After the Spirit of 2014
Scottish Review, October 1st 2014
It is now coming up for two weeks tomorrow since Scotland’s independence referendum.
The world moves on. The UK media’s attention has switched back to its usual tropes: Westminster parlour games and internal Tory and Labour machinations.
The UK Parliament was recalled, not as some expected it would be, to deal with the backwater of a Scottish Yes vote to independence, but the predictable act of the UK providing cover for US lead action, yet again, in Iraq. There was dignity and solemnity in the Commons debate, showing that the old battered, discredited chamber can still rise to the occasion – but Norway (1940), Suez (1956) or the Falklands (1982) debate this clearly wasn’t.
In Scotland, for many the campaign has not stopped. There is the huge increase in SNP membership (from just over 25,000 on September 18th to more than 72,000), along with proportionately huge increases in both the Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists. There is the cycle of protests and rallies, some on the ‘rigged’ or ‘stolen’ referendum and demanding an ‘independent’ recount, some on the issue of BBC bias, and others on the general cause of independence.
There is understandable motivation and drive behind this ferment. Scotland has just gone through something seismic, which we are still coming to terms with, which has shifted the parameters of debate, and which people are still digesting. Plus there is the pull of the camaraderie and belonging which the referendum aided for a whole spectrum of people, which many wish to not let go of.
Along with all of these another set of influences are also at work. First, there is the judgement in places that another referendum is not too far off. Tommy Sheridan put it as coming in the year 2020, while others think it might be even nearer. Second, there is the assessment that the Labour Party is effectively dead, and that they just need to be gently challenged to remove them from the centrestage of politics. Finally, there is the belief that the new forces evident in the referendum are proof of a permanent shift in how politics and power are expressed.
The Scottish Political Landscape after the Vote
The independence referendum could be further away than many assume. SNP leader elect Nicola Sturgeon has had to manage expectations and keep options open, stating that she has no plans for another vote soon. Duncan Ross, former SNP National Secretary, put it that ‘we would be crazy to go into 2016 with a referendum in our manifesto unless circumstances change dramatically’.
A second vote is highly likely, but not completely inevitable, just as independence itself is not absolutely inevitable. Politics rarely works in completely linear or deterministic patterns. For example, when Quebec’s second referendum in 1995 produced a narrow victory for Quebec remaining in Canada, people initially thought that the end of Canada was nigh; nearly 20 years later Canada is still together and rather resilient.
Labour is not completely dead either. The party is not quite alive, nor is it dead. Post-2011, I remember talking to two Scottish Labour MPs about the state of their party; I don’t know if it was their gallows humour, but when I postulated that the party was in this state of limbo, or what I called ‘undead’, they chose to look at it positively. One of the two said to me, ‘Oh well, at least we are not dead. There’s hope’.
The 2015 UK general election is set up for Labour to do reasonably well north of the border. It will be fought on Westminster issues. It will be framed by Labour versus Tories as the two competing governments; while FPTP acts as a barrier and protection for Labour against challengers (although not completely insurmountable as the 2011 Scottish election showed).
Scottish Labour is not in a good way, but tales of the party’s imminent death are premature. For all its weaknesses, it still has a significant base in society – in voters, geographically, in local government and trade unions. It is still by far the second biggest party of Scotland (and still the largest party in seats and votes at Westminster). In terms of members, it may be miles behind the SNP, but it is still significantly ahead of the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and Greens.
Then there is the shift in political forces. Two weeks after our big vote, the differing layers of political engagement have to be recognised. The 84.6 turnout, the highest for any national contest in Scotland since January 1910 (when even not all men had the vote) is historic and unprecedented in modern times. However, this upsurge, along with the newfound activism and interest in politics, is not a desire for continuous democracy in some Jacobin or new left sense.
This can be seen in some of the reflections of parts of the left, and the lack of acknowledgement of such concerns as their weak social bases, financial challenges and issue of infrastructure capacities. This isn’t meant as a denigration of the explosion of political participation which the referendum showcased, merely illustrate the difficult task in a longer timeframe.
One of these, for example, is that this outbreak was brought about by the human qualities of commitment, love and trust. People put careers on hold, saw their businesses or income take a hit, or delayed doing a university or college course, all for the greater good of working towards the September 18th vote. That isn’t viable in the long term.
There is in places a kind of left boosterism which offers over blown rhetoric and expectations. Thus, in a campaign there was a mantra in many places that Scotland could be Nordic, social democratic (if we weren’t already), or even democratic socialist, and that all of this and more was possible with the applied use of will power.
Any challenge to this was met pre-September 18th with the retort that this was merely campaigning mode, and would become more sensible and strategic after the vote. Leave aside the time honoured left tactic of talking different languages in differing places, which has a bad history, much of this hyperbole has continued after the vote.
There is in parts of the organised left a continuation of the mantra that the best way to do political change is to continue without pause or deviation from September 18th, doing what we have been doing, only more so, and better. Thus, the same cocktail of unreflective politics continues which defined and gave shape to much of the campaign, but which is singularly unsuited to long term sustenance. This includes a complete demonisation of Westminster, an anti-Tory mantra which presents all Scotland’s problems as external, and the insistence that social justice is eminently achievable if only we free ourselves from Westminster and Tories.
The Appeal of Anti-Tory Scotland
In the campaign, these claims reached a crescendo with Yes Scotland producing a leaflet proclaiming the prospect, ‘To End Tory Rule Forever’. It is the ‘forever’ word in that statement which is most alarming. It is an unambiguous over-sell and over-statement: goodbye cruel, perfidious Albion, hello, warm, welcoming centre-left northernness; all guaranteed with the stroke of a single vote.
This spirit is aided by a tenuous, thin and extremely partisan grasp of political knowledge. Thus, there was the belief which took hold in the campaign of a huge oil find which was being kept from the public (Clair Ridge), or that MI5 would prevent independence in the event of a Yes vote. One prominent Yes supporter with complete self-belief told myself and others, his potted history of the 1970s, stating that, ‘after the 1975 election, when Labour and SNP formed a pact, Labour were elected without a majority, and because of this were forced to legislate for a Scottish Assembly’. Every statement in that sentence is wrong, and when it was gently pointed out, he showed no contrition, and was off on to one of the favourite independence tropes, the suppression of the McCrone report in the 1970s. Bad history normally feds bad politics, and is never a happy equation.
The anti-Tory lexicon is understandable, but it has become a set of reference points which mark the boundaries of permissible political debate. ‘The Economist’s’ ‘Bagehot’ (in a piece with the condescending title, ‘How a nation went mad’) noted this during the campaign, stating, ‘By Tories, the separatists increasingly mean all unionists; they mean the political establishment that Scots resent as much as any other Briton’.
This allows for a measure of ‘othering’ – all Scotland’s problems and limitations are the result of external forces, and for all the references to the Nordics, a sort of insular conservatism abounds which is about holding on to what Scotland has, and rejecting the political and social change of much of the West, in the belief that we can do things better and be a ‘progressive beacon’. In the same ‘Bagehot’ column, it noted that all of this ‘has provided a means to avoid reappraising a statist creed largely abandoned elsewhere, including in the north European social democracies the nationalists idolise’
The Challenges to DIY Culture Scotland
There are subtle, but important facts of organisation, culture and leadership style which the new forces need to take cognisance of. Their emergence in the campaign saw a whole range of ad hoc informal styles emerge, yet also a sort of soft vanguardism: of structures without proper constitutions and form, or leaderships which just emerged or arrived without proper debates and contests. This was true of National Collective and Radical Independence Campaign which have made such major and positive contributions; and it is also worth noting that the Jimmy Reid Foundation, which spawned the Common Weal project, blew up in the last months of the campaign, rent asunder by such tensions.
These dynamics have to be understood and addressed. It is no good building a future left politics on the sand castles of insecure structures, simplistic slogans and selling t-shirts with striking designs. If political change were that easy, Billy Bragg and Paul Weller would have swept Thatcher from power in their ‘Red Wedge’ tour of 1985-86; they of course didn’t because they were preaching to the converted, while Thatcher represented a constituency of ‘the silent majority’.
Something deeply important and significant occurred in Scotland’s independence referendum. Apart from the question and answer. Scotland changed as a result; indeed, the referendum itself was a product of this wider change. It threw off the final shackles of the hierarchical, rather ill-at-ease society where authority had an omnipotence and punitive demeanour, and became instead a messy, fuzzy, disputatious place.
This is a sort of liberation, but it also throws down huge challenges. For a start, part of Scotland really finds this shift uneasy and unsettling; they liked the old certainties and assumptions, and don’t find the invitation of ‘life as a constant carnival’ or ‘letting it all hang out’, very enticing. And the new radicals have to realise how to utilise their new found freedom; to state the obvious, there is a need for responsibility and calmness, and at the same time not just replacing one set of orthodoxies and silences with another.
The old Scotland saw itself as egalitarian via ‘the democratic intellect’ and didn’t bother about detail; the new Scotland sees itself as egalitarian and as the embodiment of social justice. The two are not as different from each other as they would at first think; and both carry with them the imprint of religious evangelism, the former directly, the second of a secular kind.
Politics is not going to go back to the old normal. It isn’t going to be possible to just invoke ‘civic Scotland’ and incorporate the odd Church of Scotland minister and claim that as consultation. That after all was how the 1980s Scottish Constitutional Convention worked.
The system will prove adaptive. The Smith Commission on more devolution powers is already showing that, with its prescriptive membership from political parties and institutional opinion, and its short timescale (itself a product of blind pro-unionist panic in the referendum campaign, and Gordon Brown anointing himself Prime Minister for a day), an excuse for limited consultation, and a return to the same old cosy ways of working.
Scotland’s radical forces have a major opportunity. To take it, they cannot remain in the same campaigning mode as they have over the last three years. They need to pause, breath, and reflect, and give space and time to moving on. In George Orwell’s words, they have to practice the art of ‘coming up for air’. They need to look at their cultures, structures and leaderships styles, and learn the lessons of decades of left over-reach and triumphalism, and the problems of certain kinds of left male leadership to name the most obvious issues.
The Power of Myths, Popular Sovereignty and ‘A Claim of Right’
One arena ‘the third Scotland’ could make a vital contribution to is to critique the empty practices of traditional Scotland, and offer something in its place. For example, they could point to the threadbare nature of the Smith Commission and a Scottish political class debating the intricacies of ‘more powers for the Parliament’. They could draw on the rich experiments the world over on constitutional and public engagement to develop ideas and a practice of deep, deliberative democracy.
One potent theme here is the notion of popular sovereignty. This is a powerful, evocative myth which has a lineage through past and present; myths matter as they define and contribute to how a nation and people see themselves. There has always been a disconnection between the romantic idea of popular sovereignty and the controlled and limited practice of democracy, and the myth could be utilised to close this gap and develop a different kind of practice and politics.
The Common Weal project has invoked a good Scottish phrase and tradition. In our past there are other examples which could be found. For example, after three previous ‘Claims of Right’ (1689, 1842, 1988) which held arbitrary power to account, ‘A Claim of Right for the Common Good’ could allow our self-government tradition to fill in the detail of a vision of society and how to traverse a road map to get there.
In these exciting and perplexing times, for change to happen, Scotland’s very own DIY and homemade politics has to leave the campaigning mindsets of pre-September 18th behind, and find a different language and credo. This would retain the celebration, joy and lightness of the last few years, lose the bitterness and paranoia of the edges, and understand the need for detail and substance. It would recognise that political and cultural change is too important to be left to politicians, and too complex to be reduced to catchy slogans and designer t-shirts.
The fact that Scotland is even able to begin to contemplate having this conversation is testimony to how much has changed. The old system has shuddered and quaked, and people have dared to feel the fear and do it anyway, creating new spaces and voices, whereas previously there was nothing.
Years from now people will talk, laugh and feel emotional about the period of history we have lived through: the spirit of 2014. To do this justice, the paradoxes and contradictions of this tumultuous period have to be brought into the open. The anger and bitterness of some (#the45, the zoomers) have to be challenged and told that they are helping no one. The vote deniers have to come to terms with the fact that they lost having taken their zealotry over the edge (Bush II and Obama haters in the US being a bad precedent here).
The new connections and possibilities of Scotland’s energised public life and politics have to be seen as fragile and precarious – a first flowering needing care, attention and nourishing, not shoehorning into the latest left project. Nor do Scotland’s emboldened, expanded electorate need to be met at the first sign of raising their heads with the face of petty local bureaucracies checking everyone’s poll tax and council tax past details.
There is the SNP’s rise in membership, which is both a potential opportunity and a potential threat. It leaves Scottish politics rather unbalanced and looking a bit like a quasi-democratic one party state. Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘coronation’ as party leader, for all her good intentions, is not a good omen for future SNP democracy.
Finally, there is the giant elephant in the room which went nearly entirely unmentioned in the referendum, the economy, beyond the partisan exchanges of meaningless facts and figures by the Yes and No camps. How does Scotland collectively want to think and act about the economy? Do indeed forces in the Scottish Parliament and outside have anything they want to say and do? Or are all our ambitions and aspirations about dividing the cake and the allure of social justice?
After the spirit of 2014 is that all it is about for some, or could we begin to dare to dream, imagine and create a country which had room for imagination and abstracts, but got down to some serious work on the kind of Scotland we collectively want, and the economic and social choices we face? Too many of Scotland’s radicals still want to choose the easy options and slogans, and in so doing, unwittingly, collude in the long story of Scotland being a conservative nation. It doesn’t have to be this way.