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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, November 04, 2013

Where the Wasteland Ends: anarcho-green-punk

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For Kill Your Pet Puppy Number 4 in 1982, we recycled the above Ecology Party leaflet. In 1985 the Ecology Party became the Green Party. In 1990, a separate Scottish Green Party was formed. Living in London in 1990, I didn't pay much attention but I did join the Hackney and Stoke Newington Green Party since the Green Party was opposed to the Poll Tax. Fast forward 23 years and now I am living in Scotland and am a member of the Scottish Green Party.

The Poll Tax has been and gone. Today's big political issue ( at least up here) is Scottish independence which  threatens to break up the UK. I reckon this would be a good thing to happen from an anarcho-green-punk perspective. So I am doing my bit to encourage it. This talk, which I will give to the local Dumfries and Galloway (south-west Scotland) Greens on 6 November 2013, is one of my contributions to the break up of the UK.

I am going to begin my talk with a quote from last year’s Scottish Green Party Briefing Note on the Independence Referendum.

The Scottish Green Party supports Scottish Independence from the conviction that the urgent transformation needed in our society and our economy can best be achieved by Scotland as a small autonomous country. Bringing political and economic structures and decision-making closer to the Scottish people is a core Green principle and ambition. 

My support for the idea of Scottish Independence goes back to the early 1970s. In 1973 I was a student at Kirkcudbright Academy. Back then the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright was still an independent council and the schools were run by the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright Education Committee. At that time the only school in the Stewartry which had a sixth year was Kirkcudbright Academy. Students from Castle Douglas, Gatehouse, Dalry and Dalbeattie who wanted to take their Highers had to transfer to Kirkcudbright to do so. My  French teacher at Kirkcudbright Academy was George Thompson - who was also the SNP candidate for Galloway.

The winter of 1973-74 was full of drama. The Arab/Israel Yom Kippur war broke out in October and led to a rapid rise in oil prices. At the same time, Ted Heath’s Conservative government was engaged in a struggle with the National Union of Miners which began with a work to rule which reduced supplies of coal to power stations. Combined with the oil price rises this created an energy crisis. From the 31 December 1973 to the 7 March 1974, Heath’s government brought in the ’Three Day Week’ which limited the commercial use of electricity to three consecutive days in any week. Through the winter, shops were made to switch off all their lights overnight and there were regular power cuts for domestic users.

In the middle of this crisis, Ted Heath called a general election for 28 February 1974. John Brewis was the sitting Conservative MP and held the seat with a majority of 4008 over George Thompson. However, although Ted Heath had asked the voters to decide ‘Who governs Britain?’- the result was a hung parliament with 301 Labour MPs and 297 Tory MPs. Harold Wilson emerged as prime minister and called a second general election on 10 October 1974.

By then I had become an enthusiastic supporter of George Thompson and spent my lunch breaks stuffing and delivering envelopes for his campaign. This was also the time when the SNP’s slogan ‘Its Scotland’s Oil’ started to gain traction. The outcome after a recount in  the early hours of the 11th of October was painfully close, but George Thompson emerged as the victor with a majority of 30. Altogether, the SNP ended up with 11 MP s. However it was still unclear who really governed the UK since Labour had a majority of only 3 and were forced into a pact with the Liberal party.

To neutralise the threat posed by the SNP, a plan to create a Scottish Assembly was proposed which led to a referendum held on 1 March 1979. Although this secured a narrow majority of 51.6%, it failed to pass a hurdle introduced by Labour MP George Cunningham. Cunningham’s hurdle required that 40% of the total Scottish electorate voted yes but only 32.9% of the total electorate did so. Then, triggered by the withdrawal of SNP support for James Callaghan’s government, a general election was held on 3 May 1979.

In Galloway, George Thompson lost to Conservative Ian Lang by 2922 votes and Margaret Thatcher’s new government repealed the Scottish Assembly legislation on 20 June. It would be 18 years until another referendum on Scottish devolution was held.

To go back to the 1970s- in 1976 I discovered a magazine dedicated to radical technology and social change called Undercurrents. Although the description ‘Green’ was not used then, the theory and practice advocated by Undercurrents was Green. The magazine had emerged out of the idealism of 1960s counterculture as it was forced to engage with the realities of the 1970s. So as an alternative to the 1973/4 energy crisis, Undercurrents offered advice on how to build your own wind turbine.

Beyond the immediate Do It Yourself ethos of Undercurrents, the magazine also engaged with the political, social and economic challenges the process of transition to a more sustainable world would require. In 1977 I began working for the London Rubber Company at a factory in Gloucestershire. This experience of industry made very interested in the Lucas Aerospace saga which was reported in Undercurrents.

Lucas Aerospace in the early 70s was one of Europe's largest designers and manufacturers of aircraft systems and equipment. It had over 18,000 workers on its payroll, spread over 15 factories, throughout Britain. Nearly half of its business was related to military matters - in production of combat aircraft and the Sting Ray missile system for NATO .Lucas also had small interests in medical technologies.

Both Conservative and Labour governments  wanted a strong and efficient aerospace company to compete with the other European manufacturers. To achieve this aim, the Lucas management planned to rationalise the operations by laying off 20% of the workforce closing several factories  so they could focus activities on the military markets where profit rates were highest.

Faced with this threat to their future, between 1976 and 1978, the Lucas Shop Stewards Combined Committee came up with an alternative corporate strategy. Their plan was for Lucas to move away from military technology and develop a range of socially useful products. These included medical products, alternative energy products including wind turbines and solar cells, a road-rail vehicle and a hybrid petrol/ electrical powered car.

Unfortunately these forward looking proposals were rejected by the company, failed to gain support from trades unions at national level and did not interest the Labour government. In 1979, the creative possibilities for a more sustainable future were sidelined by the new Conservative government. This government also squandered the wealth which flowed from the oil reserves of the North Sea.

Unlike Norway, which took the decision to invest the profits from their North Sea oil reserves in a Petroleum Fund, the UK used the income from Scotland’s oil to bring down inflation through their economic policies. At least that was the claim at the time. Interviewed in 1991, Alan Budd who was an economic advisor to the Conservatives in 1980, was not so sure.

The nightmare I sometimes have, about this whole experience, runs as follows. I was involved in making a number of proposals which were partly at least adopted by the government and put in play by the government. Now, my worry is . . . that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions . . . who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation.They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes -- if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

Interviewed earlier this year, former Labour Chancellor  of the Exchequer Dennis Healey agreed that Scotland’s oil became Thatcher’s oil in the 1980s.

I think we did underplay the value of the oil to the country because of the threat of nationalism but that was mainly down to Thatcher. We didn’t actually see the rewards from oil in my period in office because we were investing in the infrastructure rather than getting the returns and really, Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to carry out any of her policies without that additional 5 per cent on GDP from oil. Incredible good luck she had from that.

From a Green perspective, what I take from all this is that despite Margaret Thatcher’s frequent use of the phrase ‘There is no alternative’ to justify her government’s economic policies, there was an alternative. For what was to become the Green movement, the energy crisis of the 1970s acted as a wake up call and stimulated a whole range of technological, economic and social alternatives to the status quo. To turn the Green alternatives into reality would have required substantial investment through a period of transition from an unsustainable to a sustainable future. The additional 5% on UK GDP from Scotland’s oil could have financed this transition.

Tragically for the millions made unemployed by the Conservatives, neo-liberal ideology trumped Green rationality. The impact of the Conservatives’ economic policies in Scotland led to what have been described as ’the industrial clearances’. As I experienced at first hand, they had a similar impact in England. The factory where I began working in 1977 was closed in 1982 with the loss of a 1000 jobs and, despite being in Norman Tebbit’s Chingford constituency, the factory I worked at in  London was closed in 1992.

In Scotland, political opposition to the industrial clearances led to a revival of demands for devolution. After the collapse of Conservative power in Scotland in 1997, a second devolution referendum was held. From a Yes vote of 51.6 % in 1979, the Yes vote increased to 74.3 % in 1997 with 63.4% agreeing that the new Scottish parliament should also have tax varying powers. With members of the new Scottish Parliament elected by proportional representation, the first Scottish Green Party MSP was elected in 1999 with a further 6 elected in 2003.

Unfortunately in 2007 and then again in 2011, the Green vote was squeezed out in the struggle between Labour and the SNP. The SNP just managed to win in 2007 and then won decisively in 2011. The Independence referendum is a consequence of the SNP win in 2011.

Despite claims that the Yes campaign is obsessed with Braveheart and Bannockburn, the origins of the  movement towards independence for Scotland lie in the recent rather than distant past. The struggle is not against England, but rather to overcome what journalist Neal Ascherson calls Scotland’s ‘persistent trauma of self-doubt’ and which has shaped Scotland’s modern history. As Acherson explained in 2002

The key to understanding Scottish modern history is to grasp the sheer, force, violence and immensity of social change in the two centuries after 1760. No country in Europe underwent a social and physical mutation so fast and so complete. Tidal waves of transformation swept over the country, Lowland and Highland, drowning the way of life of hundreds of thousands of families and obliterating not only traditional societies but the very appearance of the landscape itself. Only England underwent change on a comparable scale. But in England the industrial and especially the agrarian revolutions- the annihilation of the peasantry  and the flow of population to the new industrial cities- were a more gradual process. The unique feature of the Scottish experience is its pace. [Neal Ascherson ‘Stones Voices’ 2002, page 80]

It could be argued that here in Dumfries and Galloway we escaped the full impact of Ascherson’s tidal wave of transformation. But even in this green an pleasant land, there are reminders of the transformation. Barstobrick Hill rises up to the west of the fertile flood plain of the river Dee. On its summit is a monument we used to call Hot Blast. The monument was erected in 1883 to commemorate James Beaumont Neilson who discovered the hot blast technique of iron smelting in 1828. Neilson’s discovery led to the rapid growth of the Scottish iron industry. This growth was centred around Coatbridge in Lanarkshire where coal and iron ore were found together. The impact of this growth on the environment was described in 1869.

From the steeple of the parish church, which stands on a considerable eminence, the flames of no fewer than fifty blast furnaces may be seen. In the daytime these flames are pale and unimpressive; but when night comes on, they appear to burn more fiercely, and gradually there is developed in the sky a lurid glow similar to that which hangs over a city when a great conflagration is in progress... Dense clouds of smoke roll upwards incessantly, and impart to all the buildings a peculiarly dingy aspect. A coat of black dust overlies everything…
Summerlee Iron Works 1859 - Coatbridge, Scotland

Before 1828, the Lanarkshire landscape had been  as rural as that of Dumfries and Galloway. Now, although the hot blast furnaces have passed into history, Lanarkshire and central Scotland are still marked by the legacy of industrialisation and urbanisation. The concentration of Scotland’s population in the industrialised central belt had a political effect.  In the 19th century, it was the Liberal party which benefited from the extension of the franchise to working class men. Only after the Liberal party had torn itself apart over the Irish problem was the Labour party able to achieve its 20th century political dominance in Scotland.

Now, with less than a year to go to the Independence Referendum, a significant re-alignment of Scottish politics has emerged. The No campaign has united Labour with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in an unholy alliance which jokingly refers to itself as ‘Project Fear’. With the willing  support of the press and broadcasters, the No campaign have produced a string of scare stories designed to frighten voters in to sticking with the status quo.

Rather than retaliating with their own scare stories, the main Yes campaign has adopted a gradualist approach, concentrating on building up a strong, positive grass roots campaign. At the same time, the wider Yes campaign has been developing a radical vision for a future Scotland. In Dumfries and Galloway, this vision has been supported by a local branch of the Radical Independence Campaign which I have been involved with.

Since March we have had public meetings in Dumfries, Castle Douglas, Newton Stewart, Sanquhar and Wigtown where Andy Wightman and Lesley Riddoch were invited speakers. We have also had many and lengthy discussions on our Facebook page and on our blog. There is a very strong overlap between the themes which have emerged from these meetings and discussions and the Scottish Green Party’s vision for Scotland’s future.

While this is very encouraging, it is important to remember that many of the undecided voters - the ‘don’t knows’ -  are worried by the stream of negative stories produced by the No campaign. It is amongst this vital group of voters that the Scottish trauma of self-doubt identified by Neal Ascherson is strongest. Many are looking for reassurance that an independent Scotland will not be a radically different country. They are looking for continuity rather than change. There is a very real challenge here, especially for the Scottish Green Party. As last year’s Independence Briefing Note concludes.

Independence is an inherently radical step. The referendum in 2014 offers a truly historic opportunity to effect systematic change, but independence is not an end in itself. Only a transformational vision for an Independent Scotland will be enough to convince people, as The Scottish Green Party believes, that a YES vote will lead to a fairer, healthier, more sustainable society and a better future for all Scots.

I share these sentiments, but at the same time, thinking back to the failure of the Lucas Aerospace project and the ‘persistent trauma of self- doubt’ identified by Neal Ascherson, I am reminded of Karl Marx words.

Men and women make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Marx was writing in 1852, reflecting on the coup d’etat by which Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became Napoleon III, ruler of the Second French Empire. Britain was then the workshop of the world, an imperial superpower. Across central Scotland, pillars of smoke were rising from the fiery hearts of the blast furnaces which were transforming rock into molten iron. Iron which was then forged into the steam ships and locomotives which were the sinews of empire.

With benefit of hindsight, we can now see the human and environmental costs of industry and empire. Where now is the wealth that flowed from the millions of tons of coal burnt in the furnaces? Where now is the wealth which flowed from Scotland’s oil? All that once seemed so solid has melted into air, as Marx predicted. The millions of tonnes of coal and oil we have burnt have become a toxic legacy, become the carbon dioxide which is warming the planet and altering its climate.

We cannot change the past, but we can change the future. If, as James Joyce’s once said ’History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake’ then next year we will have the opportunity to waken from the ‘nightmare’, from the destructive and unsustainable patterns of Scotland’s  past and begin our journey towards a Greener Scotland. The first step on that journey will be, as American President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1933, to recognise that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …


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