Burke & Fair: Grave-Robbing With The Common Weal


The Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project has gathered quite a lot of support from the Scottish left (and, via Business For Scotland and Jim Mather, the Scottish right as well) during the referendum campaign. We recently enjoyed a piece on their website called “Principles of the Common Weal”, written by one of their growing army of academics, which lays out their ideas in children’s storybook form, cheerily patronising the reader from the first sentence. The article is typical of the Common Weal’s output: its platitudinous liberalism makes for a neatly-fitting lid on the coffin of social democracy, hiding the decomposing cadaver from view while its stubborn apostles insist it has already been resurrected in Scandinavia, that strange land where time stands still and Margaret Thatcher delivers milk to nurseries. We’ve tried to pry open the coffin lid to see what these “principles” really mean…


1. Society

We live together in society

People do not live in isolation from each other; we live in families and communities.  Most of us belong to a wide range of groups and networks – joined together by, for example, culture, education, religion, mutual responsibility and our shared experiences. A society is a group of all those groups.  A society may seem distant to some, and there are parts of the world where it is, but Scotland is not one of those places.  Many of the things that make life in Scotland work, happen at the level of society as a whole: education, health care, pensions, roads, parks and many other services are organised socially, and they make us all better off than we would be without them.

Translation: “Like Aristotle said, we’re rather like bees. A society is a group of sub-groups. We are joined to others by things like our common interest in spoken word poetry, our common membership of university rowing clubs, our commitment to the Orange Order, the fact that we give other people directions, and that we all like Hogmanay. Some parts of the world are uncivilised and things are organised by religious groups, or by trade unions. Here, everything happens at the TOP level – the group of sub-groups – society – and that is good. By society it turns out we actually mean the State. The State organises education, health care, pensions, roads, parks, and other services, and if we squint at the word “State” it looks a bit like “society” which is a bit like “social”, and we know social things are good, because… Anyway, we know if we didn’t have these state-based things then everything would be worse, because we’d probably be serfs.”

2. The common good

The welfare of every person depends on the welfare of each of us.

The idea of the common weal begins with the idea that the welfare of each and every person matters for the welfare of all of us.  Every member of a family shares, to some extent, the pleasure and pain of others;  it is hardly possible for a family to be content and satisfied with their circumstances when one of their number is deprived or dangerously ill. In the same way, it is difficult for the members of a society to be content if the most vulnerable people in that society are suffering.  There are differences, of course, between families and societies; the relationship we have to members of our family is closer and stronger than it is to others.  But wherever other people lack welfare, it affects us, too.  Poverty makes life worse, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

Translation: Like Hobbes said, the State is sort of like a body. This is useful, because we think that, like a body, when a part of society is sick, the other parts are too. Now, the other parts – that’s people with nice lives who aren’t in poverty- aren’t THAT affected by the hard lives of other people in society, but it does make them feel worried, and sometimes really really concerned. When middle class people are concerned, they are not as happy as they could be. And this is a sure sign that things need to change.

“We hope no one reading this is thinking about certain twentieth-century invocations of the state as a family. Of course, our national socialism is very different to that. We will draw your attention instead to another instance – in 14th century Florence, the elites used an idea laid down in Roman history, the idea of the state as a family, to quell the wool-workers and their mistaken sense of associational politics. See – the state isn’t something nasty, and everyone should learn to love it, just like family.”

3. Solidarity

We have obligations to each other.

The idea of ‘solidarity’ is widely used in Europe to mean that people are held together by bonds of mutual obligation – the ties of family, community and society.  People are included in society when they are part of those networks, excluded when they are not.  The common weal is an idea that includes people, and binds them together.  It means that we are all of us responsible for each other.  This does not mean that people are not also responsible for themselves; but it does mean that looking out for oneself is not enough, and never can be. “All the members of human society”, Adam Smith wrote, “stand in need of each other’s assistance.”  Every one of us depends on the help and support of others.

Translation: “We will just define the idea of solidarity in case you have any misconceptions about the politics behind that word. You might associate the idea with a song containing the line “Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?”, or another song that says “We’ll boot your fuckin’ cockney skulls right back to Bethnal Green” but we don’t want you to worry about those violent and divisive anthems – we’re talking about something much better. What we mean by solidarity is that all the sub-groups, and the main group (society/the State) hold people together in “bonds of mutual obligation”. We have mutual obligation because we depend on others – this is what Adam Smith thought in 1759, and the Enlightenment is the epitome of human thought.”

4. Stewardship

We have a duty to future generations.

Edmund Burke, the great conservative philosopher, argued that society is a partnership, not just of those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.  Part of the responsibility we have is to each other.  Part is to those who have come before us – to preserve our common heritage.  Part is to those who will come after us.  Each generation has a duty of stewardship for the generations to come – a duty that goes beyond the narrower idea of ‘sustainability’, because it is a commitment to make things better, not just to keep things going.  The common weal calls for us to build for the future.

Translation: “Edmund Burke didn’t like the French Revolution. He thought the Ancien Regime was pretty fab, and he thought we’d better preserve the monarchical and political systems we had and let them change organically, even if it did mean people were pissed off. We think the same (sort of). We think we have to preserve our common heritage – the Queen! The empire! nice arty things, like Gaelic. We have a commitment to the future! Here, we’d better depart from Burke. We’re in a muddle now. We must build.”

5. Rights

A society has to protect the rights of every person in it.       

The common weal cannot be achieved by sacrificing the welfare of some people for the good of others. A society where some people are poor, homeless or excluded, is a worse place to live for everyone else.  Most people in Scotland look at exclusive societies – like the gated communities of South East England – with some disquiet. As The Spirit Level shows, societies that are more unequal are less healthy, more prone to crime and poorer than others.

 Translation: “Mutual responsibility means egalitarianism. If some are more equal than others, the middle class get sad. Most people in Scotland think “God I wish I was as rich as people in South East England” “It is wrong that those people are rich and ignore that others are so poor – I am glad I live in a place where the rich love the poor with all their hearts”. As an old sociology study shows, it is better for rich people to live in societies with a smaller gap between rich and poor. We want to live in the “right” society, which is why this section is about “Rights”…”

6. Equality

Everyone needs access to the conditions of civilisation.

There are many differences between people – for example, differences of gender, of religion, of physical capacity.  Equality means that wherever there are such differences, people should not have to suffer from disadvantages because of them.  The most basic type of equality is about respect for persons: people of any kind should not be treated as inferior.  Then there is equality of opportunity; people should not be denied opportunities because of who they are.  Our common weal calls for equality, however,  in a deeper sense.  The real argument for equality, Tawney argued, was that every person in a society should have ‘access to the conditions of civilisation’ – including, amongst other issues, education, housing, sanitation, health care and a basic income.

Translation: “There are differences in society, and people should not be discriminated against for being “different”. Nobody should be treated as inferior. There should be equality of opportunity. But most of all, everyone should have access to a good life. If you are “different” and this is interpreted to mean you are inferior (for instance, you might be a woman!), don’t get angry at those misguided people, but trust in us to deliver a society where you have access to all the conditions of civilisation, due to our good Christian morals. See – we avoided all that nasty liberation politics!”

A common enterprise

To build more we must share more.  

The common weal depends on common action. We are part of a joint enterprise, which every person contributes to, so that every person can benefit.  By working together, every one of us can achieve more than we can do alone. And acting together has another, less immediate advantage: when people co-operate, they have the opportunity to build a community, and identity, and a sense of purpose.  Together, we can make Scotland a better place to live.

Translation: “We all must contribute to the enterprise of the common weal (which means mutual responsibility) so that we all benefit. Working together is known to be efficient, as Adam Smith showed us so wonderfully. But there is value in cooperation itself – it gives us a community (Common Weal Scotland) an identity (Common Weal Scotland) and a sense of purpose (creating a Common Weal Scotland). Now that, my friends, is an ideology!”


The Common Weal hope to utilise a common civic/social-nationalist impulse, which they believe they have found in Scotland, to overcome class and sectional antagonisms in Scottish society and pinpoint policies which are in the interests of all. It is an ideology of class compromise, idealist complacency and national-political consensus, pre-empting any possibility for a truly emancipatory and internationalist politics of class struggle, historical materialism and political revolution.

The Common Weal claim the Left as their terrain, and yet their intellectual roots – reactionaries like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, fused with the technocratic paternalism of The Spirit Level – betray a fundamental conservatism. They are disturbed by the growing inequality and instability of modern society, particularly its implications for “social cohesion” (whatever that means), and hope that the right reforms, made by the right people, will fix this. Trying to prove conclusively that their social-democratic messiah evaded death in the 1970s, they rip its skeleton from the ground and rattle it in our faces, proclaiming its vitality as the last slivers of flesh slide off and the skull tumbles comically to the ground. Despite the childish language, it’s a frightening display of hyper-defensive leftism that should come with an age rating.

Our intellectual roots are rather different. When we see instability and inequality throughout the capitalist world, we recognise that Marx was right to argue that antagonism between classes, also identified by Adam Smith, can only be ended by the destruction of the ruling class by the exploited masses. When we see a so-called “left” programme drawing on Burke to argue for a society that is somehow both capitalist and communist, we remember the words of Burke’s great contemporary Maximilen Robespierre: “Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution?

Amy Westwell (@amywestwell)
Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

We’ll end up with Napoleon


When the prospect of the referendum came to light, the question on the minds of radicals was an old one: “reform or revolution”? The coalition government had recently been elected, and wide-ranging cuts to welfare and benefits announced. We were undoubtedly embarking on a political age of the Right in Britain, and though on the one hand there was the distressing rightward turn of the public, on the other hand there were the beginnings of unrest – the riots in England, student protests in London which gained popular support, police brutality coming to public consciousness, and trade unions beginning to organise a mass movement against the government.

Then through this reddening mist came a light, a sickly fluorescent one, but a light nonetheless. It was the light of reform, the prospect of Scottish independence.

Its pursuit became all-consuming. It is not possible to be fully engaged in fighting for the referendum whilst also pursuing a revolution of working people, or being involved in the foremost trade union struggles of the day. To believe in the primacy of the referendum is, for a few years, to be engaged wholeheartedly in a struggle of reform, while suppressing the self-reproach that you are not engaged in a more difficult and more fulfilling struggle, standing in solidarity with those on strike, getting up at 5.30am to bring some bacon rolls to workers on a picket line.

But of one thing we were convinced, three years ago: that every day we would remind ourselves that our engagement in the independence movement was for a greater purpose: a change in the balance of power – power to the workers and to women – and that we would never accept the ideology of reform. So it is worth reflecting on our position today. Have we kept to the promises we made back then? Are we pursuing revolution? And if so, what is our programme?

First of all we must remember our place. In this campaign the SNP is the major player, having won a majority in a parliament that was designed never to have a majority. It believes itself to be the voice of the Scottish masses, to be supremely trusted in government. Most importantly it is the organism which the public believes has delivered this referendum, and will win or lose it. The left are the rebels in this movement – if we win, our contribution will be glossed over. Perhaps it will be asked in a Higher History paper many years later “What role did groups to the left of the SNP play in winning the 2014 referendum”. The answer to this question will be academic, and a favourite area of left-historians. I doubt it will go down in popular history.

Gramsci was interested in the extent of the role of radical groups within reformist movements, and was ultimately pessimistic.(1) He believed that the traditional, long-standing parties won the reformist battles, and also the revolutionary war in the aftermath. Thus Napoleon eventually reigned as the bourgeois ruler despite the attempts of petty-bourgeois Jacobins to subvert the bourgeois reformist movement.  This sad story is one of the most successful examples of radical hangers-on managing, for a time, to gain power, before it all ends in tears.

Our situation seems to mirror this. Undoubtedly we shall end up with a Napoleon, though our bourgeois ruler unfortunately comes in the less exciting form of a Salmond. Bourgeois reform cannot simply be subverted into popular revolution.

But let us return to the left’s current strategy. It has largely been a war of vision (for we can have no real war of politics, given the silence of the largest Left party). Given the precariousness of our own position, the strategy of vision on the left must be used not to increase our own credibility, but to reduce that of the SNP machine.

The SNP is weak because it is populist. It tries to appeal to everyone, by offering to reduce corporation tax, pursue a free-market agenda, and also to create a fairer society. The SNP’s “fair-society” agenda is one of its most vague, and mostly hinges on promises to halt Westminster reforms, and tiny changes to wages and conditions. The most feminist policy it has, childcare, is couched in terms which make clear that this policy is one that suits everyone, through raising tax-revenue and workforce flexibility as well as being universalist.

The weak point of populism and universalism is reality. How will the SNP play the masses when they are in the real game of politics –  when the unemployed look on as businesses joyfully accept a tax cut. Will the SNP’s version of “we’re all in this together” stand up? The SNP’s true ideology has been well-hidden during the referendum campaign, as it does not have universal appeal, but when we are back in the real world we can expect a slow movement of the SNP away from its bland referendum ideology. It will move from a society-focussed “fairness” agenda towards something that is slightly more individualist, endorsing, for instance,  types of benefit cap, and attitudes to healthcare that are already evident in its administration, of reducing the role of society in individual lives.

At some point the animals will look to the Board of Commandments of an independent Scotland, seeking reassurance that the ideals they fought for are in some way realised, and find that the words have changed slightly, incomprehensibly, but in such a way that the politics of our nation isn’t recognisable any more. We’ll end up with a Napoleon in more ways than one.

The SNP are a truly bourgeois party in that they never talk about where power lies, only how to use power whose location is already assumed. The role of the left in this referendum process is to talk directly about power, to corner the SNP into pledges that expose their ideology, or promises they cannot keep that will lead to their downfall after independence. We can start by exposing their low corporation tax agenda for what it is – a policy of the right – and protest that we don’t want their consensual models of trade union participation in company decisions. We must draw out ironically every promise they make to the poor, if only so that when their promises go unfulfilled, people remember that an independent Scotland was brought about on the basis of a social vision, whereas the SNP are loyal only to the bourgeoisie.

And we must always remember that we are playing the long game, the game of revolution. If in the course of this referendum we have not been engaged in forming a revolutionary popular consciousness, then we have failed in our task.

 Amy Westwell

(1) The relevant text is “The Concept of Passive Revolution” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks