Imagine the Present as History


In a recent article in Bella Caledonia (1) I looked at the relative population changes in Scotland and England since 1970 and how these changes had contributed to the effective disenfranchisement of Scotland’s voters in UK general elections. It’s difficult to assess how this disenfranchisement has affected perceptions of democracy in Scotland, at least outside the large constituency that is already committed to independence. It is, after all, a long-standing issue that has been largely ignored by the Scottish MSM, the running dogs of unionism.

The last piece raised a number of other questions which are important for the independence referendum and debate, questions that couldn’t be addressed because of limitations of space. One of those questions was, why has there been such a marked decline in turnout at UK general elections in Scotland as well as the other UK nations since the high-point of the 1950 UK general election, when turnout peaked at 83.9%?

It’s worth noting that turnout has fallen in many established democracies in the world over the last five decades, though it seems to have fallen most markedly in the more market-fundamentalist states like the US and the UK, where neo-liberalism was introduced earlier and more comprehensively than elsewhere.

In a brief piece like this there is a need to be highly selective in identifying the numerous reasons for the decline in voting and participation in formal politics. With this caveat in place, there are five broad explanations that can be identified; cohort theory; social capital theory; neo-liberal globalization; the emergence of new social movements; and processes of de-politicisation.

Cohort theory was discussed in the previous piece so I won’t repeat the arguments here, other than to reiterate the point that while cohort theory can help us to explain the more marked decline in turnout since the 1990s, (consequent upon the reduction of the voting age to 18), in Scotland and elsewhere, it offers, at best, only a partial explanation for the more gradual decline in turnout that occurred up to that period.

The concept of social capital was popularised by Robert Putnam in the US (2). It refers to the social and economic benefits that are said to derive from individuals having a wide range of connections in social, political, economic, and cultural networks in society. Social capital, it is argued, creates trust in society, it promotes associational life, social solidarity, civic engagement, greater participation in social activities and networks.

The substance of the argument is that there were high stocks of social capital up to the 1950s. But since the 1950s, increasingly, these social connections and networks have subsequently broken down and the stock of social capital has been depleted as a consequence. It’s a small step, therefore, for the advocates of social capital theory, to extend this social capital approach to participation in formal politics. Here, the argument is that the trend decline in voting and decline in participation in formal politics are just two more casualties of the decline of social capital.

Neo-liberal globalization has also weakened participation in formal politics. Historically and contemporaneously, its advocates have promoted their agenda as inevitable, captured in the UK by the Thatcherite mantra of the 1980s, ‘there is no alternative’. To see the effects of neo-liberalism on voting and participation in formal politics more clearly, we need to look back briefly at some features of the Keynesianism post-war settlement from 1945 to the mid-1970s. This was a period when governments intervened extensively in their national economies through, for example, fiscal policy, monetary policy, using policies on interest rates, taxation, deficit spending, various subsidies to consumers and firms and so on, to manage aggregate demand in their national economies. In this period, governments seemed to exercise a great deal of influence over their national economies.

Keynesianism was also underpinned by the Bretton Woods agreement in 1944. A system of ‘fixed’ exchange rates, intensive central bank co-ordination and, crucially, effective capital controls which limited the vulnerability of member countries to the operations of capital markets. As a consequence, capital markets couldn’t easily destabilise countries economically, through, for example, short-term capital flows entering into a country, inflating the value of its currency, creating asset bubbles which, when the bubbles burst, led to huge capital outflows leaving a trail of economic devastation in their wake. We may be familiar with that world today, but that was not the world that was familiar during most of the era of Keynesianism under Bretton Woods.

But the broad point here, is that in the Keynesian era, governments appeared to exercise more influence over their national economies so that when politicians and governments made promises to their electorates, they could deliver many of those promises. Hence, in this period voters had more trust in their governments (and trust in politics), though, of course, this was not unconditional.

From the early 1970s onwards, this Keynesian/Bretton Woods world collapsed. As a consequence, governments seemed to lose more control and influence over their national economies as more parts of the world were under greater pressure to integrate their national economies into global capitalism. This was the beginning of the era of neo-liberal globalization, the world we are familiar with today. And as governments seemed to lose more influence over their national economies so their ability to deliver on their promises, and the nature of those promises themselves, radically altered. Governments found themselves under greater pressure to satisfy the imperatives of neo-liberal globalization, in areas like, for example, macroeconomic stability, low inflation, ‘prudent’ debt-GDP ratios, providing a stable environment for global investors, flexible labour markets, stable industrial relations and so on. And as these trends intensified, so the public perception of politics changed. The public started to lose faith in governments’ ability to deliver on their promises and, equally important, lost faith in many of the promises themselves. After all, if, as many politicians themselves tell us, the forces of globalization are all-powerful and irresistible, if all nation-states are involved in a ‘global race’, if governments and nation-states really do have limited power in a global world, why bother voting at all?

From the 1960s, a number of new social movements have emerged in established democracies which have also weakened participation in formal politics. These are movements that, among other things, promote alternative politics, human rights, identity politics and so on. Movements like feminism, anti-capitalism, environmentalism, the peace movement, civil rights, anti-nuclear (power and weapons), LGBT campaigns and so on.

There are a number of interesting characteristics that these movements have in common. For example, they are often global in character; they have extended the boundaries of the political domain in recent decades; and they often have little connection with formal politics, preferring direct action, protest (often very creative protests), grass-roots campaigning etc rather than appealing to the institutions and practices of formal politics. This raises an interesting question: are the activities, beliefs, values etc of these movements only to be considered ‘political’ when they enter the realm of formal politics?

It’s often asserted, rather than demonstrated, that the decline in voting and participation in formal politics in established democracies is explained by a rise in political ‘apathy’. But this surely can’t explain all the decline in turnout that has occurred. A more plausible explanation for much of this is that, for many people who don’t vote or participate in formal politics, not voting and not participating in formal politics is itself a political decision, indeed, the existence and growing popularity of new social movements in recent decades would seem to support this. In other words, the issue here cannot be reduced only to ‘political apathy’ (which clearly does exist) rather, our definition and understanding of ‘politics’ is too narrow and needs to be broadened beyond the domain of formal politics.

Of course, one of the reasons that formal politics has captured much of our thinking about and understanding of ‘politics’ is because, in liberal representative democracies, governments are charged with the responsibility of making collective decisions, in spite of the fact that, in recent decades, governments have, increasingly, off-loaded many of those responsibilities to private and quasi-autonomous agencies. As this implies, a process of de-politicisation – a process that has been encouraged by the agenda of neo-liberalism and neo-liberal globalization – has been undertaken in recent decades in established democracies.

De-politicisation takes many forms (3). One of those forms, which has contributed to the decline of voting and participation in formal politics, is where governments off-load responsibilities which they previously held. Obvious examples include privatisation, the creation of independent central banks, the increasing marketization of the public sector and, more broadly, public goods. These and numerous other examples, from the creation of quasi-autonomous regulatory regimes to the contracting-out of local services, have all circumscribed the realm of formal politics. And while they have limited the policy autonomy of governments, at the same time they have also created greater policy convergence between the main political parties as well as limiting the choices available to voters at elections. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many potential voters have responded to these developments by not voting or participating in formal politics. As Ken Livingstone once put it, in a book with the same title, if voting changed anything they’d abolish it (4).

As indicated earlier, this form of de-politicization has been encouraged by neo-liberalism. Indeed, like neo-liberalism itself, it has been projected into the public domain as something that is inevitable, and our politicians, mainstream political parties, and governments have, largely, not only accepted this but, more often than not, championed this inevitability.

This issue of fate and politics is captured well by Andrew Gamble (5):

“The present age has been declared anti-political and unpolitical; there is an urge to discredit and disparage politics, and as faith in politics declines, so concern with politics and involvement in politics decreases. The space for politics is shrinking, and with it the possibility to imagine or to realize any serious alternative to our present condition. This it seems is our fate…But the existence of politics offers a different view of fate, both our own fate and the fate of our societies. Politics can prevent fate from turning into iron cages of constraint, because the idea of politics is fundamentally opposed to fate understood as inevitable destiny. So long as there is politics, fate is not fixed”.

Seen from this perspective, a No vote in 2014 would represent a victory of fate over politics, the fixed fate of the “iron cage” of British constraint against the politics of creating an alternative future in an independent Scotland. In fact, the referendum timetable itself illustrates, in microcosm, this difference between fate and politics.

For example, it is widely acknowledged that there is a large population of undecided voters at present. But what is often overlooked here, is that the reason so many potential voters in Scotland currently have the luxury, as it were, of being undecided at this stage, and have the time and opportunity to seek out more information, to deliberate on the issues, and reflect on the practicalities and possibilities of independence, is because the British state and its political representatives failed to impose their fate on Scotland when they lost control of the referendum timetable. Had the British political parties got their way, the referendum and debate would have been completed twelve months ago, if not earlier, and the large population of undecided voters in Scotland would have been rushed into accepting their pre-determined (British) fate with little opportunity for debate, deliberation and reflection (6). Left to the British state and its political parties, the whole process would have been completed quicker than the Tories have privatised Royal Mail.

It is often argued that we need ‘visions of the future’. And we do. But any vision of the future also requires a willingness to imagine the present as history. This imagining is best understood in the sense in which Benedict Anderson understands the term (7). Here, the nation – and the same holds for imagining the present as history – is not imagined in the sense, as Anderson is often mistakenly interpreted to mean, of being a figment of our imagination. Rather the nation is imaginatively, as in creatively, culturally, constructed, through its narratives, artefacts, practices, institutions and so on.

That this process, of imagining the present as history, is currently well underway in Scotland, provides more grounds for optimism that the independence debate will connect with, and engage the people of Scotland, against the claims of those pessimistic voices – the voices of fate – which were identified in the last article. As we noted there, one of the more interesting features of the debate, even at this early stage, is that, by its very nature, it is contesting both the authority of formal politics and the monopoly that its domain holds over our thinking about what ‘politics’ is. And while formal politics will still feature, even dominate the debate at times – how could it be otherwise? – the unique feature of the referendum, and debate, is that, unlike UK general elections, they will empower Scotland’s voters. This and the ongoing public deliberations in Scotland are the very essence of politics, as issues that were previously determined by Westminster, and the fate that it determined for Scotland, become politicized in the referendum debate.

The willingness to imagine the present as history is also part of the essence of politics. It can be seen in the work of National Collective which is taking its message to communities all over Scotland. If artists are the antennae of the species, it is surely an auspicious sign that so many of Scotland’s artists are actively campaigning for a Yes vote. It can also be seen in the numerous local Yes campaigns that have been set up across Scotland, comprised of thousands of volunteers and activists (from all parties and none) energised by the prospect of making their own contribution to ensuring that politics triumphs over fate on September 18th 2014. It can be seen, too, in social media as well as the various political parties’ campaigning for a Yes vote.

It can also be seen in the Common Weal project (8). Most visions of the future are fatally flawed by the existence of a glaring implementation gap, a means of transforming the vision into reality. The Common Weal project, although still a work in progress, closes that implementation gap whilst providing a realistic but ambitious policy agenda for the independence movement. It not only offers a vision of the future, it also provides a means for an independent Scotland to navigate its way out of the present crisis and, critically, it provides a means to mobilise widespread support for independence. What unites all of these is their willingness to imagine the present as history by thinking creatively about Scotland’s future.

One of the ironies about the effective disenfranchisement of Scotland’s voters in UK general elections over the last 40 years is that it has occurred during a period when democracy has never been more popular in the world. Today, more than half the nation-states in the world can be classified as democracies, and the aspiration for democracy is growing in many of those countries that cannot yet be classified as democracies.

Perhaps this, too, tells us something important about the decline in voting and participation in formal politics in established democracies. For it is surely because we do have such faith in democracy, because we have such strong ideals about democracy, that we are so disappointed with our politicians, our political parties, our governments, and, ultimately, disappointed with ourselves. A Yes vote in 2014 would represent a victory for politics against fate, a victory that would allow the people of Scotland to (politically) reclaim Scotland’s future, a victory for democracy.


(1)‘Crowded Out’

(2) Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2000.

(3) For a fuller discussion see Colin Hay, Why We Hate Politics, Polity, (2007), chapters 3, 4.

(4) Ken Livingstone, If Voting Changed Anything They’d Abolish it, Fontana, 1988.

(5) Andrew Gamble, Politics and Fate, Polity, 2000.

(6) At the risk of stating the obvious, if the British had exercised complete control over the process then, of course, there wouldn’t even be a referendum or debate.

(7) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Verso, 1991.





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  1. wanvote says:

    Excellent points here. In particular, this long debating time we have thanks entirely to Alex Salmond’s skill and determination in keeping control of the timescale – a point that should be emphasised much more than it has been. The point about people choosing not to vote or participate in formal politics as being a political decision in itself seems to be evident a lot around my area in Glasgow. Difficult to overcome this attitude outwith my own circle of family and friends. Will search Yes info for flyers emphasising the power of using your vote. Great articles, thanks !

  2. picpac67 says:

    A very high quality analysis with an overabundance of food for thought …

  3. setondene says:

    As someone who loves both (positive) change and democracy, I have been excited and inspired by much of the material emerging from the Yes side of the debate. It challenges the British Establishment in ways that have been needed for donkey’s years. I thoroughly enjoyed Donald Adamson’s explanation for this.

  4. “From the early 1970s onwards, this Keynesian/Bretton Woods world collapsed. As a consequence, governments seemed to lose more control and influence over their national economies as more parts of the world were under greater pressure to integrate their national economies into global capitalism. ”
    The collapse of Bretton Woods was as a result of Richard Nixon abandoning the Gold Standard in 1971. He did this to help finance the Vietnam War, by printing more and more dollars he effectively exported inflation to the rest of the world as the US Dollar was the worlds reserve currency.

  5. Donald Adamson says:

    Of Men and Markets,

    “The collapse of Bretton Woods was as a result of Richard Nixon abandoning the Gold Standard in 1971. He did this to help finance the Vietnam War, by printing more and more dollars he effectively exported inflation to the rest of the world as the US Dollar was the worlds reserve currency”.

    In fact, the US and the other Bretton Woods countries were in difficulty well before America’s extensive (combative) involvement in Vietnam from 1965 onwards. The turning point wasn’t the Vietnam war but the convertibility on current account in 1959. The problem then for governments was that it became increasingly difficult for them to determine whether purchases of foreign exchange were trade or currency speculation-related. The unintended consequence of this was that it precipitated the growth of capital markets, compounded by the liberalization of capital controls, which, among other things, increased the coercive powers of capital markets in global capitalism. It was these developments that I was compressing in the brief quote that you cite here. As Karl Polanyi had suggested in his book, The Great Transformation, published in 1944, the same year as the Bretton Woods agreement, there is an inherent contradiction between representative democracy (and the constraints that it imposes on governments), and capital liberalization.

    The US had prepared for convertibiity by redistributing its reserves and the post-war reconstruction of those countries devastated by World War Two. For example, in 1948, the US held almost 70 per cent of international monetary reserves, by 1958, one year before convertibility, this had fallen to 50 per cent. After convertibility, the problem was how to finance imbalances. The hope of the American architects of Bretton Woods was not only that the system would be conducive to the reconstruction of international trade, but also that it would be symmetrical in the sense that imbalances between surplus and deficit countries (with the former accusing the latter of living beyond their means) would not destabilise the system.

    It was this inherent instability that weakened Bretton Woods and, as you rightly say, the underlying problem was the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. Successive US governments and the US Treasury steadfastly refused to relinquish this or, more realistically, reform it. The so-called ‘Triffen dilemma’ captures this inherent instability of Bretton Woods. The source of the instability was the growth in foreign dollar balances relative to US gold reserves. If these foreign dollar balances (to meet the excess demand for reserves) outgrew US gold reserves, the credibility of the US commitment to the ‘gold window’ would be undermined. As it turned out, US foreign monetary liabilities first exceeded its gold reserves in 1960. The threat of US creditors converting their dollars before the US had a chance to devalue them was now real, and this threatened dollar flight proved to be the first of a series of crises in Bretton Woods thereafter.

    This growing crisis led to a series of initiatives, compounded by the fear of devaluation consequent upon Kennedy’s election as President in 1960, in spite of his repeated public commitments to the dollar. The first and most significant of these initiatives was the Gold Pool set up in 1961. This was, effectively, an arrangement to deter central bank arbitrage. Safe in the knowledge that the gold window was open, central banks could purchase gold from the US Treasury at $35 and sell it in London at a higher price (after Kennedy’s election in 1960 the price of gold spiked at $40oz). This arrangement provided security that the gold window would remain open whilst allowing the US to continue increasing its foreign dollar balances (countries agreed to draw down their gold reserves, thus relieving the pressure on the US). It was the eventual collapse of the gold pool in 1968 that precipitated the dollar flight of 1971. First Germany, followed by other countries, then others still, for example, the UK and France, threatened dollar flight. Faced with this reality and the accumulating threats, Nixon was left with no option but to close the gold window in 1971.

    One of the real fears in Europe, particularly after 1965, was that the US would abandon price and exchange rate stability in a reckless effort to throw everything into winning the war. As it turned out, inflation in the US, between 1959-70, averaged 2.6 per cent, the lowest of all the G7 countries at the time. But the cause of this crisis was the weakness of the Bretton Woods system itself. Convertibility in 1959 was the turning point and the empowerment and growing coercive power of capital markets was the unintended consequence.

  6. YantheMan says:

    This is really fascinating stuff – a brilliant run-through of some very important and complex issues, delivered in a very accessible and readable way….Donald, thank you! (& keep it up!!!)

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