The World in 2018: Trump, Brexit, Britain and the Scottish Debate

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 10th 2018

The New Year is always a time for reflection. I spent the Christmas and New Year break in the United States, providing an opportunity for reflection and a different take on the world.

Two and a half weeks in an American urban setting, even in one of the wealthiest and most creative clusters in the country around Boston and Cambridge, showcases what works and what doesn’t. Conspicuous wealth sits side-by-side crumbling infrastructure and poverty personified by the MBTA train system that looks like it last had serious investment in the 1950s or 1960s.

The American media have an understandable obsession with Trump – at the moment along with extreme weather. Britain is only visible through Brexit and the latest Royal wedding. One well-stocked secondhand bookshop for example had a large number of books in its British section, but on closer examination more than half were on the royals.

Brexit fascinates the Americans and gets some coverage, but isn’t really understood. Scotland is an afterthought at best, and often confused with Ireland. The only media mention of Scotland in the States during the holidays was the Cameron House Hotel fire by Loch Lomond. This shows that disasters and even mini-disasters can have global reach – as the 2014 Glasgow School of Art fire achieved, or in a different kind of implosion, that of Rangers FC.

2018 is the year of Trump and Brexit and there will be little room for much else here in Scotland and the UK with some striking similarities between the two. They are both mutually reinforcing echo chambers whether you are pro or anti in each. Trump may be an outlier as a person, but sadly Trumpism – meaning right-wing populist raging against everything – existed before him and will continue long after him.

Brexit is shaped by contested versions of what country we are talking about. The first is England as Britain – which blithely ignores that only England was a real driver for Brexit (with Wales a reluctant hanger-on), and Scotland and Northern Ireland pro-EU. This is Daily Mail land as in last year’s front cover ‘Who will speak for England?’ which included in the text this explanation: ‘By England … we mean the whole of the United Kingdom.’ The second recognises that distinctive English reaction to Brexit as different from the rest of the UK.

This England as Britain versus England alone versions of Brexit cause faultlines even on the left: Owen Jones and Anthony Barnett representing these different accounts. Barnett’s ‘The Lure of Greatness’ is one of the most powerful polemics exploring the populist English uprising appropriated to Brexit. This was cited at length last week by the editorial of The Guardian, which then ended with the usual liberal prospectus of addressing English malcontents by such showstoppers as House of Lords reform and federalism. All things The Guardian has been banging on about for decades with little but warn words about England as a nation.

The next day Owen Jones in the same paper addressed why it was delusional to believe ala Tony Blair that it was possible to reverse Brexit. Good so far, but then (as there often is on the English left) came the dog that doesn’t bark – and some seem to want to keep muzzled – England. Not one mention appeared of England, or the pro-EU sentiments of Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is because the dominant strand of the English left (and something which unites Blair and Corbyn) is their ignoring of England.

Scotland can often appear as a sideshow in all this. Our own fire and fury of recent years post-2014 has become something of a stuck record. On returning to these shores it was back to business as usual for some – bashing any view that didn’t fit their own view of Scotland. This propensity isn’t exclusive to any side or opinion, but hurts independence more because it is meant to be about change and vibrancy.

There was the example of Derek Bateman, BBC anchor for 30 years plus, railing against how effective non-SNP parties were with their press releases over the break and alleging some kind of conspiracy. When this was challenged, Bateman got personal – calling the Sunday Herald’s Paul Hutcheon ‘a wee man’, while SNPer Gordon Guthrie said such an outlook made the Nationalists ‘the ‘whining the press is against us party’’ which if pursued is ‘a death spiral’.

There was columnist Kevin McKenna writing in The Herald that for the Scottish establishment independence is ‘a graver threat to their cosy arrangements than anything Napoleon or Hitler had produced.’ This is the sort of exaggerated stuff which people write when they get lost in their own comfort blanket. Never mind historical challenges to the British state and establishment such as Irish independence. A final example can be provided by the permanently offensive Wings over Scotland site who decided to yet again show his insensitivity yet again on trans issues.

In such a climate it was refreshing to read Carolyn Leckie in The National make the case for a better pro-independence politics – recommended by Nicola Sturgeon as ‘some words of wisdom’. Leckie identified four points for a different politics. These included making it more local, holding on to ‘the delicate balance of unity and diversity’ of 2014, and that ‘the independence movement do a little less talking and a lot more listening’. She also observed that, ‘People don’t like being preached at. They don’t like being told they are wrong. They don’t generally warm to know-alls …’

It is a decent list but what it doesn’t say is equally important. It talks about attitude, but says nothing of content. A politics of mutual respect is a good thing but without putting ideas centre amounts to little more than Kumbaya Scotland. The elephants in the room, of which there are more than one, are the lack of any new independence package or work on a plan; the SNP’s incumbency and safety-first control politics; and the lack of a politics of ideas in wider Scotland which hampers both independence and unionism, but hurts the former more as the politics of change. Then there is Brexit which lays a whole pile of grenades under everything.

Leckie’s menu has to be combined with content and a politics which adapts to the times. It is strange that the referendum was the biggest exercise in political education Scotland has ever seen in its history. And yet some, in the aftermath, seem not to want to not build on this or to challenge their own assumptions. Thus, for some Yes evangelists all that matters is repeating the incantations of 2014 as if this was a divine moment of wisdom in our nation and all they have to do is wake the people from their slumber.

There is a desperate need to be honest, brave and challenge power – whether the Tories and British state or the SNP. Take the architectural critic Gavin Stamp who recently died. He was a coruscating scourge of the architecture and conservation mafia and from a place of expertise and principle, an informed cultural troublemaker. It begs the question where and who are the cultural troublemakers of our present, and indeed troublemakers in any subject?

In place of such risky enterprise here like elsewhere in the Western world we have the obsession with anniversaryism: the listless pursuit of remembering and being defined by past glories and moments. This will be increasingly to the fore this year: the 50th anniversary of 1968: the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, along with the Prague Spring and Paris Uprising.

Even 1968 is invoked in parts of Scotland’s left and independence currents to mark the supposed need for boldness, but more often to invoke the workerist romancing of a past set of supposed certainties. Rather more mundanely than dreaming of revolution Scotland will have its own dates with destiny this year: 30 years since the publication of ‘A Claim of Right for Scotland’ which made the case for popular sovereignty and 20 years since the Scottish international football team last appeared at the World Cup or any other tournament (along with 40 years since Ally’s Tartan Army met its sad fate in Argentina).

We currently have a Scotland of doldrums, inertia and a phoney war while all around there is the crashes of institutions and traditions. Some older warriors who became blooded in previous conflicts continue to fight the last war. Similarly, too many see the world through trench warfare and the idea that one side with its fixed positions can overcome the other lot and achieve total victory.

The Scotland of the future isn’t about 2014, 1979, 1968 or 1917. There is no Year Zero. It is being made in the here and now in all its imperfections. We live in a world of constant change, uncertainty and disruption. The march of AI and automation will wipe out millions of jobs: 44% of all UK jobs being at risk according to an IPPR report.

This is used to validate the limited prospectus of linear optimism: the idea of tomorrow as a better version of today with just more stuff: more smart products, marketing and connectivity. It is a false optimism posing that we can’t dream of better tomorrows. The riposte to this cannot be to still cling to old certainties and pose a better yesterday: of a little Britain of Scotland as our future.

Instead, we have to if we live in the here and now embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and doubt, and use these to find the vision, voices and vessels of the future: our community of the realm for the 21st century. While we can invoke the imagination and idealism of New Lanark, George Square in 1919 and UCS, it will not look anything like them. The future is that exciting and daunting, but meanwhile from Trump to Brexit to Scotland too many voices want to seek out the answers in romanticising the past.

This is understandable in conservative and reactionary circles, but in those who call themselves left, socialists and social democrats, and who aim to liberate and emancipate there has to be a higher ambition. Namely, of not being mesmerised and prisoners of an imagined past which never existed in the first place. There is a future world to be made and not ceded to reactionaries or techno utopians.