Back in my early days as an Scottish Socialist Party activist, I had the pleasure to meet an extraordinary man, Professor Philip Hobsbaum.
Hobsbaum's part in the modern literary movements in the UK - and in particular Ireland and Scotland - was huge.
When I met him, I knew little of this. Jimmy the Fireman and I went to his house to speak to him, on request, about the state of the party after Tommy Sheridan had stood down from the Leadership of the SSP - standing aside for an election in which Colin Fox beat Alan McCombes to the coveted "Convenorship" (which became "Spokesperson").
Hobsbaum's wife met us at the door and led us to the book lined living room where he sat, like a regal Karl Marx, long grey beard and happy to see us.
We drank the beers offered and we tried to allay his fears that the SSP was sinking because of Sheridan's standing aside. We were very careful NOT to tell him too much about what we had been told about the reasons..
During the conversation, Hobsbaum, who told us he was dying (he recently had his legs amputated), looked to Jimmy the Fireman and said,in his oddly posh, unplaceable accent, "politics needs people like you."
After our visit, Hobsbaum and I had email exchanges that I sometimes read through today - they are a valuable reminder of what we have lost both in Philip himself - and in working class politics.
Philip was concerned about the fact that with Sheridan gone, Fox was unknown, and was making no impact. His emails came to me with titles such as "The Invisible Fox," "Fox Still Invisible," "The Invisible Man." All of my emails are assurances that this will change and the SSP will rise again. How wrong I was!
Also prominent in his emails were the many literary references and references to his times in Ireland (he describes how Gerry Fitt won West Belfast by using Unionist tactics against them) - but moreso he speaks about working class heroes and how,he felt that unfortunately, we still need them. He said in one email, written one month before his death,
The SSP owes what little success ithas had largely to 'one big bro figure al la' Tommy Sheridan.It has
discarded that asset in favour of The Invizble Fox [sic]. My guess is that it has suffered accordingly. The result at the last General Election shows this.
It is a pity, and I agree with you, that parties have to depend on Big Brothers, but such a book as THE HERO by Lord Raglan will shows you that this trait, to follow a leader, is deeply ingrained in human nature.
Had you heard, as I did in my youth, such great socialists as Aneurin Bevan and Mick McGahey you would understand more clearly what I mean.
One of my replies to Philip read,
"Philip - give the party
time. It is only 6 years old. Respect has the danger of imploding
. It is an organisation built on the reputation (rather shaky) of
one man.Unless Galloway promotes the party rather than himself, Respect will dissolve. "
How naive was I (though right about Galloway)?
I suppose at the time, I thought the SSP could pull itself forward without this Hero. I had joined despite Sheridan - the voices I was attracted by were those of Rosie Kane (who Hobsbaum said was a great working class voice; but at the time, Rosie was ill and was absent from politics while she was getting better) and Richie Venton, a working class Northern Irish ex-Militant Tendency organiser - both whom I'd seen speak before the election in 2003 that had brought more working class voices - and in particular, women's voices, to the fore in the part and the Parliament.
So, I assured Prof Hobsbaum, the SSP would come back. He said in later emails (he emailed me right up until a few days before his death) that he was holding on to his saved election donation - yet he would still pay his membership, because he did not think the SSP would do well by stretching itself like it had in the recent General Election. And he awaited either the emergence of working class voices or the re-emergence of Sheridan as "Leader."
The left in Scotland, I feel, has been taken over by quite a middle class "leadership,"(says the teacher married to the doctor!). Moderate but stunt heavy, the left that the SSP was once made up of opt for placard waving and odd stunts inside and outside shops, rather than fighting on the streets to have real radical policies that address real problems highlighted and actually enacted. Tommy Sheridan, though deeply flawed etc of course (a misogynist bully who wrecked a movement for his ego), along with a dedicated, clever, approchable, group around him managed to mobilise working class people outside of the sweep of the political intelligentsia and usual suspects on the left - and he did so again during the last months of the Scottish Independence Referendum. How? Well, by knowing the difficulties working class families, mums, dads, children and communities suffer - BECAUSE THEY LIVED THERE. The current radicals totally ditched that approach for protesting outside coffee shops they meet in.
Though today, Mhairi Black SNP MP, in some way represents this strand of socialism - she is someone who knows her community; she is tied to a political party that won't give her the freedom to do as Sheridan etc could do. She is not yet a player; and with the rounding off of the rough edges - Mhairi could be in danger of melting into the accepted norms of Scottish/British politics - when that is exactly what we don't need her to do.
To cut a long story short- we need to have people speaking about how the current political hegemony effects real working class families/low paid workers/people on benefits etc etc. And they need to be drawn from the places they are speaking to. They need to be unafraid to stand with communities in their fights - for better services; for the homeless; against rising utility and food bills; school closures; bus route closures; job centre relocations; crime; community centre closures etc etc. But they need to be helping communities they are from, come together and protest the causes of the local problems - the Tories and their syphoning off of tax money to the billionaires and those who crashed the economy. They need to have the experiences that Hobsbaum immediately recognised in Jimmy the Fireman, Mick McGahey, and even Sheridan (who, don't get me wrong, is no longer the uniting figure he promised to be right up until the truth about his character smashed into lives and tore hopes and peoples hard graft apart!)
We need voices -and issues that people can identify with. And we need them spoken by people in a way their communities can identify with. On the left at present, there are few people I know who can speak to the likes of my family; my wife's family or the parents of the children I teach in an area of deprivation in Glasgow.
Sheridan could- not through his shouty nonsense- but his turn of phrase. His experience of growing up in a working class house in a working class area with working class problems. His simplification of the problems-and the solutions- and he seemed at all times to be able enough to take on the Andrew Neil's and Labour Party Scottish Executive etc (because he was an educated working class person).
Where are those working class political representatives? In Rise? In the current batch of the SSP? In Labour? The SNP? The Greens?
I really do feel that our current batch of politicians and parties hamper, (every bit as much as the post industrial landscape and the smashing of the post war consensus), any working class woman or man with a bit of nous and talent, from rising through the ranks and taking on the poshos (on the left and right). And the left seem to create heroes, stunts, conferences that they cant see past, even though they really don't represent the schemes and the workplaces.
And real working class, bright people, fall by the wayside. Overlooked for the verbiage of a "radical."
The other day I met a couple I hadn't seen since the day of the referendum. They are still pro-Scottish Independence- but their conversation was peppered with blaming immigrants for the NHS crisis; and even though both are ex-Labour, they said they thought May was doing a good job after Cameron's destruction... They aren't fans of the SNP- and feel betrayed by New Labour; hate the Liberals and when I asked, they just dismissed Rise as "student lefties," and the SSP as a horse that had long bolted from the stables, and drowned in a lake, trying to put out the fire that was consuming it from head to toe. She is a nurse, he is a Community Education worker, both working class, and living heavily mortgaged.
Now- will the new Yes campaign reach them (and more importantly, their Rangers supporting friends)? How? Through the Radical Independence Campaign? I doubt they call themselves "Radical." But they are working class - and the current left leaders in Scotland's Yes campaign seem to think the working class identify as "radical." They don't. Believe me. Will a New Hope over Fear emerge (Sheridan seems burnt out - and he, like all of the current crop of lefty leaders, pulls the ladder up after him when they climb onto their platforms)?
Will Kezia speak to them? Sturgeon? Will Mhairi Black be allowed to continue to harangue and insult the Tories as the inevitable secession happens?
Do any of these people speak to my friends? They don't seem to think so. And politically they seemed lost in a vacuum filled by the right wing press.
Years ago Sheridan did- when he stepped in to poindings/ the poll tax campaigns etc (they deserted him when the stuff appeared in the News of the World).
As for those in areas of deprivation in Glasgow- will a knock on the door by someone from the Radical Independence Campaign move them to register to vote and then vote Yes?
As for us "-activists-" are we going to wait for ideas and conferences (after conferences after conferences) from the leaders of the left we are part of, who in the past twenty years (and especially the past two) have shown themselves to be tactically inept, to do things for us? Will we stand rabbit like, in their blazing conference lights awaiting instructions for when we should re-start our serious community politics after more stunts outside shops?
Looking back on my email exchanges with Philip Hobsbaum, I look naive when I tell him I don't believe in heroes. I tell him I had enough of demagogues in Northern Ireland. I still feel that way, but after the Corbyn Show, I understand people sometimes need figureheads around which to rally.
Philip died on 28 June, 2005. Two weeks before, after a lot of emails praising Sheridan's oratory skills and attractiveness to the working class, he wrote this:
"One of the more dangerous aspects of the Scottish Socialist Party's rise to prominence is the potential for a Sheridan personality cult. It's difficult to resist such adulation, especially when it's sincere, but it is absolutely vital for the future of the party that it secure more seats in the Scottish parliamentary election if only to raise to prominence other equally worthy individuals."
Philip was spared the gory details of his "hero" dragging the party through the gutter and the personality cults wrecking the left (and continues to do so).
But where do we go from here? As the political left's hermetically sealed Vanguards rouse students and middle class "radicals," and they take to the stage, who is truly going to represent, and fight for, the millions of people working; fighting for survival; bringing up their families on Foodbank donations, low pay and diminishing welfare?
More middle class jobs created for (well meaning) middle class radicals who will desert the class they "want to help" the day after their next election failure?
Sheridan hailed as successor to Bevan
By Alan Crawford, Political Correspondent
The Sunday Herald, 6 April 2003
Philip Hobsbaum, Professor Emeritus at Glasgow university, is to join the
Scottish Socialist Party after annointing Tommy Sheridan the 'true
successor' to Aneurin Bevan.
Bevan, the son of a Welsh miner, rose to become the Minister of Health
responsible for introducing the NHS in 1948 and is regarded as arguably the
most influential Labour Party figure of the post-war period.
'I think Sheridan's a visionary as Aneurin Bevan was and, yes, I think he's
probably Aneurin Bevan's true successor,' said Hobsbaum. 'I certainly don't
find anyone of that calibre in the official Labour Party, they're all very
Hobsbaum, whose informal writers' groups in London, Belfast and Glasgow
turned out the likes of Seamus Heaney, Bernard MacLaverty, James Kelman, Liz
Lochhead and Alasdair Gray, has torn up his Labour Party membership card
after 51 years in the party, saying he is 'disgusted' with its attitude to
student top-up fees, nurses' pay and the war in Iraq. Instead he is planning
to join the SSP.
'The Scottish Socialist Party is, of all the parties, the one nearest to my
own way of thinking and, as for Sheridan, I think he's utterly sincere. I
think he's a very vital politician. The others, quite apart from their
policies, are great yawns, aren't they?'
He added: 'I first joined the Labour Party as a student in 1952, so it was a
big wrench to leave. I left once or twice over nuclear weapons, but I really
think we've had six years and a whacking great majority and they've made a
fankle of things. I'm disgusted with them.'
Hobsbaum said it was 'extraordinary' that the Labour Party had retained its
name, despite 'changing its attitude and policy and everything'.
'I'm absolutely astonished at them,' he added. 'It's as though they're
frightened of something but I don't know what they're frightened of. They
could have done so much.'