Can Scottish Socialism rediscover itself?

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By Peter Thomson

“Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats.  We’re human beings.  Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.  This is how it starts and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack.  The price is too high.  It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit.  Or as Christ put it, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Jimmy Reid – Rector’s address 1971

By Peter Thomson 

“Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats.  We’re human beings.  Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.  This is how it starts and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack.  The price is too high.  It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit.  Or as Christ put it, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Jimmy Reid – Rector’s address 1971

As I look at mainstream socialist activity and thinking, it becomes clear that Jimmy Reid’s brilliant exposition should be read and read again by Labour’s Scottish region MPs, MSPs and councillors.  As the supposed standard bearers of socialism in Scotland, the accusation is easily made: they are now just part of the Westminster political “rat pack”.

My grandfathers were both present at Glasgow Cross and George Square in 1919 (one an 18-year-old engineering apprentice and the other just demobbed from the Western Front). They were dyed-in-the-wool, Presbyterian socialists, steeped in the Scottish Labour tradition of “home rule” and fired by the speeches of John MacLean, who had been recently released from prison, while stating their socialist principles in biblical terms, “Love your neighbour as yourself” and “You are your brother’s keeper”, while living their lives, as far as humanly possible, to express these fundamental rights they held true.

My own father was an unassuming man and only when settling his affairs after his death did I discover just how much of his life had been exercised in being his “brother’s keeper” through his involvement in GPO trade unions and numerous charities.  This was the Scottish socialism I was brought up in: work-a-day, pragmatic, focussed on people and their needs.

In 1974, I became the first of our family to go to university and looked to join the Labour Students Group.  My membership lasted half a term.  The politics being played out in that group were all about climbing the greasy pole of political ambition.

Decisions were made from positions of self-interest and self-aggrandisement rather than public good or logic.  Contrary positions were taken as the mood required, cohesion was not a word that could be used to describe the group:  in practice for their lives as Labour politicians, back-stabbing was the norm and Animal Farm the reality.

I made the choice to disengage from politics as I watched Heath (three day week) then Callaghan (public service strikes) wreck what was left of social cohesion in the UK, ramp up the “them and us” politics while ignoring by and large what the electorate were actually saying to them in favour of the views of the “City” or the “unions” respectively.

I voted ‘No’ in the 1979 referendum because I believed in the “Union” and took the view until the Soviet bloc threat diminished the UK needed to stand together for its own safety.  By that time I was a RN officer and was directed by insider knowledge while unaware, as were all Scots, of the findings of the McCrone Report.  It is through this prism my views of the current state of socialism should be read.

With Labour’s move ever rightwards and fully engaged in Westminster “rat pack” politics, just where is socialism in Scotland?

On the one hand we have the intellectual Scottish socialism of the likes of Gerry Hassan, full of longing, wish lists and a sense of hurt that few actually act on their analysis of what is wrong with socialism in the UK today and politics in general: as they chunter back and forth on blogs such as ‘openDemocracy’ or in column inches in the Guardian.

On the other hand a small rump Scottish Socialist Party which given its very public “knives in the back” operating mode, recriminations over Tommy Sheridan and “splittist tendencies” reminded me of the student Labour group of my youth.  If I want to support a form of Scottish socialism I can identify with by active involvement, just where can I go?

The answer is there is no such effective beast operating in Scotland. There is not even an identifiable Liberal Party as their erstwhile representatives are engaged in the same Westminster “rat-pack” politics as Labour, on the right of the political divide.

Having worked in Nepal off and on for eight years from 2000 onwards, I have found peace in Buddhist philosophy which is focussed on how you lead your life rather than what you believe in.  This in turn (coupled with age) has tamped down the fires of angst, anguish and any need to “belong” to any group to “prove” you are a “believer”.

Core to the Buddhist philosophy is the idea of “doing of more good than harm”, which I would suggest is a concept alien to Westminster’s “rat-pack” politics and those that hold to them.  I am seeking to act as Jimmy Reid persuaded over 40 years ago to:

“Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes.  A rat race is for rats.  We’re not rats.  We’re human beings.”

I am persuaded the only future that has any chance of breaking free from “rat-pack” politics, the ability to realign Scottish politics and create a positive future for Scotland and generations yet to come is independence.

At one time I considered fiscal autonomy within a federal UK as the best solution but the evidence of the current Scotland Act Amendment Bill,  its contortions  and abominations within the unelected House of Lords, is evidence enough for me that Westminster’s “rat pack” will do all in its powers to prevent any idea of a UK Federation because it has too much to lose in terms of prestige, pomp and power as Jimmy Reid so accurately identified:

“……..that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.  This is how it starts and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack.”

This leaves only one course for me: independence.  I currently support the SNP to achieve this end.  As a bonus, the SNP’s social democratic leanings are acting as the only fender to keep socialist Scotland safe while rubbing up against the unremitting neo-conservatism of the Westminster rat pack.  Like any two ships tied together eventually the fenders will wear out and before that point a decision has to be made: do we let go and sail away or renew the chains and fenders until the next time?

As the mark II fender on offer is a pitiable thing which will lessen our protection rather than improve it and the mark III version has yet to be designed, I would suggest the safest route is to gain some sea room before we are terminally holed below the water line.  Only then will the opportunity for new politics in Scotland have any chance to be defined, hopefully along with it a socialist party I can once more believe in.