Which way forward is left?

While there is no doubt that anyone who has ever lived finds their own times interesting, these are especially interesting times to be living in Scotland. The ‘yes’ campaign, which captured the imagination of so many, does not feel or act like it was on the losing side – witness the growth of the pro-independence parties, the recent rallies including Scotland’s First Minister’s tour of the country and the gathering of Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign at the tail end of a historic year.

Yet, I sense that the referendum dust is beginning to settle and we are now entering a new phase in Scottish politics. This article is concerned with how Scotland’s radical left moves forward in 2015 and beyond.

Terminology is important here. By ‘radical left’ – and I do accept that the term ‘radical’ is somewhat nebulous – I am thinking of all those positioned outside the mainstream parties, including the SNP. I regard myself, reluctantly sometimes, as a part of this broad constituency.

For what it’s worth, I still consider myself a socialist, usually out of conviction, but sometimes, to paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, because no other label will do. Recently, an old Marxist friend bemoaned the fact that the Radical Independence Campaign had not defined its politics in ideological terms. This I believe, contrary to my Marxist friend, is one of RIC’s strengths.

In an age which some political scientists refer to as ‘post- ideological’, ideological labels are without doubt problematic. For example, many of the people labelled ‘left of centre’ are quite often, complacently uncritical of the status quo. Rather than a genuine centre-left, they constitute more what Tariq Ali refers to as an ‘extreme centre’.

The same can be said for much of what passes as ‘social democracy’, once understood as re-distribution of wealth coupled with an interventionist state. Today, the most consistent social democrats I know are those who get labelled by others as being on the ‘far left’.

The general point I am trying to make is that ideological pigeonholing is problematic. Moreover, I quite enjoy the fact that we live in a political world that evades capture by competing ‘isms’ and perhaps this is something that Scotland’s new radicals ought to embrace.

The referendum has been good for the left. Just how good remains to be seen. There is an argument, and I have heard people prominent in the ‘movement’ make this point, that radical ideas are now a part of the mainstream. I can see why people say this, but I’m sceptical.

For me, despite the optimism generated, the ‘yes’ campaign represented what Ralph Miliband said, in describing another context, was a tactical difference within a strategic consensus. That strategic consensus, if it is to have a label, can be broadly defined as neo-liberalism.

‘We are not yet done with neo-liberalism’ said the late Stuart Hall commenting on the financial crash of 2008. For me, as someone influenced by the Marxist tradition, I find it interesting how the dominant narrative of Scotland’s radicals in the twenty first century is the narrative of Scottish nationhood.

Something significant is at work here. It is not the abandonment of socialism for nationalism as often crudely framed, but rather a response to the institutional failures and historic defeats of the traditional working class movement to change society.

Since the late 1980s politics in Scotland has been filtered through the prism of national identity. Of course, inherent in this discourse is some lazy thinking. For example, the tendency to see everything that ‘Westminster’ does as innately bad implies that there is something inherently good about Scotland. The fact that we Scots no longer vote Tory in significant numbers has led some of us to the conclusion that this is proof that neo-liberalism is an alien ideology imposed on ‘us’ from elsewhere.

I have heard key people on the left argue that Scottish independence would ‘unleash the forces of social democracy’, whilst others assert that the Scottish people are ready for socialism – all that is required is finding the correct vehicle. These assertions are problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, they ignore the extent to which neo-liberal ideas permeate the upper echelons of Scottish society, from the mainstream parties to our public sector institutions. In regards to the latter, I am thinking about the Scottish Government’s obsession with managerialism in education, health and local government or the draconian cuts to budgets in Scotland’s thirty two councils.

We also need to think carefully about the ways in which neo-liberal practices permeate public consciousness and behaviour, from mass home ownership to the rise of the consumer society. I often get the impression from listening to the left that neo-liberalism is something that is done to people, which forgets the fact that at root, neo-liberalism involves a complex set of internalised social relationships.

Strategic thinking about the way forward requires a broad discussion about what it is Scotland’s radicals stand for. The 2014 RIC conference spelt out clearly, and sometimes obviously, what we are against, and that list is endless.

But I can’t help but think that the Scottish left is often trapped in the language and narratives of another era. For example, the constant need to talk about how much we hate Thatcher (I was 12 when she left office!) or ‘new’ Labour, or to construct our own politics cloaked in a romantic nostalgia for the post-war welfare state.

The ‘we know what we are against narrative’ can be found on many issues. It leads to a safe politics with a tendency to think in slogans. Take the issue of welfare reform for example. We know that the left is against the ‘bedroom tax’ or the scandal of ATOS yet the wider arguments around ‘workfare’ or what universalism means in a world of targeted provision are seldom discussed.

Neither have we spelled out a coherent strategy on job creation, shifting the narrative from employability, a current obsession with the Scottish Government, to decent employment and the role of the state. I am, of course, making a generalisation here, and I do accept that groups such as the Jimmy Reid Foundation and now Common Weal are starting to grapple with these issues.

Returning to more immediate priorities my own view is this: Scotland’s radicals need to move beyond the national question and engage in a strategic discussion about how we best develop a radical policy agenda within the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament.

There is a sense that it’s only a matter of time before Scotland becomes independent. As someone sceptical of any claims that history is pre-determined, I’m not sure I agree. But I do know this. When compared to history our own lifespans constitute the blink of an eye. The first phase of devolution lasted from 1997 until 2014 and who knows how long the second phase can last.

One way forward might be this – we need to park our current talk of ‘yes alliances’ and talking up spurious strategies on how we arrive at independence in five years’ time. We need to get over Gordon Brown and the so-called Vow, the BBC, and the pre-occupation with ‘wiping out the unionists’ at the next election. Our goal should be to develop a radical and realistic (the two are compatible) policy agenda which helps to increase the electoral representation of the radical left in the Scottish Parliament in 2016.

This strategy is problematic. My own view is that the constituencies of the Greens and especially the current crop of socialist groups are too narrow to achieve this aim to the full. The argument made by some in the SSP that socialists were excluded from the Smith Commission because the establishment was frightened of them is merely wishful thinking. The sad fact is that the SSP was not invited to Lord Smith’s table because it has no parliamentary representation.

In conclusion, I came away from the RIC conference with the nagging thought that social movements are one thing, but they bring with them the danger of creating a lifestyle politics big on opposition but lacking in influence. Furthermore, social movements without democratic structures are always in danger of developing the characteristics of what Gerry Hassan calls a ‘soft vanguardism’. The issue Scotland’s radicals need to address is the organisational one. If we can resolve that, then I am hopeful that parliamentary representation can follow.

Gary Fraser is a PhD student at Edinburgh University