More radical thinking is needed for the future of Scotland not less

A New Scotland: Building an equal, fair and sustainable society, edited by Gregor Gall, Pluto Press £14.99.

This is a collection of contributions from 55 authors (19 of them women) who are mostly academics or trade union activists: it is avowedly left-wing, critical of what it continuously refers to as the ‘neo-liberal’ status quo. The collection is organised into three parts: keys issues; policy areas and political practice.

The editor, Gregor Gall, claims it is a ‘single pointer covering all the essential issues’ in terms of a progressive vision for Scotland’s future. In the foreword, the STUC’s General Secretary Rozanne Foyer warns you not to read all of the book in one sitting. Reader, heed her advice, because this is quite definitely *not* the single tome you need to read, and I *did* read it all in one sitting, so you don’t have to.

Like all collections, it is of variable quality, and here it is the editor’s work to ensure that there’s a distinctive and accessible set of chapters. This is something they have comprehensively failed to do. Some of the academic contributions would definitely not pass peer review: an overstretched claim that Scotland is the most unequal region of the UK is based on one 2007 self-citation, for example (Commons Library 2018 figures has this as Yorkshire, Humber and Wales). Some chapters are willfully obscure – despite almost everyone complaining about neo-liberalism as the source of all Scotland’s woes (news to those living in poverty in the 1960s I imagine), the chapter explaining ‘patrimonial capitalism’ left me confused – and I have actually read the source material this is based on, something I urge you to do in the original.

Some of the chapters from non-academics are even worse: one on community campaigns opens with the polemical claim that ‘institutional power no longer delivers for citizens’ (well, tell that to NHS patients) and that all states are failing states (possibly, but no citations, and I think the socio-democratic welfare states are failing women less than, say, Afghanistan at the moment, but hey, why quibble when there are grandiose claims to be made?). This chapter then goes on to claim that ‘Scotland is different’ (it’s not a nation-state for a start, and even as a sub-state other authors in this volume have pointed out its difference is largely more rhetorical than substantial).

Although James Mitchell of Edinburgh University, a colleague I have a huge amount of respect for, claims in the blurb that this offers a ‘refreshing and challenging antidote to the stale arguments currently dominating Scottish politics’ most of the contributors are not offering anything new. 

Everything in this tome is predicated on paid work and the public economy: only the chapter on gender thinks of *mentioning* unpaid work (in passing) and Citizens Basic Income, one of the most potentially radical ideas to transform inequality around, gets a passing mention in the chapter on income, wealth and inequality. 

There is nothing on care, unpaid work, nothing for disabled people, nothing on public services role at creating universal fairness and social cohesion. These authors are not nearly as radical as they think they are. The chapter on transport talks, puzzlingly, about land reform to reduce dependency on cars rather than offering a vision of a national public transport infrastructure that actually works for citizens (like, off the top of my head, Austria, France, Germany, Netherlands etc all seem to have managed through genuine social democracy, not what passes for it in Scottish politics).

The trouble is, and it pains me to say this about a book with such good intentions produced by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, but this volume doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it an accessible evidence-based collection for an independent Scotland? In which case most of the academic chapters fail to pass both the ‘accessible’ and ‘evidence-based’: notable exceptions are the chapters on economic democracy and public participation, and constitutional conundrums; both funded by the ESRC in an example of why competition in research actually does work to produce high quality findings and fund genuinely clever and inspirational people, a fact at odds with the anti-neo-liberalist stance of the volume. Or is it a left-wing call to arms? In which case it is too obscurist to convert anyone who doesn’t have to read it for a first-year university introduction to public policy in Scotland course.

Conversely, some of the chapters are a genuine joy to read: for example, the one on race points out the travesty of trying to reimagine migration without coming to terms with Scotland’s racist and colonial past. This is in stark contrast to the chapter on education, which unquestioningly accepts the Curriculum for Excellence as the right way to improve historical and cultural knowledge:  it has been resoundingly criticised by education specialists for not doing that very well at all. The chapter on governing Scotland offers an accessible summary of radical changes that would be possible, and the chapter on the People’s Parliament enjoyably points out that the Scottish Parliament is both a ‘light in the dark’ of a democratic deficit and the preserve of an ‘elusive and elite group’. The chapters on climate justice, housing, leisure and health are well written, evidence-based, accessible and persuasive.

This could have been a useful and informative volume with some much tighter editing to remove the unsubstantiated polemical claims and make the language more accessible. The question ‘what difference would independence make’? is the elephant in the room: it hangs over the volume like it hangs over Scottish politics. Some authors offer helpful ‘shopping lists’ of what reform is needed and what could be done now, such as in the chapter on land ownership. 

Independence, of course, would never transform Scotland into a non-neo-liberal state, but it would arguably give it some of the levers that it doesn’t presently have to create an ’equal, fair and sustainable society’. This volume misses a valuable opportunity to persuade a risk-averse hesitant citizenship that come October 2023, voting for independence would offer a chance for that vision.



Comments (14)

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  1. 220819 says:

    This sounds like an anthology of wishful thinking rather than an exercise in futurology or the study of environmental trends for the purpose of exploring how we will live and work in a future Scotland the government of which is independent of that of the rest of the British Isles.

    Of course, the future isn’t fixed or given. How we will live and work in an ‘independent Scotland’ will depend on the decisions we collectively make as a community, and this in turn will depend on the processes by which we make those decisions. As I keep banging on: these processes are currently being constructed by the bureaucracy as part of the Scottish government’s ongoing work of ‘nation-building’, in preparation for its independence, and there is little sign that these processes are going to be any more democratic than the regime we have at present.

    More radical thinking is needed, but that thinking needs to be less around the compilation of ‘shopping lists’ for social reform and more about the decision-making processes that will determine how we will live and work in Scotland after independence and the democracy thereof.

  2. florian albert says:

    It is reassuring to read an article about ‘Radical Scotland’ which does not take it all at face value. There have been a number of collections of essays promoting the idea of Scotland as a radical country. The first I encountered was the Red Paper on Scotland nearly 50 years ago.
    Like the volume being reviewed it was the creation of academics and trade unionists. Ultimately, it did not lead to the sort of radical changes it was promoting. Nor have similar alter collections.
    Since the Red Paper was produced Scotland has changed but has not become a more equal society. If anything, the forces against radical change have been strengthened. The middle class is much bigger and much more prosperous – particularly with its pension wealth and property wealth. It is determined to hold on to what it has gained.
    Also, the balance amongst ‘radicals’ in society has changed. Trade unions are much weaker, particularly those representing the working class. The academic class has increased hugely. This latter change has been far better for the middle class – whose children are almost guaranteed a university education – than the working class.
    The example of schooling, mentioned by Kirstein Rummery is an interesting one. The ‘radicals’ here are defending a status qo that they have
    themselves created. It is an extremely unegalitarian status quo. The issue of schooling can be said to exemplify the failure of ‘Radical Scotland.’
    Above all, it is a class failure.

    1. 220821 says:

      You’re spot on here, florian.

  3. Graham Hewitt says:

    A most disappointing book, much of it a long list of supposed SNP-Scottish Government failures and what they should be doing. If I had a pound for every use of “neoliberal”……with no explanation of what it means and how it has shaped the world.

    The authors assert their left wing allegedly radical credentials but don’t address the fact that, with the partial exception of the Attlee government the left has been an abysmal failure in UK politics. As Gideon Rachman shows in his book on “Strongmen” it’s the militant far right authoritarian and proto fascists that are in the ascendant where old fashioned values such as truth and evidence are enemies. A Truss government is heading the same way.

    I believe in socialism but we must ask why it has been rejected so comprehensively and why politicians dare not speak its name. Politics and too many politicians have been captured by rampant crony capitalism and their media mouthpieces and few politicians are brave enough to lead but simply follow. Where is the plan for how the radical left will breakthrough?

    1. 220821 says:

      Perhaps the unelectability of the left is what motivates the centrism of Labour.

      1. Graham Hewitt says:

        You are probably right. Or at least that’s how Labour perceive it. There has been a huge shift to the right in politics with the Tories so far to the right they are basically an English fascist party and Labour are more like Thatcher’s Tories. And although Corbyn was moderately left (and was undermined from within) they couldn’t or wouldn’t make a convincing case for socialism. It seems no one in politics has the guts to make that case and Labour is still wedded to FPTP and refuses to contemplate coalitions.

        I fervently hope that in an independent Scotland things will be different. We, the people, have to make sure it is.

        1. 220823 says:

          I’m not convinced that the Conservative Party is ‘fascist’ in anything more than a pejorative sense. There’s been precious little in its successive manifestos to indicate that it shares much in the way of its ideology with fascism. It does share what is perhaps fascism’s ultimate core, which centres on a mythos of national rebirth from decadence, but then so too does the Scottish National Party.

          In one important respect, the Conservative Party is spiritually opposed to fascism. Edmund Burke, the ‘father of British Conservatism’, in his Reflections of the Revolution in France, was highly critical of the late 18th century Jacobin movement and the French Revolution, from which fascism (like revolutionary movements everywhere) took its ideological inspiration in respect of the totalitarian nature of its ‘mass’ ideology and its policing thereof, its suppression of the media, and its brutalisation of society.

          But, then again, perhaps Edmund Burke is currently birling in his grave.

          1. Graham Hewitt says:

            I think birling. The Tories have left Burke, (I wonder how many of the current mediocrities have even heard of him?) and Butler too since Thatcher.

            Although fascism is often used as an insult quite a number of serious figures are using the description. It is a somewhat amorphous concept but there are several attempts to create a list of indicators, such as that by Umberto Eco. I think the current lot tick a lot of the boxes. Just yesterday we had Sunak attacking Jolyon Maugham of the Good Law Project for using the Law to hold the government to account for breaking the law. That’s fascism. And fascists were very much in bed with corporates, as are the Tories.

            I really don’t think the Johnson, soon to be Truss, Party can be called Conservative any longer, just as the GOP is no longer Republican, but is now the Trump Party. Things are getting dangerous and the left has no answer other than an anaemic copy.

          2. 220823 says:

            Aye, Umberto’s article on fascism is entertaining. In the end, though, he defines it as ‘fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions’ and remarkable mainly for its distinctive sartorial style (Why don’t politicians dress like the rest of us?).

            He also reckoned its rhetoric appeals to those ‘folky folk’ who like tradition, conspiracy theorists and other irrationalists who reject the depravity of intellectualism, natives who fear incomers as intruders, lumpenproletarians who experience economic crisis and/or political humiliation, and any other class of citizens that feels hard done by and can have its grudges and grievances amplified by selective populism into the Voice of the People.

            Basically, according to Umberto, fascism is any political opportunism that preys on people’s ressentiment. As such, it’s the mainstream in our contemporary postmodern politics.

          3. Graham Hewitt says:

            Good article, Mike. Gideon Rachman’s book on “Strongmen” is worth a read.

          4. Justin Kenrick says:

            The earlier article on fascism – – clarifies a lot of these points really helpfully.

            Time for a re-issue, or an update in the light of what is happening because of/ despite Biden, and that leads the UK into Truss territory?

          5. 220825 says:

            Yes, Gideon’s book, The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World (to give it its full title), is a timely call for vigilance. It’s basic thesis is that the difference between our liberal democracies and authoritarianism is at risk of being eroded by our illiberal and undemocratic attachment to strong leaders. This attachment, the book warns, puts us on a slippery slope from accountable to autocratic government.

            The book also identifies the faultlines that might be the age’s own immanent undoing. Our task is the subversive one of insidiously infiltrating and exacerbating those faultlines. This is how we have perennially undermined authority – and how we must continue to perennially undermine authority – in our relative powerlessness.

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