The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Strange Death of Socialist Scotland

Socialism, in its modern sense, was born in Scotland. Before Owen there were millennarians and utopians, prophets and putschists. After him there was A New View of Society. New Lanark is where it all began.

(I'll come back to that.)

Not that Scotland has had a natural inclination toward socialism. This is the country that literally rationalised capitalism, by explaining to the English the new world they had stumbled into, and repeating in practice with great consciousness and purpose what the English had done first in their wonted empirical way. The effect was lasting. In the 1950s half the popular vote went to the Tories. The Clyde shipyards and the Fife coalfield produced the bedrock Labour vote and a thin but hard stratum of Communism, and most of the few British Communists whose names became household words: John Maclean, Willie Gallagher M.P., Jimmy Reid, Mick McGahey. Labour, the Liberals and the Nationalists slowly colonised the raised beaches left by the Tories' long decline, and proved tough as machair grass. For all that, Scotland in the 60s and 70s wasn't a particularly left-wing country. At the level of credible political vision, 1979 clobbered Old Labour and 1989 despatched Communism, here as everywhere else. Other socialist traditions less wedded to the state, though deeply rooted, were as obscure and obscured here as everywhere else. So why did Scotland become ever more left-wing in the 80s and 90s?

What gave Scottish socialism a second life was Margaret Thatcher. For nearly two decades Scots voted Labour and got the Tories. Scottish heavy industry - mines, shipbuilding, steel - withered in the blast. To add insult to injury, the Poll Tax was introduced in Scotland a year ahead of England, rather as dangerous weapons are tested off the coast of Mull. Thatcherism never caught on north of the Border. It wasn't just a question of policies. The woman was detested. Something about her rubbed most Scots the wrong way. It wasn't just the working and middle classes she failed to charm. I know a man who in the course of his work met many pillars of the Scottish establishment - captains of industry, distinguished scholars, princes of the church, retired Army officers, lairds so conservative they were spiritually Jacobites - who loathed her with a passion. Some apparent exceptions - Michael Forsyth, Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Mackay spring to mind - all came from outside the establishment. (Mackay of Clashfern's title is not inherited. His father was a railway worker. He was probably the first presbyterian Lord Chancellor since the Revolution.)

Although it was old Labour that had, in 1978, dashed the hopes of devolution, the Scottish left and intelligentsia responded to the Thatcher years with a devolution of the mind: 'Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation', and all that. The results were brilliant. The art was magic. A left-wing nationalism became the common sense of the age. Its left fringe became the Scottish Socialist Party. Tommy Sheridan, now Scotland's best-known Socialist MSP, first became famous for leading popular resistance to the Poll Tax, and for winning a council seat from the prison his resistance had put him in. Later, he spoke for many who were left out by New Labour: those with no hope, and those with much.

The SSP is much more important in Scottish politics than its 6% of the vote would suggest. The political editor of a Sunday newspaper a few months ago explained it like this: By its permanent potential to take disillusioned left-wing votes from Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, it acts as a sheet-anchor keeping the whole system to starboard. It's the main reason why the Scottish Parliament seems to have five left-of-centre parties and one right-of-centre party. The right-of-centre party, the Tories, are almost embarrassed to exist. Now this is all about to change.

In Scotland socialism died this month. It was killed by two Executives: the Executive of the Scottish Parliament, when they decided to ban smoking in all enclosed public (and many private) spaces; and the Executive of the Scottish Socialist Party, when they voted to ditch Tommy Sheridan as Convener. Laugh if you like, but if some day there's a book with the above title, November 2004 will have a chapter to itself. Here's why.

First, the smoking ban. Of course I'm against it, but that isn't why I think it's a nail in the coffin of Scottish socialism. Plenty of decisions made by Scottish Labour have been a lot worse. This one, however, is the first time since the Poll Tax when they've decided to go after their own constituents. It's a huge attack on traditional Labour-voting working-class culture, and a huge attack on traditional Labour-voting bohemian culture. Of course its proponents don't see it that way. They see it as protecting the workers, and (as one of them put it) 'saving the dying Scotsman from himself'. They really think it will be popular. The most prominent left-wing journalists agree. They have some sad awakenings coming.

Another Executive setting itself up for a fall is that of the Scottish Socialist Party. Rumours about Tommy Sheridan's personal life had reached the press. The executive were dissatisfied with how Sheridan handled them. They demanded that he either say nothing to the press, or speak to a sympathetic newspaper, or face an open press conference. He insisted he would sue the newspaper retailing the allegations. The executive refused to back him or back down, and thus (it would seem) forced him to resign. When he spun his resignation as the result of a need to genuinely spend more time with his wife, other stories promptly emerged in print.

The SSP executive had no standing to put Sheridan's personal life on its agenda. Nothing had been alleged that affected the public interest, or the working-class interest. If he was reckless to insist on his day in court, that was his business.

I have no inside information. Perhaps having it would make a difference. That's beside the point. For everyone outside a party, its public actions are its actions. I can only go by what I see, and what I see is a train-wreck.

The SSP executive's political ineptitude in this matter is staggering. None of the other five SSP MSPs have a sixth of Tommy Sheridan's nous and charisma. I don't know him personally, but I've seen him speak in quiet rooms and noisy streets. I've by chance seen him convey to an individual a most personal sympathy. The man is an authentic working-class hero, the SSP's only household name, and its greatest asset.

That this should matter to the SSP is a sign of its weakness. It has many strengths. It has flaunted its republicanism. It has stood firm for the legalisation of cannabis, and the decriminalization of heroin addiction. It has opposed the imperialist war. It has stood up for persecuted asylum-seekers. It has stood by beleaguered trade unionists. It has sunk roots that extend far beyond the far left. But one thing it has not done is produce a credible and coherent socialist programme. By quite deliberately setting out to straddle nationalism and internationalism, reform and revolution, state-socialism and left-libertarianism, the party as such has had nothing very convincing to say. There is no conversation of socialism in Scotland. The SSP - as a party, not necessarily in all its parts and certainly not in all its members - is culturally philistine and economically incoherent. It's a tax-and-spend party with a nationalist tinge and more than a touch of political correctitude.

I've always respected the SSP's strengths, but I've never agreed with its statism and its nationalism. Its successes have been very inconvenient to the powerful and privileged. It has been the backbone of the anti-war movement in many parts of Scotland. That movement has now extended to some military families. It can be only a matter of time before it reaches the military itself. The SSP, and Sheridan personally, have been central to this very recent development, which has caused deep concern at the highest levels of the British state. For those in power the SSP's crisis couldn't have come at a more convenient moment.

Back to New Lanark, where it all began.

Robert Owen's enlightened capitalism succeeded. His communist experiments, inspired by that success, failed. His syndicalist and mutualist union failed. He then threw his great energy and ability into the co-operative movement. This voluntary and everyday socialism was a global success. There are now 800 million members of co-operatives. Engels counted Owen with the utopians, but the workers' co-operative has outlived the workers' parties and the workers' states. Which is not to say that Engels was altogether wrong. We still need the commonwealth as well as the co-operative. If it were to re-examine its libertarian and radical roots, a socialism that began again in Scotland might yet have the last laugh.


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