Saturday 25 July 2015

The Corbyn Catastrophe...or The Oblivion of Unity

As the British Political Establishment and their Associated Meejah go into full-blown, panic-stricken melt-down mode in a way that we haven't seen since those few unbelievable days last September when the polls indicated that there might be a Yes vote, I want to indulge in a little Corbyn Crystal Ball gazing of my own.

From a strictly sectarian  SNP perspective. for reasons that are not entirely respectable, the spectacle of Tony Blair and Co yelling all too familiar insults about the ultra left feels a little like enjoying someone else's grief.  You could take an article from any paper in the first half of September last year, and cut and paste "Jeremy Corbyn victory" over "SNP fanatics" and not even have to get a copy editor in for a rewrite. 

For the last twenty years, the SNP have been engaging in a long term "replacement" strategy that has eroded the credibility of Scottish labour to a point where it scarcely even seems worth while considering "the enemy."  And one baleful effect of Labour's existential UK crisis is the terrible temptation to keep hold of the the fixation.  It's like staring at a car accident. But now,  as Andrew Tickell pointed out in the Scotsman the other week, with total dominance in both Westminster and Holyrood, it might be good for the party and the country to get past that that.

The trouble is, of course, that the dead horse in question is lying there muttering "Hit me."  The extraordinary farce of the abstention vote "against" the welfare cuts was a self-inflicted wound of quite staggering political torpor, moral exhaustion and tactical ineptitude. The Labour Party make the SNP look brilliant.  The 56 of them scarcely need to turn up or even get out of bed to look like geniuses. The same is true, however, of George Osborne, unfortunately. It is not just the SNP who are fortunate in their opposition right now, and I do think there is a terrible temptation to sit back and indulge in Scottish Superiority in a way that will do us more harm than good in the long run. 

However, it is someone else's long run I want to think about.  I think we need to take advantage of having a little critical distance on Labour's crisis, as well as being in some ways ahead of the game in thinking about the previously unthinkable, to get past the Schadenfreude and onto thinking about what these islands might look like five or so years from now depending on which of a number of scenarios work out.

First, Jeremy Corbyn might win.  And if he does, given the level of current hysteria, I don't see any way in which the Labour Party holds together as a unit.  The SDP would rise from the dead like an opportunist zombie, with Tony Blair and David Owen gibbering from one and same winding sheet. One difference, however, is that the gang of four would be a gang of about 200, and it would be the Labour party under Corbyn that would be left as a rump.

But would it really get that far, even if the Bennites finally won? 

The Labour party has always been an amalgamation of interests, of course, a coalition of trade union pragmatists, radical intellectuals and morally supine careerists.  What is called "a broad church." What held it together was the prospect of power and a sense of possibility...that there might actually be a practical difference to be made in society. Both of those coagulants are pretty thin these days - thinner than I remember them being even in the dark days of the early eighties, even if, like in the referendum last year, we do seem to be re-running my youth in ways that are disturbingly exact.  

In my defence, lots of parallels are being drawn in the "progressive" papers between the situation after the post 1979 party struggles and now.  And the coincidence of a Scottish referendum followed by a Tory victory and a leadership/identity crisis in the party is obviously compelling.  But the differences in the situations are at least as important as the similarities. The leadership that Michael Foot won was of a Party and a Movement that was incomparably stronger than the one that Jeremy Corbyn is seeking to inherit. And the fact that Scotland is written out of the calculations entirely is heavily symbolic.  What is really different, and really unthinkable from the perspective of the cultural memory of 1979, is that soon there might not be a single political party in these islands that is capable of, on it's own, taking power off the Tories for the occasional interregnum of comparative sanity. Then, in 1979, or 2009 the idea that the SNP might win all but three seats in Scotland in a General Election in 2015 having just lost a referendum vote was every bit as unthinkable.

Of course, if the underwhelming Andy Burnham emerges as the people's choice, at least the Party might hang together in a grumpy and depressed kind of a way. And spend the next five years waiting for the Tories to fuck up so that they can replace them as the only very slightly less offensive face of monopoly capital.  They are already hell-bent on displaying the same mean reluctance when it comes to considering the Common Good.  But the Labour Party, even in the depths of Harold Wilson's or even Gordon Brown's instrumentalist cynicism...stood for something other than power, I seem to remember.  It stood for hope.  It derived energy and meaning from being, as Wilson put it it, "a moral crusade or nothing." 

All the papers say that a vote for Jeremy Corbyn is a deluded hope...but even that may well be better than the "nothing" they seem to be heading for otherwise. We broke the Labour party in Scotland, after all, and they show every sign of breaking themselves in Britain.  

There are deep historical forces at work here which i might attempt to explore another time, but for now, with an eye to that "future" we all used to hope for, it may well be better that some new focus needs to be found for the radical, angry energy I feel in every part of the UK to find some kind of expression than to simply allow all belief in something like a better future to fade into cultural memory. A new, smaller party might become the focus of that energy and radicalism.  But I simply can't see that being remotely possible if anyone other that Corbyn wins. It may be that the labour party in the UK now has to choose between the slow, atrophied death that pretending there could ever be a "return to normal" that they've suffered in Scotland over (at least) the last ten years or so...and a radical surgical intervention right now.  Explosion or atrophy. Either way, in the word of the Stranglers, "Something Better Change."

(I somehow didn't think a Sam Cooke analogy was tenable there!)

Yes, in this parliament, before 2020, we're talking about creating in opposition to the Tories exactly the same expedient alliance that was being proposed before the election in support of the Labour Government that all of those of us who have been obsessively whipping the poor decrepit cuddy were hoping for.  Once again, the challenge is to overcome the paradox of two parties dedicated to the non existence of the other actually having to cooperate in the face of the "real enemy" who is currently sitting across the chamber of the Commons rather with an air of quite unbearable public school smugness written all over his pasty chops. 

But this coalition would now be made of Fifty odd "real" Labour MPs, 56 SNP MPs...and whatever liberal not quite Tories the remnant of Labour make of themselves to contest the election in 2020

Once again, however the challenge is to overcome the paradox of two parties dedicated to the non existence of the other actually having to cooperate in the face of the "real enemy" who is currently sitting across the chamber of the Commons rather with an air of quite unbearable public school smugness written all over his pasty chops. 

(Osborne had a telling line in an exchange with Dennis Skinner....that they had both now got the Labour party they'd been wishing for)

The tragedy of all this seat shuffling on might well be the deck of the Titanic as well as the Union, is that in the meantime the working people of Scotland and England and N Ireland and Wales are going to find themselves being fucked over by quite the nastiest shallowest set of swine I've ever seen on the Government benches, Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding.

It might be that for however long the Union lasts, or in whatever shape a constitutional settlement is hammered out over the next ten years, whether we call it A Federation or a Fare Thee Well, that what remains of practical progressive politics across the Kingdom (or Kingdoms...or Republics!) will need to be FUNCTIONALLY federal well in advance of the sovereignty negotiations. Even a new Labour Party with fifty seats,  fifty actual socialists sitting alongside, voting with, and maybe even forming coalition governments of  200 novo-liberals and 56 self righteous Jocks, might be better than taking yet more limping steps into an oblivion of "unity"

It's also the only way that other Union holds together that I can see.  But that's a story for another time.
Peter Arnott

Sunday 19 July 2015

Elections on Mars

Looking at UK Labour's Leadership Election through the wrong end of a tartan telescope (Caledonian Kaleidoscope?) my first thought is that, rather like the UK General election just past, whatever is happening seems to be going on on Mars. It demanded an effort to recognise that these things matter more than as a matter of detached concern for the neighbours.  Then Owen Jones pointed out on Sunday morning that the Observer, in several worried think pieces about the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn actually winning the leadership election,  and what Labour's chances might be of denting a Tory Majority in 2020...never mention Scotland once.  So it seems that even labour's House Sunday has been digging a conceptual ditch along the Southern bank of the Tweed. Scotland is written off to the degree of not its fifty odd winnable seats not even being worth a mention.

And the depth of the crisis facing the left in these islands become clear. Labour can't win ANY election without offering hope of something better than the economic brutalities and ideological idiocy of market nihilism. They need to offer hope and a paractical prospect of being in a position to deliver on hope/.  And they clearly don't believe it of themselves any more than the electorate in Scotland did in may.  They can't offer a hope that they don't have themselves. The sense of doom and drift feels inescapable.  With Scotland gone, the British Road to Socialism has finally led into the sucking mud of terminal despondency.  Liz Kendall waves the defeat of any distinctive Labour Values like a flag over her head.  A vote for Liz is an act of existential suicide. Yvette Coop[er is a half conviced technocrat with the air of having backed the wrong computer programme.  Andy Burnham imitates them both but in an "authentic" accent.  He wears his class like Cooper wears her a meme.  And to elect the old fashioned bourgeois radical Jeremy Corbyn as leader may make the endlessly exploited and shat on membership feel better, but the Labour Party after nearly a hundred years as a potential party of government in the UK, looks from here to be abandoning the ambition of power in the unitary UK.

We have long lived with the paradox of the need for a principled and powerful opposition to power at least looking as if it is capable of taking power itself in order to be effective.  And there will no doubt be those who will blame us for taking away the last glue that held the shaky broad church of St Albion's parish church together. But if UK Labour need us that much, then UK Labour was already doomed. Or that we have looked to the SNP as a substitute for something that seems to lack all credibility.  That this lack of credibility seems, according to the research published over the weekend, to be shared all across the UK,  is more to be lamented than celebrated, even from the most narrow sectarian viewpoint of the SNP.  After all, you can't make progressive alliances if there really is a terminal break in communication between the aspirations of the electorate and their would be representatives.

In the short term, one can easily see scenarios where in the event of a Corbyn victory, the Parliamentary Labour Party simply refuses to recognise the result, and where some new version of the SDP split off as a minority to eventually be subsumed into the Liberals.  But that was a minority of Labour MPs who made the split back then.  In this case I think it would be Corbyn who be left with a rump of fifty or so MPs and that the other 200 would either coalesce around a charismatic centrist (who isn't visible yet but might be Alan Johnson, say...) or just fall apart where they're sitting. Even if it is the comparatively "safe-pair-of-hands" candidates of Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham who end up in charge of the Titanic, it takes a colossal effort of optimism to envisage either of them steering the Party past the looming Iceberg of electoral indifference next time round.

The deeper cultural problem of which all this is the symptom rather than the cause is the malaise inherent now in the very project of Progress to which both the SNP and Labour theoretically subscribe. The very culture of a combined trade unionist collectivism combined with a progressive social liberalism that made their success possible was itself only a by-product of optimism in the culture itself. And it is cultural exhaustion, the death of hope, the end of the future, that is hobbling the left all over Europe right now.  There is only one law and one truth, say the Merkels and the Camerons...and here it comes, crashing onto your head like an anvil in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Which brings me to the nub of the matter.  Time to put down the tartan telescope and get hold of the microscope.

Scotland's different, we say.  The SNP are genuinely socially democratic. Given half a chance, we'd introduce all manner of yummy progressive social policies.  Oh really?  Said the NO campaign last , year to the electorate?  Do you really believe that? ...and we lost the vote.  Hope lost to fear.

We have to face the possibility that our assumptions of the greater appetite for social equity we detect in our fellow citizens is conditioned by what David Torrance has identified, I think correctly, as a rather ugly Scottish penchant for exhibiting our moral superiority in the comfortable certainty of never having the power to back that up.  never to have to put our taxes where our principles are.  The same psychological trap that makes for cosy Unionism..the ability to blame other for what benefits the Scottish Middle Class as much as it does the English, combined with the positivist echo chamber of the invisibly shrinking Yes campaign that is already visibly fragmenting, may be leading us astray. I also recognise from Good Old Labour Days the way that the SNP and its supporters, myself included, tend to circle the wagons in the face of criticism and dismiss all doubt as a tool of the enemy.  We may be in danger of substituting a very Scottish "Big Man" client-ism to the Labour hierarchy to the SNP.  Defensive deference to our defenders may be one of our defining cultural characteristics for all I know. .

It seemed self evident to me last year that when asked to chose between Hope and Fear that one was bound to choose Hope, as one would choose Life over Death. But I am living as part of a wider set of cultures than that Yes or No aspiration can encompass. And in the UK and in Europe, to hope seems culturally hopeless.

Are we just kidding ourselves up on our Misty Mountains? Is New Scotland Cloud Cuckoo land?  We know what "Better Together" said about that, and we were stunned at their negativity, at the poverty of their arguments which all seemed to boil down to "No point.  Don't try.  All doomed. Have a drink"...(which always seemed to me an authentically Scottish attitude.)

But we are coming down now to a new set of tactical realities in a new sense of normality.  And a normality which does not include the UK Labour Party as at least a POSSIBLY positive contributor to the cultural life of these islands is not one I can comfortably welcome in the same way I welcomed the doomed time-servers of Scottish labour tumbling down in May.

We must learn to navigate new waters.  And it may be that our celebration of maiden speeches and a popular first minister are about to shown as insufficient.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

The New Normal

Who would have thought it? The revolutionary date of the 14th of July ...but in the UK in 2015, when the most undisguisedly reactionary government in living memory has just been voted into power on a wave of Jockophobia, here at the fag end of a victorious, delirious Tory majority Westminster Parliamentary mini term, marked by the overt brutality of the Osborne budget and measures designed to drag Trade Unions back to the semi-legal status of the Combinations Act in the 19th Century...maybe...just MAYBE...also marks, in a wholly different register, the beginning of the new normality for not just Scottish politics, but for the future mechanics of UK politics as a whole.

The prospectus of the SNP at the last UK General Election just ten weeks ago was that UK Labour recognise in the SNP a strategic and occasional anti-Tory ally in the specific context of the UK Parliament. Now, it was never an expectation that UK Labour acknowledge any such possibility while in the throes of the Campaign itself - that would have been to throw the Scottish Party and its chances of recovery under a bus.

Then, late in the campaign, when the Tories, to their own surprise, discovered that they might achieve decisive traction with the twin bogeyman of a Jock and Jewish usurpation of some hitherto undigested vision of Englishness ad a profoundly (if unaccountably) threatened sense of identity, on the 30th of April Ed Milliband made a speech  where he ruled out any possibility of ever even talking to the SNP ever about anything under any circumstances...

Now Labour were already in deep trouble in Scotland and deeper trouble than even their focus groups told them in England, but this speech effectively sank the hearts and boats of all but the most tearily loyal troops North of the Tweed.

One has to actually live here to understand the depth of shock and long lasting hurt that our still overwhelmingly Unionist establishment up here (in broadcasting, the media, business and academia) now feel. Culturally speaking it is hard to see any healing of the damage that was done by the steadfastly fear and nihilism campaign fought for the Union has just plain disappointed and disoriented people who were far more sincerely and historically conscious and collegiately British in their outlook than are the electoral beneficiaries of the fear and hatred whipped up by the baying, empty shirted opportunists of the contemporary Press and Tory establishment in London.  It has become terribly and terminally clear that the Tory defenders of Britishness are entirely skin deep and cynical in their commitment to anything pother than the immediate rewards of power..  They're not Unionists in any sense my own Unionist family would recognise.

Labour became the establishment Party in Scotland during the sixties and kept that status right through 18 years of Thatcherism partly in response to the moral and intellectual hollowing out of the alternative.  And when Ed Milliband threw Scottish Labour under the electoral bus at the end of April, as I said at the time, the last proper Unionists left the building. Leaving their Scottish branch office utterly bereft.

Beyond all the predictable (and justified) Tory yells about the SNP performing a convoluted and semantically dubious U-turn on their traditional policy of abstaining on what they (as opposed to the Speaker of the House of Commons) as clearly "England Only " measures on the Fox Hunting vote, that same Loyalist Establishment in Scotland are screaming themselves puce about SNP hypocrisy and neglecting to identify the true significance of what has just happened today.

Which is that the UK Labour Party, (although admittedly using Ian Murray, the last unlikely survivor of the Scottish Party as postman) invited the SNP to support them on a vote on fox hunting in England and Wales.  For the SNP, the fact of this invitation was what mattered. That they were thereby forced into some inelegant contortions of mind bogglingly transparent sophistry hardly matters beyond the fact that what Ed Milliband rejected so vehemently and finally on the campaign trail has now in fact come about (Albeit in opposition rather than the hoped for informal coalition).  The Tories, ten weeks into their term, have already been deflected on Human Rights legislation, English Votes for English Laws...and now on the totemic issue of fox a de facto progressive alliance that Labour have now come out and publicly requested in the specific instance of a specific winnable vote.

And like the empty shirts they are, rather than risk a fight, the Tories have backed down.

Now we are a very long away from the by-elections that might, two or three years from now, routinely thwart the wishes of the slim majority in the Commons.  And we already know that the Tories are callously and cynically front loading the most anti-social of their revenge fantasy economics on very many on both sides of the Tweed who can ill withstand the assault.

But in the maiden speech of Mhairi Black that came on the same day as the Parliamentary Gamesmanship jointly and successfully played by UK Labour and the SNP yesterday, ,maybe, just maybe, the wider UK electorate will begin to get a sense of what was happening up here in the deep North last year.  And in a sentence, what we felt here was a sense of re-discovery of the sense of possibility.  That maybe, just maybe, there was a way to challenge the version of reality to which margaret Thatcher bore witness and to which Blair and Brown subscribed.

This has also been the week, of course, when that very sense of democratic possibility of self determination (or at least self-defence) was so brutally stamped into the killing floors of Brussels with an almost audible grunt of "That'll LEARN ya!"

We faced the same ugly closing of the future in name of "Reality" in the No Campaign last year.But maybe, just maybe, our experience may be salutary and useful down well as refreshing.  Maybe...just maybe...positive and progressive alliances, practical solidarity can indeed be found in a federal approach to opposition across these islands and this continent that will one day bear democratic fruit constitutionally and in terms of the re-discovered possibility of progress towards social and economic justice.

For me, the most important thing the SNP can do in Westminster is make the case for a new, reconfigured sense of solidarity across these islands.  And the human presence of Mhairi Black and Tommy Shepherd may well do more to accomplish that than anything else. Stranger things have happened, and, after all, no matter what the constitutional settlement in 2025 or 2030, we will all still be living on the same Atlantic Archipelago, whatever we want to call it.

And 14th July 2015 will one day be known as Day One of the New Normal

Friday 3 July 2015

Whatever Happened to the Tories, Ma?

All the way through the referendum, I could feel my Tory ancestors tugging away at my insides somewhere. As I watched the various intimidating manoeuvres of the Better Together campaign, I could hear their ghosts muttering, "Jesus! Can't we do better than this? Has the Britain of the Empire and the Welfare State really got nothing more elevated to say for itself? "

And since the result, since the very morning of the Union's victory of fear over aspiration, it does seem that the mean but professional campaign that was run by Scottish Labour on behalf of Past Glory really did mask something much more tawdry and diminished than any of my forebears from the left or the right would have recognised.  It was Scottish Labour that paid the price of course.  But May's election result has revealed something decadent and terminal in the Tory soul as well.

They are so delighted with themselves, so stunned that they won so decisively.  They are empty shirts...they know it.  They're a weird agglomeration of sock puppet creatures of the Masters of the Universe, and whiny, provincial Daily Mail readers whose sense of victimhood shrieks from every appalled and hateful headline.   The UK electorate have been, apparently, sold on the idea that suffering should only trickle down one way as, free of the social responsibility of even pretending to give a stuff for collective welfare, those who already have far more than they need loot the nation and the planet as a shore against the economic and environmental ruin their cupidity is bringing down on us like a hammer. They are free to pursue an agenda made up in equal parts of pure resentment and pure class interest.

To bomb Syria in revenge for an attack planned in Libya on British tourists in Tunisia!  To redefine child poverty out of existence! To turn teachers into the thought police! To destroy the BBC and flog off the remainder of welfare state to their chums!

And they owe it all to Scotland.

That's how they feel.  That's why they cheered like they did in the Commons when they rubbed our noses in our numerical irrelevance.  That's why they're trying to smuggle the constitutional monstrosity of English Votes for English Laws through by a hole in the corner Standing Order.  They are not trying to solve the West lothian Question.  They're trying to exacerbate it.  They're rubbing salt in the wound. Because they think that's how they won the election.  They turned their whole campaign around when they stumbled so decisively onto "Scotophobia"as a way of shoring up their base.  Remember, the Tories might swagger around like suited and booted Lords of all they survey, but their electoral base is made up of people stoked into ever deeper anxiety about clinging on to their little bit of England in the face of bloody Europe and bloody immigrants and bloody paupers and bloody Jocks....

If it ever did, the Tory Party no longer represents a settled, conservative Britain. Instead, it lives entirely by exploiting fear of the other, including the other within. And just as the presence of 56 SNP MPs is dramatising so clearly and decisively for the Scots electorate the sheer hopelessness of trying to continue as if the flag still flew over a quarter of the globe and as if there was any such thing as a UK National Duty of Mutual Care, so for the Tories, in the short term, the more we can look like marginalised, irritating little tykes, the better they like it.

In short there is going to be a row about what defines "English only" legislation every single time there's a finance bill, then that's not a problem.  The Tories think will work for them.  As in the election, they will trap Labour into looking if not anti-English, then dependent on the Scots. It worked for this last election, it will work for the next one.  This isn't so much grubby English nationalism as squalid realpolitik.  They're doing this because they think it will work for them.

It is not just my British Ancestors who I can feel rotating in their graves.

Even at its best, politics is a myopic, short term business. We are unfortunately well acquainted in Scotland with the sterile territorialism that seems to hobble the very considerable talent we have in our political parties.  We glimpsed, I think on all sides, in all parties, a rather more interesting and enlightened civil society in some of the arguments that we traded during the campaign. Still, it is rather a shock to my Unionist DNA to see what has become of the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain.  Daily they shrink into nasty little parochialist monkeys dancing to the tune of powers that they ape but don't seem capable of understanding.

Last year, we hesitated to end the Union that has played so large and complex a role in the world for the last three hundred years.  But then, breaking that Union was always too big a job for Scotland. Now we feel that we can only watch in shocked, mournful silence as the big boys next door blunder so inanely into doing it for us.