In May 1843, 121 ministers and 73 elders left the Church of Scotland General Assembly at the Church of St. Andrew in George Street. They walked down to Canonmills where the Free Church of Scotland was formed. This schism in the Church was (very roughly) about democratic rights of parishioners and how the institution related to the state. Evangelicals wanted a harder line to be taken by the Church on spiritual matters and wanted parishioners who supported that line to be able to choose a minister sympathetic to their views. After ten years of conflict, the Church split.
And yet, as is the way of these things, matters did not then proceed for the evangelicals in quite the manner they intended. By withdrawing what might be called ‘spiritual conservatives’ from the church the impact was of course to instantly increase the power of ‘spiritual liberals’. Scotland’s shift from the land of John Knox to the land of the often startlingly liberal Church of Scotland lay in part in the polarisation of different views. No longer in one structure moderating each other but in two opposing structures amplifying each other, mutual resolution became increasingly difficult and unlikely. And far from the usual assumption that moderation is ‘best for all’, Scotland almost certainly benefitted from having to choose a side.
This is the Disruption. Disruption: break, an act of interrupting the continuity.
In October, 2012, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party staged her own walk-out. I realise there has been endless claim and counterclaim about what this was meant to mean, but what no-one disputes is that it was meant to mean something. It was billed as a major repositioning and the language used did not seek to disguise this intention. Johan Lamont made clear and unmistakable her desire to differentiate herself from what might be called ‘The Holyrood Consensus’. In its prime, this was a shared belief that Scotland should be a home of neoliberal economics (though a fairly tame version given the inability to do anything excessively stupid given the limited powers of the Scottish Parliament) but a universalist welfare state. Dewar, McLeish, McConnell, Salmond; everyone elected to power in Scotland was signed up. So were the opposition – McLetchie and his anti-tuition fees campaign, Goldie and her firm defence of free care for the elderly, Wallace in most of his actions. No-one in Scottish politics was ready to step forward and challenge the principle of the universal welfare state.
This point is important – politicians were willing to talk about the application of the principle (Swinney, Fraser) but not take on the principle head-on. Ruth Davidson had been taking some shots at it with little effect, but it was Lamont that chose to let everyone know the consensus was over.
And so we are now in the middle of a New Disruption. The continuity has been interrupted, possibly temporarily, possibly for good. What we don’t know, just as those 194 clerics didn’t know marching along George Street, is what it will mean.
There is an immediate function; like it or not (and I fear she likes it more than she should), Lamont has given a green light to an energetic anti-welfare state campaign. This has existed in Scotland since devolution but only in the minds of the non-democratic elite. I choose this phrase with care – almost none have ever been elected but all are in positions of power and influence and they have money if they need it. The run think tanks, write in newspapers, provide advice to government in the guise of ‘consultancy’ and they are employed in senior levels in the civil service. They have been running this campaign for a long time. You’ve seen it but might not have registered its existence. It fought a major campaign to overturn the consensus on abolishing tuition fees in Scotland, has provided a constant stream of ‘independent experts’ for the media to ‘prove’ that free care for the elderly (or some other target) is unaffordable, impossible.
But why? Why choose a disruption now? Or more to the point, why choose this disruption? There are a number of reasons, and we shouldn’t ignore the ‘unifying’ influence of Labour MPs who have never really liked defending a Scottish philosophy different from their Westminster philosophy. Weak strategic thinking also played a part, as did a long-standing antipathy to devolution on the part of the Labour leader.
But to understand this disruption we need to understand the impact of group identity. This is a powerful sociological concept that explains how our chosen social group comes to define us outside obvious or objective factors such as social class. He’s Rangers, she’s Celtic and so their stars are crossed from the outside. Or rather, he’s for constitutional change and she’s not. So he travels to the game in a bus filled with Greens, socialists, artists and social campaigners; in the bus that takes her to the game are Tories/Lib Dems, rightwing commentators and the full might of the British State.
History is littered with skeletons of people who believed their identity group would have no effect on them. Clerics in drinking dens they through they would change but which in fact changed them, soldiers who thought they would never commit an atrocity utterly altered in a war of atrocity, idealists who thought the money would never dampen their zeal. Johann Lamont is like Pip in Great Expectations, believing she can leave the forge to become a London gentleman – but still be Pip. The very act of talking about things as if they are true comes to make them true in the speaker’s mind. All psychology, all sociology tell us this is true. Talk about how the best thing for the Scottish people it the British State and you will come to believe it. Anyone who doesn’t realise this truth hasn’t been watching life.
Scottish Labour, in its rejection of the Holyrood Consensus, is choosing the Westminster Consensus instead. This is inevitable because even the most sympathetic commentator would not suggest the Scottish Labour Party currently has the capacity for grand thinking. It has the capacity only to choose, and in its choice it has disrupted Scottish politics in a fundamental way.
Not that I want to give Lamont too much credit here because in some ways the choice was made for her. In the months of constitutional mud-slinging so far an interesting thing has happened. Other than a fairly small group of left Labour activists and some in the trade union movement (and this is mainly double-counting), the Scottish left has congregated around the independence movement. The great cry is ‘I’m not a nationalist but…’. A lack of any belief that the British State is capable of reform (in the foreseeable future at least) leaves few available conclusions. A reformed Scotland only seems possible in a new constitutional setting.
This is a pretty big break with continuity – for a long time constitutional change was not something that detained a lot of the left. And it has pulled out its polar opposite in the political right. This group was always wedded to Britain but they did not quite believe Scotland really belonged to them (because it didn’t). Now there is a renewed swagger. The No Campaign and its message of benign London rule has the political right thinking (for the first time) that things are swinging its way. It really, really believes that the Jubilee, Olympics and scare stories about currencies and armies has brought the Scottish people round. And the Declaration of Lamont has them fired up like never before. They think they’ve finally captured Scottish Labour and they think the referendum is in the bag. So they believe the future is theirs.
Meanwhile, as the Lib Dems slide into the same hole as Scottish Labour, they too find themselves in a land of ‘no compromise on the constitution – the London Way is the only way’. This is as significant a shift for Lib Dems as anti-universalism is for Scottish Labour. The distinctive purpose of the Scottish Lib Dems is hard to fathom (and why does a party with five MSPs continue to be treated as if it is a major player?). And as for the Tories? Well, the rump of commentators and fellow travellers who sniff a fresh start for the Scottish Tories every ten minutes are at it again. One more time, we are being told that ‘left Scotland’ is an aberration, that the people will stand for it no longer. And yet their naive and intemperate young leader has no idea how to take the Party back into mainstream politics here. She too is banking on the Britain Bounce of a referendum loss.
In parallel, the Scottish Greens are finding their stride. Surprising as it may be for many Greens individually, Scottish independence offers a motivating purpose, a tool which can be used to carve out a distinctively Green vision for Scotland. The many groups behind the Radical Independence Convention are developing a socialist vision for Scotland. And this also shows the key division between the two sides of this disruption; the No side is now almost wilfully refusing to offer any vision for a better Scotland at all. You have all you will ever have – don’t risk it by trying for more. It is certainly polarised.
So what of the SNP? It is here that much will be played out, and it is here that the supporter of Scottish independence has most to fear. Which in itself is strange. Because in theory the group identity issue of the SNP should be the opposite of the impact on Lamont, but it isn’t. In the debate on universalism the SNP has been backed (probably willingly) into a stout defence of universalism. But who is really in the SNP’s identity group? Right now, the main fight being played out is between the left of the Party and the neoconservative Altantasist right. And the right looks set to win. If it does, out goes any credible vision of Scotland as a peacemaker. As soon as that vote is lost, the SNP becomes the Party of American geopolitical power. It is a bold play in the heart of this Disruption – just as independence becomes a social justice issue so its main proponent is subverted into becoming an old-fashioned power-play state. The sorry SNP move to disown the Catalans for reason of ‘grown-up geopolitics’ is more of the same; another grubby compromise that prevents Scottish independence linking in to a global movement.
In fact, nowadays its is quite easy to hear people in the SNP planning for Party hegemony in the event of a referendum loss. The Party is becoming just one more power structure, reflexively unable to stop protecting its own dominion. It is allowing a small group to capture essential aspects of the Party’s identity, dragging it away from the independence movement it spawned. That this makes independence less achievable is hard to deny. Whether creating an identity group that contains the SNP, the CIA and Mossad is accidental or not, it is pulling the Party away from a position that allows it to take advantage of the polarisation that is taking place.
The result? An SNP that has mistaken a series of knee-jerks for a brisk walking pace. A political movement that spends much more time in the embrace of its enemies than of its friends. For heaven’s sake, the biggest (visible) partner in the SNP leadership’s pro-NATO campaign is the staunchly anti-independence Scotsman group of newspapers. The SNP is getting into the habit of working with its opponents against its friends. I do not believe this is an accident. I believe it is the most effective aspect of the No Campaign so far; a silent capture of the rudder of the Yes Campaign.
Everywhere you look in Scottish politics old certainties are breaking down and strange alliances are forming. There should be a simple outcome. Like the Church of Scotland the exodus of the conservatives from the constitutional change movement should leave it as the home of the liberals and reformers. It should set up a historical dynamic of social change versus social conservatism, split exactly along pro- and anti-independence fault lines. It is the best chance for the Yes side to win the campaign, by allowing it unequivocally to give voice to Scotland’s hopes for a better society. But the SNP seems hell-bent on stopping this from happening. Right-wingers in that Party have convinced the leadership that it should disengage from the independence movement and realign with neoconservative military structures and conservative caution in all things.
It is a group in that Party which I believe is the biggest single threat to independence. It is a group that is seeking to subvert the dynamic of the independence movement by pulling the SNP out of it. It is missing the significance of this Disruption, of the polarisation of the debate in Scotland. It has blinded the Party to the truth that the debate HAS polarised and (to the great advantage of the Yes Campaign) the No side has chosen a political platform that is alien to the opinions of the Scottish public. That the SNP refuses to join the rest of the movement in an unequivocal call for the social and economic reform of Scotland is the biggest threat we face.
But – but – the Disruption is just beginning. The SNP still has time to learn that it can choose to put its own ability to exercise power first or the goal of Scottish independence first. It still has time to stop the silly pretence that these are two sides of the same coin. It has time to turn away from the voices in its ear whispering ‘compromise, conservatism and caution are the key to all victories’. The lie perpetrated by the right that all games are won in the centre can be rejected. Because if it doesn’t pick a side and it doesn’t pick the right one, Scottish Labour may yet survive its walk-out on the principles which underpin modern Scotland. And the SNP may fail to realise that from disruption emerges new beginnings.