Sillars’ socialist programme for independence

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Book review: In Place Of Fear II: A Socialist Programme For An Independent Scotland, by Jim Sillars, (Vagabond Voices 2014, £4.95)

By John McAllion
 
In Nye Bevan’s seminal work,  In Place of Fear, first published in 1952, Labour’s then leading socialist began by posing the questions “where does power lie?” and “how can it be attained by the workers?” 
 

Book review: In Place Of Fear II: A Socialist Programme For An Independent Scotland, by Jim Sillars, (Vagabond Voices 2014, £4.95)

By John McAllion
 
In Nye Bevan’s seminal work,  In Place of Fear, first published in 1952, Labour’s then leading socialist began by posing the questions “where does power lie?” and “how can it be attained by the workers?”
 
Described by his disciple and posthumous biographer Michael Foot as Bevan’s ‘classic description of democratic socialism’, In Place of Fear unashamedly made the case for the British Parliamentary road to socialism.

At that time and for the next 25 years there was no serious challenge on the left to Bevan’s core idea that wealth and power could only be redistributed in favour of working people through Labour governments democratically controlling and using the full range of economic and social powers vested in a sovereign Westminster parliament.

The disappointment of the Wilson and Callaghan governments, the Thatcher and Major years and the betrayals of Blair and Brown all lay in a future that Bevan would never see.

In 1952, Scottish nationalism too was scarcely a blip on the horizon. A single by-election victory in Motherwell in 1945 would be followed by decades in which the SNP were consigned to the political wilderness.

In Place of Fear therefore lacked any serious contemporary challenge from a socialist or nationalist perspective.

Bevan’s belief in the ‘sovereignty of the people in parliament’ as a sword held by workers and pointed at the heart of capitalism remained in its time the common sense of post-war British socialist politics.
More than 60 years later, Jim Sillars, has published a reworking of Bevan’s themes in his own version of the old socialist’s work In Place of Fear II.

Sillars, here, describes a Britain very different to that of Bevan’s day. The one time great power has become a land of ‘food banks, payday loans and unremitting poverty’; the old cross party consensus around the welfare state has become a new political consensus behind massive post-2015 spending cuts that will finally destroy what is left of our welfare state; a formerly powerful trade union movement now suffers humiliation at the hands of a single billionaire owner at a chemical plant in Grangemouth.

Like Bevan, Sillars addresses the same questions about where power lies and how workers can take power into their own hands. He also recognises, as Bevan did, that if socialists are to succeed they must be ‘audacious’ and ‘sensible’ in pursuing realisable objectives that will benefit workers in a world increasingly dominated by global markets.

Unlike Bevan, however, he sees the British Parliament as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Scottish socialism, he argues, will be and can only be renewed by the challenge of Scottish independence.

A detailed analysis of Sillars’ socialist programme for an independent Scotland is well beyond the scope of this current article. It is one man’s programme and will lack neither supporters nor critics. His opposition to wind turbines and support for shale gas and fracking will be controversial.. So too will his ideas on replacing Council Tax and business rates with a Land Value Tax.
 
His balking at the wholesale renationalisation of our electricity and gas companies is unlikely to be met with universal approval.

Yet, In Place of Fear II remains an ambitious, refreshing and long overdue statement of the socialist case for an independent Scotland.  It bristles with denunciations of capitalism no mainstream politician would dare utter today. Poverty and inequality can only be tackled, he writes, by taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

Capitalism, he reminds us is ‘a system governed by an amoral principle: that investment will take place only when it can produce a profit.’  Unlike capitalism, he sees socialism as having the moral purpose of abolishing poverty and creating a fair society. “It is time”, he thunders, “to challenge capitalism once again.”

This kind of language used to be the stock-in-trade of Labour politicians. Bevan’s theme of using parliamentary power to redistribute wealth and power in favour of working people was the glue that had held Scottish workers fast to his parliamentary road to socialism.

A post-war generation came of age in Scotland believing that the end destination of that road would be an increase in public ownership, more progressive taxation and social protection from the cradle to the grave.

Most of them looked to the Labour Party to deliver those ideals through the British state. Most of them, of course, have been sorely disappointed.

It is no surprise therefore that many leading Labour figures from that generation have now declared their intention of voting yes to independence in September.  Former Labour MPs, ex-Labour Lord Provosts and council leaders, leading trade unionists have all broke with their former party’s line and are now firmly in the Yes camp.

These veteran socialists will recognise in In Place of Fear II the kind of democratic socialism they have always believed in. They will realise too that, in today’s world, that kind of socialism can only be won through the break-up of the same state they had once put their faith in.