By Mike Small
After Tony Blair was questioned by the police in No 10 Downing Street, and Barack Obama’s ‘hope you can believe in’ turned out to be a slogan rather than a promise, then Julian Assange’s ‘temporary global hero’ fragment , we have experienced a profound crisis of belief in political leadership. It’s not partisan to say that nobody finds the Bullingdon Club Cabinet credible. Nobody actually finds David Cameron convincing. There is a simulacra of respect for these people, maintained only by the media-class reading the right script. As puce-faced Jim Devine shuffled off into obscurity at Saughton you felt that this was the start of the end of an era for Labour’s old dinosaur elite, municipal socialists one and all. Not a duck-house among them, just a sort of fetid belief in a right-to-reign. Jackie Baillie as Kate Middleton, David Whitton as an angry Harry. This crisis of leadership is a good thing, and when combined with an understanding of the potential of horizontalism and the multiple challenges we face, a great thing, a potentially liberatory moment.
The Sheridan Trial, the events in Egypt and the forthcoming Holyrood elections provide context and urgency to these serious questions about the nature of political leadership and the drivers of change in society. Where are we going? How does Scotland ensure it is part of the political revolution that is shaking the ground all around us rather than appear as an northern onlooker waving a saltire in one hand or a faded Butcher’s Apron in the other? What’s the nature of our relationship to the British State and how do we as citizens take charge of our own destiny? These questions struggle alongside deeper issues of technology and ecology in a rapidly changing landscape. They combine to create a political experience you might call the personal and the post-colonial and are finding expression in what John McAllion has called the ‘wisdom of anger’.
‘It’s only with the passing of time that the picture comes fully into focus, as the present slides and settles into history. Who are we? One of the unintended effects of Margaret Thatcher’s revolution, he sees now – and let’s face it, that’s what it was, a revolution – was to destroy Scottish loyalty to the British State. If it didn’t provide you with a job, if it didn’t give you a decent pension or adequate health care or proper support when you were out of work, what was it for? It wasn’t for anything – except maybe things you didn’t want or believe in, like nuclear weapons on the Clyde, or the poll tax. In the Thatcher years the great presumption of the left – that the industrial working class would eventually tame capitalism – came crashing down. The class war may not yet be over but it’s certainly not what it used to be. In its steed there may be many creeds, ancient and new, ethnic and national and religious and green…’ – And the Land Lay Still – James Robertson
Elsewhere in the book one of Robertson’s characters reflects that the point of the Scottish Parliament may be simply to say ‘we exist’. That’s not good enough any more. It never was.
As global crisis finds local expression, as globalism unfolds before us, the impetus for control of our own resources and self-management increases. This is not about a retreat from Westminster incompetence, entrenched venality or the allure of the City as a sump for corporate whoredom. This is not – crucially – about wallowing in victimhood, glorious failures, the iniquities of yesteryear (count them). This is not about creating ‘a smarter, fairer, better’ clone of Nu Labourite efficiency, nor a Jim Matherish beacon of entrepreneurial business-slick Scotian buzz. The ‘how many start-ups’ and hand-wringing about reliance on the (utterly taboo) public sector is redundant. And while communications technology can, will and is transforming our experience, it is still not a material basis for living. It’s a means not a code, a tool not an ethic.
The challenge now is to create an alternative way of operating based on being in the world.
Vinay Gupta has reflected recently that we face major challenges (globally). Here’s what he calls the three big lies:
- Lie: one day everybody will be rich.
Truth: the earth does not have enough natural resources to support the global middle class. The poor are dying of this already. 20 million a year, a third of all death.
- Lie: America and Europe will look much like this in 20 years.
Truth: they haven’t really looked like this for three generations. It’s the borrowing which has maintained the illusion of wealth. Ask the Irish.
- Lie:Technology will save us.
Truth: nanotechnology and biotechnology take all the problems of the nuclear age and make them cheap and self-replicating. We can’t handle it, we have no governance or risk management. We’re going to get walloped. Hard.
It’s important to think of Scotland as being a country not yet here, rather than one with a glorious past. This isn’t to forget our history, mislaid, distorted as it is, but to not dwell on it. Know it, don’t look back on it. This is the difference between seeing Mackintosh for what he is in the context of European architecture – not admiring kitschy tea towels. We need to reject not celebrate the idea of £5 million investment in Scottish football when even McLeish says we need £500 million. In short we need to lift our ambitions far higher. Knowing this – and organising around it – moving on from nostalgia not indulging in the political equivalent of watching Joe Jordan circa 74 on YouTube (then, as now, not one to pick a fight with). Re-reading Arthur Herman’s The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World, but not buying into myths that that makes us special, unique. We are as good as anyone but better than no one. That gives us the right to self-determination. Unique enough.
So what do you do with ‘many creeds, ancient and new, ethnic and national and religious and green…’?
First we need to transcend the tribes. Gerry Hassan writing an optimistic account of Nick Pearce’s (Institute for Public Policy Research) visitation to Scotland notes:
‘Scottish Labour is a party of patronage, preferment and clientalism. It has not modernised or renewed itself under devolution, or after defeat in 2007. All of Scottish Labour’s five leaders since 1999 – from Donald Dewar to Iain Gray today – have chosen the path of least resistance when it comes to the traditional Labour state way of doing things. Today behind Gray a small army of quangocrats, academics and serial consultants plan to renew the way they have governed Scotland since the 1950s; indeed most of them have continued their roles since the SNP came to office, but clearly the return of Labour will provide more opportunity for reward and the expansion of their entitlement culture, even in tough times.’
As Jim Devine goes to jail for the naked brazen cheek of out-and-out fraud, the task remains not just to collar the Devines everywhere in small-town Labourland riven with decades of in-fighting, backhanders, gladhanders and pork-belly politics. The task is to transform the political culture of patronage Hassan describes and to open up the system to the cold blast of fresh air. You don’t need to be explicitly corrupt to be part of a stale political system that is holding us all back. We are locked in a blame culture where the worst Scottish nationalists blame everything on London and the worst Labourites blame everything on Edinburgh.
Acres of media were given over to the Egyptian revolt and many were a re-tread of the cliché that Egyptians were by nature apathetic, lazy and politically inert. But being able to watch the unfolding Egyptian revolt was an eye-opener in power politics. Three issues stand out:
- The revolt was far from leaderless – what it lacked was a Yeltsin, a Walesa or an Obama, and was none the worse for it.
- Social media has an essential role to play but is not an end in itself.
- The police are an arm of the state and the nature of your armed forces (conscript or professional) is crucial.
In a post-euphoric blog Newsnight’s Paul Mason (a deceptively interesting journalist for such a senior position in the BBC) captured some of the spirit of the time saying http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/paulmason/2011/02/twenty_reasons_why_its_kicking.html:
“We’ve had revolution in Tunisia, Egypt’s Mubarak is teetering; in Yemen, Jordan and Syria suddenly protests have appeared. In Ireland young techno-savvy professionals are agitating for a “Second Republic”; in France the youth from banlieues battled police on the streets to defend the retirement rights of 60-year olds; in Greece striking and rioting have become a national pastime. And in Britain we’ve had riots and student occupations that changed the political mood. What’s going on? What’s the wider social dynamic?”
Some of his diagnosis was more convincing than others but three key aspects stand out and are crucial if Scotland is to be part of this revolutionary time rather than by-standing as the vested interests of two political blocs slug it out to see who can best manage our failed non-State:
NEC (Network enabled collaboration)
They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.
People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.
Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.
This idea put forward by Mason that this young wired movement somehow ‘knows power’ makes sense in a post-Wikileaks world. We have had a ‘knowledge economy’ and this is now a ‘knowledge politics’. In this sense the moronic nature of popular culture takes on a different meaning, it is the obvious salve to informational overload, where we shelter from disfunctionality and ‘too much’ of just about everything.
The most distinguishing feature of the Egyptian revolt, which hasn’t ended or succeeded yet , is that this factor was dominant: a highly networked movement of focused, motivated young people had rapid success with relatively little violence. The role of leadership here is key. The uprising was marked by covert leaders rather than charismatic ones – a lesson the Scottish left might do well to reflect on after recent experiences.
We have these tools, these circumstances and these people here in Scotland. We know how to use social media, we have an educated and frustrated mass of young people and an inspiring base of rotten post-industrial urban chaos, the sort of wellspring which desultory Devines have ruled over for 80 years and more.
But if Robertson’s analysis is right and one of the unintended consequences ‘of Margaret Thatcher’s revolution… was to destroy Scottish loyalty to the British State’ how are we to reconcile this with our pleading for military bases for Tornados, fighter jets and all of the armoury of the MoD? Neither of the two political parties offer a real alternative to this version of dependency culture.
As Pat Kane has written in the Caledonian Mercury:
‘How much historical irony would there be in a Tory-led Coalition, swingeing its axe at public expenditure, doing more to demilitarise Scottish identity than all the bards, playwrights and protestors combined? It’s a strange feeling to be at one with a Tory Scotland Office minister when he warns that “Scotland’s defences would be reduced to little more than a handful of fisheries protection vessels”. Again, instead of being a critique, shouldn’t that be an aspiration?’
The issue is an ancient one, one of leadership. Who leads Scotland, and how did they get to that position is a key issue and one we’ll return to.
To ‘Take Caledonia’ we need to move beyond the idea of propping up a political class and see a future that begins to deal with Vinay Guptas big three lies. In doing so we’ll need to reinvent ourselves as a place and a people where bigger challenges are fought.
This May the choice isn’t between political parties it’s between political futures.