This was my address to the AGM Discussion of Democratic Left Scotland
We chose the title for this AGM discussion as a provocation: “get on with the day job” has been the rhetorical battering ram used by Ruth Davidson (and others) to hit the SNP for talking about independence. Her intent is quite clear: she wants the threat of the break up of the British Imperial State removed so that the exploitation of Scotland’s natural and human resources can continue unabated, Scotland’s people can continue to be subjected to the brutal discipline of austerity and the removal of social security.
But, the way in which she puts the proposition, by necessity, is depoliticising. She is happy to talk about how the Scottish Government has problems in education, but her solutions remain unspoken. And of course, the record of her own party in England, investing in vanity projects like free schools, rather than any real attempts to transform the prospects of school students, suggests she has nothing to contribute in this area. She is quick to criticise in broad terms but does not present solutions. Rather, she is appealing to a constituency who are clearly threatened by the energetic and exciting politics ushered in by the referendum.
The brilliance of the Ruth Davidson approach is that it draws on one of the core tactics of neoliberalism: it forecloses political possibility. As Thatcher famously said, “There is no alternative!”. The aim is very definitely to put politics back in its box. For Conservatives, and for those terrified by this prospect, putting politics back into its box is vital and we need to recognise that those people who voted Tory were strongly guided by this motivation.
What arose in the 2014 referendum in Scotland was a belief that it didn’t have to be like this: that another Scotland was, indeed possible. And all of us here today are determined to see this a reality. But we have perhaps lost a bit of the momentum since 2014. And we’ve not always been helped by the Scottish Government.
The Scottish National Party’s instinct is to conform to the dominant politics of the day, so our job is to create the dominant politics that we want. We can see them on either side of this: before July, they wanted to cut Air Passenger Duty and hurt puppies – remember the tail docking vote – these are the kinds of things that Tories love doing, perhaps especially if they are Dalmatians.
However, since the summer, and us choosing to do an event with this title, the SNP have made a clear jump to the left, as we can see with the programme of government – even if some of this is still only at the level of consultation. It includes a Scottish Investment Bank which is a long-term green policy, nationalising Scotrail, creating a State-owned energy company and a wide range of other proposals that Greens and others in the radical Yes movement have been calling for.
This is a good thing, and is clearly a political response to the depoliticising intent of ‘getting on with the day job’.
And I think we can identify three agents that have enabled, and perhaps catalyse this shift; three agents that have functioned together and separately to create a dynamic that has moved Scottish politics into a much more positive space than it was in before the summer.
Firstly, we have Political parties, perhaps especially the Greens – the existence of Greens as a parliamentary force has been essential in pulling both Labour and the SNP to the left. The election of Caroline Lucas in 2010 brought a fresh perspective to radical politics where the left in the Labour party had been associated with older figures like Tony Benn. The experience of Labour activists and candidates in England being outflanked on the left consistently by Greens played a very significant role in popularising the sort of politics articulated by Jeremy Corbyn. Greens in the Scottish parliament have played a different role, but the electoral system here makes the threat to the SNP much more substantial. And the parliamentary arithmetic means that the SNP often rely on Greens, particularly since the polarisation around independence meant that the Tories couldn’t do deals with them so easily any more.
Secondly, there is Corbyn. Having popularised a form of progressive politics, Greens have seen it taken up by the new leadership of the Labour party whose ability to appeal to the Scottish electorate was reinvigorated between 2015 and 2017. The Labour manifesto with its full blooded call for removal of the market from areas such as transport and energy had an appeal in a way that a centrist SNP manifesto did not. The SNP has responded to this with a move into this territory.
Thirdly, the yes movement itself. The yes movement, having thrown off the shackles imposed by the official Yes Campaign (that it be a marketing and voter contact operation) became a lively and energetic manifestation of new politics. Where the Yes Scotland proposition that things would just be better if Scotland ran its own affairs was overshadowed and eclipsed by the more ideological character of the RIC. I want to draw an analogy here from a military context – I don’t mean this to imply that an armed struggle is appropriate in this context, however. In the Zimbabwean liberation struggle – the Chimurenga – there were two principle liberation forces – the Chinese backed ZANLA and the Soviet-backed ZIPRA. Where ZANLA understood that the conflict was asymmetrical, ZIPRA sought to match the Rhodesian armed forces for firepower. Whereas ZANLA used the advantages offered by their integration with local populations to much more effectively bleed the Rhodesian forces dry.
Over the past 30 years, the left has sought to engage its ideological opponents on territory that favoured the right. The Independence Movement is the first time in a long time that we’ve engaged them on territory that favours us. This, of course, created a set of lessons that have been learnt by the SNP, by the Corbyn campaign, and even in the US by the Sanders campaign, all to much greater effect than would previously have been possible.
There’s been a deep trauma for political parties as we re-enter an age of political ideology – the world really is struggling to be born. So, the question now for us is – how can we be handmaidens of that new world. It didn’t look like we were being very successful in this before the summer. But things change!
So far we’ve mobilised a movement around the proposition that “Another Scotland is Possible”. That movement has been energised by policy positions, but there’s a fundamental question about the changes that will be required to the structure of society and the economy.
We have to ask ourselves what the prefigurative steps are that we need to take to get to that ‘another world’. Things like the Tredegar Medical Aid Society – prefigure the NHS. How do we prefigure the changes we need in housing, governance, in our communities? How do we build the movements to make those real?
There’s a question about where we take these techniques next. We need to understand how we respond to the political realities of the day, how we respond to the crisis within in the British state that is being accelerated by Brexit
Given that we’ve been very successful in achieving our policy objectives up to now, we need to identify how we relate the prefigurative demands are, and how we get those adopted.
We need to have a plan for what happens if the deep crisis of capitalism plunges not into another spate of difficulties but goes into a terminal decline. Especially if that terminal decline is very rapid, as it may well be.
That’s the day job we need to be getting on with. And we will set about it with relish.