The future of the left and neo-liberalism's appeal as a liberation movement

Can Scotland chart a path apart from neo-liberal Britain? And are parts of the left still stuck in their comfort zones? Gerry Hassan’s observations from a Glasgow book festival panel on the future of the left
Gerry Hassan
15 March 2010

The Future of the Left is one of those perennial subjects that run through time memorial, from the crises of how to deal with Nazism and fascism in the 1930s, to the problems of Stalinism in the 1950s, affluence in the 1960s, and Reaganism and Thatcherism in the 1980s.

On Friday I contributed to a panel discussion on this subject which also included Tariq Ali, the historian Tristram Hunt and Chris Mullin MP and was chaired by journalist Ruth Wishart. This was part of ‘Aye Write’, Glasgow’s successful and vibrant book festival, now in its fifth year, and took place in the Mitchell Library in front of a packed audience of 450 people.

This showed an eager interest in the subject and any conclusions, and the first part of our discussion was dominated by ‘big’ subjects, the legacy and debris of New Labour and the collective hangover from neo-liberalism, but became much more passionate and controversial later on.

Chris Mullin still insisted that - the Iraq war apart - there was a good news story about New Labour, with the lives of his constituents transformed in the last decade. Tristram Hunt said Labour had made many painful mistakes, in particular, taking money from the City to fund public spending without questioning its power and role. He stressed that in the last eighteen months Labour had found a new progressive voice and acted in a Keynesian way. Tariq Ali questioned, given the reach of neo-liberalism, what was left of any real radical progressive politics.

In response to these comments, I argued that we need to look at how the nature of the British state had morphed under Thatcher and Blair so that cumulatively it had become something new and distinct: a neo-liberal state, and one which in foreign policy implemented a neo-conservative policy under Blair. Britain’s geo-political position under New Labour had not aided progressive politics: the aspirations to become a ‘normal’ European nation had not advanced, and instead, Britain was even more in its political classes, obsessed with Atlanticism and the US relationship.

The lack of understanding among the British political classes as to how they are seen post-expenses, post-crash was revealed in an exchange with Mullin. When I mentioned the inter-connected economic, political and foreign policy disasters of Britain, Mullin got clearly agitated, and stated that I was guilty ‘of sweeping generalisations about the nature of politicians’. He then tried to get me to acknowledge that the economic crisis began in the banking system of the US not Britain, a point I said was ‘irrelevant’ and ignored ‘Fantasy Island Britain’.

Tariq Ali mentioned the possibility of an independent Scotland not for its own sake, but for the potential of a different politics. Hunt asked if independence supporters would be happy to live in a ‘neo-liberal Scotland’, a point he was so happy with he repeated later. Mullin cited Scottish comparisons with Norway as ridiculous, and asked whether Scotland’s North Sea oil reserves were as large as Norway’s.

I argued that Scottish independence had a radical edge to it if it offered the prospect of dismantling the British neo-liberal state, but it also had a romantic, unreflective side. The unionist v. nationalist debate in Scotland created huge problems, and did not reflect what most people felt; instead we needed to debate what kind of Scotland we want and then the kind of constitutional arrangements which aid this.

Apart from a point when Mullin admitted ‘there is only 5% difference in policy between the main parties’, and Ali, reflecting on the demise of the Scottish Socialist Party and that it was probably best not to dwell on George Galloway, referred to ‘the Scottish Assembly’, the most passionate part of the evening came in the last segment on welfare and young people.

A question from a member of the audience on welfare dependency, followed by another one on the problems of young people, saw Mullin mention ‘the problems of feckless youth’ and Hunt of ‘feral youth’, to boos and catcalls from the audience.

In an animated discussion, Ali, Hunt and Mullin all lamented the legacy of worklessness, joblessness and deindustrialisation, which they argued had created a whole host of welfare problems.

In responding, I said that it was worth noting that part of the audience were now out of ‘their left-wing comfort zones’, while members of the panel were using loose, lazy, dangerous words, and at the same time, only partly understanding what has happened.

The problems of welfare were not just about worklessness and joblessness, but instead concerned deep cultural and generational issues, some of which threw up difficult issues for the left. In the city of Glasgow, we have, I stated, the worst public health, crime and violence levels of Western Europe, worse than elsewhere even allowing for economic and deprivation indices and widening; this was called ‘the Glasgow effect’ and challenged the simplistic argument it was all about jobs and work.

We could not escape that a huge part of the problem lay in the issue of men and masculinities, and the damage men did to themselves, to other men, and to women.

At another point, when we were talking about the future of the left at a general level and the reach of neo-liberalism, we looked at what the left should stand for, and whether their were new ideas and vehicles already in existence. In this part, we discussed the limits of ‘the official future’ on offer from the globalisers, and that people hanker after different values, and also the work of London Citizens.

In this part I stressed that globalisation told a story of optimism and freedom, of bringing Chinese and Indian peasants out of poverty, and saw itself as ‘a liberation movement’ battling against the cosy, vested interests of an earlier age, and that this was something a defensive left lacking imagination or a sense of radicalism, had been slow to adapt to.

This was a fascinating, stimulating discussion, which illustrated the problems what passes for ‘the left’ has in Britain and wider afield. In particular, voices such as Mullin and Hunt who see themselves as radical and distant from the wreckage of New Labour, have an overwhelming complacency about how politics and politicians are seen, and the scale of the transformation which has occurred under the Blair-Brown era.

The age of neo-liberalism is still with us despite everything, along with the mantra of ‘the official future’ and globalisation as an elemental force like a natural phenomenon to which all resistance is portrayed as futile. No major figure of the neo-liberal cause, anywhere in the world, has recanted or acknowledged the disastrous consequences of their failed revolution.

The citadels of power, status and wealth across the globe still hum to the dynamics, logics and clichés of neo-liberalism despite the devastation they have brought both recently, and across the whole of the last thirty years.

I have a sense that we are going to have many more discussions like this one in Glasgow in the near-future, addressing whether there is a left anywhere, and what we do in the face of the barbarism of neo-liberalism. But the charming, idiosyncratic, deeply English conservative left-wing style of people such as Hunt and Mullin, is even more clearly after this evening, part of the problem, rather than offering any kind of solution.

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