Comment

Many of you will find this a dispiriting issue. Many of you will be unsurprised by this because you will be finding this a dispiriting time to be a socialist, social democrat, progressive or however you choose to style yourself. And that’s because there is every reason to be dispirited.

Let us begin by explaining what was the idea behind this issue. Whatever way you look at it, 2010 has been a bad year for the left. Firstly there was more than enough evidence by the end of last year that not only had the bad guys gotten away with ruining the global economy, they had quickly converted their own crimes into an indictment against those who are blameless. So just as the out-and-out corruption of the Blair/ Brown years finally resulted in collapse – banks are only a part of it, the capturing of government and its functions by profiteers who stripped the nation of any asset or value they could get their hands on was virtually complete – at this precise point the collapse was rebranded as proof of failure of the public sector. The final and petrifying evidence of this is the shift in attitude to pensions. It is not public sector pensions which are pulling us under but economic corruption. It is not that cash has been shifted from the private sector to the public sector. It is not that the public sector undermined the pensions in the private sector. It is much more simple – as the ideology of ‘there is no such thing as too much profit’ became a globally-acceptable motto, so the private sector simply abandoned any pretence to any form of responsibility to its employees. But as the corporate giants threw their employees out of the luxury yachts and left them to sink slowly to allow a bit more space on board for more hoarded wealth, the right-wing media started pointing at the public sector workers in their little row boats, shouting ‘why aren’t they left to drown too?’.

Then there was the ‘election’. We got to vote for which Chancellor was going to raise VAT (that most regressive of taxes) and which Prime Minister was going to devastate the rest of the public realm. There wasn’t an option on the table that didn’t involve slash and burn, only the option of who was going to do it. It is galling now to hear Labour people to pose as ‘horrified bystanders’, the knife they were set to wield hidden

sheepishly behind their backs. The Lib Dems just lied to us all and the SNP didn’t seem to have anything to say. And as the London Metropolitan ‘social democrat’ set speculated for those three or four days about how some sort of Nirvana could be manufactured out of this poisonous sludge, the rest of us waited for the inevitable resumption of the ‘destroy at all costs’ strategy.

And then there has been the post-election period. It has become clear that the neoliberal doctrine that destroyed the country had a Plan B. If it couldn’t simply buy the world up in its version of Fantasy Monopoly (Never Pass Go, Never Pay Your Debts) then it would rip up the game for the rest of us. The Project wanted three things. First it wanted all the rules designed to stop it behaving like a savage beast removed (the ‘burden of regulation’). Secondly it wanted to convert the public realm from a way of providing for the people (the welfare state model) into a way of providing for the private sector (PFI, consultancy, uncontrolled capital overspend, a bonus culture for policy-makers to corrupt them into the ways of the businessman). Thirdly, it wanted to prevent the possibility of the public realm ever influencing life in our country again. Down with the BBC, let Fox News provide. End state education, let shadowy ‘consortia’ teach our children. Strip back all means of redistributing wealth, only flat taxes can be considered. What is so disturbing is the ease with which it has achieved all three – each against all available logic, evidence or experience. We let them act like savage beasts and they did. We let them rob and corrupt the public realm and they did. This all caused the economy to collapse and the fabric of our society to fray. So they used this as a reason to end the ability of the public realm to interfere. A child behaving in this way would be rapidly moved into the care sector. And adult behaving like this would be in an institution for the criminally insane.

We have a Labour ‘movement’ in Scotland which deserve a rapid death. There can never have been a point in time when the Labour Party in Scotland was quite as dreadfully, pathetically pitiful.

OK, so far so predictably depressing. But this is where the usual disappointment of being interested in social justice tips over into something more fundamentally awful. Commentators have invented a new history for Britain. In fact, everything that just happened didn’t happen. Labour didn’t do 95 per cent of the damage. Secretly, they knew the public sector was out of control. Well, banks are just banks after all and it turns out that the collapse wasn’t as bad as people were pretending it was. Now we have to wake up and over our breakfast we must be lectured by ‘commentators’ on why our social provision is a luxury we have no right to expect since it is self evident that there is a more needy cause – the International Monetary Fund, the ‘markets’, the banks. It has spread so awfully that even many of the few remaining sources of sanity have lost their mind. Are you kidding us? We should have voted Labour after all? We should see the last ten years as a golden age for the public? A pension of £10,000 a year for a life’s work is virtually a crime against the wider public? There is no mainstream left; the country is largely delusional or extremist.

Now there are those of you who will respond to this by pointing out that there really hasn’t been much of a mainstream for a rather long time now. This is a fair point, although there were places where the truth about the banking crisis was at least being aired openly. But what else is there? The trade union movement is simply nowhere. At its politicised edge it is considering a campaign to ‘fight the cuts’. Perhaps it is an injustice and an underestimation, but this doesn’t really sound like a strategy for change. A million Catalan’s just took to the street, the French, the Greeks and others have done the same. We seem to hope that five column inches on page 12 about a couple of thousand activists is an adequate response. It will be ignored. Actually, possibly worse, it will be steamrollered out of existence. Civic Scotland offers us not much that is better, at least right now. And there is no media, no message, no story, no challenge to the ‘orthodoxy’.

Meanwhile, there is ‘always the Scottish Parliament’, the 2010 version of what the trade unions and local authorities were in the 1980s, some sort of protection. But it is probably about time to wake up to the reality of this. We have a Labour ‘movement’ in Scotland which deserve a rapid death. There can never have been a point in time when the Labour Party in Scotland was quite as dreadfully, pathetically pitiful. It has a leader that everyone knows is there on the basis of the ability to take instructions. Its loudest voice appears to have been given to a young careerist by the name of Richard Baker who has decided that self-righteous drivel about ‘knife crime’ and ‘soft on crime’ is how it is going to win in Scotland. It has a ‘health’ policy which would oppose Aspirin if the SNP supported it. This party has become a juvenile, reactionary, third-rate, witless and talentless sack of nonentities with no vision, no principles and nothing to say worth listening to. There are those who think that a decent leader would be all they need to ensure a win in the 2011 election. The fact that there is not a single candidate in the entire Parliamentary Party is telling. That the main choice of the ‘commentators’ was until recently Jim Murphy MP shows just how dislocated from reality the whole scene has become – when he was put head-to-head with someone other than the Daily Record and actual people (not the Daily Record version of ‘actual people’) were asked to rate him, only five per cent thought he was any good. And that’s their best hope? There are still good people in Labour, but they’ve largely given up.

Then there is the irony of the Liberal Democrats. In Scotland they have been a disgrace more-or-less since the 2007 election. The refusal to even consider forming any form of government without Labour was misjudged, but seeking to justify that over the succeeding years by faking outrage at, well, anything was pitiful. That Liberal Democrats would oppose the release on medical grounds of Al Megrahi was hard to fathom. That they would stand with Labour and the Tories against, well, absolutely everyone else in the country and oppose minimum pricing for alcohol is beyond discussing. The Lib Dems deserved to be routed for their behaviour in opposition. The irony is that they will very possibly be routed because of the one thing they didn’t have any control over – the Westminster coalition – feels like a sort of surrealist justice.

Then there are the three parties which are supposed to carry the flame for radical politics. It is easy to dispose of two of them in considering the state of Scotland, simply on the basis that they have chosen to dispose of themselves. The SSP and Solidarity haven’t split the left, they have destroyed the left. Personality has got in the way of everything. Lawyers (‘there is still a court case pending…’) seem to be the fig-leaf to cover up their shame. It will be hard for many to forgive them, much as they will want to. But they have written themselves out of electoral politics for the next five years so let us move on.

Then there are the Greens. OK, there are only two of them and there is a limit to what they can do. And certainly they have not been actively bad like the others – they have been on the right side on crime, alcohol pricing, Al Megrahi and other issues. But they have been so safe and so predictable on so many things.

The Green Movement has to get past the practice of pointing their fingers at people who fly places (whether its civil servants going to too many meetings or punters going their holidays). It is not enough to be the voice saying ‘be nicer to the planet’. It simply isn’t working. The Greens haven’t taken enough chances, they haven’t put any real issues on the agenda, and when they have had a chance to win concessions (notably the Budget Bill) they have postured and then held out for the sort of concession which is easily forgotten (insulating lofts). When you are an army you can trudge on relentlessly; when you are a guerrilla movement you need to be smarter and braver. OK, the Greens have a split constituency and not all its voters are radicals. But that can’t be enough to justify the level of small- issue-point-scoring at the expense of big-issue-chance-taking. You don’t change the world by keeping your head down.

Which leaves only the party of Government. Let’s be clear here; from a radical perspective there is an enormous amount over which it is necessary to criticise the SNP. But it can be captured in a sentence; they should never have gotten so close to the banks. The SNP was a split personality party for much of the last five years. On many social issues they were not bad. In particular, the SNP resisted the reductive New Labour pantomime cat call that universalism was ‘anti poor’. Why is universal provision a ‘subsidy to the middle class’ but tax cuts is ‘prudent and fair’? On this above most other things the SNP has at least tried to hold to one of the defining principles of progressive politics. No, it has not always been successful and it may pay a price for not living up to some of the commitments (perhaps especially on student support and free school meals). But the principle is there. And in a few areas the SNP has been courageous. Minimum alcohol pricing isn’t an issue which many would have predicted to be a risky business because it was difficult to imagine that there would be political opposition. But the more radical stance on crime and punishment should be singled out as the sort of policy which had risk embedded in it from the beginning that other big parties would have ducked completely. The SNP knew that short sentences don’t work, just like all the other parties know it, just like everyone knows it. But the Daily Record, the Daily Mail and the Tories were always going to be hostile and so the Labour Party was always likely to follow (but who knew how rabidly they’d adopt the Michael Howard position). And heaven knows that the Al Megrahi business was the sort of difficult issue that the McConnell administration would have buried with more care than it would nuclear waste. And here are another set of issues on which the SNP deserves some plaudits – Trident, nuclear power, expansionary war, a whole host of issues on which it could have said and done nothing but chose not to.

So much for the credit. On the debit side is a lazy, tartan version of the same-old neoliberal economics everyone else fell for. Scotoliberalism worked on the basis that if we can just keep our behemoth banks in safe profiteering territory, everything else will sort itself out. Happy bankers, happy business pages, happy CBI, happy happy. Economic strategy really doesn’t stretch much beyond ‘a nice story which the banks will like’, even now. And that is why the glimmer of hope that has come from the SNP isn’t enough. It is not enough to allow the dismantling of economic justice and try to patch it up with social justice. One goes hand-in-hand with the other. The SNP simply has not recovered from the banking crash – the bankers were cushioned by a publicly-funded airbag, the politicians went straight through the window. And that is where they remain – bloodied, bruised and disorientated on the roadside watching as the traffic ploughs on regardless but with no way to get back on board. Unless the SNP can swallow the fact that it got it wrong and stop making speeches defending a strategy which is now so completely devalued as to be worthless it will have no big story and no way to change anything fundamentally in Scotland. It’s not about independence, more powers or the status quo – or at least it is about more than all of these things. It is about deciding what kind of Scotland we want to live in. A fair, just, non-prejudiced vision of our society is what we need, but it can’t ride on the back of the same-old deregulation-and-low-tax nonsense that got us here. No, the Scottish financial sector isn’t just fine thanks and no, even if it was that is not enough.

The Scottish Left Review was established in 2000 in a spirit of hope and optimism. We are a few months past our ten anniversary. We hoped to tell a story of redemption but we commissioned our cover artwork too early. This is a tale of denial and despair, not of hope and redemption.

That was the starting-point for this issue. It started from the assumption that everyone (at least the Scottish Left Review’s ‘everyone’) would accept that whatever sect, tribe or group you are a part of, none of us did anything to cover ourselves in glory before, during or after the election just gone. So, we thought, let’s ask the question ‘what do we all need to do to redeem ourselves?’. It is with the greatest respect to all our writers that a picture emerges from the totality. And it is a grim picture. Broadly, either people don’t know what we need to do, don’t believe we can do it or don’t even think that we need to do anything at all. Are we to accept that having Labour in opposition means that the trade unions have no further soul searching to do? Are we to accept a ‘well, now it’s all out against the Tories so that mean Labour’ rallying call? Is nothing else possible, no matter the crimes committed by the Labour Party against the Labour Movement? In the Scottish context is a ‘Dutch Auction’ between Labour and the SNP so unthinkable that it’s not even worth trying? Seriously, is there no merit in considering at least roughing Labour up a bit between now and next may to see if it can’t adopt some sort of policy position which is more in tune with the real interests of working men and women? Are the Scottish trade unions to be nothing more than paymasters for an anti-knife-crime-and-blame-the-Tories agenda? Is the People’s Charter really too radical to be a condition of support?

Perhaps we are too hard on Labour, but perhaps we are not hard enough. Why is it really so easy to believe that no-one in Scottish Labour thinks anything is going wrong? Why is it so easy to imagine the satisfaction in Labour ranks at the election result in Scotland as the only true indicator of their justified existence in Scotland (‘because it belongs to us after all’)? Is it wrong to suspect that Jim Devine would have got back in as if nothing had happened had he been allowed to stand? Is this party really now completely post-ideological – believing in nothing apart from victory? A compelling case is made.

What happened to civic Scotland? Where did it go? Why is it so hard to remember when civic Scotland was not only visible but had a leadership role in the country? Why is it so difficult to believe that it will have again? And perhaps above all, will civic Scotland have the strength of will to see beyond the small, fragmented part of the overall picture which represents each organisation’s self interest? Will it simply allow the cuts story to shape all action as an all-against- all defence of what we have in the face of ‘inevitability’?

Many Greens know that their safety-first approach will lead nowhere, but will they win over the True Believers (‘I got into this to save the trees, not help the poor’) and the Ramblers Tendency (‘I fancied joining a party and after all I do like the countryside’)? And if they do, can they get themselves into a position to influence anyone? And if they manage that, will they have the focus to pull it off?

We know there will be no socialist politicians elected in Scotland before 2015. Is that it? Do we just walk away? And do we think there might be even a slim chance that anything good can come out of the SSP/Solidarity farce?

We couldn’t even find a left-leaning Lib Dem willing to write an article. Is that it?

And what does that leave us? The SNP we have or nothing? The SNP we have may have demonstrated some principle but it is increasingly finding it comfortable to be inside the ‘if we don’t slash and burn we’ll be in trouble…’ camp. If the SNP decides that to be taken ‘seriously’ by the ‘mainstream’ it must start behaving like the ‘mainstream’ then we might find that the story of ‘not if but how we dismantle the public sector’ gains another recruit.

The Scottish Left Review was established in 2000 in a spirit of hope and optimism. We are a few months past our ten anniversary. We hoped to tell a story of redemption but we commissioned our cover artwork too early. This is a tale of denial and despair, not of hope and redemption.

Issue 59 is a low point. In Issue 60 we’ll stop asking the established groupings what has to be done. For the left, the only hope before 2011 sets the order for the next four years is to create a vision worth the name and to start stuffing it down some throats.

Photograph

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