One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Revolution 2014?

Well, no. Obviously not. Not by a long shot. Despite what some may imagine I'm not some wild-eyed RCP member [1] who constantly supposes that the workers are about to rise up and storm the Winter Palace. Besides, last time we tried it took months to get the tanks off the streets of Glasgow.

But if – if - Scotland gains Independence it will be no small thing. More than just a shuffling of seats, it offers the potential for re-shaping a society. Let’s think about how such societal transformations occur. Time for some political theory.

Historical materialism and all that.

The way people make their living determines the structures of their society – their laws, their culture, how they do business with one another, how they assign ownership to things. These form the supporting framework for their livelihood. Sometimes different parts of society will find new ways of making a living. Divisions can occur as one side feels that the old ways of doing things are holding them back, the other that their livelihood is being threatened by competition from the new ways. Transformations occur as a result of the tussle between both sides – sometimes messy.

A good example is the European transition from Feudal to Mercantile economies. Both means of livelihood competed for land and labour.  Competing interests engaged in a long series of conflicts, including the Thirty Years War and the War of the Covenanters/ English Civil War (historians now talk of these inter-related conflicts as The War of the Three Kingdoms) in which transformation of religious infrastructures which were integral to the political and economic was a key feature. Broadly Catholicism underpinned feudal hierarchy, Protestantism reflected individualist enterprise.  More or less.

Or take the American Civil war which was, in essence, a matter of whether the labour of African-Americans should continue to be used in low-margin manual agriculture or be ‘freed’ to feed mechanised industrial production and deliver economic growth. The cultural differences between both sides, economic in origin, remain visible to this day.

So a transformation requires economic and social difference. But it also requires that the future livelihood be viable. A noteworthy example of what happens when this is not the case is The Roman Servile Wars. Various slave rebellions led by Spartacus and others were doomed to failure because once you’ve risen up, well…what do you do? Best case scenario you find yourself temporarily in charge of a complex society - Spartacus was within an inch of capturing Rome. But Roman society depended on a system of slavery for its livelihood. Dismantle slave-based agriculture and you starve – and the slaves had nothing to put in its place.

In the present day, one really hopes that the South African revolution does not fail. Obviously its people experienced a clear and present imperative to free themselves from economically-led social oppression that was quite literally killing them.  But clearly it is undergoing some dire problems caused by not having transformed its pre-existing economic modes into forms which are able to meets its people’s needs. See this excellent piece by a former Minister in Mandela’s government about the ANC's sell out of its Communist principles. They panicked and reverted to the neo-liberal Received Wisdoms which require inequality to make them work.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Back to Scotland…

Why are Scots even talking about Independence?

Or more to the point - why now? While clearly something needs to be done quite desperately, it's far from a done deal (my pessimistic hunch is that it's an outsider bet). Although Scotland did quite knowingly elect a landslide government committed to offering the option., so the idea's Out There even if even those who voted SNP might have some reservations.

Certainly Independence would be a matter of the electorate wishing to take power to determine its own affairs. Certainly it would come down to a view that Westminster governs more in the interest of London and its hinterland more than Scotland. And, yes, let’s be honest, though not by any means a dominant factor, there's a measure of unsavoury cultural resentment. These, though, are arguments for an administrative change: ‘We could do better ourselves.’ They are perhaps akin to a regular, ordinary change of government at a General Election. And the notion that whoever Scots vote for they get the Westminster parties is an important factor

But a difference of opinion on the seat of power doesn’t get to the nub of why. It isn’t coming out of nowhere - people surely base their opinions on what they perceive to be their own interests. We need to consider how economic divergence has lead to political divergence.

Fundamentally Scotland continues to be hit hard by the de-industrialisation of the 1980’s. The official narrative is that this was inevitable: British industry was uncompetitive.  The reality was that it was an ideologically driven move to support a specific type of economy.  Oil is a big factor – and a related one. When people cry 'Give us back our oil', it’s not a matter of simply a matter of wanting a chunk of budget to buy an enormous fiscal Elastoplast. It’s in opposition to the model whereby the UK has used oil to prop up its credit rating, despite huge unemployment, all for the benefit of the City. Exports and therefore re-investment in industry suffered: coal and engineering were not uncompetitive entirely due to market whim: oil allowed a strong currency to be maintained, making financial products attractive. . Meantime the prioritisation of the City-centric economy meant that the government had little interest in using oil to invest in a sovereign wealth fund,  like all the sensible oil producing nations have done. These conditions remain. Scots have long realised that this economic model is not in their interest.

The nub of it is that a City-centric government does not seem to be offering Scotland an economic future. Which is most odd, because, despite the current Crisis, there does seem to be one out there.  Scotland is by no means subsidised by England: Scotland contributes 9.9% of UK revenue but only receives 9.3% in spending.  If Scotland were a basket case it would be slight less so than UK as a whole, then.  So why do we feel as though we're not achieving our potential.  There is a future – of which more later – but some investment and planning is needed. Not only does this hardly figure in Westminster thinking but policies militate against it.

As to social differences – let me count the ways. Personally I care very little indeed about sporting nonsense and Saltire flying – although it’s undeniable that they are expressions of Scottish cultural difference. What’s far more significant is that Scotland is politically different to England. The fact that we’re into our second administration let by a party with (for obvious reasons) no English showing does not suggest on its own that Independence is inevitable. But that, our single Tory MP and our famous rejection of the (almost certainly overplayed) recent swing towards UKIP in England at least says that Scottish voters’ minds are in different places. This does not seem to be a momentary trend but a Settled Will, reflective of some very different ideas of what sort of policies Scots people want to see, whoever delivers them. (Except the Tories. See this documentary on ‘Why Scotland Didn’t Vote Tory’ in which former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth clearly fails to grasp the outlandish notion that some Scots may choose to sacrifice some of their income for the greater good.)

Where might we go from here?

Well, all well and good. You already knew that some in Scotland were feeling disgruntled enough to end the relationship. But it will only work, and people will only be convinced that it will work if there’s a ‘Vision Thing’. This has to be better than the Which Party Do You Trust to Run Things the Same Way As Before model offered by UK general elections. Plus this isn’t a vote for Salmond – a man loathed by as many as he’s admired. [2]

‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Scotland is ideally placed to be a major player in renewables energy – and our neighbours are investing in a North Atlantic grid. Arctic Rim shipping is going to be major. And there’s still oil. (Recent scare stories suggest that Independence plans are bust because of a recent – disputed – fluctuation in oil revenue. They have no comment on whether this will also affect the UK as a whole and a Scotland that remains within it. Nor do they comment on likely future revenue trends). Add to this that geographically well positioned for trade with some of Europe's most successful and dynamic industries. Looked at from Westminster, 'Europe' means France. From the City it's Frankfurt. But look at a map and its clear that there are some successful adjacent nations with a common interest in matters maritime, engineering and oil. There's a market to be tapped.

No, these are by no means there yet – but assuming a sensible business environment can be created, they do seem to indicate an inevitable direction for the Scottish livelihood. Sincere sceptics must answer the question of what growth opportunities the UK economy offers Scotland at present.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

But what's in it for us?

For the ordinary Scots citizen, though, the economy isn’t about building wind turbines. It’s about the state of our hospitals and schools, about jobs and benefits. All those might be paid for by business but are experienced at one remove. Now, already Scotland has resisted some of the worst Westminster war on our economic wellbeing, and the success of The Scottish Government in delivering this has given them popularity and credibility. But we know we need to do better.

The political narrative that the UK is offered at the moment is that we need Austerity.  Both main parties accept that there's no money to spend on fripperies like schools, nurses, let alone benefits for skivers and cripples.  Sorry - but that's just the way it is.  I guess we'll have to tighten our belts.

It's patently obvious - to the whole UK - that the elephant in the room is  economic growth. Growth not only brings jobs, but the jobs are better paid so income from taxation is higher so governments can spend more. What's holding Britain down isn't benefits - it's low pay. We know this.  But Scotland seemingly knows it better than England because while English voters elect politicians who agreeing over austerity and reinforcing the skivers vs strivers narrative, Scotland has put into power people who talk about growth at every opportunity and who are doing their level best to hold off austerity excesses until they can take the power to scrap them.  We like the sound of this.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Making it add up.

But what’s the bigger plan? Why should we think that we can run a successful yet people-friendly economy when Westminster can’t.

Well the big news seems to be that Scotland has found a viable economic model to aspire to. We're not , by any means, talking about crazy communism There are many varieties of capitalism available, some more successful, sustainable and supportive of a nation's wellbeing than others.   One particularly successful variant has been tried and tested in adjacent nations. Those nations have high per capita GDP, high levels of equality, high levels of social welfare and rank high on indices of happiness. Scotland would be very foolish indeed not to drift towards Scandinavia and adopt something approaching The Nordic Model. Indeed an Independent Scotland would be very well placed to do so, given the convergence of our engineering industries and our proximity to successful nations on the lookout for trade cooperation.

This is why various groups e.g. Nordic Horizons have been looking into aspects of policy in the Nordic nations. Most notably, The Reid Foundation, named for a noted Glaswegian folk hero, has launched the Scottish Common Weal project dedicated to applying the best ideas from Scandinavia and beyond to the Scottish context. They have been well received in many quarters, including the SNP. To give a crude précis of the model:
  • A strong social model has to be supported by good jobs, paying high wages and able to contribute through taxation. This requires investment to build a supportive business environment. 
  • The business model needs buy-in from society. The necessary social cohesion is built through high standards of welfare and public services. 
To look at it another way:
  • Business is the bedrock of the economy. It pays for all the things we need. 
  • Business needs people to make money. It does best in a modern economy when they are well-educated, healthy and happy. [3] 
Remember - when we talk about the high standards of welfare, childcare, maternity leave, healthcare we're not talking about about a Scottish Cuba: there is some serious economics here. Indeed, Scottish business groups are in favour of an alternative to the perilous City-centric model. Revere Prize winning Australian economist, Professor Steve Keen:
The ‘UK economy is a ponzi scheme that is about to go bust – Scotland should get out while it still can.
Make no mistake, we intend to be wealthy. And on any sensible set of indices, the Nordic model pays off [4].

It’s fair to say that many Scots' knowledge of Scandinavia stops at Wallander and Ikea. This kind of thinking is not yet at the forefront of public opinion when it comes to Independence. But the fact that it’s being widely discussed, beginning to permeate the political culture, is significant. At very least there’s a framework than can be held up to those who doubt a society can be run another way. Even The Economist speaks favourably of The Nordic Model.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Let's not be too hasty.

There are still forces which hold us back. Obviously one still has to counter all the yeah-but-no-buts: ‘Will we keep the queen?’ (At some point we'll have an extremely unpopular King - but we're going for the easy option of monarchy.); ‘Will we need to show our passports at Hadrian’s Wall?’ (No – no more than when crossing the Øresund Bridge - nor at the British/ Irish border, come to that.); ‘What makes you think we’ll be allowed to stay in the EU?’ (It will be in other European countries interests, not lest the rest of the UK.  We expect Europeans to act sensibly - but obviously you’ll have to ask the English electorate what their plans for the UK including Scotland are.); 'What about Trident?' (Look - you know fine well the UK can't afford it and most of the Royal Navy don't even want it. Nor does America.). And so on. Project Fear's tactic is to keep the Yes campaign tied down in these misleading minutiae. Unfortunately we do need to waste valuable energy dealing with this silliness.

And then there’s The Tax Thing. One of Thatcher’s legacies was to permanently limit fiscal room for manoeuvre by putting tax rises off the political agenda. (‘Labour’s Double Whammy’). As it happens citizens of the Nordic nations are happy with their high taxation, appreciating that they get value for money. Well, OK - as ever there are exceptions - and as ever largely amongst those who can best afford to pay. But generally tax rates are accepted - not simply as a politically-imposed evil but as the key to a prosperity.

But here’s the thing: at least now we now have a way of framing the debate around how Scotland can make a living. We’re not necessarily tied to challenging old assumptions piece by piece.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Yeah, but...

We should honestly question whether the Nordic model is really all that. It's certainly true that Sweden especially has struggled with the its Social Democratic underpinnings in recent years. Income equality has plummeted with predictable social consequences such as this years riots. To some extent their model is founded on good conditions for the indigenous population. Immigrants are officially welcome - at least to the extent that their mainstream politicians don't make the racist noises that the Tory, Labour leadership do (while LibDems remain silent, with honourable exceptions) - but immigrants start at the bottom and do low paid work without a safety net. Maybe this is inevitable. The point is that economic systems generally presuppose some degree of inequality.. No, we shouldn't idealise the Nordic nations as wholly egalitarian, racially tolerant, non-sexist paradises. It's not for nothing that Scandinavian Noir writers from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö to Henning Mankell to Stieg Larsson, who more often than not align themselves to leftist parties, highlight the dark side of society that their compatriots prefer to gloss over. Breaking news: no country is perfect. Nevertheless...they're starting from a high base. We are talking about some relatively affluent, equal and tolerant societies by a whole host of measures. Even with their recent political shifts to the right they have retained the Nordic social model. Why? Because it basically works. They don't do stupid.

Plus - we're not taking about ideology here. The Nordic model works because it's pragmatic, able to tack and turnabout so long as it's going in roughly the direction of a prosperous, fair coherent society. While sharing common features, Nordic economies and societies are all rather different. These excellent comics play on their perceptions of one another - and of the wider world.   Should Scotland follow the same model it will doubtless come up with its own variants. The Common Weal recognises the need to pick up on the best ideas and avoid mistakes.

It might not even work out 100% But what ever does? And is the UK economy going to plan?


Another criticism comes from the traditional British left, expressed well in this comment from a recent article:
'My socialist tendencies are still deep-rooted and the humane imperative of each of us to fight for a justice and peace for those who are denied them all over the world still sits uncomfortably with the concept of going it alone to achieve these things in an independent Scotland.'
It's sort of a lightweight version of Trotskyism vs Socialism in One Country. Although I doubt there's much in the way of revolutionary thought behind it. I suspect what people really mean is that they want the same for England and they can't work out how to get it. But nobody seems to suggest putting improvements in UK society to one side until we can deliver the same for (random example) Burkina Faso. Pursuing this vision in Scotland wouldn't prevent the same for the UK. You'd have to persuade a Westminster part to adopt the policies and the English electorate to vote them into power (since the 1950s the party that has taken the majority of English seats has taken power. Scotland has been irrelevant, even in Labour victories). Well...good luck with persuading New Labour that they don't have to deviate from Osbourne's orthodoxy for fear of scaring the voters.

Similarly 'Why not an independent Wales/ Cornwall/ Yorkshire?' Well, I sympathise with your plight. Their independence is somewhat none of my business and I don't know of any properly worked up plans.  But my hunch is that Yorkshire isn't sufficiently divergent from the rest of England and Cornwall haven't yet got a viable alternative. Sorry. But really, sincerely...if any from the English (and Welsh) left think that these economic ideas sound useful and sensible, they are welcome to join us in pursuing them. They are unlikely to be thinking along quite the same lines: the Scottish social and economic conditions are different. They are unlikely to be able to implement them: Scottish political conditions are different. Welcome to reality.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

So it would seem foolish to hold back. What I'm not sure of is why the rest of the UK would think Scottish Independence a bad thing. If the UK's social and economic model is viable then surely it will remain viable? There might even be some benefit in having an economically dynamic neighbour, set loose from its fetters. And at very least the left will have some good practice to hold up, without having to translate if from a Nordic language.

The counting of votes is only the final ceremony of a long process.

The provenance of all this is also interesting, I think. The SNP, is a broad church centre-left, perhaps more Fianna Fáil than Fine Gael.  They're not necessarily what you'd call Radical - but even so the business ideas above are pretty much part of their thinking.  That's  no surprise: they're common sense. They're also open to ideas in a way the Westminster political monopolies are not. They have less baggage.

The 'radical Independence' movement is becoming influential from the left.  There is a possibility that they may break the STUC's studied neutrality. Many a chortle was chortled, both sides of the border, at their finest moment.

I can’t comment on the personal politics of members of the Jimmy Reid Foundation (although...c’mon, yer man was a Communist-turned-SNP candidate). As to Nordic Horizons – I detect lots of Scandiwegian-style Social Democrats…but also a certain crossover with Democratic Left Scotland. See, Scotland still has a vestigial EuroCommunist grouping. They're a fluffy, touchy-feely, non-threatening enough bunch of Greens, Feminists, poets, journalists. Small but influential, pragmatic and happy to make connections in all sorts of places. What 'Euros' like to do is to subtly influence [5]. It is doubtless a far fetched to see all this as a (to use EuroCom theoretical jargon) as a ‘War of Position,’ getting minds ready to challenge the ‘cultural hegemony’. But if one were predisposed to this type of analysis one might detect a pattern.

I'm not fantasising about a EuroCommunist plot. Honestly I'm not. But it’s one way to think about how significant political change could be happening. And in typical, sneaky EuroCom fashion I've managed to slip a little Dialectical Materialism under the radar [6].
Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. 
Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Revolution? Perhaps not. But watch this space for a War of Manoeuvre. [7]

End with a song...

Actually, I don't much like this noodly instrumental. I wanted 'Listen to the Lion', which has fond memories for me, but I couldn't find a decent YouTube clip. Apt words:

And we sailed, and we sailed, and we sailed
Away from Denmark
Way up to Caledonia
Away from Denmark
Way up to Caledonia 
And we sailed, and we sailed, and we sailed
All around the world
And we sailed, and we sailed, and we sailed
Looking for a brand new start

[1] A friend tells the story of the time he attended a Revolutionary Commumist Party meeting, just out of interest. In the pub afterwards a member was holding forth: 'The people in this country are desperate for a revolution!' He looked over the guys head to where he could see a TV showing the cheering crowds at the wedding of some prince or other and thought 'Nah!' An independent Scotland will remain a monarchy - it's the easy option. But one likes to think that the ongoing baby palaver can only further the Independence cause.

[2] I'm not a died in the wool SNP supporter, but I can't understand why the very mention of Salmond has many people frothing at the mouth.  He seems pleasant enough to me and he's clearly a bright man - but really does seem to be an instinctive reaction. I guess we have to accept that some are happy to decide their future on which politician has the nicest face.

[3] This is basically Marx's Labour Theory of Value, but don't tell any business leaders.

[4] Note this quote from the Economist link:
Yet it is hard to see the Nordic model of government spreading quickly, mainly because the Nordic talent for government is sui generis. Nordic government arose from a combination of difficult geography and benign history. All the Nordic countries have small populations, which means that members of the ruling elites have to get on with each other. Their monarchs lived in relatively modest places and their barons had to strike bargains with independent-minded peasants and seafarers.
Fair enough. But aren't they describing something more like Scotland than England?

[5] Eagle-eyed readers may spot that their statement of principles ends with a paraphrase of the closing lines of 'The Communist Manifesto'...and its title, 'What Is to Be Done' is a cheeky reference to Lenin. Elsewhere, Euros have sneaked references to The Peterloo Massacre into a pop song.

[6] and extra-special kudos to anyone who spots the Gramsci quote.

[7] Eurocommunist political theory. Antonio Gramsci. 'Scritti Politti'. A society is bound within a 'cultural hegemony' - a mindset that says that there can be no other way. First you need a 'War of Position' to change minds offer an alternative and gather broad support from wherever you can. Euros are non-sectarian. Then you can launch your 'War of Manoeuvre' to change society.