Reform or revolution?

ric canvas



With the exciting results of the RIC National Canvas now in, the momentum for a Yes vote is building up. It is beginning to look like history will be made on 18 September. I haven’t been out canvassing and campaigning. Instead I have been thinking about what a future Scotland will be like. Although we can’t tell for certain, it will be built on foundations and plans already existing in the present. The SNP government have given us one of the possible plans in their ‘Scotland’s Future’ white paper. James Foley and Pete Ramand have set out a radical alternative in ‘Yes- the Radical Case for Scottish Independence’ and now the Common Weal have published their’s- which I have reviewed here.

I was going to post the Common Weal review here, adding a short introduction, but the short intro is now too long so I am posting it here on its own. My plan now is to post more short (500 wordsish) articles here. Otherwise, by the time I have worked through all the history, 18 September will have come and gone.

Alistair Livingston 25 June 2014

Will a Yes vote on 18 September be an example of constitutional reform, the final outcome of a process which began with plans for ‘Home Rule’ 100 years ago? Or will it mark a more dramatic and revolutionary break with the past, as the Revolution Settlement of 1689 appeared to be at the time?

From my perspective as a historian, this is an interesting, if abstract question. From my perspective as a participant, the question is very real and concrete. As the grassroots part of the Yes campaign has spread and grown, the likely-hood of a win for Yes has increased. But if there is a Yes, what will happen next? Will all the newly engaged campaigners decide the game is over and leave what happens next to Scotland’s politicians and ‘experts’? Or will they stay the course and become equally engaged in shaping the social, political and economic structure of the new Scotland?

The deciding factor is likely to be the extent to which the grassroots Yes campaign is not a nationalist/ SNP campaign but one driven by the realisation that social and economic justice are threatened by the political and economic structure of the UK. That it is the inability of the UK to reform itself which is pushing non-nationalist Scots towards making a revolutionary break with the status quo.

Then, reading ‘Practical Idealism for Scotland’, it struck me that its proposals for reform were not particularly Scottish, that the book could equally be titled ’Practical Idealism for the UK’. Thinking about how difficult it would be to get the UK to adopt the Common Weal’s proposals for reform reminded me of Georg Hegel’s 1831 essay ‘On the English Reform Bill’ and his criticisms of the archaic structures of the British Constitution. Hegel’s conclusion was that popular frustration with the limited nature of the 1831 Reform Bill might lead to an English (British) revolution.

Eleven years after Hegel’s death in November 1831, Friedrich Engels arrived in Manchester to keep an eye on the Ermen and Engel cotton factory for his father. In the summer of 1842 troops had been sent to Manchester when an alliance between workers taking part in Britain’s first general strike and the Chartists (including Galloway’s own Peter Murray McDouall) raised fears of a revolution. Engels was familiar with Hegel’s work but had the advantage of experiencing at first hand the explosive tension between the appalling social and economic conditions of the ‘English’ (British) working class and resistance by Britain’s ruling aristocratic class to the Chartists demands for major political/ constitutional reform.

Engels’ first hand experience helped Karl Marx develop his critiques of Hegel and of political economy. Political economy was the ideology drawn from Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment which was used to justify the new economic and social order tio which there was no alternative. While Hegel had hoped, based on his belief in history as the ascent of reason, that a process of top-down rational reforms would drain the revolutionary swamp, Engels and Marx disagreed. The economic power of the emerging capitalist class would prevail over rational reform. The failure of reform would inspire resistance within a working class which would become conscious of its historic, revolutionary role.

However, as we now know, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a series of piecemeal economic, social and constitutional reforms managed to postpone a British Revolution. Even the reversal of many of these reforms since 1979 and the economic crisis which began in 2008 have failed to provoke a revolutionary response. The most ‘revolutionary’ development has been constitutional- the possibility of a break-up of the UK via a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum. This possibility has in turn stimulated proposals for social and economic reform in Scotland. If these reforms are seen to work in Scotland, they are likely to undermine the austerity policies of the remaining UK.

At the same time, it is important to be aware that of tensions within the Yes campaign. The official Yes campaign is focussed on persuading doubters that independence is not a radical step into the unknown despite the scare stories of ‘Project Fear’ as the No campaign call themselves. However, many of the active supporters of the grassroots Yes campaign find the caution of the official campaign frustrating. They are drawn on one hand to the direct action via mass canvassing approach of the Radical Independence Campaign and on the other to the Common Weal’s ‘all of us first’ vision of Scotland’s future.

If these tensions persist, the association between the official Yes campaign and the SNP could see the grassroots Yes campaign favouring the Common Weal’s vision of a better Scotland over the cautious Yes vision outlined in ‘Scotland’s Future’. However the persistence of neoliberalism (the ‘capitalist realism’ discussed in my review ) in an SNP led Scotland is likely to thwart the social democratic aspirations of Common Weal’s proposals. In which case, the Radical Independence Campaign’s position of opposition to neoliberalism will become more attractive. The possibility that the Radical Independence Campaign will become the focus for radical change in Scotland is an exciting and deeply challenging prospect.


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