Can there be a time when writing about the world presents a picture very different according to which near-neighbour country you choose. A bit over two years ago for a year we asked a writer from a different small country (or region) something like Scotland to tell us about the state of radical politics at home (SLR 56 – 63). The picture then was one of trepidation but some hope of a new beginning.
We have gone back to the same writers a couple of years later to see what has happened. To say the picture is mixed is an understatement. Of our original countries (Ireland, Iceland, Catalonia, the Netherlands, Greece, Bulgaria, Wales) we have managed updates for just two – along with a look at events in Germany which impact so greatly on the rest.
So we look at Ireland where the picture is really pretty grim. There is little sense of optimism on the Irish left and other than Greece and Spain, which populations could suffer more? In fact, in some ways the Irish situation might seem even more dispiriting than the Greek one in that at least there has been a strong and spirited reaction in Greece that offers some hope for the future. (The writer of our original article on Greece, Giannis Banias, sadly died since he wrote the original article for us.)
But we also look at Catalonia where optimism seems high despite the difficulties it is facing in the Spanish economic crisis. Here we get a sense of people believing that the future might be different and better than the present. This sense is not one we find generally across Europe just now.
And then there are the places we didn’t get updates on. Perhaps most inspiring of all of these is Iceland. In fact, so inspiring is the Icelandic story that it seems a lot of people wish it wasn’t true. In Iceland they have used the aftermath of the economic crisis to recast their society. They have rewritten their constitution in an open and democratic manner. They have undertaken a radical programme of government covering everthing from women’s place in politics to the limits of intellectual property rights. And perhaps not least of all, they seem to be the only people in Europe which have pursued those who caused the economic crisis with any seriousness, bankers and the former Prime Minister alike being currently in court answering for their actions.
But even in more typical European countries (it is worth remembering that Iceland has a population only about the size of Edinburgh) the picture is varied. There seems no likelihood of a major change in Germany with the main parties offering little by way of variation from the standard European Central Bank model of economic policy. But Die Linke (the Left Party) continues to demonstrate real support, even though it has been marginalised by the establishment and struggles for media coverage. The upcoming election could be an important consolidation of their place in German politics or a story of depressing decline – all for the want of a one-point move in opinion polls in one direction or the other.
Meanwhile, the story from the Netherlands is different again where the left is making serious in-roads in the election (the result of which may well be in by the time you read this). We will get an update in a future issue once we know what has happened.
OK, what does all this mean? Well, first of all it tells us that something significant has happened in Scotland since we first published these articles. Back then we were looking to see if there were radical policies and approaches taking place in countries like Scotland to see if there was anything that could be ‘transplanted’ over here. When we go back to look again, it is inevitable that we see the stories from the perspective of the approaching referendum on independence. Before the question was ‘what are you up to?’ and now the question has become a more fundamental ‘who are you?’.
One way or another, this change is one to be celebrated. It marks some kind of shift from talking about Scotland as if it is an extended local authority seeking only ‘best practice’ in how it goes about its business to talking instead about the very nature of the place in which we live. Whether the answers we have heard from either side in this debate are anything to write home about (they’re not) is not the most important thing. Much more important is that we are thinking about ourselves in this way.
Is there anything that can be concluded from all of this? Well, one of the most telling points in the whole issue comes from John Foster in the Constitutional Debate page – small countries aren’t good or bad, strong or weak. They are just countries, and what matters is what you do with them. He points out that there are two big case studies right on our doorstep which offer the different poles of possibility. To our south-west, Ireland, to our north Iceland. Both caputured by corrupt financial elites, both turned into corporate enrichment vehicles in the height of the pre-crash madness, both the vicitms of the collapsing Ponzi-scheme that was financial capitalism. One responded by kicking back, by reshaping itself. The other seems almost to have rolled over and accepted defeat. Neither is inevitable, neither unavoidable.
Perhaps the number one lesson in seeking wisdom from our neighbours is that there is no lesson we didn’t already know. What we do with soveriegn powers (an independent Scotland or the UK) is a decision we can make if we are offered the choice and choose to make a choice (rather than the current Westminster ‘two versions of the same thing’ option). Anyone who tells us we can’t make the choice needs to visit Iceland. Anyone who tells us we are guaranteed success should hop on a ferry to Ireland.
No promises, no guarantees. Might that be the most mature political debate we’ve had in Scotland for a generation?