Robert Duncan, Objectors & Resistors: Opposition to Conscription and War in Scotland 1914-18, Common Print, £7.99, 9780993096518
In a century that has seen conflict in one part of the world or another, Robert Duncan has produced a timely little book that reminds us that war in all its guises was met with opposition. At the simplest level, this is a social history forgotten in a wider historiography surrounding the First World War.
In Objectors and Resistors, Duncan’s aim is not simply to rescue anti-war protestors from the condescension of posterity but to rescue them from abuse, acceptable violence and vilification that much of history has decreed on them. The title itself reminds us that protest was not simply a moral choice of individuals but part of a movement of organisations actively seeking to prevent the war or to bring an end to an undoubted carnage.
In seeking to right these wrongs, Duncan has done his own time in the archives in rescuing the individuals concerned and has painstakingly given historical record to many of the brave men and women who were Conscientious Objectors. This is all the more impressive given an incomplete historical record. However, at times this does read like a roll call of those involved.
The largest bloc of resistance lay within the broad labourist and socialist movement in Scotland. Duncan traces this history and, at times, provides some good context to strengthen the narrative. Of some merit also is the last chapter on peace movements and their activities in the leading cities, complete with examples of violence and intimidation inflicted by pro-war groups.
From this reviewer’s perspective, the role of the Great British state is particularly interesting and the author traces this through a climate of ongoing punishments, intimidation and accommodation as it sought to come to terms with the objectors. The accommodationist strategy led to alternative work programmes and largely involved the setting up of labour camps including one to build the road between Ballachulish and Kinlochleven. The camps were far from an easy ride as the example of the Broxburn ‘manure slaves’ testify. One notable point is that the camps became centres of opposition and political education.
After the declaration of war, a change of direction was inevitable, bringing about the anti- conscription movement and again the author traces this and provides useful insight. This is partly done with an examination of the trials and testimonies of those charged with refusing to join the military.
In all of this it must be acknowledged that we are dealing with a minority movement. At its height the number of prisoners approached 7,500. The number of activists and sympathisers is difficult to determine but attendance at public meetings was often impressive. 10,000 people attended a public meeting in Glasgow in December 1916.
What Duncan has portrayed is a history of men and women who suffered at the hands of the state but who showed tremendous courage and bravery when the odds were stacked against them. In its way it is a small reminder that human beings are not mere recipients of the blind forces of history but that choices can and will be made.
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Dr Ewan Knox formerly taught British and American social history at Northumbria University
Gregor Gall (ed.) Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism? third edition, Scottish Left Review Press, Glasgow, 9780955036293, £5.99
The first edition of this book appeared just under ten years ago in 2007. By any criterion, the decade since has been an extraordinary one. The return of global capitalist crisis; revolution and counter-revolution in the Middle East; the biggest movement of refugees since the Second World War in response to imperialist wars; the growth of racism and xenophobia across Europe; and so on and so on.
For once it is not hyperbole or inflated parochialism to say that Scotland has played its part in this global drama. Comparison with events in Greece is justified, even if unfortunately we have not seen the thirty plus general strikes that the Greek working-class has engaged in since 2010.
For as most, if not all, of the nineteen contributors to this book from across the Scottish left recognise – in a way that Jim Murphy and the Labour leadership never did – the ‘yes’ movement was never primarily a nationalist movement. At the most basic level, it was a movement against austerity but it was more than that. It was a movement for social change, for a different kind of world – and independence was seen as a way of achieving that world.
Sadly of course the referendum was lost and most of the contributors here are rightly concerned with grappling with the post-referendum realities. Three of these realities will be discussed here.
The first and most obvious fact of current Scottish political life is the astonishing growth and dominance of the SNP since September 2014. At the time of writing, it seems highly likely that that dominance will be confirmed in the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections. The SNP’s success has been due in large measure to its ability to present itself as a social democratic party to the left of Labour (in truth, not hard to do). As many of the contributors here demonstrate, however, the SNP’s radicalism is very shallow indeed – and the cracks are starting to appear. 152,000 less students in further education than in 2007; the abandonment of the 50p tax band policy for high earners; support for tax cuts for major corporations; and the willingness of SNP councils in Dundee and elsewhere to impose austerity with the same zeal as Labour councils. ‘A big boy in London did it and ran away’ increasingly will not wash as an excuse for the SNP’s unwillingness to lead a real fight against the Westminster government.
That the SNP is currently enjoying such dominance is in large part a function of the second feature of the Scottish political scene, the meltdown of the Scottish Labour. Not surprisingly, Labour Party contributors to this book, like most of us, have been heartened by Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. In reality, however, there is limited evidence of a Corbyn ‘bounce’ north of the border and while Dave Watson is correct to argue that Scottish Labour can only beat the SNP from the left, the chances of that happening under the current Scottish leadership seem remote.
Which brings us to the radical Left in Scotland. It played an important role in the referendum campaign, particularly in building support in working-class communities. What is less clear from these contributions, however, is how it goes forward from here. Different elements of the left are represented in the book, by and large saying very similar things. At the time of writing, however, none seem particularly well-placed to secure a decent vote, let alone win seats, in the 2016 elections, not least because socialists are standing against other socialists.
Re-building that left is likely to require three things. First, engagement in the day to day- to -day struggles against cuts, austerity and racism. The victory of the SNP in 2015 demobilised the ‘yes’ movement and steered it into parliamentary channels. Yet as the experience of the Syriza government shows, deep-seated change will not come through parliament. Of course, we want socialist MSPs and MPs but an over-emphasis on electoralism will kill our movement. Secondly, socialists will only win the hearts and minds of recent SMP members by engaging then in joint action at every opportunity over issues such as cuts, austerity and racism. Most joined the SNP from the left and want to see manifest change – simply denouncing their party as ‘neo-liberals in kilts’ will not cut it. Finally, in the face of brutal austerity and growing racism, the socialist left needs to get its act together. Too many of us are still fighting the battles of a decade ago. In the face of a brutal ruling-class offensive, the need for a united socialist left has never been greater.
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Iain Ferguson is an Emeritus Professor at the University of the West of Scotland