Message to the Messengers Part Two: Where next after the indy referendum?
Scottish Left Project, December 12th 2014
The winds of change are without doubt blowing through Scotland.
There is the decline of traditional power and institutions, the hollowing out and, in places, implosion of some of the key anchor points of public life and a fundamental shift in authority in many areas.
This is Scotland’s ‘long revolution’ – which the indyref was a product of and which then was a catalyst of further change. It is partly understandable that in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, expectations have risen, people have thought fundamental change could happen in the period immediately following the vote, and timescales once thought long have been dramatically shortened by some on the independence side.
Popular expectations, pressure and demand for change are a positive, not a negative. Yet, there is the potential pitfall of playing into a left-nat instant gratification culture which poses that all that is needed for change is wish fulfillment, collective will and correct leadership, and hey presto Scotland will be free! This is a dangerous cocktail because when change doesn’t happen quickly, many of Scotland’s newly politicised activists may turn away in disappointment.
The times they are a-changing, but they are still messy, complicated and full of contradictions. For a start, the power of establishment Scotland is still, for all its uncomfortableness and nervous disposition in the indyref, well-entrenched and deeply dug in across society. If brought under scrutiny and challenge, from land reform to a genuine politics of redistribution, they will fight bitterly and with powerful resources for their narrow vested interests.
Here then are a dozen observations about contemporary Scotland to consider after Yes and No.
1. Scotland is different and not that different from the rest of the UK. It is pointless to argue that Scotland is completely different from the rest of the UK and England. Our nation has been in a political union with England for 307 years and an integrated economy. Equally it is totally counter-productive to argue, as some such as John Curtice of Strathclyde University come close to doing, of reducing everything to number crunching and saying there is no substantive difference.
Take one basic measurement of difference: the gap between Labour and Conservative leads in Scotland. At the 2010 UK election Labour had a 25.3% lead over the Tories in Scotland, while the Tories had a 11.5% lead over Labour in England: giving a combined gap between the two nations of 36.8%. This is the largest difference between the two nations ever recorded. On the other hand, the Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys illustrate that on a range of values the two nations share a lot more than divides them. Therefore, Scotland is both different and not that different from the rest of the UK and England.
2. Scotland has never had a socialist majority. The argument that Scotland has had, has or could have a socialist majority seems to be based on a very strange interpretation of Scottish Labour. It argues that the Labour vote is an expression of socialism. Clearly this does not come with any real historical understanding of Labour’s record and culture of conservatism.
3. The idea that ‘the British state is fucked’ is simplistic. These were the opening words of an article in the ‘New Statesman’ following the Emily Thornberry-Ed Miliband debacle on the English flag and ‘white van man’. These five words are telling not just on the subject they are directly about, but also about the confusions and chaos of the English left, imagination and how far removed it is from understanding the popular mood.
And of course, it illustrates how the English left perceives the state of the state and political change, which is filled with pessimism falling into caricature. But this perception south of the border is shared by many north of the border.
4. The pro-indy argument that Britain is ‘a failed state’ is wrong. This was the received wisdom of Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s most prominent historian in the aftermath of the indyref. The notion that Britain is ‘a failed state’ is a shocking over the top statement. First, it is insulting to the grim realities of people who live in real failed states such as Somalia, Eritrea and Iraq – which are a million miles away from the mostly sedate decline of UK plc.
Second, there is what this says about how public figures, such as Devine, think of Britain – and what motivates liberal establishment voices to talk in such a way. This framing of the British state passes for conventional wisdom on large sections of Scottish left-nat opinion. It presupposes that the British state is beyond reform, hollowed out and completely run in the interests of the super-rich, when while it is true it is failing, it has never been and is not today just a brutal exercise in class and economic power. This view also misses the degree of adaptability and statecraft which still exist in parts of the British state, admittedly in decline. Two pieces of evidence for this are: Scotland got a Parliament when we decisively voted for one, and obtained an independence referendum when the issue emerged (unlike Catalonia).
To repeat the point: this is not an argument for or defence of the British state, it is a call to avoid writing it off by caricature: such discourse is everywhere in indy opinion, former broadcaster Derek Bateman in the last week titling a piece, ‘UK: Living Hell’.
5. The notion that the British state is ‘a Serco state’ unlike Scotland has to be challenged. In a ‘Prospect’ magazine essay pre-indyref Neal Ascherson made this point. The UK was, he wrote on ‘the transition to a ‘Serco state’ – which would soon cripple public services in Scotland’.
This counterposes the corporatisation of public services under the auspices of the British state with that of Scotland’s. This is a popularly articulated view in pro-independence opinion, and was given added mileage in the late stages of the indyref with the claim that NHS English reforms handing over huge swathes of public services and monies to the private sector would lead to privatisation in Scotland. This poses the threat to Scotland’s public services as external, and our practices as mostly virtuous, with all that is required being to defend them from these threats across the border.
What Ascherson and others miss in all of this is the corporatisation of public services is alive and well in Scotland. Consider the recent ScotRail franchise awarded by the Scottish Government, or Serco gaining the Northern Isles ferry services. Then there is the uncomfortable truth of England debating re-regulating buses which could leave Scotland as the only part of the UK committed to bus de-regulation. Sadly the Serco state is well and truly entrenched in Scotland, as is denial of it.
6. Scottish Labour is not in a good place. Nor is British Labour. But neither is dead. The analysis of much of this is superficial in the extreme. Thus the latter is posed by much of the British media as being rooted in the failings of Ed Miliband’s leadership, rather than about more fundamental and long-term causes.
North of the border there is a tendency to write off Scottish Labour and see it as a declining conservative force, either dying or already dead, and beyond resuscitation. All of this is filled with an air of anger, condescension and dismissal – which seems a strange mixture and misplaced given the pitiful state of Scottish Labour.
The Scottish Labour Party is not in a good way, its problems beyond the election of a new leader (given it will be their seventh attempt in fifteen years), but it is not completely dead. The party has a bedrock support of about one-third of Scots, a constituency aging and in decline, but which it can hold onto for the immediate future. This combined with the weakness of the other opposition parties to the SNP, means the party should not be completely written off. Neither does this underplay the scale of change the party faces: tone, lack of strategy, failure to come to terms with the SNP, devolution, and perhaps most damningly, modern Scotland.
7. The notion that ‘this was as bad as it could get’ which politicians of all sides reinforced in the indyref has to be ditched. Post-Autumn Statement this sentiment is weakening with the growing realisation that 60% of public spending cuts worth at least £48 billion are coming the way of the UK and Scotland’s share of them.
Pre-September 18th a widespread Yes view was that the current state of Scotland was that ‘things couldn’t get any worse’ from where they were now. From this misjudgement of the state of the present and the union, people felt they could project out under future self-government all kinds of positives: greater social justice, being more Nordic and social democratic, and that a transformed more equal society was easily within reach.
8. It is a myth that Scotland is defined by egalitarianism when post-devolution politics haven’t undertaken any real redistribution to those in most need. The well kent mantra goes along the lines, ‘no tuition fees, free care for the elderly, council tax freeze, no proscription charges, free bus passes and so on’. The list is used to emphasise the big picture of a secure social democratic Scotland prioritising equality, fairness and universalism, unlike the punitive, right-wing British state.
Underneath this rhetoric is the very different situation that all of the above have distributed resources to above average income and more affluent groups. Instead, fifteen years of a Scottish Parliament have witnessed under both Labour and the Lib Dems, then SNP, no serious redistribution to those who are poor and most disadvantaged. In fact, our political classes have consciously designed their language to expressly camouflage and disguise this situation. This has produced a widening divergence between official words and deeds, which throws up a disconnect between the mantra presented and realities, with all the potential problems that entails.
9. Salmondnomics is dead and discredited along with the Laffer lefties insisting an independent Scotland has to cut corporation tax. The Scottish Government’s first Oil and Gas Analytical Bulletin in March 2013 predicted a ‘renewed oil boom’ based on a ‘cautious’ oil price of $113 a barrel for North Sea Brent crude. As of December 9th 2014 the price stood at $66.85 a barrel, a fall of over 40%, with every sign that it will fall lower. This blows a significant hole in the Salmondnomic vision of independence.
This oil-fuelled prosperity – a mix of aspiration to Norwegian long term sensibilities with Chavez-style populist politics was forged to the belief that cutting corporation tax was needed to give Scotland a crucial future commercial advantage, focusing on the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ pre-crash. Sometimes the most fervent believers on this, emphasising the need to cut taxes to maximise income were the most left-wing voices desperate to square the economic-social circle of their own contradictions; in honour of Arthur Laffer the economist who invented a ‘curve’ on the revenue benefits of cutting taxes they could be seen as Laffer lefties.
Related to this has been the economic determinist trope that Scotland is the 14th richest country in the world per head. This is a direct attempt to counter the ‘poor Scotland’ of yore, but it is posed in a meaningless way to most people. Hardly any voters go around thinking of their lives, families and future, in relation to international league tables and where they place Scotland.
10. A second independence referendum and independence are more likely than they have ever been but they are not inevitable. Politics never works in tidy linear patterns. In the 1960s and early 1970s political scientists talked of the homogenisation of British politics; they no longer do. In Quebec, after the two referendums of 1980s and 1995, the second won by a whisker for the union, both pro and anti-independence opinion thought that independence was inevitable; nearly twenty years later, Canada is still together and the consensus is the opposite to what it once was.
It is a truism often ignored that politics never reaches a final destination. There remains in the No victory a small window for British political elites. It would have to entail constitutionally reforming the UK, tackling the English question by democratic reforms beyond English votes for English laws, and rebalancing economic, social and political power away from London and the South East.
It is more than likely that the above tall order is not going to happen, but it is possible the UK political centre could shift the terms of debate. The UK government could determine some of the context of the discussion by, for example, passing a law stipulating the need for a super-majority in constitutional referendums. This would be seen as a new 40% rule by independence supporters, but it could change the dynamics and politics of the situation. And whether it does or not, there is the possibility of the hurdle of winning a defining majority for independence: a sort of informal super-majority if you like.
11. The mantra that ‘political change is easy’ has to be challenged. The exact opposite of this is true. The above quote went on to cite the examples of 1945 and 1979 as proof that political systems can be easily transformed, when they show the opposite.
One defence of such outlandish comments is that they were part of a campaigning logic of talking up the potential and belief of change in the indyref. However, similar exhortations and statements have come forth post-indyref. At SNP conference, speaking to the BBC, one prominent independence supporter declared with the utmost confidence, ‘we know what social justice is and achieving it is easy’.
There is no valid rationale for such unsubstantiated hyperbole. It insults the intelligence of people, and is grounded in either an unconscious or deliberate attempt to deceive them. There has long been a left tradition of getting carried away with your own rhetoric, starting out for the best intentions, deceiving others, and ending up deceiving yourself. It never ends well whatever the excuse. Political change and social justice aren’t easy; look around the world. We don’t need such language and claims in Scotland today.
12. Never underestimate the forces of conservatism and the entrenched nature of the many faces of establishment Scotland. Power and authority have shifted in society. But formable forces of traditional and conventional sources – economic, social, cultural and political – remain in place entrenched across Scotland. In business, the public sector and bodies, media, and political parties including large parts of the SNP, the forces of conservatism and minimising change are still very strong.
There are many facets of establishment Scotland and their entrenched interests. Scotland has historically had a very weak democracy disguised by romantic hopes and overblown left rhetoric which pre-devolution was never fully put to the test by virtue of political power sitting in Westminster. When some of the emergent radical voices now cite and invoke the notion of radical Scotland they have to understand this context, historically and contemporaneously, if there is to be any realistic chance of fundamental change. It will require, in short, a second Scottish ‘long revolution’ building on the first.
Taking all this into account what should the future politics of Scotland’s radicals address? To begin there has to be serious work on ideas, policy and values including the following:
- Develop a serious programme of political economy – a concept Scotland gave the modern world and then stopped exploring. Political economy is much wider than economics, and includes moral purpose and the importance of social factors: a terrain relevant for 21st century reinvention.
- Address the limits of economic growth, finite resources and break with the economic determinism of the Westminster consensus and Salmondnomics.
- Put social justice at the heart of everything Scotland, government, public bodies and business do. This should go beyond its current articulation of welfarism, the poor and low pay, and include structural issues and power, from land to corporate capture and the super-rich.
- Tackle our weak democracy. Scotland has historically had an elite run society and politics. The indyref ignited the democratic impulse of public life and has to be nurtured to bust upon the closed, managed order which has been unchallenged too long. A programme of political, economic, social and local democracy is needed which identifies what forces and vessels people can use and own to have collective voice.
- Develop a vision of independence and self-government which isn’t about the SNP meme of defining it as ‘the full powers of the Parliament’. This is a limiting, debilitating, top down use of politics and society, one where political change and power comes through politicians. Instead, a self-governing Scotland is about more than independence and the powers of the Parliament – but interindependence, dispersing political power, and redistributing and fairly sharing income, wealth and opportunity.
In the above, a spirit and mindset of independence is needed – one which isn’t made up of cheerleaders, herd instincts or blind party loyalties. It should embody in Gandhi’s words the call to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’, while not buying into the miserablism and pessimism of those in senior places in public life who say you cannot change anything fundamental.
This requires developing a practice of social and political change, nurturing catalysts and agencies which make real a culture of self-government, and is, critically, not owned by any one party or perspective. This would nurture a culture which explores new forms of collective expression and the political – liberating these terms from the dead hand of labourism, old new left assumptions and neo-liberal passivity – a conversation going on all over the West from Spain and Greece to many of the Nordics – and from which Scotland can draw inspiration.
Sixty-one years ago the writer Naomi Mitchison wrote:
It seems to me that you are bound to assume that a self-governing Scotland is going to be immediately morally better, and I don’t see it unless there has also been a revolution. I can’t see how the people who are likely to govern Scotland under any democratic system are going to be any different from the undoubted Scots who are in positions of local power.
This is one of the major fissures in Scottish politics: between those who believe an independent Scotland will automatically be better, fairer and more democratic, and those who see independence as a means to an end. One is a final destination and ending; the other is an opening and challenge.
All across the Western world politics is trying to come to terms with the huge pressures of globalisation, corporate power and concentrations of income, wealth and status. Established centre-left parties are in retreat and decline, characterised by what Neal Lawson has called an ‘existential crisis of social democracy’ reinforced by the multiple crises of capitalism which have weakened, not strengthened the forces of the centre-left.
This is both an opportunity and challenge to today’s Scottish radicals. Only this week it was reported that 913,138 people in the UK have in the last year had to rely on food banks, while over the same period 900,000 people have had their benefits sanctioned and withdrawn. This is what happens in the sixth richest country in the world.
Scottish pro-independence opinion has to build the widest coalition to resist this and the free market vandals running amok whose ambition along with Tory Chancellor George Osborne is to reduce the size of UK public spending to that of 1938 levels. This is a political struggle of epic ideological proportions, but it isn’t won by completely caricaturing the British state or ‘othering’ England.
Nor is it won by the practices of the old defensive left or the Scottish patronage state. The former tradition can be seen in the Labour Party, STUC and ‘civic Scotland’; the latter has a rich lineage through Labour’s most successful Secretaries of State Tom Johnston and Willie Ross, up to the present day and the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence. Instead, there is a terrain to set out for a different kind of state, public realm, deeper, more diffuse democracy and creative commons – which is within our reach.
We cannot go ‘back to the future’ of the Britain or Scotland of 1945-75: to some mythical golden age of stability and security. Instead, we have to embrace uncertainty, fluidity and contingency, and use this age of epic transformative change as the ally of progressive politics.
Icelandic politician Birgitta Jónsdóttir said recently that, ‘A revolution is not worth anything if there is no evolutionary process as part of it.’ The last thirty years have seen retreat and defeat for progressives all over the West as a reactionary revolution has presented itself as the future. Scotland’s radicals need to take a long view in these heady times, and chart a different path and culture of political change, which contributes to making Scotland’s second ‘long revolution’. To begin with this will be a ‘revolution of the normal’ – reclaiming the notion of the public and social from neo-liberalism, but while that is exciting and bracing, it has to be only the beginning.