2007 - 2021

Exiting the Morbid Interregnum

The lockdown has felt like a space-in-between, and alongside it the prospect of a Scottish democracy and a decades-denied socio-ecological renewal is left hanging in the balance.

In his Prison Notebooks around 1930 Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. Today we can see such morbid symptoms all around us, be they immense corruption, virulent racism or the rise of the new and not so new far-right. But amid the morbid symptoms there are also some fragile signs of hope.

If much of British society culture and politics seems mired in a quagmire of nostalgia, this tendency, this obsession has been magnified out of all proportion by the Brexit experience. Fragments of a broken society have been grasped by politicians with few answers but keen to make the most of the potent mix of historical amnesia, culture war and imagined grievance that swirl around us. Nigel Farage has (sort of) left the stage and we are left with the Conservative regime which, through the ‘bodies piled high’ remains ascendant. Oscillating between a bland vanilla centralism and an absurdist left fantasy Labour looks like a doomed project.

Writing in Le Monde Politique ‘Is Scotland closer to independence?’ Rory Scothorne looks at the Hartlepool defeat – where the the Conservatives swept aside the Labour Party for the first time since 1959 as a marker of a historical shift and the sign of a kind of ‘museum society’. He writes:

“In Scotland, however, a different kind of museum society has emerged, and even thrived. Scotland’s parliament, established in 1999, was demanded by trade unions, Scottish Nationalists and the Labour and Communist parties throughout the 1980s and 90s, as a means of defending Scottish industry. By the time it arrived, much of that industry had gone. In its place was — and is — a residual fidelity to centre-left politics, a broad cross-class hostility to the Conservatives, and a popular faith in the ‘public sector ethos’ that still legitimates Scotland’s overwhelmingly state-run public services. Deindustrialised England, with no separate English parliament or regional assemblies, has been forced to leave its memories of a more benevolent social state under Labour behind.”

This has the ring of truth about it and Labour’s terminal decline is surely caught up with in vortex of deindustrialisation and England’s multifaceted identity crisis. Scothorne’s analysis of corporate SNP politics is appropriately scathing but at times we dip into left melancholia when he writes: “… In Scotland those memories were preserved — and institutionalised — in the Scottish Parliament. The ashes of the Scottish mineworkers’ leader and Communist Mick McGahey, one of the leading advocates of that parliament, are buried in the building’s foundations.”

This homage to Scotland’s industrial past is to be found scattered across the Scottish left like coaldust. It’s to be found in calls for a ‘re-industrialisation programme’, in the contempt for the Scottish Green Party, in some nationalists inability to move beyond the ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ as if this was 1974 not 2021, or even in some of the left’s framing of a New Green Deal replete with centralised planning and gigantic-scale state action. Some of this is the failure of political movements to successfully share fresh ideas and new thinking, some of it is the result of brittle left groupings stuck in ideological churn and some of it is just hard-wired into the DNA of Scottish society where the virtues of hard work and Calvinism blend into a seamless set of values which trump all before them. Work, workerism, presenteeism and graft are clung-onto in a fashion that has for a long time been deeply inappropriate and damaging. Defining yourself only by your work (or lack of it) is a practice of late capitalist trauma. If the pandemic has propelled ideas like Universal Basic Income, a later start for schoolchildren and a play-based learning or the Four Day Week they have often been met with a muted incomprehension by the Scottish left and wider polity.

Despite this some of these ideas are breaking through and if the ideas of a ‘wellbeing’ or a post-growth economy remain indistinct and vulnerable to capture and distortion, the outline of a future viable Scotland is emergent. This resistance to change is ubiquitous and entirely understandable. But our society and our is moving through such rapid and convulsive change that sheltering in our ideological comfort zones, our ‘safe spaces’, our home-made dens of safety won’t really work any more.

For those fossil collectors  – who cling on to Oil, or Coal or Marx as we step into the middle of the 21st Century the beginning of June saw some step changes.

In a landmark case last week a Dutch court ruled that Shell needs to plan to drastically reduce the climate emissions it is responsible for. Richard Dixon, from Friends of the Earth Scotland wrote:

“This is the first time a company has been held liable for causing climate change anywhere in the world and could open the door to similar challenges around the world. The court said that Shell’s plans to keep on pumping oil were incompatible with the action needed to tackle climate change. The case was led by our Dutch sister organisation Milieudefensie along with 17,000 Dutch citizens as co-plaintiffs and six other organisations.”

Dixon concluded: “The Dutch court concluded that although the targets in the Paris Agreement apply to governments, they are impossible to meet without action from companies. If this can happen to Shell, the biggest European oil company, every other oil company in the world must be terrified.”

At the same time across the world a tiny hedge fund dealt a major blow to Exxon Mobil Corp on Wednesday, unseating at least two board members in a bid to force the company’s leadership to reckon with the risk of failing to adjust its business strategy to match global efforts to combat climate change.

The success by Engine No. 1 in its showdown with Exxon shocked an energy industry struggling to address growing investor concerns about global warming. It happened on the same day as the Dutch court ordered Shelll to drastically deepen pledged cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

These are legal and corporate victories and should be put in that context.

Green Deals

The wild hysteria evoked by the prospect of a SNP-Green coalition of sorts is testimony to both small and big C Conservatism in Scotland. Andrew Bowie and Murdo Fraser have been scrabbling to undo each other in their condemnation of the prospect of the Scottish Green Party taking cabinet positions, a stance fueled by both the reality that’s not an experience they’ll ever have – as much as their climate denialism.

Scratch under the surface of the Scottish Green Party and you find not a cuddly group of promoters of cycling, recycling and protecting wildlife, but a group of hard-left extremists,” bellowed Fraser.

If only it were true.

Fraser continues thundering:

“For those in business in Scotland, already concerned about their ability to recover post-Covid, the prospect of the Greens having more influence in government is deeply worrying, bringing with it the certainty of higher taxes and stricter regulation. Similar concerns are felt in rural communities where the urban-centred Greens’ lack of understanding of, for example, the economics of farming and country sports, causes alarm.”

If the SNP-Green coalition comes to fruition it will face a number of obstacles and problems: the gap between the Scottish Government’s rhetoric on climate change and the reality being the uppermost; the dismal failure of the Just Transition project being a close second. The continuing inability of the regulatory body SEPA to have – or be given – any clout is a major problem and a sign that Scotland’s ecological and environmental bodies are riddled with corporate stooges and interlopers and laced with inertia and liberalism. The commitment to a “wellbeing economy” will have to move beyond window-dressing and show some signs of being a tangible strategy.

Both parties will have to carve out messaging that presents climate solutions that present new opportunities in jobs in energy and in housing. But with will and drive both inside and outside Holyrood that is eminently possible, as we know. The SNP will have to step-up and confront corporate power in Scotland, something they’ve showed little appetite for, the Greens have to move out of the comfort-zone of opposition and deal with the realities of governance, and in doing so avoid being split asunder by their own internal divisions. But for both, and for wider Scottish democracy a deal represents the opportunity to renew and strenghten the independence project.

The slogans of ‘just recovery” and ‘build back better” have already been co-opted and need retrieved from the thieves who want to manipulate them for their own ends. The reality is that out of this crisis comes an opportunity to re-think what we mean by work, what we want from our economy, how we understand our cities and how we are going to create an ecologically viable Scotland.  All of this needs to be framed as part of a wide-scale social recovery that can’t be hampered by being tied to the British state. The signs are that after this awful but cathartic collective experience we may be finally ready to emerge from this renewed, but this requires us to avoid a return to the distorted “normal” we’re being enticed into.

There’s hope beyond this interregnum but we need to grasp at it.

Comments (25)

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  1. Dennis Smith says:

    Excellent article. I think there are still some blank stones outside the Scottish Parliament awaiting inscriptions (they ran out of money, if I remember right). Your comment that “Defining yourself only by your work (or lack of it) is a practice of late capitalist trauma” deserves to be immortalised on one of them.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      It’s no trauma. As auld Marx said, man is a self-creative being; we develop the capacities peculiar to us as we live and work in community and acquire our ideas of the world and of ourselves (ideologies) in and through the process of work. We are what we do. Work is praxis, work is life; i.e. the process by which we define ourselves and the realities we inhabit.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Indeed, labour as praxis is the source of all value – truth, beauty, justice, as well as reality – none of which is transcendently given, but which is made immanently by the sweat of our brows.

  2. Colin Robinson says:

    Crisis? What crisis? Perhaps both the new populist ‘right’ and the new green ‘left’, far from being morbidities, are part of the ‘new’ that’s been born out of the ancien régime of liberalism and socialism. Perhaps the ‘interregnum’ of identitarianism (politics based on identity or ‘lifestyle’) into which the old regime of modernity has deconstructed is in fact no interregnum at all, but is the new regime of the postmodern world.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    The British trade union movement has had a reactionary element of racism and sexism throughout its history, and military-industrial complexes have relied on the enthusiasm of workers for perpetuating the engines of war. In the struggles to write labour history (I am still trying to research unfree labour in the British Empire) lie another culture war. There is also a vast progressive side to the labour movement, but this has apparently failed to capture the Labour Party in today’s Scotland or England. As the article says, the fact that many of our products are made abroad by workers in terrible conditions seems a matter of indifference to many in the labour movement here. Where is the international solidarity? There is more concern for exploited foreign workers shown by Greenpeace. https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/the-shocking-violence-and-suffering-behind-the-global-meat-industry/

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      For your research, try Marcel van der Linden. He’s pioneered a ‘global’ paradigm to labour history to overcome the eurocentric paradigm of both traditional labour history and the ‘new’ labour history of writers like Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson. I read an interesting article he co-wrote with Carolyn Brown on Shifting Boundaries between Free and Unfree Labor in CUP’s Journal of International Labor and Working-Class History a wee while ago. His references and bibliographies should point you in the direction of material relevant to your interest.

  4. Meg Macleod says:

    Well-being….a good place to begin .good article.

  5. Graeme Purves says:

    I remember Owen Dudley Edwards describing Mick McGahey as a “marvellous Irish ham”. Having encountered him once in Aberdeen’s notorious Grill bar during an STUC conference, I would say that was a pretty accurate assessment!

    1. Dougie Harrison says:

      Alas, Mr Purves is not alone in his ignorance of recent Scottish history. Mick McGahey is in part responsible for the fact that we now have a wee inadequate Scottish Parliament. The starting point for Scotland’s future. Purves’ sneering ignorance demeans himself, not McGahey. Happy to provide evidence – it appears necessary for some less educated commentators today. Start with ‘Bairns of Adam’, Keith Aitken’s centenary history of the STUC. (Polygon, Edinburgh, 1997.)

      1. Graeme Purves says:

        Irreverent rather than ‘sneering’, I think. I see Owen Dudley Edward’s comment as a perceptive and self-aware tribute to McGahey’s mastery of the art of performance.

        A great many people contributed to the achievement of our Scottish Parliament. They had a wide range of political perspectives.

        1. Dougie Harrison says:

          I do not deny that many people contributed to the creation of the Scottish parliament; as economist to the STUC throughout the Thatcher years I played a wee walk-on part myself. The Liberals in particular deserve a great deal more credit than they’re usually given; if it not for them it’s likely Holyrood would use the same undemocratic voting system as Westminster. But it was Mick McGahey, at the 1968 Scottish Trades Union Congress, who started the process of putting it back on the agenda of the trades union and labour movement – a process which was of course given urgency by the remarkable achievement of the SNP at Hamilton.

      2. Colin Robinson says:

        Nothing wrong with a bit of irreverence to counter the canonisation. It beggars belief that his ashes are buried as relics under the floor of the Scottish parliament. The quasi-religiosity of the olde-worlde Left can be breathtakingly ludicrous.

        1. Dougie Harrison says:

          I knew Mick McGahey well, and I thought I knew something about Holyrood, though I haven’t visited it for a while.

          But Mr Scothorne, writing for a fine French newspaper, may be somewhat creatively allegorical about the location of McGahey’s ashes. I have never previously learned that they’re at Holyrood, and it would be most untypical of Mick and his son Mick, were that to be true.

          Perhaps you Colin, or someone equally knowledgeable, could provide the evidence to support Mr Scothorne’s strange assertion?

          1. Dougie Harrison says:

            I’m happy to stand corrected Colin. The auld atheist, or someone in his family, must have had a remaining speck of sentimentalism! I’m glad to learn something new.

          2. Paddy Farrington says:

            A better memorial would be to achieve that safe Communist seat in Scotland which Mick McGahey used to joke about, as a living tribute to him inside the debating chamber rather than as ashes underneath it.

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            Aye, Paddy! But those days are past now, and in the past they must remain. Mick was an anachronism even in the ’80s, fighting like some kind of latter-day Quixote class struggles that were fast dissipating with industrial capitalism.

  6. Jane A MacLeod says:

    We’re being rushed out of the limen in the hopes that the collective lessons learned will fall off us like leaves and be left behind. Teenagers in school hoped for a new beginning but we haven’t given it to them. Just same old, same old. Equity, wellbeing, intuition and connection with big open skies while we reflect: that’s what we all need more than anything.

  7. Jim sansbury says:

    Andrew Bowie is, to my embarrassment, my Westminster MP.
    If he his making a lot of noise about an SNP/Green coalition it is because he is feart, his majority being 835.
    He sits in the HOC and brays across the aisle at the SNP whenever they say anything about anything, regardless of what they are saying.
    He is a great supporter of the Internal Market bill and the Australia deal and yet his constituencies farmers will be ruined by these things.
    He’s in the pocket of the landowners. Same goes for his MSP oppo Burnett.
    He calls himself a Scot but he’d be far more at home in some leafy English suburb.
    I think, as Mike says, that an SNP/Green coalition will be a good thing for both parties. It will force the SNP to be more green and it will make the Greens have to take responsibility.
    And if it consolidated the Indy vote Im all for it.
    If Mrs Bowie doesnt like the idea of Greens having cabinet posts he can go and stuff himself.
    I hope it gives him indigestion and sleepless nights.

  8. Gordon Purvis says:

    Le monde diplomatique

  9. John McLeod says:

    Agree with Mike’s analysis of the potential benefits of an SNP-Green deal. As well as the points that he makes, I would add that this kind of example of working together is just what we will need in the independence campiagn and in a newly-independent Scotland. There is also the strong possibility that the Greens may be in overall control after the German election in the autumn, which would have the effect (along with COP26) of cranking up green policies across Europe.

  10. David B says:

    What absolute mince from Murdo Fraser about the Greens being an urban party. They’ve got plenty of support in rural areas too, as their spread of MSPs proves. Admittedly their manifesto was not across certain details (e.g. seeming to confuse the respective remits of FLS and Scottish Forestry). But anyone who reduces the rural economy to farmers and shooting estates can’t claim to know much about the real rural economy.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      The whole urban/rural dichotomy is a bit of a myth anyway. Increased migration between town and countryside has largely deconstructed the social and cultural differences to which the ‘shire’ Tories hearken back in their evocation of l’Ecosse profonde and in their bemoaning the increased ‘greening’ of the countryside.

  11. John Monro says:

    Good luck, Scotland. You’ll need it. Might worth finding out what this rather similar sized country in the South Pacific is up to. Here in New Zealand the newly established Climate Change Commission has just issued its 400 page report, which I have downloaded and will need to wade through. But already, while the print is still drying, the vested interests, the new Ludditism of wealth and privilege, wail their siren songs of stasis. And we have a government, nominally Labour, but the pale pink sort of nigh-Toryism beloved by Blairites and Starmerites, whose fondest stated wish is to govern “by consensus”. There is no consensus on this matter – there’s reason, and there’s unreason. There is no, and there never has been, some sort of convenient half-way house between them. David Seymour, the leader of the Act party, a right wing neoliberal mutual masturbation party, says “If we try to lead the world, the risk is we destroy NZ industry” – which is total nonsense as NZ is already so far behind the rest of the world (transport CO2 emissions doubled since 1990) as to be out of sight. https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/david-seymour-says-climate-report-should-binned-if-we-try-and-lead-world-risk-destroy-nz-industry whereas on the other hand, whereas Greenpeace claims the report “Gives the dairy industry (our biggest single greenhouse gas emitter from its methane) a free pass” https://asiapacificreport.nz/2021/06/10/climate-commission-report-gives-nz-dairy-industry-free-pass-to-pollute-say-critics/

    So to you all, I hope a new found sovereignty will enable to you do an unreason bypass. But don’t look down under for any sort of guidance.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Well, the thinking certainly seems to be that, rather than seek consensus or (even better) an expression of the general will in assembly, the righteous might be able to use the coercive power of an independent Scottish state to impose their orthodoxy on the population as a whole. But I think this is self-indulgent fantasy.

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