The New Market Man of History and the McCliche View of Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, April 7th 2011

The Scottish Parliament elections are if not in full swing, then reaching a certain tempo. This week has seen the launch of the Tory, Lib Dem and Labour manifestos, next week the SNP, and even the notorious Londoncentric media and political classes have twigged that there something is going in Scotland which they don’t like or understand.

Andrew Neil is a talented broadcaster and ‘The Daily Politics’ and ‘This Week’ both good TV and must watches for the Westminster classes. However, Neil comes with significant baggage, and on many occasions, his right wing, populist views of the world slip through: the state is too big, regulation too over-bearing, the public sector needs culled, and free market buccaneers like himself need liberated.

So on Sunday’s ‘The Politics Show’ it was both revealing and illuminating when Neil came north to give us his take on the Scottish elections (1). What it showed is the deep entrenchment of a kind of new establishment commonsense which extents from politicians and policy wonks to renaissance men like Neil (and Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and David Starkey), who all give succour to the black and white thinking of the market order.

This is Neil’s introduction about Scotland as he walks around Edinburgh:

This Parliament doesn’t raise a penny of revenues itself. It all comes from a block grant from London and in the last decade or so it has never been short of cash. A devolved Scotland has now entered a rather different era.

He then pauses for dramatic effect:

When the money flowed freely the Scots didn’t bother to reform public services. They just used the dosh to say no to university tuition fees, create free care for the elderly, and on Friday as prescription charges went up in England, they were abolished in Scotland.

What is important in this film is Neil’s uncontested take: it is not put forward as one opinion, or with any humility; this is fact. The primacy of Neil is underlined by the short interviews he does with all four party leaders: all of whom are reduced into 30 second soundbites.

Alex Salmond, First Minister, is squashed into talking about ‘government efficiencies’ and ‘public sector reform’. Iain Gray, Scottish Labour leader and potential First Minister, has his worldview summarised as ‘Alex Salmond’s obsession is independence’. Tavish Scott and Annabelle Goldie have even less memorable quotes with Neil’s voiceover telling us that the Lib Dems are more ‘left wing’ in Scotland, and the only cuts Tories talk about ‘tax cuts’. Why are all these people in denial of the Andrew Neil view of the universe?

Just in case you didn’t get the message, Neil labels Labour and the SNP ‘left wing’, oblivious to the forces of caution and conservatism which shape both. What is ‘left wing’ in Neil’s world; probably the equivalent catch-all to the way some left-wingers throw about the term neo-liberalism.

He concludes his film purposefully walking up Calton Hill and staring over a panoramic view of Edinburgh:

While the rest of the UK tries to come to terms with the age of austerity, Scotland’s politicians are still acting as if the party hasn’t finished. Cut, cut, cut, may be the dominant theme south of the border, but up here it is still spend, spend, spend, which is fine while the party lasts, but you cant help feel the place is heading for a hell of a hangover.

This is the end of his film, but not his take. Then it is back to London, and Jon Sopel asks Neil in Edinburgh about the forthcoming election. Neil egged on by the self-obvious logic of his own argument is now taking no prisoners:

This is the land of the big state. One think tank recently suggested the state was more important here than in any other country in the world, bar Cuba, North Korea or Iraq. Now that might be a bit of a stretch, but one in four people here work for the state, and it gets close to one in three if you include those in the private sector who exist on state contracts. So you get elected here by promising to look after those in the public sector which is why when we are in an age of cuts, and there will be cuts coming here, they cant avoid that, the politicians don’t want to talk about that during the election campaign. They still talk about free prescriptions, free health care, free parking at hospitals, free eye tests, and very important here, no compulsory redundancies in the public sector.

This is riveting stuff, and for a man for who prides himself on being erudite, educated and informed, close to ahistorical, economically illiterate ranting. The size of Scotland’s state is relatively much smaller than Wales or Northern Ireland, and smaller than large parts of England. The one report he cites was widely dismissed as a joke, and other research from people such as the World Competitive League has found no automatic relationship between the size of the state and economic competitiveness; instead it is what you do with public spending which matters. But to the new Luddites and believers in the market dogma, never let a fact get in the way of your missionary crusade!

Neil concludes his film on the Tory-Lib Dem windfall tax on oil companies, revelling in ‘the delicious prospect here of the left wing Labour and Scottish Nationalist parties attacking a Tory Government in London for being too tough on the oil companies’.

Sadly this isn’t over, for while Scotland then switches to its own ‘The Politics Show Scotland’, London continues to have its own Scottish-focused conversation between Sopel, Iain Martin, of the ‘Daily Mail’, and Mary Ann Sieghart, of ‘The Independent’.

Martin, who used to edit ‘The Scotsman’ is asked what he thinks after recently visiting Scotland:

I am a Scot, but it felt like visiting in political terms a parallel universe in which Lehman Brothers hadn’t collapsed and the world hadn’t changed entirely. But there is as Andrew said a reckoning, and the cuts are a year behind those in England. But the parties that are at the moment competing to offer more and more free stuff, whichever one wins, are going to have to cut.

Sopel then turns to Sieghart and asks, ‘It highlights the mismatch between the lives English taxpayers lead and what seems to happen in Scotland’, to which she replies:

Absolutely. English taxpayers are going to be pretty annoyed if they see the Scots getting more and more free services, while we are losing our libraries and Sure Start services.

The Parallel Universe of the Marketeers

What can one say of this not isolated example offering 15 minutes of undiluted right wing propaganda straight from the world of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Lets leave aside the decline of BBC reporting and broadcasting, and the way in which right wing prejudice and conjecture is now routinely presented as fact.

First, this has become one of the defining accounts of Scotland: ‘the land of milk and honey’, of ‘subsidy junkie Jocks’ and ‘a dependency culture’. There is no need even to specifically mention ‘Barnett’ here, because the inference is that Scotland is enjoying all this largesse at the expense of the English.

Second, there is as I have written many times the absence of a pan-British conversation and shared sense of purpose, narrative and stories. Something is going deeply wrong at the heart of the UK project; something is missing in our statecraft and emotional, gut, instinctual stories which holds a state together.

Finally, and most importantly, the above examples tell us a lot post-global crash about the zeal and reach of market fundamentalism. This worldview brooks no time for apology or retreat; instead it is full steam ahead with the forward march of marketising the last parts of the public realm.

You can hear the contempt and disdain in Neil’s voice when he talks of ‘free public services’; no recognition is allowed for the fact ala Milton Friedman that nothing is ‘free’, but we might make political choices to not charge for things. And there is something revealing in his list, for he cites as one of Scotland’s outdated shibboleths, ‘free health care’, exactly what the free marketeers are out to destroy!

Iain Martin is revealing when he comments that the Scots are behaving as if they lived in ‘a parallel universe in which Lehman Brothers hadn’t collapsed’. This I think inadvertently hits the nail on the head from the market fundamentalist view. At its ultimate such a take on humanity values no set of principles other than buying, selling, acting as consumers, and viewing things as commodities. This is the age of one-dimensional man and woman, with no room for caring, empathy, love and non-economic values.

Martin’s aside pinpoints that the crisis of the current economic system and market fundamentalism, has been used by the new revolutionaries to tear down the old social model and attitudes. In this the crisis of neo-liberalism is also a crisis of the traditional left; it is also true that both are modernist, economic determinist projects. How dare Scots not understand that ‘the world has changed’? I am not arguing that there are not deep seated problems, evasions and challenges in Scottish society and politics, merely stating that this simplistic, cliché ridden view of the world is hardly accurate or helpful.

What kind of politics and resistance do we offer in the face of such an assault? I think we need to operate on many levels, organising, building new alliances and ways of working, direct action, all the usual, but I want to add one more: the politics of humour and fun.

The neo-liberal project and the world of ‘the official future’ is an earnest, over-zealous one, and it doesn’t have a sense of humour. Once upon a time the zealous, serious left revolutionaries of post-68 had the wind taken out of their sails by humour. People created caricatures of the new left radicals and self-appointed tribunes; Private Eye ran ‘Dave Spart’ and it had such resonance it still has reach today.

So my small suggestion for subversion is that we create a  panoply of characters and caricatures to describe the new revolutionaries, who if we are not careful will carry all before them and create a world where everything has a price and is for sale. Maybe we could call one of them, a charming, slightly seedy Scot in his 60s who is an aging lothario, Andrew McCliche? Any other suggestions?

Notes

1. ‘The Politics Show’, BBC One, April 3rd 2011.