COMING out of lockdown at election time in pandemic Scotland is to emerge back into a very strange world. In India oxygen is the new currency, in Britain Boris has resorted to sending in gunships and threatening France: the CoronaBrexit experience remains a grotesque and absurd one.
It’s Friday and as I write I don’t know what the election results are. The most polled and tracked Scottish election ever still doesn’t know and the estimates vary widely: projected seat ranges: from SNP 58 to 71 seats, Conservatives from 24 to 32, Labour from 18-25, the Greens from five to 11, the Liberals from 4-8, and Alba between zero and one. These are huge disparities and could mean the difference between forcing a referendum or not, between a coalition government in Scotland or not, between a historic breakthrough for the Scottish Greens in this year of COP26, or not and between at least three party leaders losing their jobs, or not.
The election takes place in the cliched “unprecedented times” and no-one knows what effect this will have had on people’s psyche and outlook, though initial indications show turnout up, which might seem counter-intuitive. How will people vote mid-pandemic, will it be in hope or despair?
“Coming out of lockdown” has become one of those phrases that’s ubiquitous but also meaningless as the political class struggles to get its head around the scale of multiple crises and unknown challenges we face. As George Monbiot writes (That creaking sound? It’s the United Kingdom starting to break apart): “we have never been closer and never further away”, the sense of opportunity and despair co-mingle:
“We have never been closer and never further away. Remote technologies open up our living rooms to each other, but what we see behind the doors are different worlds: flaking plaster in one, £800-a-roll wallpaper in another. In Westminster, a hereditary elite treated the pandemic less as a crisis than as an opportunity to enrich its friends. By granting unadvertised, untendered contracts to favoured companies for essential goods and services, many of which were either substandard or never arrived, it actively encouraged the sort of profiteering during a national emergency portrayed in The Third Man. A number of Harry Limes have become exceedingly rich as a result.”
This idea of “closer and never further away” haunts left melancholia, our general society sceptical about our “leaders” ability to respond to this level of crisis and the Scottish democracy movement which remains fraught and divided.
This idea of being “caught”, “stuck” and immobilised has emerged from our physical experience and we now see being manifested in our politics. When previously we felt there were movements for change from which strategies would emerge – be they from the labour movement or the independence movement or the peace movement or the women’s movement, or some rich combination of them all – now it feels like all of these movements are in a defensive mode and running on parallel tracks. The key to fighting back and bursting out of this morass is to find ways to unite movements in common struggles and in doing so politicise and radicalise the independence movement, to re-orientate towards what Tom Nairn called “the terrain of reality and the future”.
What ever comes out of this election will impact on the campaign for independence, but given that there has been a failure of political leadership how can we make new forms that don’t “ask upwards” but create “leadership from below”? How can we create new insurgency that remains on “the terrain of the reality and the future” but doesn’t either turn to the toxicity of some parts of the movement or indulge in the magical thinking that remains detached from people’s real lives or void of any real political strategy?
Activists and political movements trapped in social media bubbles re-create their own narratives, speak exclusively to each other and re-enforce their own prejudices over and over until they remain utterly certain about everything and incapable of genuine dialogue with anyone. This is true across social movements and has been boosted and amplified by lockdown.
But if we are to move beyond this we need real-world encounters face to face and turn over our own arguments and ideas afresh. If the most atavistic elements of the independence movement have crashed and burned, as looks likely, then we and they should reflect on that and what it means rather than descend further into wild conspiracy and paranoia.
The movement must steady itself and commit to the “the terrain of reality and the future” rather than indulge in surrealism and the past, which is the terrain that Alba and its cohorts have been immersed in.
For the left in Scotland this must mean looking at the wreckage of Labour in England and recognising the prospect of permanent Tory rule in England is a very real one as Boris Johnson’s incredible regime yields electoral success. After Hartlepool, Labour aren’t coming to save Scotland or the Union. Scotland isn’t coming to save Labour either. It’s time for a change and new alliances for the left to be forged by refugees from Scottish Labour and the wider Scottish left to (re) join a renewed independence movement.
Another space for creative thinking that is already underway is the headland being occupied between the climate movement and the independence movement, where the demographic convergence of a whole generation of young people find common cause in fighting for a Scotland that is viable for all of our futures.
Finally sometimes the dynamism of breakdown is exhilarating. Everything seems to be falling apart and there’s a tendency to get a thrill from this. But breakdown isn’t breakthrough and if “crisis is opportunity” can be true it isn’t always true. Without strategy and movement-building crisis is just crisis, eagerly seized on by the forces of reaction and opportunism, as we’ve seen in recent years. There’s no greater opportunity for “strategy and movement building” than the convergence of the need for independence, the need for “pandemic recovery” and the need for socio-ecological climate resilience. If you want to think about what this DOESN’T look like take Keir Starmer’s recent visit to Scotland.
George Monbiot describes it here: “Keir Starmer seems scarcely interested in Scotland as anything other than an electoral calculation – and it’s not always clear which election he’s considering.
“Last month he made the weirdest campaign video I’ve ever seen in the UK. It began with a British Airways jet landing at Edinburgh airport. Starmer came down the steps like a visiting dignitary, mumbling ‘Remind me which country this is again?’, strode around the empty airport with a phalanx of sinister-looking men, inveighed against the lack of flights and announced that he wanted to put economic recovery ‘above all else’, presumably including life on Earth. Then, it seems, having alienated his remaining Scottish voters and anyone under 40, he flew out again. It was incomprehensible, until you remember that British Airways is a touchstone and crucial battleground for the Unite union, Labour’s biggest donor, and that future remissions depend on the outcome of its leadership elections, for which nominations begin tomorrow, just as Scottish voters go to the polls.
“In other words, he seems to have been using Scotland as a backdrop for an entirely different contest. That’s what Scotland is to Westminster: a backdrop.”
Scotland needs to be the foreground not a backdrop and it seems increasingly clear that our ecologically illiterate politicians are not fit for purpose.
All our political class have failed us in different ways, let’s hope that whatever the results we can open up a space with fresh thinking and new alliances, out of lockdown and out of our bubbles into “the terrain of reality and the future”.