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The Scottish Spring - Mike Small
From Tunisia to Egypt, Wisconsin and Spain, London and New York, from the outpourings of Wikileaks to the energy of the Indignados, the viral spread of international action against the heart of empire has mesmerised us all with the possibility of ‘a response’.
In the ‘UK’, where politics remains increasingly moribund between the uber-bland utterances of Miliband’s perpetually squeezed middle, the Bullingdon Club Quad and the dead hand of the Liberals, the rise of a party in Scotland committed to end PFI, scrap WMD and replace nuclear with renewable energy was a moment of hope. For many, this wasn’t just about independence, it was about casting off a party politics that treated Scotland as a fiefdom and was characterised at best by cronyism, at worst hardcore corruption.
2011 witnessed a Scottish Spring: a renewal of fresh energy which cast off the dead hand of cold municipal rule and institutionalised nepotism; as much, if not more so, a rising of a new civic optimism as an expression of nationalist fervour.
The Scottish National Party, an incumbent left of centre social-democratic party, swept back to power, gaining 65 seats in an unprecedented landslide, creating a working majority for the first time under devolution. Only two months earlier, they had been at second place in all the opinion polls and virtually written off. Pundits were dumbstruck. One wrote, seemingly unable to take in the concept of an election: “It was as if a mass political hypnotism had taken place.”
All three opposition party leaders resigned. The traditional political map of Scotland was transformed, after the SNP won constituencies in Glasgow once regarded as impregnable Labour territory and, for the first time, won Holyrood seats in the capital. The party defeated the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour, taking five out of six seats in the city. The Labour Party endured its worst election in Scotland for 80 years, losing a dozen seats, including nine MSPs who have been at Holyrood since the parliament was formed in 1999. The SNP won every constituency seat in Aberdeen and the surrounding area, it has every seat in Dundee and Tayside, it won five out of eight constituencies in Glasgow and four out of five in Edinburgh.
A referendum on ending the 300-year-old union between Scotland and England is now certain. A mandate for the opportunity for radical constitutional change in Britain has been won.
On the day of victory, party members and supporters met in the Jam House bar in Edinburgh, exhausted and many more astonished than euphoric. One young candidate in Aberdeen turned up to the count in his jeans with no expectation of winning. Michael Portillo, a ghost of yesteryear, lurked in the shadows, insipid documentary in the making.
All of this had seemed unlikely after the bank collapse. Unionist politicians and commentators crowed confidently of having ‘shot the nationalist fox’ and how the SNP’s ‘arc of prosperity’, in which they looked to Scandic nations for models of small-state economic thriving, had been left in tatters and replaced with an ‘arc of insolvency’. Scotland was too poor to go it alone, and what more proof was needed?
But collapsonomics and the shifting sands of relations between global and local, individual and community, self and identity, culture and technology unleash unexpected results. A fractured, discredited print media, a London government that appears like a throwback to the Edwardian era, and the catastrophic failure of the Labour Party to create a political narrative combined. All this on top of twenty years of cultural renewal and a growing sense of, if not confidence, declining self-hatred. In a post-ideological world, the idea of starting a nation ‘afresh’ seemed compelling.
The project/movement is half-done, over-professionalised, unshared and lacking both depth and vitality. It suffers from being focused too much on one individual politician, one party, and an inability to think beyond the current failed economic paradigm. The ruling party is still wedded to fossil fuels, committed to export-led growth, has little idea about creating an ‘architecture of participation’, and often woos big business as if they are the panacea rather than the illness. But perhaps it is not the role of professional politicians to guide a movement to its fruition. Ultimately, these changes create the prospect of transforming not just Scotland, but the political landscape of the UK.
It is, despite all these caveats and limitations, possibly the most potent political moment in Scottish history since 1820. And, if we are trying to put 2011 in some historical perspective, then let us do that.
Seasonality and Social Phenomena
In great upheavals, analogies fly like shrapnel. The electrifying protests of 2011 — the on-going Arab spring, the ‘hot’ Iberian and Hellenic summers, the ‘occupied’ fall in the United States — inevitably have been compared to the anni mirabiles of 1848, 1905, 1968 and 1989.
We’ve had the Summer of Love (twice), the Sociology of Autumn and at least one Winter of Discontent. The Scottish Spring was not a ‘great upheaval’; it lacked the drama and theory of 1848, the countercultural revolution of 1968 or the historic geopolitical shiftings of 1989. It is more likely a significant stepping stone in the breaking up of Britain, part of the process of constitutional decay and renewal.
But the Russian commentator Mary Dejevsky has pointed to some of the similarities between the Velvet Revolution and our own:
The reason why I believe Scottish independence is quite possible, and even desirable, is the number of recent precedents for peaceful break-up in Europe that have left all parties satisfied. As Vaclav Havel is laid to rest today at a state funeral in Prague, the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia comes to mind. But the generally peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, which saw its constituent republics gain or regain their independence – or, in some cases, have an ill-prepared independence thrust upon them – also shows that separation is eminently feasible, especially where a strong sense of national identity and an accepted border already exists. The civil war in Yugoslavia is not the only model.
Dejevsky breaks from the orthodoxy of the mainstream English commentariat (‘subsidy junkies, dependency culture...’ ad nauseam), stating simply and insightfully:
In many ways, our situation is akin to that of Russians in the old Soviet Union – the dominant state with no instruments of representation or government to call our own. Independence for the Scots would end that. Their independence would also be ours.
Whilst the Scottish Spring remains an electoral event, rather than a social revolution, it touches on key themes of collapsonomics, defined as ‘The study of economic and state systems at the edge of their normal social and economic function.’ Whilst much focus has been given to studying the ‘network-enabled collaboration’ of the Indignados, the politics of the Occupy movement and the crisis of late-capitalism, or the scandal of unregulated financial infrastructures, very little priority has been placed on the geopolitical consequences of End of Union. This is in part due to a political inability to analyse actual state structures, and a self-fulfilling Anglo-centric and London-centric worldview, which deems events beyond this realm instinctively as parochial or insignificant.
The commonly-held view is of Scotland as a state subsidised in whole or part by its southern neighbour. What follows, inevitably, is the view that the Scots will under no circumstances reject this settlement: this, despite frequent ‘warnings’ that identity issues and voting patterns are undergoing a sea-change.
This blindside results in wider issues being almost completely ignored, including key geopolitical questions, most particularly the consequence for British-American defences over Trident II.
Whilst the campaign run by the SNP at the 2011 Holyrood election was as good as the Labour-Unionist one was awful, there was another, less well-recognised force driving change from outside Scotland. David Cameron’s polished vowels are as much of an anathema to Scots as Thatcher’s 20 years before. The air of ‘born to rule’ may be a comfort in the Home Counties, but it may also end Home Rule.
But other key events of 2011 may also be seen, with hindsight, to have contributed to the shifting self-understanding, should Scotland vote for Independence in 2014. What we have seen throughout 2011 was the further erosion in key institutions that underpin the British State and its sense of security and authority: namely, the media lens, respect for or belief in the police, and the political processes of Westminster. This amounts to a wider collapse of legitimacy in the British State.
The unravelling of Rupert Murdoch’s empire of disinformation and the barely-stemmed flow of facts about the relationship between hackdom and the Met gleaned a brief and shallow victory for democracy and decency, with the closure of the News of the World. The slew of leaked information turned into a stream at the Leveson inquiry, as the guessed-at world of degenerate journalism was uncovered, far beyond the dullard churnalism of Flat Earth News. It exposes an emptiness at the heart of British popular culture, centred around a vacuous celebrity moronism and a gift of power and control to the press barons on an extraordinary scale.
As Joyce McMillan wrote:
For as the detail gradually emerging from Leveson Inquiry makes ever more clear, the overarching truth about Alex Salmond and the SNP is that they are the significant UK political party who got away; the ones who have largely escaped unscathed from the long, steady campaign of bullying, intrusion, subversion, deracination and disempowerment, by powerful media and economic elites, that has gradually reduced the main London-based parties to such a bland and timid series of smooth-faced political ciphers. The reason for the SNP’s escape is simple, and lies in the monumental self-absorption of Britain’s metropolitian elites. Over the last three decades, the Murdoch press and the other arbiters of power in London simply have not cared enough about the SNP to try very hard to bully it into conformity, to bribe and subdue it with massive party donations, or to hack into the phones of all its leading members, in the hope of being able to tear apart their private lives over several pages of newsprint.
If the Scottish Spring is to advance to a full blown Summer, it may prosper under the hot sun of this one-dimensional tabloid-shaped culture. The archaic symbols of a semi-feudal state and the anachronism of Royalty may have been brought creaking into use for another turn in 2011, but the spectacle of the Windsors’ wedding pale next to the efficacy of Cowell’s circus. The two glide together in the pages of British celebrity culture, all with the desperate promise of unfathomable wealth, Kate as ‘lucky winner’, a ‘commoner’ plucked from obscurity just as you might win the lottery or X-Factor. In short, Hello may lead to goodbye.
Britain may have talent, but in 2011 it was working for free in Poundland, as mass unemployment returned and the great 80s revival kicked in. The mainstreaming of surveillance techniques on peaceful protestors, the extensive use of agent provocateurs such as Mark Stone/Kennedy, the kettling of thousands of very young people, the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 and the cover-up that followed, the visceral response to the Dale Farm gypsy encampment: all of this combined to create a perception of England as a more brutal, troubled place. This is Paul Dacre’s and Richard Desmond’s England.
Paul Mason, author of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, has written:
There is something in the air that defies historical parallels: something new to do with technology, behaviour and popular culture. As well as a flowering of collective action in defence of democracy, and a resurgence of the struggles of the poor and oppressed, what's going on is also about the expanded power of the individual. For the first time in decades, people are using methods of protest that do not seem archaic or at odds with the contemporary world; the protesters seem more in tune with modernity than the methods of their rulers. Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris calls what we're seeing the ‘movement without a name’: a trend, a direction, an idea-virus, a meme, a source of energy that can be traced through a large number of spaces and projects.
Mason’s analysis is good, although there is something disconcerting about linking a Syrian dodging sniper fire, or someone moved to self-immolation, with either a student demo or a Borders blogger. All the same, the scale and ferocity of youth and student protest and the flourishing of participatory media shouldn’t be discounted.
For the Scottish Spring to become a deeper and more significant shift, this meme of self-actualised spontaneous action will have to connect up with the movement to permanently break up the British State. If Mason's analysis is correct, the impact of mass youth unemployment will create fertile ground for protest.
That itself could create problems for a Scottish Government trying to create constitutional change. What if Salmond and Swinney have to send in the police to bash protesting youth, not the Met? What if Bute House becomes the focus of anger and resentment, not the place of change? The key difference is the new nature of the political landscape, and the makeup of the independence ‘i’ generation.
The SNP as a party has been a decade ahead of other parties in using vertical social media techniques, uniting its dedicated supporters and spreading a positive message. The challenge is, can it connect with a wider movement with deeper aims, to take it from party of government to one of liberation? Can the party tap into its more radical roots to go from slick campaign to movement for change, or will it be tempted onto the safe-ground of ‘big tent politics’ and sloganeering?
Scotland has had some connection to and participation with the Occupy Movement, but not in any significant way. 2011 did see the launch of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, celebrating the iconic shop steward who died this year, who ran the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders strike, inspiring thousands with the idea of not merely striking, but occupying and working the shipyards.
The shop steward leader moved from being a Communist to a nationalist over his lifetime and it’s a process that is worth considering. The Scottish Government has made his speech to Glasgow University on alienation available to every school in Scotland. In it he wrote:
Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe is true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It's the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.
The problem for the Labour Party is not that their opponents have claimed and occupied ‘their history’, it is that they have understood it. As figures like Jimmy Reid and Edwin Morgan came across to support independence, a generation of Labour supporters encountered the disappointments of Blairism and the civilian travesty of the Iraq War.
Much of the energy behind the new politics is about efforts to repair a country ravaged by decades of misrule. And there is a massive disjuncture here between image and reality. Whilst Scotland is routinely portrayed by the London press as the Land of Milk and Honey, riding high on endless handouts, the truth is that parts of the East End of Glasgow still have a life expectancy lower than Baghdad. Endemic poverty (upward of a million people said to suffer from fuel poverty) and the panoply of ill-health associated with our post-industrial lifestyles make this an absurdist tragedy.
Based on his new lead over Labour, Salmond is now able to push through a dramatic a minimum pricing scheme for alcohol that his opponents insist is illegal; and which they opposed when they had the chance, despite wholesale support from health and social service experts. His government is also pressing ahead with plans to generate 100% of Scotland's electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Much of this is just common sense, rather than constitutional upheaval. But it stems from politicians focused on what would be best for the people who elected them.
So how has the established order responded to the Scottish Spring?
Simon Heffer writing in the Daily Mail claims (absurdly) ‘Mr Salmond is on his way to creating a one-party state in Scotland’. The Deputy Prime Minister claims that if you support independence, you are an ‘extremist’. This kind of mindless reaction is grist to the nationalist mill.
Yet, quietly, ‘thinking Scotland’ is beginning to articulate the new reality. David Greig, arguably the country’s leading playwright, and a writer previous thought of as a supporter of the union, writes:
For 25 years, Scottish nationalism has been a civic, social-democratic, multicultural movement. Nationalists have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they opposed Trident. They have openly campaigned for more immigration. The SNP proudly asserts the multicultural nature of modern Scotland with its MSPs taking the parliamentary oath in Urdu, Gaelic, Italian and English. Nationalists promote and engage with the EU. They advocate sustainable energy, land reform, arts funding... So there comes a moment when we turn and look at each other – England and Scotland – and realise we just want different things. No matter how hard I try, I can no longer rationalise voting for parties that can never give my community what it wants.
Greig’s voice is joined by Scotland’s thinkers, writers and musicians, from Mark Millar to Annie Lennox, from Iain Banks to A.L. Kennedy, from Janice Galloway to Alasdair Gray. The writer Iain Macwhirter wrote: ‘The May 2011 Holyrood election was one of those landmark moments when a nation discovers that it has, almost by accident, altered the course of history.’
So 2011 may not, in the end, be the year of Caledonian Dreaming; it may be the year we woke up from the nightmare of British State.
- Kevin McKenna, ‘Alex Salmond can do no wrong after biggest victory margin in Scottish political history’, The Observer, 8 May 2011 - http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/may/08/alex-salmond-scottish-election-victory
- See ‘Radical War’, Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_War
- Mike Davis, ‘Spring Confronts Winter’, New Left Review 72 (Nov Dec 2011), 5.
- Patrick Geddes, ‘The Sociology of Autumn’, The Evergreen: The Book of Autumn (1895), 27-38 - http://www.cts.dmu.ac.uk/exist/mod_mag/magazine_issue.htm?id=evergreen&issue=evergreen_2
- Mary Dejevsky, ‘Breaking up should not be so hard to do’, The Independent, Friday 23 December 2011.
- The Institute for Collapsonomics - http://collapsonomics.org/
- Nick Davies, Flat Earth News (London: Chatto & Windus, 2008)
- Joyce McMillan, ‘Alex Salmond takes the prize for originality’, The Scotsman, 30 December 2011.
- Paul Mason, ‘Global unrest: how the revolution went viral’, The Guardian, 3 January 2012.
- BBC News, ‘Shipyard union leader Jimmy Reid dies’, 11 August 2010 - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-10919851
- James Reid, Alienation (Glasgow: University of Glasgow Publications, 1972), 5.
- Simon Heffer, ‘A wretched ‘reform’ that could put lame-duck Red Ed in No. 10’, The Daily Mail, 6 January 2012 - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2083281
- Tom Peterkin, ‘If you back independence, you’re an extremist, Nick Clegg tells Scotland’, The Scotsman, 31 January 2012 - http://www.scotsman.com/news/uk/if_you_back_independence_you_re_an_extremist_nick_clegg_tells_scotland_1_2042520
- David Greig in The Observer, ‘Scotland and England: what future for the Union?’, 28 August 2011 - http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/aug/28/scottish-independence-snp-iain-banks
- Iain Macwhirter, ‘2011 Review 3: The SNP victory march’, The Sunday Herald, 1 January 2012 - http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/2011-review-3-the-snp-victory-march.16180699