Kiruna’s Choice

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism) reflects on A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside The Swedish Model (Luath, 2016) by journalist and academic Dominic Hinde. This essay was first published in the Glasgow Review of Books

Utopias are hard to avoid. Look at the popular culture of rich western societies, for instance. TV series like Master of None show implausibly wealthy millennials spending implausible quantities of free time in Manhattan’s best bars and coffee shops. Advertisers tell us that kind of life can be ours at the tap of a credit card. From Facebook to LinkedIn, social media lets us swap finance for fiction, meticulously curating our personal Pravdas of social and professional achievement.

These utopias are generally considered to be safe. Sure, in reality it’s all pretty toxic: the implication of those monetised cultural utopias is that our own poor and boring lives aren’t good enough, that we should spend more money and time trying to attain the unattainable. But Facebook’s dark side pales into insignificance compared to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Now there’s a utopianism worth forgetting.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, political utopia has been shuffled quietly off the agenda. The Cold War’s binary utopias have been replaced by a messy convergence on pick ‘n’ mix politics, a middle-ground of “social” enterprise, “ethical” consumption, and their foreign policy equivalent: “pro-democracy” drone strikes on picturesque little villages in the Middle East. Find your nearest non-profit cooperative bakery and the menu will offer you the chance to have your cake and eat it too.

Anybody insisting on an alternative to this social order – not some free-range bunker untainted by the system, but worldwide transformation – is inevitably dismissed as utopian. Not in the harmless, profitable, cultural sense of the term, but as a political utopian. Utopia, as we learned from the gulags, has no place in politics.

No place. That’s what it means. Any understanding of utopia – as critique, as social phenomenon, as political project – has to start with Thomas More’s foundational pun. In Greek, οὐ means “not” and τόπος means “place”, but “utopia” is ambiguous enough to hint at the term εὖ as well, meaning “good”. “Good place” and/or “not place”: More’s intention when laying out the ideal, peaceful and property-less society in 1516’s Utopia is similarly ambiguous, but later uses of the term have been less so.

Marx and Engels sought to distinguish their variant of socialism – “scientific socialism” – from the “utopian” work of their predecessors, Sebastian Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. In its utopian form, socialism sought

to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda and, wherever it was possible, by the example of modern experiments. [italics my own][1]

For Marx and Engels, the trouble with this was that it wasn’t rooted in the realities of “time, space, and the historical development of man [sic].” Utopian socialists placed too much faith in the abstract truth of their model future, and in their ability to persuade the world of its rightness. The “scientific” alternative was to identify real, social forces in the world as it exists, which can lead towards something better. Chief among these forces was, of course, the working class, pressed by the fatal contradictions of the capitalist system into revolutionary agitation and the construction of socialist society.

For utopian socialists, the reason the world wasn’t socialist was simply that nobody had thought of socialism yet, or hadn’t been persuasive enough in advocating it. For Marx and Engels, the world wasn’t socialist yet because capitalism and the working class had not reached the necessary stage of historical development at which the next mode of production – socialism – could supersede the existing one.

But isn’t communism the utopia? For Marx and Engels, socialism develops into communism, class society is abolished, and the state withers away. All of that is quite unlikely, and I say that as a dedicated communist. Marx and Engels were certainly right to suggest that capitalism was, in the long term, unavoidably doomed (I give it 100 more years at most), and that the working class – the vast majority of people who depend on a wage to live – were the only social force able to replace it with something better. But there’s nothing certain, never mind “scientific”, about the idea that its replacement will be any more stable or humane than capitalism. It could even be worse.

Here’s a workably broad definition of utopianism: it’s the intransigent belief that, despite the lack of much evidence, things can – and should – be better. Not just briefly, but better for good. As the 19thcentury socialist Louise-Auguste Blanqui put it: “what exists is bad: something else must take its place.” But even here, there are distinctions within utopianism. Blanqui ended his aphorism with the unfortunate insistence that “…and gradually things will become what they ought to be.”[2] The Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin, an admirer of Blanqui, didn’t share the Frenchman’s optimism:

On this planet a great number of civilizations have perished in blood and horror. Naturally, one must wish for the planet that one day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am […] inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this. But it is terribly doubtful whether we can bring such a present to its hundred- or four-hundred-millionth birthday party. And if we don’t, the planet will finally punish us, its unthoughtful well-wishers, by presenting us with the last judgment.[3]

Benjamin’s utopianism, like Marx’s, had a fundamentally pessimistic premise: either the future is communist, or we’re all doomed. His pessimism fits our age too, where the prospect of ecological Armageddon meets its older economic and military equivalents. Benjamin’s pessimistic utopianism is far more realistic than the insistence that we compromise with the “reality” of capitalism because it’s here to stay. No social order has survived indefinitely thus far. There’s no reason to believe this one will break the trend, and plenty of evidence (CO2 emissions, for example) that suggests it won’t. There’s nothing more utopian than thinking we can avoid catastrophe without a fundamental transformation of society. Utopias are hard to avoid.

But is there not something else, that doesn’t require all the effort, uncertainty and upheaval of a worldwide socialist revolution, yet which can still avoid capitalism’s ecological and moral collapse? In the 1930s, as the world stood at an existential crossroads between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the American journalist Marquis Childs published a book called Sweden: The Middle Way. He travelled through Sweden as the country was constructing its now-famous welfare system, and the book describes a society that offered something very different to both the red peril in the East and the brown-shirted horrors driving Germany’s economic revival.

Capitalism in the north, it seems to be, has been modified and, in a sense, controlled; the profit motive in many fields drastically curbed and abolished – subjugated might be a better word. To a considerable degree it is true that the domestic economy has been made to serve the greatest good of the greatest number.[4]

Sweden, and the Scandinavian or “Nordic” world in general, has found itself associated with this kind of thought for a long time. A little brook of Scandi-utopianism has trickled away through one hundred years of wars, crises and atrocities, occasionally disappearing underground only to re-emerge deeper and wider than before. In the 1950s the Labour Party intellectual Anthony Crosland described Sweden as coming close to an “ideal of the ‘good’ society.” It had high welfare provision, low rates of economic inequality, and yet private property remained very much intact alongside the institutions of liberal democracy.[5]

Crosland’s fondness for Sweden was inextricable from his disagreements with Marxism. Chief amongst these was a belief that, after 5 years of transformative Labour government from 1945-51, British capitalism had been transformed into something that did not need to be overthrown. The Labour Party, he believed, had democratised capitalism to the extent that socialists could now focus on gradually reducing the power that markets and property had over people’s lives, without actually doing away with the market and property altogether.

Crosland wrote during an era known variously as the “post-war consensus,” the “golden age,” thetrente glorieuses and so on. The depression, the Second World War and the Communist threat had combined to give an enormous amount of political influence to the West European working class, while America’s newfound global power kept this influence contained within the basic parameters of capitalism (if not always democracy).[6] Runaway rates of capital accumulation provided sufficient room for an unprecedented rise in material wealth for workers. Back then, the Swedish model looked like a sort of destination for a journey already underway, a modern society relatively free from the class hierarchies and stuffy traditions that continued to infuriate the British left. However, by the end of the century the imaginative function of the Nordic Utopia had changed. In the late 1960s a wave of economic and political crises shook the world, provoking capital to begin the sustained assault on the working class that is now vaguely described as “neoliberalism.” Trade unions were crushed, wages, taxes on the rich and regulations were slashed, and democratic institutions were gradually hollowed out – often replaced by opaque, transnational bureaucracies ruling by financial diktat.

CoverNowhere in the world escaped these changes. But the Scandinavian welfare states approached the millennium with far more grace than their European neighbours. In 1990, a year after poll tax riots had broken out across Britain’s streets and Thatcher wobbled, the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen published The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, a comparative study of welfare systems in western world.[7] Even at the high point of neoliberal advance, Esping-Andersen described a Scandinavian welfare system that continued to reduce the subordination of people’s lives to market forces. The “liberal welfare states” of countries like Britain and the USA, on the other hand, offered paltry, means-tested payments and encouraged the stigmatisation of recipients. Trade unions and social democratic parties continued to fare much better in Scandinavia than elsewhere in the western world, and Sweden had been at the forefront of measures to combat gender inequality in politics and the workplace.

Resurfacing in the 21st century, the quiet little stream of Nordic utopianism has changed course. Far from being seen optimistically as “the future of socialism”, many on the centre-left cling to it as the last glimmer of hope during a worldwide collapse in social democratic fortunes. While Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in the USA has referenced Scandinavia as an example of “democratic socialism” in action, it is Scotland where the new Scandi-utopian logic has been applied the most consistently. The Scottish National Party point to Scandinavian countries to show that it’s possible to be a small, independent state with a big, generous welfare system. Common Weal, a pro-independence “think-and-do-tank,” has repeatedly drawn on Nordic examples to show how social democracy can be rescued from “neoliberal” Westminster. The “Nordic model” even has its own Scottish think-tank, called “Nordic Horizons.”

In the Lilliputian world of Scottish politics, the quiet little stream of Nordicism often looks and sounds like a river. The Nordic utopia is very nearly the only utopia in town, transplanted onto an imagined independent Scotland of the future. Dominic Hinde has gone wading into the middle of that river withA Utopia Like Any Other, a welcome critical exploration of what the “Swedish model” really means beyond the idolatry and mythmaking of faraway utopians.

Hinde follows in Childs’ footsteps, highlighting key aspects of Swedish society through a series of journalistic snapshots. A discussion with hotel workers (Hinde speaks fluent Swedish) in a wealthy Stockholm suburb frames an explanation of Sweden’s consensual labour relations model. The important thing about this system is that while it relies on the legal backing of the state, it requires little active government intervention. Once embedded in law, Sweden’s collective bargaining occurs between employers and workers at a national level, and trade unions have representation on various important legal, public and corporate boards. Thus we get a “delicate triangle of government, business and unions,” with no party able to dominate.

This theme of equilibrium – between classes, genders, and between humanity and nature – is crucial to the image of Swedish society at home and abroad, but one of Hinde’s crucial insights is to show the origins of equilibrium in struggle. Sweden’s system of labour relations was “the result of almost 40 years of destructive conflict,” thrashed out after the army massacred striking sawmill workers in 1931. The country’s renowned efforts to combat gender inequality, and indeed gender binaries themselves, have their roots in the bolshy activities of feminist organisations like Gruppe 8, who disrupted Trade Union rallies, established local feminist cells and terrified politicians with threats of direct political competition. If Nordic utopians are enamoured with Sweden’s seemingly peaceful, consensual social order, they may be turned off by Hinde’s exposition of the outright conflict that has been necessary in building it.

Hinde offers an even stronger rebuke to the Scandi-fetishists when his analysis enters the “neoliberal” era that Sweden so often appears to have escaped. In the 1980s, the Swedish working class sought to reassert their interests over those of Swedish capital with an approach calledlöntagarfonder. This diverted private profits into employee funds, allowing the employees to buy shares in their companies: gradually, workers would come to own the means of production. But this quiet revival of class conflict threatened to snap the supposedly benign equilibrium, and the equilibrium snapped back. A single-term right-wing government abolished löntagarfonder in the 1990s and it has never been restored. A more sustained right-wing insurgency in the late 2000s attacked trade union rights, along with public services and top tax rates. Trade union membership duly fell from eighty to sixty-eight per cent. On his travels around Sweden Hinde finds himself in Kiruna, a city in the arctic far north. Kiruna is entirely dependent on its vast iron ore mine: so dependent that it is being forced to move en masse down the road, “to last another hundred years or until the ore runs out.” The “green” state-owned mining company is paying for relocation. A local lake is now “a sealed off zone of scrub and unstable black spoil speckled with snow.” The relocated railway line runs between frozen ponds of dirty waste runoff.

Hinde writes that “Kiruna is in a Faustian pact with the industrialised world outside, selling its mineral wealth and culture in return for being allowed to exist.” Kiruna is a microcosm of Sweden: “the success of Swedish capitalism abroad was integral to the development of socialism at home,” and as capitalism abroad falters, Swedish “socialism” risks losing permission to exist. At the heart of the Swedish model is this idea of a profitable niche in the world where, so long as the dirty work is done elsewhere, Swedes can brand themselves as an attractive alternative while benefiting enormously from the established order. “Kiruna wants to carry on living. To do so it needs the dirty world around it to buy its environmentally-friendly Swedish ore.”

As the international basis of Sweden’s utopia – post-war capitalist growth – has worn away, its domestic foundations have begun, embarrassingly, to poke out from under the surface. Those foundations are inescapably nationalistic. In the 1930s, when the Social Democrats began constructing Sweden’s welfare state, they consciously rebranded themselves from a party of the blue-collar working class to become a party of the nation or “the people.” The welfare system was calledfolkshemmet, the “people’s home.” Much of Sweden’s universalist, egalitarian national identity is built not on the image of the worker, but on that of the small-town independent farmer. But as urbanisation and globalisation have continued, Hinde argues that this aspect of Swedish life has “played less and less of a role in the national picture.”

Key constituencies in Swedish politics feel forgotten – and as UKIP’s success in Britain’s decaying seaside towns has shown, forgotten people can be an important political force. While Sweden seeks to maintain its global reputation for tolerance by welcoming thousands of refugees, the far right has surged. The Sweden Democrats, with their roots in Sweden’s White Power movement, have made significant electoral gains by playing on a sense that the threatened “people’s home” can be best protected by excluding non-Swedes from it. Sweden’s Social Democrats and their international admirers believe that nationalist consensus can make capitalism work for everyone, but the inclusivity of nationalism can only be guaranteed so long as capitalism provides enough to go around. With the world-economy stumbling along at rock-bottom growth rates, there is little reason to believe that efforts at a “civic,” inclusive nationalism such as the SNP’s can remain plausible. Sweden offers a warning about where things might go next. The last stand of democratic capitalism, before it collapses into outright authoritarianism, will be the restriction of democratic rights to “nationals” and their denial to outsiders. As the welfare-and-wage pie shrinks, those less powerful groups inside or outside national borders will be denied a slice entirely, to ensure those with more power still get their fill.

The trouble with the Swedish utopia is that it’s not really worthy of the name. Rather than insisting that things could be better and taking the future as their model, Scandi-utopians look for something that already exists – what Erik Olin Wright calls a “real-utopia.”[8] But Sweden’s real-utopia is far too real, too dependent on a happy little “good-place” in a vicious worldwide economy. Now the niche is vanishing, and something deeply unpleasant is emerging instead. A decent, committed utopianism would envision a better world, not just a “better Scotland” following Sweden’s path. Hinde writes that “Sweden for the Swedes could be a positive rallying cry if everyone can indeed be Swedish,” but of course, the problem is that not everybody can be. The nature of Swedish exceptionalism is that not everyone can follow that path – and those who do, can’t do so for long. There is no safe “middle way”, as Childs hoped. Success might be hard to imagine without one, but the choice remains unavoidably binary: socialism or barbarism, on a world scale.

Dom will be launching A Utopia Like Any Other at The Glad Cafe in Glasgow this Sunday (the 29th) at 19:30. See you there!


[1] Engels, F., ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (, 1880),

[2] Blanqui, L., quoted in David Van Dusen, ‘Worlds Without End’, 3AM Magazine (September 2014),

[3] Benjamin, W., quoted in Arendt, H., ‘Introduction: Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940’ in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (Pimlico, 1999), p.42

[4] Childs, M.W., Sweden: The Middle Way (Faber & Faber, 1936), p.18

[5] Crosland, A., The Future of Socialism (Jonathan Cape, 1956)

[6] US-backed dictatorships and military coups across southern Europe in particular were needed to keep the more militant sections of Europe’s working class in check.

[7] Esping-Andersen, G., The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 1990)

[8] Wright, E.O., Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010)


Editorial: Into The Abyss

Those who take the meat from the table
Teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.

Bertolt Brecht

The left wing of Scottish politics has been broken, and the country’s political flight path is listing towards the right. In the election just past, Scottish Labour stumbled uncertainly leftwards, tripped over their own position on the constitution, and fell gracelessly into third place. The Scottish Greens gained seats, but the left of the party was disappointed to see socialists Maggie Chapman and Sarah Beattie-Smith unexpectedly stranded outside Holyrood, while the arithmetic of the new Parliament offers few chances for Green kingmaking.

RISE were beaten by the National Front in the north-east, and by the Scottish Christian Party and Solidarity nationwide. Fascists, theocrats and a personality cult triumphed over ‘Scotland’s Left Alliance’ just two years after the independence referendum was supposed to have thrust the population into their outstretched arms. The risk of using seasonal metaphors in Scotland is that they can be all too accurate: after the vaunted ‘Scottish Spring’ we appear to have vaulted over anything resembling summer, and the leaves are already turning brown.


The SNP spent the election positioning themselves in the centre, digging bunkers into the open ground vacated by tax-hiking Labour and tax-cutting Tory manifestos. A Nordic-inspired emphasis on childcare was at the heart of their centre-left social policy programme, but their centre-right economic prospectus included tax cuts for the air travel industry and a stubborn reluctance to make rich people pay more income tax.

The main opposition party is now the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, a group dominated by land and business owners who like their justice tough and their taxes flat. If the SNP are the parliamentary representatives of the ruling class, the Scottish Tories are the bastards themselves. In government the SNP will have to deal with an increasingly disastrous economic situation in a chamber where “entrepreneurialism” has louder advocates and public ownership more braying, tweed-jacketed critics than ever before.

This is what we crusty anachronisms on the far left might call an unfavourable balance of forces.

It ought to have taken a lot of people on the left by surprise, given the hitherto widely-held belief that the left was doing better than ever in Scotland. Instead, people don’t even seem to think it’s happening. Robin McAlpine, great chieftain of the CommonSpace, believes everything is fine. “Stop worrying about the Tories,” he writes. They’re “just a slightly bigger bunch of people stranded on a remote island with little influence over mainstream politics in Scotland.” If the second largest party in the Scottish Parliament has “little influence over mainstream politics”, who does?

Is it possible that only one party – the SNP – determines Scotland’s political life? Some political commentators seem to think this is the case, and the reason given is that the party is not particular to any one interest group, but universal. It is a curious facet of Scottish politics that no one really knows who the SNP stand for. We know about the other parties. Scottish Labour are either stooges for the Tories, a job-creation scheme for useless councillors or the parliamentary wing of the organised working class, depending on your perspective. The Scottish Tories are the party of good decent orangemen, noble small businesses or old rich bigots, again depending on where you stand. The Greens are either a bunch of nerds and hippies or the vanguard of the precariat. And so on.

But the SNP are a mystery, and their members and parliamentarians appear to come from a range of social classes and from across the political spectrum. Even their funding offers few clues; much of their spending power appears to come from fortune itself, thanks to two lifelong members’ massive Euromillions win a few years ago. Obviously lots of people think they know who the SNP stand for: “all of us”, that common wail of the Common Weal. We are to believe that they encompass every class and subculture of Scottish society, as if we could simply negotiate our way out of capitalism without a single person losing their house, or head.

For all their talk of parliamentary consensus and working together, the SNP claim they are the only party anyone in Scotland could ever need, posting leaflets during the election which asked “who benefits most from our policies?”, with the fantastically illogical answer: “we all do”. When one party successfully presents itself as encompassing almost every interest in Scottish society, it’s no wonder that opposition parties, particularly opposition parties that represent clear sectoral interests, seem irrelevant.

This view of the SNP has led parts of the Scottish Left to view the SNP as ideologically neutral, open to being swayed this way and that by the clever manipulation of public discourse. Apparently all that is needed is for the left to create or appropriate a set of ideas that produce (as if by magic) various good policy outcomes, and then persuade the SNP to adopt those ideas too. A side-effect of this strategy, though not one that is particularly problematic for its proponents, is that power on the Left drifts away from any substantive socialist movement and into the hands of a little clique of ideologues and left gurus.

These are, of course, the absolute worst people to be tasked with assaulting the structures of power in Scotland. The SNP’s actual ideological character is totally hidden from them, because they don’t think there’s anything ideological about the belief that all the different social interests in Scotland can work together for the common good. They just think that’s the truth. The most important feature of ideology is that so long as you’re in it, you can’t see it.

roch_windsThat shared ideology sustains an approach to government which we call “social nationalism” in our recently-published book Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland. Social nationalism isn’t a creation of the SNP but the product of a decades-long rise to parliamentary and societal hegemony. Its roots lie in the self-interest of a distinctly Scottish social stratum that emerged from what political scientists call “administrative devolution”.

Since the Act of Union, a significant amount of responsibility for enforcing the power of the British state and capital in Scotland has been delegated to local administrators, first through moral and educational institutions of ‘civil society’, then expanded after the Second World War through various devolved aspects of welfare bureaucracy. There has always been a distinct Scottish establishment tasked with managing, persuading and disciplining the working class in Scotland on behalf of the British state and capital.

The unionist bargain between Britain’s ruling class and its administrative Scottish fraction remained strong so long as the British state and economy had the requisite energy to sustain the diffusion of some power to its northern periphery. But Thatcher’s inheritance – a crumbling state apparatus and a tanking economy – meant the Tories’ traditional sensitivity to Scottish autonomy was subordinated to the rapid concentration of power at Westminster as the crisis demanded a speedy resolution. The simultaneous attacks on the British working class and on the autonomy of Scottish institutions by Thatcher’s government provoked a reaction not only from the working class, but also from those to whom state power had been delegated in Scotland.

reidheathThis reaction pushed many working class Scots into an awkward embrace with Scotland’s imperilled managerial establishment. The former had a long tradition of radicalism, and had recently given Ted Heath’s government a bloody nose during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in 1972. Their obvious place, therefore, was not with the Scottish elite whose key role and expertise in society is to persuade people to be governed.

One of the most effective tools of persuasion is the ability to present one’s own particular interests as universal. Scotland’s political managers absorbed the defensive demands and militant methods of the Scottish working class into a pacified cross-class ideology that rejected the outright conflict of Thatcherism in favour of a moralising, communitarian ethos of public service and corporatist negotiation. Alex Salmond once said that Scots “didn’t mind the economic side” of Thatcherism, but disliked “the social side.” The alternative to Thatcherism, which split the nation along clear class lines, was to dissolve class differences into a new national project: that of defending the remnants of social democracy, expanding Scottish autonomy, and holding a stratified society together through thick and thin.

This did little to halt the destruction of working-class lives at the hands of capital, but it did a lot to protect Scotland’s administrative elite from the same onslaught. They won themselves a parliament, constructed in a lab by a ‘Constitutional Convention’ of the great and good and implemented by a Labour government with little interest in redistributing power to the working class.

The Scottish Government which emerged from that process now funds, or at least provides a profitable focal point for, a grand constellation of voluntary organisations, think tanks, expert advisors, media pundits, consultancies, lobbying firms, public sector boards, lawyers, advocacy groups and media institutions – the list goes on and on.

Almost every single one of these organisations or individuals reproduces social nationalism through their work, papering over the cracks in Scottish society with platitudes about our common interest in social justice, human rights and sustainable growth. The SNP thrives on this, keeping Scotland placid and governable so that capital can continue to exploit the people’s labour power with as little resistance as possible.

Scotland’s imagined political community is classless, consensual and run by disinterested technocrats, and this makes it hard to envision success for a party of open class interest. But imagining a classless Scotland doesn’t make it real, and the Tories are not as isolated from this ideology as Robin McAlpine seems to think.

Our post-election editorial discussed how the Ruth Davidson For A Strong Opposition Party might effectively navigate social nationalist currents. But they’re also well-placed to profit from any emerging discontent with an increasingly stagnant consensus that doesn’t actually manage to resolve social antagonism. As the SNP continues to settle into power and the promise of a better nation disappoints, popular discontent will gradually but surely grow.

So long as the left allows itself to be pulled by social nationalism into the SNP’s orbit, the Tories may come to offer the only obvious source of resistance to a new Scottish establishment. The new Tory MSP Adam Tomkins has already made a start on this, asking crucial parliamentary questions about the same politicisation of Freedom Of Information responses that RISE sought to expose during the election – a noteworthy shift in critical responsibility from left to right.

The Tories are already mastering the SNP’s old trick of operating simultaneously within and outwith the existing structures of power and influence, deferring to social nationalism in some ways and distinguishing themselves from it in others – just as the SNP attacked Labour while appropriating its traditional message. They have an influential cohort of quiet sympathisers in Scotland’s burgeoning corporate lobbying sector, and their distinctive positions on tax and land have drawn them closer to other powerful interests in Scottish society. It’s likely we’ll see them play a key role in a Scottish Government in our lifetimes.

During the UCS work-in the Scottish Trades Union Congress called for a “workers’ parliament” in Scotland. Now we’ve got a parliament with more powers than ever and a popular Scottish Government, with a minister for Fair Work and a partnership system of industrial relations that is lauded by social democrats. But it’s no workers’ parliament – the two largest parties represent everything but the working class.  Nothing sums up the Scottish left’s complacent tolerance of social nationalism as clearly as its embrace of the reactionary slogan adorning Holyrood’s north wall: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” With the right wing gaining ground, perhaps it’s time to strike as if we live in the early days of a worse one.

Traitors For Yes


With a Yes vote now more possible than ever, and its left-wing advocates in a particularly excitable mood, here are a few thoughts inspired by Euan McColm’s latest column discussing what he perceives to be scant evidence that the left would be strengthened in an independent Scotland. McColm is perceptive in his analysis of the risks posed to the left by any collaboration, however critical, with the SNP, who are adept at talking to the left while walking (and occasionally talking) to the right. He suggests that “Scottish independence is more likely to benefit the right than the left”, and that socialists will find “very little reward” for their efforts in winning independence, echoing a similarly sceptical argument made earlier in the campaign by the Record’s Torcuil Crichton, who wrote that socialism struggles to break through “in a country where all civic politics is about the nation”.

The crucial basis of the SNP’s pitch for independence is civic nationalism, a supposedly inclusive doctrine which seeks to benefit and draw support from business and the working class alike. The civic nationalist approach is often very explicit – Nicola Sturgeon said this week that independence could benefit “all sectors of society”. Socialism, by contrast, is necessarily exclusive, taking sides with the majority who must work to survive against those who own and control industry and capital. When the left adopts the language of nationalism, advocating the building of a “better nation”, and attacking those who “don’t have Scotland’s best interests at heart”, they make it far more difficult to advocate a politics of progressive exclusion further down the line.

While civic nationalists are enthusiastic about their own inclusivity, many on the left are reluctant to openly embrace a more exclusionary politics, particularly when they feel within touching distance of powerful forces. The Common Weal has fallen victim to this already, with one memorable line from Robin McAlpine’s manifesto proclaiming that “an effective system of industrial democracy begins from an awareness from both parties (employers and employees) that their interests are broadly shared”. What happens when a low-paying employer faces a strike in this context? The workers, pursuing their own narrow interest, can be condemned for endangering the “national interest” by not considering the needs of capital.

Most socialists rightly reject the idea that a nationalist coalition of interests can work together to build an “all of us first” economy where this kind of conflict isn’t necessary. The theory expounded in the Common Weal’s industrial policy documents suggests that businesses simply need to be persuaded that decent wages are in their interests, and workers simply need to be persuaded to restrain their demands so business can continue making a profit. Who will do the persuading here? Well, none other than the state, of course. But for the state to be able to mediate between competing interests, it must be governed by a party with a foot in both camps – a national party. One need only look at the priorities of Scotland’s current “national party” to see how pathetic an ambition this is for the left.

No politics, nationalist or socialist, is ever truly inclusive. Politics in a society which is structurally unequal (indeed, politics only exists because of structural inequality) is always exclusive, for it must either maintain the present structures of exclusion or militate against those with a vested interest in the present state of things. Scottish nationalists are able to pretend that there is a third option, where those with a vested interest in the present state of things exist only at Westminster, and therefore “all of us” within Scotland can benefit from leaving the union.

The Radical Independence Campaign has pursued a slightly more critical path, but appears prepared to give its support to a new Scottish state – its critique of the Common Weal is not that McAlpine et al will hand power to the nationalists and the state, but that the Common Weal simply isn’t as radical as it could be. RIC’s own proposals contain some good ideas – nationalisation of oil and infrastructure, the empowerment of the labour movement, an independent currency and more – but their primary focus remains parliamentary.

The new Scottish state towers above everything else in the ambitions of Scotland’s “new radicals”, and unless this is rectified we risk being cursed with a complacent, toothless left, happy to direct its appeals to the government rather than the people. Independence shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity to build a sustainable progressive state – such a thing is impossible under capitalism. The SNP will be forced, very quickly, to take sides in the various sectional conflicts of Scottish society that had previously been the business of Westminster, and it is the role of a critical, dynamic radical left to expose these conflicts and take the correct side, often against what is perceived to be the “national interest”.  The SNP’s neoliberal streak, combined with what will likely be a fairly rough transition to independence, will force them to make “tough choices,” providing opportunities to resist and challenge the Scottish state and the elite it will protect.

Notably absent from McColm’s analysis is the Labour Party. The Labour leadership is hardly composed of socialist firebrands, but they have plenty of experience opposing the SNP and a deep-seated desire to do so, and have remained largely excluded, partially by choice and partially by the hostility of the pro-independence coalition, from efforts to build a civic-nationalist consensus in Scotland. Their scepticism of nationalist social democracy will hopefully remain after a Yes vote, and as a result there is some potential for Labour, which retains a large electoral base and crucial ties to the labour movement, to be part of efforts to build a more realistic and conflict-ready Scottish radicalism. But Labour’s moderate leadership is already being tempted by the nationalist “Team Scotland” project, and the left within and outwith Labour must work to ensure the party is not dragged into a sterile consensus which it could be a powerful force in opposing – in negotiations and beyond.

Below are two scenarios, each ending on what might be a slightly exaggerated note, indicating how the pro-independence left’s actions now are of crucial long-term significance.

  1. The nightmare scenario

Independence is won, and the SNP form a minority or coalition government in 2016. They deliver on several of their “progressive” promises, and a small but not insignificant left bloc in parliament offer critical support. But the vicissitudes of currency union demand cuts in some areas, and global economic turbulence hits the Scottish economy just as it is regaining its balance. The left, widely viewed as a part of Scotland’s “cosy left-wing establishment”, has little chance against an invigorated anti-establishment right (the rebellious, intelligent young rightists of late-1970s USA are a good precedent here), who squeeze into power as the major party in coalition with a weakened SNP, or at the very least pull a desperate SNP rightwards. Suddenly, Scotland finds itself to the right of the UK, and the Scottish left is rudderless and discredited for a generation. Leftists across Europe, initially inspired by Scotland’s example to fuse civic nationalist with social democratic politics, find themselves in a similar situation, and the “radical” right sees its path to power unopposed.

  1. The alternative:

Independence is won, and the SNP form a minority or coalition government in 2016. They deliver on several of their “progressive” promises, but vocal criticism from a small but not insignificant left bloc, on the streets as well as in parliament, helps to foster widespread disappointment with the first years of independence. The vicissitudes of currency union demand cuts in some areas, and the left leads demands for an independent currency and opposition to cuts. When global economic turbulence hits the Scottish economy just as it is regaining its balance, a coalition of Labour and the radical left surges into power on the back of mass protests demanding that the promise of independence be fulfilled. This coalition hands immense power to the labour movement and encourages the ongoing formation of people’s assemblies across the country, while nationalising industry and infrastructure and withdrawing from NATO.

Continuing economic instability damages the Labour-led government’s credibility, but its mass extra-parliamentary base pulls politics further leftwards, much to the horror of right-wing commentators at home and around the globe. The Scotsman churns out red-baiting editorials about “the enemy within,” while The Times scoffs about the “failure” of independence as inequality plummets, capital controls come into force and top rates of tax soar. As continuing global turbulence thrusts the left into power across Europe and the US, Scotland’s socialists are ready and willing to join – even inspire – an international wave of strikes, nationalisations and occupations which mark a decisive step towards a profound transformation of the global system.

In the first of these scenarios, the left weds itself to the state too soon, risking complicity with the inevitable failure of the social democratic dream; in the second, the left remains a critical, sceptical force in Scottish society, seeking state power when nationalism and capital is at its weakest, and becomes the primary beneficiary of popular discontent when the contradictions of social-nationalism are exposed. We obviously favour the latter, and the opportunities it presents, and will be fighting for a Yes vote with that in mind. Let’s not be afraid of a bit of treason.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

The Scandamerican Dream


‘We can afford to be a fairer nation’: a slogan aimed at those who feel the squeeze of post-crash living, who long for comfort instead of late-night shifts. But fairness is a bird’s eye not a cat’s eye view. Seen from below, wealth is like buildings that are grand on higher floors – the grandeur is not on your levels, but it doesn’t exactly seem unfair until you are told that you deserve to enjoy it too.

The nationalist vision of sharing the nation’s wealth resonates most with well off, moneyed folk who are familiar with the higher levels and think a fair society is one where everyone can reach their social heights. This class, the professional and public elite, lap up Richard Wilkinson’s argument that inequality is bad for the privileged as well as the poor. When they hear that it would be good for their own wellbeing if there were less inequality, they sit up and listen. They flatter themselves that so many people, poor or working class people, aspire to be part of their class, and they are happy enough to help people up to it.

Theirs is the SNP’s promised land full of progressive professionals and soft-left lawyers. This class is reassured that their level of living would not be damaged by upwards mobility: ‘prosperity and fairness are two sides of the same coin’. Fairness will not threaten prosperity for those who have already made it, because fairness according to this formula in fact means prosperity – lifting the poor up to the higher levels. And so the social standard of the prosperous class becomes the model for everyone else. Those who lack the means to rise up in society do not look to some ideal of equality, they look to the rich. And as the wealth expands, so the hope of people will grow too. Like the American Dream, being aware of national wealth does not result in anger but in aspiration.

This ideology, to universalise the conditions of the prosperous class, has its own slogan, ‘all of us first’. It wants to lift us all to those grand levels where the comfortable classes live, with their balconies, cheese-boards and sofas. Nordicism in a nutshell, the Scandamerican dream, is the promise of social nationalism that has been critiqued in recent Roch Wind articles.

Levelling up also requires that upwardly mobile citizens are able to reach the great glass elevator. Those on lower levels unfortunately suffer obstacles and barriers to progress. They are hungry, often bitten by breadline living, cold and without the kind of income to afford travelling of any kind, let alone between the classes. Scotland’s new philosophy preaches that we need to offer not some ideal of equality, but rather the help eradicate the ‘social bads’ they live with. To quote Therborn, a theorist of ‘inequality’: “While I am commited to equality as a value, I see no reason to spell out an ideal state of Equality… A focus on social bads, rather than on a social ideal, was… a crucial decision of the path-breaking, Swedish Social Democratic Level of Living Investigations from the late 1960s, later exported to several countries.”

Whilst effective programmes for eradicating ‘bads’ might lack an ideal, a material approach will alleviate social ills thanks to the richer classes’ compassion and willingness to share. This inclusive nationalism, if it works, will ferment solidarity between the upper and the lower classes. When this works its way into the public mindset, we will have almost achieved a final element of this ideology: all of us participating in one nation, aspiring to Michael Sandel’s definition of democracy where “democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life” (2013).

This kind of social-nationalism was the target of Torcuil Crichton’s perceptive article in last week’s Daily Record. We worry that independence will consolidate this social democratic nationalism. Inequality is the absence of shared prosperity.

Therborn says the middle class is the power to which egalitarians must appeal – egging on the people to cry ‘it’s not fair’. For reducing inequality relies on the desire of the middle classes to live in a fairer society (and the belief that we can afford to do so). It relies on their opposition to the wealth of oligarchs (or the ‘one per cent’), and on their aspiration for a rational and civilized society. Each is a feature of social nationalism, which says the problem is not the rich but the very rich. In summary, admiration of the middle class and conviction in its potential for changing society is a central impulse of what Stephen Maxwell called ‘left-wing nationalism’.

So what’s the problem? Why should such a society be enough to put off radicals from skipping blithely towards independence. Our middle classes can carry on their Scandi-navel gazing while working people will rightly see that life in Scandinavia is better than their own living standard. If that’s not class politics, what else is it?

Radical Independence firebrands like to say that a Yes vote will be a victory for the working class. But though they occasionally talk with Marxist rhetoric, they obfuscate the truth that the dominant class in this bid for independence is the middle class. One chief result will be that middle classes will set the pace of society after independence. This is not only harmful for those excluded from it (which is a crucial concern, but not the focus of these comments), but also holds back the whole society. Here is where levelling up and levelling down have very similar consequences, and where, in a society with a dominant middle class, today’s left can learn from ideas of the twentieth century, including from Hayek.

It was Hayek’s notion that the popular public must not be allowed to impose its ideology across society, otherwise society will begin to stagnate. Hayek builds on Tocqueville’s belief that the middle class holds back public thought. When the middle class has accumulated the kind of wealth on which it can settle down – say, because it believes that it is the middle class of one of the wealthiest countries in the world – then social progress begins to halt. It is an concern not so different from Adam Smith’s worry that society, when it has reached a certain level of wealth, begins to wallow in this wealth and become stationary, leading to the decline of innovation and of workers’ wages. Ordinary middle classes do not create real social change but, being content with the state of society, they begin to settle down, leaving workers to smaller wage-packets.

This is why we should not enjoy the ascendency of the middle class nationalism, but should critique it, point out ways it corrupts thought and manners, and work to challenge it. In the face of crude Nordicism, how can we ensure these theorists’ omens won’t apply to an independent Scotland? Whatever happens in September, there has to be the stirring of some new ideas that will challenge the dominance of the ideology of middle class progress that has ascended with this campaign. In the absence of a creative aristocracy that Tocqueville believed drove society forward, we need an alternative agent of social thought and progress, and we need to take care to preserve what we can of the mores and ideas of the class that is submerged as the middle class expands: those of the Scottish working class.

To name such a thing as a Scottish working class is not to claim that it, and only it, will bring about the kind of conflict Scotland needs; but to question whether its political, cultural and industrial power and identity is able to challenge social nationalism. It appears the class is weak, is being seduced into a social partnership system with hardly any bargaining power, and being offered a social wage that is determined by the government rather than set through their own industrial leverage. Nationalism will find workers a solid place in dull civic society, leaving them powerless and making Scottish society stagnant. This is not progressive.

The answer to this stationary, corporate society must come from socialism. Socialism means not just advancing the interests of working people, but taking society forward, not in line with mutual middle class interests, but with the demands of the organised working class, which are qualitatively different from middle class goals. Many advocates of independence who consider themselves to be on the left pay little attention to the interests and the demands of the organised working class. A few dismiss class politics as arcane, others hold trade unions in contempt, while others still say that socialism and business interests are not only compatible but are coherent. They are no socialists, but are charlatans we have to challenge.

We start by proving – as best we can without the power to realise it – that if workers held the power to innovate and direct industry, then as well as accumulating more power and wealth the working class could revitalise society. So who will be the agents? Some who are at odds with the middle class, including eccentrics and socialists, can emerge from the middle class and understand its limits and barriers. They can dream of a better kind of society, better forms of working class control, and a better kind of class struggle. But the ideas that come from the middle class are not enough, for progress must come through organised demands of ordinary working people, as they associate and are represented in society.

The prospects for the organised working class in an independent Scotland, and the space it has in the economy, is therefore a central concern for those discontent with a future spent staring into Nordic horizons. As a starting point, we should admit that class interests have been missing from the independence debate. Too little thought has gone into considering whether the working class in Scotland would benefit from what the SNP offers following independence. Too many Yes advocates deflect this debate, insisting that the vote is not about the SNP’s policy, and that after a Yes vote we can create a society where the interests of the working class have a place alongside those of the other classes (perhaps through forming a new party). ‘No’ advocates are wiser to say that the terms and structures of the initial stages of independence will do much to determine the direction of Scotland and the place of the organised working class within it.

This debate is what Roch Wind intends to explore over the coming weeks and months. Central to this exploration will be the terms and structures of the SNP’s plans for industrial and economic development, at the heart of which is a weak social partnership model. Given that independence will happen immediately after the next elections in 2016, then, supposing the SNP win, its agenda and objectives will be crucial in establishing the model for industrial and labour relations for an independent Scotland. For instance, the government has said it will establish a National Convention on Employment and Labour relations post-independence. What they say about it must come under far more scrutiny.

None of this is to say the government’s position will define or determine what follows from a Yes vote, but rather that it will be part of the scenario into which the working class movement will enter after a Yes vote. If it seems likely to leave the class weaker, with its power diluted, it would be folly to back Yes. But if the labour movement is confident this scenario is a better one in which to advance the interests and power of the Scottish working class without harming the interests of the working class elsewhere, then a Yes vote makes sense. Preparing to take the opportunities this scenario presents is therefore of utmost priority.

A match made in heaven – Common Weal and the Rich


There is no hiding the fact: we live in a period when moral sense is totally expunged from the minds of the people in the big cities… The worker cannot see why he should lack everything when the rich man goes short of nothing. He revolts against the unjust distribution of wealth which, in his eyes, has ceased to be compensated for in any way. He blames our social system and sees some sort of justice in overthrowing it. He wants, in his turn, to enjoy all the good things of life. This becomes a consuming and intoxicating passion. It is no longer a question of victory over some verbal quibble, or over the form of government. What is at the root of these impious endeavours is the total reshaping of society. From political riots we have passed to social war.

To so grave a malady there would be but one remedy – a return to moral and religious beliefs.

La Liberte, 3 July 1848

Robin McAlpine, in his recent book “Common Weal: All of us first”, is keen to curb the passions of the people. He says that we are often told to blame the poor or immigrants for the wrongs in our society, and claims that instead we should not blame anyone. Blame is an unconstructive action, since really there is nobody standing in the way of a better society – not rich powerful men, not multinational corporations, not violent people. In fact, the main thing standing in the way of our better society is ourselves: “Until now the biggest barrier has been confidence – we have been trained to believe that no alternative is possible, that achieving a decent society is just too damn complicated, so best not to try.” So take the red pill.

We are kept in our state of inertia because some people have the ability to make us believe that change isn’t possible, but in fact these people are easy to overcome, all we need is democracy. For McAlpine, as for Pat Kane, change can be brought about by good citizens with grand ideals, who can construct their utopia with only the power of a democratic mandate. Indeed, democracy is the only counterbalance to vested interests and commercial power (no work-ins for us).

All we need to do to construct a new world order is take a good hard look at ourselves, and question our morality. Our society is built on a “Me-first” agenda – selfishness – while we should aspire to an “All-of-us-first” society, which, in a utilitarian way, would benefit everyone. Me-first is the politics of conflict, All-of-us-first is the politics of consensus. Me-First believes falsely that we have different interests, while All-of-us-first sees the light: more things bring us together than divide us, common needs tie us together in common interests, and the interests of companies and workers are often broadly shared.

So far, so Christian socialist.

Quite a large section of the book is given over to an excitable defence of universalism, which is, apparently, the “fundamental principle that binds Scotland together”. Wow.

“Whenever we create public policy based on putting people on different sides, it is always the side with less power that loses out – the poor or the disabled or women or ethnic minorities. If we create public services which are only for the poor and exclude everyone else, other people don’t have a vested interest in making sure they are great services. And great services is what people who face poverty really need. Targeting, means testing or any other system which makes the poor stand apart from everyone else will fail them.”

As the above section insists, it is we who are creating divisions in society, not ownership of the means of production, not patriarchal systems of oppression. We shouldn’t be targeting resources in order to empower the oppressed – poor people, women, disabled people – but instead we should just give the same resources to everyone – that way everyone is equal, and no middle class people get angry. This, for McAlpine, is the main reason for universalism. If you give £100 to the poor, he says, then people will demand that this stops. If you give £100 to everybody then nobody complains. The Roch Wind answer to this is to increase the power of the poor so that the protests of the rich mean nothing. McAlpine’s answer is to give the rich free things.

The problem is, although apparently the principle of universalism should apply to education, health, policing, justice, infrastructure, childcare, and social security income, McAlpine doesn’t seem to have thought much beyond free prescriptions, bus travel for the elderly, and university tuition fees.

‘Fairness comes not from denying universal services to some people to ‘punish’ them for being better off but from paying for universal services through progressive tax that asks the better off to foot a larger proportion of the bill.’

This is his solution to the criticism that universalism benefits the middle class. He will admit that there are still high levels of inequality in access to university education despite universalist payment of tuition fees. McAlpine says that since a system of more progressive taxation would make the middle classes pay much more for services than the poor pay, it would become fairer. But this is not the case: middle-class people who could potentially afford to pay tuition fees would continue to attend university for free, while poorer people will still be excluded because of inequality and deprivation on many levels, not necessarily simple monetary ones. The central flaw in his argument is the idea that since universal services are paid for with progressive taxation, they are fair.

McAlpine’s obsession with consensus and commonality leads him to describe the boundaries between different groups as simple monetary ones rather than complex power-related ones. This is wrong. For instance, women experience oppression through having power taken away from them on many levels. One of these is low wages, but there are many others – discrimination in education and in the workplace, violence in many forms, the expectation of childcare. Oppressed groups need their own resources, because the equation isn’t as simple as  progressive taxation + universal services = redistributive utopia.

McAlpine does talk about power, but when he does, he wilfully misinterprets its form. He discusses the influence of those who give evidence to committees and play a behind-the-scenes role in government, pointing out that they are often wealthy with no clear mandate or expertise. He says ‘Patronage is a medieval process in which powerful people divide up power between themselves. It is not democracy’. But of course, this is not patronage – it is managerialism. It is running government like a business where a few consultancy experts with no specific knowledge are considered to be able to improve things. McAlpine is right in saying that a change in civic expectations and process can change this, but he pits ‘democracy’ against ‘patronage’ (nationalists’ favourite way of describing Westminster as well) rather than recognising that the problems with a modern state arise not only from conservatism but from the increasing power of business.

McAlpine might say that it doesn’t matter what democracy is fighting, since democracy is a glorious thing, able to overcome any obstacle. He proposes forms of local governance, which are all the rage nowadays. His most radical democratic proposal is participatory budgeting. A community would get to decide whether they would like to build a swimming pool, or more social housing, for instance. How could this possibly go wrong? In McAlpine’s jolly world, the rich would recognise their longer-term interests, and agree with the poor to build more social housing, if it was needed, because in the long run they would end up living in a better society if more people had decent housing. This just seems bizarre. We await with great anticipation McAlpine’s paradigm shift when rich people will let the homeless move into their houses, stop sending their children to private schools and donate to the trade union movement. We’ll keep an eye on George Soros, maybe he’ll make us change our minds.

Amy Westwell

Levelling Up

To dismiss the idea of equality, some liberals call it ‘levelling down’, or ‘politics of envy’. They characterize the pursuit for equality as the masses’ envious desire to lower the living standards and material wealth of the rich to the level of the ordinary person. Such a politics undermines reward for effort, pride in property, and diversity of lifestyle, sapping the moral lifeblood of vibrant civilised society.

Crude egalitarians rise to this bait, and insist that equality need not lower the rich’s lifestyles and living standards. They believe that if the proceeds of growth were shared then the standard for those at the top would hardly suffer, whereas it would rise for the mass of people, as small boats on a tide. Their celebrated research proves that sharing wealth more equally is good not just for the poor but for society and everyone in it. Their philosophy amounts to levelling up.

A breed of this egalitarian politics has seeped through the left of Scotland’s Yes campaign. Its propagandists have named it Common Weal: “an old Scots phrase that means both ‘wealth shared in common’ and ‘for the wellbeiing of all’. It has come the name for a different kind of politics, a politics that puts All Of Us First.”

Common Weal has a variety of demands and dimensions. It looks for progress through mutual agreement and shared interests. It looks to raise the level of the poorest without harming the interests of those at the top. It starts from the hopes and aspirations of the citizenry, as they express themselves publicly.

Its guidebook opens with a question: what are the hopes of citizens? It answers with a list of things that characterize ‘a good life’, such as a comfortable home, a secure income, and good relationships. This is a fair description of the lifestyle of our comfortable classes. Raising people to this level is the aim of Common Weal.

It is no wonder that parts of Scotland’s political and public elite have gladly welcomed this doctrine, for it flatters them directly, describing their lives as the model lifestyle. Its ideas have found fertile ground on high plains, amongst those whose lives already are comfortable – the upper middle classes – but who are morally awkward about the poverty around them. Such people are concerned about the lives of those less privileged, but naturally do not want their own quality of life to decrease. Thankfully, their philosophers (like Richard Wilkinson to Robin McAlpine) insists it will improve their lives too. ‘A fair society is good for everyone’. ‘Inequality is bad for the privileged as well as the poor’. It is no wonder that rich middle classes, not the mass of people, lead the Common Weal.

These noble levellers, demanding the distribution of rights and raising of standards, set their aims within the frame of wealth and living standards that already exist in the country. The experts come from within their own ranks. They are the ones with experience of this better life, and access to the power of distribution. They want others to share their privilege, and with a language of rights and citizenship, they spread their faith in Levelling Up.

In the seventeenth century, an organisation of reformists called themselves the Levellers. Their demand was for the extension of rights and ownership of private property to the people – not to everyone, but to many more people than before, to Level Up the rights and property ownership held by ordinary men.

As time went by, this movement presented itself to the establishment. Its most vocal proponents were part of a rich class, so they were heard at court. Theirs was a moral demand for equal rights to property, but was increasingly presented in a politically astute and mutual way so as not to upset the authorities that held power. Compromise by compromise, progress was made, but the movement did not create the revolution of demands that could have sent a shudder of hope through the poor. Most remained without the rights that the Levellers sought.

Disillusioned with their establishment brethren, a band of radicals emerged from these ranks. They called themselves the True Levellers, and have come to be known as the Diggers. For them, the call for private property and ownership of land did not go far enough. In order to disrupt the concentration of land, which at that time was the primary means of production, the land had to be seized and held in common ownership, to be worked in common for all to share in. They would not accept that they were levelling down, and indeed they were not. To level up or down, the system has to remain the same. The Diggers wanted to reach a wholly different level, of common ownership of the means of production.

The division between the Diggers and the Levellers is a historical issue. But the Diggers’ frustrations with the modest Levellers’ demands are easy to understand. The Levellers said they sought equality, but did not question private property. They wanted to advance the interests of the poor without toppling the rich, but were blind to the chains of bondage and law that tied the poor beneath the rich. They did not seek to cut down the men of property, but to raise up men of labour. The Diggers, more honest and more radical, voiced the real demand for equality – they were slandered and patronized, and the orders came to cut them down.

A similar conflict is going on today. The Common Weal, purporting to be radical, has appropriated language of equality and common wellbeing. Conscripting academics to prepare papers setting out their politics of mutual gain, their philosophy is toothless because it wants to seduce the establishment from which it came. It will not fight or challenge, but is bound by chains of law and property. It wants to raise the fortunes of the poor without coming into conflict with the rich. It says “politics of conflict have set us all against each other… We don’t need blame, we don’t need resentment, we don’t need anger. We need change.”

These words should provoke anger. The elite itself could have written them. When an ever-smaller class holds wealth, when work is done for ever-lower wages, and ever-fewer proprietors own the land, the politics of mutual agreement is an affront to the poor. Anger is legitimate. Power to appropriate and share the land and wealth in common is something to be taken from the rich – not by mutual consent, which will never be reached, but by conflict.

If not by force, then by friction. If not by social science, then by polemic. Not in terms that flatter the rich, not by presenting some ‘real alternative’ that is close to the present arrangements, but by making the kind of demand that everyone knows will not be attained without struggle that the Common Weal cannot suffer – cannot suffer because in truth they represent the very class with most to lose.


Burke & Fair: Grave-Robbing With The Common Weal


The Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project has gathered quite a lot of support from the Scottish left (and, via Business For Scotland and Jim Mather, the Scottish right as well) during the referendum campaign. We recently enjoyed a piece on their website called “Principles of the Common Weal”, written by one of their growing army of academics, which lays out their ideas in children’s storybook form, cheerily patronising the reader from the first sentence. The article is typical of the Common Weal’s output: its platitudinous liberalism makes for a neatly-fitting lid on the coffin of social democracy, hiding the decomposing cadaver from view while its stubborn apostles insist it has already been resurrected in Scandinavia, that strange land where time stands still and Margaret Thatcher delivers milk to nurseries. We’ve tried to pry open the coffin lid to see what these “principles” really mean…


1. Society

We live together in society

People do not live in isolation from each other; we live in families and communities.  Most of us belong to a wide range of groups and networks – joined together by, for example, culture, education, religion, mutual responsibility and our shared experiences. A society is a group of all those groups.  A society may seem distant to some, and there are parts of the world where it is, but Scotland is not one of those places.  Many of the things that make life in Scotland work, happen at the level of society as a whole: education, health care, pensions, roads, parks and many other services are organised socially, and they make us all better off than we would be without them.

Translation: “Like Aristotle said, we’re rather like bees. A society is a group of sub-groups. We are joined to others by things like our common interest in spoken word poetry, our common membership of university rowing clubs, our commitment to the Orange Order, the fact that we give other people directions, and that we all like Hogmanay. Some parts of the world are uncivilised and things are organised by religious groups, or by trade unions. Here, everything happens at the TOP level – the group of sub-groups – society – and that is good. By society it turns out we actually mean the State. The State organises education, health care, pensions, roads, parks, and other services, and if we squint at the word “State” it looks a bit like “society” which is a bit like “social”, and we know social things are good, because… Anyway, we know if we didn’t have these state-based things then everything would be worse, because we’d probably be serfs.”

2. The common good

The welfare of every person depends on the welfare of each of us.

The idea of the common weal begins with the idea that the welfare of each and every person matters for the welfare of all of us.  Every member of a family shares, to some extent, the pleasure and pain of others;  it is hardly possible for a family to be content and satisfied with their circumstances when one of their number is deprived or dangerously ill. In the same way, it is difficult for the members of a society to be content if the most vulnerable people in that society are suffering.  There are differences, of course, between families and societies; the relationship we have to members of our family is closer and stronger than it is to others.  But wherever other people lack welfare, it affects us, too.  Poverty makes life worse, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

Translation: Like Hobbes said, the State is sort of like a body. This is useful, because we think that, like a body, when a part of society is sick, the other parts are too. Now, the other parts – that’s people with nice lives who aren’t in poverty- aren’t THAT affected by the hard lives of other people in society, but it does make them feel worried, and sometimes really really concerned. When middle class people are concerned, they are not as happy as they could be. And this is a sure sign that things need to change.

“We hope no one reading this is thinking about certain twentieth-century invocations of the state as a family. Of course, our national socialism is very different to that. We will draw your attention instead to another instance – in 14th century Florence, the elites used an idea laid down in Roman history, the idea of the state as a family, to quell the wool-workers and their mistaken sense of associational politics. See – the state isn’t something nasty, and everyone should learn to love it, just like family.”

3. Solidarity

We have obligations to each other.

The idea of ‘solidarity’ is widely used in Europe to mean that people are held together by bonds of mutual obligation – the ties of family, community and society.  People are included in society when they are part of those networks, excluded when they are not.  The common weal is an idea that includes people, and binds them together.  It means that we are all of us responsible for each other.  This does not mean that people are not also responsible for themselves; but it does mean that looking out for oneself is not enough, and never can be. “All the members of human society”, Adam Smith wrote, “stand in need of each other’s assistance.”  Every one of us depends on the help and support of others.

Translation: “We will just define the idea of solidarity in case you have any misconceptions about the politics behind that word. You might associate the idea with a song containing the line “Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?”, or another song that says “We’ll boot your fuckin’ cockney skulls right back to Bethnal Green” but we don’t want you to worry about those violent and divisive anthems – we’re talking about something much better. What we mean by solidarity is that all the sub-groups, and the main group (society/the State) hold people together in “bonds of mutual obligation”. We have mutual obligation because we depend on others – this is what Adam Smith thought in 1759, and the Enlightenment is the epitome of human thought.”

4. Stewardship

We have a duty to future generations.

Edmund Burke, the great conservative philosopher, argued that society is a partnership, not just of those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.  Part of the responsibility we have is to each other.  Part is to those who have come before us – to preserve our common heritage.  Part is to those who will come after us.  Each generation has a duty of stewardship for the generations to come – a duty that goes beyond the narrower idea of ‘sustainability’, because it is a commitment to make things better, not just to keep things going.  The common weal calls for us to build for the future.

Translation: “Edmund Burke didn’t like the French Revolution. He thought the Ancien Regime was pretty fab, and he thought we’d better preserve the monarchical and political systems we had and let them change organically, even if it did mean people were pissed off. We think the same (sort of). We think we have to preserve our common heritage – the Queen! The empire! nice arty things, like Gaelic. We have a commitment to the future! Here, we’d better depart from Burke. We’re in a muddle now. We must build.”

5. Rights

A society has to protect the rights of every person in it.       

The common weal cannot be achieved by sacrificing the welfare of some people for the good of others. A society where some people are poor, homeless or excluded, is a worse place to live for everyone else.  Most people in Scotland look at exclusive societies – like the gated communities of South East England – with some disquiet. As The Spirit Level shows, societies that are more unequal are less healthy, more prone to crime and poorer than others.

 Translation: “Mutual responsibility means egalitarianism. If some are more equal than others, the middle class get sad. Most people in Scotland think “God I wish I was as rich as people in South East England” “It is wrong that those people are rich and ignore that others are so poor – I am glad I live in a place where the rich love the poor with all their hearts”. As an old sociology study shows, it is better for rich people to live in societies with a smaller gap between rich and poor. We want to live in the “right” society, which is why this section is about “Rights”…”

6. Equality

Everyone needs access to the conditions of civilisation.

There are many differences between people – for example, differences of gender, of religion, of physical capacity.  Equality means that wherever there are such differences, people should not have to suffer from disadvantages because of them.  The most basic type of equality is about respect for persons: people of any kind should not be treated as inferior.  Then there is equality of opportunity; people should not be denied opportunities because of who they are.  Our common weal calls for equality, however,  in a deeper sense.  The real argument for equality, Tawney argued, was that every person in a society should have ‘access to the conditions of civilisation’ – including, amongst other issues, education, housing, sanitation, health care and a basic income.

Translation: “There are differences in society, and people should not be discriminated against for being “different”. Nobody should be treated as inferior. There should be equality of opportunity. But most of all, everyone should have access to a good life. If you are “different” and this is interpreted to mean you are inferior (for instance, you might be a woman!), don’t get angry at those misguided people, but trust in us to deliver a society where you have access to all the conditions of civilisation, due to our good Christian morals. See – we avoided all that nasty liberation politics!”

A common enterprise

To build more we must share more.  

The common weal depends on common action. We are part of a joint enterprise, which every person contributes to, so that every person can benefit.  By working together, every one of us can achieve more than we can do alone. And acting together has another, less immediate advantage: when people co-operate, they have the opportunity to build a community, and identity, and a sense of purpose.  Together, we can make Scotland a better place to live.

Translation: “We all must contribute to the enterprise of the common weal (which means mutual responsibility) so that we all benefit. Working together is known to be efficient, as Adam Smith showed us so wonderfully. But there is value in cooperation itself – it gives us a community (Common Weal Scotland) an identity (Common Weal Scotland) and a sense of purpose (creating a Common Weal Scotland). Now that, my friends, is an ideology!”


The Common Weal hope to utilise a common civic/social-nationalist impulse, which they believe they have found in Scotland, to overcome class and sectional antagonisms in Scottish society and pinpoint policies which are in the interests of all. It is an ideology of class compromise, idealist complacency and national-political consensus, pre-empting any possibility for a truly emancipatory and internationalist politics of class struggle, historical materialism and political revolution.

The Common Weal claim the Left as their terrain, and yet their intellectual roots – reactionaries like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, fused with the technocratic paternalism of The Spirit Level – betray a fundamental conservatism. They are disturbed by the growing inequality and instability of modern society, particularly its implications for “social cohesion” (whatever that means), and hope that the right reforms, made by the right people, will fix this. Trying to prove conclusively that their social-democratic messiah evaded death in the 1970s, they rip its skeleton from the ground and rattle it in our faces, proclaiming its vitality as the last slivers of flesh slide off and the skull tumbles comically to the ground. Despite the childish language, it’s a frightening display of hyper-defensive leftism that should come with an age rating.

Our intellectual roots are rather different. When we see instability and inequality throughout the capitalist world, we recognise that Marx was right to argue that antagonism between classes, also identified by Adam Smith, can only be ended by the destruction of the ruling class by the exploited masses. When we see a so-called “left” programme drawing on Burke to argue for a society that is somehow both capitalist and communist, we remember the words of Burke’s great contemporary Maximilen Robespierre: “Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution?

Amy Westwell (@amywestwell)
Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)