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Voices of Scotland: Back to a liberal future or forward to progress with Labour?

'Centrism' not only ignores but erases the history of injustice and class struggle that surrounds us, writes THOMAS LEWIS RUSSO

EVER since Jeremy Corbyn was first elected as leader of the Labour Party, so-called “centrist” columnists and politicians in Scotland and across Britain have sneered at the very idea of an avowed socialist holding that position.

In 2018, a columnist in The Herald denounced Labour as the “fruitcake opposition” without any apparent need to justify this. Jo Swinson, the new Liberal Democrat leader, recently deployed the term “socialist” against Jeremy Corbyn as an insult and declared that the left-right divide is no longer relevant.

There is a persistent reflex from the centrist tendency to deny the legitimacy of the very expression of socialist thought. History, from this perfunctory glance, is an “Eraflix” platform with passing fads through the ages. The old tales of struggle and socialism are so passe when the Lib Dems have a flashy new drama to sell.

Even a passing acquaintance with the real world shows that history, on the contrary, is embedded in the social landscape which is the constant backdrop to our lives. The legacy of that history is continuing struggle and the continually renewed relevance of socialist ideas to support us through this.

The town of Bo’ness in east central Scotland is a classic example of this. The timelines of history converge on the town, leaving behind evidence of how we reached the present. The central point of this temporal vortex is the Kinneil Estate in the town.

The route of the Antonine Wall runs right through the estate. This northern border wall of the Roman empire was made up mainly of soil held in place by turf so the wall has long since returned to the earth from which it came. What’s left of a global empire built on conquest and held together by force is trampled underfoot.

Nearby a section of the old wall stands the grand Kinneil House. The Kinneil Estate was granted to Sir Walter Fitz Gilbert as a reward for switching sides to Robert the Bruce. The bold Walter was great at social climbing, a skill that was passed down to his descendants who became the dukes of Hamilton, a title harking back to their ancestral plot down south.

The family built a small tower house on the estate in the 15th century. The building was improved on by subsequent generations until it reached palatial proportions in the 17th century. Behind the stately pile lay the humble village of Kinneil. All that remains of the village now is a gable end of its 12th-century church. The Hamiltons were profiting from developing the nearby Bo’ness from a once sparsely inhabited area to a major harbour town.

Much of the population of the village had already been pushed to move to Bo’ness for work but the road to what was left of the village was a frightful impediment to the landscaping of the grounds in front of the house.

In the latter half of the 17th century, the Hamiltons enlisted Parliament to put an end to the parish of Kinneil and incorporate it into a new united Bo’ness parish. By 1691, the village was formally at an end. The road to Kinneil was closed and the Hamiltons could landscape to their hearts’ content. And they also had the old church as their private chapel.

The Hamiltons eventually repaired to even plusher premises in Lanarkshire, letting out the estate to rich industrialists. Some distance north of the estate today lies the site of the old Kinneil coal mine. In 1858, workers from the pit formed their own brass band, using their own savings. Miners emerged from the hard slog of underground toil to don elegant uniforms and play beautiful music.

In 1894, the Kinneil Band led a march of striking miners. The mine owners were affronted at the gall of those miners and banned them from practising in a hall belonging to the owners. The miners shook the coal dust from their feet and built their own hall.

More than a century earlier, James Watt came to Bo’ness to work on improving the steam engines used to pump water from the mines in the town. One mine was known as “The Schoolyard Pit,” for obvious reasons. The pupils used to complain about steam coming in through the school windows.

Real life history like this can be found across Scotland and the rest of Britain. This history demonstrates that the most significant factor influencing the nature of society is the question of who holds the major share of wealth and power, a question that is still highly relevant.

Bo’ness today, like many areas up and down Britain, has a busy foodbank serving people on inadequate benefits and those in paid work but on unfair contracts with low pay and limited employment rights.

Centrists like the Liberal Democrats are culturally incapable of grasping the fact that there are poor people because there is a division between those with the majority of wealth and power and those without it. Those without include not just people in crisis now but the mass of people who depend on a salary or whose seemingly reasonable income would be wiped out if they had to pay for health services.

The heirs of the old Liberals, whose mine-owning financiers suppressed any radicalism in the party, cannot perceive this divide. They are prepared to tinker with late and modest offerings to the workers after colluding with the Conservatives in coalition to impose the extremism of austerity.

Labour’s programme of making wealthy individuals and corporations pay a greater share of tax, giving all workers the right to a £10 an hour minimum wage now, giving workers improved rights and a share of the wealth of their companies, public ownership and investment in public services and infrastructure is about giving all of us a share of wealth and power.

Such a programme is not worthy of a centrist scream of horror but, rather, three cheers from the people and a celebratory blast from a brass band.

Thomas Lewis Russo is a public-sector worker who has assisted community projects across the Central Belt of Scotland.

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