Ideas Fightback

Jimmy Reid addresses a mass meeting of the Upper Clyde Shipyards workforce at Clydebank, July 1971
This week we launched the Jimmy Reid Foundation – and it took only hours to realise that what we thought we were launching might actually be less than what had been created.

The Foundation was designed for three main purposes. Firstly, it was meant to generate fresh thinking in Scotland which wasn’t simply yet another retread of the neoliberal doctrines of marketise, privatise and deregulate. We’ve had decades of being told that there is only one way to do things in the modern world. Now that this has proved utterly wrong and people are looking around for alternatives it is essential that they can be found.

We’ve had decades of being told that there is only one way to do things in the modern world. Now that this has proved utterly wrong and people are looking around for alternatives it is essential that they can be found.

Having been on the back foot in an era of ‘false accounting’ backed by enormous corporate lobbying the left needs to act quickly to fill the space before the neoliberals reinvent themselves after yet another failure of their policies (remember the 1970s oil crisis or the 1980s recession or 1990s property price crash or the millennial dot-com crash or the ‘credit crunch’ – with in every case the cause being recycled as the solution?).

The second reason for setting up the Foundation was to counterbalance the impact of the business lobby and it’s various off-shoots. Even while Scotland is rejecting right-wing policies at the polls and the mainstream of Scottish politics is walking away from these agendas, still they are almost inexplicably dominating the airwaves and the press. How can an issue so far off the real agenda as the privatisation of Scottish Water (or some precursor step) still be floating around? Why is the question of creating a market in higher education in Scotland still being discussed? What is it that creates an environment in which ‘democracy’ does not set the agenda?

The answer is that there are well-funded, pro-business advocacy groups, supportive individuals with clout and sections of the media which are happy to keep churning this stuff out. And crucially, there are insufficient voices seriously challenging this agenda or setting an alternative one. And so a focus for developing and promoting that voice seemed to be something of which we were in dire need.

The third driving focus for the Foundation was the way the left has become fragmented in Scotland. There has been too much focus on disputes and in-fighting but even given that the left in Scotland is very widely spread and has not always been good at talking to itself. If one branch of the left comes up with a proposal it is often the case that another feels somehow suspicious. If we leave the creation of ideas and the setting of agendas to political parties it can make it hard for others to come on board. So rather than focussing the left through another political party or the reform of an existing one, the Reid Foundation aims to provide a mechanism for the left to come together on an issue-by-issue basis by creating a ‘safe space’ for debate.

And that is what we thought we were producing – a ‘think tank’ which would produce new ideas that people would feel able to support and which could grasp the political imagination in Scotland. But then something a little unexpected happened…

Almost immediately after the launch people started to contact us. They wanted to know how they could get involved, what they could do with and for the Foundation. These weren’t academics or politicians or in many cases even activists. They were just members of the public who warmed to the idea that there was an alternative to ‘same old policies, same old processes, same old voices’.

This has opened up a real challenge for those of us who created the Foundation. We always knew that we would need to engage with people and that social media and alternative networks would be an important part of it. But now we see the potential for a more genuinely two-way relationship with people who support what we are trying to do and making the most of this – really getting people involved – is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. An organisation with fresh thinking, good organisation and a wide base of support could have a genuine impact on Scottish politics.

But as with all new initiatives the Reid Foundation will only be as successful as what we deliver. The work programme of the Foundation will be set by a Project Board with a broad range of people from different backgrounds who have demonstrated the ability to come up with genuinely new thinking. It is important that it does not just become a ‘comment tank’, voicing opinions on what is happening or carrying out bits of research that illuminate briefly and then disappear. We will have to keep the pressure on ourselves to come up with ideas that can work, that can be implemented and that will make a difference. Hopefully a wider network of supporters will help us to keep that pressure on ourselves. I certainly see it as key to being successful.

Another challenge is how to balance the idea of ‘safe space’ with ‘radical ideas’. While the Foundation is trying to bring people together across party and other boundaries it has to be able to do this without slipping down to a lowest common denominator position with fudged outcomes and a cautious approach.

Now, in many area this should not be difficult – in all sorts of social policy areas there is a widespread desire for more radical thinking. And in others while there may be more resistance to radical thinking it should not prevent the Foundation from putting them forward and getting agreement and support. So for example, for the left to get involved with economic development policy would be seen as unusual and economic policy practitioners have become so used to following a standard neoliberal line that different voices would probably cause disorientation and perhaps be received as hostile. But in these cases the Foundation will have no difficulty in pushing against the grain of existing policy as an intervention is desperately needed.

So bringing people together need not mean timidity and there will certainly be no attitude of ‘safer is better’. But there is one field where it may prove more difficult to keep the left together and that is in the field of constitutional change. This is an area where there is some significant division in parts of the left. But in fact that division may not be quite as big as some assume. While there remains a dividing line between support and opposition for independence, there is almost no support on the left for the status quo. The question is not should we change but how much should we change? And while there remains some tendency to think in terms of how little can be changed while still appearing to support change, this is a rapidly-declining position. The debate on the left is moving towards a more extensive view of what powers Scotland should have and most on the left tend towards a more ‘maximalist’ position.

The Foundation will try to be inclusive on this issue and if there are voices on the left that want to make a case for how to change society within a variation of the existing constitutional settlement the Foundation will be happy to encourage that debate. One thing it simply can’t afford to do is to try to avoid issues where there is disagreement, and particularly the constitution. So it won’t.

And there is one final challenge for organisations like the Reid Foundation and that is to survive. Without wealthy business backers finding sustainable funding sources is always hard work. The Foundation is being supported initially by money gifted to the Scottish Left Review (which is setting up the Foundation). But this will not enable it to survive for long without more funding. The Foundation will have a Director who will work full time but otherwise will operate with the lowest possible overheads to make sure that funding can be used to promote policies and not to pay rent. And with the enormous good will we are receiving it will be possible to do a large amount of work without a large amount of money.

But we still need to find a way to keep going. So we are launching a major fundraising campaign backed by some of Scotland’s leading figures. We hope to be able to raise enough money to secure the Foundation for the first two years and over that time to develop ways of sustaining our work into the future. If you are able, please go to the Reid Foundation website  and donate. And keep an eye on the website to sign up to mailing lists and to get involved.

More than one person has told us that the Reid Foundation is an idea whose time has come. The response we have had to the launch certainly backs this up. Now we need to get on and deliver to keep the momentum going. That’s how a good idea becomes the starting point for change.

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  1. Donald Adamson says:

    Robin,

    Excellent piece. Uplifting, not only for the message that it sends out (there is an alternative) but, perhaps more importantly, at long last, sections of the Scottish left are organising a co-ordinated response to the unmerciful calculus of Anglo-American neo-liberalism.

    There is a desperate need for a coherent antidote to the pessimistic arguments of those who argue that we are moving to a ‘post-democratic’ age, where individuals within nation states, as well as those individual nation-states themselves, are powerless to resist the forces of ‘globalization’. Underlying such arguments, of course, is the necessetarian logic of market fundamentalism which the left, in Scotland as well as elsewhere, has so far failed to counter.

    The depoliticization that has resulted from this, with governments across the world displacing more and more of their former political and economic responsibilities to largely private or, at best, quasi-public organisations, is surely one of the underlying causes of the widespread disaffection with, and disengagement of people with liberal democracy in many countries.

    Scotland’s devolved relationship with the British government is a microcosm of this. Normally, depoliticization is looked at from the perspective of central government – central government ‘devolving’ power from the centre to the ‘periphery’. But it should also be looked at from the opposite perspective. One of the effects of devolution in Scotland and, I suspect, one of the underlying reasons for the SNPs success last May, is that, in retaining the core reserved powers for itself, Westminster has effectively removed a number of these core issues from public deliberation in Scotland, with three main consequences.

    One, the Scottish government is ‘authorised’ to develop policy in a limited number of areas which, even with the best intentions, can never have the capacity to provide sustainable Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. Second, and as a consequence of this, the policy agenda in Scotland, precisely because it is limited by the devolution-constraint, has no response to the major issues of the day. In other words, it has nothing or little to say on these issues. Finally, this, in turn, has had its own consequence. Perhaps not surprisingly in these circumstances, we see turnout at Scottish parliament elections significantly lower than turnouts at British general elections. In effect, many of those who did vote in May were expressing their disaffection with the limitations of the devolution settlement, and many of those who didn’t vote were expressing their disaffection with the whole system, with formal politics.

    For these and other reasons, I would have preferred it if the foundation had put its weight fully behind independence but, hopefully, events will secure that consensus before long. Having said that, it is here that there is an opportunity for the SNP. If it can bring itself to develop a bolder and more adventurous policy agenda, it can capture, even lead, a growing public mood in Scotland. This is why, I would argue, that what is urgently needed is a politicization of independence. Among other things, the SNP needs to offer a new ‘Social Contract’ to the Scottish people. A Social Contract that only independence can deliver. This is not only a matter of offering an alternative to the vacuities of the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ or the moralising imperatives of (true) Blue Labour, both of which are intellectual as well as political cul-de-sacs.

    Rather, what the SNP needs to do is to turn the tables on depoliticization as a means of winning wider support for independence. It can do this in a number of ways, starting with a programme for independence. For example, by offering, for its part of the Social Contract, one of the things that the state does well, a commitment to the provision of well-resourced public goods. It can also offer a new regulatory settlement in some key policy areas that, again, only independence can deliver – industrial relations, a liveable national minimum wage, a written constitution (updating Neil MacCormick’s extant draft), a new Scottish welfare state, a national investment bank. But it can also promote something more fundamental in Scotland, the common good, encouraging and helping to equip individuals and communities to flourish, with an emphasis not only on creating a cleaner environment and increasing reliance on renewable energy resources, but with a more rigorous programme for sustainable development (a programme that has much greater chance of success in smaller countries). .

    For its part of the Social Contract, the Scottish people need to accept that only higher taxation and wage restraint, particularly for higher earners, can pay for this. We’ve seen what the British Labour and Tory neo-liberal agenda of anti-collectivism, deregulation, privatization and downward competition on taxation has produced, yet more lost decades, increasing disenchantment and increasing disengagement with electoral politics. With an ever-shrinking number of voters in Scotland willing to participate in electoral politics, the SNP is going to have to do something significant to win an independence referendum, it cannot allow the British disease to speak for itself.

    I’ve made my donation to the Reid Foundation and I’m sorry that I couldn’t have donated more. But when I can afford it, I will. Money isn’t everything though, so I’ll happily contribute in any other way that I can.

  2. carandol says:

    A new language, and recognition that the silent majority are pissed off and just quiet not aquiescent, although most are cynicaly resigned.
    I personaly like the idea of a new ‘commons’ agenda with the core idea of – actualy it’s NOT yours, ‘IT’ is ‘OURS’ .

    😉

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      carandol,

      Agreed and well said. If we’re looking for a slogan to help to mobilise the “quiet” majority, would you mind a slight amendment to your core idea, something along the lines of, ‘It’s not yours to give away, it’s ours to take back’?

      1. carandol says:

        Plus I kinda like the fait accomplis wi’in my original….it’s not what y’say… 😉

  3. carandol says:

    Weel put. ‘though eh wiz thinking mair of the all property IS theft thang.. ‘privatum’ being the roman garden ‘secreted’ within a villa as a mark of the owners status and worth to the community… is it just me or is that SO wrong in so many of it’s premises??????

  4. Tocasaid says:

    All the best to the RF. Hope to hear more from/ of it soon.

  5. Robbie Pennington says:

    I love the ‘common good’ agenda!

  6. G Barrie says:

    Since Scottish Labour are simply unable to cooperate with the SNP perhaps this initiative will enable left of centre thinking people to “leave their guns at the door” and engage in discussions to the benefit of Scotland. Liberty,Fraternity, Egality. – or something like that.

    1. carandol says:

      Hey Gringo
      – the rashes oh!
      One can hope. 🙂

  7. How will the Jimmy Reid Foundation create separation between it and the failed and inept Labour Party of Milliband, Ball, Gray and ‘Staurheid Rammy’ Lamont when one of its backers appears to be the funders of John Smith House – Unite?

    Seeing Unite on the list of ‘supporters’ killed my enthusiasm at a stroke. They represent all that is wrong with the ‘left’, its introversion, dislike of subsidiarity and need to control everything – Animal Farm’s pigs writ large. The most recent labour civil war -The ‘Battle of Prestonpans’ – over Ms Moffat clearly emphasised this point.

    I was brought up on both my Granddad’s tales of 1919, George Square, Hardy, Maxton and McLean. In Jimmy Reid there was another socialist to match them in reminding us what Scottish Socialism was actually about – people, looking out for people, not just for themselves.

    The left has a major image problem to overcome if it is to gain any real influence as a growing number of Scots increasingly see it as irrelevant to Scotland’s future and are very content with the social democracy of the SNP being more in tune with the inherent conservatism of Scot’s voters socialism.

    Whether it is Gerry Hassan or who ever, the aesthetes of the left are living in their own bubble, hardly listening to ordinary Scots. There is still a tone in what they write that ‘Nanny Intellectual’ knows best.

    I have a simple view on where the left wing in Scotland is at present and that is nowhere. It is unlikely there were be any real revival until the dead hand of Westminster is removed from the Scottish Realm. The Left’s revival will only commence when the left gets serious about Scottish Independence and engages in the process, rather than continues to dismiss the inevitability. Part of the process will being accepting that its biggest liability is (pick a colour) Labour’s Scottish Regional Party and seeks to create a new left of centre party that is looking out for Scotland and not looking over its shoulder to Westminster for its policies.

    How will the left engage with the SNP given Labour in Scotland’s complete and utter antipathy to anything the SNP does?

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