Saturday’s march and rally for independence was a notably left-wing affair. Under a stereotypically nationalist forest of placards and saltire flags, the crowd cheered and applauded enthusiastically as speaker after speaker imagined an independent Scotland of public ownership and wealth redistribution. The rapturous response to Alan Bissett’s description of so-called “wealth creators” as “greedy selfish bastards” must have made the lonely souls at the Business For Scotland stall feel rather queasy. Indeed, the general tone of the rally and march was considerably to the left of the official Yes Scotland campaign, whose videos and leaflets seemed tame in comparison to the rabble-rousing speeches and slogans.
So why the contrast? It’s very unlikely that Yes Scotland are to the right of popular opinion in general; calls for them to adopt a more ‘radical’ position are going unheeded because shouting about your radicalism is a very good way to lose votes in a small-c conservative country like Scotland. Most people don’t want ‘radical’ change. They want, broadly speaking, the ‘fairness’ and ‘prosperity’ that the Yes campaign are working to emphasise. Yes’s political base, on the other hand, comes from what can be loosely described as a nationalism of progressive reaction – against the disintegration of a British welfare state that tied the union together, and against the cut-throat unpleasantness of the society that followed it.
It might not be quite this simple. There is, perhaps, also something in Gerry Hassan’s notion of a “third Scotland”, a vague green-red spectrum focusing on communitarian localism and human wellbeing rather than the old centralising and managerial tendencies of Labour Scotland or the nationalist universalism of SNP Scotland. But this vision, while certainly popular amongst the commentariat and twitterati, remains too vague and cerebral to have a powerful impact on people’s sense of how their lives will be immediately changed by independence. Yes Scotland are trying to find a middle ground between this rather lofty vision for a “better nation”, and a broader appeal to the public with the basic idea that we’ll all be richer, safer, happier – and so on – with independence.
In this sense, much of the Yes campaign is stiflingly bourgeois. Offended by the open assaults being waged on the poor by the British ruling class, the well-meaning Scottish middling sort has decided that such an open demonstration of class war (and the insinuation of their own murky involvement in such an uneven struggle) just won’t wash. Measures must be taken, it seems, to counteract this vulgar disregard for common decency, and these have taken the tokenistic form of vague demands: equality, fairness, democracy, etc. When politics reaches this level of abstraction, it resorts back to the basic micro-managerial approach of technocratic liberalism. Influential books like Wilkinson & Pickett’s The Spirit Level identify various social ills – poor health, violence, crime and so on – before identifying a simple, catch-all cause (economic inequality, in this case) and proposing policy-level solutions. They point to certain levers within the existing political and economic system, and suggest that we pull them. It all seems very simple, and that’s why policy wonks and left-liberal politicians love them so much – Ed Miliband made The Spirit Level required reading for his staff after becoming Labour leader.
The trouble is, not everyone is a policy wonk. If the best argument for independence is that Scotland can be a fairer and more prosperous society with independence, we need a better way of getting that argument across than lofty claims about our “social-democratic consensus” or “breaking with the neoliberal model”, which don’t relate to the the material realities of people’s lives. Yes Scotland, in trying to make the idealistic message of their centre-left base more accessible and palatable to those outside the policy bubble, end up tying themselves in rhetorical knots and tossing out bland catchphrases. Most Scots don’t see a difference between ‘fairness’ and ‘prosperity’. In our everyday lives, we experience low wages, long hours, demanding bosses and rude customers; a society with less of those things would be both fairer and more prosperous. Higher wages would give greater personal comfort and security, as well as higher tax revenue and better public services; shorter working weeks would give us more time to pursue opportunities outside of rigid work structures and spend time with families; and more control, security and respect in our working lives would give us a better experience of life in general. Fairness and prosperity are two sides of the same coin – and it is only in a politics that recognises the deeply political nature of work that they can be seen and expressed as such, with real relevance to people’s lives.
Here it becomes clear – as it was on Saturday – that there is a gaping hole in the Yes campaign where the labour movement and the Labour Party should be. There is something about labour politics that is both quietly radical and yet profoundly popular: it doesn’t shout about its radicalism from the rooftops, because it doesn’t need to. The political nature of labour – of work – is experienced by the vast majority of the population every day, and a politics which recognises this cannot help but be radical in its implications (though rarely in its manifestations): to put the power of workers above the power of corporations and their owners, a fundamental transformation in the structure of society is necessary. In mainstream British politics it has consistently been the labour movement and the Labour Party that have understood the political nature of work, and that have sought to intervene in this realm. Even at its lowest point, after the “radical implications” embodied in Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution were jettisoned by Tony Blair, Labour remained uniquely aware of the workplace as a place of politics. This is why they remained popular, and it is why the trade unions continued – and continue still – to support them.
As Ed Miliband begins a Labour conference that will focus on zero hours contracts and the minimum wage as well as ending the bedroom tax, Yes Scotland and the SNP risk being outflanked on the left in a way that is both radical and popular. The march and rally was certainly dressed in the flowing, colourful robes of radicalism, but it would be a mistake to think that the politics on offer reflected the priorities of the wider population. There was little mention of work, outside of that confusing old slogan “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” (with the obvious, cheap retort: will the “better nation” pay me a living wage to do so?). A Yes campaign without labour politics is a Yes campaign that cannot help but be condemned to the sterile no man’s land between radicalism and populism. It need not advertise political and economic upheaval to be radical, and it need not tack to the centre to be popular. Rather than banging on about abstract notions of democracy, neoliberalism and the “good society”, Yes needs to talk about the thing that dominates our daily lives more than anything else: work. Not just quantity, but quality. That’s the only way to win the essential votes of Labour members and voters and to convince the general public that independence will have a direct and emancipatory impact on the structure and substance of their lives.