Scotland may not have a left anymore but it must still challenge the new vandals and miserabilists

Once upon a time we had a powerful left which shaped a large part of 20th century Scotland. What has happened to this politics, idealism and radicalism today, and what do we do without it?
Gerry Hassan
22 March 2011

Once upon a time we had a powerful left which shaped a large part of 20th century Scotland: Red Clydeside, the rise of Labour, the creation of the welfare state, and part of the home rule movement. 

What has happened to this politics, idealism and radicalism today, and what do we do without it? The memory, folklore and language of parts of the left still influences a large, although dwindling part of society.

These questions and more were touched on by a rather moving discussion in the recent Aye Write festival when the Jimmy Reid Memorial Tribute brought together myself, Tom Devine, James Mitchell, Ruth Wishart and Iain Macwhirter. The aim was to explore the importance and legacy of Reid and tentatively explore the future of Scotland.

We acknowledged the influence and reach of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS). This was a campaign and struggle which galvanised the world in 1971 from Tony Benn to John and Yoko. It brought together the old traditional left and the emerging new left, impatient to develop wider alliances. It forced a famous u-turn by the Heath Government to keep the shipyards open. But it came at a bitter cost. For this reversal, with its bailing out of ‘lame ducks’, led to the long fuse which ignited Thatcherism first in the Tory Party, then the country. 

Central to UCS was the role of the Communist Party. This was a vehicle which gave us many radicals in Scotland: Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Airlie and Sam Barr in UCS, and Mick McGahey in the miners NUM. Even in its later stages it created men like Dougie Bain, who sadly passed away last year and was a pleasure and privilege to know. These men had a kind of steel along with a sense of light and lyricism - men of principle and passion, witrhout the dull, corporatism of their Labour equivalents.

This tradition articulated a certain kind of maleness which had a sense of social conscience and also understood something about men as a culture and collective, as in Reid’s "no bevvying" (In his famous speech at the UCS occuption he told the men there will be "no hooliganism, no vandalism and no bevvying" meaning no drinking.)

This worldview had its limitations and failings. I know them well for my father was a Stalinist and what was called a ‘tankie’, believing Russian tanks were the answer to world socialism wherever they were called, from Hungary, to Czechoslovakia to Afghanistan.

The Communist tradition had its problems, and these were fatal enough to undermine it here and across the world. Yet, the passing of the Communist Party in Scotland, with its organisation in coalfields and large firms, and with its educational and activist base, along with its presence in the STUC and Trades Councils, has left a profound vacuum. How I can put simply: Scottish politics, and Labour in particular, have never been the same since the CP bit the dust.

The discussion at the Jimmy Reid event revealed the strange limbo in which Scottish politics now finds itself: a culture hugely shaped by the left, but without a left politics. Instead, the new radicals and revolutionaries of the free market get impatient with Scots spending of public monies and having an aversion to ‘modernisation’ and ‘reform’.

Tom Devine raged articulately and thoughtfully against "the marketisation of our society" and then said the events in the UK made more and more the case for "the rational argument for independence", yet it was all now too late because of the banks. Then James Mitchell resigned himself, given the constraints imposed on higher education, to the introduction of tuition fees.

This tells us something about the state of Scotland when two of our most prominent academics and thinkers show a distinct lack of optimism and sense of anxiety bordering on pessimism about what the future holds.

We don’t have much of a left anymore, but we do have the march of the new radicals and vandals intent on using Britain’s deficit crisis to completely remake the public sector and public spending for good, and complete what Thatcherism failed to do.

Scotland annoys such people. Frances Cairncross, head of Exeter College, Oxford, wrote this week on tuition fees that "England may simply lose patience" with us Scots. Then there is the thoughts of Matthew Taylor, head of the RSA and one of the chief architects of New Labour.

After missing his flight to Scotland this week, his blog featured a comparison of Japan in the midst of a devasting crisis and Scotland (which I discuss on OurKingdom here). This is not very tasteful to put it mildly, but Taylor, not surprisingly, found us wanting versus the Japanese. We refuse to embrace "a diversification of public sector delivery", have a politics of no choice "roughly between 30 and 50 degrees on the centre left", and don’t have "a modernising centre" of government.

Nowhere in this commentariat pile of clichés about Scotland and our rejection of New Labour does Taylor offer any substance, either of atonement for the crimes and misdemeanours he got up to in the court of Tony, or an understanding of the subtleties of Scotland, and that maybe our politics and debate are more nuanced than what an election campaign offers.

Scottish politics has to resist such blandishments, but it also has to resist the incremental apologists of this order such as Ben Thomson of Reform Scotland, who recently called for the fragmentation and break-up of the Scottish NHS and its handing over to private companies and voluntary bodies. Then there is the accountant-actuarial Scotland, as seen in recent NESTA work, where everything is reduced to outputs and measurements, rather than lived experience. It is as if you could understand Mars without going there.

These, though, aren’t the only obstacles. On the other side, there are the professional interest groups who clutter public Scotland, many of them such as the BMA and EIS are well entrenched in the system of government and policy. How do we have a debate which acknowledges the problems of ‘producer capture’ which New Labour were obsessed about, and ‘corporate capture’ which they were blind to, and the nurturing of a genuine, vibrant public realm? 

At the end of the Jimmy Reid debate, a member of the audience asked the question: given that it is now 40 years since UCS, who will be the heroes and heroines from today remembered 40 years from now? It is a great question, for it goes to the heart of what is Scotland and our public life about.

All across Scotland outside the political system, changemakers, radicals and dreamers, do wonderful, extraordinary things. These are usually people who defy description – political or social entrepreneurs in think-tank speak – and it is time we came together and said, enough is enough. We need to challenge the minimalists and miserablists of Scottish public life, along with the new vandals and vulgarians. And that implies people coming together to have a collective voice.

This piece was originally published in the Scotsman. 

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