2007 - 2022

Close to the Wire


By Mike Small

Last night someone posted on twitter: “You think you are watching the breakdown but you are watching the fallout from what was already broken.” 

They were talking about Baltimore but could equally have been talking about the dismantling of a coherent British politics. In one country African-Americans fight for basic human rights, equality before the law and justice, here Scotland is in a fight for democracy, equality and respect. If there’s times when nothing seems to change, it’s moments like this when events take hold and accelerate away beyond our control. But movements and flash points emerge from a pre-history.

Build-up to Baltimore

Last year the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund named 76 men and women who were killed in police custody since the death of Amadou Diallo in New York in 1999. The recent death of 25 year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore was preceded by the case of police officer Michael Slager being charged with murder after his shooting of Walter Scott was caught on mobile phone video in South Carolina. Before that we had the death of the unarmed 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the choking to death of Eric Garner by an NYPD officer in December last year, an event also caught on camera, and another police officer the authorities decided not to indict.

It’s a caustic irony that the exposure of routine police brutality and a (largely) white force operating off-the-leash and (seemingly) beyond legal control has emerged under America’s first black presidency. But then Obama’s reign has been full of irony and disappointment.

The tragic events are connected, not just by human error, people working in desperate difficult and violent situations, but by the bigger backdrop of separation and poverty.

The police force in Ferguson Missouri where Michael  Brown died is 95% white – and a siege mentality is almost inevitable. But for anyone who watched the Wire will know, the real backdrop is not race but poverty, with whole communities within cities disfigured by inequality and hopelessness.

Whilst not equating the awful realities of inner city America or the treatment of African Americans to Scots, there are commonalities in the background and history to how we got to where we are today. The use of social media as a movement-building tool, corrupt leaders demonising the poor, a collapse of legitimacy of political leadership, and the rise of 5th Estate activity: a vigilant citizen movement of tooled-up switched-on media hounds. The surveillance state works both ways.

The seismic moment we’re experiencing spring from the same stream as America’s disquiet: poverty, disenfranchisement and a rejection of dependency culture combined with a feeling that the ruling bodies no longer (if they ever did) have credibility. A recent report showed that ‘Poor teens in Baltimore face worse conditions than those in Nigeria’. The number of people living in poverty in Scotland increased to 820,000 in 2014. The 2012-13 figure, which accounts for 16% of the population, was 110,000 more than in the previous year. But poverty alone doesn’t translate to action.

With all of our technological advancement the demands of these twin movements are pretty basic. It’s plain to see that African Americans do not have equality before the law or basic freedoms in the 21st C. It’s plain to see too that Scottish voters are being politically marginalised, demonised and ridiculed. From Theresa May saying that a Labour government propped up by the SNP would be the “worst crisis since the abdication”, to the slew of smears and propaganda against SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, the “the most dangerous women in Britain”, it’s all ridiculous but revealing.

Milestones to Britain’s Constitutional Crisis

Those in Tory high command, or the Labour Liberal bunker who have questioned the legitimacy of the right for elected MPs to vote in the House of Commons or the legitimacy of the SNP vote only serve to undermine and expose further a Westminster system already failing under the weight of its own expediency. Evel reeks of opportunism and desperate short-term cobbled-together constitutional fixing, which has been the hallmark of Unionist actions for probably thirty years.

Three factors have fed-in to our present crisis, which is much better understood as a huge opportunity:  the collapse of the legitimacy of the British State; the rise of a new participative media; and a renewal in cultural self-confidence.

The collapse of legitimacy of the British State has several key moments and milestones.

If the Miner’s Strike ushered in a visibly new level of police brutality and militarisation  that was to be later captured and broadcast by early new media outlets like Schnews  and Indymedia as it spread to the protest movement, we can easily chart the Poll Tax as a symbolic totemic reframing of Westminster rule. The Battle of the Beanfield was only a year after the Battle of Orgreave. If these events concentrated minds about the nature of the relationship between people and state, the Iraq War cemented it. The two decades of Tory rule before Blair’s New Labour moment were characterised by relentless corruption, scandal and sleaze, ending in the collapse of Major’s discredited government and doing nothing to reassure voters that the British system was reformable or even fully functioning.

51Hd8CSeoEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Then New Labour and Blair who John Kampfner described in the following terms:

“No Prime Minister in modern times has led Britain into as many wars as Tony Blair. In seven years in office he has committed soldiers to action in Kosovo, in Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan — and, most controversially, in the final battle with Saddam Hussein in 2003. It has been a dramatic course of action for a man who, until he won the 1997 General Election, showed only a rudimentary understanding of the workings of foreign policy.”

It may be ironic that Labour, the people who ‘delivered’ devolution should now be facing oblivion. The reasons for this are complex. But their backing of a catastrophic foreign policy and the now terrible repercussions of it must be a driving force behind their present predicament.

Add to these the expense scandals, the accusations of croneyism, the complete failure of Britain to convincingly articulate any vision for the future and its inability to reform key institutions such as the House of Lords and you see a relentless slide away from belief in Britain itself.

As successive UK governments (blue or red) dismantle key institutions like the NHS, the Post Office, and even the army, the bones of British identity, which you could conceivably attach some flesh become less and less visible.

Running alongside these changes and crisis have been the rise in participative media as the new meme of P2P emerges across many parts of society and culture. The top-down centralised and secretive British state is losing not just because of specific failures but because it’s very construct is out of date and out of time. It faces a new operating system which is bottom-up, grassroots, self-organising, transparent and networked.

None of this is clearer than watching as lifetime career politicians pop-up in pre-orchestrated behind-closed doors ‘events’ to the party faithful, in the hope of making an impact through the pliant broadcast media, only to be lampooned viciously across social media within minutes. The 2015 General Election is like the Thick of It on steroids.

The sweeping political euphoria we’re witnessing wouldn’t have impact if it didn’t have the momentum of the independence referendum, which has a residual power base in networked communities, and a battle-hardened and politically educated multitude of articulate leaders. But is also comes on the back of forty years of cultural revival. The bedrock of any political movement is its cultural base. Here, there’s been an energy drawn on from being marginal, and peripheral.

While some commentators plead continuity and closure, perhaps more in hope than expectation, most people agree somethings fundamentally changed. As Gerry Hassan writes in the New Statesman: “Scotland feels different. It is as if something fundamental has shifted in how voters see politics, the consequences of their votes, and themselves.”

So in America and Britain today we have some very basic demands being made: for democracy and equality. We have an extraordinary moment characterised by its very ordinariness. If devolution was a demand to be recognised, to say ‘we exist’. Whatever comes next is more like a realisation that that demand has changed in nature. Existing and recognition in themselves aren’t enough. We want agency. We want a future.  As we watch the fallout from what is already broken its worth remembering William Gibson said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”


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  1. Alan says:

    The killings in America are the least of it. Mass incarceration and debtors’ prison are the norm for a large section of the population. Why the country that refers to itself as the “land of the free” and claims to believe in limited government should house a larger percentage of its population under government lock and key than any other country in the world is an interesting question. Some thoughts here.

  2. Duncan McPherson says:

    There are parallels in any struggle.

    What I find interesting is that the English establishment are more relaxed with Gerry and Martin than they are with Nicola and Alex.

    45% yes, when unionism in all its guises said we will ruin you if you leave, indicated to the English establishment the game was up beyond the short term. For them from that point onwards it is damage limitation and a stiff upper lip until Scots push the door to freedom open.

    Scotland can now become a totem to rally the right wing of England round, look what they’ve got, look what we’ve given them, look what they are asking for now, etc take, take and take, etc.

    Does Boris care about mundell, forsyth or davidson, not one jot, nor the core of his party. Scrounging belligerent uppity jocks, who needs them? Remember, the lies of subsidy have been laid bare to Scots, that conversation and conversion has not taken place in England – yet.

    The recent events in Baltimore tell us racism is sadly alive and kicking in the U.S., only cure I see for that is education. Perhaps when Scots seize freedom we.can be an example and role model for other people’s.

  3. Good piece. No surprise about Baltimore, but how awful that all of these killings, unrest etc. are all under the first black president. I’m sure these communities had hope that something might change.

    I agree that whilst everyone tries to make light of all the disgusting racist, anti,-democratic stuff coming from the raging unionists, I have felt physically sick at the vitriol expressed, and the fact they feel free to unleash it, on nothing more than opinion polls. I know a lot is enabled by the likes of Cameron, but ordinary folk have to buy into it, and they are.

    1. oldbattle says:

      While the troubles occur in Baltimore under a black President, a black Attorney General and a black Mayor it all points to the fact that while the mighty US state may have authority, ‘white capital’ has real power.
      The (black) lower third in the USA is increasingly a disposable class with little hope of development. How US big capital disposes of surplus labour is to harass it into incarceration and these lessons are being transported across the Atlantic.
      Miliband and Balls have both been trained in the US where underclass social policies are already part of Tory practice.
      With TTAP coming on the tide shortly we need to have more articles on the quite ruthless praxis of US capitalism and its political expression.

  4. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Baltimore is inevitable when the system of government is functioning for the few rather than the many. Until there is more grass root resistance to their power there will be more of this social breakdown. When the MSM is still run by a few despots like Murdoch how can the ordinary person be truthfully informed? Indimedia in Scotland is making a great effort to counteract this and it’s succeeding. Well done.

  5. daibhidhdeux says:

    White Trash “ideology” aka “neo-con/-lib” neo-Medieval apologetics tarted-up by the “Chicago ‘School'” and it’s off-shoot acolytes
    systemically deep-stated globally and farted out as immutable truths by bought-and-paid-for politicos and their fellow traveling MSM “journalists”: All pedlars of think only in THIS avaricious, theft-driven mental frame of indenturing the OTHER for the decadent elites’s plutocratic ends (everything else bi-pedal and pseudo-human except us in “our” group, wink wink, you mugs of auxiliaries in our eternal, cash-as-nexus-in-human-relations, uber project): Everyone a video-game set of pixils or an avatar – black, brown, yellow, disabled, working-class, non-conformists, “Jock” and “Paddy” and “Taff” and African-American “Nigger” USA “citizens” – your legal/constitutional status a veneer – plus Jock and gone-Jock-native entities from Mother England, “henna Gaijin” in vernacular Japanese.

    All of you über-mensch outlanders to either zip-your-lip (to paraphrase “Marcus” elsewhere on this site and on another thread, and doing his expat Brit thang in the former Yoosa colonies of Engerlund), or what, Marcus?

    Are you going to do an Ian Davidson on us and bayonnet us Jocks (?) – this offensive term like “Gay” we have seized back and made inclusive and regardless of our brothers’s and sisters’s point of geographic origin in our joint re-claiming of our roots, and the over-turning of a criminal act by a bankrupt minority of “parcel of rogues” desperate to save their financial skin at the expense of their fellows within the Scottish body politic?

    Are you up for flogging Anglo-Britain’s mutton to the highest foreign government bidder?

    Oops, I forgot. You did so, or, rather, your ideological forebears did do so in planking your bahookies firmly within the “Munroe Doctrine” politico-“globosphere”, de facto.

    How goes it in the USA, Marcus? Did you do your applied thought/living history experiment on the great “unwashed” American people?

    Daibhidh the field-hand, Jock-Colonial “Nigger”

    The worm turned as in the BritNat hawks, of whom you are clearly one in the tradition of your ancestral bully boys who sought to bayonnet to death the American Revolution which thence cast you off, do seek handers from them in the face of the Scottish Democratic Revolution.

  6. MBC says:

    I visit Dallas regularly. I notice the rise of an economically successful, wealthy, black, professional class moving into the best white neighbourhoods and being virtually indinstinguishable from their white neighbours apart from their skin colour. When de-segregation of schooling was introduced in Dallas in the 1960s this would have been unthinkable. The Obamas themselves are evidence that black people can get to the top in America. It’s not all bad news.

    I think these issues are complex, but Mike is right to highlight that America is failing to deal with poverty in enclaves of deprivation and economic stagnation like Baltimore and Detroit.

    Michelle Obama was right when she stressed that education was the key, the route out of poverty. But how can that be, if there is insufficient money to run school districts properly? From what I hear of Detroit its entire infrastructure has collapsed.

    And what happens to people who are not academic high achievers like Michelle Obama?

    Is it fact that educational achievement is entirely dependent on effort and resources? Won’t there always be different ability levels?

  7. Neil says:

    The last major race riots in western Europe were in Stockholm and Malmo. That was about the Swedish police killing someone with a grenade.

    I would say that people outside the MSM pretended not to notice them and refused to comment on them because that would have raised issues that people are very uncomfortable with (you can search Bella and see what people write about Sweden – it is all very huggy, and doesn’t mention grenades and riots at all).

    So – braver and more balanced commentary, please.

  8. Michael B. says:

    As an American who studies Scotland, I would say the Obama election may have had a similar impact to the independence referendum. None of the issues black America (I am white FTR) is responding to are new — police violence has been a problem for years — but I think the Obama election shook off a little of the fatalism within the community. During the 2008 campaign, many older African-Americans would tell you readily that a) Obama would never win, and b) if he did win, he’d be shot. The election of one half-black man to the White House does very little to actually fix the structural issues of the country (particularly with an Attorney General as reticent to take on structural problems as Holder was), but it did signal, particularly to the younger generations, that things might not be as set in stone as they’d feared. And so we’re seeing another round of African-American activism and protest, the likes of which we haven’t seen in 40 years.

    1. MBC says:

      As a Scot who visits America that’s my take on it too. There is an aspirational black class slowly emerging. But there is also a rage in white America on the far right that’s very worrying. In Texas there are huge numbers of Hispanics which is also fuelling a kind of identity crisis in Republican white America in political circles. Yet on the ground you don’t really feel it. People seem to rub along OK. It’s just at the high political level that the angst emerges.

  9. Mike Small paints Baltimore in a particularly harsh light by a specious comparison to other places in the United States. Baltimore is not the same as Ferguson MO. Baltimore’s Mayor is black as is most of the command of the Baltimore Police. 43% of the force is also black. The officers responsible for the death of Freddie Gray were promptly suspended pending an investigation. There was no attempt to cover up nor shield the officers and they will almost certainly be prosecuted. Baltimore is not the “same” as the others as the media has been so quick to say.

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