Radical Britain

I understand the despair with conservative Britain that has been driving the movement for independence.

The conservatism that limits the capacity of the British state to serve as a channel for the reform that people say they want. The desire to concentrate political power at Westminster that frustrates the development of a truly participative democracy; the nostalgia for Empire that commits Britain to an expensive military and the ambition to cede from the European Union; the accumulation of economic power to the City of London that locks Britain into a chronic austerity that works for the few and not the many.

I understand the desire to break away from all that, and create a space for the pursuit of a new politics that respects the best of the Scottish radical tradition: the Declaration of Abroath, the Enlightenment, the commitment to the ‘democratic intellect’, the long-held wish to redesign Scotland as a modern European social democracy.

But conservatism is only part of the truth about Britain. Yes, there is an ancient tradition of British pragmatism attached to continuity, empiricism, caution, the land, venerable institutions, Kings and Queens, the army and the navy. That tradition has good and bad parts.

But British conservatism only exists because of its shadow, British radicalism, a radicalism that runs throughout British history, and that has inspired the progressive thought and political institutions that so many admire and wish to emulate here.

It is the Britain of the 1st century tribes of the Catuvellauni and the Iceni led by Caractacus and Boudicca, which resisted the invasion of Britain by the Romans.

It is the Britain of the Magna Carta, signed at Runnymede by King John in 1215, that held the monarch accountable to his subjects and established the principle of constitutional law.

It is the Britain of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, inspired by the egalitarian vision of the preacher John Ball, an early English theology of liberation: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?’

It is the Britain of the True Levellers, a group of Protestant agrarian socialists formed in 1649 by Gerrard Winstanley, also known the Diggers, who demanded the right to farm on common land.

It is the Britain of the English republican John Milton, author of Paradise Lost.

It is the Britain of John Locke, whose theory of rights inspired the ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence.

It is the Britain of Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, catalysts for both the French and American Revolutions.

It is the Britain of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman argued that women be granted the same fundamental rights as men.

It is the Britain of Percy Shelley, sent down from Oxford for his essay The Necessity of Atheism, and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

It is the Britain of the visionary William Blake, who imagined a land of radical freedom cleansed of dark satanic mills.

It is the Britain of the 1832 and 1867 Reform Acts which extended the right to vote to working men, and of the Suffragettes who ensured it was granted to women.

It is the Britain of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who stood for the pay and working conditions of agricultural labourers.

it is the Britain of the Chartists, who drew up the People’s Charter of 1838 arguing for decent working conditions for the workers whose labour powered the industrial revolution.

It is the Britain of John Ruskin and William Morris, who defended beauty, the environment and the dignity of work against industrial depredation.

It is the Britain of the Christian Socialists, who lived out the Gospel in the slums.

It is the Britain of the labour movement which founded the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party.

It is the Britain of David Lloyd George’s 1909 People’s Budget which established the principle of redistribution through taxation.

It is the Britain of the BBC, the world’s first national broadcasting organisation.

It is the Britain of the 1942 report on Social Insurance and Allied Services authored by William Beveridge, which worked out the foundations of a system of social security to remove the evils of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease.

It is the Britain of the Labour Government of 1945 which built the welfare state and the National Health Service.

It is the Britain of the 1960s governments that legalised homosexuality and abortion, reformed the divorce laws, abolished theatre censorship and capital punishment, and passed race relations and racial discrimination legislation.

It is the Britain of Benjamin Britten, The Beatles, Vaughan Williams, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Kate Bush, Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Ades and Radiohead.

It is the Britain of the 1990 Poll Tax riots.

It is the Britain of the 1998 National Minimum Wage Act.

It its the Britain that established the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

So there are two Britains, in tension with each other. We have heard all about conservative Britain. But I hope we have not given up belief in the other, radical Britain, and the hope that it still has the power to transform the whole of the UK, not just Scotland.