Lesley Riddoch, Blossom – what Scotland needs to flourish (Post Indyref Post EUref edition), 2018, Luath, £11.99, 1912147521
Reviewed by Stephen Smellie.
First published in 2013 amidst the independence referendum campaign, Blossom is a mixture of journalism and an optimistic vision that Scotland could be a much better place if the kind of efforts reported on could be encouraged and supported. It highlighted the achievements where local communities and people have ‘more control, more levers.’ And the examples are inspiring. Local people, organised and working co-operatively to identify and address local issues can achieve a great deal. Examples such as West Whitlawburn Housing Co-operative, the Isle of Eigg community buyout, or community health projects where professionals work with patients and not just treat them, work with and not just in communities, demonstrate this.
I declare an interest. As a community development worker for many years, I worked with many local activists committed to making things better for their local community. As a local government union activist, I know that the vast majority of council and other public sector workers and elected members actually live in the communities that they are employed to deliver services to. The rhetoric that local communities are oppressed by the petty bureaucrats ignores this fact and a vision that says localism is part of an answer must include both the people who live locally and those who work locally. It must also recognise that local volunteers need backing from supportive, enabling local authorities that can underwrite their efforts and ensure a fall back when the volunteers lack specialist knowledge, reach their limitations in time and numbers or when they want a rest.
An almost folksy belief that the little people and little communities can achieve much better results than big councils and governments is balanced in the book by arguments about state planning and strategic answers to the big issues that the little people and communities seek to respond to. So rather than a vision of a David Cameron style ‘Big Society’, Blossom’s manifesto was for a political class and state that understands the importance of increasing democratic involvement, local engagement and control alongside more radical planned strategic interventions to address access to land and the health and environmental crises that confront us. An excellent and inspiring read, its utopianism, of course, fitted better with the positivity of the ‘Yes’ campaign which envisioned a better fairer Scotland than the wholly negative ‘No’ campaign.
This is a new edition, post referendum, general election and Brexit vote, and new chapters reflect on the state of Scotland now. Riddoch asserts that voting and polling confirms that the constitutional future of Scotland has replaced class as the dividing line in Scottish society. The rise of Corbyn in the Labour Party has not changed that. However, the power that the land-owning aristocracy and the control of the economy that the largely non-Scottish owners of capital have mean that class, or who controls the wealth of Scotland, remains a fundamental issue. Whilst the Corbyn-inspired unionist Labour camp emphasise this point and the Davidson-led Tories are well aware of it, large sections of the ‘Yes’ movement do not seem to appreciate it at present.
The prospects for Brexit are not encouraging and Riddoch argues that Scotland’s future needs to include greater not less links and engagements with European neighbours, ideas and actions, as well as the greater democracy, localism and systemic change that she argues for in every preceding chapter. The question the book does not ask or answer, however, is: given the systemic and strategic changes needed to address the Scottish people’s issues and the challenge to the economic elite that this poses, can a movement be built to achieve this without an understanding of why class remains the dividing line within society?
Stephen Smellie is a senior UNISON lay official (Depute Convenor, UNISON Scotland, branch secretary UNION South Lanarkshire, national executive member) and serves on the Scottish Left Review editorial committee.