Analysing the pro-indy left. Photo: Getty
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Gerry Hassan is wrong – radical Scotland has left its ghetto

Hassan’s account of Scotland’s “new radicals” – the generation of activists who have emerged over the last two years, as a result of the referendum – is guilty of the very thing Hassan warns against: over-simplification.

Gerry Hassan has a piece in the Scottish Review this week – A Letter to Scotland’s New Radicals – which calls on the pro-independence left to abandon its “unrealistic” and “impossibilist” (whatever that means) approach to politics. Parts of the Scottish left, Hassan says, have a habit of trading on “a series of simplifications and inaccuracies”, including the belief that Scotland is inherently egalitarian, that the Yes campaign is fighting an anti-colonial battle against English oppression and that Britain is “broken, unreformable and undemocratic”. It’s difficult to know precisely who Hassan is talking about, because he doesn’t target any one group in particular. But he does make a few scattered references to the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), Common Weal, Lesley Riddoch’s Nordic Horizons and National Collective.

Some of Hassan’s criticisms are legitimate. For years, there has been huge complacency on the left about Scotland’s susceptibility to anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populism, and – clearly – Scottish society sits well outside the mainstream of European social democracy. But the rest of his critique falls hopelessly wide of the mark. For instance, these days, most people who subscribe to the idea that Scotland is an English colony live on the SNP’s ever-shrinking traditionalist fringes. Likewise, anyone who has read James Foley and Pete Ramand’s book, Yes: the Radical Case for Scottish Independence, would struggle to claim Scottish leftists “caricature” the British state. Foley and Ramand (two of RIC’s c0-founders) acknowledge Britain’s capacity to change and adapt, but argue that centrally-guided constitutional reform represents a kind of decline management. They have a point: does anyone really believe Gordon Brown would be talking so enthusiastically about federalism if it wasn’t for the independence referendum?

Hassan’s claim that the left presents neo-liberalism as a sequence of “external”, Westminster-imposed reforms at odds with Scotland’s “organic” centre-left consensus is equally unconvincing. I’ve heard RIC activists say repeatedly that, on its own, shifting Scotland’s constitutional goalposts will achieve little. In fact, there is widespread acceptance on the left that a determined, post-Yes effort will be needed to ensure constitutional change lays the groundwork for subsequent social and economic change, however modest. That is why RIC and other groups have spent months building support for independence in working class areas, and it’s why they are now exploring the idea of setting up a new left party after September.

But the most frustrating feature of Hassan’s analysis is its insistence that the left is oblivious to or naïve about the “myths” that shroud Scottish politics. “Scotland’s new radicals have to realise that the myths of our country have reinforced a faux social democracy and progressive politics of our elites and professional classes”, Hassan writes. “For too long, left-wingers and radicals have happily validated the limited politics, democracy and supposedly enlightened authority which have defined public life.” This is just demonstrably untrue. From the nationalist left of the 1970s, which had a sophisticated understanding of the limits of British social democracy (as well as of its own shortcomings), through to Radical Scotland in Eighties and RIC today, Scottish socialists have consistently positioned themselves at an angle to the political mainstream, challenging the centrist polices of the dominant parties, including Labour and the SNP. In so far as they have promoted the myth of Scottish social democracy, it has been for strategic reasons, to protect what remains in Scotland of the post-war settlement from the liberalising influence of successive Westminster and Holyrood administrations. (Incidentally, it’s not at all clear whether Hassan thinks the post war settlement is actually worth preserving, but that’s a different issue.)

So Hassan’s account of Scotland’s “new radicals” – the generation of activists who have emerged over the last two years, as a result of the referendum – is guilty of the very thing Hassan warns against: over-simplification. Of course political change is “complex”. No one is seriously suggesting it isn’t. Of course the left needs to challenge the “narrow bandwidth” of Scottish politics. That’s precisely what RIC, Robin McAlpine and the “Nordicists” are doing and have been doing for the last few years. There is nothing “comfy” or “couthy” about McAlpine’s (difficult and often unsuccessful) efforts to persuade people at the top of Yes Scotland and the SNP to adopt bolder policies, nor the way RIC has been organising in Scotland’s poorest neighbourhoods. The danger here is that, soon or later, Hassan’s narrative, if repeated often enough, will create a myth of its own – the myth of Scotland as a reactionary backwater, without the slightest bit of progressive or socialist potential. I can’t see how Scotland could thrive in that sort of political climate, let alone the Scottish left.

Photo: Will Ireland
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Rock solid-arity: how fans and bands helped save Team Rock's music magazines

“It was purely helping out friends in a time of need.”

A little over 25 years ago, a journalist friend let me in on the secret of publishing success. He cut his teeth in the Sixties as an editor in the Yippie underground press, wrote for Rolling Stone, Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times, then went on to teach at one of America’s most prestigious journalism schools.

The big secret, he had concluded, was community. No more, no less. Get to know your community and serve it well.

A quarter of a century on, it’s sometimes hard to remember what community looks like in newspapers and magazines. Carefully crafted pages have been obscured by a haze of clickbait, engineered to sucker everyone and anyone into donating a drive-by page view for ads. Community has given way to commodity.

But occasionally, there are glimpses of hope. Six months ago, TeamRock.com, built around a group of specialist music magazines including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog, went into administration.

The Christmas closure came brutally quickly. The Scottish Sun reported that stunned staff in the company’s Lanarkshire headquarters were told they had been made redundant “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices”. In total, 73 staff were laid off; nearly 30 in Scotland and more than 40 in London.

At the close of 2016, the future for the Team Rock brand and its stable of magazine titles was bleaker than a Black Sabbath album. But last month, in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, TeamRock.com was named the most influential rock music website in the world.

Bargain-basement buy back

Just a fortnight after its shock closure, the brand was bought by former owners Future Plc. In a no-brainer deal, the Bath-based publisher re-acquired the three magazines it had sold to Team Rock’s founders in 2013. It bought back assets sold for £10m at the knockdown price of £800,000 with the bonus of TeamRock.com and Team Rock Radio. The deal rescued large parts of the Team Rock operation – but its soul was saved by the rock and metal community.

Oblivious to any discussions going on to rescue the magazines, readers, music fans and bands came together in a stunning display of loyalty. Hearing that Team Rock staff wouldn’t be getting paid their Christmas wage they took to social media to pledge their support and raised almost £90,000 for redundant staff.

Ben Ward, the organiser of the crowdfunding campaign and frontman for heavy metal band Orange Goblin said he started the appeal with no thought for the business. “It was purely helping out friends in a time of need,” he explained.

He had read all three Team Rock magazines for years, socialised with their staff and promoted his own and other bands in their pages. “To think of a world without any of those magazines – it was devastating,” he said.

The response to the campaign brought him some cheer, with members of bands such as Queen, Rush and Avenged Sevenfold all posting about it on their social media pages. He added: “The whole Christmas period, my phone just wouldn't stop beeping with notifications for another donation.”

Show of solidarity

Though the fundraiser blew up all Ward's expectations, beating his initial target by more than 400 per cent, he didn't seem completely surprised by the scale of the response.

“Heavy metal and hard rock, people that are into that sort of music, we've always been sort of looked down upon. We know it's not commercially the done thing, we know it's not the norm to walk around with long hair and tattoos and dirty leather jackets. But when you see a fellow metal head in the supermarket, you always give them an approving nod. There's a kind of solidarity.”

While favourable capitalist arithmetic has kept the presses rolling – and the online servers going – for Team Rock, it was the music community – empowered by social media – who delivered the real resurrection. With a combined Facebook following of more than 3.5million and a total social media audience of almost five million, it was no surprise TeamRock.com was soon number one in its field.

“What's brilliant about this is that it's based on what music fans share with each other,” explains editor-in-chief Scott Rowley.

TeamRock.com became the most influential rock site based on social media sharing, and came fifth in the top 100 sites across all music genres. The site above it is a hip-hop title, again featured for the strength of its community, according to Rowley. “Those people really know what they're talking about, they want very specific content, and they're not getting served it elsewhere,” he said. “When they get it, they love it and they share it and talk about it and that's their world.”

Responsiblity

Following the outpouring of support for the rock magazines, Rowley now feels a heightened sense of responsibility to do “the right thing” and steer clear of cynical decisions to get clicks or put certain bands on the cover just to sell copies. He believes future success will come down to trust. “Sometimes that feels precarious, but equally I think we're in good hands,” he explains. “We're a business, we've got to make money, but we know what smells fake and where the limits are.”

Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of owner Future, recognises the need to balance the realities of running a listed company with the authenticity needed to maintain trust. “What Future is interested in is the passion that underpins specialist media,” she says. “I don't really mind what your passion is, what's important is that it's a passion.”

“No one is sitting around thinking, 'I wonder what bands sound like Thin Lizzy?',” says Rowley. “We're much more a part of their lifestyle, interrupting their day to tell them someone’s just released an album or announced a tour.”

“But it doesn't have to always be about fishing for clicks,” he adds. “I remember [Classic Rock online editor] Fraser Lewry saying, 'Sometimes on social we should just be being social'.”

Being social. Listening. Contributing to the conversation. Sharing the passion. That old-fashioned notion of serving the community. It seems Ward would agree, as he offers the new owners of the magazines he helped to save some advice: “Don't make the same mistakes, investing in things that weren't really necessary from the magazine’s point of view. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to run their business, but on behalf of the rock and metal community…keep it interesting, keep it relevant.”