Last week was the saddest of weeks for me, and the saddest of times in the Scottish Review's history. Kenneth Roy, our editor, is terminally ill. But entirely in keeping with his character, he left with a beautifully written valedictory piece that left me crying and smiling simultaneously.
As Kenneth is still with us, a eulogy is not appropriate, but he has had a huge impact on my life. He is my friend, editor and mentor, who has encouraged me over the years to be brave. I still feel delighted when he texts me to tell me how much he enjoys what I write. In fact, he is a man of a certain era, the likes of which we are less and less likely to see again.
Men and particularly masculinity – a term prefaced by 'toxic' more often than not – is taking a pounding these days. Although, given the Kavanaugh case in the US, not pounded enough. There are men who, without fanfare or twitter accounts, quietly support women in the strongest possible manner. Kenneth is one of them – his immediate promotion of Islay McLeod to the editorship of the Scottish Review, his attempts to engage as many female writers as possible, his extreme dislike of sexism and misogyny, his gentlemanly politeness and kindness, are just a few examples of this.
Gavin Stamp shared these characteristics, which I was thinking about last Friday in the inaugural lecture in his name, delivered by the impressive Owen Hatherley in Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's magnificent church in St Vincent Street. Both extraordinary men, both feminists, but would never call themselves such. They just are.
Following his 'unwelcome diagnosis' last week, Kenneth wrote that the 'world of events, so preoccupying for the last 60 years…had slipped away, and would never return.' I recognised that shift all too well when I too had an 'unwelcome diagnosis' (luckily for me, the traffic lights are at amber) and said to a journalist friend that there is a lesson in here, somewhere.
How to live your life more profoundly, more satisfyingly, seeing the beauty in the simplest of things, without having to be dying to see just how precious life really is. It's a strange feeling, because you suddenly inhabit a different world, a world of events that don't engage you, a world you no longer feel fully part of. To withdraw from it, though, is a revelation and extremely peaceful. But there are millions who suffer through wars, natural disasters and poverty where it is bloody difficult, I'd imagine, to see the beauty of this short existence.
Kenneth mentions the Stoics, Seneca and Aurelius, who even back then grappled with this problem. How can you disengage, search for beauty, peace and meaning, and live a good life, with so much suffering darkening too much of this planet? I don't know. Music is often a solace and lifts us from the immediate play of events. I was ready to go on Saturday night to the concert hall for Mahler's Fifth, one of my favourite symphonies, but I turned back. I knew that I would do that thing, in public, of uncontrollable physical shuddering as you try to stem the tears of grief.
Frances O'Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, delivered the sixth annual Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture in the magnificent Glasgow city chambers the week before last. It was an excellent, inspiring and passionate speech, but also, I'm pleased to say, sensible. She talked of Jimmy's cause – human dignity – standing up for people facing every day humiliations and petty tyrannies borne of an economy rigged for corporate wealth. For Jimmy, class struggle wasn't just a matter for theoretical debate, it was about how we live our lives. Fighting for our rights, yes, but also encouraging each other, looking after each other. Friendship, love and compassion are the foundations of genuine solidarity.
Although she drew on Jimmy's spirit and insights, her speech was not an exercise in nostalgia. We have a new generation of workers who need unions to solve the problems of today, not yesterday, including the brave strikers at McDonalds and TGI Fridays, and those leading the brilliant 'Better than Zero' campaign here in Scotland.
Today, corporate wealth lists are dominated by tech giants like Amazon and Apple. They are multinational companies that respect no borders and salute no flags, combining corporate, social and digital power on an unprecedented scale, heralding a period of major disruption. In a nice update of Jimmy's famous 'we are not rats' speech, Frances asserts that 'we are not robots.' We refuse to be slaves to an app, like Uber drivers, Deliveroo riders, or Amazon's mechanical turks. These workers are not just alienated, but atomised. The great challenge for the TUC in modern times is to organise this new working class, and the future of work.
Frances spoke of a capitalism which is more global, more mobile, and more ruthless than ever before. Data is the new oil. As adept at sidestepping labour standards as they are at avoiding tax, they are uprooting the lives of millions of workers, reducing employment to a digital platform, replacing jobs with gigs. And in the process, stripping out even our most basic rights. But we can choose to do things differently and forge a fair transition from the old world to the new. That's why the TUC has argued for a commission on future of work, bringing governments, employers and unions to the table, to plan a fair transition. Scotland could lead the way, looking at how to invest in and deploy the new technologies, so we upgrade firms and skills.
Finally, she addressed the 21st-century spreading of sickness, anxiety, stress and low self-esteem. No doubt the causes are complex. Job intensity, impossible workloads, and the lack of any sense of a voice, or control over our working lives are all taking their toll. As Jimmy rightly identified, alienation remains one of our biggest challenges. As the UCS work-in showed, we can achieve great things together: a new class politics and a new shared identity. As Jimmy argued, if we agree to prioritise the common good, instead of enslavement, tech could be a force for liberation.
We need a new socialist politics, strong enough to reverse the obscene shift of wealth and power into ever fewer hands, which means a bigger, stronger trade union movement and, for the 21st century, a new humane socialism. Hear, hear to that, Frances O'Grady. You did Jimmy proud.