What happened to the radical left?


  By George Kerevan 
This Saturday sees the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow. For “radical” read everyone to the left of the SNP and Labour. Normally that might not amount to much, especially after Tommy Sheridan’s self-destruction. But I detect a new mood on the Scottish left after five years of Westminster-imposed austerity. Besides, the SNP has failed (so far) to set the heather on fire with a compelling vision of what independence could be like, leaving a big space to fill.

I’m told over 500 conference tickets (at £10 a time) have already been sold. The fact that folk are paying to attend in these numbers is suggestive this will be more than a traditional left wing tribal gathering to denounce capitalism and the Tories, before retiring to the pub.

The roll call of speakers is impressive, representing all the generations and factions of the Left. They include Dennis Canavan, Isobel Lindsay, Patrick Harvie, Peter McColl (rector of Edinburgh University), Bernadette McAliskey, plus representatives of Syriza in Greece and the French Front de Gauche.

A few weeks back, at the big Yes demo in Edinburgh, I bought a copy of the Socialist Worker newspaper from a youthful vendor. I remarked to him that I had read my first copy of Socialist Worker over 40 years ago – well before the seller was born. He looked a bit embarrassed. After all, the revolution was not meant to take this long.

My point being that the “radical” left has long ceased to be radical in its proffered solutions to the undoubted ills of capitalism. Of course the Left is still vocal about the failures of the western free market economy and liberal democracy. However, since the collapse of the centrally planned economies of the former Soviet bloc, no one on the left has advanced any credible alternative to the market – while a billion Chinese are now drinking coffee at Starbucks.

You can see the intellectual stasis of the Left in the agenda for Saturday’s conference. The debate on economics is reduced to a single workshop on the “green” economy, with stale references to “public” ownership (i.e. control by bureaucracy) and the need for renewable energy, which is expensive and has merely displaced carbon-based industries to Asia. Fifty years ago, the conference would have had the world’s best Marxist economists debating serious alternatives to the economic crisis.

The same staleness and evasion can be seen in the conference workshop on an “ethical” foreign policy. To be blunt, the far-left is disingenuous when it comes to security. On the one hand, they tell us the world is threatened by rampaging American imperialism. On the other, they say we should slash the defence budget. If you believe in the threat from American imperialism, at least have the intellectual honesty to say you will arm Scotland to the teeth like Cuba, which spends circa 3.8 per cent of GDP on defence compared with the UK’s 2.6 per cent.

So, to help Saturday’s conference along, here are ten (pragmatic) ideas that a genuinely radical left-winger might put forward to create a new and better Scotland:

1 To control the economy, we need to control finance. Why not follow the public banking movement in America and create a state-owned bank (or banks) in Scotland. Run by an independent board on commercial grounds, a public bank would be mandated to lend to local consumers and businesses, banned from gambling on the markets (which caused the credit crunch), and pay its profits to the Scottish Government (thus lowering taxes).

2 Alter the tax system so that companies pay corporation tax on gross revenues, on the US system, not notional profits as rigged by creative accountancy and transfer pricing.

3 As regards personal income tax, adopt the French system of specifying the minimum average tax a person must pay relative to their income, which automatically over-rides the use of tax avoidance schemes. In other words, you might be entitled legally to pay no income tax using tax dodges but the taxman still demands you pay the average that everyone else does.

4 It’s bad to tax wealth, as folk will stop making it. But taxing inherited wealth is a different matter. Impose a stiff “death tax” as the way to fund (genuinely) free home care for the elderly. True, the kids won’t inherit mummy and daddy’s house, but we will avoid reinforcing the class divide.

5 Despite the recession, global CO2 emissions are rising faster than ever. We need a radical solution. Last year, carbon emissions in wicked, capitalist America fell by 1.7 per cent, but rose in politically-correct Europe. Why? Because America is switching to burning shale gas, which is roughly half as polluting as coal. Let’s use the shale gas revolution to end global coal emissions, while keeping energy costs low – there’s plenty of shale gas under Scotland.

6 For a complete climate fix, we need a simple carbon tax not subsidised wind power. Pay the receipts into everybody’s bank account to show folk there are real gains from saving the planet. (But keep access to the money locked till retirement, to build a pension pot.)

7 Capitalism’s strength and weakness is that it is a runaway growth machine. Yet a zero growth economy will freeze incomes and block entrepreneurship. Let Scotland be the first nation to aim for “steady state” growth: you grow GDP at the same rate as productivity increases, meaning you economise on inputs. That puts the focus on game-changing technologies and better education.

8 For defence, introduce national service for all 18-year-olds. Conscription is a good way of eroding class barriers and creating social cohesion. As part of an “ethical” foreign policy, create a Scottish Peace Corps to send volunteer workers (young and retired) to provide aid and education where it is needed.

9 Make education the path to human fulfilment. Give universities capital endowments to free them from commercial pressures, so they can become (once again) places devoted to creativity and radical thinking. Besides, 21st-century knowledge creation is about ad hoc human networks meeting through the internet. So let’s give every Scottish child a laptop and create the world’s first virtual schools. And if we can have paternity leave, why not mandatory “education” leave for career development – or just learning a new language.

10 True emancipation means having time to yourself. Let’s work four 10-hour days a week, meaning three days off. With 4/10 working, the overall wage bill stays the same but energy bills are cut. And the potential creative impact should encourage a few extra Yes votes come the independence referendum.

Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman newspaper