On the 4 January the Fabian Society, one of Britian’s oldest Socialist Societies, celebrated 128th birthday. In that time the Society has played a highly influential and important role in left politics. From its earliest days it has been at the heart of the Labour Party. There at the Party founding conference in 1900 and since then helping to shape the debate while resolutely standing up for democracy and arguing for social justice. One of the founding principles of the Society to ‘help in the reconstruction of society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities’ is still the driving force of the democratic left politics.
The Fabian Society has always been at its most comfortable at the sharp edge of the political divide. And in the process some of the finest political thinkers have grappled with the problems of their time and have challenged the forces of reaction, privilege and plain nonsense.
Historically one thinks of Shaw, the Webb’s, HG Wells, Annie Besant, Rupert Brook, Emmeline Pankhurst and even Oscar Wilde, at the height of his powers, sharpened his polemical skills at Fabian meetings. In the modern era there are Tawney, the Coles, Attlee, Crosland, JP Mackintosh, Bernard Crick, Giles Radice, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander and a host of others who have been involved with the Fabian Society in one capacity or another. Collectively it all adds up to a substantial and serious contribution to radical thought based on a simple determination to make life more tolerable and fair.
Jo Grimond, a formidable onetime Leader of the Liberals and a Scottish member of Parliament, gave some wise words of advice to any Party Leader in opposition. In a conference speech Grimond said that in bygone days, commanders were taught that when in doubt, they should march their troops towards the sound of gunfire. Its great line and a sound strategy, especially for any Party hoping to regain the initiative after a losing campaign.
Being where the action is has been a watchword of the Fabian Society in its long history. Armed with nothing but facts, arguments and evidence the Fabians have sought to bring about the good society often with stunning success.
If there has been a flaw in Fabian approach it has been a tendency to believe that the centre of the political universe lies in London. The rationale is probably sound enough when the raison d’être of the organisation is to influence movers and shakers. But times change and centers of power are not necessarily fixed in one place for all time. Devolution is a fact and is here to stay. And revisionists must be prepared to revise when circumstances change.
There is another great conference speech and it was made by Tony Blair in response to the attack on the Twin Towers. In an image of extraordinary power he said that ‘the kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle. Before they do let us re-order the world around us’.
While in no way comparable to that dreadful atrocity the metaphor also works well for events last May in Scotland. As far as these islands are concerned the kaleidoscope was indeed shaken by the fallout following the defeat of Scottish Labour and the success of the SNP and Alex Salmond. The consequences of that success continue on a daily basis and so far the Nationalists are making most of the running. Whether it will all end in tears or triumph depends on the political, organisational and ideological battle which the democratic left must take to the SNP and the Nationalist cause.
There is a role for the Fabian Society here. The tried, tested Fabian methods of reason, analysis, debate, seminars, conferences, publication and persuasion could be invaluable in countering the regressive dead end street on offer to Scotland by the Nationalists.
The good news is that the Fabian Society gets the message and is determined to play its part in Scotland in whatever way it can.
No-one knows how long Noel Foy worked as an organiser for the Scottish Labour Party, but rumours abound that his relationship with Keir Hardie was not good. He’s now retired, lives in Haddington and is still fighting the good fight.