The ideas of the left are at a premium. That is the key message from the SNPs programme for government. As with everything, the devil is in the detail. And it is the detail that in the end makes a difference to people’s lives. But for the moment, we should as well as looking at the programme, add some political context to it.
Here there is much to say. We are living in an era of crisis: social; political; economic and environmental. The political terrain is volatile and open to shocks. The old rule book is now out the window because the crisis is not going away. The ruling class itself is divided and without a clear roadmap. Washington is in a mess, and Downing Street is the home to a political captive, rather than a Prime Minister. Scotland is not immune to it. Far from it. Indeed just 3 years ago we were at the centre of a mass movement of active opposition to the forces of the British State – as part of a wider backdrop of international resistance to austerity and dictatorship.
In 2012, when the referendum date was announced, there were several important features of the situation that led to the development of the mass movement for independence. These features were, as they are now, located in the global, the national and in the institutional. The 21stCentury has moved at incredible speed. We have seen revolutions, wars and economic crises – and much more. The announcement of the referendum came at a particular moment in world politics. This was at a time when the Egyptian revolution of 2011 represented a fundamental change in the world order. This came 8 years after the invasion of Iraq and the historic mobilisations against the war, and in the UK, against Blair’s Labour government. 2012, four years after the financial crisis of 2008, charged the political atmosphere with international opposition to austerity. Occupy Wall Street came at the same time as the movement of the squares in Spain, the mass demonstrations across Europe and the general strikes in Greece which would later form the foundations for Syriza to come to power.
In the UK, large trade union demonstrations opposed austerity, and the student rebellion laid siege to the Tory headquarters in Millbank. Demonstrations and occupations took place across the country in a wave of revolt that took place in the midst of similar movements emerging internationally. Questions, that were supposed to have been resolved according to neoliberal dogma, re-surfaced. Capitalism was being discussed not just in university debates, but in the pages of the Financial Times. Michael Moore related the stories of ordinary Americans suffering repossessions and unemployment in his popular film: ‘Capitalism – A Love Story.’ The bail out of the banks led to a wholesale questioning of our political establishment, the corporate and mainstream media, the legitimacy of our financial institutions and a growing sense that change was coming, and was needed. And all of this underlined the crisis of democracy. From Iraq to ‘we are all in it together’ austerity – decisions were being made against the peoples will, funnelled through the ideological lens of the ‘impartial’ media establishment.
Fast forward to 2017 and the situation continues to evolve. Trump, Brexit and Corbynism – each of them in their own right massive developments – and each rooted in the on going crisis. And in Scotland too, the political atmosphere and the forces involved and the political dynamics have changed dramatically. The 2014 Yes movement was not just a movement of opposition to the Tories, but also to New Labour. Westminster to working class Scotland represented a university of the political elite, locked into a pro-war, pro-austerity straight jacket. The Corbyn phenomenon changed this. While the mass movement that erupted around the Labour campaign in England didn’t manifest itself in the same way in Scotland for reasons I outline in here –namely the national question – it exposed a moderating SNP. The party fought the 2015 General Election campaign in aggressive fashion, mirroring the essential politics of the left-wing independence movement, then drew to the centre ground. Despite being granted absolute political hegemony, they failed to deliver radical land reform, didn’t replace the council tax, introduced standardised testing and were none to certain about definitively ruling out fracking taking place in Scotland.
In the aftermath of the 2017 General Election Jamie Maxwell wrote:
“The numbers are stark. At the 2014 independence referendum, 1.6 million Scots voted Yes on a record-breaking turnout of 84 per cent. The following year, at the 2015 UK election, the SNP soaked-up most of that base, winning 1.4 million votes. At the 2016 Scottish devolved election, the SNP vote dipped to just over one million. In June, it dipped again, to 980,000, on a massively reduced turnout of 66 per cent. This is obviously not a sustainable trajectory for the SNP. As participation in the Scottish political process falls, so too does the party’s authority. Sturgeon has triangulated her way through every major policy challenge, from tax and education to land reform and the environment. As a result, more and more (predominantly young and poor) Scots are withdrawing from the political sphere. Her refusal to deviate from an ideological centre ground that, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, simply no longer exists, has cost the SNP its insurgent status.”
The Programme For Government is in part a reaction to this analysis. Simply put, without being seen to move to the left, the SNP would be left in the lurch.
Let’s look at the headlines:
– Scottish National Investment Bank
– Confirmation of a public sector rail bid
– End of the public sector pay cap
– Free sanitary products in schools and research into making them free for everyone
– Expansion of free personal care to under 65s
– Big investment in electric cars and new charging points – target of 2032 for all new sales to be electric or hybrid. Special task force to work out how to provide charging outside tenements.
– Big investments in manufacturing and R&D
– A South of Scotland Enterprise board
– Money for research into universal basic income
– Confirmation that the land reform commission will consider a land value tax
– Investment in carbon capture technology
– Presumption against jail sentences of under 12 months (community services / fines to be preferred)
– More money for action on homelessness
– A Local Democracy Bill
– A pardon for all people convicted of being gay, when it was a crime
On top of existing commitments such as:
– Expanding free childcare to primary school hours
– Expansion of apprenticeships to 30,000/year
– New manufacturing centres of excellence
– A means-tested funeral allowance so everyone gets a decent funeral
– Increase in Carer’s Allowance
– Best start grant, which is extra money for poorer families when children are born and start school
Again – a health warning: we need action not talks. Implementation not reviews. And we need to go much further than the SNP leadership will eve be prepared to go. But to leave the analysis at that would in itself reflect a sectarian shawlowness. The point is that there was a need, even at an aesthetic level, to put forward ideas associated with the left. Alex Rowley welcomed many of the policies, and made clear that some were already in the Labour programme. Indeed – it is because of the impact of Corbyn that the SNP must move to reinforce their left flank.
This is why politics in Scotland is complicated and multi-layered. There are real reasons why many on the left of different strands don’t automatically join Labour – as they would do living in England. The situation remains fluid. No Scottish seat is stable. We need to get Scottish politics back onto the field of ideas. This is what made the Yes movement flourish. But it’s going to take all of us who adhere to socialist principles –regardless of party – to engage in a robust debate about strategy, while engaging together in campaigns. Enough of the tawdry, intellectually vacuous social media skirmishes. We live in a changing world – and Scotland is part of it. We need to re-engage the best practices of the referendum process, and of the Labour movement: open debate, radical ideas and putting a challenge to power.
That power, in the end, is the power of capital. We are dealing with more than a corrupt establishment or a deviant political class – but with an outdated, failing economic system. That system exerts power over and above the political process. Despite the Scottish left being disaggregated, by maximising unity of purpose in extra parliamentary movements rooted in class politics there exists the potential to pull the situation leftwards. It’s about raising the political level – and developing arenas of debate that allow us to confront the big questions of the day. And its about understanding politics is about relations, not loyalty to a party badge.
Take the Scottish Investment Bank for example. Isn’t this kind of move – problematic details aside momentarily – the culmination of the threat Corbynism poses electorally, the internal lobbying of the SNP left and organisations like Common Weal? Is the policy on homelessness not there due to the relentless campaigning that has gone on around this issue in recent months, by social movements like Living Rent? Or might we look to the work carried out by womens groups that raised the question of access to sanitary products? No doubt the lack of radical land reform exposed a timidity that time and again would be raised by campaigners. Campaigners who now have to make sure the exploration of a Land Value Tax is more than words. Perhaps scrapping the public sector pay cap came in part because another show down with the Unions in the wake of the recent college lecturers strike would further relieve the SNP of electoral support. After the pressure around trasnport – to leave out a public sector bid for the railways would have been roundly criticised. Nothing is ever delivered from on high.
Many left-wing Scots are grappling with the development of Corbyn, the nature of the SNP, and the fate of Independence. But on all sides of these questions there is space to collectively organise and win left-wing demands. Ones that go beyond the social democratic elements of SNP programme, and that challenge the power of capital directly. It is the process of this action – the development of agency – that develops the capacities needed to raise deeper challenges to the system.
As Immanuel Wallerstein writes:
“…there is an internal debate among radical left militants about future tactics. Should they seek electoral power or should they seek to control the streets? The dilemma is that neither works well. If they come to state power, they find that they have to make innumerable “compromises” of their program in order to remain in power. If they seek power only in the streets, they find they cannot make the changes they want without power in the state, and are able to be held in check by state agencies using state force. Is it therefore hopeless to pursue a radical left program today? Not at all. We are living amidst the transition from a dying capitalist system and a new system yet to be chosen.”
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