Author Archives: RestlessLand

Little Britain and the politics of the left

In the light of Britain’s exit from the EU today, we reprint here a statement on the Scottish Left and the European Union that was adopted by the Scottish Socialist Party in the run-up to 2009 European election.

Voters who want an isolationist Britain will be spoiled for choice in the European elections on June 4th. On the far right, the BNP and UKIP both demand an independent Britain. Left of centre parties that want British withdrawal include Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the NO2EU Yes To Democracy coalition. While these four parties promote British independence, the Free Scotland Party campaigns for an independent Scotland outside the European Union.

What should be the attitude of Scottish socialists towards Europe? Should the left back British separatism? And does the ‘NO2EU Yes To Democracy’ represent a progressive step forward?

The Scottish Socialist Party has always rejected the Union Jack-waving Europhobia of the Tory right. We are a pro-European party, and believe in working with progressive and left wing forces across Europe to resist and defy every directive and piece of legislation from Brussels or Strasbourg which damages the rights and conditions of working people.

For a people’s Europe

In the 2004 European election, the SSP manifesto argued for a social Europe, and pledged to fight alongside the wider European left for range of radical reforms, including:

  • A continent-wide minimum wage
  • A continent-wide minimum pension
  • A continent-wide wealth tax
  • A continent-wide minimum level of Corporation Tax
  • A nuclear free Europe
  • Tougher European Directives on carbon emissions, pollution and toxic chemicals
  • A Corporate Accountability Directive to force company directors to become accountable for the social and environmental impact of their business’s activities.
  • A European-wide publicly owned, intergrated, rail, bus and ferry network as a an efficient and inexpensive alternative to air travel
  • The replacement of the Common Agricultural Policy with a scheme that shifts the balance of farming subsidies towards subsistence farmers, crofters, organic farmers and other local producers.

At the same time, we were – and remain – highly critical of the top-down, bureaucratic structures of the European Union. Institutions like the European Commission are unelected and unaccountable. Under the guise of open competitive tendering, the Commission has driven forward a privatisation agenda, which now threatens the existence of Scotland’s publicly-owned, lifeline ferry company, Calmac. The Scottish Socialist Party believes that the Scottish Government should defy any European-driven initiatives to impose privatisation on any of Scotland’s public services.

We oppose any moves to create a Euro-wide regimented, federal state. We stand for a new European Union based on democracy, diversity, and decentralisation. As a step in that direction, we will campaign with the left across Europe for the downgrading of the European Commission to the status of an administrative back-up unit, restricted to implementing decisions and distributing information.  

British withdrawal?

Where should we stand on British withdrawal? Would a victory for the anti-European forces in the UK be progressive advance? Would it be a victory for the left. Or would be a triumph for the right?

During the 1975 referendum, the vast majority of the left in Britain, together with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, opposed Britain’s entry into the Common Market, as it was then called. At that time, the left’s opposition to the creation of a European bloc was based on clear logic. The left in Britain was powerful: the trade unions has just brought down a Tory Government; the governing party was committed, at least in paper, to a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power to working people and their families; Britain’s NHS and welfare state was the envy of the world, and the UK had a long tradition of parliamentary democracy which within living memory had survived the fascist conquest of most of Europe.

The anti-Europeanism of much of the British left was forged under these conditions. But times have moved on, and the rationale for supporting British withdrawal no longer exists. For the past 20 years the UK has, along with the USA, led the worldwide crusade to privatise public services, deregulate big business; slash taxes for the rich; and encouraged plunder and greed. Even the right wing leaders of France and Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, have blamed ‘the Anglo-Saxon countries’ for dragging  the world economy into a deep slump by fostering the culture of unrestrained, unregulated profiteering

Britain today has the widest wealth gap of any state in Europe, and by far the most millionaires and billionaires. It has the most repressive anti-trade union legislation on the continent. The British government was the most bloodthirsty and gung-ho in its support for the US-led war on Iraq. Successive British governments have eagerly complied with right wing directives from Europe (for example, on privatisation) while consistently resisting progressive European legislation(for example on the environment, and on working conditions).

Britain is not Norway, which has resisted joining the European Union to protect its superior public services and welfare state. Out of Europe, the UK Europe would not be one iota more progressive. By this time next year, David Cameron and the Tories are almost certain to be in government. Like Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown, a Cameron government won’t need the excuse of European directives to forge ahead with the privatisation of public services. Britain is already to the right of most of Europe, and looks set for a further lurch toward reaction.

Meanwhile, the left in Britain is weaker and more ineffective than almost anywhere else in Europe. The three major parties all back nuclear weapons, more privatisation and brutal public spending cuts to balance the books. Across Europe, even the right wing parties appear more left wing than Britain’s three big parties. As things stand, a British exit from the EU would be a victory, not for the left but for the right. The dancing on the streets would be to the tune of Rule Britannia rather than the Red Flag, and the forces celebrating most rapturously would be the ultra-right.

Scottish independence

In contrast, the call for Scotland out of Britain is a left wing, progressive idea. The SSP has many criticisms of the governing party of Scotland, the SNP. But in contrast to the big Westminster parties, it rejects nuclear weapons, resists racism, and opposes privatisation. The SNP is not and never will be a socialist party; but unlike New Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems it is a left of centre social democratic party. The balance of class forces in Scotland is overwhelming tilted towards the working class – a process which will be accentuated in the years to come as a consequence of the collapse of the countries two major capitalist institutions, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland.

Yet the NO2EU coalition, while supporting the right wing concept of ‘British sovereignty’ does not support the progressive idea of Scottish independence. The main driving forces in the coalition have been the Communist Party of Britain, the UK-wide RMT Union, and the Socialist Party of England and Wales. The top of the NO2EU list for the European elections in Scotland is John Foster, a leading figure in the Communist Party of Britain and a staunch British unionist.

The Scottish list of candidates for the election was not even decided in Scotland. It was drawn up in London by the above organisations, plus the small and disintegrating Scottish-based Solidarity group, which from its formation as a splinter group from the SSP in 2006 has been numerically dominated by two London controlled factions who are anti-independence – the Socialist Workers Party and the CWI.

June 4 election

The SSP was belatedly invited to participate in the NO2EU campaign (after reading about it in the Daily Record). We have criticisms of the way that the coalition was launched from London, with certain selected individuals from Scotland invited down to private steering committee meetings to prepare the public announcement. The suffix of the NO2EU – Yes To Democracy – is in startling contrast to the bureaucratic, top-down way that the coalition has been established.

We also understand that NO2EU has pledged to refuse to take up any seats in the European Parliament. The SSP has never been an abstentionist party. If we were to have an MEP, he or she would fight alongside the other left and radical parties in Strasbourg for progressive politics to restrain big business and improve the lives of ordinary working people. We would insist – as we do in every election – that our elected representatives would live on no more than the average wage of a skilled worker, with all expenses vetted by the party to guard against corruption.

The main reason why the SSP has decided to stand alone on June 4th – as we have done in every national election since the party’s foundation in 1998 – is that we have serious political differences with the NO2EU coalition on Scottish independence and on Europe. NO2EU may take some Labour votes from people who may otherwise, in this election, have switched to a party like UKIP.

The SSP in contrast will be targeting our appeal towards pro-independence voters with an internationalist outlook.

Carolyn Leckie on Scottish history

A recent survey by the Edinburgh Dungeon revealed that our nation has a pretty fuzzy sense of its own history. The poll of 1,000 skilful piece of PR by the underground tourist attraction but it did reveal some serious gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the past. Half of all 16-year-olds apparently are in the dark about the Wars of Independence, while one in six of Scots of all ages say they were taught nothing at school about our nation’s history.

Does this matter? The modern independence movement, after all, is forward-looking and multi-cultural. It wasn’t the Yes side but the No side which banged on constantly about Braveheart and Bannockburn. Rightly, we focused on the future rather than the past and refused to be drawn into a narrow, ethnic definition of what it means to be a Scot.

But history is not something we can just erase from our collective memory. All of us, as individuals, are products of our own past – and that of our parents, grandparents and even more distant ancestors. Anyone who doubts that should ponder the fact that many thousands of square kilometres of our land are still owned to this day by the descendants of medieval robber barons. Some of the biggest include Duke of Buccleuch, the Duke of Roxburghe, the Duke of Atholl, the Earl of Seafield, The Duke of Westminster, the Earl of Cawdor, the Duke of Argyll, Baron Margadale, the chiefs of the clans Cameron, MacLeod and MacDonald. Among them, they own over a million acres of our land.  

On the other hand, the descendants of the Highland Clearances, the Irish famine or Lowland serfdom are more likely to be at the poorer end of the social spectrum. For good or ill we are all at least partly products of our family history. And the same applies to continents, nations, regions, towns and cities

That is understood in other parts of Europe. In the Republic of Ireland, the nation’s history is one of four core subjects of the school curriculum, along with English, Irish and Maths. When the right wing Irish Government  last year announced plans to reduce its importance, it provoked a storm of protest – including from the county’s left wing president Michael D Higgins who said that  a knowledge of history is “intrinsic to our shared citizenship, to be without such knowledge is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom”. The Fine Gael government’s plans to remove history as a compulsory subject were finally abandoned earlier this year.

Some might argue that Ireland is over-obsessed with history. I would suggest that the continued blight of sectarianism in that part of the country ruled by the UK is due to historical ignorance rather than to a surfeit of insight.

In Scotland, I fear we are overly defensive and uncomfortable about our past. We rush, quite rightly, to accept our share of responsibility for slavery, or to acknowledge the role of Scots in building the British empire. But we are more diffident about spelling out that these inglorious episodes were direct products of the Act of Union. Or that the men who benefitted from slavery in the American colonies were hard-line unionist to the core. Or that the vast mass of wealth plundered from the colonies flowed into a handful of giant joint-stock companies all located within the square mile of the City of London, including such famous names as the Hudson Company and the Royal India Company.

Because Scotland was a highly literate country from the sixteenth century onwards, it provided the British empire with more than its share of managers, bookkeepers, doctors, teachers and missionaries, but its role in the empire was always subsidiary rather than primary.

All history is contested. The bare facts are sacrosanct but as Professor Tom Devine explained in a recent book review in the Herald, facts alone are not enough. “The force of historical writing lies at root in interpretation, argument and vigorous analysis.”

While academic history is vital, it can suffocate interpretation, argument and analysis. And that is a serious problem with Scottish history, which has struggled to free itself from the straitjacket imposed by earlier generations of academics who started from a default position of unionism.

Back in the post-war decades, the idea that “bigger is better” was unassailable. Businesses were merging, trade unions were amalgamating and institutions like the BBC were emerging to create a standardised British culture. The welfare state, the NHS, and the newly nationalised centralised rail, coal and steel industries all seemed to reinforce the power of large-scale state planning. Academic historians of the left were further influenced by the apparent success of the Soviet Union with its economies of scale, were hostile to any sense that small nations could be autonomous or independent.

In that climate, several generations of academics interpreted Scotland’s history through a unionist prism. Anything that undermined British centralism was deemed dangerous. So, it was left to writers such as John Prebble to bring events like the destruction of the Gàidhealtachd, the Highland Clearances and the Glencoe massacre out into the daylight.

Of course, right now we need to focus on the great events raging around us today and the mighty challenges we will face tomorrow. But anyone interested in reading a grippingly written alternative version of Scottish history that challenges the orthodox unionist narrative and sides with the common people against the rich and powerful might want to get themselves a copy of Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History, 500 AD to 1914. 

In the interests of disclosure, I should explain it was co-written by my partner Alan McCombes and my friend Roz Paterson, whose moving funeral I recently attended. You can get it on Kindle – or if you move fast you can buy one of the last remaining printed special edition copies signed by both authors with all proceeds going to help Roz’s bereaved family.

Roz and family

Remembering Roz Paterson

Sadly, Roz Paterson, one of the co-authors of Restless Land died on the morning on Monday May 6 after a brave and inspirational battle against cancer. We carry below a tribute from Alan McCombes, which was published in the Sunday National newspaper on May 12.


A bright light has gone out in the lives of many people across Scotland and beyond this week. Cruelly struck down by illness in her prime, Roz fought back with all her strength. She was desperate to see her beloved children grow up and to spend the rest her life with her soul-mate Malcolm.

I had the great privilege of being a colleague then a friend of Roz for the best part of two decades. Before I met her, I was already familiar with her byline and had read many of her exquistely crafted feature articles in various newspapers she had worked for. When she agreed to join the small editorial team of the Scottish Socialist Voice, we knew we had brought something special to the publication. Roz had flair, wit and style in abundance. Her natural eloquence flowed though every paragraph she wrote. Her humour sparkled like sunshine on snow. Her humanity touched people’s hearts. And she was a superb editor, able to infuse even the dullest political manifesto with a touch of poetry.

More than that, she was a great human being. Calm, unassuming, warm, conscientious and professional. Everyone loved and respected Roz. Years before the quote was engraved on the wall of the Scottish Parliament, the words of Alistair Gray – ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ – were displayed on a poster above her desk.

Her political outlook might best be summed up as green socialist. She was a strong supporter of independence for Scotland, which he saw as a route toa better country and ultimately a  better world and campaigned hard for a Yes vote in the 2014 referendum. She detested injustice and inequality and yearned for a better society free of greed and exploitation.

She also understood better than most the intricate planetary ecosystem with its  trillion species and complex web of interconections upon which all life depends. She brought into the Scottish socialist movement a much deeper understanding of the natural world and the destructive power of consumer-driven capitalism. And she lived her life in line with her principles: ethical, compassionate and caring.

In her characteristic low-key fashion, Roz played a crucial role in one of the great breakthroughs for the Scottish left: the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, in which six Scottish Socialist MSPs were elected alongside seven Greens. Behind the scenes she wrote media releases, organised press conferences and was part of a small team that produced leaflets, election addresses and newsletters –distributed  in their millions on the streets and to households across the land – which won admiration even from political opponents for their humour and imagination.

And later, during the dark days of 2004 to 2010 when every SSP activist was forced to choose sides between truth and fraud, there was never any doubt which side Roz would take. In the sometimes murky world of politics she never wavered in her honesty, integrity and courage.

I later worked with Roz on the book Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History. As always, she was a joy to work with, even at a geographical distance of over a  hundred miles. The book was praised for its style, wit and clarity – a testimony to Roz’s expert editorial eye and beautiful turn of phrase.  oz was devoid of ego and conceit and shunned the limelight. When the book was launched, she preferred to stay in the background and send a written statement down from the Highlands rather appear at public events in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

That was typical – yet in her final months, she was reluctantly forced into become something of a public figure. To raise what she called the “telethonic sum of money” needed to treat her otherwise incurable illness, she had to make aan audacious appeal. It was against her nature, but she did it with style and sensational success, and in a matter of weeks was well on course to raise half a million pounds. When NHS Scotland steeped in to fund the pioneering newe treatment in Londod, she insisted that every penny that could be returned was resturned donated to four cancer charities.

The mass upsurge in generosity had crossed political boundaries, with thousands of people in Beauly, the Highlands and beyond rushing to her aid. It was a tribute to her inspirational personality – and it also, albeit in desperately tragic circumstances, validated her own deep belief in the fundamental decency of the human spirit.

We have long been told there is no point in trying to build a better world, because people are inherently selfish and incapable of rising above ruthless rivalry. Roz Paterson proved otherwise. Her simple story of a woman fighting for life so she could see her children reach adulthood touched something deep in the heart of humanity. People in the local community, irrespective of whether they were Yes or No, Brexit or Leave, left or right, rallied round in a great outpouring of kindness. And strangers from across the land who had never met Roz or her family contributed generously to suppprt her. Not in a philosophy tutorial, but in the real world, she demonstrated that when the chips are down, there are many, many people whose natural impulse is to do whatever they can to help.

Roz died far too young, far too soon. But she left a mark on all who knew her and many who didn’t. She lived her life as shining example of all that is best in humanity. In her own quiet, humble way she was truly inspirational. And even in the face of death, she gave us hope for the future by bringing out the best side of human nature and showing us a glimpse of the kind of society that we could build in the future.

Alan McCombes

Book cover

Signed copies of Restless Land

A small number of limted edition double-signed copies of Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History – co-written by Roz Paterson and Alan McCombes –­ are still available.

For a donation of £25, including post and packing, you will receive a signed copy printed and bound in high-quality gloss paper designed to endure. All proceeds will be donated to support Roz’s young family.

‘Riveting and expertly written work of popular history’

It covers a huge amount of ground with style, wit and limpid clarity that sets it apart from the dry tomes that put many people off history before they are out of school.

Restless Land is a riveting, expertly written work of popular history that deserves a very wide readership.

Alex Miller, Professor of Philosophy, History and Politics at the University of Otago, New Zealand

‘Incredibly readable book that will grab you from the start’

This is a history book like none that I’ve read before. It is an incredibly readable book which will grab you from the opening pages. Half-remembered stories and vague Scottish heroes leap to life, and the book resonates with excitement.

Reading Restless Land was like having lots of little lights come on in my head. Finally, a book which could tell me the meaning of many of the songs and poems I’ve heard, of the half-remembered stories, of the slogans and names which have drifted down through the generations.

Pam Currie  President of the EIS Further Education Lecturers Association

‘A substantive book that makes you want to find out more’

Restless Land is a substantive book by any description. It tells you things that you’ve never been told before in school, in the media, or anywhere else.

“We should thank Alan and Roz for writing a book that’s easy to read, that’s interesting page by page, and makes you want to find out more. It’s an important book that articulates a fascinating history – the history of those on whose shoulders we stand.”

Jeanne Freeman Scottish Government Minister

Restless Land: review by Pam Currie

The Scottish Socialist Voice has just carried Pam Currie’s review of Restless Land. Pam is a long-standing campaigner for independence and women’s rights, whose first political action was to join the Vigil for a Scottish Parliament at Calton Hill in 1992.

Well, I thought when I agreed to write this review that I’d be starting with an apology. I got my hands on a copy at the Glasgow launch in late July, but in full indyref campaign mode, and returning to work as a lecturer in a chaotic post-merger college, I was quite sure I would never read the whole book in time to write a review.

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Download free sample chapters

We’ve made available for download the contents, foreword and first two chapters of Restless Land. They begin with what little we know of the Picts, where recent excavations have shown ‘evidence of a highly sophisticated culture, capable of producing magnificent art and extraordinary architecture’ and end with the Declaration of Arbroath where ‘one passage stands out, not only for its defiant assertion of national sovereignty, but also, almost half a millennium before the French Revolution, its renunciation of the divine right of kings.’

Download the sample chapters now (PDF 3MB)