Close to the Wire
By Mike Small
Last night someone posted on twitter: “You think you are watching the breakdown but you are watching the fallout from what was already broken.”
They were talking about Baltimore but could equally have been talking about the dismantling of a coherent British politics. In one country African-Americans fight for basic human rights, equality before the law and justice, here Scotland is in a fight for democracy, equality and respect. If there’s times when nothing seems to change, it’s moments like this when events take hold and accelerate away beyond our control. But movements and flash points emerge from a pre-history.
Build-up to Baltimore
Last year the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund named 76 men and women who were killed in police custody since the death of Amadou Diallo in New York in 1999. The recent death of 25 year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore was preceded by the case of police officer Michael Slager being charged with murder after his shooting of Walter Scott was caught on mobile phone video in South Carolina. Before that we had the death of the unarmed 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the choking to death of Eric Garner by an NYPD officer in December last year, an event also caught on camera, and another police officer the authorities decided not to indict.
It’s a caustic irony that the exposure of routine police brutality and a (largely) white force operating off-the-leash and (seemingly) beyond legal control has emerged under America’s first black presidency. But then Obama’s reign has been full of irony and disappointment.
The tragic events are connected, not just by human error, people working in desperate difficult and violent situations, but by the bigger backdrop of separation and poverty.
The police force in Ferguson Missouri where Michael Brown died is 95% white – and a siege mentality is almost inevitable. But for anyone who watched the Wire will know, the real backdrop is not race but poverty, with whole communities within cities disfigured by inequality and hopelessness.
Whilst not equating the awful realities of inner city America or the treatment of African Americans to Scots, there are commonalities in the background and history to how we got to where we are today. The use of social media as a movement-building tool, corrupt leaders demonising the poor, a collapse of legitimacy of political leadership, and the rise of 5th Estate activity: a vigilant citizen movement of tooled-up switched-on media hounds. The surveillance state works both ways.
The seismic moment we’re experiencing spring from the same stream as America’s disquiet: poverty, disenfranchisement and a rejection of dependency culture combined with a feeling that the ruling bodies no longer (if they ever did) have credibility. A recent report showed that ‘Poor teens in Baltimore face worse conditions than those in Nigeria’. The number of people living in poverty in Scotland increased to 820,000 in 2014. The 2012-13 figure, which accounts for 16% of the population, was 110,000 more than in the previous year. But poverty alone doesn’t translate to action.
With all of our technological advancement the demands of these twin movements are pretty basic. It’s plain to see that African Americans do not have equality before the law or basic freedoms in the 21st C. It’s plain to see too that Scottish voters are being politically marginalised, demonised and ridiculed. From Theresa May saying that a Labour government propped up by the SNP would be the “worst crisis since the abdication”, to the slew of smears and propaganda against SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, the “the most dangerous women in Britain”, it’s all ridiculous but revealing.
Milestones to Britain’s Constitutional Crisis
Those in Tory high command, or the Labour Liberal bunker who have questioned the legitimacy of the right for elected MPs to vote in the House of Commons or the legitimacy of the SNP vote only serve to undermine and expose further a Westminster system already failing under the weight of its own expediency. Evel reeks of opportunism and desperate short-term cobbled-together constitutional fixing, which has been the hallmark of Unionist actions for probably thirty years.
Three factors have fed-in to our present crisis, which is much better understood as a huge opportunity: the collapse of the legitimacy of the British State; the rise of a new participative media; and a renewal in cultural self-confidence.
The collapse of legitimacy of the British State has several key moments and milestones.
If the Miner’s Strike ushered in a visibly new level of police brutality and militarisation that was to be later captured and broadcast by early new media outlets like Schnews and Indymedia as it spread to the protest movement, we can easily chart the Poll Tax as a symbolic totemic reframing of Westminster rule. The Battle of the Beanfield was only a year after the Battle of Orgreave. If these events concentrated minds about the nature of the relationship between people and state, the Iraq War cemented it. The two decades of Tory rule before Blair’s New Labour moment were characterised by relentless corruption, scandal and sleaze, ending in the collapse of Major’s discredited government and doing nothing to reassure voters that the British system was reformable or even fully functioning.
“No Prime Minister in modern times has led Britain into as many wars as Tony Blair. In seven years in office he has committed soldiers to action in Kosovo, in Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan — and, most controversially, in the final battle with Saddam Hussein in 2003. It has been a dramatic course of action for a man who, until he won the 1997 General Election, showed only a rudimentary understanding of the workings of foreign policy.”
It may be ironic that Labour, the people who ‘delivered’ devolution should now be facing oblivion. The reasons for this are complex. But their backing of a catastrophic foreign policy and the now terrible repercussions of it must be a driving force behind their present predicament.
Add to these the expense scandals, the accusations of croneyism, the complete failure of Britain to convincingly articulate any vision for the future and its inability to reform key institutions such as the House of Lords and you see a relentless slide away from belief in Britain itself.
As successive UK governments (blue or red) dismantle key institutions like the NHS, the Post Office, and even the army, the bones of British identity, which you could conceivably attach some flesh become less and less visible.
Running alongside these changes and crisis have been the rise in participative media as the new meme of P2P emerges across many parts of society and culture. The top-down centralised and secretive British state is losing not just because of specific failures but because it’s very construct is out of date and out of time. It faces a new operating system which is bottom-up, grassroots, self-organising, transparent and networked.
None of this is clearer than watching as lifetime career politicians pop-up in pre-orchestrated behind-closed doors ‘events’ to the party faithful, in the hope of making an impact through the pliant broadcast media, only to be lampooned viciously across social media within minutes. The 2015 General Election is like the Thick of It on steroids.
The sweeping political euphoria we’re witnessing wouldn’t have impact if it didn’t have the momentum of the independence referendum, which has a residual power base in networked communities, and a battle-hardened and politically educated multitude of articulate leaders. But is also comes on the back of forty years of cultural revival. The bedrock of any political movement is its cultural base. Here, there’s been an energy drawn on from being marginal, and peripheral.
While some commentators plead continuity and closure, perhaps more in hope than expectation, most people agree somethings fundamentally changed. As Gerry Hassan writes in the New Statesman: “Scotland feels different. It is as if something fundamental has shifted in how voters see politics, the consequences of their votes, and themselves.”
So in America and Britain today we have some very basic demands being made: for democracy and equality. We have an extraordinary moment characterised by its very ordinariness. If devolution was a demand to be recognised, to say ‘we exist’. Whatever comes next is more like a realisation that that demand has changed in nature. Existing and recognition in themselves aren’t enough. We want agency. We want a future. As we watch the fallout from what is already broken its worth remembering William Gibson said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”