|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
I can't match his gloomy verve, but I'll make a similar suggestion about the lesser upheaval of 2015 in Scotland. This is a country that never took to New Labour, but has suffered and enjoyed all the changes in class composition and identity to which New Labour was a reaction. And yet we've cherished our self-image as keepers of the flame. Our refrain has been: 'We didn't leave Labour, Labour left us.'
Now, in the name of Old Labour values, we've overwhelmingly elected a party that stands on almost all issues to the right of even the present Labour Party, let alone that of Donald Dewar and John Smith. The SNP is a party with a fresh, charismatic leader who appeals to all classes and who proclaims a business-friendly programme in social-democratic language. In doing this she has enabled us to at last catch up with the post-socialist world, without losing face or backing down. We had to imagine ourselves as Venezuelans, in order to become Blairites.
Saturday, May 09, 2015
Later this month, on Friday 29 May I'll be reading from and talking about the poems of Iain Banks at Aberdeen University's May Festival. I'll also be signing copies of the book, which at Iain's insistence includes some poems of my own.
After that my diary is reassuringly blank until the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, which is just as well because I'm writing the second volume of a space opera trilogy, having just recently delivered the first to the tender mercies of my brilliant editor. It's all rebel robots and walking dead space mercenaries in an extrasolar posthuman conflict, and therefore something of a shift from my recent focus on the near future.
My work to date is the topic of a forthcoming seminar at Crooked Timber, where some very bright and sharp critics dissect the books and I pick over the resulting anatomical diagrams (usually to explain where what has been charitably read as a deep engagement with a significant body of rigorous thought has in fact been gleaned from, but them's the breaks.)
Update: Crooked Timber seminar posts and my response now linked to here.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Another, of smaller moment, was that I shame-facedly and belatedly blew the dust of decades off a couple of Ralph Miliband's best-known and most influential books: Parliamentary Socialism and The State in Capitalist Society, which had sat on my shelves unread since the 1970s. I also read or re-read some of Miliband's essays and articles, many of them published in the annual Socialist Register.
Sometimes prolix, always lucid, the essays are hard-headed, sober, nuanced. Parliamentary Socialism glints with verbal wit. The problem I find with his writing is between the lines: a presence evoked, but absent. Ralph Miliband writes as if socialism -- as theory, principles, values, programme -- is just ideally there: an always available reference, a benchmark against which the real movement falls short, and culpably. It doesn't matter what you think the real movement is. The Labour right and the Labour left, the Communist Party, the small sects, and the international analogues and affiliates of all of these are weighed in the balance, and found wanting.
In the end, of course, they all were found wanting, but that's not the point here. The point is that their inadequacies would have been better weighed in a more relevant balance: of what they set out to do and what was possible for them to do. Ralph Miliband's criticisms of the Labour Party never give full measure to its real achievements, often different from what it promised and all the more solid and lasting for that.
All his political life, Ralph Miliband found himself caught between two recognitions. One was that the Labour Party will never (if it has any sense, and it does) adopt what most socialists would deign to call a socialist programme. The other is that no group whose selling point is that it is more socialist than the Labour Party will ever get anywhere. Its vote will be derisory; or, if it isn't, it'll become a personal vehicle (e.g. Respect, with all due respect and salutes to indefatigability) or it'll fall apart (e.g. the Socialist Alliance); or (e.g. the SSP) it'll become a personal vehicle then fall apart. There are electorally more successful parties (the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein) whose pitch is in many respects to the left of Labour, but none whose pitch is that they are more socialist than Labour.
The Labour Party will never be socialist, and no socialist group outside it will ever win mass support. Ralph Miliband's response to this dilemma was to craft ever more elegant and eloquent expressions of it. There are some problems with that approach to politics.
Perhaps it was recognition of them that set Ed Miliband on a path that diverged so far from his father's. I doubt he drifted or strayed. His political thinking must, at least at first, have developed in continuous, conscious contention with Ralph Miliband's. And unlike that of his brother David, it wasn't drowned in New Labour. This makes the possibility of a Miliband premiership very interesting indeed. If his party wins next month, Britain will, for the first time since Harold Wilson [*], have elected a Labour Prime Minister with a capacity for original thought.
[*] Thatcher and Brown had minds of their own too, but she wasn't Labour and he (as a Prime Minister) wasn't elected.
Top left image via.
Monday, March 23, 2015
Here, it's rebranded itself as patriotic and pro-market, but with a social conscience and internationalist outlook that sets it apart. For a while, this works. The loss of state subsidies and guaranteed orders has long since devasted heavy industry. The Party can still call on some residual loyalty from industrial, and former industrial, workers. It can't do much for the rustbelt's wreckage, but it knows the right soothing noises and how and where to buy off discontent.
In or out of office, it retains formidable powers of patronage. Its officials reinvent themselves as business advisers. No upheaval or reform can shift its nomenklatura from their swivel chairs in the media and other institutions of 'civil society'. Their unshakeable sense that this is the natural order of things sticks in the craw.
It can't go on. Too much has changed, and too little. Streams of discontent become one river. A multitude of voices and hopes becomes one slogan, one demand. One banner, one logo, one brand, instantly recognisable, is suddenly everywhere on lamp-posts and lapels. Crowds in its colours flood the public squares.
Under that banner are many different and quite incompatible programmes and projects, disputes over which which would normally be the stuff of politics. Not here: somehow they never come into contention with each other. However freely and fervently they're expressed, they're never thrashed out. One speaker can accuse the Party of betraying its socialist roots and abandoning the working class. Another, from the same platform, can blame the Party's socialist roots for strangling the spirit of enterprise and holding the country back. Both are cheered and applauded.
The Party and its hangers-on are hurt and bewildered. Why are our natural supporters turning on us? Aren't we the party of the working class, and the real party of the nation? Weren't we the first to raise your great-grandparents to their feet, in the bad old days? Didn't we rally your grandparents to stand united against the fascist menace? Didn't we bring them the post-war reconstruction, the new industries, the free health and education services that you still enjoy? Mistakes were made -- of course! We've long since owned up to them. But even there -- didn't we take the lead in the great reforms that freed up society and made your generation what it is?
The Party still has support even in the younger adult generation, the last to benefit from its better days. Earnest and sincere, they're on the side of progress. And that's your side, isn't it? Isn't that what you really want? Don't get us wrong, we're not for the status quo! We're as much against it as you are! Only we can bring about the real change the country is crying out for. Faster, better, safer change. No need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Get the older hacks in their cups and the talk turns bitter. What's behind it all, eh? Reactionaries! Nationalists! Conspiracy theorists! Trotskyite wreckers! Just look at those people's ancestral heroes! Have you seen their secret police files from the 1940s? Which side were they on in the war, eh? Eh? You tell me that!
Scotland was never socialist, and Labour never ran a one-party state. But -- all proportions guarded, all caveats made -- the cliches to the contrary contain more than a grain of truth. Ask Gerry Hassan for the low-down on 'Labour Scotland' and its pervasive withered tenacious grip. Ivy on masonry can't begin to match it.
It's belatedly struck me that many features of the Yes campaign, and its post-referendum continuation in the SNP surge, come sharply into focus if you see what's going on as a colour revolution against Labour Scotland.
I know, I know. The analogy is intentionally provocative. Its limits are obvious. For one thing, the colour revolutions in Eastern Europe have mostly been driven by those who have benefited (or who expect to benefit) from greater openness to the world market, and been opposed by those who've lost out or been left behind. In Scotland, by and large, it's the other way round. And of course it's all happening without violence and in a liberal democracy.
And yet ...
What's to be done? I don't know. I was completely, utterly, embarrassingly wrong in my expectations for Scotland after No, and I could be just as wrong now. As an undisciplined irregular I have no advice to offer the Labour Party, except to say that it's as well to know what you're up against. If Labour's up against what I think it's up against, then it'll take better minds than mine to solve the problem. But the first step in solving a problem is to recognise it.
Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, and all that.
Saturday, February 14, 2015
Iain Banks wrote a lot of poetry. One poem, '041', was his first published work, in New Writing Scotland 1983. Others appeared in some of his books. Many more were shared only with friends. Some time in late 2012 he decided to try to get a selection of his poems -- along with, at his insistence, some of mine -- into print. The result, in a very fine production from Little, Brown, is published on Monday 16th February, and is available for pre-order from Amazon.
Copies signed by me and (if you like) personalised are available from Transreal Fiction in Edinburgh.
I'm grateful to the Guardian for asking me to write the the story behind Iain's writing of poetry, as far as I can remember it, and for printing one of his poems, '041', as its Saturday poem.
Alex Renton of Newsweek has interviewed me on the same subject. Tomorrow's Sunday Times is running an interview with me by Gillian Bowditch, alongside one or two of the poems. [ Update: here (£)]
Reviews have appeared in the Scotsman and the Independent.
Friday, December 05, 2014
Cue much contrived chin-stroking, lip-pursing and finger-wagging. The opening punt that someone paid out of the public purse should not be party political was lost in a breeze of derision. The carping then turned to the claim that our national poet should represent the whole nation, and that by planting her colours so publicly on one side of an almost evenly divided land, Liz Lochhead was turning her back on over half the country, which must now reconcile itself to being unrepresented in rhyme. Finally and most portentuously, we're told that by joining the party currently in government, the Makar can no longer speak truth to power. We're pointed to the SNP's rules, which lay down that party members may not disavow the party's aims, in whole or in part, and invited to contemplate the ethical cleft stick in which the Makar must henceforth writhe. Suppose she were to disagree with some legislative measure from Holyrood! One sees the poet's fingers tremble above the keyboard, as her eyes dart guiltily between her subversive lines on the screen and her signature on the party card.
What sanctimonious drivel!
Leave aside that most people in Scotland are barely aware of the post of Makar, and even more haven't read a line of Liz Lochhead's writing since they left school, if at all. Entertain only long enough for a guffaw the notion of the Scottish people as a huddle of intellectuals under a censorship so oppressive that they must snatch what comfort they can from dissident hints in public verse.
No, there really is a serious point at issue here. It would be hard to name a poet of any distinction in Scotland, past or present, who doesn't publicly -- however quietly -- avow a political, philosophical or religious view that puts them in a minority on some divisive topic. Poets are seldom turned to for judicious balance in matters of opinion. That is very much not their calling. Scottish nationalism and Scottish poetry have a lot of previous, and plenty of present. And not just the cause in general, but the party. Hugh Macdiarmid helped to found the SNP. Edwin Morgan bequeathed it a fortune. That the party is now in government changes nothing. To raise the abstract possibility of a conflict of conscience over policy is to insult the integrity of the Makar. If poets are free to take out party cards, they are also free to tear them up.
Not that Liz Lochhead should. The Makar is not a civil servant, nor a tribune of the people, nor a national shoulder to cry on. Political neutrality is no part of the job description. If someone in the post of Makar is not free while holding that post to join a party like any other citizen, he or she is not free to show a serious and sincere commitment to their beliefs. Those of us who disagree with the present Makar's political commitments have a special responsibility to defend her right to them.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
There was the time he sat in the bar with John Jarrold, and out of nowhere the two of them launched into a phenomenal flyting as Shakespearean villains. The vilest insults poured forth for minute after minute, in thieves' cant and Elizabethan profanity and perfect iambic pentameter. I looked on, slack-jawed. How did they do that? Had they memorised it?
No, it's all spontaneous, Graham told me. But how?
'It's just a knack.'
Read his books. They'll do you good.