Frankenstein’s Scotland: Beyond Radical Independence
The general form of the representative State – bourgeois democracy – is itself the principal ideological lynchpin of Western capitalism, whose very existence deprives the working class of the idea of socialism as a different type of State. – Perry Anderson
The dissolution of the Radical Independence Campaign has prompted a degree of controversy within the small community of online diarists that constitutes, in pandemic-time, Scotland’s radical public sphere. I was never involved with the campaign, but from initial conversations I’ve had with people on all sides of the controversy in the aftermath, the true reasons for the dissolution remain clouded by suspicions of bad faith, ulterior motives or simple detachment from political reality. What is clear is that some people feel they have suddenly and needlessly lost an important horizon for future activism and present identity, while others – who supported dissolution – argue that the horizon was already long gone.
For much of the Scottish radical left, however, the ideal of ‘radical independence’ has not lost its function as the solid ground beneath their feet, providing a connection to so-called ‘mass’ political concerns in a way that socialism alone no longer can. Yet the determined centrism of the movement’s leading party has only increased its popularity, while the descent of grassroots dissent into anti-minoritarian cultural politics has wedged the pro-independence left between opportunistic populism and a liberationist cultural vanguardism. Independence no longer casts the easy radical charm it once did, even if the UK has sunk even further into the muck of reaction. Beneath all this is a deeper crisis for Scottish radicalism, one that is related to independence but can’t be reduced to it. I wrote most of the following article back in 2019, when these problems were already painfully evident, but pessimism about my concluding proposals held me back from publishing. I’m no less pessimistic now, but given the end of RIC I hope this might serve – in only slightly edited form – as a set of provocations for debate over where to go next.
An Ironclad Mirage
In August 2019, the SNP and the Scottish Tories joined forces to vote down proposals which commanded support across the Scottish left: a two-year rent freeze and protection from eviction for tenants who get into arrears during the coronavirus crisis, proposed by (then) Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman; and a support fund for tenants who have lost income due to the crisis, put forward by Scottish Labour MSP Pauline McNeill.
The crisis facing renters struggled briefly to the top of the agenda partly thanks to its severity, but also due to the persistent organisation, mobilisation and advocacy of the Living Rent tenants’ union. The SNP’s determination to oppose these proposals over two days of debate, even after their initial concerns were taken into account, prompted a wider and more pronounced anger than usual amongst left-wing activists. As Living Rent’s Rory Maclean wrote, “by forming a coalition of capital with the Tories to vote down rent freezes, hardship funds and collective bargaining for care workers, the SNP mirage of a moral high ground over Westminster is evaporating quickly.” Many concerned left-wing SNP members agreed.
This unity of anger and frustration was promising, given the tendency of the Scottish left to split along party or constitutional lines when it matters most. The achievements and prominence of extra-parliamentary organisations like Living Rent have been a rare source of uplift in the long and grim hangover of the independence referendum. But there is still a gulf between the Scottish left’s sense of its significance and its real public weight. As far as the voters are concerned, the “mirage” of the SNP’s moral high ground remains as solid as ever. In polling, their lead has not been “evaporating” but soaring. Why?
Pressure group politics
In discussions of the SNP’s limitations, there is still a noticeable tendency to think of Scottish politics as basically corporatist, almost entirely determined by the competition between pressure groups for government attention. That was the old, pre-Holyrood status quo of Scottish politics, which a Scottish Parliament was supposed to make more accountable and democratic. In the old “negotiated order,” governed via Whitehall, local bureaucracy and the Labour Party, the mysterious and perennially disappointing voting public could be bypassed if necessary.
In many ways the old corporatism suited the left. In the absence of a more clearly national representative body, the left – largely in the STUC and the Labour Party – became adept at speaking ‘for’ Scotland to and against Westminster, creating in voters’ minds an association between left-wing politics and Scottish identity. The National Museum of Scotland’s collection of contemporary Scottish history is called ‘The Voice of the People’, and is illustrated with a picture of Jimmy Reid. Reid’s own trajectory, however, should tell us something about the limits of this approach.
The voice of the people
Reid was one of the leaders of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, which took over the shipyards in 1971 after Ted Heath’s government withdrew state credits. His expert manipulation of the media as the work-in’s de facto spokesman drew on political and speaking skills he had developed as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and when the work-in forced the government into a humiliating U-turn, the CPGB sought to claim some of the credit.
Yet when Reid stood for the Communists in the Dunbartonshire Central constituency during the two 1974 General Elections, he was beaten by Labour despite being a figure with immense local and national respect. Concluding that the Communist Party had become a drag on his political chances, and frustrated with their internal politics, Reid joined the Labour Party in 1977 to great fanfare. When he contested Dundee East for Labour in 1979, he lost again – this time to the SNP.
This was one disappointment too many, and Reid decided to realise his media talents in journalism instead, presenting television shows and writing for left- and right-wing publications alike. By the late 2000s, outraged by Blairism and the Iraq War, Reid had drifted – almost inevitably – into the Scottish National Party, just as it was becoming the new, media-savvy ‘voice of the people.’ Throughout his career Reid’s politics followed the tastes of the Scottish people rather than leading them, giving a radical voice to what were in reality small-c conservative public protests against transformations imposed from afar.
The new corporatism
The Scottish left, like Reid, has never quite come to terms with the immense gap between its cultural status and its electoral weakness. A lot of the progressive gains made under devolution have been thanks to the voter-bypass of the Holyrood lobbying bubble, which is considerably more open to left-wing influence than its Westminster equivalent. Partly thanks to its outsized symbolic authority, the left can tug at the conscience and radical self-image of Scotland’s public-sector elites and media operators, shaping politicians’ sense of what is – and isn’t – acceptable or possible. But even that short-cut to relevance is weakening.
Now that Scotland has a clear, politically “neutral” representative body – a parliament – the left can’t claim to speak on behalf of the Scottish people in the way that it once could. It has been shunted to the side, and in its place is the principle of representation itself: all-inclusive, moderating and consensual, burying the very real conflicts within Scottish society in the steady processes of consultation and a superficial no-losers principle. In the false equality of ‘representation,’ landlords’ concerns are as legitimate as tenants’, despite the very real private power the former hold over the latter. So when these deeper social conflicts spill through into parliamentary politics, the Scottish political system – like any parliamentary democracy – is almost purpose-built to eject them, effectively taking the side of the powerful.
The parliamentary trap
A rising sense of helplessness amongst the left has been countered with the usual clarion-calls of ‘take to the streets’, ‘organise’ and ‘direct action,’ all to be done through a conveniently inchoate ‘mass movement.’ These approaches are undoubtedly essential. But they have always been essential – and never enough. The Scottish radical tradition still fancies itself in the mould of ‘Red Clydeside’, that interwar high point of localised revolt which occurred, tellingly, in the very first days of mass working-class suffrage in Britain.
Back then, radical politics could still command a genuine legitimacy, because electoral politics had not yet fully impressed its moderate, legalistic style on a working class that was used to making its demands directly, at the very edge of legitimate authority. But it is over 100 years now since the Fourth Reform Act more than doubled the size of the British electorate, and the radical left has yet to properly grasp the consequences: the force of extra-parliamentary action cannot ultimately outshine the halo of popular power that universal suffrage conjures around the state.
The wider left in England did accept this, and by the end of World War Two many English radicals had resigned themselves to the compromise of “loyal opposition” through the Labour Party. But in Scotland, without a parliament of its own, the whole spectrum of the left remained curiously convinced of radicalism’s electoral potential. It is no coincidence that the most spectacular victories of extra-parliamentary action in Britain’s democratic era – from the UCS work-in and the miners’ strikes of the early 1970s, to the defeat of the new Northern Ireland Assembly by striking loyalists in 1974 – were concentrated at the weak links of British political legitimacy, the under-represented nations and regions. But as territorial politics began to dominate Scotland’s political horizon in the 1970s, Scottish leftists increasingly blamed the specific institution of Westminster for Britain’s progressive failures rather than the more general limitations of parliamentary politics. The result was a startling revival of parliamentary optimism in the dream of a Scottish Parliament, even as Westminster’s legitimacy plunged across the UK.
The slow grinding-down of those hopes under devolution has seen much of the left cast Labour aside in disgust, while the Scottish Socialist Party collapsed under the sheer weight of ego and media attention which even modest electoral success encouraged. The SNP benefited from radical aspirations too, but their rise and survival has also been powered by the downward momentum of expectations: the SNP’s left-wing members tend to hold them to far lower standards than they applied when deciding that “I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me”. The Scottish Greens, who are now by far the most reliable parliamentary carriers of Scottish radicalism’s flickering torch, most accurately reflect the true political and cultural reach of that tradition today than either Labour or the SNP.
But to place fresh hope in the Scottish Greens is to miss the point. They have maintained their position on the more utopian edge of the Scottish political mainstream by refusing to fully compromise with it, a stance which – like extra-parliamentary action – can only get them so far. This is not to say that Scots do not necessarily want radicalism, at some level, but the electorate clearly does not. ‘The Scottish electorate’ does not really exist in everyday life; it is a grotesque invention of the Scottish media and electoral systems, stitched together by politicians, journalists and pollsters from countless particular concerns and identities, brought to life once every few years by the lightning-strike of an election. It is one of the necessary fictions, forged between radical pressure and elite compromise, by which we have stopped capitalism from degenerating into barbarism. But as far as its elite beneficiaries are concerned, this Frankenstein’s Scotland is strong enough, and scary enough, to overpower more radical, necessarily localised interests and identities – be they workplaces, housing blocks or school strikers – every single time.
The organisers of those groups are doing extraordinary things under extraordinary pressure. There is only so much they can do at once. But placing extra-parliamentary pressure on parliament does little to break Holyrood’s stifling grip on the Scottish political imagination – if anything, it reinforces it. Nor can direct extra-parliamentary confrontation with bosses or landlords fully overwhelm either parliament or the law, capital’s last backstops of legitimate authority. To even begin challenging for real, independent political power, the Scottish left needs to augment its localised, extra-parliamentary efforts with national and counter-institutional ones. It has to stitch together a different kind of monster and bring it to life through a different kind of machine.
The Monster: a Scottish cultural revolution
First, the monster. Do we have a “left in Scotland” or a “Scottish left”? Does the left here have a distinctive sense of what Scottish identity is, or what its own distinctly national features are, beyond a few vague historical references and a different accent? Most of the Scottish left has abandoned any effort to understand or transform what is distinctive or politically significant in Scottish culture, be it ‘high’ or ‘low’. Instead, thanks to the drastic centralisation of cultural control in the hands of transnational streaming services and social media corporations, we adapt and reproduce whatever bland cocktail of Anglo-American pop-culture (and pop-radicalism) is closest to hand, with little to garnish it but a change of vowels and a wee plastic saltire on a stick.
This is not to say that there is anything uniquely good about Scottish culture – Limmy, perhaps – but there are countless ways in which Scottish culture is distinctively bad. The same goes for English or American culture, but we cannot grapple with our own cultural badness if we’re too busy whining about theirs. This is not just a nationalist problem but a radical one: it means we struggle to criticise our own politics on our own terms, adopting instead whatever Anglo-American discourses are most fashionable, importing ideas and critical frameworks which are not always well suited to the Scottish climate: this applies to scepticism towards American liberal “progressivism” as much as it does towards the thing itself, with left-wingers increasingly picking fights with the spectre of the “woke” militant in a country with, if anything, far too few of them.
Culture is the means by which politicians and the media disguise their ideology as natural, and rooted in the common life of the people, most of whom tend to live in a very different cultural world from Scotland’s activist communities. Without understanding our own culture, warts and all, the left cannot even begin to grasp the ways in which it is being ideologically outflanked, or develop flanking manoeuvres of its own. Blindly pandering towards “ordinary” culture is no substitute for ruthless criticism: not only of those in power, but also of the means by which those without power rationalise and re-enchant their disempowerment.
The Machine: counter-institutional politics
Counter-institutional politics means recognising that the Scottish Parliament – at best, a flattering modern extension on the British state’s ugly old pile – cannot legislate for socialism. Local government, meanwhile, can offer at best a municipal protectionism of the kind North Ayrshire Council are pursuing through the ‘Community Wealth Building’ model – but local authorities’ constitutional and financial limitations are more likely to force socialist councillors into deeply unpopular choices about which services should be eviscerated
Scotland’s new networks of radical action, which are slowly linking together unionised tenants and workers, climate activists and school strikers, anti-racist and queer liberation activists, do not need yet another left party demanding their votes and affiliation every few years. What they need are living democratic institutions of their own, open to all but existentially committed to a socialist transformation of society, blending localised, charismatic community leadership with national co-ordination in a confederal association.
Such institutions should recognise the pluralism of the Scottish left and the importance of community embeddedness while claiming the legitimacy to co-ordinate strategy, intelligence and resources nationwide in accordance with collective needs. They should encourage and welcome the association, formal or informal, of sympathetic groups: from party branches, union branches and housing co-ops to radical bookshops, reading groups and punk bands. Their long-revolutionary vision should not be to lobby Scotland’s politicians or to get new ones elected, but to replace Scotland’s political system and cultural infrastructure entirely.
The National Question
None of the above provides a sufficient means of escaping the consent-machine of the national question itself. That has to be dealt with directly, not left to one side in the hope that it will rust from inattention. It exists for a reason, and – to simplify drastically – the reason is England. So long as an Anglo-British vision of the world dominates our media, Scottish politics will be structured around questions of national difference. The inane assertion of Scottish difference is a necessary element of doing politics in Scotland, because our own distinctive structures and problems are continuously being drowned out by the idiot cacophony to the south. Unionists and “radical federalists” in the Labour Party are quietly aware of this problem and infuriated by it, because they also think that asserting national difference is intrinsically separatist. It is in fact a prerequisite for understanding why Scottish Labour keep losing Scottish elections in such a distinctively dunderheidit fashion.
Independence may at least make more vigorous demands on Scottish attention than Holyrood. But England’s voice and influence in our political culture – never mind our economy – will remain massive for as long as it takes up so much space on the island we share. The long-term solution to this is to change the territorial dimension. We can make common cause with England’s regionalists in pursuing the disintegration of English political identity into smaller and more accountable regionalised units. The struggle to ‘speak for England’ is a serious problem for us because it tends to resolve itself into an overwhelming majority – a single, brash, overconfident, dog-whistling voice – that makes itself heard not only at Westminster but throughout the Anglophone cultures of which London is an extraordinarily powerful hub. This would be much less of a problem if a dozen Regional Parliaments and cultural capitals, nurturing sub-national identities of their own, were competing amongst each other for attention and resources from a constrained Federal Assembly.
This is not “divide and rule” so much as a balancing of the scales. It goes hand in hand with the two projects outlined above. A better understanding of Scottish cultural politics would give us plenty of lessons in the invention and uses of territorial identity to pass on to interested comrades in Northumbria, Yorkshire, Merseyside, Cornwall and elsewhere, enabling them to conjure up their own territorial politics with which to disrupt the common-sense appeal of popular Englishness. A counter-institutional politics can, by force of example, encourage the left in England (against an “English left”) to tear their gaze away from Westminster and focus instead on building up local institutional power that might resist the gravitational pull of London.
Conclusion: tenants, not landlords
Scotland used to provide a secure home for the left, almost literally: over fifty percent of housing in Scotland was once in public hands. Even today, well over fifty per cent of Scottish representatives at both Holyrood and Westminster are from left of centre parties, though it is no accident that the most clearly centrist of those predominates. As last month’s housing debate showed, the disproportionate power of the private sector in Scottish public life – from housing to industrial policy – is reinforced by a parliamentary and party system that cannot side forcefully with the public good. As with every liberal democracy, the left can only ever be tenants, never owners, of the Scottish parliamentary house.
Competing amongst ourselves on partisan lines for the biggest room in that house cannot possibly resolve the basic imbalance of private power which parliamentary politics conceals. While partisan bickering is an inevitability of electoralism, it also obscures the more pressing task of the left to use the legitimacy produced by electoral politics as a means of building power outside of parliament. The Scottish left needs institutions of its own which are neither entirely disinterested in parliament, nor overly invested in it. These cannot be built within any one party, as the experience of every “new left party” and radical faction has shown.
The need for a cross-party left is especially serious in Scotland, where a semi-proportional electoral system allows a range of centre-left parties to coexist, each of which tempts more radical forces with distinctive lines of attack and retreat that become more or less plausible in changing historical circumstances. By co-ordinating left activity across parties, these differences can be turned into opportunities rather than obstacles, ensuring that diverse interventions in electoral politics reflect shared strategic priorities rather than ideological disagreements.
But these opportunities shouldn’t be understood as ways of ultimately producing some kind of legislative or electoral victory, as almost every pressure group, trade union and social movement in Scotland aspires to do. The strategy must be to ultimately replace the established forms of political legitimacy in Scotland rather than merely occupying them for a few years at a time. Whether activists engage with Labour, the Greens, the SNP or no party at all, the “parliamentary road” to Scottish socialism has to be understood as just one of the many routes to real power: the power of the many to determine their own conditions of existence, free from interminable “resistance” against the tyranny of the few.