A letter to Scotland’s new radicals: the opportunities and dangers of the independence debate

The radical left has grown hugely in Scotland, and it is important that they don't get too caught up in their own myth-making.

Gerry Hassan
14 July 2014

Radical Scotland’s re-emergence and re-invigoration around the independence referendum has been one of the most welcome and positive occurrences for many years in Scottish politics.

This is a real challenge and change from the predictable stale menu which has been passed off as our political debate and choices for decades. This is even more true of what has presented itself as radical and left politics.

An array of groups, networks and initiatives of which the most prominent are National Collective, the Radical Independence Campaign and Jimmy Reid Foundation, have brought new ideas and energy, fresh ways of doing things and a sense of generational change.

It has been a pleasure to witness the birth of this self-organising culture of self-determination and pro-independence opinion. Yet, with success comes the need for an element of self-reflection and self-criticism, and an awareness of the dangers and limits inherent in any radical politics.

There is within Scotland’s new radical voices the emergence, if not everywhere, but in places, of an unrealistic, impossibilist left politics – postulating a series of simplifications and inaccuracies. These need to be challenged and overcome at this crucial juncture for their future development.

First, there is the promotion of a caricature of the British state. This draws from the influence and writings of Tom Nairn, but seems to have seldom read him or understood his analysis. The British state is regularly presented as broken, unreformable and undemocratic, all of which might be true, but which ignores the extent to which it has other characteristics and an element of adaptability. Examples of the latter include Scotland getting a Scottish Parliament when Scots voted for it in decisive numbers, and the existence of the independence referendum.

Second, is the problem of neo-liberalism. This has become a blanket term of catch-all abuse used by people to identify what they don’t like from Gordon Brown and New Labour to the City of London; in this strange world neo-liberalism is seldom defined and understood. Not everything Brown and New Labour did was motivated by the logic of neo-liberalism; instead like the modern SNP they were an uneasy compromise between it and a social democratic impulse.

Related to this the threat of neo-liberalism is consistently posed as external – gathering over the border in the highest echelons of the British state, political classes and think tanks. Its presence in the Scottish state and policy is often ignored or downplayed, allowing a sweeping differentiation between the British and Scottish states, and the global phenomenon of corporatisation, outsourcing and the march of the marketeers to be posed as a problem about Britain.

Third, there is the talk of Scotland’s egalitarianism and compassion as if such qualities defined our public life and services. Thus, this version of our society, which in its more traditional accounts invokes ‘the democratic intellect’ and ‘the mutual bonds’ of civil society, shows little interest in how we selectively implement these values, and in places pretend we do when we often don’t. The mismatch between how we see ourselves, and our actions and words is pivotal to the maintenance of this.

Fourth, there is a lack of awareness that political change isn’t easy. Instead, it is often presented as simple and only requiring will, vision and a sense of direction. Thus, system change of the scale of 1945 and 1979, which this current debate is regularly compared with, didn’t come about without huge effort. In both of these cases, British change was part of a seismic international movement, in the latter running from Europe and the US to China and Iran (see on this Christian Caryl, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the Twentieth Century).

Fifth is the missing question of agency. Political parties and trade unions and with them the idea of the labour movement have retreated and diminished. Most NGOs have become incorporated and reliant on the state, so a key question is where are the social groupings, interests and locations going to be to create a long lasting movement for change beyond the independence referendum?

Genuine political movements have an awareness of who they are giving voice to and their wider anchoring, and in this Scotland’s new radicals – disproportionately young, articulate and educated but in portfolio, semi-self-employed and insecure work - are members of what is called the precariat. This may be a rising grouping across the West, but it isn’t enough on its own to make a viable force; indeed new left groupings have had similar dilemmas since ’68.

Sixth, in relation to Scotland’s role in Britain and the world, this isn’t a post-colonial moment. It cannot be because Scotland was never colonised, while many of its people and society engaged in colonising others (see Tom Devine’s Scotland’s Empire). Any portrayal of this as post-colonialist is an inaccurate reading of Scottish history, our role in Empire, and insulting to genuine liberation movements which fought against colonial rule.

The above have to be seen in relation to the failings of the pro-union left in Scotland who aren’t exactly in a positive state. They after all present a vision of Britain unconnected to reality, invoking the hyperbole of ‘the greatest union in the history of human civilisation’, the opportunity it gives for redistribution and such obvious whoopers as its ‘generous welfare state’ (that was Lib Dem Michael Moore).

There is also the absence of presenting any plausible way of advancing a progressive Britain from the rather unequal, unprogressive present day. In this there is an invoking of a fantasyland Britain, which is particularly problematic for the Labour Party, and a refusal to engage with the character of the British state, and how it has become an advocate for corporate crony capitalism (quite a lot of this happening on New Labour’s watch).

Seismic political change is complex. It cannot be reduced to a pre-prepared formula for success. Take a couple of examples. Some people are saying Scotland could be the ‘first democratic socialist country in the world’; this is delusional. There is no immediate prospect of this happening in Scotland, or anywhere else – the UK, the Nordics, Western Europe or Latin America.

Take the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal programme which has the strapline ‘All of Us First’, rather than a ‘Me First’ society. The Reid Foundation have produced a wealth of research papers, many of them well written and considered, but there is an ambiguity at the heart of Common Weal. On one level it over-promises declaring that we can knock the old order down and make a more egalitarian society, while on the other it can appear mundane and about something not very significant, with Isobel Lindsay declaring ‘we have a Common Weal NHS’ at the moment.

Similarly, as the Scottish debate has brought to the fore the failings of Anglo-American capitalism, there has been more referencing of the Nordic model and their variant of social democracy. This has been aided by the Nordic Horizons network of Lesley Riddoch which has encouraged people to think Scotland can literally become a Nordic social democracy. Recently Riddoch speaking at the SOLAS Festival acknowledged that we ‘couldn’t completely become Nordic’ and that instead it was a matter of degree of emphasis.

The two roads of radical Scotland

This brings us to the state of Scottish society. There are two very different routes open to radicals. The first is to invoke and reinforce the myths of Scottish society – that we are different, special, egalitarian and democratic. The second is that we see our myths as what they are, namely, myths and challenge them, dig them up and look at ourselves in all our ‘glories and stupidities’ to use Fintan O’Toole’s phrase.

This is a profound choice. The first road seems like the road of least resistance and has been one historically chosen by Scotland’s institutional elites and also by successful political parties from post-war Scottish Labour to the current SNP. It represents a consensus which runs from Gordon Brown to Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, Joyce Macmillan and ‘civic Scotland’. This broadness tells us something about it: that it can be all things to all men and women, and that it is filled with contradictions and shaky foundations.

The second is the option of challenging the narrow bandwidth of what Scotland has talked about politically (the Westminster dependency, the pocketbook Parliament), and paternalist institutional elites which has characterised society for as long as anyone can remember. It entails taking collective responsibility for our decisions, understanding choices and trade-offs have to be made with distributional consequences, and that is part of a painful process of growing up, i.e.: we stop blaming others and reflect on what we can decide to do for ourselves.

The first involves going with the grain of society as it has been and repeating mantras such as ‘no tuition fees, free care for the elderly’ as if this were proof of progressive credentials. It isn’t; it is evidence of how insider groups have worked Scotland’s political system. The second entails going with the emerging grain of the Scotland now evolving: a society which is moving from being closed, top down and deferential to one more pluralist and disputatious. After all the story of Scotland of recent times has been of institutional turmoil and collapse (RBS, Rangers, Catholic Church).

This is the fundamental choice for radicals now. They can embrace Scotland’s comfy, couthy stories of ourselves which have been played back to us by our elites, or we can embark on something with more risk and danger, but also honesty and boldness. One is about holding on to the managed, ordered society which has characterised post-war society; the other entails encouraging the shifting of power and authority which has been going on in modern Scotland as well as across the West.

Scotland is being changed by the independence debate. It is being changed by the new radicals. A different Scotland is being made in the here and now. To sustain and build on this post-September 18th, three factors have to be understood. First, there has to be an awareness of the difference between campaigning mode and governing. Thus, it is appropriate to say that ‘the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world’ as a soundbite, but it is more difficult to develop a coherent programme of social justice.

Second, there has to be recognition of timescales and priorities. This is missing from most of the interventions of the new radicals at the moment. The problem of what Bernard Crick once called ‘the instant gratification culture’ of the left has to be overcome. This has a tendency to believe that the new social order of plenty can be easily built and the old ways overthrown as they are so discredited; this is a route which only ever leads to disappointment.

Finally, there is the issue of Scotland’s myths, who our mythmakers are, and whose interests they serve. Scotland’s new radicals have to realise that the myths of our country have reinforced a faux social democracy and progressive politics of our elites and professional classes. For too long, left-wingers and radicals have happily validated the limited politics, democracy and supposedly enlightened authority which have defined public life. Much of this is slowly and dramatically changing, and the new radicals need to take this opportunity to make the case for deeper, longer-term change, challenging the forces of conservatism that have governed and administered us for too long. Another opportunity may not come along for quite a while.

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