The argument I want to make is simple; now is the time for the left to get it together. The ‘it’ is important; I do not mean that we must assemble and plan a giant, elaborate structure of some sort. I mean we need to sort out our heads, focus on what we can do now and get on with it. There are three reasons I think we need to do this now. They are as follows:
The problem with teleology
Teleology is a philosophical approach with views an outcome to be an inherent part of a process. It is the idea that things ‘work towards’ outcomes as if the outcomes were the starting-point and not the end point. So a seed is simply the early stage of plant which will inevitably exist all other things being equal. In teleology there is a tendency to believe that an external force has to come into play to stop the inevitable outcome, so the seed is a plant unless there is a really bad frost. But since bad frost is almost as inevitable as seeds turning into plants, which one is the ‘telos’, the endpoint? In human affairs it is even more complicated – what is the ‘inevitable’ and what is the ‘unless’.
The thing about change is that we can only say ‘it changed from this to that’ afterwards, after the change has already happened. During the change all we can say is ‘it is changing from this to something else – we have left where we were’. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 it did not mean that racial segre
gation was now inevitably going to come to an end; after all, Irene Morgan had done exactly the same thing eleven years earlier. Indeed, had her defiance not been followed up with the Montgomery Bus Boycott it would probably have been just another criminal case. It is only looking backwards that the end begins with the beginning.
In recent years the Scottish (and indeed the global) left feels like it has suffered a series of setbacks. Not only has global ideology shifted sharply to the neoliberal right, the Scottish left has pursued projects and plans that haven’t worked, from anti-war protests that didn’t work to radical political parties that couldn’t hold together to attempts to ‘win back’ the Labour Party that didn’t succeed. In seeing all of this organised failure it has tended not to notice (or, ironically, take as a background inevitability) big successes such as the extent to which the market has been kept out of the Scottish public sector, or the fact that the Christie Commission blueprint for public sector reform is pointing in completely the opposite direction to the Westminster approach. There is a risk that the left has become fatalistic, seeing an inevitable endpoint in everything and usually believing it to be defeat.
But if the left can win these significant victories while busy trying to do something else altogether, what could it do if it was focusing on what can be achieved immediately? The left sort of expects to be let down by big political parties and so gets its disappointment in early. It seems to me that we have got into a habit of expecting bad outcomes and so we start out in opposition to things that haven’t happened yet. This is the trouble with teleology – if the endpoint is inevitable, why bother?
Blair sleeps with the fishes, Cameron sleeps soundly in another world and – well, we’re legally prohibited from discussing where Goodwin sleeps, but it isn’t ‘here’ any more
Because the endpoint isn’t inevitable. We have a Scottish Government which is openly opposed to Trident – this took decades of campaigning. It was not inevitable that the impact of the media or the defence industry or Whitehall or whatever would eventually ‘turn this around’.
So if the left simply sees another Big Political Party in power and does nothing more than dust down its protest banners in anticipation of the battle to come, it will have handed the endpoint over to teleology – which in fact means those who are not willing to let the future drift away from them.
So the first reason: if the left simply expects things to go badly then they will. If it does not give itself a shake and work as if multiple possibilities lie ahead others will.
Power and possibility
In politics, power is a form of mass which displaces possibility. If possibility is the chance that different endpoints are possible, then the role of power is to make sure that it can determine which endpoint is reached in reality. When Tony Blair was elected in 1997, people believed the world was full of possibilities. Some stories tell it that power gradually closed these down, but in reality power had closed down those possibilities long before they were actually possible – by creating a world in which Tony Blair could become leader of the Labour Party.
Like all forms of power (electricity, gravity, magnetism) the power that comes to bear on politics is mainly invisible and we have a habit of seeing the effects of power not as a specific outcome to a specific action but as ‘nature’. Of course British foreign policy will promote the interests of Big Oil. Of course taxes will be kept down to appease the Daily Mail and so on. The prospect of a UK Government imposing sanctions on Israel for human rights abuses is unthinkable only because power closes down any such possibility.
But in this at least something is now different in Scotland. The kind of power which makes things impossible no longer really exists here. It’s natural home is the City of London and the London establishment networks. In London those who wield this power are striding behemoths before whom politicians tremble. But if they cross the border, which they seldom do, they shrink. They still have the money and they still get the ear of the media but they do not have the same power to close down possibilities. If they could then Scottish Water would be privatised, universities, marketised, Trident safe and sound, PFI entrenched and so on.
Scotland does not have quite the same concentrations of power. It is fairly easy for politicians to ignore CBI Scotland if they want to and very easy to ignore the Scotsman’s manifesto. The Scottish banking industry used to have that power over Scotland but it is gone. And despite varying degrees of resistance, Labour First Ministers used to mainline the power of the City of London into Scottish politics simply by dint of what their UK leaders would allow them to do or not do.
That is largely gone. Of course Scotland is filled with vested interests which exert power and influence but none are really so overwhelmingly powerful as to close down other possibilities. That does not mean that alternatives will necessarily happen (there is a reason possibilities are called possibilities…) but that they could. And unless the left can be sufficiently aware of how power has receded and possibilities opened up it will miss them. It must learn how to exert influence and not only how to express discontent.
This is the second reason the left has to get it together: if the left does not seek to exert the power of influence, others will and possibilities will be lost.
The definition of madness
The quote “the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome” is usually ascribed to Einstein. So, is the Scottish left mad? Does it believe that if it just tries one more time it can wrest the Scottish Labour Party from the hands of the neoliberal leadership in London? Does it believe that one more shot is all that is required to form a political party which can win power, change politics and not implode through infighting? Does it believe that one more march by the trade unions will halt the welfare ‘reforms’ being pursued by Downing Street?
This is not meant to mean that we should give up the fights, but it does mean that we need to be realistic about what the outcome of these fights is going to be. Of course the Labour left should fight to recapture its party, but it also has to accept that it will not have done so by the time of the next Scottish Elections in 2016; so what then? Of course Scotland deserves to have the right to vote for an avowedly socialist party, but the chances of such a unified party being in existence by 2016 or of the electorate regaining sufficient confidence to vote for it in significant numbers is slim; so what then? And of course we should all oppose the Cameron agenda with one voice, but since it seems unlikely that Cameron will back-track or lose, it will be one more valiant but futile Scottish attempt to reform London; what then?
What will the Scottish left spend the next five years doing? The same again, hoping for different results? When Scotland is there to be won, are we going to march on London instead? Do we hope to win concessions from David Cameron? Hope to convert Ed Milliband and the Shadow Cabinet? Or in Scotland will we confine ourselves to more restructuring of a minority party while the world continues around us?
The third reason: what we have been doing has worked in spite of our actions as much as because of them. We can’t just keep hammering away at losing strategies.
Getting it together
You don’t have to support the SNP, you don’t have to support independence; you just have to accept three things. Firstly, the outcome of the next five years of SNP government has not yet been decided. Secondly, this is an administration which is much less confined by big power interests or a parent party worried about how Scottish actions will be presented in the UK media, which means that a greater range of possibilities is open. Thirdly, that there is a lot of energy and drive on the left if it can be directed towards projects with a chance of delivering an outcome. It also helps if you can agree that Alex Salmond has flirted – perhaps no more than – with the idea of being a more radical leader of Scotland.
If we can see a moment of opportunity now in which we can exert influence on what is there rather than fight fights we can’t win and plan plans that won’t succeed then it could be a productive five years for the Scottish left. John Lennon was right, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”; and politics is what happens while you’re hoping that in five or ten years things might be different.
The Scottish left has not been particularly good at working with what is there already. It is not all our fault – in the Blair years there was so much suspicion of the left in the mainstream that we were shunned and in the Fred Goodwin years the mainstream just got too excited by the Enron-lite promises of the Scottish financial services industry. But Blair sleeps with the fishes, Cameron sleeps soundly in another world and – well, we’re legally prohibited from discussing where Goodwin sleeps, but it isn’t ‘here’ any more.
In my view, the Scottish left has been in need of three things. Firstly, it needed a Parliament which was won from the left. While I don’t think it has been won by the left, the 2011 Election saw all the battles taking place at the lefthand side of the political spectrum and the outcome was decided mainly by voters of a left persuasion. Secondly, it needed a power vacuum, or at least an environment in which external power bearing down on Scottish politics was not irresistible. Without the same degree of London interference and with a week corporate lobby community in Scotland, there is a much more even distribution of influence around the political sphere. And thirdly, it needed the will and the expertise to step in and exert influence and power on a Parliament that might listen. Whether this can happen is still an open question.
In this there is an agenda for the left in Scotland, one which can reinforce the left-of-centre political ideology which is now dominant in Scottish politics and extend and push it further. We just have to believe that possibilities are there, that they can be made to happen and that we can make them happen if we choose to. And if we can do that then we simply have to start deciding what targets we are going to choose and how we are going to pursue them. It will be a terrible waste of an opportunity if we don’t.