The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Coming Attractions

Interested in writing science fiction and/or fantasy? Michael Cobley and I are teaching a short course from 1 pm Thursday 13 May to noon Sunday 17 May at Monaick Mhor, the creative writing centre in the Highlands near Inverness. The centre is comfortable, accessible, spacious and beautifully situated. Though we already have a healthy number of bookings, a few places are still available. So if you're interested, book now.

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.)
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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Miliband Register

About a year and a half ago (it seems longer) the Daily Mail attacked the leader of the Opposition by traducing his late father, the Marxist academic and intellectual Ralph Miliband. The outraged son hit back, and one unintended consequence of the attack was that Ed Miliband gained some respect.

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.
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Monday, March 23, 2015

Scotland's colour revolution?

The former motherland has rejected state control of the economy, and the Party centre has made its peace with the market. In the near abroad, its local branch has glumly plodded along, a few steps behind as usual, and with a twist.

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.
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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Poems by Iain Banks

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.
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Friday, December 05, 2014

The Makar Stooshie

The best small country in the world is ringing with the jangle of high horses being saddled up. Liz Lochhead, who succeeded the late Edwin Morgan to the office of Makar -- something like Poet Laureate of Scotland, though not as far as I know required to pen ceremonial verse for the openings of swimming pools and supermarkets -- has put the seal on her long-standing and well-known Scottish nationalism by joining the Scottish National Party in a flash-bulb of publicity.

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.
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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Graham Joyce

Today there is a memorial meeting for Graham Joyce. For various reasons and much to my regret I'm unable to attend but I would like to mark the occasion in some way, however inadequately. I only met Graham a few times, mostly at SF conventions, but from the moment Iain Banks or John Jarrold introduced us he treated me as if we were old friends. Every quality of his character he had in exactly the right proportion: funny without being flippant, serious without being dour, manly without being macho, confident without being arrogant. He was bright and sharp and uproarious and surprising. Everyone who met him will have anecdotes.

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.
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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Two days in September

The best that can be said about the No campaign is that it worked. Its relentless focus-group-tested negative campaigning reached undecided voters while the Yes campaign -- for all its positivity and energy -- spent too much time talking to its own supporters, as a leading strategist of that campaign has acknowledged.

But by the last weekend before the referendum it wasn't at all obvious which side would win. It had come down to the wire. Any criticisms I might have of my own side were irrelevant. You fight with the army you have. I'd argued, debated, spoken, blogged, tweeted, re-tweeted. It didn't feel like I'd done enough.

So on Wednesday 17th I joined a Better Together get-out-the-vote team in Corstorphine. I used my bus pass and arrived at the street corner in Murrayfield before anyone else. The rest of the team turned up in ones and twos to make a dozen. Most looked like they'd qualify for a bus pass. The two Better Together organisers looked like they'd have to show proof of age to buy a drink. A brisk confident woman, older than them and much younger than me, seemed to know what to do. She drove off with three of us, the board (a ring-binder of contact names and addresses from earlier canvassing) and stacks of reminder cards. She parked in a back street, scribbled names and numbers on slips of paper, gave us her mobile number, pointed to streets on the A to Z and sent us off. It's been so long since I'd done anything like this that I'd forgotten how get-out-the-vote works. I phoned to check if I really was meant to just knock on two doors in a long street. Yes I was. Knock, nobody in, leave a card, run to the next house on the list, run back to the person with the board. Repeat, over and over. I'll say this for get-out-the-vote: it's healthy exercise in the fresh air. The area is very middle class. I was gloomy at first, then warmed by smiles from elderly people and firm statements that they didn't need a lift to the polls. On our way back to the meeting point I asked our impressively competent team leader if she'd ever done election campaigning. No, she said - she'd first volunteered two weekends earlier.

People like her, galvanised by the one poll that showed a Yes lead. People with bus passes. Striplings with clipboards. That was the ground operation the day before the vote.

Carol and I went to vote at lunchtime on Thursday. Then I caught the bus in to the Edinburgh Central office of the Labour Party, on the ground floor of a tenement building in Buccleuch St. The small rooms were crowded with people coming and going, some with rosettes for polling station duty (a rough gig in some places), most in teams of three or four with boards and leaflets and reminder cards. I recognised some local Labour councillors and activists but most there were young volunteers, a lot of them Labour students up from England.

My first team was me and two Scottish guys. One didn't know the area but he knew how to run a board so he took charge and I led the way to our patch, which was Cannongate, the bottom half of the Royal Mile. (It looks like it's all shops and offices but there are flats and also lots of wee alleys that access apartment blocks behind the street.) We headed there through crowds along Clerk St and South Bridge, then turned into the Royal Mile. It was a day of low cloud and drizzle. As I looked at the High Street's hazy towers I remembered the phrase about Edinburgh from Iain Banks's The Bridge: 'ghost capital'.

The Mile was awash with Yes badges, placards, and saltires. A joyous rally had begun outside the Scottish Parliament and people were coming and going to the pavement cafes and bars. It was like Yes had already won and were celebrating. Most people whose doors we knocked or rang at were out. We returned with slim pickings indeed, though one or two people had asked us for badges or stickers (which we didn't have). A van went past covered with the latest Yes posters printed in mimickry of Labour's signature red-and-yellow: End Tory Rule Forever. As we neared the office a guy walking unsteadily waved to us across the street:

'Bye-bye! Tomorrow you'll be gone! Into oblivion!'

The office was still a slow churn. Two young guys in the main room sat at desks with computers and stacks of returned boards. Norma Hart was sitting in the side room where the sandwiches were, dressed even smarter than usual and with a rosette on her lapel. She gave me a warm welcome and (over my protestations) made me an instant coffee. As I sipped it and ate a triangle of sandwich I listened to a young Labour student from Yorkshire, who looked shell-shocked. 'We knew it was bad from the polls,' he said. 'But we never imagined this. It's like Yes Yes Yes everywhere.'

'I assure you it's not as bad as it looks,' I said. 'You notice all the Yes badges but most people aren't wearing badges and most of these will be No. Every window without a poster is a likely No vote.'

A councillor sitting on the sofa beside me said: 'It's like Jim Murphy said, "windaes don't vote". And even some houses and flats with Yes posters have No voters in them.'

My next team was one of the guys from before, a young local Labour woman, and a Labour party regional organiser. We piled into her car, stuck a Labour flag on the window (after figuring out how the clip worked) and set off through rush-hour traffic to Craigentinny. The streets we had to cover were mostly grey blocks of flats. As we stickered up and she dealt out packs of the final-evening reminder cards the organiser said: 'Solid Labour area. We've had good returns here.'

And so it proved. We soon ran into a group of five smiling mums not even on our list who'd all gone together to vote No. As we went around I noticed and pointed out that there were hardly any Yes posters. And this was exactly the sort of working-class area Yes had targetted. The only sign we saw of the Yes campaign was a white van covered with placards and blasting out folk-songs as it cruised the streets. The organiser worked the board and two of us ran up stairs and the young Labour woman (who hadn't been well and still wasn't) did the ground floors. Nearly all responses were good. Some people had switched, some wouldn't say how they'd voted (especially not, I guess, to a stranger's voice on their stair intercom). But most had voted or swore they were about to and were solid No. As one of us remarked, we were racing to get out the vote in a poll where everyone was voting.

We finished after 7.30 and I got dropped off at the top of Leith Walk. I headed for the bus station but saw a tram about to leave York Place, so for the novelty took it to the West End, then the first coach going out past the Forth. (Ah, the joys of a bus pass.) The driver saw my sticker and asked how I thought things were going. I said I didn't know how the votes were going but the No campaign's get-out- the-vote operation was going well. 'I'm glad to hear that,' he said. On the bus back I felt very strange. The five mums of Craigentinny had been my first real indication that there was still a steadfast block of working class votes for No and that #LabourNo was a real thing. But in the dark and fog the landscape itself seemed in an undecided state.

'I hope we wake up in the same country,' I said to the driver as I got off. He gave me a grim look. As I walked along the back street in our neighbourhood I saw a couple of people with Yes badges in a heated conversation with someone, and a bit further on a woman clutching a polling station card as she got into her car. Not much more than an hour to go.

We got a take-away. Just after ten I tweeted: 'For the next few hours we are Schrodinger's country, liminal. You'd need a 5th colour to map us.' We waited up, watching this and that and following Twitter, until at about 1:30 the first result came in: Clackmannanshire. Yes: 16350 No: 19036.

From Michael's two years on the Wee County News we knew that Clacks is a microcosm of Scotland. We went to bed, setting the alarm for 7:00. I woke before it, and hesitated a minute or two before checking STV news online.

I woke Carol and told her, watched more news, then wrote: 'Opened the box. The cat is alive and having kittens.'
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