Imagine: A Socialist Vision for the 21st Century
Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Thursday, July 12 2001, 2:13 PM
In Britain today there are near-nightly race riots, torchings of pubs, stores and homes, and in some towns white racist organizations such as the venerable National Front and the more recent British National Party have greater voting strength than do political parties representing the interests of the UK's increasingly prominent Indo-Carribean communities. The marching season in Northern Ireland has arrived, its Assembly is in disarray with the breakdown of the peace process, and peace hopes are bleeding to death with little more than a mumble.
Yet the landscape of mainstream British political life continues on, quietly tumorous these days.
The only real fun has been the queering of the Conservative Party, as the current unending party leadership fight has brought out a small squad of candidates emphasizing the number of children they have fathered, in opposition to probable frontrunner Michael Portillo who has admitted a man-loving fling in his student days. Portillo wants a "caring" and "compassionate" Conservative Party, which presumably means that he wants to bring Texas to England's green and pleasant land, possibly minus the Daily Double execution rate.
Regretably, Portillo's proposed re-invention of a New Tories has already been patented by New Labor, from whom he'll need to obtain copyright permission. Tony Blair, a man who abuses the word 'new' into Orwellian disrepute, has incorporated Thatcherism in its entirety. Privatization never had a better friend in Britain, even to the extent of attempting widespread privatization of the health and education sectors. The right-wing press supports Blair, as does a solid bloc of old Thatcherite converts to New Labor from business and politics. Rupert Murdoch himself, who would have sacrificed his rocks for Lady Maggie, has become a Blair enthusiast.
To anyone with an appreciation of the historic contributions of the British Labor Party towards redistribution policy and justice for the working classes, the tasking of the party to the service of capital is appalling. The social vision of Bevan and Titmuss are long gone, and allegiances to the poor and the needy along with it. British labor unions, which established the party and once contributed over eighty percent of its funding, now contribute less than a third and rightly ask what workers are getting for their money.
Having had the Labor Party hijacked entirely, with only its name left for empty symbolism, there are precious few sources of progressive illumination within the British isles these days.
One of them is Tommy Sheridan and his colleagues at the Scottish Socialist Party. Sheridan is an in-your-face socialist who got himself imprisoned more than once for his confrontations with authorities over impoundment sales against poor debtors and for anti-nuclear campaigning. He currently serves as the sole member for the Scottish parliament for the SSP, where he has been surprisingly successful as a single voice.
The admirable Bennite tradition of the British Labor Party thrives in new form in the SSP. The SSP, together with its disparate coalition, represents one home for the natural children of New Labor's abandonment of the left. As Blairism progresses, the SSP and its program stand to become direct beneficiaries of Labor's case of ideological clap, for there is no political sex appeal left through which to recruit a new generation of Labor activists. The response of more than a few British socialists may be to increasingly find their satisfaction with some other appellation than 'British.' If Tony Blair supported devolution and new regional parliaments, he could well live to damn them as his worst error.
Sheridan and McCombes want vastly more than Blair ever imagined giving through parliamentary devolution. Scotland, they write, "has been landed with a PG-certificate parliament, in which all the big decisions are taken by the grown-ups down in Westminister." The locus of their anger is never in doubt, an antiquated and repressive British state which is "a reactionary and conservative institution." To secede from it, they argue, is to break with the imperial history Britain represents, one that has now mutated into an alliance with the United States and global capitalism.
The argument of Imagine begins with the larger picture of socialism and consciousness of the wrongs of wealth, together with occasionally brief and lucid excursions into theory. There is a quality of shine and passion to their vision, such that, even if one is not fully convinced on a particular point of argument, a reader can come away at least hopeful that Sheridan and McCombes are right in their analysis. Throughout the book there is an enduring note of utopianism, one that brings a smile of recognition and welcome. As they rightly quote Oscar Wilde, "Show me a map without Utopia on it, and I'll show you a map that's not worth looking at."
Along the lines of such social mapping, McCombes and Sheridan argue for social ownership, community-owned and municipal companies, and a variety of cooperative economic forms. Given that advocacy of Scottish independence rises and falls on its economic implications, they are particularly good in exposing the contrasting economic analyses of potential independence, and avoid easy predictions based on unknowable variables.
However, Imagine is not nearly as good in exploring the negative aspects of devolutionary failure, as are now very much apparent in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland remains invisible throughout this book as if it were some sort of embarrassing special instance in the breakup of Britain, whereas it is central both as difficult example and murderous anti-example. There are numerous parallels between Scotland and Northern Ireland for consideration, particularly in the direction of democratic consent over incorporation or separation.
McCombes and Sheridan have come under attack from sectors of the UK left for shrugging off the Militant tendencies that have worked for years to fit British leftism into ideological straitjackets, usually some sad splinter variant of Trotskyism. For decades British left-edge politics have been caught up in endless polemics between Trotskyists and Leninists, as exemplified in the switching career of the Socialist Workers Party's now-departed Tony Cliff. It seems near-inevitable that, in the search for a language of ideas that escapes from hackneyed political nostrums, protesting voices hail from out of the political Antarctic to condemn as unworkable any ideas, analyses or language than their own. The intellectual culture of extreme splinterism is self-destructive, and entirely uninteresting to voters concerned with capacities for government.
If there are interesting political possibilities to be seen in the British isles, they seem far more likely to emerge from regional socialisms rather than exercises in resurrecting ancient dinosaurs, such as this month's SWP-sponsored Marxism 2001 conference. Demonstrated competence with civic nuts-and-bolts, together with a credible vision, are much more promising and a regional party is in the position to deliver real achievement.
The coalition-building that the SSP emphasizes will inevitably pull it, or any left party intent on electoral success, well away from purisms and into combinatory complexities. Unrelenting earnest righteousness is a particularly ugly note in any rhetoric, which is why the swift punch lines and wry humor of this book are as promising as they are appealing.
Imagine is not available outside the United Kingdom. The Scottish publishers, the good-humored folks at Rebel, need to get off their haggis and make the book available to an international readership.
Imagine is Published by Rebel, Inc.