Hope and radicalism - the future of Scotland

Reviews by Paul Sutton


The Scottish Parliament has now been in existence for twenty years. It was a Labour Party initiative and its first two governments were Labour Party-Liberal Democrat coalitions; the last three have seen the Scottish National Party in power, with critical support provided by the Scottish Greens. The latest pamphlet by the Red Paper Collective seeks to reflect on this experience and chart a way forward.

The Red Paper Collective was formed in 2012 to present a class based analysis of politics in Scotland to combat the nationalism of the SNP and some others on the Left who adopted a pro-independence position. It favours a decentralised UK with powers devolved to the nations and regions in a federal arrangement which would allow an active and radical economic and social policy at local level to build socialism. It would involve further powers being devolved to the existing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments, as well as to regions in England, and a recovery of, and an increase in the powers of, local government.

It calls this policy ‘progressive federalism’ and envisages a UK in which the centralised power of the state is limited to some economic matters such as a common currency, foreign affairs and defence, including border security, along with specific economic and social powers to distribute resources equally across the UK. These would be used to maintain common minimal standards in pensions, and labour and environmental rights, among others.

It is a superficially attractive position since it promises radical change and democratic accountability rooted in class based politics, bringing together “the Scottish working class and its institutions, principally the unions and the Labour Party, with the rest of the British Labour movement in order to achieve political control of the heart of the British state – Westminster and the City of London” (Mills, A Radical Scotland needs a Federal Future). Radical political change in Scotland will indeed demand this coalition of forces but it is by no means clear that ‘progressive federalism’ is a necessary or sufficient condition for such change. The history of radical and revolutionary change elsewhere shows that a strong centralised state is needed in the first instance to win power and above all to maintain power in the face of concerted challenges, including organised force, to the exercise of working class power.

Instead, what ‘progressive federalism’ offers is an enabling environment for the promotion of specific policies to tackle failures in the current system of governance. The Red Paper Collective has demonstrated this in a number of areas including health, education, and infrastructure but where it has shown its promise best is in delivering an industrial policy. In previous articles in the series and in the current Red Paper John Foster sets out a detailed analysis of the Scottish economy and the policies necessary to ‘re-industrialise’ Scotland.

This demands, Foster argues, comprehensive ownership of public facilities; a state investment bank; state aid to endangered firms and to build coherent clusters of specialisms; an active public procurement policy to assist strategic redevelopment; strong local government to deliver a broad and increased range of services; and increased and comprehensive powers for trade unions. Since some of these powers now rest with Westminster there would need to be further devolution of such powers to Scotland. Additionally, within Scotland there would need to be a release of powers from the Scottish government to local government.

However, it is clear that for any of this to work there would need to be complementary action elsewhere, delivered by a radical Labour government in Britain and in the English regions: “Scotland’s economy is closely dependent on that of England. Over sixty percent of exports go there. A similar revival of regions and economies across Britain would therefore be one key condition for economic revival in Scotland. Existing synergies are significant. They could be much bigger” (Foster, “The Scottish Economy and Scotland’s Political Future”).

Exactly so – there is a wider synergy which is crucial for success and it is called the British state. Very few if any of the Red Papers’ policies could be advanced solely within a radical Scottish government, however much power is devolved. This is the weakness of the arguments advanced so far by the Red Paper Collective. ‘Progressive Federalism’ as set out by them is a collection of laudable policy initiatives to be pursued in a devolved Scotland and not a well thought through strategy for fundamental socialist change in the UK as a whole. How it all fits together is far from clear, and would not be credible unless and until there is a broader understanding of what ‘progressive federalism’ means for the rest of the UK.

‘What powers’ at ‘what level’ for which ‘nations and regions’ needs to be understood and agreed and this in turn embodied in a broader constitutional settlement for the UK as a whole, in which socialism is entrenched. Without it ‘progressive federalism’ could become ‘regressive federalism’, involving capitalist competition between nations and regions in a race to the bottom and/or a platform for the final break-up of the UK as further devolved powers fail to deliver what the various governments promise and only independence will do. In short, the next step for ‘progressive federalism’ is to think it through and this demands a wider perspective than the one so far offered.


The question of perspective also re-appears in Neil Findlay’s account of his experiences as a left Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament. The book principally takes the form of a detailed diary of his activities in 2014 and 2015, years dominated by the Scottish referendum on independence, the Scottish leadership election of 2015 where he ran for the Leader’s position but lost to Jim Murphy, and the general election in the UK. The style is not dissimilar to that in Tony Benn’s diaries (Benn was one of Findlay’s mentors), although they lack the breadth of vision to be found in Benn with his ability to set his daily activities in the broader context of the struggle for socialism.

The diary entries detail a very active and committed MSP within the wider Labour movement and provide a commentary on the faults and failures of the Labour Party in Scotland. It too can be accused of a limited vision, not only in how it fought the independence referendum but also in how it splintered in the various leadership elections. The succession of leaders in turn failed to promote policies that posed any sort of credible socialist alternative, compounding Labour’s electoral decline in Scotland.

Findlay is merciless in his criticism of fellow MSPs and none more so than in his comments on Jim Murphy. He saw him as unprincipled and bound to ‘New Labour’, unable to develop anything of any worth during his brief time as Scottish Leader and luke-warm in his support for socialism. The end result was the catastrophic defeat of the Labour Party in Scotland in the 2015 UK elections which saw it lose forty seats, retaining only one. This despite the fact that “we knocked on 2.5 million doors and contacted 650,000 voters, delivered 20 million leaflets, two million direct mails and employed 35 organisers” (Findlay, Socialism and Hope, p. 194). Lack of effort was obviously not the problem – the message was!

It is here that ‘hope’ sets in and takes the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Findlay acted as Corbyn’s Scottish campaign manager in the 2015 election for Labour Leader and sets out how Corbyn’s visits to Scotland inspired and won support for socialist policies that were eventually adopted in the Labour Party election manifesto of 2017.

“It was” he says “a document written in Corbyn’s image reflecting the politics he has believed in all his life – fair taxes, Keynesian economics, an end to student fees, free school meals, a pensions triple lock, ending the public sector pay cap, mass council house building, public ownership of rail, water and energy, investment in health and social care, workers’ rights and a whole range of policies that put clear and deep red water between not just Labour and Tories but Labour and the rest, including the SNP. I have never been more proud to campaign on any manifesto in almost 30 years of party membership” (p. 229).

These were also the policies that Findlay had advocated for many years in Scotland. As such they won him the support of the trade union movement and activists in the Labour movement in Scotland, but not the majority of his fellow Labour MSPs or even a majority of the constituency organisations. The Corbyn effect in Scotland does not enjoy the level of support it does in England although there has undoubtedly been a change in the balance of expectation with the emergence of a belief among Labour supporters that the SNP can be defeated and the supremacy of Scottish Labour once again restored.

This remains crucial as barring a landslide in England and Wales for Labour, a Corbyn government will need the support of a solid tranche of Labour MPs in Scotland. The prospect of any ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the SNP should a Corbyn government fail to gain a majority in a general election, as indicated by recent opinion polls, can only fill Findlay with dread. It is not something he or the Red Paper Collective would want to contemplate since it would once again put an independence referendum at the centre of Scottish politics.

In his ‘Introduction’ to the Red Paper Findlay argues that Labour is “acutely aware of our need to develop a credible constitutional offer which ensures we have a strong Scottish Parliament within a strong UK” (p.4). ‘Progressive Federalism’ seeks to be the constitutional answer to this problem. It merits further exploration but a strong Scottish parliament will need a strong United Kingdom Parliament to begin to deliver socialism. Scotland cannot hope to do so on its own.