The Terrain of the Reality and the Future

Coming out of lockdown at election time in pandemic Scotland is to emerge back into a very strange world. In India oxygen is the new currency, in Britain Boris has resorted to sending in gunships and threatening France: the CoronaBrexit experience remains a grotesque and absurd one.

It’s Friday and as I write I don’t know what the election results are. The most polled and tracked Scottish election ever still doesn’t know and the estimates vary widely: projected seat ranges: from SNP 58 to 71 seats, Conservatives from 24 to 32, Labour from 18 – 25, the Greens from 5 to 11, the Liberals from 4 – 8, and Alba between 0 or 1. These are huge disparities and could mean the difference between forcing a referendum or not, between a coalition government in Scotland or not, between a historic breakthrough for the Scottish Greens in this year of COP26, or not and between at least three party leaders losing their jobs, or not.

The election takes place in the cliched ‘unprecedented times’ and no-one knows what effect this will have had on peoples psyche and outlook, though initial indications show turnout up, which might seem counter-intuitive. How will people vote mid-pandemic, will it be in hope or despair?

‘Coming out of Lockdown’ has become one of those phrases that’s ubiquitous but also meaningless as the political class struggles to get its head around the scale of multiple crises and unknown challenges we face. As George Monbiot writes (That creaking sound? It’s the United Kingdom starting to break apart): “we have never been closer and never further away”, the sense of opportunity and despair co-mingle:

“We have never been closer and never further away. Remote technologies open up our living rooms to each other, but what we see behind the doors are different worlds: flaking plaster in one, £800-a-roll wallpaper in another. In Westminster, a hereditary elite treated the pandemic less as a crisis than as an opportunity to enrich its friends. By granting unadvertised, untendered contracts to favoured companies for essential goods and services, many of which were either substandard or never arrived, it actively encouraged the sort of profiteering during a national emergency portrayed in The Third Man. A number of Harry Limes have become exceedingly rich as a result.”

This idea of “closer and never further away” haunts left melancholia, our general society skeptical about our ‘leaders’ ability to respond to this level of crisis and the Scottish democracy movement which remains fraught and divided. This idea of being ‘caught’ ‘stuck’ and immobilised has emerged from our physical experience and we now see being manifested in our politics. When previously we felt there were movements for change from which strategies would emerge – be they from the labour movement or the independence movement or the peace movement or the women’s movement – or some rich combination of them all – now it feels like all of these movements are in a defensive mode and running on parallel tracks. The key to fighting back and bursting out of this morass is to find ways to unite movements in common struggles and in doing so politicise and radicalise the independence movement, to re-orientate towards what Tom Nairn called “the terrain of reality and the future”.

What ever comes out of this election will impact on the campaign for independence, but given that there has been a failure of political leadership how can we make new forms that don’t ‘ask upwards’ but create ‘leadership from below’? How can we create new insurgency that remains on “the terrain of the reality and the future” but doesn’t either turn to the toxicity of some parts of the movement or indulge in the magical thinking that remains detached from peoples real lives or void of any real political strategy?

Activists and political movements trapped in social media bubbles re-create their own narratives, speak exclusively to each other and re-enforce their own prejudices over and over until they remain utterly certain about everything and incapable of genuine dialogue with anyone. This is true across social movements and has been boosted and amplified by lockdown. But if we are to move beyond this we need real-world encounters face to face and turn over our own arguments and ideas afresh. If the most atavistic elements of the independence movement have crashed and burned, as looks likely then we and they should reflect on that and what it means rather than descend further into wild conspiracy and paranoia. The movement must steady itself and commit to the “the terrain of reality and the future” rather than indulge in surrealism and the past, which is the terrain that Alba and its cohorts have been immersed in.

For the left in Scotland this must mean looking at the wreckage of Labour in England and recognising the prospect of permanent Tory rule in England is a very real one as Boris Johnson’s incredible regime yields electoral success. After Hartlepool Labour aren’t coming to save Scotland or the union. Scotland isn’t coming to save Labour either. It’s time for a change and new alliances for the left to be forged by refugees from Scottish Labour and the wider Scottish left to (re) join a renewed independence movement.

Another space for creative thinking that is already underway is the headland being occupied between the climate movement and the independence movement, where the demographic convergence of a whole generation of young people find common cause in fighting for a Scotland that is viable for all of our futures.

Finally sometimes the dynamism of breakdown is exhilarating. Everything seems to be falling apart and there’s a tendency to get a thrill from this. But breakdown isn’t breakthrough and if “crisis is opportunity” can be true it isn’t always true. Without strategy and movement building crisis is just crisis, eagerly seized on by the forces of reaction and opportunism, as we’ve seen in recent years. There’s no greater opportunity for “strategy and movement building” than the convergence of the need for independence, the need for “pandemic recovery” and the need for socio-ecological climate resilience. If you want to think about what this DOESN’T look like take Keir Starmer’s recent visit to Scotland.

George Monbiot describes it here: “Keir Starmer seems scarcely interested in Scotland as anything other than an electoral calculation – and it’s not always clear which election he’s considering. Last month he made the weirdest campaign video I’ve ever seen in the UK. It began with a British Airways jet landing at Edinburgh airport. Starmer came down the steps like a visiting dignitary, mumbling “Remind me which country this is again?”, strode around the empty airport with a phalanx of sinister-looking men, inveighed against the lack of flights and announced that he wanted to put economic recovery “above all else”, presumably including life on Earth. Then, it seems, having alienated his remaining Scottish voters and anyone under 40, he flew out again. It was incomprehensible, until you remember that British Airways is a touchstone and crucial battleground for the Unite union, Labour’s biggest donor, and that future remissions depend on the outcome of its leadership elections, for which nominations begin tomorrow, just as Scottish voters go to the polls. In other words, he seems to have been using Scotland as a backdrop for an entirely different contest. That’s what Scotland is to Westminster: a backdrop.”

Scotland needs to be the foreground not a backdrop and it seems increasingly clear that our ecologically illiterate politicians are not fit for purpose.

All our political class have failed us in different ways, let’s hope that whatever the results we can open up a space with fresh thinking and new alliances, out of lockdown and out of our bubbles into “the terrain of reality and the future”.






Comments (15)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I’m quite happy to find Mike’s piece pessimistic given the results since he wrote and what the leaders of both the SNP and the Greens have said since. We need to focus on continued campaigning especially in places (as where I live) which suffered from Unionist tactical voting. A continued, regular presence of pro-independence groups working in a positive and open way has to be our priority. Eyes on the next council elections I think. A brief look at social media this morning (Sunday) suggests that is the general mood, to take what’s encouraging and build on it.

  2. Mark Bevis says:

    There is another fly in the ointment. Recent papers show that as CO2 levels increase, cognitive function decreases. Or to put it plainer, the more we pollute, the thicker (and more sterilised) we become as a species. One scientist recommends putting CO2 meters in all offices, when it reaches 800ppm the windows should be opened. When it reaches 1200ppm, the staff should be sent out into the garden to play, or something like that, until the levels recede.
    However it’s soon coming to the point where the CO2 levels outside aren’t low enough to make a difference, already at 420ppm, or ~600ppm equivalence when you add in CH4 and NO2.

    So if the common question of why so many people vote for their own demise (voting Tory & Blairite Labour) arises, blame the carbon emissions. It’s not really the corporations or evil Tories or untrained economists or bought and biased media or capitalism, honest guv’!

    There have been interesting articles floating my doomosphere about the psychology of collapse, as it were, and there are two levels that unhinges activism:

    1) one is that humans are wired for short-term thinking and problem solving, sort of “is that movement in the bush over there my lunch, or am I it’s lunch?”
    so long term problems such as ecological overshoot and collapse do not resonate with most people. Like the rubbish we throw “away” it’s a problem over there, far “away”. Even though in geological timelines our current predicaments are mere blinks of an eye. Even though on a finite planet there is no “away”.

    2) humans in general do not react logically to predicaments, but emotionally. I found this article interesting on this subject:
    “Mortality reminders can lead to increases in resource and wealth-seeking, and other self-esteem seeking behaviors that contribute to climate change. After death reminders, we are more likely to want to distance from anything that reminds us of our animal nature, and often we do this by way of exerting control over the natural word. This may temporarily reduce our existential anxiety, but it is usually antithetical to conservation and sustainability. For this reason, fear-tactics are unlikely to result in proactive changes in behavior for the good of the climate.”

    I got that link from here:

    Something to think about, how can these thoughts be applicable to Scottish Independence movements? And to future Scottish (and more local) governance? If at all.

    On a more scientific level, the latest UN report on CH4 is out, and it confirms what many of us knew already:

    The report “finds that expanding natural gas infrastructure and usage without relying on currently unproven technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere is “incompatible” with limiting global warming to keeping global warming to 1.5°C relative to the preindustrial era.”

    “One thing the report calls for very strongly is not building any more of this fossil fuel infrastructure if we are phasing this out over the next couple of decades,” said Drew Shindell, an Earth scientist at Duke University and lead author of the new report.”

    “Of all the short lived climate pollutants, methane has by far the largest current warming impact, accounting for nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it is therefore now by far the top priority, short-lived climate pollutant that we need to tackle.”
    The actual report is here for those that have more time than me(!):

    However the study completely omits the CH4 in the natural sources being released in the Arctic tundra and ocean, Antarctica, the Amazon rainforest, and warming soils worldwide. And that warming increases the rate of release of CH4 from these sources in a feedback loop, which started way back c1960 when were at 315ppm CO2.


    In summary any future proofing movements that want to make a better world for its citizens, have three extra obstacles, besides the current political/economic suicide death cult set up.
    1) Increased pollution increases the probability of groups of humans making poor decisions
    2) humans are wired for short-term gain/pain avoidance/solutions
    3) humans react emotionally rather than logically to data

    It’s interesting you quote Monbiot. He gets it a lot, and writes some great material, but then disappears into techno-utopianism and middle-class memes at times. He talks a lot about narratives, the stories we tell ourselves as communities and as species, and that is important. Neo-liberalism was the narrative that won once EROEI started declining since 1973.
    The narrative the independence movement, or even, just a movement for a better Scotland, (and hence then perhaps a better England) – if it can bear in mind those 3 points, it might gain more traction.
    Point 1 tells me citizens assemblies, when you form them, should be outdoors rather than in stuffy offices, for example.
    Point 2 tells me that telling people that their current behaviour (“getting back to normal”) is going to kill their grandchildren is having no effect whatsoever.
    Point 3 defies me personally, in how to present information in a way that elicits positive engagement rather than the current doubling down “lets do more of the same thing and expect a different result” that is being offered by the mainstream ecologically illiterate.

    I’m well past the point personally of caring whether homo sapiens makes it through the coming bottleneck or not. I do care about Scottish independence more than I care about the whims of Westmonster, merely because you have the right to have a go – you surely can’t fuck it up for Scotland more than the current lot are. And it sets precedent then for north England independence. I care enough to get local Green Party candidates elected, which we did, successfully.

    Collapsing EROEI will enforce de facto independence at some point anyway, and thus localism will happen, so you may as well be in charge at a more local level than you currently have. A managed decline is better than a random collapsing decline for sure.
    Hospice for the Human Species will be done locally in the end, regardless of the whims of corporations, banks, money lenders, national politicians, armies and police forces.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Mark Bevis, I would say:
      1) there is a difference between individual (environmentally-induced) cognitive impairment and the collective effects of political decision-making processes. Even if you hypothesised that atmospheric pollution was contributing significantly to people vote against their interests, you then have to show that voting makes a difference in those areas (and in the UK, there are many constancies in government policy of any party in power that are apparently untouched by voter choice).
      2) yet throughout history many people have been apparently obsessed by the afterlife (usually involving some kind of self-restraint), and contributed to building multi-generation monuments like cathedrals. Most notably in comparison with other animals, humans are born into the world undeveloped, and early infancy has profound effects on development path. Very large degrees of neuroplasticity have been confirmed by brain scanners extending into mid-twenties humans.
      3) the point about scientific peer review is that even if one scientist is ‘acting emotionally in regard to the data’ (or whatever bias might exist), such biases are reduced by checks and balances. As for science, so potentially for public policies. Emotions give us our values, and without values, we would not function. Emotions are involved in how we train ourselves. And many have noted that positive emotions connected with the natural world are the underpinnings of environmentalism.

      As one human generation gets more jaded, cynical, dejected and corrupt, a new generation replaces it, with fresh perspectives; until the species is extinct, anyway. Judgement about the essence of human nature is always in indefinite suspension, until then.

  3. David B says:

    Love this article. As convincing as the SNP win has been, the opinion polls and more importantly the popular vote still show the nation split down the middle on independence. A great deal of creativity and listening will be needed to break the impasse. At present I feel we’re hurtling towards an enormously high-stakes coin toss, at the end of which half the country will be furious with the other.

    As with many ‘peace talks’, I think both the indy and pro UK left will need to concede ground. (Anas Sarwar’s argument was essentially ‘let’s end division by agreeing with me’ which is how nothing has worked ever). Monica Lennon suggested Labour should back a referendum if there was a Devo Max option. To some of their pro UK base this would look like betrayal; to the Indy movement like taking ‘The Vow’ out of the bucket and reheating it. I’m not saying that’s the answer but it’s an example of how both sides might need to leave entrenched positions in order to move forward.

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      One positive thing I think that has been overlooked is that the election date fell fortuitously for the Tories. The vaccine rollout smokescreen won’t last forever. I also think that once restrictions are lifted and indy marches recommence the momentum will be all with us. The question is, will it be enough to counteract the media bias and project fear 2?

    2. Rich says:

      I’m not so sure that the nation is ‘split down the middle’ .
      SNP/Green votes are independence-leaning for sure , but I also believe that there are Labour (and Liberal) voters still voting for the party who would go with independence if the party went that way . The Scots Labour leadership have had to play along with London on the union thing despite realising the groundswell of socialist support amongst the greater population in Scotland , socialists voting SNP rather than for them . Should they break with the rudderless southern party and throw their weight behind independence they might well someday find themselves in the driving seat of a radical socialist/green alliance post independence .
      We have to recognise the reality that the SNP are a vehicle that has disparate passengers united by a common destination . Once the bus arrives folk will spread out and be re-forming the political landscape . This is the future . The sooner the old-guard parties recognise the inevitable the sooner we can get on with fighting over the utopia .

      1. Alice says:

        Cathie, Rich …enjoyed your thinking, positive and future facing….I wonder if Sarwar has the political intelligence to do what is so obvious for the future of Labour in Scotland. Scotland Now poised and ready for action plus loads of others.

        Mike please consider not using the name Boris ….miles too friendly for such a guy.

        1. GM Stevenson says:

          I strongly agree it’s important not to call him Boris. I wrote this last July:

          Last year, I remarked to a friend that he has what I consider a sexist habit of referring to female politicians by their first names, but uses last names for their male counterparts. He refers to the Scottish First Minister as “Nicola,” but never referred to her predecessor as “Alex.” I told him I thought this showed he took women less seriously than men, seeing them as closer to children than adults.

          He replied he always referred to Boris Johnson by his first name, but admitted he did not do that with any other male politicians. I suggested this supported my point, because Johnson’s clownish persona made my friend see him as an overgrown child, giving him the same status he gave women.

          And it is a persona; in private life, he is not called Boris. His friends and family call him Al, his actual first name (his name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson). In a similar way to the US cult of “Bernie” — Sanders’s friends and family call him Bernard — Johnson is selling performance, not policy. But, unlike Sanders, he is dangerous.

          In an ungrammatical column in The National, Lesley Riddoch does a good job of normalising him by referring to him with chummy, faux-familiarity.

          It is of urgent importance not to trivialise this catastrophe with cute nicknames. Call him what he is: the Prime Minister. And in calling him that, consider the ultra-right-wing populist who now holds that office, and see where we are.

      2. David B says:

        Rich – if you look at the scale of tactical voting amongst the pro UK parties, I think that’s an indication that opposing Indyref2 was more important to many voters than traditional party loyalties. (I don’t like that situation, and was surprised by it, but it seemed to be a strong pattern). There will certainly be exceptions on both sides (yes voters still loyal to Labour/LDs, as well as no voters who want to keep NS as FM, or support the Greens on environmental grounds).

        No argument with the insipidness of UK Labour nor the potential rewards for a left wing alliance if it can navigate these difficult straights.

  4. Dougie Harrison says:

    Mike, this is a fine piece, thank you. I mibbe don’t always agree with everything you say, but that’s as it should be in a vibrant movement. I especially value your thoughts from para 6 on – that’s the one beginning ‘The idea of “closer and …”; ‘ and your subsequent thoughts on the labour movement in Scotland. There’s a lot still to be won there.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Article seems like an astute assessment, at least from inside whatever bubbles I currently inhabit.

    If Scotland is to be the foreground, then it needs to be constrasted with the background of the UK/Unionism/British Empire (yes, the latter still exists, go look up the United Nations pages on decolonisation). This means taking up Labour’s dropped plans to teach more accurate British history (something that Independence short-termers will presumably not have considered worthwhile). Anyway, kids can teach their parents. On the point of exposing the past and present criminality of the British state and its officials, that may be something a segment of population supports (although they may call it something else, ‘strength’ or ‘greatness’ perhaps). There will likely be many opportunities in the near future to examine this background criminality in detail (for example, nuclear weapons ban, ecocide, royal prerogative in war and covert operations, ultimate responsibility for war crimes, spycops, reparations for past colonial injustices, returning of looted artefacts, international tax evasion and so on).

    (there is a nice little card-based video game called Reigns which neatly encapsulates the criminal nature of successful monarchy

    Whatever future forms of self-governance we picture, they need to be grounded on rational territory (in agreement with the article), and here I would repeat that we need to reintroduce good-life philosophy into political discussions. That is ‘good’ as in ethical, not ‘good’ as in consumer product. With a worldwide perspective, as the current pandemic should have switched people onto ideas about global public health.

    1. Thanks Sleeping Dog – I understand I am also in some kind of bubble – but acknowledging that and being conscious of that is useful because I/we can then try and actively respond to that. For example I actively keep both this space and other social media open to other voices I completely disagree with

      1. john burrows says:

        This dissenting voice, who has occasionally passed through your forum, has been grateful of the opportunity you have provided for open debate within the general community.

  6. Wul says:

    Gordon Brown on the radio this morning, urging that a special project be set up to strengthen the Union.

    “It’ll be different this time…I can change…I promise…I’ll stop hurting you…I love you…I’m sorry….It’s your own fault!…why do you hate me?…” etc

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.