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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