Aug 10 2020

FROM GREY TO RED GRANITE

This is the introduction to a full article by Allan Armstrong. A link will be provided to Allan’s Intfrobel website, as soon as this article has been completed.

 

FROM GREY TO RED GRANITE 

Viewing the Left and the Scottish Question through the Lens of  Neil Davidson’s Writings and Political Work  

 

 

Neil Davidson died tragically early on May 3rd this year. Neil bridged the gap between Left academia and political activism. His reputation in Left academia was highlighted by the Deutscher Memorial Prize he won in 2003 for The Discovery of the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1740. Unlike many such books (including some which are well worth reading), Neil’s book made an immediate impact on the Left and beyond, and not only in Scotland. This is because the National Question in Scotland had become very politicised and the Left was still in the process of trying to address this issue – it still is.

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Mar 29 2017

PADDY BORT – 1954-2017

Allan Armstrong writes about the contribution made by Paddy Bort, who died on February 17th, to our understanding of Scottish and Irish cultural and political links.

 

PADDY BORT – 1954-2017

Eberhard Bort, Germano-Scot and Germano-Irish by choice, “in essence the ultimate European”, and known to most acquaintances in Scotland and Ireland as Paddy, died unexpectedly on February 17th. Steve Byrne, founder member of the folk group, Malinky, and convenor of the Hamish Henderson Archive Trust, wrote what has become Paddy’s much circulated obituary. It begins with the strikingly appropriate words, “A hole the size of Arthur’s Seat is in the Edinburgh folk scene today.”
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Mar 09 2016

HAMISH HENDERSON, FOLK SONGS AND THE BUILDING OF SCOTTISH LEFT WING IDENTITY

Adam Ramsay of  open democracy has written the following review article after seeing the new film, Hamish, about the life of Hamish Henderson. It was first posted at:- 

 

https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/adam-ramsay/hamish-henderson-folk-culture-and-building-of-scottish-left-wing-identity

 

HAMISH HENDERSON, FOLK SONGS AND THE BUILDING OF SCOTTISH LEFT WING IDENTITY

 

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For me, he was the polyglot communist who first translated Antonio Gramsci into English. For my singer sister, he was Scotland’s great musicologist, the iconic folk song collector who left thousands of recordings now found on Tobar an Dualchais. For my Dad, he was the charismatic founder of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies and its folk society, and the rumoured son of the philandering husband of his great-aunt Kitty, the Red Duchess.
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Aug 12 2015

THE RCN AND THE SCOTTISH LEFT PROJECT

THE RCN AND THE SCOTTISH LEFT PROJECT

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The Republican Communist Network (RCN) affiliated to the Scottish Left Project after our aggregate held in Glasgow on 27th July. This was addressed by Jonathon Shafi. Previous to this, our members had been involved in meetings to bring people together in Edinburgh and Dundee. We have also sent delegates to the SLP national forums in Glasgow to prepare for the launch of the new organisation [1].

The RCN was formed originally as a platform within the Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1998. We continued as a platform within the Scottish Socialist Party until January 2012 [2]. We became involved in the setting up of the Radical Independence Campaign affiliating at its first conference in Glasgow in November 2012 [3].
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Nov 22 2013

2nd RADICAL INDEPENDENCE CONFERENCE ‘EMANCIPATION & LIBERATION’ SPECIAL

 

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Our Emancipation & Liberation Radical Independence Conference Special will be available at the conference on Saturday, November 23rd.

 

 

CONTENTS

 

Editorial (also posted below)

Scottish Self-Determination: For a Scottish Wannabe Ruling Class or for Scotland’s People? – RCN

Why is Venezuela relevant to Scotland’s Radical Independence Movement? – Ewan Robertson

Women and Independence – Alice Bowman

Why we won’t wear a poppy – Jim Slaven

The Scottish Republic and the Commonwealth of England – Steve Freeman

Republican Socialist Platform

The Republican Communist Network (Scotland) – What We Stand For – From Theory to Practice

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) a commemoration – Mary McGregor

Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey, a film review – Zofia Walczak

Freedom Come All Ye, Hamish Henderson

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May 01 2012

MAY DAY GREETINGS

MAY DAY GREETINGS

from

EMANCIPATION & LIBERATION

 

 

THE SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM TAKES PLACE IN 2014

 

The British unionist parties and the SNP government

both want a Scotland which is:-

* part of the UK under the Crown Powers

* part of NATO and participates in imperial wars

* dominated by the City of London banksters

* at the beck and call of the global corporations

* imposing cuts and austerity to buttress capitalism

 

SOCIALISTS HAVE TWO YEARS TO MAKE A REAL DIFFERENCE

 

This May Day join us in the call for a

SOCIALIST CAMPAIGN FOR A SCOTTISH REPUBLIC

 

Freedom Come All Ye

 

 


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Feb 11 2011

TRADE UNIONS IN THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY

Below are two articles. The first is a report of the Third Global Commune event entitled ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?’. The second is Allan Armstrong’s talk given to the Independent Workers Union conference in Dublin on 4.4.09. on behalf of the  SSP’s International Committee.

 

1. THE THIRD GLOBAL COMMUNE EVENT, 29.1.11  

Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?

 

It was generally agreed by participants that the third Global Commune event, jointly hosted by the Republican Communist Network (RCN) and the commune, on Saturday, January 29th, was a very worthwhile day. Once again, the event was held in the ‘Out of the Blue’ Centre in Leith (Edinburgh) and involved, as well as the organising groups, members of the Independent Workers Union (IWU) in Ireland, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Permanent Revolution, the Autonomous Centre in Edinburgh (ACE), current and ex-members of the SSP, and the Anarchist Federation.

The theme for the day was, ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit for Purpose?’ There was a shared agreement that the traditional Broad Left strategy for working in trade unions had been shown to be wanting. By and large, Broad Lefts accept the existing union structures and concentrate on replacing Right wing leaderships. However, we now have the situation where new Broad Lefts have to contest old Broad Lefts, which have become as conservative as the leaderships they replaced. This highlights the flawed thinking behind their ‘capture the machinery’ approach.

Mary Macgregor of the RCN chaired the initial and plenary sessions.  The opening platform of speakers consisted of Allan Armstrong of the RCN and the commune, Stuart King of Permanent Revolution, Tommy McKearney of the IWU, Alberto Durango of the Latin American Workers Association (LAWA) and the IWW, and Mike Vallance of ACE. They each put forward different approaches, including organising within or outside existing trade unions, in TUC/ITUC-recognised or independent unions, and the possibility of a strategy involving a mixture of these methods.

Apologies for being unable to attend were given by Brian Higgins of the rank and file Building Workers Group, who is currently involved in the anti-blacklist campaign; and by Jerry Hicks, who has just campaigned on a rank and file platform for the post of General Secretary in UNITE. Therefore, Allan Armstrong, the former Scottish Teachers’ Rank & File convenor provided a rank and file perspective.

Allan used his experience in the Lothian and the Scottish Rank & File Teacher groups. He drew a distinction between a rank and file movement and a rank and file caucus. In 1974/5, the Rank & File Teacher group had been to the forefront of a three month long independent (unofficial or wildcat) rank and file movement of Scottish teachers organised through Action Committees. The central demand was for a £15 a week flat rate pay increase. The Action Committees organised weekly three-day strike action, street activities, large demonstrations, and an occupation of the EIS (the main Scottish teachers’ union) HQ. Negotiations were conducted directly between delegates from the Action Committees and representatives from the Scottish Office at New St. Andrews House in Edinburgh. The teacher delegates were backed by a demonstration outside of striking teachers, whilst the Scottish Office had the backing of the Special Branch (or some other state agency) cameramen on the roof!

The Action Committees held weekly open meetings of striking teachers, and sent flying pickets to other schools to draw them into action. They also worked within the EIS. Many activists were EIS school reps. Eventually there was a palace coup at EIS HQ. This enabled a rejigged union leadership to sanction its own official action. Negotiations were confined once more to union officials and the Scottish Office, much to their mutual relief. Nevertheless, the strength of the independent strike action was enough to force the government to concede the financial equivalent of nearly the whole rank and file movement’s £15 pay demand. However, with negotiations now conducted by EIS officials, the distribution of the money gained was massively skewed in favour of school managements.

The self-confidence gained by teachers meant that further action over the next two years, mostly official, but sometimes involving independent action, was able to win substantial improvements in teachers’ conditions. A new contract clearly defined maximum working hours and class sizes. In the process of these struggles, Scottish education and teacher trade unionism was turned upside down. The employers and union officials were unable to fully reassert their control until the McCrone Deal was implemented in 2001.

After the ending of the initial rank and file movement, around the action over pay in 1975, Scottish Rank & File Teachers continued as a caucus. They campaigned around a very wide range of issues, e.g. pay (for a single salary scale, for flat rate increases), improved conditions (smaller class sizes), for women’s and gay rights, against the use of the belt (the form of corporal punishment in Scottish schools), for the right of school students to organise, for egalitarian educational provision, secular education and support for Gaelic language teaching. They also campaigned to democratise the union – demanding head teachers out and directly elected and accountable union office bearers on the average pay of the members. Most importantly though, they championed the sovereignty of the membership in their workplaces, and defended, and when possible initiated, independent action.

The Scottish Teachers Rank & File caucus was sabotaged by the SWP in 1982, leaving only the Lothian Rank & File group. Later, a Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers (SFST) brought together the Left once more. However, the SFST became a hybrid Broad Left/Rank & File caucus. Furthermore, the employers had encouraged division amongst teachers by creating a plethora of promoted posts. They also curtailed a vibrant culture of alternative educational thinking amongst classroom teachers, through the top-down promotion of tightly policed ‘educational’ counter-reforms. The Tories’ anti-trade union laws undermined independent strike action, massively aided by trade union officials. However, there was still limited independent action until as recently as the 2003, in protest against the war in Iraq.

Allan summed up by saying that he thought the rank and file approach was still valid in various unions. However, there had been a rapid decline of union membership in many sectors of employment, as well as new areas of work without any union organisation. Union leaderships were often more interested in suppressing any attempts to resist the employers, acting in effect as a free personnel management service for the bosses. Such leaders wanted little more than sweetheart agreements with the employers to ensure a tick-off system of subs collections, primarily for their own benefit. Therefore, socialists should think tactically, and consider when an independent union, or possibly dual official/independent union approach, may be more appropriate than a rank and file caucus approach.

Stuart King of Permanent Revolution then drew on the experience of the early Minority Movement in the trade unions in the early 1920’s. The CPGB’s work in the Minority Movement formed part of the wider work of the Third International, which had organised the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) in 1920 to conduct united front work within the international trade union movement. Although mostly associated with the official Communist Parties, RILU drew together wider forces within the unions, especially those from a Syndicalist tradition.

Stuart argued that there were some similarities in the early 1920’s to the situation we face today. In April 1921, the two leaderships of the NTWU (later the TGWU) and the NUR, failed to support the miners of the MFGB (later the NUM), in the face of employer imposed wage cuts, despite being part of the Triple Alliance. This ‘Black Friday’ climb-down led to a growing feeling of demoralisation amongst workers. Many left their unions. The Minority Movement launched a ‘Back to the Unions’ campaign, with the intention of getting workers organised to resist the growing employers’ offensive, and to bring the union leaders under the effective control of the rank and file.

Stuart said that we also face a period of retreat today, as existing union leaderships had joined social partnerships with the state and employers. There was also declining union membership. The ‘Awkward Squad’ had also turned out to be not that awkward when it came to effectively challenging the employers and the state. Nevertheless, workers still look to their official unions when it comes to taking defensive action – as recent strikes of civil servants, airline cabin staff and others have demonstrated. This means communists must be active within the existing unions and struggle to bring them under effective rank and file control.

Stuart’s contribution provided a counterpoint to others who emphasised the fundamental differences in the situation we face today, compared to the past. In particular, Tommy McKearney of the Independent Workers Union of Ireland highlighted the major challenges workers now face.

Tommy argued that thirty years of neo-liberal economics have finally done fundamental damage to the system it was meant to promote. Facilitated by globalisation, the enormous transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists has created a situation where consumers in the west no longer have the purchasing power to buy the produce of their own industry and the developing countries have not yet reached a level where they can take up the slack. The contradiction is explicable only by Marxist economists.

What has also happened, almost unnoticed by many commentators, is the collapse of social democracy in the face of the neo-liberal assault and the most recent crisis in capitalism. For a few years the social democratic movements of Europe disguised their collapse by stealing the clothes of the neo-liberals. Tony Blair, Schroder, Mitterand were in reality as far to the right as any Tory or Christian Democrat. In the face of economic collapse post 2008, they could only offer right-wing solutions.

Moreover, the trade union movement that had give birth to and thereafter sustained these parties for almost a century was as ideologically and organisationally bankrupt. There is no longer a viable middle way between socialism and capitalism.

The IWU recognises this fact and has decided to seek out new and more appropriate methods of organisation in order to meet the new challenge. Among other strategic options, the IWU is actively developing a policy of building community and/or social justice unionism. This concept is not new or devised by the IWU but it recognises the need to emphasise the struggle between classes and the need to promote the unity and solidarity of the working people.

Tommy summed up by saying that we are in a new era. There has been a fundamental change in social relationships in the west, and we must recognise this in our ideological analysis, in our policy decisions and in our organisations structures. The IWU may be small but we are confident in our analysis and in our strategy.

Then Alberto Durango gave a thorough and humorous account of his experience as a migrant worker from Colombia now living in London. Migrant workers often had more than one job to make ends meet. This sometimes meant that they could be in more than one union.

Alberto had started as a cleaner in a non-unionised office. First of all, his boss had resorted to Alberto for help, asking him to inform workers who did not speak English that they would have their hours cut and changed. Alberto brought the workers together and told them in Spanish  – “This fucking manager wants to… !” They began to organise, turning first to the T&G. The T&G (now UNITE) organised an official Justice for Cleaners campaign. There were some initial successes against large City of London and Canary Wharf companies. LAWA, which Alberto was very much involved in, was to the forefront of campaigning, and was provided with office space and money by UNITE.

However, there was a limit to how far the UNITE leadership was prepared to push. After organising some demonstrations, it contented itself with signing ‘no further action’ deals in return for minimum pay awards. The employers then started changing workers’ hours and conditions and pressured them over their immigration status. Alberto was sacked, arrested and had his home raided by the police.

UNITE’s leadership wasn’t prepared to challenge this. Therefore, workers had to organise their own independent Cleaners Defence Committee. This had led to an international campaign {including solidarity action in Edinburgh, following Alberto addressing the first Global Commune event}. The UNITE leadership, supported by the local Broad Left, then turned on the workers involved, smearing activists, refusing to back those without papers, and taking away LAWA’s facilities.

In order to organise, LAWA then turned to the IWW. A wider organisation was required to unite migrant workers from many countries. They needed an independent forum for organising, without being directly sabotaged by UNITE officials and the Broad Left. The new IWW cleaners’ branch provided this. However, some cleaners still worked within UNITE too, and had participated in the rank and file campaign to elect Jerry Hicks.

The last of the morning speakers was Mike Vallance. He explained how ACE, with its own premises, had been set up in the aftermath of the successful Anti-Poll Tax campaign. ACE became very much involved in claimants’ campaigns, providing a venue for meeting and socialising, organising support demonstrations and providing advocates to support people in their dealings with various state agencies. ACE also operated as a venue for a wider range of campaigns and various organisations, including the Anarchist Federation. It was also involved in the production and distribution of a number of bulletins and other publications, including the commune.

Currently ACE was involved in the Edinburgh refuse workers’ campaign which was challenging the City Council’s massive cut in pay and worsening of conditions. The Council’s attack was being made under the guise of bringing about ‘parity’ across their workforce. It had begun under the last administration led by the Labour Party, and was continuing under the present Lib Dem/SNP administration. The refuse cleaners’ union, UNITE, was in cahoots with the Council, and they had organised no effective backing, despite the campaign being official. Their main concern was to bring the current official work-to-rule to an end.

ACE had been involved in providing bulletins, posting support stickers, but most of all, in attempts through sit-down actions to blockade scab drivers employed by the Council to break the refuse workers’ work-to-rule. Workers fear that it is the Council’s intention to privatise the refuse collection service, and replace them with non-union workers on lower pay and worsened conditions. Yet, despite the almost total lack of official support, the workers had so far rejected any of the union-backed ‘offers’. In the light of this determination, ACE was hoping to draw others into its solidarity campaign.

This was followed by a short plenary session. Contributions ranged from one participant who said that social democracy had revealed its bankruptcy as far back as the First World War. Matthew Jones of the commune particularly welcomed Tommy’s appreciation that a new political trade unionism was needed after the now evident failure of social democracy and stalinism. In order to maximise participation, the meeting soon broke up into two workshops, with RCN and commune members acting as facilitators and recorders.

After lunch, Paul Stewart and Patricia Campbell of the IWU presented the case for a community or social justice unionism approach. Paul showed a DVD drawing on the experiences of the Kanagawa City Union in Japan. This union organised migrant workers, especially from Latin America. It addresses not only workplace issues, but the wider problems workers face in the community such as racially motivated and domestic violence, sexual harassment, health, welfare and visa problems. It also calls on members to participate regularly in protests outside offending companies. Paul was going to make this DVD more widely available.

Patricia followed this up with a power point presentation (until the technology failed!) of the current work of the IWU in attempting to broaden out union organisation into the communities. The IWU had conducted a participatory survey into the issues that local communities wanted to address. It also sought to address the problems faced by migrant workers. The IWU had already challenged the strong-arm tactics of the PSNI (the revamped RUC) in Armagh City. It had also campaigned on the streets, with red banners, against the DUP/Sinn Fein government’s proposals to limit marches. These would prevent workers from organising their own demonstrations. The IWU had helped to force the authorities to retreat.

The two follow up workshops discussed the possibilities of wider community organising. They also returned to the issue addressed in the morning of whether unions were fit for purpose.

There was a final report-back plenary session with further discussion. The initial platform speakers were provided with an opportunity to say what they thought had been learned and gained from the day. The majority of those in attendance over the day were activists. However, the need for wider forums for strategic debate and discussion, which did not necessarily lead to immediate calls for activity, was nonetheless appreciated.

There was a wide consensus that there was no single approach to organising workers in the complex and changing situation we faced. The long period of working class retreat probably disguised some of the new methods of resistance that were emerging in the face of the current capitalist offensive. It was also acknowledged that learning from wider international experience, especially that of the IWU, had been very useful. There had been differences over whether the situation we now face is altogether different from earlier experiences, and over the longstanding issue of whether ‘to party or not to party’. However, these differences were all aired in a very comradely manner.

A good day was followed by the now traditional Global Commune social session in Wetherspoon’s  ‘Foot of the Walk’, where members from all the organisations present through the day continued their discussions till much later!

Allan Armstrong. 10.2.11

 

2. TALK GIVEN TO THE INDEPENDENT WORKERS UNION CONFERENCE IN DUBLIN ON 4.4.09

Allan Armstrong was invited to speak for the SSP International Committee 

I would like to thank the IWU organisers very much for giving me the opportunity to speak for the Scottish Socialist Party’s International Committee.

The origins of the SSP lie in the Anti-Poll Tax Movement, which   rocked British politics between 1989 and 1991. However, it was to take a number of years before the various political groups involved had broken sufficiently with earlier practices and gained the confidence to create a new political organisation. In 1996 the Scottish Socialist Alliance was formed. And right from the start, political organisation was linked with working class struggles. SSA members threw themselves into the campaigns against water privatisation, the Glacier works occupation and Save Our Schools. By 1998, the SSA had become the Scottish Socialist Party, and Tommy Sheridan was elected to Holyrood the Scottish parliament. Keith Baldassara and Jim Bollan were elected SSP councillors in Glasgow Pollock and West Dunbartonshire. In 2006, the SSP gained 6 MSPs at the expense of both the SNP and Labour Party and formed part of a wider rainbow opposition,

And then of course came the Tommygate ‘car crash’. Tommy McKearney has pointed the finger at the underlying problem, in Fourthwrite. The attempt to build a party around a celebrity figure has a bad record in Britain, whether it be Derek Hatton in Liverpool in the 1980s, Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in the 1990s  and George Galloway’s Respect most recently. In the 2007 Holyrood election, the SSP experienced wipe out, although all the Left faced setbacks internationally after the failure to stop the Iraq War in 2003. The only SSP figure still in a publicly elected position is councillor Jim Bollan.

However, the SSP is pulling itself up again.  We remain profoundly Scottish internationalist. At our 2007 conference, we gave support to ‘No One Is Illegal’ so we can campaign to defend migrant rights. We reject ‘British Jobs for British Workers’. The struggle of the Turkish GAMA workers in Ireland, the Latin American Workers’ Association leading the London cleaners and Asian workers at Heathrow provide an inspiring example for us all. Showing our commitment to internationalism, the SSP is putting forward a candidate to the forthcoming 2009 Euro-election as part of the European Anti-Capitalist Left. We hope to bring over a French worker to speak to meetings as part of that campaign.

With regard to trade unions, there is spectrum of opinion within the SSP. On one hand there are those who advocate a Broad Left approach which seeks to replace existing Right-wing leaders with Left wing leaders. I, however, belong to those advocating a Rank & File approach, which is, in effect, industrial republicanism. This sees sovereignty lying not with general secretaries in union AGMs, hiding behind AGMs, which they circumvent just as the inner cabinet ignores House of Commons in the UK. And if the union officials don’t actually swear an oath of loyalty to the general secretary, their appointment and privileges ensures where their loyalty lies.

An industrial republican approach sees sovereignty lying with members in their workplaces. Any action we decide to take is not unofficial but independent action. Members can spread this action through both picketing and organising area, regional and national meetings. All union officers should be elected, recallable and on the average pay of the members they represent.

To some of us in the SSP, the IWU’s commitment to developing community unionism represents a twenty-first century update of the industrial unionism, which produced the great Wobbles in the USA and had such a profound effect on Larkin and Connolly’s and Irish Transport & General Worker Union. The wave of the future could well be community unionism which links workplaces with communities.

At a deeper political level, the SSP seeks the break-up of the UK state and its alliance with US imperialism. We want an end to the anti-democratic Crown Powers, which have seen death squads, juryless Diplock courts and detention in her majesty’s prisons in recent Irish history. They have also been used to prevent the people of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean returning to their homes, despite a high court ruling in their favour.  And back in 1975, The Australian Labour prime minister, Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the UK appointed governor general. And these Crown Powers have also been used to bring troops into industrial disputes.

The UK state is organised across the three-and-a-bit nations on these islands, and still exerts a great deal of economic and political pressure on the 26 counties too. This is not something that is being countered by the British TUC, Scottish TUC, Welsh TUC, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, or its Northern Ireland Committee. Indeed, the post-1997 ‘Devolution-all-round’ and Good Friday Agreement, which together cover all these islands, have not only reinforced social partnerships between union leaders, employers and the state, but have turned these leaders into significant backers of this political set-up, particularly in Northern Ireland. This represents a further political projection of union officials’ role in supporting social partnerships. These already reduce union officials to a cheap personnel service for the employers and government.

Socialists need to be able to challenge this on an all-islands ‘internationalism from below’ basis. Tommy (McKearney) came across and spoke to the SSP’s Republican Socialist Convention in Edinburgh on. The SSP also took its message to the well-attended Convention of the Left in Manchester in September 2008. I would like to thank the IWU again for inviting me to your conference today. I have learned a lot from the other speakers both form Ireland and further afield here today. The great Scottish internationalist, Hamish Henderson had a saying which I would like to finish on – ‘Freedom Come All Ye!’

 

_____________

also see:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2002/12/03/rank-and-file-or-broad-left/

 

 

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Mar 20 2009

Edinburgh People’s Festival: Inspirational and Educational

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 17RCN @ 4:53 pm

Colin Fox speaks to Allan Armstrong about the vision and mission of the Edinburgh People’s Festival

What made you revive the Edinburgh Peoples Festival after almost 50 years?

We didn’t start off with the intention of reviving the Edinburgh Peoples Festival (EPF). At Hamish Henderson’s funeral in 2002, a group of us, including Bill Scott, Karen Douglas and Craig Maclean, started to discuss Hamish’s achievements. This was the man after all who had formally accepted the Italian surrender in the Second World War, first translated Gramsci into English, was the driving influence behind the Scottish folk revival, wrote Freedom Come All Ye and the John Maclean March, a working class intellectual and the man who founded the Edinburgh People’s Festival in 1951.

Years before I had come across an essay Hamish had written on the significance of the Edinburgh People’s Festival in Andrew Croft’s book Weapons in the Struggle, and it was a real eye-opener for me.

So, a group of us decided to organise a one-off event to commemorate Hamish and his contribution to our struggle. We opted to have it at the Jack Kane Centre in Craigmillar for several reasons. One, Councillor Jack Kane had been the original Chairman of the EPF back in the 1950’s. Two, Craigmillar, on the city’s southern outskirts is Edinburgh’s poorest district and the Edinburgh Festival itself never went beyond EH1. We also had good community activists in the area we could rely on to publicise and promote the show. Things just escalated from there.

I guess looking back we recognised the importance of the original People’s Festival in acting as a foil or critique of the Edinburgh Festival itself. It has never really been designed for the majority of the city’s people. Ticket prices are now disgracefully high. Local indigenous performers will find it difficult to find a stage or platform and are shunted away for the month.

Where does most of the support for the EPF come from?

We found our original support in Craigmillar where we quickly got the backing of lots of local community groups, like the Craigmillar Artspace. We also learned quick lessons. We put on Bill Douglas’s film, My Ain Folk in the Newcraighall Miners’ Welfare without realising that, although people dearly loved Bill, they felt his depiction of their village rather dismal. Nonetheless the area is proud to have produced such talented people. At the last count we have presented shows in 20 different communities throughout the city and Midlothian.

Beyond local support, the EPF has received backing from the organised active Left. Tommy Shepard, who runs The Stand Comedy Club has been a fantastic help. Support has also come from local playwrights Cecilia Grainger and Barry Fowler, and from many key artistic community development groups in Wester Hailes and North Edinburgh.

Local trade union branches have been key to our financial success. It has been their support that has enabled us to take performances to the local communities and always keep tickets at affordable prices. [We usually charge £2 when the performances and events are not entirely free]. We are indebted to Unison healthworkers, posties, railworkers, teachers, firefighters, railway workers and civil servants unions. They have been very generous, partly, as I remind them, because they haven’t been giving out much strike pay over the last eight years!

As a socialist, why do you see it important to promote popular culture?

Art and culture can be thoroughly inspiring and educational. In Gramsci’s writings you can see the blueprint which led the Italian Communist Party to have one million members in the early 1970’s.

My partner, Zillah and I, attended a festival in France in the late ‘80s organised by the French Trotskyist party Lutte Ouvrier (LO). We were amazed to see 30,000 people there in the grounds of a chateau just outside Paris being entertained and enjoying themselves on an array of attractions. Festivals like these are still common on the left in France, Italy and Spain, bringing together tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. It became clear to me that much of the mass support for socialism on the continent, came not so much through public and party meetings, but because of the wider cultural activities of the Communist Parties and groups like the LO.

The French Communist Party’s L’Humanite by all accounts attracts hundreds of thousands of people.

In Britain we have had Miners’ Galas, May Days, and more recently the Tolpuddle Martyrs celebration. In the 1980’s, when I was in the Militant we used to organise huge political and cultural events in the Royal Albert Hall, Alexandra Palace and the Wembley Arena with 8000 people. They were brilliant. I have to admit that I enjoyed those performances with groups like the Who, Billy Bragg, Red Wedge, Paul Weller and Skint Video more than the Conferences. Truth be told, I probably still do!

In your opinion, what have been the highlights of the EPF so far?

There are very many that spring to mind. Perhaps the earliest is the EPF’s ‘discovery’ of David Sneddon, who we found busking on Chambers Street. We got him to perform at the Jack Kane Centre that first year with his group, The Martians and people were really bowled over by him. A few weeks later, I remember, Alan McCombes phoned me and told me to switch on the TV. His daughters had been at the Jack Kane Centre and were telling him that David Sneddon had just won the BBC’s first Fame Academy! The press were all over us for photographs of him at his first public performance, in Craigmillar.

We also had Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson. We cheekily phoned her up and asked if she would perform at our show Bart Comes to the Simpsons. All the kids in Edinburgh are born at the Simpsons Maternity! She was terrific about the whole thing and the show was just a fantastic success.

We also took the comedian, Mark Thomas, and Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six into Saughton Prison for a show. Originally, it had been agreed that STV would film the event but the governor pulled the plug. The show went on without the cameras and the guys inside thought it was brilliant. They were all over Paddy Hill at the end. We have been back ‘inside’ just about every year since.

We had a line up in 2003 for a cultural debate, or ‘flyting’, which looking back was quite unequalled anywhere in Edinburgh since.

Whose Culture is it anyway? starred Paul Gudgeon, then Director of the Fringe, the irrepressible Richard Demarco, Tommy Shepard, actor Tam Dean Burn, Joy Hendry the publisher, Kevin Williamson, the late Angus Calder and Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas. They were all going at it hell for leather with poor Sian Fiddimore from Wester Hailes desperately trying to keep it all in order.

Last year, we launched the first of what will become the Annual Hamish Henderson Memorial Talks. It was given by Hamish’s biographer, Timothy Neat. And that went very well, certainly one of our highlights – and I think our first sell out event!

The exhibition we mounted, in the Craigmillar Arts Space, telling the story of the Edinburgh People’s Festivals from 1951 is just excellent. It was subsequently shown last November at Wordpower’s Radical Book fair at the Out of the Blue Art Centre in Leith. It is currently on show at the Jack Kane Centre before it goes off on tour.

With trade union financial backing, we also organised a local Art Competition last year, with £1000 in prize money. This was a great success too and a foray into a new field for us.

Richard Demarco, one of the leading figures associated with the Edinburgh Fringe, has given the EPF considerable encouragement. Do you see this as a sign of wider recognition for the EPF?

Richard Demarco is the only person who has been to every Edinburgh Festival. He has been responsible for bringing over many artists to Edinburgh, including from Eastern Europe, when it was unfashionable to do so. Despite Demarco’s centrality to the Festival and the Fringe he has always been an outsider. He remains driven by a passion for the arts and his effervescence is infectious. He has given the EPF a helluva lot of encouragement. He made a typically passionate contribution to the debate we organised at Out of the Blue in August 2007, on the future of art in an independent Scotland. Elaine C. Smith also spoke in similar vein.

But the truth is the People’s Festival has been treated with complete disdain by the Edinburgh establishment and its media, including the local Evening News. Bourgeois commentators have turned their noses up at the popular culture we offer. Nevertheless, they have grudgingly been forced to recognise our innovative approach on a number of occasions.

The People’s Festival has begun to organise events outside the traditional Edinburgh Festival slot. Why did you decide to organise a celebration of the 90th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution for example?

People have often said that, even if with some exaggeration, that Edinburgh is a cultural desert outside the official Festival in August. The People’s Festival decided to ‘cash in’, if I dare utter the term, on the fact we are here the whole year round. And since we had grown considerably we felt that it was time to try and extend our activities beyond August.

The opportunity came then in 2007, with the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, an event I believe is the greatest of the twentieth century. Others in the People’s Festival saw the possibilities so I approached Trevor Griffiths, the scriptwriter for the film, Reds, and asked him to come up and celebrate the occasion with us. In the interview he did with me at the event in The Stand, Trevor explained that in fact he was the fifth person chosen by Warren Beattie to write the script. Beattie had bought the film rights to John Reed’s classic, Ten Days That Shook The World. Tommy Shepard offered us The Stand for the event on a night in October. The comedian, Paul Sneddon (aka Vladimir McTavish) and Alistair Hulett’s folk group, the Malkies, performed alongside the Oscar nominated Trevor Griffiths. It was quite a night!

We also worked with Edinburgh’s excellent Word Power bookshop to produce the pamphlet, What the Russian Revolution Means To Me. Word Power is are markable resource. Elaine Henry and Tarlochan Gupta-Aura do a great job in sustaining a radical bookshop, when most other left bookshops have disappeared.

The following January, the EPF took on the organisation of an alternative Burns Supper. For the previous decade, this responsibility had been successfully taken on by the SSA/SSP, but it was good to broaden it out. The radical and controversial Burns scholar, Patrick Scott Hogg, spoke, whilst comedian Bruce Morton performed. People even came from as far away as Dublin to attend that one – seeing it advertised on our website!

This January the EPF organised a very successful event to celebrate 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth. Tell us how the contributors were chosen and what else has been planned this year for this anniversary?

We wanted to offer an even better Burns event than that held the previous year. At first we hoped we could get the noted Marxist literary critic and writer Terry Eagleton to speak, but he could not make it. John McAllion stepped in and spoke tremendously well about the link between Burns’ art and his radical commitment in the 1790’s. The ever popular, Vladimir McTavish provided the comedy, whilst we had great musical sessions from the young black American jazz player, William Young, and from Edinburgh’s rising singer songwriter, David Ferrard.

We have also received money from the Lipman Milliband Foundation to produce a pamphlet later this year, What Robert Burns Means To Me.

You have a particular interest in the Scottish artist, Alexander Naysmith. What plans have you for the EPF to bring Naysmith to people’s attention?

Alexander Naysmith is known to everyone but they perhaps don’t realise it, he painted the most famous portrait of Burns. Like Burns, Naysmith was a radical and was blacklisted for his views. He began life as an apprentice coach painter in the Grassmarket before becoming a very successful portrait artist, possibly Scotland’s best, studying under Allan Ramsay, and working in Paris and Milan. But the big mystery about Naysmith is why he suddenly changed to landscape painting apparently at the height of his career. None of the art books will say why, but I know why and actually so do they. It was his politics. His wealthy patrons refused to give him any commissions because he made no secret of his radical republican views. He talked with great passion on the American and French Revolutions during the long portrait sittings. So, under advice from no less a figure than his close friend and ally Robert Burns he took up landscape painting instead. He rose to equal heights in this genre too.

Naysmith was a close friend and collaborator of Burns and out lived the poet by 40 years. He was one of us. And I want the People’s Festival to recognise one of Edinburgh’s people, to organise an exhibition, this August, in the Craigmillar Arts Space, with Naysmith’s portrait of Burns at its centre. We want to make Naysmith’s work and life more widely known. We display work by new artists inspired by him.

Angus Calder is another important writer, who has recently died, associated with Edinburgh. Are there any plans to organise an event celebrating Angus?

There was recently a memorial event for Angus, which I was unable to attend. Angus made many contributions to history and culture and was himself an award-winning poet. He was a member of the SSP and I got to know him quite well. He was a generous and strong supporter of the People’s Festival. I can still remember his contribution at The Flyting we organised in Wester Hailes in 2003. The idea was to revive the great Scottish tradition of cultural polemic, much associated with Hugh MacDiarmid and others, once again largely centred on this city.

The EPF would like to work with others to get more commemorative events organised. We don’t want to take responsibility for everything and I think that’s the best way forward with Angus’s work.

Recently Patrick Scott Hogg asked us if we could organise something to celebrate the great Scottish radical, Thomas Muir. The EPF thought it would be more appropriate that this was done in a West of Scotland setting.

One of Edinburgh’s most controversial figures has been James Connolly. Do you see the EPF trying to reclaim this great socialist republican for Edinburgh?

One of the members of our Committee is Jim Slaven who is well known in the city as organiser of the James Connolly Society. Jim played a key role, in the face of strong opposition, in trying to get Connolly’s legacy recognised in this city. Last August, we hoped to get Terry Eagleton up to speak. This may still happen.

However, in June, Jim was successful in getting the City of Edinburgh Council to organise a one-day event, to coincide with Connolly’s birthday. The event, Over the Water, had speakers from Ireland and Scotland. This June, the EPF hopes to organise a Connolly event in the evening, after the day’s official events. Connolly is very much one of our people and we feel he should be supported by all on the Left especially.

What else has the EPF got organised for this coming year.

We have worked with others, particularly on the Trades Council, in re-establishing May Day in this city. Last year we had Aida Avila from Colombia, Sean Milne, the radical journalist, and Pat Arrowsmith, veteran CND activist, amongst others, as speakers. This year we have Mark Lyons, convenor of the UNITE branch at Grangemouth Refinery, Hilary Wainright, editor of Red Pepper and Matt Wrack from the FBU joining us. We hope to give pride of place to Aleida Guevara, Che Guevara’s daugher, in celebrating 50 years of the Cuban Revolution.

We are also putting on a 20 years after the Poll Tax exhibition, which will concentrate on the role local people and communities played here in defeating this hated measure. The fightback started in Edinburgh, and included such veterans of the struggle as Sadie Rooney, one-time Labour councillor for Prestonfield – until she saw sense!

We also hope to bring a piece of theatre from London’s West End would you believe. The EPF’s producer Barry Fowler is going down to attend the London premiere of Maggie’s End written by Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood in the Shaw Theatre. The play is about the reaction of mining communities in the North East of England to the announcement of Thatcher’s death. Just the job, eh!

It would be great if we could put this on as our first full theatrical production. Even better, if our showing of Maggie’s End coincided with Thatcher’s actual demise!

What event would you like more than any other to put on the EPF?

Along with the photographer, Craig Maclean, I have often discussed the possibility of putting on some free ‘Outdoor Cinema’. Craig and Rob Hoon (from Out of the Blue) have already experimented with projecting huge images on prominent city landmarks. I certainly think the EPF should remain ‘dangerous and challenging’. I like the idea of guerrilla cinema as agitprop!

Edinburgh People’s Festival website

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