Comrades try to get Prudence to wear more red

December 15, 2000

Socialism has had setbacks in the 25 years since young leftwinger Gordon Brown edited The Red Paper on Scotland . Bob Tait joined a gathering to discuss the way forward.

It was, on the face of it, an unlikely event. Well over a hundred academics, journalists, theoreticians, activists and three members of the Scottish Parliament convened under the auspices of Aberdeen University's Arkleton Centre and department of geography in early December to ponder the significance of a book published 25 years ago and to consider, of all things, the future of socialism. The book was The Red Paper on Scotland , edited by one Gordon Brown, then the youthful student rector of Edinburgh University. In those days, as his introduction makes clear, the present chancellor was in favour of nationalising banks, oil companies and much else, and was equally keen on workers' power and community activism.

There were, inevitably, a few wry jokes about all that. But, had he managed to attend, he would probably have been surprised to find he was among respectful, even affectionate friends, whose criticisms were sorrowful rather than angry. The Aberdeen weather was typically bleak and brooding. By contrast, the atmosphere of the conference was warm and open-minded, frank in its admissions of the terrible battering socialist positions have taken, and patient about how these positions might reshape themselves in this radically altered world.

As historian Owen Dudley Edwards and Observer columnist Neal Ascherson pointed out, a remarkable open-mindedness had characterised The Red Paper itself, along with some strange blind spots. All 28 contributors were men, which looks very odd now. They were invited to speak for a variety of leftwing positions and could even include members of the Scottish National Party (as, for example, I was then). And, while it is impossible to imagine the Labour Party encouraging such a thing even a couple of years later, the book helped to foster fluid positions on socialist and more or less nationalist priorities that, in Scotland, have persisted ever since, in spite of official party lines and often bitter SNP-Labour rivalry. To listen to the three MSPs - John McAllion (Labour), Kenny MacAskill (SNP) and Tommy Sheridan (Scottish Socialist Party) - amicably debating was to be reminded how much common ground there is on key issues within the Scottish Parliament.

The most influential and respected of the contributions to The Red Paper was by Tom Nairn, theoretician of nationalism. He, like Ascherson, found it remarkable in retrospect that so little attention had been paid in the book to that strange lumbering beast, the United Kingdom, and to the peculiar and, he argues, terminal form of British nationalism on which it now heavily depends. This is a matter of insisting, to the bemusement of European neighbours, among others, on a British "exceptionalism" and a British way projected as somehow self-evidently right, given its pedigree of past greatness. As others noted, too, this is accompanied by heavy borrowing, by new Labour and Tories alike, from US ways. Ironically, the Scottish Gordon Brown and Robin Cook (another contributor to The Red Paper ) and the sort-of-Scottish Tony Blair are now the principal custodians of that sacred British flame.

But does anything of the former socialist survive in chancellor Brown? Larry Elliott, economics editor of The Guardian , argued that the old anti-poverty "instincts" and some of the policy priorities are still there, but that the chancellor appears to lack any "critique" of the global market. He appears to have no strategy for dealing with the defects of the markets when, rather than if, a crisis occurs and his astonishing run of luck ends. Meantime, it is vote-catching policies, rather than a socialist prudence, that have captured his affections.

But how might socialist thinkers and activists "read" the new global situation in which they find themselves, and what do they do about it? These are obvious questions that stare any conference such as this in the face. Bob Jessop, professor of sociology at the University of Lancaster, answered the first question: fairly schematically, he admitted, given the time available. His analysis led to questions of how to regulate enterprises and markets that transcend nations and continents and are brought into the heart of public services. But there was not time to get into those issues.

No one was in much doubt, though, that we live under conditions, some old and some new, that tend to spur socialists into action. Income inequalities have grown. Capital and its enterprises run like tigers, with governments clinging on precariously. Private-public partnerships bring market forces and interests into the very heart of government, under suspiciously few constraints. People are affected in many ways as employees, as consumers, as people concerned with health and welfare and as inhabitants of threatened environments. And an answer of a kind began to emerge to the question of what people with socialist aspirations actually do in response.

Sheila Rowbotham, of the University of Manchester, a historian of feminist and social movements, supplied part of that answer with examples of contemporary women's networks and activist organisations in places as disparate as Latin America, India and Australia. Often these activities are neither specifically feminist nor socialist. There are, she suggested, myriad threads, and no one can know how the concerns they represent knit together. But there seemed no place either, in this scenario, for old-style programmatic and prescriptive approaches by socialist parties.

Hilary Wainwright, editor of the left and green monthly Red Pepper , perhaps came closest to summing up a line socialists might take. She suggested that, like Red Pepper itself, socialists had to be open and exploratory, receptive to the potential in green and consumer issues, and in a great variety of forms of direct action and demands for participatory, rather than merely representative, democracy. For Wainwright, as for Rowbotham, prescription of socialist programmes was definitely out, as was the old, somewhat exclusive reliance on trade unionism. Rather, the more productive approach would be to encourage the tying together of those myriad threads and concerns to create a defence of public values.

So was it all sweetness and light? Certainly there was a striking absence of dogmatic pronouncements and fierce verbal assaults by comrade on comrade, so memorable a feature of socialist gatherings in the past. Perhaps there was a little muttering under the breath, especially among people who would have liked more time for debate. But it was an interestingly ruminative event, in the main. The organisers showed considerable ambition and open-mindedness in the people they brought together. Fraser MacDonald, the research fellow who arranged the day with lecturer Andy Cumber, said they looked on it as a kind of research project. And he was right: it was research into attitudes and ideas that might seem more deeply submerged than they actually are.

The Red Paper:

  • Called for a decentralised state under workers' control
  • Saw Scotland's problems as based mainly in class and equality rather than in national identity
  • Favoured public ownership of the financial and energy industries, including oil, and deeply opposed multinationals
  • Put great stress on supporting single parents and old people
  • Lamented the failure of taxation to reduce the concentration of land inprivate hands.

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