In Which Corbyn is Caesar

To celebrate the birthday of Julius Caesar, born 2116 years ago, here are some thoughts on Corbyn’s  claim to democratic legitimacy.

Diane Abbott yesterday morning recited the now familiar refrain: Corbyn is the party leader by the will of the Labour Party membership. The unwieldy baggage of party membership has been joyfully cast off by the Tory Party, who yesterday revealed that the long-awaited last stage of the leader selection process would not in fact occur, it turning out that the members’ input in the final stage was not required. Similarly, SNP parliamentarians anointed Nicola Sturgeon as leader rather than allowing her appointment to go to a membership election.

But in Labour, Momentum activists, ‘£3 trots’, long-standing Militants, and syndicalists find themselves in a position of unprecedented importance. Their gleeful cries about rightfully owning the party have a tone of panicked surprise, but nothing that can match the abject terror of the parliamentary labour party, the PLP, whose party structure seems to them to have entered a period of crisis and decline, inaugurated not by Corbyn but by Miliband.

The Labour Party’s constitutional structure appears as a parody of the British constitutional system – there is a tripartite balance of PLP, Trade Unions and other affiliates such as socialist societies, and Labour Party members. To be crude, we might say that the PLP represents the experienced aristocracy, the trade unions the experience of the people. But the members are a difficult part to conceptualise. They represent no one but themselves.

When party members scream of their importance, the question on the lips of the labour coup strategisers is an indignant ‘Why should the members have any say?’ As Chuka Umunna said on the Daily Politics, ‘I’m not walking off from my party at the instruction from the people who have joined in the last two minutes.’ Members used to know their place – they were to disseminate the message of the party in order to win elections. They were to hold the offices required for running the party locally, to allow MPs to get along with more important work (note the embarrassing situation of David Coburn MEP, who through lack of interest in the role was forced to become the treasurer of his local UKIP branch). As a reward for their labour they were to be given some representation on policy forums that have a largely depleted role, and on the National Executive Committee. The labour movement – the trade unions, co-operative organisations, socialist societies – had a clearer right to representation, since it could claim to represent working people, the people the party was founded to represent. The PLP are the experts: representing continuity-in-parliament, they nobly strive to uphold a reassuring constancy. And of course they are also representatives of the electorate. But members – what are they for, beyond grunt work? This is the undoubtedly reasonable question being asked this week, as thousands more people join the ranks of Labour membership, and the party nears overthrowal by a plebeian crowd.

The Tories, who have just disposed of their membership’s mandate like a used tissue, must be enjoying the spectacle of Labour being commandeered by the agents of democratic tyranny. Culpability seems to lie with the rather unlikely figure of Ed Miliband. His solution to the demand for weakening the trade union link in the labour party was to correspondingly weaken the PLP. American advisers encouraged him to develop a primaries system entirely unsuited to the British representative structure of the Labour Party, and a system as it turned out that would create a tyranny of the crowd, the mob, the plebs. Not only did Miliband increase the power of the members in electing a leader, he also increased the power of said leader by ending the elections of shadow cabinets by the PLP, allowing shadow cabinets to be appointed by the leader. Rather amusingly, this was justified at the time by a senior labour source who said “It is important that we no longer have the distraction of internal elections whilst we have a job to do of holding the government to account and preparing ourselves for the next election… It is important that we are talking to the public and not ourselves.”

Democratic tyranny had never been the tactic of the trade union part of the party. The strategy of the most powerful trade union force in Labour, Unite the Union, was a bunker tactic, adopted in 2011: Unite trained up candidates for selection and election in the 2015 General Election. Several of those candidates were duly elected. They were to lie low, staying out of trouble, waiting for the next wave of labour movement MPs. The whole plan was thwarted by an over-enthusiastic and expanding socialist membership, who forced the bunkered MPs to come out of hiding in Corbyn’s second desperate attempt to form a shadow cabinet. Having lost the sympathy of the PLP, these MPs now reluctantly represent the labour movement’s divergence from the existing Labour MPs.

In the middle of the spectacle stands one man. Tom Watson, the only link in the dissolving Labour Family, was elected by the membership, has long-standing (and entirely cynical) links with the Left and the trade unions, and is able to work with the MPs. Thus, as the party moved into deeper crisis, Watson was the one to broker talks between the trade unions and the PLP, the nature of which we may never be privy to. They broke down, intentionally or unintentionally. All we can know is that for some time there was actual or feigned collaboration between the two more obviously legitimate parts of the Labour triumvirate – the trade unions and the PLP. Watson is the keystone of the whole structure, the one charged with saving the party from constitutional crisis and electoral ruin, the one who has for whatever reason shoved Angela Eagle in front of the tank driven by newly enfranchised labour members.

In the notorious meeting in which MPs expressed their lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as leader, Helen Goodman MP cried, ‘What’s John McDonnell doing there, lurking and skulking like Marc Antony?’ While these senators fear McDonnell, he seems to have no intention of making a move just now. But Goodman is correct that McDonnell is a general of Corbyn, who is the Caesar figure in his own party, brought to power through the support of a part of the population that has only a questionable right to representation. This support has made him sterner and more ambitious than his backbenchers reckoned. And if Corbyn is Caesar, Watson is Cicero – the constitutionalist trying to hold it all together.

When constitutions start to fall apart their demise can only be hindered, not reversed. The membership will not relinquish power, and the PLP will not stand for being controlled. But the fatal flaw of the pro-Corbyn Labour members is to repeatedly hold up the Labour constitution as the grounds for their legitimacy. Corbyn has a constitutional right to remain leader, they cry. Constitutional legitimacy is such a poor basis for power from a socialist perspective that it is somewhat surprising to see this line being parroted by anarchists and militants. They bemoan the ‘undemocratic’ actions of Corbyn’s opponents, as if they were not engaged in small-scale coups five years ago in the context of a Labour constitution that they perceived to be unfair.

The fact that thousands of people have signed up to an organisation that Miliband haphazardly reformed into a membership organisation does not give Corbyn or their movement legitimacy. Members do not deserve power in the party of labour by dint of their paying membership fees, or even by virtue of their activism in the party. Why should votes be bought with either time or money? These arguments for constitutional legitimacy are inward-looking and not compelling for the electorate. As Jeremy Corbyn said at the Durham Miner’s Gala last week, constitutional pressure is no pressure at all. Of course certain tactics are required to prevent a right-wing seizure of the party, involving the mobilisation of membership in votes. But the role of members should be to earn the party’s popular legitimacy, not crow about constitutional right. In this, Owen Jones was right when he wrote two weeks ago that ‘A clear coherent message that would resonate with people who aren’t signed-up left-wing activists, that addressed people’s every day problems and aspirations, has yet to be created — and that’s a collective failure of the left.’

The complaint of socialists in the Labour Party for the last ten years has always been that the party is too geared towards parliamentarism and too tied up in constitutional coils. The desire of members to become politicians, the desire of Unite to have its own group of MPs, led to the PLP becoming unduly powerful. But now the socialists have seized power the cloak they have inherited from the old controllers has become an iron cage. As we wrote in Roch Winds, when socialists get stuck in cages, or lobster pots, they become an easy target. They need to break out while they can or else they will lose momentum. We all know the members have constitutional advantage. They need to turn that advantage into power and control, and to do that they need to stop talking about the constitutional legitimacy of Corbyn. They need to give other reasons as to why they should commandeer the party, why Corbyn should be the leader of the opposition, why they have any place in history at all.

When he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

If they really mean to take control, socialists need to make Labour the party of the class, not the party of a damaged constitution.

Amy Westwell

Kiruna’s Choice

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism) reflects on A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside The Swedish Model (Luath, 2016) by journalist and academic Dominic Hinde. This essay was first published in the Glasgow Review of Books

Utopias are hard to avoid. Look at the popular culture of rich western societies, for instance. TV series like Master of None show implausibly wealthy millennials spending implausible quantities of free time in Manhattan’s best bars and coffee shops. Advertisers tell us that kind of life can be ours at the tap of a credit card. From Facebook to LinkedIn, social media lets us swap finance for fiction, meticulously curating our personal Pravdas of social and professional achievement.

These utopias are generally considered to be safe. Sure, in reality it’s all pretty toxic: the implication of those monetised cultural utopias is that our own poor and boring lives aren’t good enough, that we should spend more money and time trying to attain the unattainable. But Facebook’s dark side pales into insignificance compared to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Now there’s a utopianism worth forgetting.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, political utopia has been shuffled quietly off the agenda. The Cold War’s binary utopias have been replaced by a messy convergence on pick ‘n’ mix politics, a middle-ground of “social” enterprise, “ethical” consumption, and their foreign policy equivalent: “pro-democracy” drone strikes on picturesque little villages in the Middle East. Find your nearest non-profit cooperative bakery and the menu will offer you the chance to have your cake and eat it too.

Anybody insisting on an alternative to this social order – not some free-range bunker untainted by the system, but worldwide transformation – is inevitably dismissed as utopian. Not in the harmless, profitable, cultural sense of the term, but as a political utopian. Utopia, as we learned from the gulags, has no place in politics.

No place. That’s what it means. Any understanding of utopia – as critique, as social phenomenon, as political project – has to start with Thomas More’s foundational pun. In Greek, οὐ means “not” and τόπος means “place”, but “utopia” is ambiguous enough to hint at the term εὖ as well, meaning “good”. “Good place” and/or “not place”: More’s intention when laying out the ideal, peaceful and property-less society in 1516’s Utopia is similarly ambiguous, but later uses of the term have been less so.

Marx and Engels sought to distinguish their variant of socialism – “scientific socialism” – from the “utopian” work of their predecessors, Sebastian Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. In its utopian form, socialism sought

to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda and, wherever it was possible, by the example of modern experiments. [italics my own][1]

For Marx and Engels, the trouble with this was that it wasn’t rooted in the realities of “time, space, and the historical development of man [sic].” Utopian socialists placed too much faith in the abstract truth of their model future, and in their ability to persuade the world of its rightness. The “scientific” alternative was to identify real, social forces in the world as it exists, which can lead towards something better. Chief among these forces was, of course, the working class, pressed by the fatal contradictions of the capitalist system into revolutionary agitation and the construction of socialist society.

For utopian socialists, the reason the world wasn’t socialist was simply that nobody had thought of socialism yet, or hadn’t been persuasive enough in advocating it. For Marx and Engels, the world wasn’t socialist yet because capitalism and the working class had not reached the necessary stage of historical development at which the next mode of production – socialism – could supersede the existing one.

But isn’t communism the utopia? For Marx and Engels, socialism develops into communism, class society is abolished, and the state withers away. All of that is quite unlikely, and I say that as a dedicated communist. Marx and Engels were certainly right to suggest that capitalism was, in the long term, unavoidably doomed (I give it 100 more years at most), and that the working class – the vast majority of people who depend on a wage to live – were the only social force able to replace it with something better. But there’s nothing certain, never mind “scientific”, about the idea that its replacement will be any more stable or humane than capitalism. It could even be worse.

Here’s a workably broad definition of utopianism: it’s the intransigent belief that, despite the lack of much evidence, things can – and should – be better. Not just briefly, but better for good. As the 19thcentury socialist Louise-Auguste Blanqui put it: “what exists is bad: something else must take its place.” But even here, there are distinctions within utopianism. Blanqui ended his aphorism with the unfortunate insistence that “…and gradually things will become what they ought to be.”[2] The Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin, an admirer of Blanqui, didn’t share the Frenchman’s optimism:

On this planet a great number of civilizations have perished in blood and horror. Naturally, one must wish for the planet that one day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am […] inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this. But it is terribly doubtful whether we can bring such a present to its hundred- or four-hundred-millionth birthday party. And if we don’t, the planet will finally punish us, its unthoughtful well-wishers, by presenting us with the last judgment.[3]

Benjamin’s utopianism, like Marx’s, had a fundamentally pessimistic premise: either the future is communist, or we’re all doomed. His pessimism fits our age too, where the prospect of ecological Armageddon meets its older economic and military equivalents. Benjamin’s pessimistic utopianism is far more realistic than the insistence that we compromise with the “reality” of capitalism because it’s here to stay. No social order has survived indefinitely thus far. There’s no reason to believe this one will break the trend, and plenty of evidence (CO2 emissions, for example) that suggests it won’t. There’s nothing more utopian than thinking we can avoid catastrophe without a fundamental transformation of society. Utopias are hard to avoid.

But is there not something else, that doesn’t require all the effort, uncertainty and upheaval of a worldwide socialist revolution, yet which can still avoid capitalism’s ecological and moral collapse? In the 1930s, as the world stood at an existential crossroads between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the American journalist Marquis Childs published a book called Sweden: The Middle Way. He travelled through Sweden as the country was constructing its now-famous welfare system, and the book describes a society that offered something very different to both the red peril in the East and the brown-shirted horrors driving Germany’s economic revival.

Capitalism in the north, it seems to be, has been modified and, in a sense, controlled; the profit motive in many fields drastically curbed and abolished – subjugated might be a better word. To a considerable degree it is true that the domestic economy has been made to serve the greatest good of the greatest number.[4]

Sweden, and the Scandinavian or “Nordic” world in general, has found itself associated with this kind of thought for a long time. A little brook of Scandi-utopianism has trickled away through one hundred years of wars, crises and atrocities, occasionally disappearing underground only to re-emerge deeper and wider than before. In the 1950s the Labour Party intellectual Anthony Crosland described Sweden as coming close to an “ideal of the ‘good’ society.” It had high welfare provision, low rates of economic inequality, and yet private property remained very much intact alongside the institutions of liberal democracy.[5]

Crosland’s fondness for Sweden was inextricable from his disagreements with Marxism. Chief amongst these was a belief that, after 5 years of transformative Labour government from 1945-51, British capitalism had been transformed into something that did not need to be overthrown. The Labour Party, he believed, had democratised capitalism to the extent that socialists could now focus on gradually reducing the power that markets and property had over people’s lives, without actually doing away with the market and property altogether.

Crosland wrote during an era known variously as the “post-war consensus,” the “golden age,” thetrente glorieuses and so on. The depression, the Second World War and the Communist threat had combined to give an enormous amount of political influence to the West European working class, while America’s newfound global power kept this influence contained within the basic parameters of capitalism (if not always democracy).[6] Runaway rates of capital accumulation provided sufficient room for an unprecedented rise in material wealth for workers. Back then, the Swedish model looked like a sort of destination for a journey already underway, a modern society relatively free from the class hierarchies and stuffy traditions that continued to infuriate the British left. However, by the end of the century the imaginative function of the Nordic Utopia had changed. In the late 1960s a wave of economic and political crises shook the world, provoking capital to begin the sustained assault on the working class that is now vaguely described as “neoliberalism.” Trade unions were crushed, wages, taxes on the rich and regulations were slashed, and democratic institutions were gradually hollowed out – often replaced by opaque, transnational bureaucracies ruling by financial diktat.

CoverNowhere in the world escaped these changes. But the Scandinavian welfare states approached the millennium with far more grace than their European neighbours. In 1990, a year after poll tax riots had broken out across Britain’s streets and Thatcher wobbled, the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen published The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, a comparative study of welfare systems in western world.[7] Even at the high point of neoliberal advance, Esping-Andersen described a Scandinavian welfare system that continued to reduce the subordination of people’s lives to market forces. The “liberal welfare states” of countries like Britain and the USA, on the other hand, offered paltry, means-tested payments and encouraged the stigmatisation of recipients. Trade unions and social democratic parties continued to fare much better in Scandinavia than elsewhere in the western world, and Sweden had been at the forefront of measures to combat gender inequality in politics and the workplace.

Resurfacing in the 21st century, the quiet little stream of Nordic utopianism has changed course. Far from being seen optimistically as “the future of socialism”, many on the centre-left cling to it as the last glimmer of hope during a worldwide collapse in social democratic fortunes. While Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in the USA has referenced Scandinavia as an example of “democratic socialism” in action, it is Scotland where the new Scandi-utopian logic has been applied the most consistently. The Scottish National Party point to Scandinavian countries to show that it’s possible to be a small, independent state with a big, generous welfare system. Common Weal, a pro-independence “think-and-do-tank,” has repeatedly drawn on Nordic examples to show how social democracy can be rescued from “neoliberal” Westminster. The “Nordic model” even has its own Scottish think-tank, called “Nordic Horizons.”

In the Lilliputian world of Scottish politics, the quiet little stream of Nordicism often looks and sounds like a river. The Nordic utopia is very nearly the only utopia in town, transplanted onto an imagined independent Scotland of the future. Dominic Hinde has gone wading into the middle of that river withA Utopia Like Any Other, a welcome critical exploration of what the “Swedish model” really means beyond the idolatry and mythmaking of faraway utopians.

Hinde follows in Childs’ footsteps, highlighting key aspects of Swedish society through a series of journalistic snapshots. A discussion with hotel workers (Hinde speaks fluent Swedish) in a wealthy Stockholm suburb frames an explanation of Sweden’s consensual labour relations model. The important thing about this system is that while it relies on the legal backing of the state, it requires little active government intervention. Once embedded in law, Sweden’s collective bargaining occurs between employers and workers at a national level, and trade unions have representation on various important legal, public and corporate boards. Thus we get a “delicate triangle of government, business and unions,” with no party able to dominate.

This theme of equilibrium – between classes, genders, and between humanity and nature – is crucial to the image of Swedish society at home and abroad, but one of Hinde’s crucial insights is to show the origins of equilibrium in struggle. Sweden’s system of labour relations was “the result of almost 40 years of destructive conflict,” thrashed out after the army massacred striking sawmill workers in 1931. The country’s renowned efforts to combat gender inequality, and indeed gender binaries themselves, have their roots in the bolshy activities of feminist organisations like Gruppe 8, who disrupted Trade Union rallies, established local feminist cells and terrified politicians with threats of direct political competition. If Nordic utopians are enamoured with Sweden’s seemingly peaceful, consensual social order, they may be turned off by Hinde’s exposition of the outright conflict that has been necessary in building it.

Hinde offers an even stronger rebuke to the Scandi-fetishists when his analysis enters the “neoliberal” era that Sweden so often appears to have escaped. In the 1980s, the Swedish working class sought to reassert their interests over those of Swedish capital with an approach calledlöntagarfonder. This diverted private profits into employee funds, allowing the employees to buy shares in their companies: gradually, workers would come to own the means of production. But this quiet revival of class conflict threatened to snap the supposedly benign equilibrium, and the equilibrium snapped back. A single-term right-wing government abolished löntagarfonder in the 1990s and it has never been restored. A more sustained right-wing insurgency in the late 2000s attacked trade union rights, along with public services and top tax rates. Trade union membership duly fell from eighty to sixty-eight per cent. On his travels around Sweden Hinde finds himself in Kiruna, a city in the arctic far north. Kiruna is entirely dependent on its vast iron ore mine: so dependent that it is being forced to move en masse down the road, “to last another hundred years or until the ore runs out.” The “green” state-owned mining company is paying for relocation. A local lake is now “a sealed off zone of scrub and unstable black spoil speckled with snow.” The relocated railway line runs between frozen ponds of dirty waste runoff.

Hinde writes that “Kiruna is in a Faustian pact with the industrialised world outside, selling its mineral wealth and culture in return for being allowed to exist.” Kiruna is a microcosm of Sweden: “the success of Swedish capitalism abroad was integral to the development of socialism at home,” and as capitalism abroad falters, Swedish “socialism” risks losing permission to exist. At the heart of the Swedish model is this idea of a profitable niche in the world where, so long as the dirty work is done elsewhere, Swedes can brand themselves as an attractive alternative while benefiting enormously from the established order. “Kiruna wants to carry on living. To do so it needs the dirty world around it to buy its environmentally-friendly Swedish ore.”

As the international basis of Sweden’s utopia – post-war capitalist growth – has worn away, its domestic foundations have begun, embarrassingly, to poke out from under the surface. Those foundations are inescapably nationalistic. In the 1930s, when the Social Democrats began constructing Sweden’s welfare state, they consciously rebranded themselves from a party of the blue-collar working class to become a party of the nation or “the people.” The welfare system was calledfolkshemmet, the “people’s home.” Much of Sweden’s universalist, egalitarian national identity is built not on the image of the worker, but on that of the small-town independent farmer. But as urbanisation and globalisation have continued, Hinde argues that this aspect of Swedish life has “played less and less of a role in the national picture.”

Key constituencies in Swedish politics feel forgotten – and as UKIP’s success in Britain’s decaying seaside towns has shown, forgotten people can be an important political force. While Sweden seeks to maintain its global reputation for tolerance by welcoming thousands of refugees, the far right has surged. The Sweden Democrats, with their roots in Sweden’s White Power movement, have made significant electoral gains by playing on a sense that the threatened “people’s home” can be best protected by excluding non-Swedes from it. Sweden’s Social Democrats and their international admirers believe that nationalist consensus can make capitalism work for everyone, but the inclusivity of nationalism can only be guaranteed so long as capitalism provides enough to go around. With the world-economy stumbling along at rock-bottom growth rates, there is little reason to believe that efforts at a “civic,” inclusive nationalism such as the SNP’s can remain plausible. Sweden offers a warning about where things might go next. The last stand of democratic capitalism, before it collapses into outright authoritarianism, will be the restriction of democratic rights to “nationals” and their denial to outsiders. As the welfare-and-wage pie shrinks, those less powerful groups inside or outside national borders will be denied a slice entirely, to ensure those with more power still get their fill.

The trouble with the Swedish utopia is that it’s not really worthy of the name. Rather than insisting that things could be better and taking the future as their model, Scandi-utopians look for something that already exists – what Erik Olin Wright calls a “real-utopia.”[8] But Sweden’s real-utopia is far too real, too dependent on a happy little “good-place” in a vicious worldwide economy. Now the niche is vanishing, and something deeply unpleasant is emerging instead. A decent, committed utopianism would envision a better world, not just a “better Scotland” following Sweden’s path. Hinde writes that “Sweden for the Swedes could be a positive rallying cry if everyone can indeed be Swedish,” but of course, the problem is that not everybody can be. The nature of Swedish exceptionalism is that not everyone can follow that path – and those who do, can’t do so for long. There is no safe “middle way”, as Childs hoped. Success might be hard to imagine without one, but the choice remains unavoidably binary: socialism or barbarism, on a world scale.

Dom will be launching A Utopia Like Any Other at The Glad Cafe in Glasgow this Sunday (the 29th) at 19:30. See you there!


Notes:

[1] Engels, F., ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org, 1880),https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/

[2] Blanqui, L., quoted in David Van Dusen, ‘Worlds Without End’, 3AM Magazine (September 2014),http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/worlds-without-end/

[3] Benjamin, W., quoted in Arendt, H., ‘Introduction: Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940’ in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (Pimlico, 1999), p.42

[4] Childs, M.W., Sweden: The Middle Way (Faber & Faber, 1936), p.18

[5] Crosland, A., The Future of Socialism (Jonathan Cape, 1956)

[6] US-backed dictatorships and military coups across southern Europe in particular were needed to keep the more militant sections of Europe’s working class in check.

[7] Esping-Andersen, G., The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 1990)

[8] Wright, E.O., Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010)

Spicing the Holyrood Baby

In the spirit of citizenship, which we know the Scottish government will be pleased to see us adopting, we would like to issue a public warning about a rogue messaging device. Her name is Kirsty. Think of Kirsty as the Agent Smith of the Scottish politics Matrix – she started off as an extra to clean up pieces of messy ideology, but now she has learned to multiply and is quickly spiralling out of control, her hunger for ever greater social order seemingly insatiable.

Kirsty started life as the SNP’s premium messaging device, a child whose life is determined from the start by poverty, but who can be rescued through ‘interventions’ from the benevolent state. We describe Kirsty’s rather boring life in our book – she is a pure economistic subject, who can either nobly and apolitically serve the cause of capital, or be a drain on the welfare budget and the political energy of the state. Her path will be determined by the Scottish parliament’s limited policy choices.

“In this narrative Kirsty’s life is overdetermined by her economic and social position, and every individual is an intersection of structures of economic necessity and ability. Governments try to find ways to represent the people back to the people. They raise a distorting mirror that highlights the virtues and ills everybody has in common. What seems like a highly personalised politics in fact reduces people to the common denominators of their lives. If you want a shorthand for the process of representation, call it Kirstification: the human characterisation of the nation’s economic life.”

But now Kirsty has really come into her own. She is no longer merely the child of one party, she is, we are told by Holyrood Magazine, the child of the whole 2016 Scottish Parliament. Here she is; she even has a hashtag (those squeamish about social nationalism look away now):

Holyrood baby.png

Baby Kirsty represents everything wrong with Scottish politics. Let’s see how Holyrood Magazine present the concept. They say it is a ‘social experiment’, important because this parliament may well be ‘one the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world [sic]’. As we know, says the editor in her didactic wisdom, ‘inequality doesn’t just happen; it is a choice’, and the parliamentarians can choose Kirsty’s life out of poverty if they make the right decisions. Kirsty is ‘a child born into one of Scotland’s most deprived communities’, and we’re invited to watch our imaginary poverty child through the pages of Holyrood Magazine, with a rush of middle class do-gooder voyeurism.

‘Evidence shows’ that poverty impacts on childrens’ ‘health, cognitive development, social, emotional and behavioural development and educational outcomes’ (the managers of Scottish society are always hungry for evidence of the nature of poverty, since it is such a confusing entity from where they’re standing). And Kirsty’s life has been determined from the start. She will have been born less healthy than more affluent children. And she will do worse at school, and continue to have worse health than rich kids.

What the Scottish government have to do is stage a series of interventions in health and education. They will adopt a policy of universal services with extras for particularly deprived areas, so that Kirsty’s life will be affected by ‘local initiatives’, that direct her mother towards third sector advice and extra healthcare. Somehow, using the powers of health and education, and despite massively depleted budgets, Kirsty’s poverty will be ironed out, at least enough that the Scottish government can claim to have met certain targets that they set themselves.

WEe kirsty
Kirsty in a former incarnation

The story of state intervention after the fact of disadvantage was implanted in Scotland by Blair, the creator of this ugly parliament. Blair’s immortal words, ‘Education, Education, Education’, were his bland offering to the people, and under him New Labour ground into action, trying to change the lives of the poor by lifting each individual soul through school and university. The Scottish Parliament had the ability to engage in this enriching and mindful exercise through ‘health powers’ as well. Poverty appears to these parliamentarians, journalists and third sector gurus as a terrible apparition, Poverty with a capital ‘P’, godlike, impenetrable. It is a monster that we can’t defeat, we can just give people better armour and provide them with healthcare and life insurance in case they get mauled by it.

The emphasis on child poverty in particular is heavily Blairite. Children can’t be blamed for their poverty, only adults, who we assume like the parliamentarians might just make the wrong choices in life. When asked why they don’t tackle poverty itself, rather than its effects, the Scottish political class are bemused. One answer that comes readily to their lips is that we don’t know what poverty is. It’s like the Glasgow Effect, it’s just a Really Complicated Thing That Everyone Is Trying Really Hard To Tackle. Another answer is that tackling poverty itself comes under reserved ‘powers’ (Scottish politicians are very keen to stress that there is nothing they could possibly do with their own powers to tackle bad work, bad rents, rising prices. And of course, nobody mentions taxation and gets away with it.)

rennie.png

In one sense they are right. If we are to take the distribution of ‘powers’ far too literally, then we can agree that Westminster administers capitalism, Holyrood administers the inadequate palliative care. But that’s not really how the state operates – even the corporate Early Modern states ended up spawning violent and territorial mini-states like the East-India companies. In the murky fog of the distribution of ‘powers’ we seem to lose the state somewhere. Something doesn’t sit right with the image of governments tossing ‘powers’, over health, tax, finance, back and forth between their respective parliaments, councils and executives, and sometimes farming them out to private companies. Where has the state gone?

The ‘State of Things’, vague as it seems, is sometimes an easier way to conceptualise something that is scattered in such a way as to prevent us from really being able to comprehend it. The State of Things is always the same, no matter what powers we choose to shift around on our Kriegsspiel (which at the end of the day is only a representation). Call it what you will – capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy – for the moment we don’t care, we just want to acknowledge that the Scottish government, far from administering palliative powers, administers a part of the State of Things, in a way that is not clearly defined or divisible. And this means that the Scottish Parliament, and its faithful crowd of consultants and third sector gurus, administer poverty.

If we become the disciples of the Scottish Ideology of ‘powers for a purpose’, we will waste our lives, and, ironically, the lives of the real-life Kirstys. We will never look behind the tartan curtain, never tackle the real monster: not Poverty but the rich, the people who appropriate wealth produced by those they employ and, through a sort of obscene reverse alchemy, turn it into poverty. The rich are never discussed in the world of Scottish politics, how could they be the problem – if Kirsty was rich, she’d be lovely, not a burden but an ‘asset’! Poor Kirsty is the problem, with her nasty deprivation, her cruel childhood, her bad teeth.

Holyrood Magazine don’t know what they’re doing of course. As we said in our last editorial, people willingly buy into the Scottish ideology without realising it’s an ideology at all. Holyrood Magazine have openly taken the SNP’s messaging device and declared that they will use it in an ‘objective’, ‘evidence-based’, ‘non-party-political’ way. They have no conception at all that it might be a political position to use the device in the first place – after all, how could a baby be ideological?

In One Way Street, Walter Benjamin wrote that ‘proper polemics pick up a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby’. Since we are always extolling the art of criticism, join us for once in roasting Kirsty on the flames. We ask you to do no more than Holyrood Magazine’s bidding: ‘tweet a baby picture of yourself with the hashtag #holyroodbaby and include any suggestions that you think could positively alter the course of Kirsty’s life.’ But think of it more as a recipe than a manifesto: don’t be afraid to turn up the heat.

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.

whobenefits

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