Scene One: Wednesday, in the House of Commons, Jim Sheridan, MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and one of Scottish Labour’s deadwood planks, entreats David Cameron to encourage businesses to inform their Scottish employees of risks associated with independence, so that they vote No in the September ballot. In a staged show of unity, Cameron replies: “With him, I would urge them to speak out” – ‘them’, those cowed masters of capital, who are petrified into silence by the referendum, and must be supported, by media and by Parliament, to ensure that their concerns are heard.
Scene Two: Thursday evening Cameron comes north to offer Glasgow £500 million investment for city businesses. Labour council chief Gordon Matheson says it “will lead to more and better jobs, new companies which survive and grow and a massive expansion in modern high tech industry… We have been able to secure a great deal from the UK Government”, he declares. United they stand.
Everybody knows that Labour and Conservatives are coordinating a campaign message that the future of investment and jobs depends on the United Kingdom. With the employment rate in Glasgow only 60% and the Scottish Government offering pitifully little by way of new employment, these promises will be heard.
But when a Glasgow Labour Council celebrates the ‘great deal’ between itself and a Tory government that has suffocated jobs-growth outside London, the darker days of complicity between Labour councils and Thatcher’s government in the 1980s come straight to mind. In Westminster and across Scotland, Labour politicians, who are meant to represent workers, are calling on employers to make the case for the United Kingdom. Such explicit high-level coordination is a chance for critics to expose elite complicity.
They should be easy targets, the elite who represent the institutions we are shortly to endorse or dismiss in September’s referendum. Labour MPs, in post for longer than a generation, who have overseen poverty for generations but seem clueless about the obvious solution of empowering those who lack means to make their own ambitious real. The leaders of a council which has pumped its spare funds into a Commonwealth charade while the economic tide has turned, leaving debris in its wake. And the government which has made austerity the only option so that even Labour has to commit to “ruthless” cuts if it wins control of government in 2015.
Left-wing groups in Scotland have so far failed to hit the targets because of idealistic assumptions that institutional failures are so obvious that they don’t need to be exposed. These idealists are bad radicals because they never expose the roots and branches of institutions that connect the politicians and the businesses in conspiracies against the public, instead attacking the whole form – Westminster, NATO, neoliberal consensus. The few writers who actually manage to attack the incidents and scenes of institutional power tend themselves to be skeptical of the vast and obscure demands of the ‘radical’ nationalist movement.
In other words, it is not radical to simply declare that an independent Scotland would be fairer, with better work and better jobs, because these claims from groups without power sound like self-important musing to the public. The groups with authority to offer better jobs are businesses and government, opposition parties and perhaps trade unions – not radical campaigns. Radical pretensions to set the independence agenda are ridiculous; radicals should instead be critics of the agenda that is set by those in power. Parts of the left seem to have forgotten their role as critics of the establishment. We are running out of time to learn it again, to pillory and undermine our institutions.
Radicals have the advantage that the very narrative everyone is given, that comes from the staged agreements and disagreements by people and interests within the institutions like parliament, business and media, is open to criticism just when it needs to be – it is exposed by global crisis just at the moment people in Scotland are forced to choose in the referendum whether they trust these institutions. The institutions’ weakness comes from the financial crash and capitalist crisis of a few years ago – and the referendum is an opportunity to reject it, to sack the bosses, to topple the Labour careerists.
James Stafford recently wrote that if you don’t think the case for either Yes or No has changed since the crash, your arguments are weak. The referendum is framed by the crash in ways that go beyond ‘finding an alternative to austerity’: the crash changed the referendum from being a vote of confidence in Scotland’s moderate government, into a vote to build a state outwith institutions that have run working people into the ground.
But to make the case, radicals have to break down the institutions into their component interests – and personages. This means learning and scrutinising characters who sustain Labour, Conservative and SNP complicity. This includes the institutions and businesses that create and sustain jobs in Scotland, and the Scottish Government which has the same industrial policy as Westminster parties. Because of naive prejudices and idealism (explored in this article), many radicals find it hard to attack the Scottish establishment.
All political decisions from a radical perspective are negative decisions – a response to the way institutions are linked in an elite and conservative ways. The left should not be turning this decision into a moment of great positivity, especially as this would make us almost uniquely out of sync with most of the European left. The European radical narrative is not utopian – to build a better society – but seeks a revolutionary moment where controllers of society on the centre-left and right can be displaced, and powerless groups like workers, women and immigrants force their interests to the surface. Such radicals seriously doubt the ability of government and opposition to advance interests of anything but the crumbling institutions they sustain (like ‘Westminster’ and ‘Scotland’).
Popular frustration is the proper light in which to see our referendum. The critical mode is not idealist –presenting a picture and imagining it will come real, or believing that ideas and principles themselves drive progress – but should start by tearing at the roots.