Frontline volume 2, issue 1.

Debating Radical Scotland

Gregor Gall is the author of the recent book The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? Here he takes up the debate on his book and responds to a recent review of it.

Let me begin by taking the opportunity to thank Frontline for creating the space to respond to the first lengthy assessment of my book, The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland?, by Neil Davidson in International Socialism (number 109, spring 2006). Other forthcoming reviews of the book are by John Foster in Labour History Review and by John McAllion in Scottish Affairs. I am glad that Neil reviewed my book – not just because this was exactly the kind of exchange I hoped might emerge with the various sections of the left as I outlined in the book’s Preface but also because Neil is undoubtedly the best intellectual-cum-thinker that the Socialist Worker Platform/Socialist Workers’ Party has on Scotland.

By way of introduction let me pass comment on a few things. First, the initial response to my book has been like being shot, as it were, from ‘both sides’. For example, Kevin Williamson, after having perused the book, declined the opportunity to review it for Scottish Socialist Voice because he was in disagreement with much of the thrust of it. Suffice it to say that, it was too ‘British nationalist’ or ‘British unionist’, in the vein of Tommy Sheridan’s Foreword to the book, for Kevin. But according to Ian Ferguson in Socialist Worker (5 November 2005), I stand accused of trying to have my nationalist cake and eat it.

Others have commented that this is the first book they have seen where a person who writes a Foreword for a book attacks the central thrust of that very book. Indeed, the publisher asked me to withdraw Tommy Sheridan’s Foreword prior to publication. I declined for the reason that whilst I do not find myself in agreement with what Tommy wrote, I regard it as a legitimate point of view which is best publicly aired in order to create informed debate and discussion about the issues from which we can all potentially learn. It can only be hoped that involuntarily courting controversy brings a wider audience and, eventually, a full and fair hearing. In the meantime, these initial responses to my book say as much, if not more, about the various parties at hand than the book itself.

Secondly, the issues dealt within the book are still very much alive, however they are looked at. The 2005 data from the Labour Force Survey (1) shows that difference and ‘difference in decline’ are still marked with trade unionism. Union density for Scotland was 33.7%, while for England 27.9% and for Wales 34.3%. Meanwhile, it was 36.5% for the north east of England and 22.4% for the south east of England. Collective bargaining coverage (by workers covered) was 41.2% for Scotland, 40.7% for north-east England and 28.0% for south-east England. Clearly, there is something in particular that has to be explained here for there are still significant intra-Britain differences.

The BBC Scotland six-part series, Power to the People! (broadcast over April and May 2006), examined the labour and trade union movement in Scotland over the last century. The existence of the series itself has significance in its own right. How many factual programmes on such issues are made today, and why the focus specifically on Scotland? Again, this suggests there is something significant to be investigated. Whilst having some strengths, Power to the People! fell into some of the obvious traps, not least giving the impression that unions were predominantly a ‘problem’ and that labour radicalism in Scotland was a mass and unbroken thread over time.

Lastly, let me say that Neil is correct to assume that my continual usage of the book’s sub-title - Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? throughout the book reflects that the publisher intervened to insert the book’s main title. This was because the publisher believed that such a title would sell better in the American market than it would by using the title I proposed: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland?, Workers, trade unions and industrial relations in Scotland. Neil is also right to, thus, point out that the book is not about the political economy of Scotland per se but that does not mean it does not contain elements of political economy. Indeed, I define the underlying theoretical perspective deployed in the book as that of ‘radical political economy’.

Intention, Outcome and Response

In the renaissance of popular and informed interest in the publishing world on all things ‘Scottish’ (but particularly Scottish history, culture and politics) in the run up to and since devolution, the agency of ‘the worker’ has been singularly left out. My intention in writing Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? was to subject the contemporary period in which the modern devolution project was born to an injection of the historical agency of ‘the worker’ and, specifically, workers’ collective efforts to articulate and represents their collective interests. This was to provide a corrective to the writing out of, or non-appearance in, of workers in historical accounts of the development of society in Scotland.

The way in which I did this was to ask two questions at the very outset of the book: a) is the labour and trade union movement in, and of, Scotland more radical than that found elsewhere in Britain, and b) are the institutions, processes and outcomes of employment relations in Scotland in any way ‘Scottish’? This could not have been clearer. In regard of the first question, I made it plain I was analysing workers in Scotland in the first instance as ‘workers’ rather than as ‘citizens’, ‘consumers’ or any other forms of identity. In order to do this, I borrowed from a widely and well-accepted conceptual definition of union ‘militancy’. The backdrop to the point in asking these two overarching questions is that both have a considerable pedigree in Scotland. Notions of Scottish ‘radicalism’ and ‘difference’ are and have been common, if not, legion.

And so it was with a sense of some ‘mystery’ that I found that Neil wrote a review in which he castigates me for not writing a book that he would rather I had written. He concludes by stating:

“This is a deeply frustrating book. At various points Gall himself raises virtually all the problems that I have done here, but never pursues them or integrates them into his account. His refusal to follow through the more sceptical aspects of his analysis will win him no friends on the hard or even soft nationalist wings of the SSP, who do not want a politics of ambiguity. The book stops, rather than concludes, without any clue as to what he thinks socialists should actually do in relation to the identity he describes. Should socialists in Scotland frame their arguments in terms of a supposed radical national identity or not? The answer to this question is one of the most important facing the Scottish left today. In so far as this book begins to tackle the issue, it is to be welcomed. In so far as it avoids the question, it represents a missed opportunity.”

Let me actually explain what I mean here. Any reviewer is at liberty to make the first points Neil makes. But this is an altogether different matter when Neil argues these points in the context of making the purpose of the book I ‘should’ have written beholden not just to the broader socialist project but also one that is more specifically linked to the central canons of revolutionary socialism as practiced by the SWP/International Socialist Tendency. I say this not because I have significant disagreement with the SWP in some areas – as a former member, I do. I say this not because I am not a revolutionary socialist – I am. I say this because not every question or issue can, or should, be reduced to this unproductive fallacy. If the lens of ‘national identity’ has become a prison of the mindset, I think I may have happened upon another. It reminds me of the reviews of books and films in Socialist Worker many years ago which signed off by castigating the authors or directors for not mentioning ‘the working class’.

Let us remember that Marxists can learn from non-, and even, anti-Marxists. We can learn from their insights and analysis rather than their conclusions or implications for policy and activity. Let us also remember that Marxists can learn from writings, research and analysis that do not give Marxists the answers to the questions they want answered. We can use these materials to help us formulate the answers we desire or even reformulate the very questions we ask so that they become ‘better’ questions leading to ‘better’ answers.

I have no doubt that there will be many and varied points along the road to the construction of a socialist society. Consequently, we must be able to have both wide and engaging horizons and intellects to play our part in this long-term project. So if I have merely painted a picture that allows the left to ‘see ourselves as we actually are’ then this is no bad thing in itself. Of course, here the ‘we’ could be the radical left in Scotland or workers in Scotland. Throughout the book, I tried to get into the complex crucible of a) whether we should consider the workers and the left ‘in Scotland’ as just that or as the workers and left ‘of Scotland’, i.e., ‘Scottish workers’ and the ‘Scottish left’, b) how others see these groups, and c) how the groups see themselves. Little words like ‘in’ or ‘of’ are very important here. Understanding social realities is a necessary albeit not sufficient requirement to changing social relations.

My conclusion was about what has hitherto happened not about what should now happen because I was not constructing anything remotely close to a road map or manual for activism. That conclusion was that much of the popular radicalism exhibited by workers in Scotland, who were primarily Scottish by birth and by self-ascription, was often expressed in a conflation of social democratic and critical worldviews and refracted through a radical notion of Scottish national identity. Here national identity was seen in terms of what it was felt to mean to be ‘Scottish’ or what it should mean to be ‘Scottish’, this being a commonsense cipher for what ‘Scotland’ is or should be. Just as importantly, the way in which others like writers and commentators have seen this social phenomenon has been to add further weight to the use of the lens of ‘Scottishness’.

As it happens, I do have a view on what socialists should do in relation to this social phenomenon. But it was not the place to do this in Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? Why was this? It was not because this was an academic book. Many academics rightly do not purport to neutrality so it was not that I could not write a Marxist or radical analysis. The reason was the terms I had willingly set myself at the outset did not lend themselves to answering this question. If I had done, the best I would have ended up doing would be to tag on a few speculative comments at the end or write a conclusion that was a non-sequitur. What use would either of those been?

My view is that socialists in Scotland should positively recognise and relate to popular radicalism expressed in, or refracted through, Scottish national identity. Ironically, given his Foreword, I think Tommy Sheridan has done this quite well to date. For example, he has framed the kind of society he argues for in terms of the kind of Scotland he would like his young daughter to grow up in. To me, this indicates a measured way in which to credibly relate to the concerns of the mass of ordinary and relatively ‘unpolitical’ people and, in turn, these to a progressive and socialist transformational project. Sheridan, amongst others, has also argued for an independent socialist Scotland in this way. Suffice it to say, I outlined my own political position on, and rationale for, this in a document issued at the time of the initial (2003-2004) SSP debate on the Independence Convention (2).

The Bogeyman of Scottish Nationhood?

Do I regard ‘the strength of Scottish national identity as an advantage people in, say, Yorkshire do not possess’? Am I guilty of ‘view[ing] … virtually every issue … through the distorting lens of the ‘national question’’? In the construction of left oppositionalism in Scotland in the period understudy, national identity has been very important. Neil, I think, would agree with this as a statement of attested observation. (That national identity was important to the construction of left oppositionalism was important to establish but I was also at pains to establish that Scotland was subject to cross-Britain trends in, and movements of, left oppositionalism as well as the playing out of these trends and movements in a Scottish context.) The question that looms large for Neil is whether this was ‘good’, ‘bad’ or neutral. From other writings and drawing inferences, the conclusion he comes to is that this was unremittingly ‘bad’. He often has cited the example of the deal done over Ravenscraig in the miners’ strike of 1984-1985 to keep the steelworks supplied with coal as the quintessential case. But this is a case of apotheosis. Yes, the deal was retrograde to the winning of the strike and done on the basis of maintaining ‘Scotland’s steel industry’. But, for a start, it was not the critical event or anything near it. The defeat of the strike, on the workers’ side, had more to do with the working miners in Nottinghamshire, the inability or unwillingness of other unions like the TGWU to deliver effective solidarity action and so on. Even if this was not true, and without diminishing the importance of the defeat of the miners’ strike, this was only one moment of class struggle, albeit a major one. Where are all the other examples to make this into a discernible and sizeable trend? Two swallows do not make a summer. One swallow has no hope at all.

I draw from this that the influence of, for want of better terms, ‘Scottishness’ or Scottish national identity are not of a fixed nature, force or value. Rather, across, time and space, I judge that they are contingent. And in the last thirty years, and under the prevailing conditions of successful offensives by employers, the state and the right, ‘Scottishness’ or Scottish national identity have, overall, been useful to constructing political and social alliances of collective opposition. Does this mean that they still played a retrograde role by marginalising the forces of the far left? ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ would be my answer. ‘Yes’ in that the two are clearly at odds with regard to broad aims but ‘no’ in as much as the former helped create the space for the other to exist in within the period. The more I think about Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, the less I become convinced that either decade was fertile ground for the creation of genuinely mass revolutionary parties. So it is thus not as though when I just answered in the affirmative this was really a manifest question I was answering. To many this will confirm that we have a left of either ‘pessimists’ or ‘optimists’. I am not about to give the standard third-way response of believing in ‘realism’ because both the dichotomy and trichotomy have long outlived any useful purchase they had.

One other issue here is salient. Did ‘Scottishness’ or Scottish national identity play a retrograde role by marginalising the forces of the far left whence this made the alliances and coalitions less effective and robust? My answer here is a clearer ‘no’ because ‘Scottishness’ or Scottish national identity are not fixed – they can be more or less left-wing, so the complexion of ‘Scottishness’ or Scottish national identity are not determined by themselves. One final point here, lest it be thought that I’m arguing that the key to building and mobilising radical alliances within and across classes is ‘Scottishness’ or Scottish national identity. I’m not. Appeals to social justice and class interests are critical.

Standing Accused of ‘Workerism’?

Given the explicit parameters of the book, Neil’s contention that ‘there is a problem with simply treating trade unions as a measure of radicalism’ is unfounded. Firstly, I never claimed or implied that trade unions were the sine qua non of radicalism. But I do stand by my view that the ebbs and flows of trade unionism are the main means by which to assess worker radicalism and militancy in the terms I have described above. This is because trade unionism in the current epoch is the essential means of constructing worker oppositionalism. Secondly, and although the study of unions makes up the bulk of the book, this is not to the exclusion at the examination of other (political) facets of workers’ behaviour as Chapters 6, 7 and the Conclusion make clear. But it was beyond the scope of the book to examine a sets of other criteria like racist, sexist, homophobic and other attitudes because the book centred itself on workers’ activity in the workplaces of the means of production, distribution and exchange. My attitude to this limitation if I was reviewing such a book would be to point this out and state that it would be for others or the author’s future work to address these issues rather than engage in castigation. Nonetheless, it would be a brave and foolhardy person that would situate their analysis of the last thirty years of the labour and trade union movement on the outcome of just few campaigns in just a few years and these being right at the end of that thirty year period (i.e., 2003-2005).

Conclusion

I referred earlier to finding some ‘mystery’ in the way Neil reviewed Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? The mystery was in parenthesis because there was, indeed, no mystery but rather the un-confounded and frustrated expectation of a review which I think is unable and unwilling to fully and properly engage with the material, arguments and thesis of the book. Neil’s talk of ‘new periods’ and ‘new possibilities’ looks a bit lame in the aftermath of the not entirely unexpected leadership demobilisation of the biggest strike by workers since 1926. This, I believe, does more to characterise the continuing nature of the period, and I make this as a speculative point – does not this nature of the period mean we should take a longer and harder look at what socialists can gain from relating to radical national identity? But my objections to Neil’s review also lie in the habit that much of the left has in willingly conflating a person’s analysis with their political perspective on issues. Sure, if the level of the two units are compatible, then the two are unlikely not to be unrelated. But they are not synonymous with each other. This is the unfortunate methodological legacy of the sectarian far left. P

References

  1. Grainger, H. (2006) Trade Union Membership, DTI, London. Available as a pdf file at www.dti.gov.uk/er/inform.htm.
  2. Gall, G. (2004) Socialism, ‘the national question’ and the Independence Convention in Scotland, Flying Pickets’ Press, Edinburgh, pp.i+pp.22. Second edition.
  3. Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire
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