Comment

In her email sending us her article on the state of politics in Iceland, Birgitta Jónsdóttir signs off ‘love and rage’. This is a greeting from a country which took to the streets banging pots and pans to demand that the neoliberal government which had crashed the country while enriching its bankers was removed. It is a country where the replacement government were stopped from meekly submitting to the will of Britain, the IMF and the other usual neoliberal bully boys when one in four members of the voting public signed a petition calling for a debt repayment plan to be put to a referendum. The Icelanders then said a resounding ‘no’.

They have every reason to be angry – every man, woman and child in Iceland is being asked to pay £10,000 to British and Dutch investors because a private bank went bust. It is to be assumed that the investors in question did not seek or get a no-risk promise from government when they were taking advantage of great deals from these banks so the expectation that the public purse pay back the private debts seems to be the definition of ‘moral hazard’. It is worth dwelling on how the media in Britain would react if the situation was reversed. Imagine that every family in Britain was forced to stump up £40,000 and that every penny would be given to the French and all because a British company behaved badly. We can safely assume that the Daily Mail would not be publishing an apology to the French people nor would it urge us to swallow our medicine. And because our media would kick off, the Government would be cornered and – we assume – the whole thing would be stopped.

There are two responses that have to be made to that assumption. The first is that it exposes the myth that a country can chose just to say ‘no’ to things. Even the mighty US has to play by the rules of international financiers (most of the time) because for 30 years the financiers have reconfigured the global economy to ensure that individual nations cannot disrupt the Big Game. That is why they invented the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund and that’s why we have a Global Agreement on Trade in Services and every other piece of obscure-but-crucial policy drift removing power from nation states. Domestically, the power has also been sucked upwards in a range of alarming ways. Surely we have now gone long past the point where anyone actually believes that the ‘terror legislation’ is there solely to deal with terrorists? Hundreds of thousands of people are being stopped and search with no reasonable cause for suspicion other than a policemen doesn’t like the look of them (or has been told that a group of people are inherently ‘dangerous’ – again, simply on say-so, whim or opinion). Just as countries have been stopped from disrupting the dodgy dealings of financiers, so the public has been stopped from disrupting the work of Government in bolstering and glorifying these dodgy dealings. If you try to protest against these behaviours then it is normal procedure for policemen hiding their identity to beat you, detain you and even play loud music while you sleep peacefully to cause sleep deprivation. How is this last action legitimate policing? Surely it is a clear breach of the peace?

So countries don’t get to do what they want. But the second response is that far from saying a Great British No to Foreigners Taking Our Money, this has already happened. Tracing where the trillion-quid bail-out went is no easy matter but you can rule our (a) homeowners (b) savers (c) UK-based businesses (d) back to the public purse, which leaves a fairly clear picture of where our money went – to pay off debts our banks owed overseas. There are only two differences between us and Iceland. One is scale – proportionate to their size they were being asked to hand over too much. The other is spine – people in the UK generally simply don’t demonstrate the rage needed to change politics. Where or where are the mass demonstrations, the civil disruptions, any sign of our unwillingness to accept this? Our media are a big problem in that while they pay lip-service to being angry at bankers, they have spent a year trying to redirect our anger elsewhere (especially the public sector). But we’re a problem too. The class war may indeed be over – certainly, we’re very happy to act like serfs again, expecting and accepting corruption and quite happy to Know Our Place. The British are a supine people and the more isolated from the rest of the world we make ourselves, the more supine we become.

It is really past time for us to reach for our pots and pans and to take to the street. It is also long past time for us to realise that it works. For that to change, we have to stop seeing the world as it is presented to us through our newspapers, commentators and broadcasters (‘world outraged at Megrahi release’ being a particularly dubious definition of ‘world). It is time for us to get to know our neighbours so that we might escape our isolation and reach out to others like us. Even where we know what is happening elsewhere, it is only the things that the very people marginalising the world view of the British consider to be relevant that we hear. Such as a titillating crime or political gossip, or very often propaganda (how much we learn about Iran these days…). If you believe what you read the world is full of violent people trying to harm us and pathetic people wanting to leach off us. What there isn’t is people like us – ordinary people who have to work for a living and didn’t make it big through financial speculation. If we don’t know whae like us, how can we know what we could be?

For these reasons we have decided that in every issue of the Scottish Left Review in 2010 we will publish at least one article about the state of left politics in a place which looks at least a bit like Scotland – small countries or big ‘regions’ looking to develop greater autonomy. In this issue we start off with Iceland (the topicality of events there and the similarities with the collapse of the financial institutions in Edinburgh is compelling) and Holland. We hope to look at Catelonia, Ireland, some of the Nordic countries and others – and we would welcome your ideas of where else we should look.

So since we are asking people to give a summary of the state of their nations, it seems only fair that we should do the same. If we were to give a concise summary of the state of radical and progressive politics in Scotland, what would we say?

Governance

By far the most significant development in Scottish politics over the last decade has been devolution. For three hundred years Scotland had no parliament and relied on policy which was made in London (though sometimes differently for Scotland than the rest of the UK). The election of Labour in 1997 finally resulted in the establishment of a Scottish Parliament which had very widespread support in Scotland. There was an overwhelming ‘yes’ to the devolution referendum and in 1999 elections to the new Parliament were held. The Scottish Parliament now had a range of powers which were defined in terms of what was not devolved – foreign policy, macroeconomic policy, welfare policy and taxation (other than the ability to raise up to three pence on the basic rate of tax) were kept in London with almost everything else being devolved. In Britain we have always had a thing for ‘strong government’ and we have a very strong tradition of ‘first past the post’ voting. Proportional voting systems were broadly unknown in Britain until Scotland adopted an Additional Member system. The outcome – not immediately understood by a lot of the political establishment – was that this would be a parliament in which it was unlikely that there would be a single party with an overall majority. The response to this unknown territory, at least for the first eight years, was to form an administration which as closely as possible mimicked first past the post government. The Labour Party had dominated Scotland for most of the previous 40 years and was the biggest party elected in 1999, but it required a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to govern. This coalition was created on the basis of a very detailed ‘partnership agreement’ which was negotiated before the coalition was agreed. The basic aim was to create a coalition administration which – as closely as possible – behaved as if it was a single party. As little as possible was left outside the ambit of the agreement and the two parties then adhered to ‘collective responsibility’, almost always acting in a unified way in public and seeking to keep all negotiations and disagreements ‘in private’.

This arrangement was kept with a high degree of discipline, even when put under strong pressure from outside forces. Above all, the Labour Government in Westminster had an enormous majority and under Tony Blair it not only shifted very significantly to the right but simply did not tolerate any dissent from within the Labour movement in Britain. This caused problems for the Edinburgh Labour administration which remained a centre-left party but came under repeated pressure from London when it sought to take a more progressive line on policies – the fact that almost every Labour MSP opposed the war in Iraq but voted for a motion in favour under strict instruction is the most visible example. The main change in the structure of governance in Scotland over this period was the extension of proportional representation to the voting system in local government. This is also very significant for the overall power balance in Scotland – as well as dominating governmental politics in Scotland, Labour had overwhelming control of local authorities, in some cases having over 90 per cent of the seats with less than 50 per cent of the votes. This was the power base from which Scottish Labour effectively ran Scotland. In 2007 this changed with local government elections based on PR. The Labour dominance of local government came to an end overnight (although it remains the single biggest party in local government). The wider implications of this for the place of the parties is still working its way through and it will be a while before we discover what effect this has had on the ground for the parties campaigning in the Scottish Election which will be held in 2011.

During the period between 1999 and 2007, the constitutional debate in Scotland revolved mainly around whether the terms of the devolution settlement were right or not. However, things changed in a number of ways in May 2007. We have perhaps forgot the shockwaves that hit Scotland when Labour lost that election and the Scottish National Party was elected. There are three major consequences which are relevant here. First of all, the UK’s 500 year relationship with first past the post voting was tested for the first time. If the Labour/Lib Dem coalition behaved as if it was a single party of government, the SNP were forced to form a minority administration which was very clearly different. It was forced to do this by the refusal of any of the other main parties (all of whom strongly oppose independence for Scotland) to consider coalition. And, despite a number of set-backs in late 2009, it has worked much more effectively than an awful lot of commentators on Scottish politics thought possible. Then again, the second consequence was also seen as impossible by most of those commentators – the idea that Labour could ever ‘lose’ Scotland. Labour in Scotland had become an establishment every bit as strong as any other, and the loss of the election and the loss of the power of patronage which went along with it was not only a massive shock to that establishment, it was one the Labour Party seemed unable to internalise for at least two years. And finally, it put independence right at the heart of the political agenda again. While the three unionist parties have a blocking majority in the Parliament, nevertheless their joint work on what extra powers could be added to those of the Parliament is a response to independence. The evidence suggests that if held now a referendum on independence would be lost and the unionist parties are presenting this as proof that constitutional issues are only of minority interest. This is clearly contradicted by the fact that their actions are all now a response to the independence debate and while they might claim to lead the constitutional reform agenda, this is clearly illusory. There are now two basic political stances – a deal to add some powers to the Parliament which the unionist parties have agreed (but which is really quite pitiful in terms of the extra powers it gives) or independence. This is a very big shift in the nature of the debate.

State of left parties

This governance context is particularly important in the Scottish case because of the rapidity and implications of the change. It has had an important knock-on effect on the political parties operating in Scotland. Most obviously, because of the opportunities of the voting system, smaller parties have emerged. Only two have had any electoral impact, both on the left. Scotland elected one Green MSP in 1999 and seven in 2003 and one Scottish Socialist Party MSP in 1999 and five in 2003. The Greens have proven to be more centrist in policy than some European Green parties but have been solidly progressive on most social issues and radical on war and peace matters. The SSP had a bigger impact than the Greens in the first Parliament. The election of a large number of Socialists and Greens in 2003 caused some shockwaves across the Scottish political system and it resulted in a strategy of containment and cooption (in the case of the Greens) and outright hostility (in the case of the SSP) on whom much of the media turned viciously and on who the four big parties ganged up on. But it was the implosion of the SSP which was the biggest factor – personal internal policies saw one group oust the leader over a sex scandal and the party basically split in two, the SSP on one side and the former leader’s Solidarity party on the other. The outcome was the loss of all their seats in 2007. But the Greens didn’t do much better – the pattern of voting meant that they were the main losers on the way votes for the main parties were distributed and only two Greens were elected in 2007. The Rainbow Parliament of 2003 has been lost.

On the other hand, this was the price of breaking the Labour rule in Scotland. The Labour Party had been the biggest party for the first eight years and had (unlike the UK party) been broadly socially progressive over that period, at least in terms of what it didn’t do if less convincingly on what it did do. It did enough to continue to be considered a left party – just – and certainly didn’t follow Blair’s headlong drive to turn the Labour Party into a neoliberal centre-right party. But these are generous interpretations – Scottish Labour took a good deal of pride that over its eight years it did nothing too radical and didn’t scare anyone. The running battle within Labour has all been about how much independence from the London party they have been able to demonstrate. The answer is, not that much and certainly not if it is noticable The Liberal Democrats are almost indistinguishable from Labour in Scotland, and not only because they were in coalition. If anything, the Lib Dems dragged Labour to the left on a number of policy areas. However, losing power in 2007 has had a damaging effect on the Lib Dems who have elected a populist leader who has dragged them incoherently to the right – even the right-wing Conservative Party (one of the main four parties) found itself arguing again infeasible calls for tax cuts from the Lib Dems. This party seems in terminal decline.

The more significant issue is the role of the SNP. The only major party in Scotland which is not part of a wider UK party, the debate about independence from itself hasn’t been an issue. What has been confusing is the positioning. In 1999 it set out a position well to the left of Labour, calling for tax rises to pay for better services. Incorrectly believing that there was evidence this harmed their electoral performance and under a new leader, they appeared to position themselves marginally to the right of Labour (at least on core economic policy) in 2003. And did badly. In 2007 they played two cards – to the left of Labour but just and competence of leadership after a weak administration. They won by picking up a lot of the top-up votes, but this came at the expense of the smaller parties. In power they have been to the left on social policies, well to the left of international and war and peace issues but right in the middle of the right-wing consensus on economic policy. The biggest mistake the party has made is the closeness it developed to the very banks which a year later were going to bring the economy to the brink of disaster. The party would have been in a very strong position if it had not picked the wrong side in the economic debate during the 2007 election.

Policy

There have been four basic public policy positions in Scotland since devolution, shared in different ways by most of the parties. On economic policy, the neoliberal agenda has dominated all but the Socialist’s stance (and to some extent the Greens, though they have not put forward a strong alternative strategy for economic development in Scotland). So far, so predictable – whether this will change is an open question, but it is hard to see things going back to they way they were given the massive collapse in the banks.

On social policy, Scotland has basically put up a ‘social democrat’ barrier to the worst of the neoliberal moves that were seen in England. Scottish Labour quietly resisted the creeping privatisation policies that affected healthy and education in England. There has also been a tendency towards universalism, with removal of charging for a number of public services like higher education and care costs for the elderly being both high profile and popular. The SNP Government is seeking to push this further with abolition of prescription charges and introduction of free school meals for every pupil, but the Labour Party is seeking to block this on rather petty party political grounds.

Then there has been a comparatively radical but comparatively consensual range of ‘social good’ policies. The cruel practice of hunting foxes was banned, policy discriminating against gays in the school system was scrapped, the right for people living in rural areas to buy the land they rent and other forms of land reform were introduced. There were also interventions on public health such as the ban on smoking in public places, restrictions on tanning salons and the (currently controversial) attempt to put a minimum price on alcohol to minimise the problems of excessive drinking.

But the really radical stuff has been mainly symbolic and almost all done by the SNP Government. It has little power over a lot of these areas or has used what powers it has to get across a point. So the Government won a vote opposing the Iraq war, has won a vote opposing the renewal of the UK’s nuclear weapons (and wrote to the international community to tell them so), is using planning laws to prevent the building of more nuclear power stations (even though energy policy is reserved to London) and while technically an independent decision, clearly wanted to send messages about being fair and open-minded in the compassionate release of the man accused of the Lockerbie terrorist bombing. There was some element of this before the current administration – the previous administration did some positive things on encouraging immigration and on overseas development. But it has to be noted that the Scottish Parliament has reserved much of its radicalism for subjects on which it does not have formal powers.

Campaigning and civic

Meanwhile, there has been a strong, civic campaigning culture in the last ten years. There has been a very high-profile anti-war campaign in Scotland and there is no doubt that it has influenced policy – it is impossible to imagine the opposition to Trident or the vote on Iraq happening without the pressure from civic Scotland. There have been linked anti-racism campaigns and campaigns in support of asylum seekers. Again, all of these are tied up with a pretty strong pro-Palestinian campaign and with a fairly strong Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

There have also been strong campaigns on global poverty and Africa – Make Poverty History was very strong in Scotland given that it was themed around a G8 meeting that took place here. There has been a lot of crossover between the global poverty campaigning and the environmental campaigns, both high profile. There has also been a fair amount of campaigning on domestic poverty issues but, given the lesser support of the media for the less photo-friendly face of domestic poverty, it hasn’t gained quite the same profile.

Finally, there has been an encouraging strand of campaigning on local issues, especially to do with service delivery. Saving

local hospitals, schools and swimming pools has radicalised a lot of local campaigners and a good number of these have moved on to be involved with campaigning on behalf of local asylum seekers (for example) and have certainly become more aware of the need to take on vested powers.

Economic collapse

Scotland, like almost everywhere else, has stood hypnotised by the economic collapse. The neoliberal consensus has been in shock – Scotland was excessively dominated by a small number of big financial players which are now shorthand names for the global collapse. To understand just how big the vacuum is in the Scottish establishment and its perception of the world you need to understand just how pervasive was the assumption that what was good for the banks was good for Scotland. The financial gurus of the banking sector were beyond reproach in 2007 and their word was gospel for the political classes. The construction industry and the retail industry were the other two legs of the speculative trinity which underpinned the economy for more than a decade. Like everywhere else, there is every reason to believe that retail-based-on-personal-borrowing is largely over, construction on a voracious whirlwind of short-term speculation is over and the financial speculation that created a sort of mini-Babylon is over. Unfortunately, all the mainstream political parties are so closely tied to the banks by now that they simply don’t know what to do. The left parties are weak or dead and have not provided a strong counter vision. And everyone in the commentator class is reading a lot into the fact that massive UK-level bailouts were needed to save the Scottish banks, concluding that this proves an independent Scotland would not have survived. Right now, that’s it – we remain, as a nation, utterly transfixed staring into the headlights of this car crash.

What next?

There are three things which are going to dominate the next few years of politics in Scotland and it is very hard to guess what exactly will happen. The first is the 2011 Scottish elections. There are strong signs that the Scottish establishment will not ‘allow’ the re-election of the ‘outsider’ SNP administration and the anti-government stances being taken are accelerating. Unfortunately, they do not seem to realise that voters do not see them as a safe pair of hands any more and the establishment assumption that a centrist Labour Party is what ‘ordinary people’ really want (and that everyone hates the SNP) is simply not borne out by polls. A lot of people assume the SNP has already lost because ‘important people’ have turned against them. The fact that strong majorities still say they are going to vote for them shows an increasing dislocation between people and power in Scotland. This also relates to post-recession policy and it is very unclear when the ‘let’s get back to how it used to be’ policy will be jettisoned. Right now, everyone continues (unsustainably) to act like this is a blip. It can’t last. Finally, there is Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the UK. It seems likely that the UK will elect a Conservative government and that will be unpopular in Scotland. It is certain that the powers available to Scottish politicians will increase in the next five years. What isn’t proving obvious to everyone yet is that, like it or not, the debate is now revolving round a centre of gravity which is independence for Scotland. This issue more than any other is shaping up to be how Scottish politics defines itself over the next few years.

Photograph

This website is free to access.
Help us keep it that way.

Please give a donation.