When I was a boy the local clenny man was held in high esteem. Not only did he take away the rubbish, he was a ballroom dancer of some repute and the local organiser for the Communist Party. When I was a teenager he asked my parents to pass on one of his books to me. I have always been a voracious reader and a great fan in particular of myths and adventures and tales of great deeds and heroes triumphing over the odds. The book I was given by the clenny man had all this and much more. For the heroes in this book were not princes or nobles or kings. The heroes of this book were serfs, sailors, bakers and tailors. They were ordinary people struggling against princes and kings, nobles and villainous merchants. The book was called The History of the Working Class of Scotland. It touched me more than any book I had ever read and made me what to be as great a hero as those in that rousing narrative.
The book was written by Tom Johnston, a towering figure in the history of the Labour Party. As well as supporting the great social struggles during the era of the Red Clydeside , he campaigned against the treatment of John MacLean, who endured imprisonment and hunger strike in protest against the first world war. Though he was to soften his politics in later years and supressed his own book, Tom Johnston remains an influential and admirable figure in the Scottish and UK labour movement. As secretary of state for Scotland from 1941 to 1945 he was sensitive to the needs of Scots (and the threat of nationalism) and was proactive in using the state to create jobs and spearhead innovations like hydroelectric power.
Tom Johnston’s ideas were very much part of a wider European consensus, especially after the horror and deprivation of the Second World War, that the wealth and power of states should be used to invest in health, education, job creation, affordable housing and welfare support. Though governments switched between left and right in the decades following the war, the social foundations of the new Europe seemed secure. With the triumph of Thatcher in 1979, this consensus began to crumble. The collapse of communism in eastern Europe in the late 1980s was used as justification for a further shift to the right – as if the workers, students and artists who campaigned (and endured violence, arrest and death) against totalitarianism did so simply to promote neo-liberalism.
From 1989 the Labour Party increasingly accepted the ideology that free markets equal freedom. When in power Tony Blair and Gordon Brown deepened the cruelty and inequalities of the former Tory regime, and stamped down hard on those Scottish Labour members who dared to use the Scottish Parliament to promote a socially inclusive society in Scotland. With every year since then the Labour Party has moved ever deeper into the rank quagmire of neo liberalism. But it was not only the social consensus within the UK that was attacked by the Blair and Brown. Backed by the wealth and weaponry stored in Scotland the Labour government set about trying to reshape the world according to Labour’s vision of neo liberalism; thus the industrial scale slaughter inflicted on the people of Iraq in 2003.
The economic collapse of 2008 showed how flawed neo liberalism was. Yet, instead of a change in direction, the political elites of the UK and Europe used the financial crisis to deepen and justify the ongoing attacks on social inclusivity. The big lie now promoted by political elites was that the increase in poverty and inequality did not result from bailing out banks and bankers, but rather from too much money being spent on health, education and welfare. As the propaganda of rulers grew ever more disconnected from the reality of citizens other darker Big Lies were disinterred from the graveyards of Europe’s ugly past. In the UK, Prime Minister Gordon Brown adopted a slogan of the extreme far right ‘British jobs for British workers’. It did nothing to save his government, but it did embolden a new political party, the ant-migrant anti-EU UKIP.
It was a long journey but the Labour Party had finally cut any last remaining ties with the legacy of Tom Johnston and men and women who campaigned to create a socially just United Kingdom. Looking at the world that Blair, Brown and Alistair Darling helped to create, a world of violence, insecurity, desperation and poverty, the words of John MacLean resonate down through the decades with a terrible and sorrowful clarity. As he stood in the dock in 1918, John MacLean - Marxist, Internationalist, Scottish Republican, teacher, activist and anti-war campaigner - declared:
‘No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.’
Now read: Part Sixteen. The Great Helmsman
All these blogs can be read from beginning at: Social Justice & Scottish Independence
Follow me on twitter
For on my published books see: Rab’s Books
* * *
There’s a wheen o Yes campaigns and campaigners out there on twitter. But you might want to check out these to start with
@NewsnetScotland @bellacaledonia @WeAreNational