Scotland that do not exist in an absurd pre-clearances fashion. For land-ownership to become a popular radical demand, there needs to be a reassertion of the idea that the polis and Scottish society is based upon the way we share and use land. Utopian thought could provide this, and begin the formation of a radical land-based political language in Scotland.

Role-based utopias could also be important in Scotland in order to create any kind of radical independence. A utopia that showed the way in which social roles have deteriorated to the point where roles are segregated by class and gender, and the individual has only a limited number of forms of social expression, could be an important step forward, particularly for the feminist movement. All too often, decision-makers about women in Scotland rely on pre-existing female roles, such as childcare, and only strive to imagine how this role could be rewarded monetarily, rather than to consider the way that the role is in itself a part of a decayed society, and refuses autonomy and expression to the individual.

At Roch Wind we try to investigate change rather than sketch out beautiful models, and many Labour and trade union-oriented folk feel the same. But while utopianism might feel like a step backwards, the Left should not ignore effective forms of propaganda, nor should it decline to drown out less progressive voices like the Common Weal using their own means. The potential for utopianism in Scottish thought will be around for quite a while, independence or no, and propagandists would do well to seize upon this form while it is still influential. If nothing else, it’ll be an interesting blip in Scottish thought.

Amy Westwell