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.

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Review: David Torrance – Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal Union

Britain Rebooted

There are two main themes of David Torrance’s short book on UK federalism, one negative, one positive. The first, the negative, is a critique – sometimes implicit, often explicit – of the common argument that federalism should not be taken seriously because it’s not going to happen any time soon. Let’s call this argument, for the sake of brevity, “impossibilism”. The impossibilist dogma is pervasive in the Yes campaign, inspiring sneers and eye-rolls whenever the federalist option is suggested. The SNP are actively complicit in perpetuating impossibilism, with Salmond reminding Scots at every opportunity that the UK government refused to allow a third “devo max” option on the referendum ballot paper. This, goes the typical argument, is evidence of unionist dishonesty over “more powers”. If they really wanted further devolution, they’d let us vote on it.

It’s an argument that requires more than a few intellectual contortions, and Torrance dismisses it with relative ease. It is, he writes, an “inherently conservative argument”, for it assumes that a state which has permitted universal suffrage, devolution and even a binding independence referendum is incapable of codifying, expanding and consolidating what is already a vaguely federal constitutional setup. But these common-sense rebuttals form the limits of Torrance’s persuasiveness, for his proposals detailing precisely how federalism might triumph fall far short of what would be required for a federal programme to command the popular support necessary to make it work, and, crucially, to outpace its nationalist counterpart on questions of economic and social change.

The second, “positive” theme of the book is a coherent, if somewhat veiled, statement of Torrance’s own political philosophy, in which he outlines how federalism could empower federated nations and regions of the UK to innovate new ways of promoting social mobility and reducing inequality across a “rebooted” union. Here he strikes a notably similar political pose to that of one Richard M. Nixon, whose “New Federalism” sought to fuse a classically liberal emphasis on meritocracy and personal freedom with a nuanced subsidiarity. Under Nixon, welfare was centralised, but distributed in cash payments to be freely spent rather than through specific services (a basic minimum income was even proposed) and local authority block grants were generally freed of conditionality, while affirmative action was advocated for African Americans in the construction industry and small business, and segregated schools were forcibly integrated. Torrance retreads many of the ideological principles underpinning these reforms in his own proposals, and for those who, like me, have been intrigued by his hitherto inscrutable ideological prerogatives, the result makes for an interesting and often surprising read.

On Nationalist Coat-tails

The opening chapter of the book is devoted to a potted history of British federalism, an idea “as old as Britain”, in which he seeks to demonstrate that the terrain of British constitutional politics has been far from inhospitable to federalist ambitions. However, this history does suggest that most serious high-level proposals for UK federalism have come from politicians and intellectuals with their backs against the wall: late-19th and early-20th century supporters saw it as a possible answer to the Irish Question, but it was only taken “much more seriously” when the question had become “louder and therefore more urgent,” both immediately before the first world war and immediately after it. These proposals were undermined by what had quickly become a critical mass of Irish nationalist sentiment, and the focus of federalist attention shifted to Stormont. In the postwar era, even Tories were comfortable describing Northern Ireland in federal terms, but fearful of extending the arrangement to Scotland or Wales. It fell to the Liberals to advocate “Home Rule All Round,” but – again – only in reaction to breakthroughs for the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the 1960s. The Liberals and their successors in the Liberal Democrats remained the most committed and proactive supporters of federalism throughout the rest of the century, but persistent minority status meant that their constitutional ambitions made little headway with a political class all too happy to drag its feet.

The Royal Commission on the Constitution, appointed by Harold Wilson in 1969 in response to Nationalist successes, argued that federalism was “foreign to our own tradition of unitary government”, reasserting the old orthodoxy of constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey. Dicey’s preoccupation with the overriding sovereignty of the British (or, for the anglocentric Dicey, essentially English) parliament is subject to plenty of critique by Torrance, who rightly notes its growing irrelevance in light of the various constitutional transformations of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Wilson and many others in the Labour Party shared Dicey’s conservative views on the constitution, caricaturing federalism as over-complex and “artificial” and glorying in the supposed perfection of the existing system. That said, Labour’s position here should not be over-simplified; the party’s half-hearted support for Scottish and Welsh assemblies in 1976 was not only a response to nationalist advances, but also grew from a long-standing Home Rule tradition in the Labour Party, particularly on its left (the crucial relationship between socialism and federalism will be discussed further below).

The failure of devolution in the 1970s didn’t mean the demand had dried up entirely, however, and Labour’s devolutionary current resurfaced again with New Labour, this time taking English regions into account as well as the nations. The resounding No vote in the 2004 referendum on a North East Assembly may have “stymied…any prospect of a federal UK” under that government, but the vote itself still represented – alongside devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London – some degree of progress towards UK federalism throughout the post-68 era. The eagerness with which impossibilists seize on 2004’s result as evidence against federalism misses the point; a federalism including the nations and regions of the UK is more imaginable today than it has been for most of the country’s history. Labour’s latest proposal – under consideration for their 2015 manifesto – to transform the House of Lords into an “indirectly elected” senate giving equal representation to the nations and regions is the continuation of this trend.

But if federalists have made progress, they haven’t done it under their own steam. Federalism has remained largely reactive, not because its advocates are unwilling – the Liberals and Liberal Democrats, and elements of Labour and the labour movement, have advocated federalism or home rule on its own merits for decades – but because UK-wide federalism has been incapable of marshalling popular will in the way that nationalism has. Where federalism by itself appears to many as an expensive sideshow of constitutional tinkering (particularly obvious in 2004’s “white elephant” campaign against the North East Assembly), nationalism mobilises people – often from a strong working-class base – behind a relatively holistic programme of promised economic, social and political change. Nationalism has offered a cure, however illusory, for the various maladies of capitalist development and crisis which federalists have been unable or – due in large part to vested class and political interests – unwilling to match. Torrance makes little effort to grapple with this problem, particularly given that his vision for a transition to federalism is driven not by the collective efforts of working people but by well-intentioned politicians and civil servants, a point we will come back to later.

A Southern Problem or a British One?

Torrance does make some effort to deal with the argument that English people “don’t want” a federal England, but this is limited to observations about English unhappiness with the present constitutional setup. There remains no groundswell of federalist politics in England, or indeed in Scotland. Polls may show a Scottish preference for “devo max”-style federalism and an English discontent with the status quo, but that doesn’t mean people will get out and knock doors to that end. But when nationalists (or “not-nationalists-but…”) criticise federalism for its lack of popular support, they rarely try to explain why such support is absent or, indeed, why this matters. Occasionally they fall back on the New Left arguments of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, themselves a kind of haunted-mirror inversion of Dicey’s, about the innate conservatism of the British state. But if the British state is so conservative that it cannot reform itself, how have devolution and a legally-binding independence referendum been tolerated?

Idealism is a funny thing. Not “idealism” in the vague, optimistic sense, defined as a politics of hope and change and “making the world a better place”, but idealism as the philosophical tradition which posits ideas rather than real, material forces as possessing a determining agency in human history. The prevalence of both in the Yes campaign is not coincidental. One of vulgar idealism’s most peculiar attributes is that, while idealists condemn materialists for downplaying the role of human agency and free will in history, they have a tendency to place an inordinate amount of faith in the agency of institutions. In this crude, popular form, little nuance is permitted; just as “Scotland” means “us”, so too must “Westminster” be “them”, and there can be no internally contradictory tendencies in either of these things. The logic is, supposedly, that because institutions set the parameters of what is (at least legally) possible in politics, institutions determine the ideas with which law-abiding humans, and therefore citizens, shape the world.

Dicey’s fetishisation of English parliamentary sovereignty as the basis of British political life is a fine example of this. In impossibilism, Dicey’s fragile and aging parliamentary ideal is kept alive only thanks to the daily sacrifice of every idea which falls outside its miniscule parameters: yesterday the union, tomorrow federalism; and its high priests are the impossibilists. Anthropomorphised by the black magic of neo-Diceyan idealism, the palace of Westminster and huge swathes of Whitehall lift themselves up onto hitherto unseen legs and, sending chunks of masonry and scaffolding splashing into the Thames and crashing through shopfronts, these institutional titans make obscene demands of British politicians: You, puny humans, must deny Scotland the governments “it” votes for. You must lie about your desire for “more powers”. You must remain forever preoccupied with “neoliberal dogma”. You may never change, for we are The Institutions, we are immortal, and we are in charge!

For example, Iain Macwhirter’s recent critique of federalism asserted that there is “no scintilla of a chance of federalism being introduced by Westminster of its own volition.” Later in the same article, “Westminster has not the slightest intention…” and so on, and so on. “England” and “Scotland” are spoken of in a similarly clumsy, simplistic way; when you make up the units of analysis as you go along, it’s easy to meet a print deadline. Throughout impossibilist rhetoric there is a persistent desire to obscure what is really meant by “Westminster,” but Macwhirter lets the cat out of the bag: the problem with “Westminster” is, in the final instance, that “Scotland really isn’t on England’s radar…English people really don’t care [about the Barnett formula and the West Lothian Question]”. The trouble, in short, is with the way English people vote. There is no room here for differences or shifts of opinion within England, not to mention the continuing direction of Labour (via Adonis) and even the Conservatives (via Heseltine) towards English regional devolution.

The idealism that pervades a great deal of Scottish constitutional thinking, even in its more radical forms and particularly amongst supporters of independence, tends to close down any serious questions about the possibilities of popular constitutional change. A fetishisation of British institutions is used to obscure a blanket pessimism about English people and British parties, while a simplistic homogenisation of “Scotland” threatens to contain demands for a transfer of powers in the hands of those who claim to speak for the nation, halting whatever progress devolution or independence might entail before it can reach the majority.

Radical Federalism

Furthermore, there’s no clear effort by Macwhirter and his ilk to actually consider how federalism might be implemented. It might seem obvious during a constitutional referendum that all major constitutional changes come from referenda, or at least from popular support, but that’s not necessarily the case. If a party was interested enough in federalism – as Labour increasingly are, for all nations and regions of the UK – and offered a programme of economic and social reform alongside it in a manifesto which could gather popular support, a majority government could win an election on non-constitutional issues before simply imposing a federal system, regardless of the enthusiasm or lack thereof amongst certain sections of the electorate. Most English voters at least aren’t hostile to federalism, and there’s growing evidence that many are unhappy with their present constitutional status.

This unhappiness doesn’t translate into English constitutional demands because constitutional change in itself is boring. The appeal and ferment of the independence debate lies in the economic, social and political opportunities it presents, not the prospect of constitutional change alone. Things are no different for federalism, and that’s why constitutional change holds relatively little power in England. For English voters there is no alternate state, dressed up in promises of social citizenship and national renewal, which they can grab onto as many Scots do. The impossibilists – those who profess a mild interest in federalism but believe that it could not happen – believe that a federalist programme, if possible, would deliver much the same agenda as a nationalist programme. But this conflation is the reason that federalism seems impossible – the impossibilists think that the only thing that could deliver constitutional change is national sentiment, whereas what could actually deliver federalism is a far-reaching programme of social, economic and political change. A successful federalism must be a radical, federal socialism.

Torrance’s “New Federalism”

This is where Torrance’s argument is weakest, which is strange, because he does in fact smuggle several chapters of fairly far-reaching policy proposals – ranging from tax rises on the rich to affirmative action for state-educated people in higher education and beyond – into a book which is ostensibly about constitutional change. But these proposals all exist within a fairly technocratic framework. The goal of progressive policy for Torrance is not the radical transformation of society, or even greater equality per se, but the old-fashioned liberal dream of meritocracy. Private education is bad, not because it reproduces ruling class unity, but because it inhibits social mobility. The distinction between social mobility and social justice is not discussed, but a preoccupation with the former suggests a degree of comfort with the existence of class society just so long as everyone has the opportunity to be in a higher class.

Particularly revealing is his uncritical acceptance of Will Hutton’s assertion that “socialism and neo-liberalism have demonstrably failed,” and that we are now faced with the Quixotic mission of “making capitalism work”. Change is to be made by moderate but “bold” politicians and experts – he draws extensively on the policy recommendations and research of both – rather than popular movements or, perish the thought, an empowered and self-serving class. Tories and Liberal Democrats are oddly over-represented in his discussions of traditionally left-wing issues like challenging private school dominance and reducing income inequality, and it is tempting to suspect that for all his progressive suggestions, Torrance still struggles to escape his past entanglements with the Scottish right.

When it comes to the implementation of federalism itself, his policy proposals are justifications for constitutional change rather than, as suggested above, vehicles for it. This federalism will come about through “baby steps,” as he believes it has throughout British history. More significantly, it will require “cross-party agreement,” essentially guaranteeing that any radical potential is sucked out by the vicissitudes of compromise. Torrance here succumbs to the temptation of gradualism: just as the SNP, facing public scepticism over independence, sought to moderate and minimise the impact of what should have been a profound societal transformation, so too does Torrance hope to convince the haters with a relatively smooth, simple transition to a constitutional arrangement that will subsequently do little to help resolve the overlapping economic, social and political crises of modern Britain.

Federal Possibilities

The most important question for advocates of a federal union is not whether federalism can be achieved, but by whom and for whom; a possible Tory or liberal federalism may promote a race to the bottom between constituent states on wages, taxation and working standards; a possible Labour federalism, as hinted at by Powers for a Purpose, might create a nationwide “base” below which tax, welfare and wages may not be lowered, but with the ability to raise them, as well as flexibility over other aspects of industrial policy; but it could also be a technocratic, regressive federalism, hinted at in the Adonis review, which focuses on handing local powers and wealth to business rather than workers.

The overriding problem with all of these is that they remain federalisms-from-above, not from below. If Miliband’s Labour was able to command the same degree of popular enthusiasm as the Yes campaign, it would at least find itself in power under a substantial weight of progressive expectation. But as things stand, One Nation Labour may win a small majority simply because it’s less awful than the Tories. Thus the only force in the UK which seems ready to implement something approaching federalism will most likely do so in a managerial and broadly conservative fashion, just as it did with devolution.

The second most important question for Scottish federalists is whether this, or the hope of overturning it in favour of a more radical federal system of the possible future, is worth supporting over another “constitutional” change which already has a rough wind of economic, social and political demands in its sails.

Torrance has secured himself a prominent position in the referendum debate, partly through the strategic use of nice jumpers and expertly crafted hair, but largely on merit. His much-maligned scepticism about Scotland’s “progressive” consensus is welcome, and places him in a broad but often silent (or silenced) third camp of cynics, sceptics and grumblers of which we are also a part. Britain Rebooted is a thoughtful, nuanced (and generously short) work which deserves far better than the lazy impossibilist critiques to which the author’s proposals have been subjected, but it falls short where it could be at its most innovative; a couple of pages dedicated to the actual forces which might produce a federal UK is simply not enough for such an important topic, particularly given the nature of the critiques ranged against it. What is particularly evident is that there remains a pressing need for sharp, radical thinking in Scotland about the nature and direction of not only Scottish but also British politics that evades the reductionism of “Westminster vs Scotland”, but which can also break free of a dependence on expert-led and top-down tinkering to move towards an informed, intelligent popular radicalism.

Rory Scothorne

A trickle of tax powers will fertilize nothing

Ken Macintosh

The tussle for the future of Labour’s devolution policy has begun, and in the Herald on Monday Ken Macintosh stuck a dagger into the wooly cloak of the Lamont Commission. He said “we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face by fully devolving income tax. It would not be fair to a devolved Scotland. It would be less redistributive and less progressive too.” And what is the nub of his argument? That it benefits Scotland to receive a share of tax paid by Britain’s rich in London, and that by devolving income tax we will be losing this benefit just so we can suit our penchant for the principle of subsidiarity.

Ken Macintosh’s central argument appears to be that we are better off because London, with 18% of the UK’s higher-rate taxpayers compared to Scotland’s mere 8%, is within the same income tax jurisdiction as our own, and we all benefit from being attached to this concentration of wealth and power. This is part of the No campaign’s ‘pooling and sharing’ argument for Westminster to reserve tax and spending powers. As Gordon Brown put it: “this is a big idea, that we pool and share resources in such a way that we can give benefits, particularly to those people who are most in need.” But it raises questions as to what Macintosh and some of his Labour colleagues really aspire to in terms of the division of wealth. And what does Ken Macintosh mean when he says Scotland would be “less redistributive and less progressive” if it had income tax powers?

One kind of redistribution skims some wealth from the rich to fund services for all, and is basically the state’s way of ensuring there is some trickle down effect that follows from the rich accumulating more income. This is what the heralded 50% income tax rate amounts to: just a bit more tax on rich people who are still getting richer, and who hold onto most of the profit they make from the work people do. Macintosh’s conception of redistribution would leave the rich still wealthy and powerful after they pay their tax. His politics reveal the aristocratism of New Labour – of Ken Macintosh and Jim Murphy, not to mention Peter Mandelson who was so “intensely relaxed” by the super-rich that he worked to influence his party into abandoning its historic support for redistribution of power and wealth.

In aristocracies the patronage of the rich maintains public life. When the people become dependent on the rich, they tend to learn to appreciate them, and even to admire them. This is one of New Labour’s legacies, and parts of London’s Labour elite still call it progressive. Their brand of progress, promulgated by the eponymous think-tank funded by the capitalist Sainsbury, seems to amount to taking just enough taxation to give politics a semblance of social justice and prevent a regression into extreme exploitation. It does not tax enough to put any constraint on capitalist’s exploitative activity. It is a disguise for state-led trickle-down economics, and Laffer curve economics, of the kind criticized by Red Labour and figures in the Campaign for Socialism who will be taking the fight to Labour for full devolution at their conference this weekend.

So Macintosh is not progressive to say we should remain in a tax jurisdiction with a growing share of some of the richest people in the world, under a government that sets tax rates no higher than what the rich themselves are content with. Progressive taxation should help us advance towards a society where there are fewer rich people, a small and shrinking gap between rich and poor, and a system that tends towards equality, rather than celebrating the rich. Sadly it is an argument without resonance in the Westminster Labour group.

There is another kind of redistribution that is a permanent transfer of wealth and power from the rich to the poor, from those who have more to those who have less, from the upper classes to lower classes. Westminster has failed to address the unequal distribution of power and wealth between classes, and after a Yes vote the challenge will be for Labour in Scotland to use the powers of independence – including, yes, income tax – for this end. Social redistribution is the condition for the independence of those who lack power and wealth at present – and Scottish Labour should use the powers of sovereignty to secure the independence of ordinary people.

But here is where an old Labour vision and Macintosh’s diverge on a third point. His instinct is to preserve, ours is to reform and devolve real power. He said “I see the constitutional arrangements existing in equilibrium”. But what’s being held up in his balancing act? The rich and powerful. And what takes the burden of its support? The poor, exploited, badly paid and badly treated, both here and abroad; poverty and inequality in a system that’s too broken ever to rebalance, that works only for the very rich towards whom Macintosh seems so grateful for their meager contribution. They call their dominance ‘equilibrium’.

Macintosh says: “Going too far in devolving tax or benefits risks fragmenting the system”. Sounds good to me. We want a changed system, and our fragment (which we call Scotland) can work better than the machine whose cogs spin fastest in London, but have slowed almost to a halt in regions and communities from which the wealth once flowed. If we stick with joint decision-making on income tax across the UK, we will end up stuck with regressive politics that work to support the rich and sustain inequality and poverty. Income tax is part of a whole system of levers which we need to shift from regress to progress.

The British future means ever-more dominance by London that works for hardly anyone. An independent Scotland is a route to a different end – so that we can use powers for the purposes our forebears set out, to build a system set on social justice. And it is also the start of a fragmentation of Britain, so that wealth does not stream down from London, but emerges from and fertilizes the countries and regions of these islands. If this is what Macintosh calls “cutting of our nose to spite our face”, then a facelift for Britain is long overdue.

Cailean Gallagher

To Constitute the People

dec of ind

In an earlier article on Mair Nor a Roch wind, entitled “Smout Leading the People”, we advocated a Scottish nationalism that looks to the values of the Enlightenment, invoking Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as the values of a new Scotland. One of the most tangible political results of the period of Liberalism was the constitution – a covenant that enshrined the political rights of a people. An opportunity may arise in Scotland to create such an entity. Not only may the people of Scotland be newly constituted as citizens, but this change would develop from a British unwritten constitution which, as we have argued, is in crisis.

But while the country ponders huge constitutional change, at a time of European and British crisis, the constitution itself catches the attention of only a few. It has been pointed out by Andrew Tickell that Scotland’s constitutional question avoids the idea of a new sovereign – it is presented, for safety’s sake, as a kind of devo-doubleplusgood, a particularly big transfer of powers. The idea of the foundation of a country is far from everyone’s minds, as the hopeful state-formers rush to persuade everybody that very little would change. Excitement about the constitution is real among a few academics, but, as one republican journalist said, the great worry is that all things constitutional just become a dripping roast for constitutional lawyers. The people of the constitution, the people of Scotland, mostly couldn’t care less.

A few active democrats hope for something more than this. They recognise that independence is a constitutional question for a reason – that the British constitution is not serving the people of Britain or Scotland, and that there is potential for re-democratisation.

But their attempts to engage people in the idea of the formation of a Scottish state have not resulted in the political excitement or sense of ownership that they hope for. Things that we are told might capture the public imagination – citizens assemblies, ‘crowd-sourcing’ based on the Icelandic constitution-forming model, community action – are contrived to tap into a public that already has a  relation to a state, and experience of active participation; but no such public or form of democracy exists. Meanwhile the organisers complain that people don’t understand what a written constitution is (why should we, we’ve never had one?), let alone its great value as a basis for democratic demands.

These ‘participatory’ forms of engagement lack a basis in our public sentiment, and the Scottish Government does not have the incentive to create it. Thus the question arises of how to enthuse this uninterested population, in order to create a constitution that is of the people, and recognised as a democratic basis for our nation. The answer lies in an understanding of how the people of Scotland are currently constituted, where their loyalties lie, and what it means to them to be a citizen in Scotland and in Britain.

To understand the constitution of Scotland, many look to the “constitution of institutions” in Scotland: a stateless nation has formed an institutional framework, by which it is defined, consisting of law, church and education, and more recently devolved institutions such as the parliament or the NHS. Yet this is not the state as political science recognises it: it cannot act as a universal reference point for the individual, only for people as they interact with these institutions. Neither, however, can the British state be this reference point, both because it is in crisis, and because we are subject to Scots law and institutions. Thus a terrible circularity arises, where we have no public to appeal to, no peculiarly national political sentiment to drum up into a frenzy. How can we escape from this confusion, in such a way that at the point Scotland realises a new constitution, it also creates a new national and sovereign public, rather than replicating tired institutional forms?

The current quasi-constitution of Scotland creates a sort of distorted benevolent bourgeois class who have political clout through particular organisations.  This class is itself a barrier to the creation of a popular constitution. Known as institutional or ‘civic’ Scotland, it forms the most exclusive and bureaucratic sphere that makes up Scotland’s social system. Its members include religious leaders, public service managers, voluntary sector organisers and so on, people who will have a voice in forming Scotland’s constitution, yet who, if they are to create it in their own image, will create something aligned to the British constitution, a constitution created on the assumption that the creator-class will be there to uphold it, divorced from the people to whom it is meant to apply. The current political climate in Scotland dictates that the movement to form a constitution will be institutional rather than political, seeing the subjects of a constitution as people who engage with the institutions of state, rather than democratic citizens.

The other group to whom we might turn in wishing to form a constitution of the public, are the lawyers of Scotland. In America, at the time of the forming of the constitution, a respected and professional legal class, that was accessible to a range of social classes, was key to creating a sense of ownership of and respect for the legal documents said to constitute the people. If only we had the same in Scotland, to give the citizens confidence in the making of their politics! Unfortunately when the law is invoked in Scotland, such as for minimum alcohol pricing, or anti-sectarian laws, it is seen as a rather despotic intrusion into civil society. Scots law is already established in public matters, and so new laws tend to be concerned with ‘private’ or ‘civil society’ matters. We are facing the challenge of the creation of a new constitution alongside a well-developed legal system, a legal system that tends to be in the news for being restrictive.  A democratic and liberatory understanding of the legal documents that will form the constitution can be achieved only if law is invoked politically rather than institutionally, as something that people do, rather than something that happens to people. This is far from current public consciousness.

So where are radical constitutionalists to turn when those shaping the constitution seem devoid of ideas, and the public is devoid of the right political sentiments or mores? How can a stateless nation become a state; how can a new constitution breathe life into fading political forms, when the political classes play to voters regardless of whether they are fighting to win an election or a new state?

The answer is to bring a little political vigour to Scotland. The constitution and the law are rarely invoked politically, they are seen as utilitarian, rational questions, and any decisions refer to “bean counting” rather than sentiment, as Smout aptly put it. There must be a real political rather than institutional movement, which talks about democracy, active citizenship, and public law in terms of the constitution, so that when the constitution comes to be formed it is seen as a political statement, and the establishment of levels of democracy as the embodiment of ideals, rather than bureaucratic institutional forms.

To invoke concepts politically, we used to turn to political parties. Perhaps once again, in a moment of constitutional formation, they will be able to argue based on ideologies and values, from their position as representatives of the people. But as the SNP concertedly ignore the idea that the constitution requires any ideological debate, and while Labour deny that there might be one at all, the only obvious party to assert their particular constitutional ideology are the Green Party, who have been silent for a while on the constitutional question. Given the lack of public constitutional divergence, the Greens would be heard were they to call for particular democratic forms, types of economic, social or refugee rights, or even just new concepts for debate. They are the party of localism, which has constitutional implications, and their localism challenges a government that is seen by elements of civil society, left parties, and the Labour Party as over-centralising . The Greens could create a spectrum of debate within those in favour of constitutional reform.

Whether or not the Greens are the best party to promote left constitutionalism, it falls to all those who speak of this abstract entity to make it real, and to make it political in an engaging and radical way, rather than something created from and designed to perpetuate Scotland’s shallow political sphere.

Amy Westwell

The King, the Court and the Castle

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“All [the Scottish Government] did was to guard the distant and invisible interests of distant and invisible masters”
― Franz Kafka, The Castle

Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.”
― Karl Marx, Capital

On Monday Westminster blocked access to labour justice for thousands of working people, by introducing charges to access employment tribunals in cases of exploitation or mistreatment. Tribunals, though they do not directly influence the justice of the labour market itself, allow a semblance of parity between worker and employer when cases are brought into the sphere of civil justice. By restricting access to tribunals the Coalition has undermined rights the labour movement has fought for, such as redress for harassment, appeals against unfair dismissal, and equality of treatment.

The labour contract between worker and capitalist, being a bigger determinant to people’s lives than the social contract between citizen and government, should be an issue of concern for the Scottish Government which, while it has no direct authority over workers’ rights, claims to speak for the people. Yet Labour MSP Drew Smith’s account of his effort to raise the tribunals issue shows the disinterest of the Scottish Government on issues of workers’ rights.

“I have for some months been attempting to interest the Scottish Government in the decision of the UK Government to introduce charging for access to employment tribunals, particularly in light of the expected transfer of tribunal administration from the Ministry of Justice. So far, I have been knocking on a firmly closed door.”

This account has telling resemblances to K’s attempt to enter the Castle: admittance to the centre of bureaucratic power comes only through acceptance of the administration’s state of mind, and view of society. Drew Smith, a shadow Minister and Chair of the Trades Union Group of Labour MSPs, has no admittance to the Scottish Government as an advocate for working people. He had to turn to the letters pages of the Evening Times to bring workers’ rights into the frame and challenge Scottish law firms and businesses, arguing that the reforms will mean “ordinary working people will be priced out of justice”.

This displacement of the issue of access to employment tribunals is part of a general exclusion of the most crucial of conflicts, the worker-employer relationship, from Scottish parliamentary debate.

Although the Scottish Cabinet tend to be willing to work with the STUC and sometimes with individual unions, their willingness to contract blacklisting companies, and their whip-line on their MSPs not to sign Unite’s anti-blacklisting pledge, are two recent instances of their notorious record on workers’ rights.

Salmond is canny in paying honour to the unions, while leaving substantial issues of workers’ rights and the labour market out of his administration’s concern. At this year’s STUC Congress the First Minister said trade unions play a “valuable and important role” in Scottish life. In the face of assaults from Westminster, trade unionists are right to feel reassured that “the place of Scotland’s trade unions is absolutely secure with this administration”. But for those who wish to increase the role of trade unions in society and in government, such a phrase is cause for concern. A corporate director is bound to be pleased if the limited place of trade unions is ‘absolutely secure’.

The King’s conciliatory politics allows his Court to claim to speak for trade unionists, workers, and people on low wages, alongside their alternative agenda to be the voice of the business lobby and the middle classes. Conciliatory politics are contradictory politics, but to the SNP the claim to speak for all the people of Scotland makes perfect sense.

Because of the limits of devolution, the SNP do speak for ‘the people of Scotland’ insofar as they are users of those particular public services over which the SNP preside. The economic sphere of zero-hour contracts, tribunals, unpaid overtime, unregulated overwork, remain, in the eyes of Scottish Government, excluded from their own view of society – though evidence of worker-employer relationship is to be found in the workplace, in streets, in the Jobcentre, in the boardroom, and in the Evening Times. There’s plenty on the dole in the land of the leal.

The SNP are bourgeois in the old sense that they are concerned with people as they operate freely outside work. They deal with the public as a body of burghers, not workers. Through this lens they come to believe that all a government can ever do for the working class is to implement measures to improve people’s ability to enter the labour market, through skilling-up individuals, informing people of jobs available, attracting business to Scotland and creating ‘shovel-ready’ projects. But they ignore one of the central features of class politics: that we can, through political action, change the conditions of the labour contract itself.

Alex Salmond, while he backs the place of trades unions in society, describes the Scottish Government’s own duty to citizens, businesses and trades unionists alike as the upholder of the social contract of universal services, “based on a sense of public good and the common weal”. Indeed, their position on the lack of need for government control of the labour market is not dissimilar to the facile ideals of the “Free-trader Vulgaris”, described thus by Marx:

“The sphere within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on [is the sphere where] both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will… and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things… work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all”.

But there is a deeper reason for the exclusion of class from Scottish politics. It was not the SNP who displaced class from Scottish politics but the architects of devolution who allowed no issues of economic contracts to pass the Castle’s firmly closed door, behind which the Court sits in social democratic consensus. The SNP hold Court having played social democracy better than the other parties, in a system where class was already excluded – all parties uphold this politics because it is the way to win power. We often forget that power was held for almost a decade in Scotland by a Labour and Liberal coalition, the first to inhabit the Castle and set the social democratic agenda.

This Castle’s politics are those of universal social rights. Unlike workers’ rights or women’s rights, the rights it deals with apply to everyone – everyone gets old; everyone has an education; everyone can use the right to free prescriptions. Underwritten by a pseudo-egalitarian ethos, our sovereign regards everyone as equal in the eyes of a universal social provider. This appearance of equality, this gratifying sense that we all are equal in the eyes of the Scottish Leviathan, has perpetuated the social democratic consensus and has kept class struggle from intruding in Scottish politics. Working issues and contracts are never the sphere of equality with which the Scottish Government is concerned. The people of Scotland are not sovereign, just equal as regards the limited might and power of the Castle.

Cailean Gallagher