Where have all the Scottish Radicals Gone (with apologies to Joan Baez)?
The Scotsman, September 9th 2009
At a time when the eyes of the world have been upon Scotland, its government and Parliament due to the al-Megrahi case, it is an appropriate moment to ask what happened to the Scots tradition of radicalism?
Scotland once had, and still has to an extent, a reputation as a left-wing land, a place of radical politics and possibilities, and is still talked about by some as being a ‘socialist country’.
Yet if this were the case where are the current generation of Scottish radicals who would give vent to such ideas, questioning those in power and vested interests, slaying orthodoxies and complacencies and exposing our silences and omissions from the past and present? Who are today’s radicals, not necessarily of left or even right, but of free spirit and mind?
Who are the modern day equivalents of such titans as Adam Smith and David Hume, Keir Hardie and John Maxton, Patrick Geddes and R.D. Laing? Scottish Labour had an explosion of talent in the 1970s and 1980s, as the old city fathers were challenged by a new generation of talent of the likes of Robin Cook and Gordon Brown. Since then the party has ossified and burnt out with exhaustion on the twin pillars of becoming the Scottish political establishment and twelve years in UK office.
The Nationalists have tapped into a generation of people who would previously have found a natural home in Labour but they have made it their business to be respectable and a party of government. The Scottish Tories are still earning their spurs back after the long shadow of Thatcherism; the Lib Dems are more a collection of individuals. The implosion of the Scottish Socialists lost a whole spectrum of radical opinion a voice, while the Greens are too small and polite to be radical and serious.
There is a need in a society for radical voices. They fly kites, dare to say the unthinkable and challenge the cosy complacencies of perceived wisdom and orthodoxy. The radical voice acts as an outlier and often comes from sitting outside the system and institutions. Thus, the New Right revolution which transformed Britain and the US began in a small series of discussions and think tanks in the 1940s and 1950s and was dismissed as eccentric, barmy and harmless at the time. The green revolution which has grown in the last forty years was equally in the beginning dismissed as barking and not realistic.
Radical voices go against the crowd, take a lonely position, think of the long term, and don’t court popularity or instant access to power. Where are the Scottish voices which think along these lines? On the culture of the state or the meaning of the public realm? On different ways of delivering public services or new methods of deliberative democracy?
Across our politics and public life these voices seem to be totally absent from our mainstream debates, and yet in the margins or just beyond the narrow bandwidth of public debate, there are at least some radical voices daring to think the unthinkable. For example, Andy Wightman has comprehensively researched and mapped the complex pattern of land ownership across Scotland in rural and urban areas. In so doing he has addressed the huge disparities of wealth which have built up across the centuries, and how we begin to rectify this through land reform.
There is Alistair McIntosh, who has developed thinking on community, sustainability and how it addresses corporate power, who has been both practical and idealistic, acknowledging the resonance of spirituality, and done so in a way which has a universal reach far beyond these shores.
Then there are people such as Sue Palmer, who as an educational campaigner has set about looking at ways parents can resist the pressures of modern life and in particular the incessant commercialism and how this affects the mindsets of young people growing up. Palmer’s message is drawn from Scottish and British experience, but carries weight across the developed world.
The public health expert Phil Hanlon is another example – charting the extent to which the Scots are unhealthier than other comparative countries and places, and coined the phrase ‘the Scottish effect’ to begin to understand it and pose remedies.
And there is the example of Tom Nairn, a Scot whose first tenured academic job in over thirty years took him to Melbourne, who has devoted his life to studying nationalism in all its forms, Scottish, British and across the world, and developed his powerful critique against what he sees as the last days of the Ukanian state.
There are many other examples of course. The world of arts still provides some shelter for radical voices of our novelists and artists; social entrepreneurs are another constituency with ideas and energy. All the above and other radical voices in this country share a number of important characteristics. Firstly, they have mined their expertise in Scotland and said something original and often controversial, which has eventually found wider influence beyond these shores, tapping into and influencing others. These are people who have gone from the specifics of Scotland to the universal, of connecting to a wider humanity, of ‘thinking local and acting global’.
Secondly, radicals in this land have had to overcome the institutional conservatism of large swathes of public life in Scotland, the ‘group think’ and pressure to look and think the same way borne of a collectivist culture. They have dared to stand out at crucial points and often had to do so without the support or protection of an institution, whether it be a university or political party.
Finally, what they also suffer from is perhaps more than elsewhere the lack of an over-arching philosophy which projects a worldview beyond their own specialism. In this they are influenced by the legacy of a Scotland which was shaped by socialist and radical ethos which now finds itself beached in the post-socialist age. What does it mean to be radical in Scotland in such a context, when the old impulses of left and right have so exhausted themselves?
And of course none of these people are elected politicians. For radical ideas to find favour some of them have to find support and space in party politics, and instead, with the exception of the ‘big’ idea of independence, Scottish politics are a mostly idea-free zone.
What are the radical ideas which come after socialism and labourism in a land shaped in their image? Will they come from the nationalist tradition as it gains more confidence and diversity and embraces a movement for wider self-determination? Or will it come from a mix of green and community empowerment ideas which opposes the vested interests of the big state and corporate power?
I have a feeling that the next set of radical voices will come from all of these places, but one of the crucial challenges will be how we nurture and encourage the radical imagination, and devise cultures, spaces and institutions, as well as our politics, which will be more open to the new, the unorthodox and the daring.