Friday, 20 August 2010

The Passing of Scottish Radicalism

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
                                                                                                            Samuel Beckett

So soon after starting this blog, I am suspending its lightness for one entry, one serious entry. I will be as brief as I can – there will be no political or historical analysis of any great depth, so there will be plenty of sweeping statements for others to cavil at if they wish.

Yesterday saw the funeral of Jimmy Reid, the Scottish trades unionist. Ordinary people lined the roads as his hearse passed, dignitaries and “names” attended his funeral, if only to say words to the effect, “Ay, que hombre”. Indeed there is much to admire about a man who, when the Upper Clyde shipyards were faced with closure in 1971, led the eight thousand strong workforce to take unprecedented action – they continued to work – with these words:

We are not going to strike. We are not even going to have a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us.”

This was the kind of almost-Presbyterian militancy and radicalism typical of the Central Belt of Scotland which, in UK general elections, was often the last pennyweight on the scales to keep Britain from being a permanent Tory fiefdom; as voted the leafy, conservative English shires, so to its diametric opposite often turned Scotland; even in the last election which gave rise to a right-of-centre coalition government in Westminster, Scotland bucked the trend.

In the 19c the working people of Scotland, of Britain, of the industrialized nations, created the wealth but had no significant share of it nor say in the matter of its disposal. They banded together, and over the next few generations effectively queued up to be cut down by the Yeomanry, gaoled, transported, even hanged, and kept doing it until they could be no longer ignored. That is how the trades union movement in Britain was born, and it continued an uphill struggle to be the way in which working people represented and defended themselves against other interests.

By the 1970s the unions were arguably too institutionalized, and therefore in a decadent state. But they could still produce people like Jimmy Reid, and still by their constitutions be more of a participatory democracy than the country as a whole. By the 1980s they had been crushed by a grocer’s daughter – I shall not even name her. This was a turning point in the history of Scottish radicalism. As shipyards and mines and factories closed and working-class culture evaporated, there was a gradual shift away from the political left in Scotland and towards the petty separatism of the Scottish National Party. Before these days an ordinary working person from England could journey to Scotland and feel as though he or she was amongst friends, brothers, sisters to a large extent. By the time Mel Gibson, that meddling Australian, had made “Braveheart” any person with a trace of an English accent could expect naked abuse – yes, I have had it happen to me – and kilted, bluefaced Soccer fans could tramp through a station (on the way to a Scotland versus Lithuania match) chanting “We f*cking hate Eng-land, we f*king hate Eng-land, we f*cking hate Eng-land…”

Statues were raised, in an era when the raising of statues was no longer common, to William Wallace as portrayed by Gibson, and to the Declaration of Arbroath.
Say what you like about the rights and wrongs of the medieval Plantagenet Wars in Scotland, but Wallace was an ethnic cleanser who didn’t care if he slaughtered men, women, or children, and the Declaration was signed by a handful of Norman nobs who promised to fight to the last one hundred Scottish serfs (who had no say in the matter), and a significant number of those signatories were, within about a year, imprisoned for treason against Scotland! But it is from these that people who are ignorant of, say, the Weavers’ Revolt of the early 19c, or of the Battle of George Square just after WW1 when tanks were deployed against protesting working people, now draw their self-image and national myth. To my mind, my ancestral country has lost its way.

I find much to admire in the late Jimmy Reid, and I mourn his passing – he was a big man. But in a way his own political journey from Communism to the Labour Party (at a time when it was becoming less and less the party formed by and representing working people, and more and more a Thatcherite party with a pink wash) and then to the SNP epitomises of the decline of Scottish radicalism and its fall into petty separatism.

Small wonder that someone like me, who stands against capitalism, against centralist communism, against racialism and fascism and nationalism in all its forms, against statism, and against bourgeois politics, searches for other models from which to learn. The  participatory democracy of the (pre-Revolutionary) Six Iroquois Nations perhaps, the agrarian anarchism of the EZLN in Mexico, the Christian communitarianism of Las Abesas in the same region, the “libertarian municipalism” of Murray Bookchin; but most of all to the hope that a desire for grass-roots, ground-up democracy will grow amongst ordinary people as they become more and more disillusioned with how ill-served they are by their masters (both elected and unelected). May these ordinary people try. And if they fail, may they try again, fail better, and keep trying until they succeed.

I promise that tomorrow I will take up a lighter quill again.


  1. I would love to hear more about such topics, should you ever grow tired of the lighter quill.

    You may also enjoy reading a blog (and future book) by a friend of mine and all-around amazing human being, Alex Knight. You can check out his work at .

  2. I will use this blog for non-literary topics as well as my lighter stuff, so I may well return to radicalism as a topic. I am glad you appreciated this entry.