When…Not If? So now the question is “How?”
Well, here we are two days into the elongated Election Campaign, the one everyone is telling us is the most exciting and unpredictable in living memory, and, I don’t know about you, but I’m absolutely despairing already of hearing anything I haven’t heard many times before.
Cameron has launched into what is, even for him, an extraordinary impersonation of the School Bully character from Ripping Yarns, sneering at that peculiar foreign looking little tick who is daring to stand for House Captain. Ed Miliband meanwhile, (who I rather do like and think of as the most genuinely interesting left-wing soul Labour has had near the apex of power since…well…since Michael Foot…that other splendid Hampstead intellectual and electoral liability), despairing of being taken seriously even by the Alpha Males of his own Party, searches for an opportunity in the Paxo interview to say, “Hell, yeah, I’m tough enough” which had me behind the sofa hiding from the telly faster than I have since the Cybermen escaped from their plastic Tomb in 1967.
I think that even the buoyant SNP will struggle to say anything that will take anyone in Scotland by surprise, given the two years of the referendum campaign that happened just the other day. They may well feel that in Scotland they are so secure as not to want to say anything. They do, after all, have a whole bunch of untried and unpredictable prospective new MPs to chaperone. Anyway, I thought it was telling that the most interesting and exploratory things that Nicola Sturgeon talked about on Saturday were the things she was saying to introduce herself and the Party of the wider UK. Her message of “solidarity” has been predictably rubbished by the usual suspects, even before one gets to talking about Jim Murphy – who has apparently produced leaflets for East Renfrewshire that omit to mention that he’s standing for the Labour Party.
(Sorry, but WHAT is that ABOUT? I can’t even begin to imagine the mindset that would so carelessly or deliberately insult his own supporters like that?)
Anyway, all this is the froth floating over what I think might be the real story of this election, at least from a Scottish point of view. That all the stuff we were shouting at each other about last year is, however temporarily, on the UK agenda. So I want to react to a couple of thoughtful pieces that have emerged, of late, from the London media bubble. It does seem that now, for once, what Scotland votes for really matters in the course of a UK election, there is finally some proper thinking being done about what is actually going on, about what the context of what has been happening under the radar of the Mainstream Media might actually mean.
I don’t know if this will last, so I think we need to seize the moment., Remember, it was only that opinion poll that seemed to put YES over the top back in September that occasioned a rush of train tickets for journalists at Euston and King’s Cross, and it is only the electoral lassitude of the three main Brit parties that is affording us the rare arithmetical opportunity to signify in British politics, and that Scotland (as such) not mattering is still a default position to which we can very easily return.
(Incidentally, when someone eventually writes the book about all this, we are probably going to need to give the Lib Dems a major vote of thanks for the way in which their naked lust to wriggle their arses in the comfy seats round the big table on the first floor at number 10 led them to make legislation for fixed term parliaments a deal breaker when they decided to give the Tories cover for all but the most ludicrously appalling of their notions of government by the Best Sort of People. A five-year fixed term is going to influence the post-election negotiations in ways which we haven’t experienced before, either in the 70s or 2010. This plus their having committed suicide politically is the really decisive game changer in terms of sheer parliamentary bean counting)
Anyway, Paul Mason and Polly Toynbee, who themselves represent very different wings of the metropolitan left have both written interesting wee essays for the Guardian this week both of which I thoroughly recommend if you haven’t already read them. Paul’s ‘Three New Tribes’ piece is here – Polly’s ‘No wonder the SNP are confident – the Tories behave as if they want Scotland gone’ is here.
Of the two, Mason’s is the more acute and the less surprising, in that he has written very well on Scotland before, as well as his being a thoroughly good head on matters economic and European. Polly Toynbee, whose work on social questions has been exemplary for thirty years, and whose loyalty to whatever time serving twerp Labour happen to have lumbered themselves with this time is normally unswerving, strikes a more predictably mournful note.
But both pieces seem to seriously and symptomatically accept (I hope) that the narrative the British establishment on the Left as much as the Right have been telling themselves about what has been happening to the Idea of Britain since the 1970s is not a uniform tale of adjustment to the “realities” of the global marketplace on the one hand, and to the inevitability that Finance Capital for the rich and heroin for the poor on the other. That the remodelling under Thatcher and accepted under Blair is not the inescapable and uniform recent story of life in the UK.
Both Mason and Toynbee seem now to accept what we’ve known in our bones here in Scotland since the sixties, since the great run down of British Industrial Policy began with the closures on the Clyde, and the decimation of the economic base of “the regions” gathered pace in the steel mills and the coal mines (well before Margaret Thatcher came along to give it the Coup de Grace, by the way) has radically transformed and skewed the balances of economic and political forces in the UK at a far deeper cultural level than seems to have been apparent from the counting houses where one simply has had to switch one’s portfolio of investment around a little bit..
Before the Second Worlds War we had an Empire that used to disproportionately employ the sons of the Scottish bourgeoisie just as its workshops and factories employed, rather less comfortably, the sons and daughters of everyone else. The near collapse of industry and Empire in the thirties and forties was held together with the glue of national industrial and employment politics along with the welfare state after the war. For people of my generation, for every political generation before Blair, the British Deal after the war – that everyone was included and to a degree protected by the aspiration of full employment, of universal health care and education and of protection from the worst ravages of poverty – was what “normality” looked like. The British State had a role and purpose that was thought of as the maintenance of a minimum standard of decency as the guarantor of social peace. There were always those who doubted this was sustainable, and the edges of the social contract were never entirely unfrayed. But it took the oil price shock of 1973 to give the likes of Margaret Thatcher and her ideologues the license to tear the social contact up. They dismantled the whole structure, starting with engineered unemployment and bargain basement de-nationalisation, letting the breezes of the market blow, and vastly enriching their own class and their hangers on in the process, thus normalising a concentration of all political and cultural as well as economic muscle around the financial and stock markets that were to be, from now on, the only true successors of 19th century imperial power.
The new idea, enthusiastically embraced by Tony Blair and HIS acolytes, was that you could entirely reconfigure the shape of Britain in every way but one. You could abandon the whole for the part without the people who lived there noticing. You could remove the industrial and social policies that underpinned the holistic, inclusive Idea of Britain without any impact on what “Britain” meant to the people who lived there. The thought was that politics would be completely unaffected. That you could substitute borrowing for wages, pfi for public investment, and that the rich would get SO rich that their increased tax receipts would keep politics exactly as it was, that the Great British Consensus would shift to the right, away from the state and towards the Greenspan-esque version of the market as democracy, and that nobody would really notice because we still had the Queen and all her horsey progeny to gawp at. And that even an economic crisis that meant that Capital went “on strike” for a few years – that the markets would no longer pick up the slack of the diminished state – had no implications beyond a need to renew blaming the poor for being screwed so you could screw them a bit more tightly.
Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. Scottish self-assertion (like other things) is a delayed reaction to the murder of the British State by the rulers of that state. The Break Up of Britain was initiated in Whitehall every bit as much as in Edinburgh. Rather more and rather earlier, in fact. The rise of the SNP is not a cause of that Break Up…it is a symptom. Ever since the seventies, the assertion of a distinct Scottish political settlement is as a response to the fact that the “British Idea” has become a joke, a posture, the “prestige” of a seat on the UN Security Council Security Council that seems to depend on Nuclear Weapons being kept near my house, and a promise of Socialist Solidarity that has been less than credible for a couple of decades, and when emerging from the sepulchral thrapple of Jolly Jim Murphy is just plain ludicrous.
When David Cameron appeals to us to stay in the name of our Shared Greatness, and Jim Murphy in terms of Shared Solidarity, they both make themselves look ridiculous. The Empire and its succeeding welfare State are both dead and buried. And it wasn’t us that killed them. And there is little point in evoking Churchillian metaphors to defend Little England from that Big Bully Alec Salmond when the very first response to the No vote was the incredible short-sighted stupidity of the “punishment” of English Votes for English Laws. On grounds of competence as well as principle, the British State is wholly responsible for its own demise.
“We voted to stay with you, you bastards. Get used to it.” becomes the typically emotionally complicated battle cry of the latest trainload of radicals we’ve sent to Westminster.
We’ll see how that works out. Meanwhile, given that the election campaign isn’t going to hold any surprises, let’s start our own surprising conversation about the social values that could underpin a new Britain (not great anymore) as well as a new Scotland. Both Paul Mason and Polly Toynbee, and the progressive opinion in the metropolis for which they stand, are now, I hope and believe, recognising themselves as provincials, that we are ALL provincials. That new alliances need to take shape across an altered landscape. That we are all still going to live on the same bit of green turf in the azure sea, but that this Sceptred Isle is going to have to look like a very different place from now on. And most of all that progressive values are no longer predicated on a unitary condition. That Union became an illusion in the real world long before Nicola Sturgeon came along.
It is the Labour party for whom this is the hardest lesson. the Party is itself structured on a Britain that no longer exists and to which it still clings, meaning that it is out foxed and out fought both by the Tories (who don’ give a shit about anyone very much including the English – and most Londoners, come to that) and the SNP, who are yet to face the structural challenges that will surely fall upon them very soon.
Now that “independence” or whatever we end up calling it – in any case, fundamental political change is a matter of “when” and not “if”, all of us on these islands need to start exploring new models of society and power well beyond mere politics. And if it really was cultural change in Scotland in the eighties that led us up here to where we seem to be arriving now, then I suspect that it is in the sphere of cultural exchange and ideas that we will find the emerging shapes of the Atlantic Archipelago we all want to live in when the future, long worked and hoped for, comes.