The Age of Radicalism after ‘the Left’
The Scotsman, August 26th 2010
Scotland sees itself as a centre-left country. We haven’t voted for the Tories since the 1950s, didn’t like Mrs Thatcher and her ism, and are supposedly more comfortable with collectivism than individualism.
The Scottish left has a rich and proud history – standing against exploitation and discrimination, for social justice and democracy, and filled with struggles, battles and personalities. There have been negatives; the lack of original thinkers and ideas, alongside a profound insularity and conservatism (for all the professed internationalism).
Such negatives are often put down to the dominance of the Labour Party and a certain kind of labourism, but the wider trade union movement and numerous other centre-left institutions and parties have shown similar characteristics.
The only real exception to this was the Independent Labour Party which until the 1930s was a hothouse of ideas and activities – political and social. And the Communist Party at points provided political education and an emphasis on building broad campaigns which Labour didn’t. Both of these groups were small in number – but given the inert state of Labour for much of its history, had influence way beyond their size.
The left whether in Scotland or the UK has over time shown little real interest or understanding of how it appears outside the left. This is because left-wingers have always felt that their rationale and logic was so strong that no one who was open minded could resist. The left has always historically had a sense of denial and lack of empathy about how it is seen by the majority of humanity, who rightly or wrongly, remain immune to its charms.
The left saw the world in binary terms – ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’, ‘them’ and ‘us’. This was a world shaped by deep class divisions, but in its retort, ‘which side are you on?’, there was impatience and intolerance. The left invoked the language of universal humanity but never really practised it, showing instead a deep, distorting tribalism.
For large parts of its history, most of the left never bothered to think seriously about its opponents. Tories or SNP ‘tartan Tories’ were vilified or ignored, and were never deemed worthy of serious, considered debate.
Prior to Thatcher, the left never undertook a serious study of Conservative history or thought. They were ‘the class enemy’ representing the forces of privilege and reaction. At the same time no considered Labour engagement has ever taken place with Scottish nationalism – with the exception of J.P. Macintosh and Stephen Maxwell over thirty years ago.
It took until relatively late in the day and the experience of Thatcherism, before left-wingers studied the Tories, and by then it was all too little, too late. And even more strangely, while Labour has abandoned so much of what it stands for, on one traditional principle it has remained constant – its denigration of Scottish nationalism, to the point that it still continues to disable Labour thinking.
Some of this comes from characteristics which are ever more pronounced in the Scottish left than elsewhere, such as a sense of moral absolutism and certainty – which come over to many as unappealing, dogmatic and inflexible. This is linked to black and white thinking which has been prevalent in much of our culture, and which has been aided by elements of the Presbyterian tradition.
This tradition has produced many heroes and villains, some mixing both, such as Tommy Sheridan, George Galloway and the late Jimmy Reid; cultural figures such as William McIlvanney and James Kelman have spoken in similar voices of granite male certainty.
Thatcherism was both the making and breaking of this tradition. Writers like McIlvanney made a name for themselves by seeing Thatcher as a threat to the very existence of our nation, and claimed that she would eradicate Scottish values if she had a chance. It was over-exaggerated then, and with the passage of time, faintly embarrassing and ridiculous now.
At a debate last year on the impact of Thatcherism in Scotland between David McLetchie and Malcolm Rifkind on the pro-side and Brian Wilson and Jim Sillars on the anti-side, the latter pair talked about Thatcherism as if it were in the here and now. In particular, they railed against council house sales as if they happened yesterday.
This is another of the Scottish left’s characteristics: going over the past, fighting lost battles, attempting to rewrite history. The anger of Wilson and Sillars on council house sales camouflages their empty prospectuses, the fact that Thatcher changed hundreds of thousands of working class lives, claimed the cause of ‘freedom’, and that Labour and left-wingers had little positive to say then or now.
When did the left in Scotland last have an original, interesting idea? Wendy Alexander once famously said that Scottish Labour hadn’t had an original idea since 1906. This is a bit harsh; the party had some ideas in the 1920s, but Alexander is broadly right.
And this holds for the wider left. All of the revealing emotions around the death of Jimmy Reid, point not only to the Scots love of a dead hero, but the passing of an era. Upper Clyde Shipbuilders wasn’t just a false dawn of radicalism, but the last spasm of creative thinking by the left on economic democracy, the meaning of work and ideas around socially useful production. These issues still need to be addressed in a world of hyper-consumption and grotesque inequality, but the left in Scotland has said nothing on these for nearly forty years.
For several decades it has become increasingly unclear what the left stands for –beyond the defence of public services, public spending, and the welfare state. This has its place, but what the left hasn’t done is develop a positive vision of what it supports – a different model of public services from the old paternalist style or new managerialism, different ways of organising the state, and how you challenge producer capture of institutions without being blind to the dangers of corporate capture and marketisation.
It is worse than that. The left once had big banners to fly at its marches. As the left slowly humanised capitalism – first, the vision of a socialist society which was never sketched out, fell by the wayside, and then, people began to talk about social democracy and even ‘market socialism’. Yet with the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism and demise of the Soviet bloc, even this weakened, until after Blair and Clinton, people were left clinging to the wreckage of ‘progressivism’.
The journey from the glorious, admittedly over-confident days of the forward march of organised labour, to the slow, painful retreat of the left, has seen a shift from certainties to vague ideas. What on earth is ‘progressivism’, other than some ill-defined concept which everyone can lay claim to, including Cameroon Tories and Lib Dems?
It is no use hoping that an energised Miliband Labour Party will refind its purpose, and renew social democracy. The pattern we can predict, which Ralph Miliband analysed at length, is that Labour will swing to the rhetoric of a more bold social democracy in opposition, but the crisis created by New Labour is so profound and deep seated that it cannot be addressed without root and branch transformation. Things are not fundamentally different in Scottish Labour.
Scotland desperately needs radical ideas, pluralism and open minded imagination. It will not come from the mainstream of the Scottish left – who have long ago shifted from being forward thinking heretics to defending what exists and the status quo.
The story of the British left over the last century has been one of first hope, then the rise of Fabianism and the power of the expert, followed by the false promise of modernisation, which proved even more problematic than the old vision it replaced.
Even more profoundly both the old left and new revolutionaries are imbued with a belief in the modernist utopia – one of planning and the other of the market. Both see people as instrumental playthings. Neither has come to terms with the crisis of modernism, or the limits to growth on our fragile earth.
What comes after the appeal, vision and hopes of the left is a fascinating question. The left offered a journey, a destination and an anchor – which gave generations a way of looking at the world. Modern Scotland could become the country which was one of the first to embrace socialist orthodoxy, and if not the first out, then perhaps the first to explicitly embrace the new post-socialist age and map out a new direction.
That requires a rising generation to take up the challenge, not just burying what remains of the left, but the recent revolutionaries of the market, who have made much of the world in their image, and produced anxiety, insecurity and powerlessness.
I am optimistic for the long-term future of Scotland. This is for lots of reasons: the innate hope my parents gave me about the world, the fact that we finally got ‘our’ Parliament, and because the long story of Britain is in decline and crisis north and south of the border.
A Scotland which has exhausted the old traditions of the left, and shown itself sceptical to the new orthodoxies of the Anglo-American model could be ideally placed for the politics of the 21st century. This would entail embracing shared sovereignty, decentralism, a diplomacy of making alliances rather than ‘great British powerism’, and the ideas of genuine self-government and self-determination which go way beyond devolution.
This is a politics which transcends left and right, those old tribal distinctions which are the product of the 19th and 20th century. Lets leave them where they belong in the past.