CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says Scotland is at risk from the status quo elitism that it so nearly defeated in 2014
People tend to talk as if the ‘battle for Scotland’ is a purely constitutional battle, like the only unresolved big question is ‘independence or not independence’.
But this has done an intentional disservice to our recent history. There has also been a battle over what Scotland is for, who it is for. For a few brief moments, it looked like that battle might bring some real change.
I am now afraid that those who wanted change are far on the back foot and the old order is re-establishing itself. Unless we do something, I fear Scotland’s moment of change will be lost for good.
Because while there are plenty people in the independence movement who are wholly or mainly driven by a fundamental belief in independence, there were also an awful lot of people who saw it as a best chance to challenge the kind of politics we are subjected to in Britain and to imagine a new kind of politics.
There was a time when the independence referendum was celebrated, even by London-based sceptics, as a remarkable flourishing in genuine grassroots public interest in social change. There was real surprise at the sheer scale of self-driven activism – and its level of imagination and depth of policy engagement.
That story is gradually being disappeared in favour of the preferred ‘divisive and violent’ narrative. All those town and village halls where ordinary people got together to discuss what they wanted for their nation’s and their community’s future are being erased from the timeline.
And Scotland was one of the few places in the world where the response to the financial crisis and the gross political and economic mismanagement of high neoliberalism was met with a real, creative and positive response.
It was important beyond its borders, in the same way Iceland, Greece and to a lesser extent Spain were (to pick only European examples). Many, many people wanted to know how such deep and committed policy engagement among ‘civilians’ was possible. I have lost count of the international academic researchers who have interviewed me to seek to understand how it happened.
But three things happened in the last couple of weeks that have made me realise how long ago and far away that time was.
First, there was Davos, the annual get-together of the people who brought you a decade of economic failure. At a global level, you should clear your mind of any belief that there is any real contrition among elites. If they’re trying to learn anything, it seems to be how not to get caught next time.
To give you a sense of how ranks are being closed, it is widely accepted that the Davos set are even making their peace with Donald Trump. He may be a bit embarrassing on Twitter, but with his massive corporate tax cuts and deregulation frenzy, he’s their biggest benefactor.
The more things go wrong, the worse things get, the bigger the mess, the less we’ve seen serious proposals for change or reform. It’s a standard psychological reaction of retreat and avoidance in the face of tasks so big and diffuse they feel impossible.
I mean, when did someone last tell you that another world is possible? Who would you identify as the world’s leading voices pointing us in a different direction?
Well, it’s certainly not Britain’s ‘progressives’. They’re all busy trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. If they can’t have full EU membership (and they’ve not yet given up), they at least want as much of the big finance-designed trade rules as they can.
The battle is now to save compulsory competitive tendering, secret dispute resolution courts in which corporations can sue governments, barriers for democratic governments to invest in public priorities (‘state aid’), unlimited flows of whatever products the EU Commission (in close consort with the multinationals) say should flow, and the legal requirements to outsource to corporations.
Real European democracy, proper reform of the deeply flawed instruments of the European state, recalibration of the relationship between the EU and big finance – these are not to be spoken of. Like Greece. Don’t talk about what was done to Greece.
And leading the charge is the Scottish Government. Restoring the power of the European Commission over Britain is the one policy that I really do not doubt that the Scottish Government believes in enough to prioritise now.
On her defining issue, there really is no difference in the political stance of Nicola Sturgeon and and, say, David Miliband – free market capitalism in Europe must be saved at all costs.
And this is all possible because the SNP’s decision-making apparatus is so incredibly centralised. I have met many, many party members who will defend the party to the death on social media, but I’ve yet to meet a single one who thinks that the leadership team of Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell values or even wants internal party democracy.
The control exerted by a tiny group at the top of the SNP would make peak-era Tony Blair blush.
Meanwhile, a new funding body for policy research was launched this week – the Scottish Policy Foundation. I had been a bit worried that this was a move by Scotland’s financial and political elite to ‘take back control’.
I mean, the successes of the outsiders (campaigners blocking fracking, opposing TTIP, fighting for a national investment bank and other radical policy ideas, discussing real participatory democracy) was a real potential threat.
But my concerns were put to rest when I discovered that it is ‘non political’. Phew. Funded by the Edinburgh financial set and governed by a Tory Lord, Nato’s man in the SNP, Tony Blair’s representative on earth, the boss of a big financial company, a former ambassador to the US and the pro-vice chancellor of Oxford University, this is virtually monastic in its impartiality.
They are convinced that think tanks are simply ‘seekers after truth’. This is total rubbish. Think tanks were invented in the early part of the 20th century by the emerging PR industry as a means of influencing government on behalf of interest groups.
They were a way of ‘laundering’ lobbying positions to make them look like they weren’t lobbying positions. By far the most effective think tanks over the last century have been those funded by corporate interests which have created the current economic policy agenda – in Britain, the Adam Smith Institute virtually invented Thatcherism.
Which is fine – I’m a fan of pluralism. There are only two problems – first, the corporations have all the money so the corporate think tanks always win. There is no balance. Despite the small donations of our many supporters, Common Weal will never be able to compete on a level financial playing field with something run by the CEO of Virgin Money.
And the second is the honesty. There is no such thing as policy without politics. It is a lie. Every decision favours someone or something; the honest thing is to say what you’re trying to make happen.
I fear that the Scottish Policy Foundation is trying to reassert the narratives about Scotland which were dominant throughout the period of RBS’s supremacy and which were challenged by the social movements that emerged during indyref.
When I put all this together with an awareness of what the Scottish media considers ‘news’ (mainly tax rises being bad and flags), it looks like, well, the past.
I know that the efforts of ordinary people to stay engaged in politics have in some cases been enormous. I have such a massive amount of respect for the groups who have kept trying to debate and discuss the future, funded by donations thrown in buckets on the way out (the kind of donations that jingle).
But I fear they will struggle to keep going. To find the energy to keep going you need to win occasionally, and that isn’t happening.
Their vision of a Scotland run by and for its people is beginning to fade. The vision of Scotland run by and for its elites seems to me to be growing stronger.
Of course, it is never too late. Common Weal may not be able to play on an equal financial basis with the monied set, but we are still Scotland’s biggest think tank. Our strength is that lots and lots of ordinary people really want the policies we campaign for.
That people power and our sheer, relentless campaigning eventually got the Scottish Government to introduce an investment bank. We will soon launch our campaign for a national infrastructure company and then for a public banking network, with a series of housing policies after that.
Our Democracy, various land reform campaign groups, Friends of the Earth, Global Justice Now and a host of others will also keep doing their bit.
But they have a hard fight. They don’t have a media that wants to write about them. And frankly they don’t have a government that is particularly interested in what they have to say.
Unless we open Scotland up again to a real conversation about what politics means to people, to communities, to our hopes for the world around us, Davos will conquer Scotland once again.