The Age of Rage and the Importance of Opposition – in Europe, UK and Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 21st 2014

This week will see from Thursday onward the Euro-elections which will witness the emergence of a host of populists, mavericks and independent voices being elected across the continent.

The mainstream political class is in crisis across Europe. Conventional politicians and political parties are held in widespread and open contempt, often invoking more deep-seated and angry reactions.

There are huge questions for the continent – on the economic front about jobs, growth and the role of markets, on the social model and its continued viability, on public services and spending, demographic pressures with an aging population and shrinking workforce, and fears and anxieties about immigration.

Nowhere is there a sign of solutions from European elites or institutions. The crisis of the banks, sovereign debt and the euro has become one of Europe itself. Related to this the crisis has become one of the continent’s mainstream political traditions: of centre-right Christian Democracy and conservatism, and centre-left social democracy.

Who has been able to adapt and prosper in this climate? One force has been right-wing populists and xenophobes ranging from Britain’s UKIP to Marine Le Pen’s Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party and at its more extreme and virulent, the likes of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

Another is the success of new left forces, notably Greece’s Syriza and Germany’s Die Linke, both aided by the decline of their country’s conventional social democrats, PASOK and the SPD respectively.

Then there are the mavericks and lone operators who are thriving in this combustible political climate. Nigel Farage fits this bill despite his UKIP banner; another is George Galloway, currently playing to packed houses across Scotland with his ‘Just Say Naw’ tour.

What Farage and Galloway have in common is that they can be effectively and terrifyingly good at simplifying complex issues and messages to reach an audience and political constituency. They can convey and articulate an emotional resonance and connection which the political elites, be it Cameron, Clegg or Miliband, with their talk of ‘the global race’ and technocratic tinkering, cannot hope to do and dare not attempt.

Farage has without winning a single Westminster constituency influenced and shaped British political debate, forcing all the mainstream political parties onto his terrain of Euroscepticism, immigration and xenophobia.

Despite this it is impossible still to imagine a Farage UKIP-led government, or even a Tory-UKIP coalition after the next UK election. Talk of a Galloway administration only raises the prospect of some strange surreal fictional dystopia. How could, for example, Galloway find 325 other souls with which he wouldn’t fall out over the course of a Parliament to provide a majority?

This is because the forces of rage and anger are primarily ones of opposition – of dissatisfaction and discontent at the present state of affairs, dismay and cynicism at the tired, predictable prospectus offered by the mainstream, and a palpable feeling that working people are losing out in the face of powerful economic forces which are explained by the catch-all term, ‘globalisation’.

Revealingly, Britain’s political elites just like their European counterparts have forgotten the important political craft and skill of opposition. Where is the mainstream dismay at the European Union’s 27 million officially unemployed? Or the mounting scandal of the generational cost of the youth unemployment levels of Spain, Greece and Italy? And why is there an absence of a mainstream response and recognition that this cannot go on for the sake of the viability and coherence of these societies and democracies?

Opposition is an important facet of a living, breathing, healthy democracy. The European project has never really from the outset been constituted to allow it, being from the start, a technocratic, expert driven enterprise for the ‘good’ of the people, but never ‘by’ the people.

These are seismic and fundamental questions, but bringing them down to the Scottish debate and what do we find? Where are Scotland’s forces of potent and effective opposition railing against the status quo, and the fact that too many people feel voiceless and powerless?

The Yes and No official camps for all their noise, fervor and tribalism are respectable, almost governmental and representative of insider Scotland. It could hardly be otherwise, considering one is dominated by the SNP who are Scotland’s government, and the other by the three pro-union parties who make up ‘Better Together’. But they are both, for all the insults traded between the two camps, lacking in something, which could be identified as an emotional intelligence and political and moral indignation at the current state of Scotland.

Where for example in either official campaign is the sense of injustice, indignation and wanting to bring about change in the shaming 28 year age gap in life expectancy between a child born in the East End of Glasgow and a child born in Lenzie? Or that our educational inequalities according to the PISA league tables between children born to affluent, prosperous parents and those born into disadvantage, are one of the largest in the developed world?

The forces of opposition Scotland can nearly exclusively, with the exception of Galloway, be found in the self-organised, unofficial, pro-independence groups springing up the length and breadth of the country.

These groups seem to have an impatience about the state of modern Scotland and a disbelief in the complacent stories of our elites, institutions and insider groups. For too long, Scotland has been a place where it has been widely taken as a given that we champion social justice, question power, and distrust hierarchy and status. Yet, such beliefs are often just assumed, and seldom acted upon. A profound disjuncture between action and words has too often been part of progressive Scotland’s tradition.

The emerging forces of opposition Scotland, pro-independence, but seeing it as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, and challenging the narrow bandwidth of difference between the main political parties the constitutional question apart, are tapping into something powerful and potent which has an emotional resonance.

This shift is about so much more than independence. From the Euro elections this week to the declining, discredited Westminster system and the current Scottish debate, our conventional political tribes have failed us.

This is an age of discontent and dismay at what the political and corporate elites have colluded in, and one direct result of this has been the rise of a whole host of independent voices and a new age of opposition. Whatever the result on September 18th, these emerging, challenging voices will have a significant impact on the result and the Scotland that evolves afterwards.