Our Tom Stockman
Our banks and savings have been stolen from us by crooks representing the ‘luxury and corruption’ of a commercial society always at risk of going rotten to its very core. Chris Harvie reviews – Stephen Maxwell, The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism, Collected Essays (edited by Jamie Maxwell, foreword by Tom Nairn) Edinburgh: Luath Press, £ 9.99
‘Around me the images of (nearly) forty years.’ … Iain MacWhirter’s recent Road to Referendum TV series had a shot of one old flame stalking through a political meeting looking for another Troy to burn. She it was who had referred to the rather Eurosceptic left in the 1970s SNP as ‘the Scands’ – you could tell, it seemed, from the Fair Isle pullovers. In my first memory of Stephen Maxwell he is wearing one.
Driven by moralism more than economics, and involvement in a multi-nation community no greater than Spain in population, this group remained communitarian rather than ideological in terms of contacts, and not (like Europhiles keen on Brussels) much disposed to rely on markets. Its time, curiously, seemed to pass around 1986 just as the alternative ‘European regionalist’ approach arrived. Thatcher was the apprentice sorcerer who found Delors had pinched the market genie just when the ‘bourgeois regionalism’ of Catalonia and Baden- Wuerttemberg, Jordi Pujol and Lothar Spaeth, hotted up.
When we made ‘Grasping the Thistle’ for the BBC in 1987 the Scands with their small-independent-nation as prototype weren’t on the agenda, largely because oil slumped in price from $ 40 to around $ 10 in 1986, bumping along there until 2000 – it’s now been around $ 110 for two years despite the slump – and wasn’t a game-changer any more. Time marches on! The European ideal, despite the rise of Green politics (now arguably as powerful in regional Germany as Merkel) is similarly placed today.
Who remembers Steve McQueen’s 1980 film of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People? It was done on a Hollywood studio set, evoking no spectacular fjords but the claustrophobia of a small community, eyeing its chance to move into the world through its spa and steamboats – but for the fact that its water was poison. The medical officer, Dr Stockmann, points this out, and keeps on about it when told to shut up. He ends isolated, his surgery smashed by the townsfolk who see their prosperity being wrenched from them.
The play was a regular in 1960-80 Scotland. I remember Tom Stockman, a BBC transposition to the Clyde by and with that fine actor Robert Urquhart, (founder with his wife Jean, dissident nationalist in Holyrood, of the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool) also of 1980. Outwith the wars, it was surely Scotland’s worst year, and no better for McQueen. He filmed when he had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, contracted when he had worked with asbestos. For him as well as Ibsen and his contemporary Emil Zola, this was bourgeois society clamming up about something more than hereditary venereal disease.
Scotland’s influence in modern Scandinavia had been great: even if it figures nowhere in Tom Devine’s hefty diaspora-fest To the Ends of the Earth. The Finlayson and Crichtons were pioneer industrialists in Finland; the Scoto-Swedish nobility was edged from the stage by von Platen and Ericsson, the engineers of the Motala Foundry trained up on Telford’s Gota Canal. Three of the great names of ‘semi-independent’ Norway were from exiled Scots families: Wilhem Christie, author of the 1814 Constitution, the composer Edvard Greig, and the shipbuilder and creator of Amundsen’s diesel-engined Fram, Colin Archer. Ibsen imagined himself of Scots descent. Thomas Carlyle’s last words of 1876 – a grudging acceptance of government by discussion – were on ‘The Early Kings of Norway’. It was a highly-political inheritance, and no-one was closer identified with it than Stephen Maxwell.
A powerful sense of history and popular culture – itself strongly political in the Northern sagas, some of them set in what’s now Scotland – seemed to enfold our casualties: Angus Calder, Gordon Brown, and now, as posthumous philosopher, Stephen himself.
The collection of his essays, edited by his son Jamie, is largely historical, though also the intellectual biography of a generation. The history earns its place: the possibility of economic independence nearly gained, against an empire (if a fading one) once nearly ruled. Was Stephen our Matthew Arnold, rather than our Tom Stockmann? No. his Cambridge, as much as Neal Ascherson’s, mattered. One senses the difference between Oxford’s fundamentally retrospective, vatic, ‘Modern Greats’ – PPE: Politics, Philosophy and Economics – and Cambridge’s ‘Moral Sciences’. The latter bore the weight of an analytical ‘scientistic’ transfer from the Scottish tradition, from Edinburgh-educated Darwin to Henry Sidgwick, Ernest Rutherford, Keynes and C P Snow, via that remarkable Fifer James Stuart, 1840-1913, Professor of Mechanics and in the 1870s founder of University Extension: an ideal as Stefan Collini has reminded us, utterly different from the cash-register Academia.Inc of Brown, Browne and Gove. Politics should start off from the community that people are capable of: discussion and analysis should dissect the inevitable corrupting diseconomies of an unequal society, the ways in which these, untreated, warp economic progress, censor discussion.
With the reassertion of ‘Common Weal’ ideas, the Scand moment may be back, but alas without Stephen. In his moving Donaldson lecture to the Scottish National Party’s 2007 Conference at Aviemore, he reminded the party, newly in power, of the levels of inequity in Scots society. Afterwards we had coffee at the station and talked about his brush with the cancer that, five years later, would return to kill him.
What mattered in the Maxwell view – more than prosperity – were what Adam Ferguson had in 1767 called the ‘social bands’, and this had been reflected in the make-up of the radical group in the SNP before the debacle of 1979. But its activity would run in two directions: one was the notion of autonomous, decentralised, co-operative decision-making. The other was the oil experience, conjuring up profit, ‘invisible hands’ and all the smoke and mirrors stuff. Stephen’s view was that you went on empirical data: what worked and what didn’t, and in Scandinavia you had the better part of a century’s praxis to hand as evidence: a moral community whose people had clung on to its own places even through a hundred dark winters. Between 1905 and 2013 Norway’s people rose from two millions to equal Scotland, with nearly twice the GDP per capita.
The record, over that longueduree, of Scotland’s market fetishists is based on nothing resembling history. Since 2008 it has turned out disastrous, latterly abject. A Johnsonian kick at the big stone, or bigger editorial baloney, is in order. Only someone entombed in a newspaper office will praise Schumpeter’s ‘creative chaos’ – remembering that subsequently he and Friedrich Hayek were safely absent from it in Britain or latterly East Coast America, when things turned very ugly in Vienna and Berlin.
But the balance between collective enterprise and collective care – the continuing theme of this collection – has to be insisted on. The second moulds the first, provides immanent social criteria for political priorities. We have to remember that the pluralistic strength of Scottish civil society, and the arguments about it, was insisted on by our greatest historian Christopher Smout, a Cambridge man himself and by marriage with Anne-Marie a ‘semi-Scand’: with the micropolitics of Scoto-Danish trade and civics behind him, and a lively sense of both the rigour of economics and the strengths and limitations of collective decision-making, particularly anent the natural world we have so spectacularly maimed.
Stephen’s ‘Donaldson’ followed on Alex Salmond’s impressive, almost Rooseveltian, call to capture energy-change for the nation – and one remembered how much the Tennessee Valley Authority owed to Patrick Geddes on human society in ‘the valley section’, and the complex interlinking of economics and environmentalism in his disciple Lewis Mumford.
But Stephen was also pleading for the priority of the moral economy over market machinery: of dealing justly with those whose deprivation appeared to disenfranchise them, of charting in society the activities of ‘housekeeping’ which couldn’t be assessed in conventional cash terms. These figure as only secondary issues in most Scottish discourse, as it’s still male-dominated, but in the 1970s this was grotesque. There wasn’t a single woman contributor to Gordon Brown’s RedPaper in 1975; I was equally guilty in the interviews in ‘Grasping the Thistle’, something not even realised until forcibly pointed out by Angus Calder.
The implication of Stephen’s dedication to the voluntary sector in his life-career at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations was his desire to rebalance the ‘makers, movers and menders’ to enfranchise the majority of the Scottish people. It’s appropriate that his feisty successor in this has been Lesley Riddoch, of Tromso and Newburgh.
But the outlook remains obscure and stormy. Our banks and savings have been stolen from us by crooks representing the ‘luxury and corruption’ of a commercial society always at risk of going rotten to its very core. This was something that Adam Ferguson insisted on more than Adam Smith – who sometimes appears as a physiocrat-economy version of Ronald Searle’s Basil Fotherington-Thomas. Stephen Maxwell’s moral economy was about discussing resources, institutions and outcomes within a large and argumentative family, all of whose members counted.
Cast a glance at a pro-market symposium Scotland’s Ten Tomorrows, edited by Bill Jamieson and published in May 2006. There is not a word in this laceration of devolution about the finance business, though 2006 was the year that bonus-money – generated from mergers and acquisitions, PPI, Libor rate-fixing, SIVs, CDOs, CDOs squared (etc, etc.) – exited the Scots banks on a huge scale, bound for big houses, land, foreign property, fancy watches, SUVs, tax havens. In 2007 our domestic ‘lighter-than-air’ economy headed for the cliff.
Not a single one of those involved in launching this ‘pinstripe Darien’ has gone to court, let alone been jailed. And post–crash scandals involving Lloyds, RBS, and now the Co-op group, show the toxins still at work. Juridical recovery of this property is essential to our re-industrialisation, and the creation of a publicly owned regional bank system. It is an advance in the argument for independence that must be made: but also one that requires ‘social saving’ on an unprecedented scale to redeem the wreckage of 2006-8: the ‘Let them buy BOGOF/ watch football on broadband!’ mindset that has hemmed-in our ‘Makers, Movers and Menders’.
A different genius, that of Alasdair Gray, sketched the inevitable outcome – in the menace to ‘Unthank’ from inundation in Lanark (1981) while Stephen was writing these earlier ‘Seventy-Nine’ group essays. A metaphor then has now become actual – from the horror of Tacloban (insurance hit $ 3.6 billion) to Storm Sandy’s short brush with the Big Apple (insurance hit $ 69 billion). Tacloban stops working, and Manhattan will tumble; even if it doesn’t, the Hudson will still continue to rise.
‘If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worse.’ a Scotsman letter-treat from MacDiarmid, citing Thomas Hardy, echoes from the 1970s. That is where we are now. Seeing this, and knowing the shortness of his own time, no discouragement made Stephen relent.