By Mark Smith
When the tornado drops Dorothy’s house in Oz, her front door swings open and reveals a radically new kind of reality. There, framed in the door, for both Dorothy and the viewer of the film, is, for the first time, colour. She walks out of her house, leaving behind the drab world of her Kansas farm, and enters into a bright, brilliant, almost overwhelmingly colourful scene. But, exhilarating though this new environment may be, Dorothy knows, deep down, that going home is what she really wants. Bright lights and eye-popping colours are not for a homely girl like her.
By the time she reaches the Emerald City, the colours begin to change. Oz has appeared as a land of infinite variegation, of dazzling golden paths and dangerous fields of bright red poppies, but almost everything in the Emerald City is green. A vestige of the colourful world outside the city is seen in the Horse of a Different Colour that takes Dorothy and her friends to get ready for their meeting with the wizard, but the overall impression of the place is of a single shade. And the closer Dorothy gets to the source of power, the darker and more ominous that shade becomes. We see this as the four friends walk nervously towards the wizard’s chamber, Dorothy’s blue and white dress offering the strongest contrast to her surroundings, where they meet the spectral, symbolic embodiment of power, the Great Oz, the leader who nobody has ever seen.
Dorothy’s journey, then, takes her from a place of seeming variety, of an endless riot of colour, to a monochromatic seat of political power. We don’t know exactly what kind of authority the Great Oz exerts over the lands outside his city, but his name suggests that he does have some kind political legitimacy for the people (and Munchkins) who live there. So perhaps this world of colour we see in Oz has the signature of the wizard on it somewhere. Although he is partial to green, he allows a world of apparent diversity to exist in his outlying environs.
This co-existence of variety and homogeneity provides a nice metaphor for both how capitalism operates (think of Apple’s multi-coloured IPods, the United Colours of Benetton, the Google logo), and, on a more local level, of how the current political scene presents itself to us. Contemporary global capitalism offers us constantly changing, endless variation, while at the same time becoming more and more hegemonic. As products continue to diversify, corporations get more and more powerful and unaccountable, and the gap between a small, wealthy elite and everybody else continues to grow. Just as Dorothy finds out that a land of constant multifariousness has, at its heart, a depressing, homogenous core, in the world today, the overpowering market created by Capitalism has it its heart an unseen world of boardrooms, corporate style guides, and giant towers of steel and glass. The world outside the centres of corporate power might look endlessly bright and enticing, but that variety is simply the sea-bed that gives that power something to hook its anchors into. Capitalism permits the appearance of diversity, while at the same time staving off the kind of real diversity that would bring about another way of producing the commodities we all need.
Variety and diversity are also firmly part of contemporary political life. Politicians like to talk up their understanding of “minorities”, and it is no longer an issue if a well-known politician is gay, or if a black person attains a high level of public office. Those on the right make some political ground by playing on deep-rooted, unconsciously racist fears about rampant multiculturalism, but one of the best things about this election campaign has been how ridiculous the likes of Nigel Farage have come to look. Despite the kind of right-wing nonsense peddled by UKIP, public life today is much more accepting of alternative identities and lifestyles than ever before. There are of course more battles to be won – on women’s rights, on the humane treatment of immigrants and so on – but we don’t live in a world of racist sit-coms and jokes about Pakistanis anymore (unless you are Nick Griffin sitting in your Union Jack boxers, swilling John Smith’s and catching up on your box-set of Love Thy Neighbour), and this, most sensible people would agree, is an entirely good thing. We’re all, hopefully, on a Yellow Brick Road to a more tolerant world, despite sweaty, pin-striped men wearing purple ties occasionally appearing and trying to set our friend the ethnic-minority scarecrow on fire.
A diversity of colours has been important in the current election campaign. Like most people who like to tell themselves how progressive they are, I have tried to expose my kids to some of the political debate going on at the moment. When the first televised leaders’ debate took place (the one Cameron did go to), I casually switched on the telly and, to my surprise, the kids showed some interest. One of the things that struck me was the way they immediately identified the people behind the podiums in terms of their respective colours. Who is the red one? Who is the blue on? And so on. The following conversation let them know that the red one wasn’t as red as he might be and that the yellow woman is a bit more red than him, and that should any praise go the way of the men at the blue or purple stands then supper or birthday presents could very well be withheld.
Despite the seeming diversity on offer in the campaign, however, when one of the so-called minority or fringe colours gets closer to the corridors of power, nerves begin to fray. Like Dorothy approaching the chamber of the Great Oz, when a new shade is introduced into a world that is willing to countenance the appearance of colour “out there”, and when one of those colours actually wants to come into the room and start having a say in how things are done, people start getting edgy.
The rhetoric heaped on the SNP recently has been severe. Tory “big-hitters” like Boris Johnson and John Major have come out to warn everybody how dangerous the party is, and the media (again, an environment which appears to be diverse) has joined in gleefully. The Scottish tail wagging the English dog. Nicola Sturgeon as King Herod. The SNP holding the country to ransom, and so on. None of this stuff is very clever, but it must be having an influence somewhere or politicians would stop doing it. What it comes down to, though, is the unwillingness of powerful people to really adhere to the liberal-democratic principles they set so much store by. Diversity is good because it lets a few Greenies witter on about climate change, and it’s even a good thing because it lets supposed mavericks like Farage have their say, but diversity seems less of a good thing when UK politicians see a sizeable bunch of moderately left of centre Scots who might have some influence on the UK’s economic and social policies for the next few years.
Extreme hatred of the SNP is hard to fathom when we remind ourselves that the party is, in fact, as the historian Neil Davidson puts it, only ‘the palest of pink’, and that the policies they are proposing, and those they have implemented in Scotland – free university, free prescriptions and so on – are firmly in social-democratic territory. (1)
But reading much of what is in the press about the SNP, you could be forgiven for thinking that that they are a bunch of card-carrying Stalinists who want to establish collective farms in the Cotswolds and prison camps on the Isle of Wight. The SNP are hardly radical leftists, but the visceral bile they seem to inspire shows us to what extent the UK political ship has drifted to the right. One of the reasons the SNP are doing well in Scotland is, very simply, that they are offering some kind of alternative to extreme neoliberal austerity, that they (alongside the Greens and Plaid Cymru) are saying that the destruction of public services and the slash-and-burn policies of the Tories are not the only ways of running the economy. These parties are saying that there are other ways to do things – that we don’t have to stigmatise immigrants, that we don’t have to cruelly hammer down on benefit claimants, that we can make some investments in infrastructure, that we don’t have make the gap between rich and poor grow ever more wide. The SNP have been a big influence in making these things part of the political conversation and, whatever happens on polling day, they deserve credit for doing so.
To go back to Oz for a moment, once Dorothy kills the witch, the wizard sets off in a hot-air balloon and leaves the Scarecrow, Lion and Tin-Man in charge of the country. Dorothy, in other words – the Dorothy who crept through the terrifying green corridors of power in her light blue gingham dress – seems to have brought about a political change. The wizard who, up until this point, has been a kind of Brother Number One figure (the name used by Pol Pot), an anonymous authority who exercises power without anybody seeing him, hands power to a group which seems to promise a more benign, collegial kind of regime. But what we don’t know, of course, is what the new leaders will do. Perhaps, with the opposition figure of the witch out of the way, the Scarecrow, Lion and Tin-Man will simply become Brothers Two, Three and Four, and reinforce the despotic principles of their predecessor. Perhaps the political system will shape them, rather than allowing them to really shape or alter it in any radical way. What, if anything, will they really be able to do?
If the SNP do end up having an influence in government, and I hope they do, they will probably not be able to do many of the things they want to do. They won’t, for example, be able to get enough votes in the Commons to get rid of Trident. And they probably won’t have enough votes to entirely reverse the hugely damaging economic policies the coalition has put in place during the last five years. But the central, crucial point is that, if the vote goes the way the polls are indicating, then a left of centre, anti-austerity party will have a significant presence in Westminster. They will have introduced a new colour, an alternative way of thinking, into the parliament, and this is surely a good thing. That the Labour party is facing a wipeout north of the border is largely because, for most people, they no longer represent any kind of alternative. Blue and red seem much the same. Jim Murphy might talk about anti-austerity, but nobody really believes him. Labour are still preferable to the Tories, right enough, but both parties would be at home in the hall of the Great Oz. Neither Ed Miliband or David Cameron is likely to appear as Dorothy, coming to the seat of power from another country and perhaps heralding some kind of shift in the political landscape.
If the SNP get a big part of the Scottish vote, we won’t, unfortunately, find ourselves living an independent socialist country, but hopefully the yellow on the Westminster benches will encourage other parties to incorporate new shades into their palettes. If the SNP can do something to influence the creation of a more humane kind of politics, if they can do something to mitigate the effects of seemingly hegemonic neoliberal austerity, then their election will signal an important shift in the picture of British politics we have got used to over the last few years. And then, when the time comes, they can head back to Kansas and concentrate on running the farm.
1. Neil Davidson, ‘A Scottish Watershed’ [http://newleftreview.org/II/89/neil-davidson-a-scottish-watershed]