Chris Bambery remembers a giant of the Scottish left
The loss of Neil Davidson means the loss of a powerful intellectual force on the Scottish and the global left. But Neil was also an activist. When I first knew him he was active in the civil service union, later as an academic in the University and College Union. But that activity extended over many fields, rather like his writings.
Neil hailed from Aberdeen. I remember him telling me when the Anti-Nazi League was launched in the city in the late 1970s he was delegated to secure the support of Bob Cooney. Cooney had been commissar in the British Battalion of the International Brigades during some of the fiercest battles of the Spanish Civil War. Before that in Aberdeen he led the fight against the British Union of Fascists (Aberdeen was one of the few places in Scotland that the Mosleyites had significant support), serving time in jail after a fierce battle in the city centre and emerging to lead the city’s contingent on the hunger march to London.
A nervous young Neil knocked on Cooney’s door, well aware the old man was a staunch Stalinist. He was shown in and shared a can of lager with Cooney who happily agreed to endorse the launch meeting of the ANL.
Neil was proud of his working class roots in Aberdeen and the North East. I remember him telling me of his family connections to the Mearns, the rural area where Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song” is set. From Aberdeen he would move first to Edinburgh and then West Lothian.
For most of his adult life he was an activist in the Socialist Workers Party until that organisation splintered nearly a decade ago. On his death he was a member of RS21 in Scotland.
While in the SWP in the 1990s and 2000s I came to value Neil because he grasped that something fundamental had changed in Scotland. In reaction to Thatcher and Tory rule, which had no electoral mandate in Scotland, the country was moving to detach itself from the United Kingdom; first through obtaining a devolved Scottish Parliament and then through growing support for independence.
What Neil did, something deep within the Marxist tradition, was to analyse the roots of capitalism in the country and state where he was engaged. Two books, Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746, and The Origins of Scottish Nationhood, mapped out why Scotland’s change from feudalism to capitalism was very different from England’s.
The English Revolution of the 1640s was not replicated in Scotland because the country remained solidly feudal with no equivalent of the capitalist farmers, artisans and apprentices of London. Although both countries had been under the same monarch since 1603 they were ruled separately with separate parliaments, laws and religion (Scotland was Presbyterian, England Anglican).
Cromwell’s Republic did create (briefly) a unified British state, but the restoration of Charles II ended that. The ousting of the Stewarts during the Glorious Revolution did not end feudalism in Scotland, which also remained militarised with the lords holding their own courts and raising their followers for war and raiding. That allowed the Stuarts to recruit a military force for the Jacobite rebellions of 1715, 1719 and 1745. The last was crushed viciously at Culloden by the one pan-British state force, the army.
Feudalism was abolished by a series of laws. Scotland then went through a much more rapid process of capitalist development. In England that had extended over centuries of enclosure. In Scotland it was much more compressed and also impacted intellectually with the Scottish enlightenment.
It often felt Neil and myself were the only ones on the planet who lauded the great Scottish novels of Sir Walter Scott because of his awareness of how much Scotland had changed in such a short time.
Why was this important? Scotland was not an oppressed nation. As part of the UK post-Culloden, Scots were in the vanguard of building and exploiting the Empire, through the East India Company in particular. Scots were also in the vanguard of the destruction of the Gaelic society of Highland Scotland through the mass eviction of peasant farmers and their replacement by sheep and then deer. But it also remained semi-detached, with its own legal and education system and a separate Church.
The rapid industrialisation of Lowland Scotland also created a radical working class, for most time part of a British working class, but also capable of going its own way.
Until Neil wrote those books the tendency among Marxists writing about Scotland was to try and fit it into the English revolution. What Neil did was demonstrate that Scotland’s bourgeois revolution came from above, through the vehicle of the British army.
During the 1990s and 2000s Neil was an excellent ally in realising that revolutionaries in Scotland could no longer rely on directions from London.
That, of course, was not entirely popular in the SWP, even in Scotland. Yet former members were able to play a decisive role during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum by launching the Radical Independence Campaign in which Neil was a force.
I am well aware that Neil contributed much more than what I have described. It would be difficult to list the totality of his achievements in a short space.
Recently, Neil and myself in conversation had grasped that the break with the SWP also meant many of its ex-members had retreated from the ideological fight and that had to be rectified. His death is a major blow to achieving that.
Whenever I was in Edinburgh, I always enjoyed meeting with Neil and his comrades for a pint or two of real ale. I shall miss that and miss Neil.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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- The violence of the Spanish state
- VE Day: a struggle for the future
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win
- Scotland: it's time to break from a broken UK