The Hunt for Red October

The referendum will be on either Thursday the 5 or 26 October 2023. The question facing many on the left in Scotland, and beyond, is how should radical, alternative and progressive forces relate to the constitutional question? While much of the Scottish left still sees the ‘break up of the British state’ as a creative act, the idea handed down from John Maclean, others are not so sure.

Battered by years of politics wavering between a queasy-centrism and a more corporate neoliberalism, wary of attacks on public sector workers or of the ‘capture’of elements of the party or movement or project, some are either hesitant or downright hostile to the prospects of indyref2.

Grazing the meaningless launch-language of a “fairer, greener, happier, more prosperous, Scotland” some have derided what they call the buzzword salad of the whole event.

Neither Razzle nor Dazzle

After such a long time the (re) launch of the independence campaign did seem a strangely subdued milque-toast affair. There was little razzle and no dazzle, it was all competent and professional and tight, but there were few fanfares, few romantic or rhetorical flourishes. But that’s not really Sturgeon’s style and maybe she reckoned that people are bone-tired of slogans on the side of buses and endless rhetoric and misplaced male-charisma. Her patented routine is straight-talking honest-broker, in painful contrast to her counterpart in No 10.

She might be right with this approach. Anyway there may be a time for some glamour later on.

But if nationalists looking for flair and flourish from the First Minister would be disappointed so too would some of the left with the ‘Scene Setting’ paper outlined by the dynamic duo of Patrick Harvie and Nicola Sturgeon. But disappointment and derision for the SNP not being a radical socialist project is a category error. It’s like moaning that a Labradoodle isn’t a Pitbull. It’s just not, and gnashing your teeth won’t make it one. While there’s a legitimate – even essential – role in critiquing the Scottish Government and the governing party for its many failings – the role becomes redundant if it becomes to ask it to be something it’s not. The SNP is a very successful social democratic party with a broad church of members and MPS and MSPs who represent a political agenda with many edges and sides and wings, centred around a common goal. It has some radical elements and some reactionary ones who cohabit with remarkable ease and discipline. It is not, and is not going to be, a socialist party.

In this sense the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments is futile, if cathartic.

What I find odd about the energy poured into this process now is that it’s quite a short-memoried thing to do. The 2014 campaign was not characterised by official-campaign radicalism. The hefty ‘Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland’ was designed to exude authority, to be solid and detailed and reassuring. Nobody believed or pretended it was radical. Salmond, now resurrected as a Street Fighting Man was, in reality an ex-oil economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland, an alumni of St Andrew’s University.

In the period of 2012 – 15 the left and the radical forces within and around the Yes movement created our own agenda, rewrote the campaign and brought hundreds of thousands of people into the campaign and the movement. We should do the same again.

The energy verve and vitality that filled halls and streets and pubs in 2014 may not be replicated again, at least not by the same people, but it might take a different course, and the need for fresh blood is blindingly obvious. This wellspring may well run again. I think it will, and I think it needs some help.

But the gulf between the discourse of the ruling party and the wider more radical elements may not be as intense as presented. One of the mainstays of the Unionist ‘arguments’ is the Now is Not the Time trope. In this, figures and parties who have destroyed the social fabric of this country (and our neighbours) feign genuine interest in social policy and conditions. Tories put on their ‘Sad Face’ and explain solemnly that ‘real Scots’ care about something called bread and butter issues more than abstract notions of sovereignty or ‘flags’. That this is uttered just after the mind-melting experience of Brexit or the orgy of British Nationalism that was the Jubilee is to be ignored.

But it’s a misreading from the Conservatives and Unionists.

As Joyce McMillan has pointed out: “What Ross and others on the British right have consistently failed to understand, though, is that the growing support for Scottish independence since the 1970’s has never been about a massive surge in blue-face-painting national sentiment, but is precisely about a policy disagreement, now more than 40 years old, on how major social and economic issues should be tackled. Nicola Sturgeon is therefore speaking a language that at least half the nation understands, when she firmly replies that independence is not a distraction from meeting the real priorities of the Scottish people; but is now, perhaps, the only effective means of ensuring that those priorities can be met at all.”

A Just Transition

The Hunt for Red October – if it is to be meaningful – is for the Scottish left and radical forces to see how it aligns with and surrounds and infuses the democracy movement. This is a long-term project which needs a long-term strategy.

It seems like an incontestable truth that the SNP are essential to the process of winning independence. That will be controversial for only a handful of people. In that case the process and the relationship to that element of a wider movement is worth considering.

The left can do three things. We can and should influence the nature and the detail of some of the prospectus as its laid out for independence, but in that we probably have a minimal amount of influence in reality. We should use whatever that minimal influence is.

Second we can make demands of a future state. We can design and inspire a political culture that is tired by it’s own timidity and bored by its own capture. We can seize the opportunity of the Queen’s death to renew the case for a Scottish republic and lay the ground for that, the real Just Transition. We can and should demand that the future Scotland is one that faces the crisis of omnicide with something like the seriousness it demands. I believe we can do that. We are already altering and distorting policy around housing in a way that is partial and not effective enough but is a start.

The fact that the Scottish government is tied to the Third Sector is obvious, but this leaves a porous trace that is obvious and tangible and useful.

Third we can concentrate minds around the greatest challenge many of us face, which is not immediately climate or covid but the cost of living. The Yes movement and the nationalist parties need to answer only one single question to win: will this and can this alleviate the social crisis that’s sweeping through our society like a variant of the economic virus that infects the globe?

The Unionists have already answered the question: we don’t care and we are already so captured by ideology that we would rather see people starve than interrupt the economic model we deify. Got it?

Yeah we have. We need to leverage the moment and open the door. ‘Red October’ won’t be a singular event, it will be the start of a journey to reclaim and rebuild democracy and have a chance of a future.

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Comments (12)

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  1. CW says:

    Good stuff once again, Mike. I am beyond tired of the lazy way those who should know/remember better entirely conflate the independence movement/support with the SNP. Their campaign under Salmond last time round was going nowhere for an extended period, largely because it was so focused on ‘not frightening the horses’ (keep the pound, keep the monarchy, stay in EU/NATO etc. etc.) that it offered nothing to excite or inspire. What made the difference, and shifted the opinion polls significantly, was when the Left and grass-roots groups organised and acted around independence as an opportunity for radical reform. This included knocking on doors and listening to/speaking with people whom the parliamentary parties had ignored and/or taken for granted for years. Those deprived and neglected communities, e.g. in Dundee, came out and voted in unprecedented numbers and in support of independence. The Yes camp’s narrow loss led to a mass defection of Labour Party members and others who were disappointed and frustrated – the SNP reaped the benefit of swollen membership, further electoral success and largely undeserved credit for ‘nearly making it happen’! While I agree the SNP are probably an essential element of attaining independence, they are by no means sufficient and if the campaign is left in their hands, it won’t deliver a version of independence worth the effort. They would happily settle for a broadly similar neo-liberal status quo confined within Scottish borders – the same politico-management-consultants, saltire-bedecked, as bigger fish in a smaller pool. They may be a means to an end we desire, but they won’t deliver what we want and need… If only it was as easy as just voting for better people in parliament(s) and letting them get on with it: it isn’t, and never has been. Your call for grass roots action again now is highly appropriate, timely and well-expressed.

  2. 220619 says:

    ‘The left can do three things.’

    A wee bit of meat on the bones would be nice. HOW can the left do any of these things? What’s the action plan?

    1. Sure, will do in the coming weeks. Or actually others better placed than me on specifics are commissioned.

  3. Jim Stamper says:

    Quoting from the article “We can and should influence the nature and the detail of some of the prospectus as its laid out for independence, but in that we probably have a minimal amount of influence in reality. We should use whatever that minimal influence is.”
    One possible way is by participating on which is charity run and where you can vote on proposals or suggest alternatives to a Constitution for Scotland. The constitution covers a very wide range of subjects. The hope is it will be used by a Citizens assembly following an independence vote to set up a constitution for an independent Scotland. I hope you will participate and the more who do the more likely your voice will be heard.

  4. Paddy Farrington says:

    This is a superb piece, Mike, and I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis. The campaign for indyref2 presents the left with new opportunities, and indeed new responsibilities, which I hope it will grasp. While aspects of the road ahead are unclear – not least under what conditions a referendum might occur – that is all the more reason to engage with the campaign and seek to influence events.

    In a recent Bella piece, Gerry Hassan highlighted the need for an ecosystem of contrasting perspectives on independence, incorporating the many strands already present in Scottish civil society: socialist, nationalist, green, feminist, radical left, internationalist, antiracist, liberal, trade unionist … . This is one way, perhaps the best way, to influence official policy and future political choices.

    In a sense Bella already provides a microcosm of this very ecosystem, by enabling, promoting and sustaining grounded arguments and discussion of them from a wide range of perspectives. Might it be possible to consider expanding this role during the present campaign? For example, to envisage an ambitious live and effervescent event over a weekend next summer bringing together these many strands in participatory workshops and plenaries? Bella Live, so to speak. (I’m thinking here of the highly successful and energising events organised by Marxism Today back in the 80s.)

    Such discussions should seek to include strands of radical opinion beyond what is normally thought of as the Yes movement. Two spring to mind. The Scottish Labour left, many of whom remain ambivalent or unconvinced about independence, but must be finding Sarwar’s Labour party increasingly uncongenial. And those in the English left who argue that independence for Scotland could provide the cathartic shock required to re-ignite England’s own radical traditions. There will be others: we could help nurture those thousand flowers so that they can all bloom.

  5. George S Gordon says:

    Excellent article. One thing the left must do is get behind the (only) solution to the currency question – and (see below) to back the SNP plan.

    On the 16th June, in Portfolio Questions:
    Willie Rennie: “To ask the Scottish Government what its policy is for the currency of an independent Scotland.”

    Angus Robertson: “Scotland will continue to use the pound sterling at the point of independence, establishing an independent Scottish currency as soon as is practicably possible through a careful, managed and responsible transition when an independent Scottish Parliament chooses to do so.”

    Angus Robertson went on to say “the issue is one on which the people should be able to decide”. This clearly means it’s an issue first for the people to vote for independence, and then for the parliament elected by the people after independence to decide on and implement the transition to an independent Scottish Currency.

    One has to pray this prefigures a rejection of the neoliberal approach of Andrew Wilson and the Growth Commission but even if that’s a bridge too far, I hope we may see a better economic strategy for independence. If not, why did they engage Mark Blyth? One also has to hope that Mariana Mazzucato, who understands how sovereign governments spend their fiat currency, will have exercised some influence behind the scenes.

    [I’m as cynical as they come but I’m also very old, so allow me some hope.]

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Much depends on whether people’s windows on the world show a soothing picture or a burning trash-heap. Let’s suppose there will be a few flashpoints between now and October 2023. The limits of democracy will be more evident when systems begin to fail, and the people who predicted and warned about their failure were ignored by both elites and electorates. It is time for a fresh design of a system of government based on planetary realism. This is why I currently favour a constitutionally-encoded biocracy for a newly independent Scotland.

    The problem is not so much that commentators cannot see the flaws within SNP/Green plans, it is that they do not follow through the chains of reasoning that lead to new and required politics, and are too attached to old models and allegiances. I am about halfway through Tim Lang’s book Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them, so have not yet read its prescriptions for tackling UK food system problems, but the logic is relentless. Popular decisions made in one country can have dire consequences to human and non-human life elsewhere. If you think democracy can fix these issues, you are barking up the wrong tree.

    1. Thanks for the link, reading now. I worked with Tim Lang, he’s a great guy.

  7. Doghouse Reilly says:

    I think you over state the case on housing Mike.

    The much trumpeted new supply programme has pushed up rents, the Scottish government has no idea what can be delivered within affordable rents, doesn’t have a clear view on what “affordable” means, passed the 2016 act, a landlords charter that stripped thousands of tenants of legal protection and is now trying to force social tenants to make the market for zero carbon heating for owners and landlords to benefit from. Even the promise to Ukrainian refugees was made without thinking to ask if we had homes for them all. Now we have growing numbers of Ukrainians joining Syrians and Afghans in hotels and rising numbers of Homeless folk in tempo accommodation. It’s actually a bit of a mess in truth.

  8. Jennifer Houston says:

    If this campaign is solely about economics, we’ll be back to the Plan B stuff of the first one. The independence movement is bigger than that.

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