By George Kerevan
The name of Aneurin “Nye” Bevan has receded into history and with it his political reputation – radical Welsh firebrand, theoretical maverick, spell-bounding orator. At best, Bevan is remembered as founder of the NHS, but he was lots more. He brought a rare sense of passion, humanity and intellectual questioning to post-war British politics, even if his political gyrations irritated friends as well as foes, and his relentless individualism strained personal relationships.
It’s easy to make comparisons between Nye Bevan and Jim Sillars, another party maverick (I use the term affectionately). Bevan’s socialism was informed by the nonconformist radicalism of the miners in the Welsh valleys. Sillars’ political homeland lies in the mining communities of south Ayrshire, where socialism came dressed in the verses of Robert Burns rather than the economics of Das Kapital. Bevan and Sillars were self-taught intellectuals in conflict with a British metropolitan culture that still despises ideas, preferring a political pragmatism that masks the need for a root and branch reform of society.
Bevan’s unwillingness to court ambition led him to resign from the Attlee government in 1951 over the introduction of prescription charges. Sillars quit the Labour backbenches in 1976 in protest over the failure to create a Scottish Assembly. He set up the short-lived SLP (I was a member) before joining the SNP. Bevan’s relationships with his Labour colleagues were always factions. Sillars’s feud with Alex Salmond is the folklore of modern Scottish nationalism.
Out of office, Bevan wrote a book entitled In Place of Fear. Most British politicians don’t write books except turgid, self-justifying autobiographies. Bevan’s In Place of Fear was a best seller, translated into French, Italian, German and Spanish. Its success was down to its theme: how to make a better society. In the 1950s, after the Great Depression and the Second World War, people wanted the promise of something better. Bevan offered democratic socialism, a middle way between totalitarian Soviet Communism and laissez-fair capitalism – a gentle society where community needs and individual aspiration were in balance, secured by public intervention.
Of course, folk settled for the blandishments of Harold Macmillan’s consumerism, Thatcherism and finally New Labour. But the ghost of Bevan can look down on the ashes of Gordon Brown’s economic disaster – a second Great Depression – and claim that laissez-faire capitalism proved a dead end.
Enter Jim Sillars, who this week published a short book knowingly entitled In Place of Fear II. Few under the age of 50 might recognise the allusion, but Sillars’s intention is obvious: he wants to inject Bevanite passion and vision into the independence debate. He wants to remind us what is at stake on 18 September – the chance to build a new society from scratch: “With independence we start a new era, when Scots in their own country are beholden to no-one … In place of fear we can create a nation that is proud, self-confident, prosperous, where working people will have the opportunity to quickly build a fair and just society.”
The referendum polls have been static for the past two years with roughly a third favouring independence. But another third are undecided. Many of these undecideds are Labour voters who also say they want more powers for Holyrood. The outcome of the referendum depends on which way these voters swing. Sillars’ appeal is addressed squarely to this strategic group. Piercing the intellectual fog of the referendum debate, the voice of democratic socialism can be heard once again.
Is In Place of Fear II a game-changer? On the page, it has much to excite. Sillars gets it absolutely correct by underscoring the fact that a No vote is a vote for more austerity and a wider poverty gap. This week’s media euphoria over the drop in unemployment is premature. Delve into Wednesday’s employment figures and you’ll find half of the new jobs are “self-employed”. This suggests a lot of newly minted house painters are getting temporary work on the back of the property boomlet the Chancellor has concocted to help the Tories win the 2015 general election.
A No vote is also the signal for Westminster to scrap the Barnett Formula or at least hold a bogus “needs review” to reduce the baseline for the Treasury subvention to Holyrood by around eight per cent. Scotland will be told (even by Ed Miliband) to raise income tax if it wants public spending. Holyrood gets income tax powers in 2016 under existing legislation, a poison chalice without independence to grow the Scottish economy.
Sillars is also good at the vision thing, and vision is what the Yes campaign has failed to project: “Independence is a paradigm shift. It means no longer tolerating the intolerable … it means using the power of the nation to create a different economic model from the present one that has failed us so badly, and from there going on to build a decent society.”
But 54 years after Bevan died, does Scotland want socialism, democratic or otherwise? And in this internet age, who is going to read In Place of Fear II barring old lags like myself?
As for socialism, or at least vigorous state intervention in a social crisis, consider this: in 1948, as housing minister, Nye Bevan delivered 227,600 new homes. In financial year 2012-13, only 135,356 new dwellings were completed in Britain – the lowest count for over 50 years. Hurray for laissez-faire? Meanwhile, Sillars (age 76) is on YouTube and Facebook punting his book. Welcome back to the fray, Jim.
Distance has added a patina of undeserved sainthood to Bevan. Jim remains a controversial figure in the SNP, of which he is still a member. But the referendum is no time to settle scores – on any side. Sillars once got a lot of stick for calling fellow Scots “90-minute patriots”. The thing is, most working-class people understood his criticism. The No campaign should be afraid. Very afraid.
Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman