Editorial: Into The Abyss

Those who take the meat from the table
Teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.

Bertolt Brecht

The left wing of Scottish politics has been broken, and the country’s political flight path is listing towards the right. In the election just past, Scottish Labour stumbled uncertainly leftwards, tripped over their own position on the constitution, and fell gracelessly into third place. The Scottish Greens gained seats, but the left of the party was disappointed to see socialists Maggie Chapman and Sarah Beattie-Smith unexpectedly stranded outside Holyrood, while the arithmetic of the new Parliament offers few chances for Green kingmaking.

RISE were beaten by the National Front in the north-east, and by the Scottish Christian Party and Solidarity nationwide. Fascists, theocrats and a personality cult triumphed over ‘Scotland’s Left Alliance’ just two years after the independence referendum was supposed to have thrust the population into their outstretched arms. The risk of using seasonal metaphors in Scotland is that they can be all too accurate: after the vaunted ‘Scottish Spring’ we appear to have vaulted over anything resembling summer, and the leaves are already turning brown.


The SNP spent the election positioning themselves in the centre, digging bunkers into the open ground vacated by tax-hiking Labour and tax-cutting Tory manifestos. A Nordic-inspired emphasis on childcare was at the heart of their centre-left social policy programme, but their centre-right economic prospectus included tax cuts for the air travel industry and a stubborn reluctance to make rich people pay more income tax.

The main opposition party is now the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, a group dominated by land and business owners who like their justice tough and their taxes flat. If the SNP are the parliamentary representatives of the ruling class, the Scottish Tories are the bastards themselves. In government the SNP will have to deal with an increasingly disastrous economic situation in a chamber where “entrepreneurialism” has louder advocates and public ownership more braying, tweed-jacketed critics than ever before.

This is what we crusty anachronisms on the far left might call an unfavourable balance of forces.

It ought to have taken a lot of people on the left by surprise, given the hitherto widely-held belief that the left was doing better than ever in Scotland. Instead, people don’t even seem to think it’s happening. Robin McAlpine, great chieftain of the CommonSpace, believes everything is fine. “Stop worrying about the Tories,” he writes. They’re “just a slightly bigger bunch of people stranded on a remote island with little influence over mainstream politics in Scotland.” If the second largest party in the Scottish Parliament has “little influence over mainstream politics”, who does?

Is it possible that only one party – the SNP – determines Scotland’s political life? Some political commentators seem to think this is the case, and the reason given is that the party is not particular to any one interest group, but universal. It is a curious facet of Scottish politics that no one really knows who the SNP stand for. We know about the other parties. Scottish Labour are either stooges for the Tories, a job-creation scheme for useless councillors or the parliamentary wing of the organised working class, depending on your perspective. The Scottish Tories are the party of good decent orangemen, noble small businesses or old rich bigots, again depending on where you stand. The Greens are either a bunch of nerds and hippies or the vanguard of the precariat. And so on.

But the SNP are a mystery, and their members and parliamentarians appear to come from a range of social classes and from across the political spectrum. Even their funding offers few clues; much of their spending power appears to come from fortune itself, thanks to two lifelong members’ massive Euromillions win a few years ago. Obviously lots of people think they know who the SNP stand for: “all of us”, that common wail of the Common Weal. We are to believe that they encompass every class and subculture of Scottish society, as if we could simply negotiate our way out of capitalism without a single person losing their house, or head.

For all their talk of parliamentary consensus and working together, the SNP claim they are the only party anyone in Scotland could ever need, posting leaflets during the election which asked “who benefits most from our policies?”, with the fantastically illogical answer: “we all do”. When one party successfully presents itself as encompassing almost every interest in Scottish society, it’s no wonder that opposition parties, particularly opposition parties that represent clear sectoral interests, seem irrelevant.

This view of the SNP has led parts of the Scottish Left to view the SNP as ideologically neutral, open to being swayed this way and that by the clever manipulation of public discourse. Apparently all that is needed is for the left to create or appropriate a set of ideas that produce (as if by magic) various good policy outcomes, and then persuade the SNP to adopt those ideas too. A side-effect of this strategy, though not one that is particularly problematic for its proponents, is that power on the Left drifts away from any substantive socialist movement and into the hands of a little clique of ideologues and left gurus.

These are, of course, the absolute worst people to be tasked with assaulting the structures of power in Scotland. The SNP’s actual ideological character is totally hidden from them, because they don’t think there’s anything ideological about the belief that all the different social interests in Scotland can work together for the common good. They just think that’s the truth. The most important feature of ideology is that so long as you’re in it, you can’t see it.

roch_windsThat shared ideology sustains an approach to government which we call “social nationalism” in our recently-published book Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland. Social nationalism isn’t a creation of the SNP but the product of a decades-long rise to parliamentary and societal hegemony. Its roots lie in the self-interest of a distinctly Scottish social stratum that emerged from what political scientists call “administrative devolution”.

Since the Act of Union, a significant amount of responsibility for enforcing the power of the British state and capital in Scotland has been delegated to local administrators, first through moral and educational institutions of ‘civil society’, then expanded after the Second World War through various devolved aspects of welfare bureaucracy. There has always been a distinct Scottish establishment tasked with managing, persuading and disciplining the working class in Scotland on behalf of the British state and capital.

The unionist bargain between Britain’s ruling class and its administrative Scottish fraction remained strong so long as the British state and economy had the requisite energy to sustain the diffusion of some power to its northern periphery. But Thatcher’s inheritance – a crumbling state apparatus and a tanking economy – meant the Tories’ traditional sensitivity to Scottish autonomy was subordinated to the rapid concentration of power at Westminster as the crisis demanded a speedy resolution. The simultaneous attacks on the British working class and on the autonomy of Scottish institutions by Thatcher’s government provoked a reaction not only from the working class, but also from those to whom state power had been delegated in Scotland.

reidheathThis reaction pushed many working class Scots into an awkward embrace with Scotland’s imperilled managerial establishment. The former had a long tradition of radicalism, and had recently given Ted Heath’s government a bloody nose during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in 1972. Their obvious place, therefore, was not with the Scottish elite whose key role and expertise in society is to persuade people to be governed.

One of the most effective tools of persuasion is the ability to present one’s own particular interests as universal. Scotland’s political managers absorbed the defensive demands and militant methods of the Scottish working class into a pacified cross-class ideology that rejected the outright conflict of Thatcherism in favour of a moralising, communitarian ethos of public service and corporatist negotiation. Alex Salmond once said that Scots “didn’t mind the economic side” of Thatcherism, but disliked “the social side.” The alternative to Thatcherism, which split the nation along clear class lines, was to dissolve class differences into a new national project: that of defending the remnants of social democracy, expanding Scottish autonomy, and holding a stratified society together through thick and thin.

This did little to halt the destruction of working-class lives at the hands of capital, but it did a lot to protect Scotland’s administrative elite from the same onslaught. They won themselves a parliament, constructed in a lab by a ‘Constitutional Convention’ of the great and good and implemented by a Labour government with little interest in redistributing power to the working class.

The Scottish Government which emerged from that process now funds, or at least provides a profitable focal point for, a grand constellation of voluntary organisations, think tanks, expert advisors, media pundits, consultancies, lobbying firms, public sector boards, lawyers, advocacy groups and media institutions – the list goes on and on.

Almost every single one of these organisations or individuals reproduces social nationalism through their work, papering over the cracks in Scottish society with platitudes about our common interest in social justice, human rights and sustainable growth. The SNP thrives on this, keeping Scotland placid and governable so that capital can continue to exploit the people’s labour power with as little resistance as possible.

Scotland’s imagined political community is classless, consensual and run by disinterested technocrats, and this makes it hard to envision success for a party of open class interest. But imagining a classless Scotland doesn’t make it real, and the Tories are not as isolated from this ideology as Robin McAlpine seems to think.

Our post-election editorial discussed how the Ruth Davidson For A Strong Opposition Party might effectively navigate social nationalist currents. But they’re also well-placed to profit from any emerging discontent with an increasingly stagnant consensus that doesn’t actually manage to resolve social antagonism. As the SNP continues to settle into power and the promise of a better nation disappoints, popular discontent will gradually but surely grow.

So long as the left allows itself to be pulled by social nationalism into the SNP’s orbit, the Tories may come to offer the only obvious source of resistance to a new Scottish establishment. The new Tory MSP Adam Tomkins has already made a start on this, asking crucial parliamentary questions about the same politicisation of Freedom Of Information responses that RISE sought to expose during the election – a noteworthy shift in critical responsibility from left to right.

The Tories are already mastering the SNP’s old trick of operating simultaneously within and outwith the existing structures of power and influence, deferring to social nationalism in some ways and distinguishing themselves from it in others – just as the SNP attacked Labour while appropriating its traditional message. They have an influential cohort of quiet sympathisers in Scotland’s burgeoning corporate lobbying sector, and their distinctive positions on tax and land have drawn them closer to other powerful interests in Scottish society. It’s likely we’ll see them play a key role in a Scottish Government in our lifetimes.

During the UCS work-in the Scottish Trades Union Congress called for a “workers’ parliament” in Scotland. Now we’ve got a parliament with more powers than ever and a popular Scottish Government, with a minister for Fair Work and a partnership system of industrial relations that is lauded by social democrats. But it’s no workers’ parliament – the two largest parties represent everything but the working class.  Nothing sums up the Scottish left’s complacent tolerance of social nationalism as clearly as its embrace of the reactionary slogan adorning Holyrood’s north wall: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” With the right wing gaining ground, perhaps it’s time to strike as if we live in the early days of a worse one.


Editorial: In the Face of Scottish Toryism

What parliamentary pundit could have predicted that Ruth Davidson, on the first day of the new term of the 2016 Scottish Parliament, would ride into the chamber on the back of a bull?

Somewhat uncertain at first, the creature pawed the ground in the public lobby until violent prodding from Jackson Carlaw and Jeremy Balfour cajoled it forward. MSPs, new and old, shuffling into their seats, weren’t sure what to make of the animal. Was it from the Tories’ rural base: a throwback to the old days when Annabel Goldie, the rural granny that everyone wished they had, brought her quad bike to Edinburgh? Was it an animus of John Bull, inspiring the Tories with unionist might, or a herald of strong opposition wielded by a woman who knew how to tame the beast of rightist electoral power?

Davidson dismounted and the bull was tethered to a chair for the duration of the session. The Tories trotted out some rough and ready rhetoric and positioned themselves as the party of opposition. It was all quite effective. But the parliamentarians were distracted. Their eyes kept darting to the bull, and when they caught its eye it almost appeared to smile mysteriously.

Scotland is so habituated to the SNP that as the party ensconces itself in Parliament for a third term, having increased its constituency vote, and sets about the murky business of governing, most of our attention has turned to the Tories and their unexpected role as the main opposition. Backed by a triumphant 22% of the vote and a right-wing press that suddenly seems more imposing, the new opposition is already insisting that independence is not an issue: peak-Nat has passed. In doing so the Tories paradoxically thrust the national question back into the centre of Scottish politics. Sturgeon’s announcement that the government will launch a new campaign for independence also situates Scottish politics around the national question. The electorate has a short memory; this collision further squeezes Labour into oblivion.

There is almost-universal assent that with the Tories in opposition, Scottish politics is drawn more heavily along nationalist-unionist lines. David Torrance has talked of ‘Ulsterisation’ now being ‘complete’ in Scotland, and the Campaign for Socialism – a left-wing groupuscule within Scottish Labour – declares that Labour must not buy into either of the politics of national identity on offer. The phenomenon is not new. During Labour’s last term in opposition they made sure the nationalist/unionist divide defined them.

But is it really so simple? Is Scottish politics stuck between the rock of independence and the hard place of unionism? People have become fixated on the second half of the Conservative and Unionist Party’s name. But the name is not a list: the two parts fit together to form a highly effective instrument of constitutional conservatism.

Who are the 31 Tory MSPs? As we might expect, there’s a retail manager, a landowning aristocrat, a racist car salesman, a small-business owner, a chartered accountant, a business consultant, a disgraced councillor, plenty of career politicians and a Sun journalist. But there’s also a republican theorist of the British constitution, and several others clutching law and constitutional law degrees. Even among the candidates, then, there is an intriguing mixture of hardcore legalistic unionism and traditional Toryism.

Ruth Davidson and her coterie are ploughing an old parliamentary furrow. She dismisses those to the ‘right’ and ‘left’ of her who propose that people can best be looked after by the market or the state – both are mechanisms, according to Davidson, that can never meet our needs. The Scottish Parliament is so essential to Davidson’s centrist Toryism precisely because it is incapable of giving everything away to the state or the market. If you’re a centrist Tory you’re likely to become something of a constitutionalist – you’re going to want to stabilise society  so that it will never get out of control. Labour introduced a parliament to kill nationalism, but the Tories understand the true constitutional beauty of the Scottish Parliament – its limited powers and scope mean it can never introduce disorder. The Tories are, consciously or not, following a long British tradition of constitutional conservatism. Their opposition will sometimes be difficult to place on a Left-Right or a nationalist-unionist spectrum because they will advance stabilising policies – on education, health and social care – that will be eminently centrist and sensible.

The Scottish Parliament is set up well for all kinds of stable low-lying politics. As we say in our book,

While the devolved Parliament is certainly important, and does some mildly progressive things and so on, it’s also very tedious. The structures of devolution keep out the elements of politics that are the most important and relevant for the working class. The remit of Scottish politics – administering social services to the citizens of Scotland – excludes the issues of most salience for gaining control over the economy. The underlying dynamic of political and economic change, the conflict between antagonistic social forces, is contained within an administrative framework which claims to mediate between these forces. Politics as conflict spanning the whole of the social order has never been introduced to devolved Scotland, where politics is limited to a narrow set of widely shared civic interests. Devolution is a lobster pot: the creatures of Scottish politics are trapped in the mesh of consensus, pincers snapping feebly in the face of powers far outside their reach.

The Tories delight in this entrapment, because as long as they are in charge at Westminster they will still have control over all the real ‘powers’ of state. And of course the constitutionalism of the Scottish Tories does not stop them from being rabidly right wing in other ways. Their business and financial interests will simmer away, being addressed by their cronies in Westminster, sometimes being helped along by a few deft SNP moves to secure a vote. That’s the way the Scottish Parliament was meant to operate, they will insist. It was never meant to encompass every power of the state, but to create stability around certain constitutionally defined issues.

This is not unionism as we have come to understand it under Labour’s opposition. It’s not SNP-bad, it’s not Better Togetherism, and it’s not wrapped in a butcher’s apron either. This is conservative constitutionalism, a unionism of old, brought back to light as a calm, simple facet of modern Toryism. And it’s dangerously effective.

Gradually the parliamentarians will become accustomed to the bull, which is quite a well-behaved brute at the end of the day. Parliamentarians will have to make a few changes to accommodate it, like deftly side-stepping piles of dung when they walk around the chamber. But unionist constitutionalism is such a perfect fit in the Scottish parliament that gradually the Tories will come to have their natural place as the main opposition, as if they had always been there. Even the most socialist MSPs might struggle to effectively challenge the calm face of middle-ground reason that the Tories will wear. But if someone were to raise a red flag, in some unlikely location, the Tories might lose their constitutional cool. The bull would go charging after it, and in the brutal conflict that followed, all horns and teeth and hair, the edifice of the Scottish Parliament might come crashing to the ground.

Election Special: The Caledonian Sleeper

Isn’t the Caledonian Sleeper a fine analogy for the Scots electorate? This thought formed itself on the eve of polling as I boarded at Euston, curled myself up on the soft seats and drifted off to the throb of the engines. All the drowsy bodies in cramped and overheated carriages cruising towards a destination they know so well, with complimentary earplugs and blindfolds to limit interruptions by unwelcome sights or noises – they are taking the most romantic and uncomfortable way to return to the homely familiarities of Scotland.

The Scottish citizenry was only stirred awake by the noise of the referendum. An explanation for this was recently made by Richard Tuck in The Sleeping Sovereign, a book exploring the relation between democratic sovereignty and government. Constitutional referendums bring the sovereign people to life so that they may reset or change the terms of government, but that such referendums and similar occasions are the only cases of direct democracy in modern states – the rest of the time the citizenry is fast asleep. Voting in elections, when people choose which parties will govern, is a drowsy gesture rather than an exercise of sovereign power. On this account, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was attributing too much liberty to English people when he said that they were only free during the election of members of parliament every five years. The freedom of the people is a much rarer and more dangerous privilege than that. Roughly awakened by the referendum and given power for a day, the people have returned to their stupor. As we describe in Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland (our newly published book which you can order here): ‘The clear dividing line between politics and people, briefly smudged by the referendum, has been boldly re-drawn. Across the country, in the streets and pubs and public halls where the people had talked in utopian ways of constructing the future, the political lights switched out once more.’

Now the SNP are both guards and driver, not to be removed. They are crafty at passing and manipulating policies which keep the carriages sedate. Their mastery of the ‘art of politics’ is reassuring or infuriating, depending whether civic peace with modest advances is what you’re after. The Lallands Peat Worrier insists that ‘politics and government is about… what you achieve, and only passingly about who achieves it’ – and whilst none of us can effectively weigh up the policies of all the parties, ‘there is a great deal to be said for voting for folk whose judgement you trust’, especially Nicola Sturgeon. With a critique that cuts against Lallands’s deferential hat-doffing, Darren McGarvey (alias Loki) used an article on Sceptical Scot to attack politicians’ disingenuous and hypocritical methods, scorning those ‘clever people’ who talk about the ‘art of politics’. Sturgeon’s photograph with a copy of The Sun that endorsed her, just days after that paper’s lies regarding Hillsborough were undeniably exposed in a court of law, ‘tells us that she has to engage in the same, often underhand, political tactics as every other mainstream politician.’

The argument whether the ‘art of politics’ is to be lauded or loathed is old hat. In Gorgias, Plato’s dialogue on rhetoric, the sceptical Socrates cannot bring himself to call the practices of politicians an ‘art’ at all. He calls it a knack: an ability to produce things which people can be duped or flattered into buying, but which do them little good. Cosmetics and pastry-making are knacks. Politicians flatter folk into admiring their policies and skills of government. But doing good by the people and winning their votes have never been one and the same. To sell their wares, politicians must make them appealing – they need to mix the chemicals, twist the pastry, and form the policies to make them into a pleasing solution. The unsettling truth is that those politicians whose judgement is trusted are crowd-pleasers. Free degrees, a little more childcare, and a state-provided starter-pack for newborns are the tacky toilets, lumpy seats and complimentary sleep-pack of the Parliament. It all seems to be a fair standard of travel for those unused to anything else.

The SNP’s core election message urges voters to blindly cast #bothvotesSNP. Their mawkish insistence that this is the ‘most important election’ since the creation of the Scottish Parliament is a facile placeholder for a vacuum of commitments, and most of the public will feel few material changes after this election. The Scottish electorate is something like a sleepwalker. The official advice for dealing with a somnambulator is to take them by the arm and guide them back to bed. Waking a sleepwalker can leave them startled, confused or agitated. In Scotland’s case, this is just what we need.

Cailean Gallagher (@CaileanG)

Une Revolution sans Revolution: Scotland & the Panama Papers

This article was originally published in the St Andrews Economist

In the early days of the French Revolution, a curious phenomenon occurred. Aristocrats who held provincial privileges, titles, and rights to land, legislated to destroy their own privilege. Later they would explicitly ban insignia adorning houses: coats of arms and weathercocks. Did they partake in this masochistic act because they were scared of the people? Seemingly not. Impossible as it is to step into their minds, the process seems to have been one of joyous self-flagellation. It was a new way to appear on the public stage, a new signifier of virtue, and the nobility all wanted a slice.

A month before the Scottish elections, the Panama Papers scandal occurred, leaking eleven and a half million documents pertaining to the activities of the richest people in the world. The information that was now available was not surprising to the campaigners who had been haranguing the government about tax justice for the last decade, but it immediately proved itself useful as a goad for unpopular politicians. David Cameron was the first to suffer, with suspicions that he had directly or indirectly benefited from tax avoidance schemes. Soon came the demand for him to publish his tax returns, which he partially published, resulting in a second scandal due to the appearance that he had dodged inheritance tax. Now journalists were baying for blood. The first taste of tax returns had been unimaginably glorious. Now they wanted Osborne’s tax returns, and those of anyone else who looked shifty – why not some high profile public service managers while we’re at it?

In Scotland, a few leaves stirred. Of what importance was capital to the hills and glens? Somewhere in the shadowy chamber of Holyrood, the ears of some of the less sleepy MSPs twitched. Kezia Dugdale, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, was the first to make a move. She published her tax returns (and was therefore able to make a virtue out of the rather dubious accolade of being first). Her tax returns are, frankly, boring. She has a total income of £57,465, some of which she donates to charity. She pays around £10,000 in tax. Apart from this being (to my mind and hers) astonishingly low, there isn’t much to see here.

Not to be outdone, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party published hers, closely followed by Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Nicola Sturgeon sealed the deal the same day. Now we had four tax returns. Ruth Davidson’s also showed charitable donations. Nicola Sturgeon had foregone pay (as did Salmond before her) to contribute to ‘public spending’. It was all very virtuous, very uninteresting, and rather desperate. Like the French aristocrats before them, the Scottish party leaders had exposed themselves, in a fit of public-facing virtue.

The difference was, no one cared.

Bemused, the Scottish public turned back to Cameron and his Downing Street cadre. They wanted to see what was happening where the money was. In London newspapers scandal rumbled – people were going to fall because of this. The claim that knowledge is power was beginning, in a roundabout way, to make sense. The virtue of the Scottish politicians was completely irrelevant – after all, these people not being millionaires they had little opportunity to not be virtuous. The worst thing that can be pinned on Nicola Sturgeon as an individual is the embarrassingly bourgeois fact that she owns a very expensive coffee machine.

Kezia Dugdale, realising the disinterest of whatever ephemeral group she had identified as her core voter base, commented on the scandal:

Not since the MPs expenses scandal has there been such palpable anger at the sense of unfairness at the heart of our society.

Politicians need to not only play by the rules, they need to be seen to be playing by the rules.

Of course, the comparison with the MPs expenses scandal is absurd. After the 2009 scandal, MPs were ordered to pay back 1.2 million pounds. In contrast, the National Audit Office estimates that the UK loses £2.7 billion a year from tax avoidance and £4.4 billion per year from tax evasion. That’s 7,100,000,000 a year – compared to 1,200,000 for the expenses scandal. Or in other words, tax evasion and avoidance costs the UK five-thousand-nine-hundred-and-sixteen times more per year than one year of unfairly claimed MPs expenses.

This is not to say that MPs who over-claim expenses aren’t doing anything wrong, but simply that this is a different order of expropriation. Rather than joyfully publishing their tax returns, it would have been entirely possible, if more uncomfortable, for Scottish politicians to talk about how to deal with companies that don’t pay taxes. This isn’t, as Kezia Dugdale implies, a matter of improving public scrutiny of politicians. It’s not about accountability, it’s about one of the biggest problems facing state finances in this century. It’s about a globalised world where capital is mobile enough to slip through the fingers of even the most evangelical state. In terms understandable to the Scottish Parliament, it could be about, for instance, pushing through the land reform that we’ve been promised by the Scottish Government for so long – the Panama Papers have demonstrated that 1000 square miles of Scotland’s land is owned offshore.

Scottish politicians will be pleased to stand up and shout ‘I’m clean!’ But there’s more to governance than that. In the few weeks before an election a scandal like this should be used by political parties and the people to drive forward debate, and discuss what is to be done. Instead, the Scots have had to suffer the guff of the party leaders’ dirty linen – their 57 grand salaries – which nobody wants waved in front of their face.

The French nobles who so enjoyed the beginning of the revolution received a nasty shock after a few years. Their displays of virtue were scrutinised by canny sans-culottes and shown to be baseless. Even in such a sleepy polity as this one, we might live in hope that years of inaction by our politicians might one day lead to their glorious downfall. For without terror against the owners of Capital, as Robespierre would surely have enjoined had he been with us today, virtue is powerless.

Amy Westwell


This article was originally published on rap and stow.

Scotland’s forms of land ownership have always been askew from the forms found elsewhere. For some, including Karl Marx, this was a point of some interest. Marx believed the clearances demonstrated particularly well the way in which the development of industry could fundamentally overturn existing forms of society:

What “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property, under which the embezzled lands were held.

This ‘peculiar form of property’ was the clan system, in which land was owned and used in ways that did not accord to the traditional laws of private property. In some senses, claimed Marx, Scotland was one of the last bastions of this system of pre-feudal ownership which had at one point been widespread across Europe. Some communists, including Marx, believed that pre-feudal systems of common ownership that were still in existence in Russia and in pockets of Europe could bypass the capitalist stage of production via a great leap, and realise new forms of ownership which would challenge the very foundations of system of private property.

Sometimes land activists in Scotland advocate something similar – community buy-outs of land leading to communal ownership – and in doing so they challenge not just the specific owners of land but the principle of private property. Their tactic is alien to most modern political forms, and grates against the 21st century in an interesting way. In the past few years the Scottish political debate has veered between the subjects of sweeping constitutional change, disastrous welfare cuts, and insufferable bad work. In amongst all this, Scotland had a land debate, always in the background, occasionally raising its head. Land ownership in Scotland is bizarre – feudalism was abolished in 2004, and it is claimed that 50% of the private land in rural Scotland is owned by around 430 people, and that Scotland has a more concentrated pattern of large scale private land ownership than is found in any other country in the world. The land debate has a propensity to more directly target the principles of private property than many other debates that socialists are engaged with in Scotland today.

From 1770 to 1810, radicals in Britain were responding to changes in the conditions of working people and the French Revolution, but had not yet become overly focussed on the organised labour movement. The debate around private property at this time amongst both moderates and radicals near-universally considered private property to have arisen after a stage of communal ownership. This was justified by Enlightenment luminaries both conceptually, in that it was considered impossible to maintain private property before a suitable collective power had been instituted to enforce it, and historically, in that many histories described such a state of communal ownership. More persuasively to the early modern mind, those people who were at what were considered to be earlier stages of the development of civilisation seemed to hold property in common. In the 18th century the past was indeed a foreign country, which could be accessed by encountering indigenous peoples in North America or, embarrassingly for many of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, going to the highlands.

This idea of the original common ownership of property, and particularly land, was the foundation for many of the proto-communist movements in the British Isles up until the early 19th century. Gerard Winstanley’s True Levellers had set the tone in 1649, declaring the earth ‘a common treasury of livelihood for all mankind’. In 1776, Thomas Spence declared that since land had originally been owned in common, the purpose of radicals should be to realise this state of affairs again. In the catchphrase of the time, this was for him, as for many of his political allies, common sense. Spence used his own nut-gathering experience to persuade people of the absurdity of the private ownership of land.

In order to show how far we are cut off from the rights of nature, and reduced to a more contemptible state than the brutes, I will relate an affair I had with a forester in a wood near Hexham. Alone by myself a gathering of nuts, the forester popped through the bushes upon me, and asking what I did there. I answered gathering nuts. Gathering nuts? said he, and dare you say so, yes, said I, why not? would you question a monkey, or a squirrel, about such a business? and am I to be treated as inferior to one of those creatures? Or have I a less right? But who are you, continued I, that thus take upon you to interrupt me? I’ll let you know that, said he, when I lay you fast for trespassing here. Indeed! answered I, But how can I trespass here where no man ever planted or cultivated, for these nuts are the spontaneous gifts of nature ordained alike for the sustenance of man and beast that choose to gather them, and therefore they are common. I tell you, said he, this wood is not common, it belongs to the Duke of Portland. Oh! my service to the Duke of Portland, said I, nature knows no more of him than of me; therefore, as in nature’s storehouse the rule is, “First come, first served,” so the Duke of Portland must look sharp if he wants any nuts. But in the name of seriousness, continued I, must not one’s privileges be very great in a country where we dare not pluck a hazel nut? Is this an Englishman’s birthright? Is it for this we are called upon to serve in the militia, to defend this wood, and this country against the enemy?

But there was another radical narrative going on at the same time (and one that we might say eventually won). This was the narrative of Thomas Paine, connoisseur of the American and French revolutions, and superbly popular pamphleteer. After he had pretty much lost interest in the development of the French and American revolutions, Paine wrote a pamphlet entitled Agrarian Justice. This pamphlet took the line that the original relationship of the earth to mankind was one of common ownership – property, as every good radical knows, is theft. But Paine’s solution was not redistribution: instead the owners of land needed to make up for the original appropriation of land for private use by paying a rent to society. This rent would be distributed among the landless as welfare payments. If we are to place Paine and Spence side by side, it’s pretty clear that Paine’s idea is the more popular today. Social democratic states require a rent from the owners of land and capital which is then distributed among the poor, but they rarely if ever challenge private ownership itself.

Proponents of both the universal basic income and of states with a strong system of welfare payments are excited by Paine’s early formation of the idea of state ‘benefits’. The original idea of welfare payments – Paine’s idea – was based on the concept of the original appropriation or theft of land, and the compensation that must be therefore payed to the landless. It is seldom asked today what the moral basis for our redistributive welfare system is. For some it is very similar to Paine’s conception: the rich appropriate capital and surplus labour, and therefore owe something back. For others it is a moral duty of society to support those who struggle through times of need, and those who can most easily bear the burden are the rich. And for certain people it is more economistic – labourers need to be fed, healthy and able to reproduce, and so taxation should provide the welfare payments which allow this harmonious state to be maintained.

Paine’s proposals were considered a great insult by Spence and his allies the ‘Spencean Philanthoprists’, since under Paine’s system the landowners would be allowed to keep 90% of their proceeds. Spence made a long list of the distinction between Paine’s system of Agrarian Justice and his own system. His points add up to a curiously fitting critique of the 21st century welfare state.

Under the system of Agrarian Justice [Paine’s system], The people will, as it were, sell their birth-right for a mess of porridge, by accepting of a paltry consideration in lieu of their rights.

Under the system of the End of Oppression, The people will receive, without deduction, the whole produce of their common inheritance.

Under the first, The poor must still look up for aristocratic benefactions of rotten potatoes and spoiled rice, and other substitutes for bread in the times of scarcity, to preserve their wretched existence.

Under the second, What with the annihilation of taxes and the dividends of the parochial rents, together with the honest guardianship of their popular government, we may reasonably suppose that the people will rarely be driven to the dire necessity of using a substitute for bread.

Under the first, After admitting that the earth belongs to the people, the people must nevertheless compromise the matter with their Conquerors and oppressors, and still suffer them to remain as a distinct and separate body among them, in full possession of their country.

Under the second, After insisting that the land is public property, the people’s oppressors must either submit to become undistinguishable in the general mass of citizens or fly the country.

Under the first, The rich would abolish all hospitals, charitable funds, and parochial provision for the poor, telling them, that they now have all that their great advocate, Paine, demands, as their rights, and what he exultingly deems as amply sufficient to ameliorate their condition and render them happy, by which the latter end of our reformation will be worse than the beginning.

Under the second, The quarterly dividends, together with the abolishment of all taxes, would destroy the necessity of public charities; but if any should be thought necessary, whether to promote learning, or for other purposes, the parochial and national funds would be found at all times more than sufficient.

Most of Spence’s problems are rather obviously existing problems in the British welfare state, and with ideas of welfarism such as the ‘Universal Basic Income’. People receive some compensation for living in a world that exploits them, but not enough to make it bearable. In times of austerity and disaster, the continuing power of the rich becomes bleakly obvious, and the people are forced to beg. There is still a powerful elite controlling politics and capital, considered to have a rightful place at the bargaining table. And most starkly, systems of social provision like education and healthcare can be tampered with and destroyed by governments, with the excuse that the system of Universal Credit provides quite enough to prevent people falling out the bottom of society.

The idea that those who benefited from the appropriation of land would give back a proportion of the gain they got from it seemed to the Spenceans to fly in the face of all common notions of justice. Why, they asked, was the correct solution not to give the land back into common ownership? Communists level a similar argument against the welfare state and the UBI today. These solutions are dangerous in their lack of acknowledgement of the injustice of original appropriation, as well as leaving power in the hands of the rich.

In the end, Paine’s idea won and Spence was forgotten. Land gradually became a curiosity rather than a fundamental aspect of communist thought, as urbanisation and industrial development made the city into the primary site of the struggle. The end of the romantic ideas of the Russian commune and the clearances seemed to signal the end of the radical issue of land.

Yet in Scotland, land must be a consideration for communists, and is too often forgotten by those who rarely consider the Scottish population that lives outside the urban centres. There is a sort of consensus in Scotland that the issues of most relevance to working people are issues of welfare payments and taxation. But the land debate persists, and contains a strange seed that might uproot the very principles of private ownership. I hope that this seed can be nurtured on Rap and Stow in the coming months: the radical potential of land in Scotland has been ignored for far too long.

Amy Westwell

The Lamont Doctrine: On Organised Pessimism and the Abolition of Politics


Let’s get this straight: Johann Lamont was right, and Aristotle was wrong. Indeed, Jim Murphy’s much-maligned predecessor is responsible for two of the finest rhetorical expressions of socialist principle in recent Scottish history, and she should be recognised for it. In the United States of America the great civic buildings are often adorned with the epochal one-liners of renowned statesmen, and it would be a scandal if one day – maybe years down the line, but someday – the vast marble slabs of some new shining monument to human emancipation are not engraved with the utterly, unavoidably correct words: “We’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions.”

In 1968, Albania’s enigmatic Communist leader Enver Hoxha – who covered almost every square mile of his small, mountainous nation in thousands of disgustingly ugly concrete bunkers in preparation for the Soviet or NATO invasion of which he was terrified – had his name painted in 100-metre high letters on the side of Mount Shpirag. The most advanced sections of the international proletariat live in eternal hope that one day Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags, or perhaps the side of Castle Rock, will become the rocky canvas for Lamont’s flawless four-word summation of an incontrovertible historical fact: “Nationalism is a virus.”

“We’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions”

Lamont’s disagreement with Aristotle is fundamental. In his Politics the great Macedonian wrote that Man is a zoon politikon: a political animal. The state emerges naturally as the highest form of association, for only it can enable citizens to live the noble, virtuous “good life”. It cannot just be an association: it must also be a community of virtue, held together by a profound sense of friendship which ensures that each citizen cares about their own virtue and the virtue of everyone else.

Of course, this is fascist garbage. Aristotle could only conceive of this state as “good” because the Athenian polis was the exclusive terrain of rich, slave-owning men. Woman in Aristotle’s ideal society was governed by the citizen-husband; the slave was the tool-that-speaks; the landless proletarii were little more than trash in the street. To include everybody in politics is ludicrous; it implies the kind of pure commonality of interest that would make politics unnecessary. Politics is the game of the oppressor and the friendly banter of the privileged; for everyone else it is simply warfare by other means. To suggest that humans are political animals is to suggest that the oppressed are not human.

In this context, to say that we’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions is just about the most radical statement that exists. It is an insistence on a “we” which stubbornly includes the oppressed, flipping over the cruel board on which the rulers play their games. It is, as a result, a demand for the abolition of politics entirely. Contra Aristotle’s fantasy, the state is a response to this demand, an effort to pre-empt and contain the brutal confrontation that will emerge when the oppressed insist on their humanity in the face of those who deny it. “The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that class antagonisms are irreconcilable.” Johann Lamont was right, and Aristotle was wrong.

The Anti-politics of “Partnership”

Astonishingly, improbably, the leaders of the two largest political parties in Scotland agree with Lamont that politics should be abolished. The trouble is that they believe this has already happened.

In separate speeches on the 26th of February, both Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy advocated “partnership” policy-making, bringing together the contending interests of society to decide on the issues of the day. Murphy wants “the state and voluntary sector working together to tackle disadvantage together,” and hopes to bring trade unions and business into this sphere of mutual interest. Sturgeon similarly argues that a “strong economy” and a “fairer society” are “mutually reinforcing” rather than “competing”. Her “Invest In Young People” group brings together local government, industry, further education and trade unions, and she argues that education policy must involve things like “a closer relationship between industry and education, enabling courses to reflect what companies need.”

To do this, Sturgeon and Murphy must presuppose a space free from particular interests, a level playing-field where no side enters or leaves with a disadvantage. A space, in short, where politics doesn’t exist. So Sturgeon argues that “education underpins all of our efforts to create a fairer, more productive, more prosperous society,” and that austerity has “been bad, not just for many individuals, but for the economy as a whole.” Murphy laments that inequality is “corrosive to our social fabric. It undermines the basic precepts of our society.”

The plausibility of the partnership model is dependent on that plural term: the possessive our, like subject we and object us, hovering mysteriously above the fray, finding bizarre rhetorical constructs like “the economy as a whole” on which it can perch and sing its enchanting song. “We” depoliticises, and this is why the nationalist politicians of Scottish social democracy are so determined to utilise it. Against the reality of class conflict, it posits a world where decisions can be smoothly made in the interests of “all of us”.

But this noble goal is never realised. Once they arrive at the national border, politics begins again. The nationalist hope of a depoliticised “us” is a false one, dependent on a false “them”: for Sturgeon, a crude caricature of “Westminster”; for Murphy, whichever party is keeping a supposedly classless “patriotic” Labour Party out of power.

The Government of “Us”

To trace this logic of depoliticisation we need to turn to history. In the 18th century the art of government was in danger. For early-modern government, the sovereign guaranteed the rights of homo juridicus, the subject of right. But the arrival and expansion of markets spawned a new subject: homo oeconomicus, the self-interested and utility-maximising “economic man”. This man, at home in his market, needed the sovereign to stay out of things. But government, increasingly dependent on markets, still needed to govern to ensure that things were stayed out of. The subject of right and economic man could not be governed in either the realm of rights or in the realm of the market. A new realm had to be conquered.

Foucault identifies this new realm as civil society, and its chief cartographer as a Scot, Adam Ferguson, whose Essay on the History of Civil Society was an influence on both Hegel and Marx. For Ferguson, civil society is like the market, governed by the interplay of individual interests. But these are “disinterested interests”: sympathy, instinct, solidarity, and so on, binding individuals together in civil society. The invisible force of civil society allows the atomistic world of the emerging market to hang together.

But other disinterested interests like jealousy, loathing, and other less amicable quirks of the human psyche, provoke the civil subject to enlist “on one side of a tribe or community”. Furthermore, the market relies on this community, but simultaneously threatens to tear it apart. Something stronger, broader and more cohesive must be found to ensure stability. We find ourselves back at “we”: the nation, anchored in the state.

“Nationalism is a virus”

Ferguson expresses the governing logic of the modern state: nationalism. Because the economy requires humans that are selfish and economic, government is impossible unless they are simultaneously conceived as civil and solidaristic. The management and justification of this contradiction is the central task of governments and their intelligentsia. The internal tensions of every society, forever threatening to send heads thudding into baskets, need to be harnessed and externalised onto whatever is not “we”.

Tom Nairn wrote that “nationalism is amongst other things a name for the general condition of the modern body politic”. He analysed how this art of government spread, not from the rich capitalist countries to the poorer, underdeveloped ones, but from the latter to the former. In the long back-and-forth battle of uneven development, the nationalist cure for internal maladies of the modern state became a contagion, leaping from the economic periphery to the core and back again until it spanned the globe, undergoing terrible mutations in the process. Nationalism is a virus. It infects the oppressed, disguised as palliative care for a crisis-ridden political malaise from which they cannot recover so long as oppression endures. It is the general condition of the modern body politic, and the modern body politic is sick because we’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions.

The ruling class and their hangers-on say it can never be truly cured. Aristotle says we are political animals. Ferguson believes that civil society is in our nature. Nationalism relies on this naturalism, made explicit by Nicola Sturgeon at the David Hume Institute on Thursday: “a commitment to education is ingrained in Scotland’s history; it’s part of our DNA.” Common talk of “Scottish values” serves the same function. The egalitarian Scottish political animal must be presupposed to make governing class society in Scotland possible. Something fundamentally civil must float above the fray.

The civil sphere is the nation itself. It is that thing “in our DNA” that is assumed to exist beyond class and sectional interests. Jim Murphy calls for “a permanent Civil Society Council. A permanent forum where civil society can openly and without reservation, consider, scrutinize and challenge the policies of the Government.” Trade unions, businesses, think tanks, campaigning organisations and so on, are all welcome to take their seats in the powerless, reconciled vacuum of civil society.

Organised Pessimism

If politics existed here, tainting this sacred forum with all the power relationships which politics implies, then civil government itself would be impossible – until it became unnecessary. Every facet of the world would be warlike, unavoidably full of conflict, exploitation and oppression. Politics, if it existed (and thank god it doesn’t!), would require what Walter Benjamin calls “organised pessimism” – “mistrust in all reconciliation: between classes, between nations, between individuals,” until classes, nations, and any residual bourgeois conception of the individual have been swept away by a far grander “we” than those who love the game of politics could ever imagine.

Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy believe the nation transcends politics, that it facilitates the recognition of mutual interests where none would conceivably exist if it weren’t for the old lie of the national interest itself. The entire construct of the national “we” implies that if politics exists, it should be abolished, but it only implies this by assuming that it has happened already.

The intention is surely virtuous. But if politics does exist, it exists everywhere, and requires Benjamin’s solution. We know that politics endures, and that Johann Lamont was doubly right: nationalism is a virus, and it threatens us all because we’re not genetically programmed to make the political decisions which are demanded of us. In recognition of these facts we believe that the only way to eradicate the virus for good is by destroying its source. Politics must be abolished. Let’s call it the Lamont Doctrine.

Our critics insist that we must offer concrete proposals – how else could the nation benefit from our work? We will humour them this time, but our basic proposal is a general principle for political action rather than a particular action itself. A politics which can abolish itself is not so much about the depoliticized “us” as it is about the political “them”. It is about identifying who really holds power, and excluding them to the point at which we have fully included ourselves.  Identify the enemy, and develop and pursue actions which exclude them and them alone. Oppose any action which includes them. This is what it means to organise pessimism.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

Against The Citizen’s Income


The idea of a “Citizen’s Income”, or “Basic Minimum Income”, or whatever else it gets called, has been rattling around the left for ages, but has been thrust into the limelight by the recent failure of the “surging” Green Party to successfully advocate it more publicly. It’s already popular amongst the autonomist and eurocommunist elements of the left, but the slew of coverage it has had recently means it’s worth briefly setting out the case against it from a more class-oriented position:

The best argument, as far as I’m aware, for the Citizen’s Income says that it would lessen workers’ dependency on the labour market, allowing them to refuse work and thus removing the ability of the ruling class to force down wages by threatening to replace you with someone cheaper. This would help us transition away from a low-wage economy and force the automisation or eradication of what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”, and would give the working class breathing room to fight for socialism. This seems to be the essence of Paul Mason’s recent defence of the policy in the Guardian.

This seems pretty fatally flawed on a number of levels. First up, let’s assume that the Citizen’s Income wouldn’t necessarily achieve these things. A variant of it was proposed ages ago by the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman in the form of the “Negative Income Tax”, and Richard Nixon gave it very serious consideration in the early 1970s. It’s not hard to imagine why the right might support it: under a government controlled by capital, a guaranteed minimum income would essentially be a huge public subsidy for low private wages. In the case of Freedman and right-wing ‘libertarians’ this was also a mechanism to dismantle ‘dependency’ on the state through replacing the public ownership and provision of services with a single cash payment. Indeed, it’s not far away from Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, or Blair and Brown’s tax credits.

So we need to assume that every government in control of the Citizen’s Income will use it to empower the working class, particularly the government that actually implements it. But a worker’s government is just that – a worker’s government. In fact this is the only kind of government that could plausibly put it into practice. As Mason argues, the policy would demand a great deal of restructuring for business, with huge additional investment required to transition from low-wage to high-wage industry. Only in the depths of Fabian fantasy would the ruling class put up with this without a fight. At the very least, they would try to seize control of the policy and transform it into something far more beneficial to them, as US businesses did with various New Deal programmes in the postwar era. So if we’re proposing that a ‘progressive’ Citizen’s Income could actually be implemented and sustained, we’re assuming that there is already a very powerful working class, with a well-organised, radical party at its head, that can win power and impose its will upon the rich and their allies.

But a powerful working class doesn’t need legislation to get high wages – that’s what trade unions are for, and when they’re strong they do a perfectly good job of raising wages without legislative help. So in order to have a ‘progressive’ Citizen’s Income, you would need certain radical conditions to be in place – but creating these conditions is the goal of the policy! For the left, it’s an idea that can only survive by eating itself, forever consigned to a kind of resigned utopianism where working class power is the rhetorical ends, but is completely abandoned as means.The Citizen’s Income is only confirmation that any perspective of wielding political power through working class mobilisation and organisation has been abandoned by large sections of the left in favour of the hopefully benign actions of the state. This was evident in the hopes that many placed on the hopefully more “democratic” government that would be provided by an independent Scotland and is also clear in the Green Party’s aspiration for a state funded political party system, removing both big business and organised labour from direct influence on political parties.

For all that, let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s still possible. A Citizen’s Income by itself could just as easily be reactionary as progressive – for it to be the latter, we’re really talking about it being just one element in a broad programme of radical structural change in the economy that would ultimately require the permanent domination of the propertied class by the working class.

We’re talking, in short, about socialism. And if we assume socialism to be a process of transferring power and wealth from the few to the many, what function does the Citizen’s Income serve in that? We’ve already established that strong trade unions can do a perfectly good job themselves of guaranteeing better wages, but now we’re suggesting that that power be given to the state. And once you can rely on the state to guarantee you a decent income, why join a trade union? All of sudden we’ve got a supposedly progressive policy kicking the legs out from under working class organisations and boosting the abstract, supposedly classless power of the state. The Citizen’s Income doesn’t build working class power; on the contrary, it is parasitic upon it.

Fundamentally, it’s a nationalist policy. It doesn’t begin from questions of class and power but from an imagined community ultimately embodied in the state, in which everybody’s interests are equally considered and represented, and struggle is procedural, between vague strategic coalitions organised around ideas, rather than warlike, between the classes in which very real material interests are concentrated and combined. It’s hardly surprising that those peace-loving Greens are so enthusiastic about it.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)