Editorial: How Many Struggles Make a Movement?

It is twenty-five years since the reinstatement of our Parliament. By the time of its second sitting, a colourful crew of socialists was elected to its ranks. It is ten years since the independence referendum and the surge of debate that sent a roch wind through the country. In terms of electoral engagement, early devolution and the energetic referendum days were a far cry from what the General Election will bring. Westminster parties and indeed the post-Bute House SNP are jousting on ground so far from the Left that the colours of the flags blur almost into one. Whoever wins in July, we will have to fight on other ground.

Away from the spectacle, the Scottish Left Review is joining with media platform Skotia to launch Redgauntlet, a new podcast that throws down a challenge to everyone who wants to see a Scotland where colours of our causes are flying from community halls, windows, and balconies. In the first episode, Cat Boyd and Kenny Farquarson settle their differences about what has led Scotland ever-further into an independence impasse, and spar about whether political realignments or social and economic ruptures will break that impasse. Future episodes will challenge more of Scotland’s sharpest critics about what we need to do next. 

With the end of the Bute House Agreement, while Jen Bell is confident the Greens will return to more radical ground, it is still too early to tell how far the SNP will relapse to the right. But beneath the gloom of centrist electioneering and John Swinney’s new glaze about a Scotland for all, you might notice our politics is fracturing along deeper fault lines. Some of these were forecast during the debate a decade ago. Writing in August 2014, Ray Burnett warned against any fixation on one particular story of Scotland and its peoples’ struggle. He urged the Left to engage with the ‘plurality of our exploited cultures’ and recognise that collaboration was core to extractive and exploitative processes, just as solidarities and a sense of common cause across binaries are key to successful resistance. He was responding to an article by Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach in the Oxford Left Review suggesting the Left should pay particular attention to the Highlands and Islands. Their debate worked with a lively language of hope, courage, and a resurgent spirit of solidarity and commonality. 

A Left resurgence would mean overcoming certain binaries. One is the division of interests between the central belt and the rest of Scotland. Highland and northern interests are now higher up the agenda with Swinney in a Perthshire and Forbes in a Gàidhealtachd seat. But neither will present any kind of radical agenda for the North, and it falls to others, as Neil Mackay writes, to develop alternatives to Edinburgh’s extractive economics. Closely related to regional empowerment is the challenge of building the capacity to struggle for land justice. Heather Urquhart and Tara Wight explain what must be fought for, starting with the soil itself. 

Land is the ground on which growers work. It is also the basis of rent, resource extraction, geographic concentrations of power, and struggles for justice. In principle, and irrespective of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament could reform land ownership in Scotland. In practice, recent land initiatives are weak, and the end of the Bute House Agreement make their fate uncertain. Holes are appearing in long-promised rent caps even before they are forced onto landlords, while Scottish Labour has recently said that it would stop legislating against landowners. The Land Reform Bill, far from amounting to a deluge that could redivide the land, has disappointed land activists and will dribble through parliament without wetting anyone with wellies. No-one pretends the Land or Housing Bill will cause radical reform. 

Tempting as it is to believe that the people are sovereign over land, it must be remembered that the land is not our land. We may have rights to roam across it, but it is private. Ray Burnett’s 2014 article played with Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to ask ‘Whose Land Is It Anyway?’, but we might learn a harder kind of satire from US land activists: 

So take your slogan and kindly stow it
If this is our land, you’d never know it
Lets come together and overthrow it
Yes, this land is made for you and me.

Jennie Bates’ cover artwork imagines that coming together. Land demands are not only rural or urban, northern or southern, global or local, but can encompass many communities. Land is the underlying issue in Torry, where Scott Herret updates on Big Oil’s efforts to eat up St Fittick’s Park. It is the issue in Otago Lane, where Rory MacLeish discovers how its stoic booksellers have weathered many development efforts. It is landowners, as Esmond Sage finds, who leveraged the New Urban Left into handing Manchester to Blairite developers, blazing a trail that Scotland’s cities soon followed. A people dominated by landowners and developers can be stirred to resistance. Equally, they can become listless as the architecture of their lives turns homogenous and humdrum, as Beth Ansell warns is happening in the North of England, and James Barrowman incites against through resisting the binary of the ‘outward-bound’ and the ‘stay-at-home’. Is community resistance the cure? How do little struggles mobilise and build momentum in the interest of the masses as a whole? 

It is unsurprising that a host of articles present Living Rent as the most effective vehicle for advancing disparate land-related struggles on the Left. While some of its members describe it as a renters’ union, Living Rent calls itself ‘a mass-membership union of tenants, carers, workers and residents’, and part of ACORN international, a federation of community unions. One question its structure raises is whether the communities it seeks to represent are building their own power separately through this union, or else acting through and under its central control and democratically elected structures? What would each option mean for the union’s capacity to unify land- and property-related struggle across Scotland? How can different communities be unified in action? For all these questions, there are lessons still to be learned from the miners’ strikes forty and fifty years ago, which depended on achieving unity and overcoming division, as John Doolan and Margaret Petrie describe in detail.

While the Left advances onto some of this new ground, there are other positions that will not shift. Scotland’s civic and social support for Palestine remains a point of pride, as Ryan Swan discusses, while the Justice for Palestine Society at Edinburgh University explains its purpose in setting up their encampment on the lawn of ‘Balfour University’. Colin Turbett explores the work of unions in Ukraine to stand by their communities in a war that capital is all too ready to exploit. And Mark Brown reports from Portugal where, fifty years on, the agenda set by the Carnation Revolution is still sewn into its politics. In every land, there is one thing that can incorporate these different causes into one. That thing is called the Left.