These are dark days with the Conservative government announcing daily policy initiatives so emboldened, so savage and so off-the-scale of what we have seen before that they are going to get darker still. The Metro reports: ‘homeless people could be fined up to £1,000 for sleeping in doorways near popular tourist spots, under new rules launched by a London council.’ The old and vulnerable – those with learning difficulties and mental health problems – are being “placed in jeopardy” by a further £1.1bn of cuts to adult social care. There’s the ongoing punishment culture through sanctions and workfare and it’s voyeuristic mirror in media output. Yesterday George Osborne announced £4.5 billion worth of savings in the Commons. £3bn of those savings will come from cuts to departmental budgets, and the rest will come from the selling-off of the government’s 30 per cent stake in Royal Mail. This is the beginning of what they promised. It’s Thatcherism on steroids. It’s the consequence of the No vote we all predicted. Frankie Boyle reminds us: “The Conservatives actually campaigned on a manifesto pledge to get rid of human rights and people voted for it.” But, if the Britain of the Summer of 2015 seems like an Edgar Allen Poe tale of gothic surrealism, there are also moves to change this broken system and build on what we’ve learnt and created in the last five years.
There’s a convergence of understanding happening, and our own experience of it should be seen in the context of wider movements across the world.
From Iceland Birgitta Jónsdóttir writes:
“The 21 Century will be the century of the common people – the century of you, of US. We live in remarkable, transformative times. We have the library of Alexandria at our fingertips; all the recorded knowledge of the world is being digitized and made available through the Internet. Meanwhile, our democratic models are hollow and crumbling at an alarming rate as we move further into a new era of complexity, technology and interconnectivity. The ideologies of the old school of politics, media, monetary systems, education, corporations, and all known structures are in a state of transformation. They are crumbling. Now is the time for fundamental change on all fronts, we have to seize this moment. Because this is THE moment. Our states are built around systems that are outdated, created in simpler times and for smaller societies. Today, those systems no longer serve the people but are simply self-serving. The welfare state has been hollowed and is on the verge of collapse, often as a way to privatize it. We are running out of planet and our current systems are unable to do anything about it.”
From England, Chris Erskine talks of ‘dignified possibilities’, moving beyond the ‘fake epiphany of democracy’ and forcing us to confront our complicity in mass consumerism and deeper systemic problems:
“Let’s stop believing the current fantasy of actually caring. Of story-telling that we are in this together: and its all going to have a happy ending. This fairytale has always had dragons – land ownership; colonisation; the weapons industry…. It’s time to wake up. But, in a sense we are all in this together – up to our necks in it. Too bogged down with debt and fear to care or challenge the system. Or too complicit with our own little vested interests of home, career and (fragmenting) nuclear family demands. Every new birth carries a point of utter exhaustion, pain and despair. No alternative is going to be delivered without us all being willing to experience this.”
It’s true that the malaise of contemporary society goes beyond crumbling democratic models. This suggests there needs to be a deeper engagement with our problems and our complicity. The question is -how does this sit with the real opportunities being manifested across Europe? I think there’s an opportunity to take the disheveled realism of Erskine’s position and meld it with the lively idealism of the new citizens movement.
In Spain Podemos (We Can) was born out of the Spanish indignados movement. The fledgling party won five seats and 1.2 million votes in Spain’s European elections in 2014. It all happened very fast. In times of change everything accelerates. Writing on the Left Project’s site, Mark Crawfurd writes:
“This question of political speed is not unique to Scotland. In Spain, it took Podemos twelve months to go from its creation as a political organisation to take a lead in the opinion polls. Although, in Greece, Syriza has been around for ten years, its journey to government – relative to its political ideology – has been fast. Upon citing these examples, critics usually point out that Spain and Greece have been subjected to an extreme form of austerity which has caused the centre-ground to disintegrate, leading desperate people (who, we are told, are far more desperate than we, in Scotland, will ever be) to consider radical political alternatives. This is one objection to the idea of a “Scottish Syriza” that I would like to challenge in this essay before, then, turning to the question of political speed – the role that speed played in the referendum and how we should aim to harness it over the next year.”
Speed is an interesting idea in politics.
At times it’s felt like nothing would ever change. Now it feels like everything might collapse, at any time. Sometimes that feels good (Blatter), sometimes that feels disturbingly bad (ice caps). But we are on a slide with dozens of drivers: globalism versus cultural renewal, the base reality of climate crisis, peak inequality, technology/democracy/communications, forty years of gender politics, elite failure.
Now we have a connection of flows. [“A connection [of flows] is a mutiny, a prison break, a bank panic: the more that join the flight, the faster it goes” – John Protevi]
From Sweden – talking about the general election in the UK, Dougald Hine writes: “What we have seen is a failure of politics, a failure of democracy at a cultural level, part of a larger story playing out across the struggling countries of the post-industrial west. For now, it may look like the Tories have won, but it is a fragile victory. If you want an image for the state of English politics today – Scotland is another story – then think of three cartoon characters who have run off a cliff. Two of them have just plummeted and flattened themselves into the ground, while the third is still hanging there, feet spinning in the air, oblivious to its situation.”
This image of the failure of the victors is perhaps less obvious with the triumphant Tories but is certainly visible in the dissembling incoherence of the post-Ed Labour discussions.
But the point is that Quietism is Over. Everything’s still busting loose, we are freer, if not free.
If the radical democracy movement in Scotland can and must learn from Iceland, Spain, Greece and beyond, they too can learn from us. As Niki Seth-Smith writes in a new collection of essays on generational politics in Britain: Resist! Against a Precarious Future
“What I’m about to argue shouldn’t be controversial. Namely, that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the most important political event yet for my generation of young people in Britain. Not only that: it was a harbinger of the kind of politics we can expect for the future, not only in the UK but also Europe-wide. The independence campaign was movement-based, created alliances across political tribes and the vote was direct democracy in action, if not of the radical kind. In a country whose political system has been dying of slow suffocation – with the average voting age rising and increasing numbers turning their backs on the ballot box – it re-engaged the ‘missing million’, including 80 per cent of under thirty-fives. The majority of these young people voted for independence. In fact, without the country’s pensioners, who voted against by 77 per cent, Scotland would now be an independent country. The ‘impossible’, the end of Britain as we know it, very nearly happened, falling short by a 10 per cent gap.”
The challenge we face as the Conservative government begin their task of imposing permanent austerity and restructuring he social fabric of Britain, is to resist this, to show solidarity and to organise to leave and determine our own affairs as soon as is practically possible.