What’s Left of the Union Part 2
Arguing for a socialist Yes: reclaiming the local
The last century was one in which numerous macro solutions to humanity’s ills were tried and failed. The overwhelming hope of socialists in this century has to be radical change at a local level.
Because I am writing this in the United Kingdom, the ears of many will prick up and hear the beginnings of conservatism in the above statement.
Such responses take us to the heart of why Britain remains a highly conservative country; it ignores the fact that true radicalism has to be local in character; though its impact can echo across the globe.
For far too many on the left in this country, taking democracy nearer to the people becomes parochial. The audacious fury of Neil Findlay is always instructive in this regard: so furious in fact that he is able to claim that the union could deliver social change against three decades of undeniable fact. The link between our appalling health outcomes and the failure of successive UK government’s to tackle de-industrialisation with anything other than soundbites and statistics is quietly ignored.
The real lesson that we can take from our Nordic neighbours, and it’s not a ‘model’ any more than universal suffrage was a ‘New Zealand Model’, is the importance of local democracy.
Now there are many who would argue that focusing on localism is just an excuse to leave the wider structure intact. They must be looking at the problem through a very Anglo-Saxon lens. Real socialism shouldn’t feel the need to wait for a messianic revolution to try and enact utopia at a local level. Take the small Andalusian town of Marinaleda for example: the socialist municipality that has full employment and builds houses for its citizens in the heart of Spain’s economic crisis. With 2,700 citizens, it could provide a model to revive towns in the bleakest parts of Scotland’s central belt.
This blindness in the present state for the capacity of local control of resources to provide the bedrock for an equal society, must be addressed now while we have the public platform to discuss constitutional questions. Solidarity must be universal in its reach, but time and time again we see that action and empowerment cannot be enforced from a higher plane.
By relentlessly confronting the No camp with their own inability to describe how they think Scotland (or England) could be better governed, we can win the argument hands down. Johann Lamont’s slogan that constitutional change is an irrelevance will be exposed for the barefaced opt out that it really is. We need to move towards the crux of the matter and learn to talk of self-determination and empowerment as the norm not the exception. We have an opportunity to call out those on the left who support the union and claim to be progressive, while denying the importance of who makes the decisions, who raises, spends the cash and on what. We can also succeed in making the constitutional argument relevant to every Scottish community. Positive moves in the Northern and Western Isles on this front could be an early indication of how this process of devolving from Holyrood and beyond can function as part of the Yes narrative.
To those bristling at such delusion from a closet Salmondista in red clothing I would cite in my defence the figure that many agree was the last socialist to hold any real sway in the United Kingdom, Tony Benn:
Democracy is what is controversial in Britain. Not socialist rhetoric, nobody cares about socialist rhetoric, anymore than they care about what bishops say on a Sunday about brotherhood, so long as nothing happens till next Sunday. But when you raise the democratic question, then I tell you you’re in trouble. I’ve learned that all my life. Not only are you in trouble at the top, but you’ve mobilised support down the line. People really are interested and leaders are opposed to it.
Whether or not we end up making all of our laws in Edinburgh or London: we will still live in a state that is ludicrously over centralised by European standards.
The almost exclusive ownership of the localist agenda by the British right has caused a profound disconnect between the ability of communities to affect change for the benefit of their inhabitants. Taking its cues from the anti-elitist Powell, the Thatcherite machine was able to rip up entire villages and neuter local government, while still claiming that it stood for localism, or the common man, over central government. Like the coalition’s Police Commissioners, the Neighbourhood Watch was conjured up to give locals a say in protecting their own property and precious little else.
History has shown us that we will only get a perverse caricature of local democracy from a UK government. This tradition is alive and well. As we’ve heard on the coalition’s recent offer of powers on the Bedroom Tax but not tax powers: only the axe will be devolved.
On the unionist left there is a deafening silence: punctuated by the odd rant featuring the north of England, socialist dogma, and Blairite soundbites (often mixed together in a surreal and very bitter cocktail).
All these things considered my plea to members of the Scottish Labour Party is as follows:
Please understand that my support for independence is defined entirely by the possibilities a Yes vote offers, not a dogmatic belief in nationalism. I am told, time and time again, that those who share this opinion with me are fundamentalists, committed to an arcane concept, nationalism, that is not about the reality of what I or my children will live through. This view is patently incorrect.
I have no interest in defaming any other Scot’s love of the place they call home, however they intend to vote in the referendum. To do so would defeat the entire exercise. We have a short time on this earth and a short time to make it better. I do not believe that the United Kingdom is capable of delivering anything other than the bleakest of futures for the majority of its citizens. It doesn’t do a good job of protecting their rights, empowering them, or bringing them together. Equality in Britain in the past two decades has exploded. The parliament that your party was instrumental in creating is more transparent, gender balanced and forward looking. I think it can do a better job at reflecting Scotland’s needs on all matters than Westminster can, it’s as simple as that.
I know that because of such realisations, the press, the media and prominent politicians brand Yes supporters like me as either naïve or on a trajectory that will inexplicably result in fascism. Even though, historically, fascism was the product of unionism, not self-determination. By contrast we should be proud that our path to self-government is tolerant, inclusive and defined by a lack of violence and aggression at every turn. Change the kind of language you use now and you can be proud of this too.
Finally I don’t know anyone within the Yes Campaign who thinks that independence is a magic bullet. All of us realise that, if we achieve a majority for independence on 18 September, the real tasks begins the day after. The challenging, but remarkable work of building a new society, is one in which all Scots can participate in. Where would we start? I leave you with the following statement from Marinaleda’s website, which was neither too poor, nor too wee, to chart its own path:
We have always thought that liberty without equality is nothing, and that democracy without real wellbeing for real people is an empty word and a way of deceiving people, making them believe they are part of a project when in fact they are not needed at all.
It seemed to us that in this field there should be no limits; that the people should have a dream of collective welfare and must then in fact turn to struggle, because the Left if it is genuinely revolutionary cannot reject, either in thought or in action, any of the people’s seemingly unachievable aspirations.
In this way we were able to win each and all of the things that we were obviously lacking.