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20 December 2012

We need a new
society. Yours
is done

Ian Hamilton

Jimmy Reid. Drawing by Bob Smith

The rat race is for rats and we're not rats

These words by Jimmy Reid should be engraved on the walls of our parliament. They should be engraved on the walls of every parliament. They are the words of hope.

I come from the generation of hope. Seventy years ago on 1 December 1942 Sir William Beveridge brought out his report on social security. It was accepted by all parties. It led to the welfare state. One of our aims was full employment in a free society. My generation, now approaching our nineties, believed in the welfare state. We believed in full employment in a free society. We still believe in them. Yet look at us now.

I charge you, the generations which have followed, with betraying our lost dream of a successful society. We nearly made the dream real. We wanted to see a society where success was judged by how we served one another. You have lost that ideal. You measure success by wealth; you measure achievement by the social position it gives you. You don't measure it by the happiness of those around you.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote 'Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness' it wasn't the petty life you now pursue he had in mind. He wasn't worried about your new car. He had surely read Francis Hutcheson and Adam Ferguson of the Scottish Enlightenment. Their writings offer guidance, other than God's guidance, in the affairs of humankind. Taken in this context, Jefferson's great words are a guide for government, not an urge towards greed. It was happiness he urged his new state to pursue, not wealth.

We believed in these ideals in wartime. Many of my generation died for them. I had hoped to see them more fully developed in a new Scotland. Now as I approach the end of my days I see that I live among people who have turned our ideals into a guide on how to get rich, on 'how to get on'.

In your greed you have brought destruction on your own possessions. You have fulfilled the famous prophecy that capitalism has within it the seeds of its own destruction. I assert that in doing this you have done a disservice only to western society where greed is at its greatest. We need a new society. Yours is done. You have become obsessed by such conceptions as GNP, by the creation of wealth and not by its distribution. Your vision grows narrow. Now you look at the future, searching for more wealth through the wrong end of a telescope.

Since 1945, we have found new ways of food production so that no child anywhere need go hungry. But there is one thing we haven't tried to find. We haven't tried to find how to distribute the wealth we're capable of creating. Think of the poorest of the poor. You don't have to look far. Daily they hold out their begging bowls to the riches of the west, unconscious that no life lives for ever and that our society is imploding in on us. Our false belief that things bring happiness, that shopping is a therapy, have a price that all must pay.

In case you doubt me I want you to think of a ship that sails all round the world. Unlike the Flying Dutchman it is a real ship, but like the Flying Dutchman it can find no port of permanent rest. It is called The World. On The World the very rich own a stateroom or a suite. Do not ask what it will cost. The cost is your humanity. The richest people in the world sail on that ship. They have done nothing to be rich yet at a guess they own 90% of the world's wealth. Maybe they own it all. Nobody knows because they won't tell. That's why they're aboard. They're so wealthy that any taxes they paid would lift an African state from poverty and give hope to our whole species. But they don't pay any taxes. That's the idea of the cruise ship, The World. It doesn't stay in any one port long enough to allow for a domicile of taxation to be created. Pray for them, if you have prayers. Pity them if you haven't. They have lost their nationality, their homes, their neighbours, their identity and only kept their wealth.

And still the rat race goes on. I don't think national pride is a bad thing. I'm proud that I can draw on people like Francis Hutcheson, professor of moral philosophy in my own University of Glasgow, who died in 1746 and on Adam Ferguson, professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, whose 'Essay on the History of Civil Society', published in 1767, must have been in Jefferson's mind when he wrote his great words. The mind has no frontiers. To these names add William Beveridge and his report of 1 December 1942. Thomas Jefferson would have loved it.

The words of the humble shipyard worker are just as great:

The rat race is for rats and we're not rats

Jimmy and I were friends but I didn't go to his funeral. Neither would Jimmy if he had known who would be there.

Ian Hamilton QC