THE era of the political journal seems to have ended, but there is still a need to encapsulate vision in a durable form, especially when it’s a good, nationalist, one, writes Michael Fry
This week I have been making one of my occasional efforts to sort out and possibly clear out some of the thousands of books and other publications that cover almost every spare inch of my flat. I had my eye on one particularly dusty corner filled with political magazines of many kinds, but more especially leftist ones (since I sometimes like to read opinions I despise).
When I climbed up to that particular shelf, I found a lost world awaiting me: Calgacus, Liberation, People’s Voice, Radical Scotland, Red Duster, Scottish Left Review, Scottish Socialist, Scottish Socialist View, Scottish Vanguard, Scottish Workers’ Republic, Socialist Scotland.
I even have a copy of Vanguard from 1920, in which one John Maclean, Soviet consul in Glasgow, calls on the Bank of England to stop printing money. So he certainly would not have voted for David Cameron and George Osborne, but then perhaps we knew that.
Among the more recent publications, the sheer variety struck me. I had forgotten that in the last 20 or 30 years alone, and on only the one side of politics, we had a dozen or so magazines all giving ample evidence of their editors’ and contributors’ intense commitments, not just to socialism but also at least to a Scottish Parliament and in most cases also to national independence.
Where are they now? Have they all vanished? I am not even sure how I could find out. There used to be a bookshop selling such stuff on Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge where I picked up most of the copies I have, but that is long gone.
And we have after all been under right-wing British government ever since 1979, intensified during the Blairite rebirth of imperialism from 1997 to 2010.
Because self-evidently nobody has listened to the Left in all that time I suppose that, just as warriors once turned their swords into ploughshares, so the beardy weirdies have cut up their banners into tea-towels and sold their megaphones on eBay.
None of this need mean in itself that Scottish radicalism is dead, just that it is pursued by other means. Some of those aspirations will have been satisfied through devolution – and by certain standards we do, after all, have a radical government.
Among other things, it exerts itself to show Scotland’s values are different from England’s values, in an effort that may reinforce the political choices ahead.
In Scotland benefits will be universal and we will not count the cost, whether in personal care for the elderly or in higher education for any youngster that wants it, all in complete disregard of their personal background and means. We will balance moral concerns so as to favour minorities that deviate from traditional norms without annoying those who cling to those norms. And we will welcome immigrants that England spurns.
All this seems designed to create a really cuddly kind of country, maybe not in detail so different from the old United Kingdom we would have left behind, but infinitely nicer.
There would be room for everybody, from New Age crofters to crusty old reactionaries like myself. “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” the freed American slaves used to sing, and it would be the same for us.
It appears such an alluring vision that I wonder why nobody has bothered to spell it out at greater and more durable length than is available in newspaper columns or speeches at Holyrood.
I can sum it up in a few sentences but, for slogans to be transformed into social and political realities, somebody sometime has to sit down and do some hard thinking – and some hard writing too.
That was precisely what John Maynard Keynes did with his General Theory, already setting out in the 1930s the policies that Britain would pursue after 1945. That was what Tony Crosland did with his Future of Socialism in 1956, guiding the Labour party out of the mentality of wartime’s command economy. At the other end of the political spectrum, Michael Oakeshott and Maurice Cowling were in their publications during the next decade intellectually preparing the Conservative party for its re-emergence from the era of the welfare state.
Where are the equivalents in Scotland’s national movement? The late Professor Neil MacCormick was a brilliant lawyer, who could set out bold and challenging theses with wonderful conviction and lucidity.
The late Stephen Maxwell cultivated a philosophical cast of mind, but so fastidiously that he barely managed to get himself into print during his lifetime and is mainly represented by a single posthumous work.
In both cases, at any rate, I have to say “the late” – which raises the question where nationalism’s thinkers are today.
The question is worth raising because it is the thinkers that give a clue to the future. As Keynes wrote: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
To be sure, we do not want madmen in charge of Scotland. But it would be nice to know that the nation of the future, inevitably with more serious business on hand than it has now, might be informed by something better than the poll-driven populism that is the present norm in its politics.
The problem with that norm lies in the risk that it is also a bottom to which we all race, a complacent lowest common denominator.
If this populism promises us a paradise, it is a paradise of the past, an eternal couthy Scotland which by its sheer amiability dispels all the British bogies: the faltering NHS, the decaying education, the crime and drugs, the eternal problems of public expenditure. This would be a Scotland not radical but conservative.
It is only by looking to the future that we can even conceive of being radical, of getting to the root of things and changing them for the better.
And it is sad but true that radicalism often involves putting powerful persons’ noses out of joint, challenging vested interests to justify themselves, overthrowing them if they will not. Making a nation independent can in itself not be anything other than a radical move.
It will hardly be achieved by assuring the people that basically everything can stay the same, least of all when we have never managed or bothered or even wanted to think how it might be different.