We continue our series publishing extracts from Closer. Mike Small argues that with cultural revival, growing consciousness of the roots of economic inequality and a democratic renewal, we are entering an altered state through the independence movement.
Closer to what? Closer to the chance for people to have political choices that make a difference. Closer to being able to elect our own government.
For this to be possible we need to work against the tide of cynicism and disillusionment and the common experience that your voice will not be heard, your opinion is not valid and you have no power. We need to move away from the designed exclusion to an architecture of participation that would have structures that encouraged people to be included in society rather than one that renders people as passive consumers and good British subjects.
There’s a funny game that’s going on, it’s a game where people (of left and right) say ‘of course this isn’t really independence’ or ‘there’s no such thing as real independence these days’. Of course as you watch the British establishment scrabble desperately to prevent any changes happening using all the powers they can muster, you quickly realise that something is at stake.
Like the French chef who can make beefsteak out of a leather glove, Alastair Darling has done well with his Better Together campaign. There was – up until now – no need for a mass campaign, a grassroots organisation, nor any need for creative thinking. The message was simple (against everyday experience from food bank to Bedroom Tax): “everything’s fine.”
It remains the world’s first manifesto for mass-inertia. The world’s shortest political programme, that can be distilled into four tiny hopelessly limiting letters: ‘UK:OK’
It is an appeal to the conservative, the cautious, the wary, and who isn’t all of these in times of stormy economics, in what I think we’re still rather coyly calling ‘the recession’?
In economic crises we eat more chocolate and watch Midsomer Murder. We blame people (gypsies, single mums, foreigners) and watch more Zombie Movies (apparently).
This outlook – we can call it the Politics of Jubolympics – or the Keep Calm and Carry On effect – aims at muting discontent not by denying it or suppressing it but by appealing to a spirit of the Blitz. Explanations for the success of the Great British Bakeoff back up this theory. Times are hard, let’s get serious about scones. It is, we’re told, a quintessentially British response to tough times, and in telling us that, we feel better, redoubtable in our pinnies. It’s a retreat into the comfort of passivity, the warm embrace of nostalgia and a safe, steady assured decline.
It may seem distant from the softly-softly talk of continuity, crowns and social union but the reality is that the Yes vote is just the trigger not the bullet. We need to re-occupy our own country, from depopulated glens to media fora stupefied, dumbed-down and under-resourced. From football clubs run by businessmen-gangsters and landed-estates run by the first-born clutching at Euro subsidies for doing nothing but sending a cheque to Barbour.
This is a psychological as much as a cultural process. It’s about a process of shedding a deep-seated in-built attitude of do-nothing / risk-nothing. This is the bind. We can’t get beyond this without a big risk – yet we’re wrapped up in a massively risk-averse culture.
We have other challenges. We are oddly absent in our own country.
So how do we create systems, structures and fora where people can have their voices heard, but where this discussion is meaningful? The basis for open participation and co-creation is (technologically) there for the taking. We now need to understand why this is important and work to deliver it.
A lot of this is happening already. Despite the efforts to portray the movement as ‘narrow nationalism’ based on ‘separatism’ a quick glance across the country sees a new mood developing that is running side by side with the shift for self-determination.
As the group behind ‘The Art of Hosting’ puts it:
Scotland is awakening. If we are to seize the opportunities emerging in communities across the country, now is the time to be brave and do things differently. We must explore new paths so we can achieve the fundamental changes needed to realise our potential together.
The independence movement can be seen as part of a wider movement of transformational change and democratic renewal. When you look across the country you can see a remarkable upsurge of new fora and projects emerging all aimed at renewing a more participative grassroots politics.
They are all exploring the same question: How do we create the conditions for deep systemic change in Scotland?
Taken collectively this is a considerable movement for change.
This has the potential to bring about a real shift to a closer democracy.
Some deal specifically with constitutional issues, some focus on gender or food or social policy, some take the process and need for innovation in how we talk to each other and reach decisions as the key. Means and ends. All are vital. None of them will have real lasting power unless they are combined with sovereignty at a national level and without a transformation of economic relations. But joined up and radicalised, they could be part of an essential process of re-education and revitalisation.
From the Scottish Commonweal‘a vision for a better Scotland’ based on the conviction that we will get better outcomes for both society and individuals if we emphasise mutuality and equity rather than conflict and inequality, to the cultural imagination of the National Collective which aims to ‘imagine a better Scotland’ by bringing together artists of all forms to create inspiring visuals and events. The Collective has – perhaps more than any one group – brought a sense of fun and innovation to political campaigning in the last year. Their successful opposition to attempted bullying and intimidation over the Vitol scandal of funding the No campaign was inspirational. Meanwhile, The Art of Hosting seek to develop – ‘the Art of Participatory Leadership through Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that Matter.’ This amazing new group helps people host, share and communicate better. I like the two questions they see as central: “How do we create the conditions for deep systemic change in Scotland? How can we help the emergence of a new way of living by listening to the voice and spirit of the people?”
A number of books published in the last couple of years pick up this theme, with Andy Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers a contemporary classic on land ownership, and just out this month, Lesley Riddoch’s Blossom spans issues of culture, gender, democracy, power and psychology in understanding the democratic deficit in Scotland. Pat Kane has described it as “like inhaling fjord air after being trapped in a sweaty backroom. Just brilliant.” Unstated edited by Scott Hames collected 27 essays by Scottish writers on independence. Considering the book, James Robertson concluded:
I understand about not frightening the horses – but actually I think it would be good to see a few wide-eyed sidelong glances and hear a nervous clattering of hooves.
These represent a collective longing, a barely expressed desire for participative change. But this is only partially expressed through text. The outpouring of blogs, and film and photo projects like Blipfoto, based in Leith, and Northern Lights, the collective film project, are perhaps other examples of this new direction.
Alongside these Women for Independence, the Radical Independence Conference and Democracy Max, are exploring ideas like citizen’s assembly, openness and transparency in information and deliberative ‘mini publics’.
So Says Scotland, inspired by a process used in Iceland, and supported by a bevy of collaborating partners and volunteers, say:
We are daring to drive people power, through facilitating collaboration, consensus and collective action. Imagining Scotland as a Hub of Democratic Innovation. <A Scotland – a world – where everyone has a say! 3
Why is this any more than liberal chatter?
Because it’s based on an emerging consensus about a shared set of values. Because there’s been a rush to respond to the impotence of Westminster and a growing realisation that the Feeble 50 lives in a newly articulated spasm of uselessness. As the inequality chasm widens and the opportunities for progressive radical action at a UK level appear permanently eclipsed, an openness to change through breaking the British State seems natural, easy, obvious.
Andy Wightman has published this remarkable graph (with data obtained from the Office of National Statistics by Faiza Shaheen of the New Economics Foundation ) which shows the average net property wealth for each 1% of the income distribution.
Wightman writes: “Over the past two decades, a rapid expansion of private debt-based money, created by private banks, has led to a land bubble in the housing market. Not only has this had catastrophic consequences for countries such as Ireland and Spain but it has contributed to growing levels of inequality as illustrated in this frankly unbelievable graph.”
It shows ‘the top 1% of the population has net property wealth of £15,040,000 whilst the bottom 33% has nothing. The top 1% own more net property wealth than the rest of the 99% combined.’ That’s incredible.
Why is this any more than liberal chatter? Because it’s driven by the reality of a brutal austerity unionism.
The debate about where we go in Scotland in the years ahead needs to be situated in this context. The reality is that Westminster is inflicting the longest and deepest economic slump since the 1870s. More than £50bn has been cut from workers’ wages every year since the start of the recession in 2008. Almost £30bn is being slashed from social security for the poorest and most vulnerable. Half a million people have to rely on food banks to get by.
As playwright Mark Ravenhill wrote recently:
Let’s say it again – because still it somehow doesn’t seem quite real in our bubble of existence – capitalism has experienced its biggest economic crisis since the 1930s depression, a depression which brought us genocidal dictatorships and world war. Our world, in ways that we can’t yet understand, is totally different from the one we were living in six or seven years ago. The paradigm has shifted and new ways of living and behaving are going to be needed if we’re going to make our way forward. There’s no possibility of pressing a restart button and going back to – when exactly? What about 2005? When it was all really lovely and that nice New Labour were in power and the economy seemed to doing splendidly and the arts were really, you know, valued. That’s a false memory, of course, and we’re not going back there. Any party that gets in to power in Westminster at the next election will be committed to the ideology (and plain wrong mathematics) of austerity.
Where did this world come from?
Reading Tony Wood in the New Left Review we can note that the mirroring we’ve seen by Johann Lamont and Ed Miliband this last year is nothing new:
Even before entering office, Brown had pledged to stick to Tory spending levels for three years, as proof of Labour’s economic discipline. The pursuit of ‘credibility’ in the eyes of the markets was the guiding principle, to be achieved through three key policies: first, fiscal prudence; second, retaining the Tories’ inflation-targeting regime, but removing it from government control. The Bank of England was given charge of monetary policy, to act as a ‘bulwark against short-termism’, as embodied by elected politicians. The third move was to institute what Brown and his advisors triumphantly called ‘light-touch regulation’—effectively allowing banks to regulate themselves. This brought a phenomenal expansion in the role of finance, as funds poured through the City in search of super-profits. Ramped-up flows of capital meant that Balls could boast in 2006 that London had ‘70 per cent of the secondary bond market, over 40 per cent of the derivatives market, over 30 per cent of foreign-exchange business, over 40 per cent of cross-border equities trading and 20 per cent of cross-border bank lending’.
A magnet for shadow banking and opaque financial engineering, the City became ‘Wall Street’s Guantánamo’—a place where US operators could do abroad what was not allowed at home.
The rest we know. After Labour Government measures to sustain the illusion of normality, including £950bn worth of bank bail-outs, asset guarantees and ‘quantitative easing’, had blown a gaping hole in public finances, and Gordon Brown was blown out of office by a hostile English media and a disastrous gift for self-immolation, in came the Tory government nobody elected.
Although the banking crisis – the one where we all stand astonished but apparently impotent – seems to have just become like so much more cultural wallpaper for us to gawp at. Another look should refresh our sense of moral outrage. This isn’t about a few very talented top people. Over 500 bankers earned more than £1million at RBS and Barclays in 2012, with 50 paid between £2.5 million and £5 million. HSBC paid 204 bankers more than £1 million with its five highest paid staff receiving between £3.9 million and £7.5 million.
This is a degenerate society to live in. I don’t believe that a new nation based on a different set of values wouldn’t and couldn’t do better starting by creating and shaping new institutions ‘fit for purpose’. I don’t believe that we can’t do better, and for all those waiting for an alternative within the British Union, I don’t believe any of the politicians have any intention or resolve to create and deliver a progressive, never mind a radical alternative. They have been captured and are unlikely to escape.
Why and How Would We Do Any Better Under Independence?
Critics of this view – that Britain is a country distorted by institutionalized levels of inequality, would and will at this point point to the lack of alternative from the SNP, arguing that what you will get is just a small-state version of Westminster, a sort of Little Britain. No real change.
But the SNP’s existing policies refute this, as do concrete commitments to enshrine equality in a written constitution. This need not be about some futuristic constitutional spin. The reality is last week the Deputy First Minister promised to enshrine the rights of young people in a written constitution. Though denounced by Labour as gesture politics, it’s exactly the sort of thing you could imagine a semi-enlightened Dewarite Labour Party to have conceived of.
Addressing the End Child Poverty Coalition at the National Museum of Scotland, Sturgeon said the opportunity to address the current growth in the problem was one of the “big prizes” of independence. She highlighted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, saying this could be incorporated into a future written constitution to force policymakers of the future to put the rights of young people at the heart of decision-making.
Previously legislation which aims to effectively end homelessness in Scotland by the end of this year has been passed by MSPs. The change entitles anyone finding themselves homeless through no fault of their own to settled accommodation.
Legislation which aims to effectively end homelessness in Scotland by the end of this year has already been passed by MSPs. The change entitles anyone finding themselves homeless through no fault of their own to settled accommodation.
It meets Scotland’s historic 2012 homelessness commitment. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was Europe’s “most progressive” homelessness legislation. The change, passed unanimously under the Homelessness (Abolition of Priority Need Test) (Scotland) Order 2012, will give an estimated 3,000 more people a year the right to settled accommodation. That isn’t posturing. It’s policy.
There is nothing guaranteed about a new Scotland, but on entering it we enter the realm of possibility and close the door on enshrined, constitutionally guaranteed privilege.
These promises are now held alongside the idea of holding the right to local government into written form.
There’s a trajectory here and it’s intended – as it does very well – to mark out a real difference between a Britain where rights and <standards seem to be constantly under assault – and a future Scotland where rights and standards and values are upheld by law.
When taken with the abolition of PFI, the abolishment of the Right to Buy in 2010 <and the re-nationalisation of previously privatised hospitals we can see a clear demarcation of direction. The provision of free personal care, prescriptions, dental check-ups and eye-tests for all in Scotland, along with the protection of tuition fees are not minor details, they are essential polices that are defensible only with a Yes vote / that can only be defended b a Yes vote. When this is taken with the idea of a written constitution and the democratic centrifugal forces of the wider independence movement and the likely post-indy resettlement we can begin to see a landscape beyond the Austerity Union. Let’s go there.
Closer to what? Closer to having a voice that’s heard and shared. From loyalism to being true to yourself. From an enshrined deference to a new reality of responsibility.
It’s time to get above ourselves.