Review: 'In Place of Fear II: A Socialist Programme for an Independent Scotland'

In Place of Fear II: A Socialist Programme for an Independent Scotland
By Jim Sillars
Vagabond Voices Publishing, 2014

Review by Alex Miller

August 13, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Jim Sillars is a well-known and well-respected figure on the Scottish political scene. He was elected (UK) Labour Party MP for South Ayrshire in 1970 but subsequently shifted away from mainstream Labour Party politics as a result of his commitment to devolution from Westminster and the setting up of a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. It's worth remembering that the infamous "40% rule" that blocked the narrow majority vote in favour of devolution in the 1979 referendum was the work of UK Labour Party MP George Cunningham (with the support of fellow Labour MPs George Robertson, Robin Cook and Tam Dalyell).

In 1976, Sillars split from the UK Labour Party and established the breakaway Scottish Labour Party (SLP), a left social-democratic party committed to devolution in the economic as well as political spheres. The SLP never really took off, and in 1979 Sillars lost his Westminster seat in the UK general election of that year. He joined the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the 1980s, and in 1988 he won a seat for the Nationalists in the Glasgow Govan by-election (which he subsequentely lost in the 1992 UK general election).

In the lead-up to the historic September 18 Scottish independence referendum taking place, Sillars has published a short book, In Place of Fear II (the first In Place of Fear was published in 1952 by Nye Bevan, the famous UK left-wing Labour figure and founder of the National Health Service). The title of the book is explained by the fact that the “No” campaign – sponsored by the three neoliberal UK parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat – has been pushing “Project Fear”, the strategy of exploiting natural caution of the unknown to scare the Scottish people into rejecting independence and sticking with Westminster and the UK.

The subtitle of the book is “A Socialist Programme for an Independent Scotland”, although it is really more of an old-style Labour social-democratic program spliced with a commitment to independence, and which goes beyond the more centrist path promoted by Alex Salmond’s SNP.

As one might expect in a social-democratically oriented program, there is a less than adequate understanding of capitalism, and at various places a tendency towards self-contradiction. Sillars gives a characterisation of “socialism today” that is a vast improvement on anything offered by the leadership of the UK Labour Party:

Socialism today can be defined as action to advance labour’s ability to prevent exploitation by capital, secure a distribution of wealth and power that favours working people and promotes co-operation which can be achieved through social ownership and by exerting public control over parts of the economy vital to the interests of the people (p.16).

This is laudable, but the theoretical assumption lying behind the definition is that exploitation is something that capital does when it is behaving badly, rather than the essential modus operandi  of even the most “benign” capitalist economy. This shows up in Sillars’s comments on the nature of profit:

If we see profit as surplus value after the costs involved have been met, there can be no objection to it. Companies without profit go bust… It is what is done with the “profit” that matters (p.21).

Socialism for Sillars is thus capitalism with a moral compass, rather than a vision of an alternative social and economic system in which “profit” no longer plays a role. This lack of theoretical clarity at the economic level is mirrored by confusion about the extent to which a referendum empowers the electorate. The book opens with a flourish:

The referendum is about power. On 18th September 2014, between the hours of 7 am and 10 pm, absolute sovereign power will lie in the hands of the Scottish people (p.1).

This is of course a huge overestimate, as the Irish people discovered when they voted against ratifying the EU Treaty of Lisbon in the 2008 referendum.

Perhaps more worryingly, Sillars appears to be something of a climate change sceptic:

Anxiety about climate change, stoked by lobby groups with a vested interest, has meant little critical analysis of the claims for renewables by the people who pay the subsidies – the consumers – confronted as they are by a barrage of propaganda and acronyms that create confusion about the true nature of the issues and consequences (p.65).

On energy policy Sillars argues:

The way forward is a mix of what are regarded as conventional sources: coal, gas and nuclear. Gas is crucial, and it is estimated that Scotland is sitting on huge reserves of shale gas, which can be extracted by the fracking system, which is not a new one. Opponents of fracking can be ignored. They have already engaged in the usual scaremongering … (p.67).

Sillars is clearly not an ecosocialist!

There are other aspects of Sillars’s program that might lead to raised eyebrows on the part of those standing to his left, but rather than pursue those I’ll end by pointing out some of the more welcome aspects of his manifesto. Sillars is strongly committed to a policy of full employment, a policy long since jettisoned by the UK Labour Party. Sillars quips:

Those who think we should accept a pool of unemployment should try swimming in it (p.48).

And although Slllars thinks that for legal reasons there is little prospect of renationalising utilities such as electricity, gas, the railways and airports, he is at least strongly in favour of renationalising Royal Mail and the Scottish Post Office (see pages 60 and 81). Sillars also has innovative and welcome suggestions relating to education. At the moment, in the UK independent (i.e. private, fee-paying) schools can qualify for charitable status. Sillars quotes some telling figures. Currently, Fettes, the fee-paying school attended by no less than Tony Blair, has its council tax liability reduced from £209,139 to £41,828 as a result of the charitable status granted to private schools. In comparison, Wester Hailes state school, where 45% of the pupils are eligible for free school meals, has to pay its full liability of £261,873. Sillars proposes to extend eligibility for charitable status to state schools (see pages 35-36). Sillars also proposes to make free school meals available to all primary school pupils (p.41), he promises that there will be no dismantling of the welfare state in an independent Scotland (p.83), and that no pensioner will be forced to live in poverty (p.85).

These, and other measures, will be paid for by a commitment to a mixed economy in which the emphasis is on education and technical development, in which small and medium-sized enterprises will be supported and encouraged, but in which workplace rights are guaranteed. Compared to the standard neoliberal fare on offer from the mainstream UK parties, this is surely an attractive package.

Sillars also has a measured and sensible attitude towards the much-discussed question of whether an independent Scotland should maintain a currency union with the rest of the UK. Sillars argues that although there would have to be a transition period of 5-8 years following independence, Scotland would ultimately require a separate currency. His reasoning against maintaining a currency union is solid:

The Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England has nine members. Five are drawn from within the Bank, and four additional ones appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer [currently, UK Conservative George Osborne]. Six of the nine went to Oxbridge. Only one has any past connection outside the bubble of the South of England. The Governor and one other come from the Goldman Sachs stable, and one is from the [employers’ organisation] CBI. All are anchored in London. Does anyone seriously believe that planking a lone Scot in among that lot will, in any way, alter the priority, which is London and its City [financial sector]? (p.11).

Sillars is also clear that an independent Scotland would have a foreign policy and defence strategy far different from that pursued by the UK:

Scotland will not seek to project hard military power. Its foreign policy will emphasise humanitarian engagement with the rest of the world, and building trade relations. Fact: Scotland does not have a single state enemy. No state threatens us with invasion (p.91).

Somewhat surprisingly, Sillars continues:

The one threat, shared by many other states, is that from non-state actors, terrorists, who direct their attacks at civil society and national economic assets (p.91).

This is a surprise, since the only major terrorist threats in recent Scottish history are a direct product of Scotland’s membership of the UK and the UK’s colonialist and neo-colonialist interventions in Ireland and the Middle East. Freed from the UK, it is hard to imagine Scotland becoming the focus of any serious organised terrorist threat.

Overall, then, this short book is a welcome, though uneven, contribution to the debates leading up to the September 18 referendum. Perhaps its main value lies in its illustrating the truth of the adage that in contemporary Scotland the centre of political gravity lies well to the left of where it is in England. It is not difficult to imagine many of the positive proposals that Sillars makes in the book becoming the focus of mainstream political discussion in an independent Scotland.

[Alex Miller is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party]