Our Failing Political Culture: Part One

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In the first of our regular long reads, editorial board members James Foley and David Jamieson provide an in depth overview of Scotland’s political culture in 2017 and analyse the best route forward for socialists. Has the constitutional debate provided fertile terrain or does the Scottish left have deeper systemic issues? Putting things into context, Foley and Jamieson break down the party political state of play. Part One looks at Ruth Davidson’s spirited defence of free market ideology and Nicola Sturgeon’s insistent adherence to third way economics…

In a normal political culture, Ruth Davidson’s recent article on the politics of markets wouldn’t count as news. Drawing on Adam Smith, it’s a well-constructed, classically bourgeois account of the benefits and drawbacks of world trade: barring a few comments on the current populist upheavals, there’s not much more to it. True, she doesn’t conform to the worst stereotypes of Conservatism. Her version of Smith isn’t the hectoring Thatcherite that still inspires the Adam Smith Institute, and maybe that in itself is newsworthy to those who specialise in the finer gradings of Tory thinking. But in a mainstream intellectual context, this interpretation of his ideology isn’t original. It’s the standard view.

The warmer, sentimental, and quietly revolutionary side of his philosophy has been emphasised for decades, and few educated people now think of the revanchist Thatcher as the legitimate heir to his legacy. It should hardly raise eyebrows when Davidson, the moderate leader of a centre-right party, declares her debt to him and gives a reasonable if rather wet Conservative defence of capitalist development. After all, that’s why centre-right parties exist. Anywhere else in the world, it could pass unnoticed. But here, specifically in Scotland, it deserves a careful look.

In our very specific context, the article can help us think through the limitations of official political thought. By making capitalism the defining feature of our society, and by offering a sweeping and reasonably sophisticated account of its recent evolution, from containerisation to Thomas Piketty, Davidson has challenged the broadly conceived Scottish left on our relationship with the economic system that still dominates Europe two centuries after Smith. She has brought capitalism in. Now, perhaps, a real debate can begin.

Hopefully, our many centre-left politicians – often guilty of thoughtless tribalism, of the narcissism of small differences and of taking power for granted – will be forced to start thinking on this world-historical scale. Most of the problems we encounter, after all, happen at this level. Given climate change, refugee emergencies, stagnating wages, terrorism, drone wars, declining public services, the absolute decline of debate and ever-rising inequality, the question today is whether a civilised, democratic and liberal capitalism is possible. At the very least, it’s time our politicians explained how their philosophies differ from Davidson’s. After nearly two decades of Scottish autonomy, that debate hasn’t really been broached, a sure sign of a political and ideological culture that doesn’t yet take itself seriously.

Capitalism barely featured at all in the debates over devolution and independence. True, Scottish politicians have been, formally speaking, conservatives, socialists, social democrats, nationalists, environmentalists or liberals, and, in theory, this positions them within classical debates about the economic system. In practice, these labels are merely badges of identity, status or class background rather than expectations of a consistent worldview or visions for the future. Holyrood leaders are usually distrustful, and sometimes contemptuous, of big ideas. Their comments on deep historical questions are limited: they prefer to speak of politically neutral synonyms for markets – globalisation, free trade, the EU – rather than locate themselves in deeper controversies.

Where Scottish leaders have defined their project ideologically, they have actually reinforced the dominant anti-intellectualism. Wendy Alexander, as New Labour’s Holyrood leader, said Scotland faced a choice between socialism and nationalism. But Labour was actively distancing itself from anything remotely resembling public ownership, and the Celtic Tiger-inspired SNP had increasingly focused their vision for national sovereignty on the ability to cut corporation tax. The choice, at best, was between a free market socialist party and a turbo-globalising nationalist party, with both worldviews having been completely transformed by the neoliberal phase of capitalism, and with both parties taking the moral high ground of internationalism. What looked like an ideological debate, therefore, was instead a refusal of critique and a return to base level tribalism, with the sole intention of giving party activists something to care about.

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By having the nerve to talk about the forces that shape the 21st century, Davidson’s article should be an embarrassment, or at least a significant challenge, to Scotland’s social democratic self-image. Its tone – worldly, lofty, rational – sets it apart from Holyrood’s unedifying conflict between two similar centre-left forces. Importantly, Davidson breaks a very Scottish taboo by discussing the roots of neoliberalism, the worldview that dominated the practice of government in Holyrood without anyone seeming to know why or where it came from, proving Keynes’ maxim that “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”. Davidson shows genuine intellectual self-awareness, and has made a serious case for capitalist ideology rather than another cringing apology for it.

This is the centre-right leadership that many Scottish intellectuals have spent decades longing for. Market-oriented Conservatives hoping for a return to “normality” see their future in Davidson, a potential leader who seems radically opposed to Theresa May and Boris Johnson. But while Davidson is clearly capable of articulating this, these hopes are based on mistaken assumptions. Right-wing populism isn’t a madness peculiarly confined to the UK Conservatives, but a global phenomenon with roots in the contradiction of building a social base for neoliberalism. Understanding the limitations on Davidson is a useful case study in the ongoing crisis of capitalist democracy.

Pro-business policies alone have never been popular enough to win government power, since only a very small part of the public benefit from these reforms. Thus, true believers in markets originally came to power by making alliance with religious or political reactionaries, promising to roll back youth culture, free love and racial mixing. This alliance always had a staggering contradiction at its heart: as Marxists from the Communist Manifesto to Stuart Hall have observed, capitalist development does far more to undermine tradition than any amount of leftist posturing.

This internal drama is best exemplified by Thatcher’s turn, in the late 1980s, from free market Europhile into nationalist Eurosceptic, a move which ultimately inspired a neoliberal coup against her from within. At the same time, centre-left leaders were converting to neoliberalism conceived as modernisation, combining it with a palliative of social inclusion and moderate identity politics. When the 2007/08 crisis hit, the original pact between reactionaries and free market cadres broke apart, and anti-immigrant sentiment overran many strategic, worldly-yet-moderately-reactionary parties like the Republicans and the UK Tories. The centre-left continued to stand for market globalisation. In Scotland, they’d been governing on these terms since 1999.

Which leaves a question: how are the Scottish Tories going to construct a political base for their vision of market economics? This is where things get interesting. To become a true opposition – which is to say, a government in waiting – Davidson has needed to court Scotland’s irrational right, in a manner outsiders sometimes fail to understand. Historically, in Scotland, right-wing sentiment takes a specifically Protestant rather than a general White Christian form. This factor, always bubbling under yet nearly invisible in mainstream politics since the 1950s, has grown again as the Union strains against its historical limits. Under Davidson, the party has brought on board anti-Catholic councillors to appeal to depressed, semi-rural Orange towns. In these regions, scaremongering about nationalism as a trojan horse for Roman rule has added necessary grit to the Tories’ appeal. This isn’t accidental. The cosmopolitan Davidson undoubtedly dislikes these people, but she depends on them to extend Scottish Toryism beyond its natural rural heartland.

Davidson’s intellectual defence of moderate capitalism will certainly energise her supporters in Scottish newspapers. However, her mass appeal, as any Scottish Tory leaflet will testify, is as chief organiser of the backlash against the social movement of 2014. The latter opened Scotland up to a range of unusual influences, from Irish nationalism and feminism to (actual) land reform and the socialisation of production. It marked a break with the Scottish centre-left’s tradition of winning power by doling out benefits to its supporters. 2014 was a new and disruptive thing for the post-devolution Scotland: as a populist movement with a radical fringe, it identified “elite” political enemies in the social order of Scotland, rather than just monstering party-political rivals.

Previously, Scottish reactionaries had made their peace with the centre-left in power. The independence movement made them newly conscious, and encouraged them not just to restore order, but to seek revenge. Conservatism, as Corey Rubin says, is “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back”. The working-class Orangeman, unlike the landowner or the financier, has no real power to lose. But conservatism, as ideology, thrives when those with real power (land, property, political influence, cultural capital) share fears in common with those who have petty power (Protestant identity). Just like the Brexiteers, Davidson is engineering a backlash built around regressive identity politics. Her age, sexuality and intellectual take on markets should not distract from this.

In government, the contradictions would be more glaring. The grittier side of Scottish Toryism would be more visible. The racist element, poorly organised in Scotland for many decades, would be louder and more active on the fringes, sensing a unique opportunity to influence a centre-right administration. Equally, Davidson will face the contradiction of all right-wing populists who court support among working class people with reactionary views: her core support will often suffer most from her proposed economic reforms. Perhaps her best hope is to escape Scottish politics before she’s unlucky enough to become First Minister. That, of course, is another reading of her article: a leadership bid for the only prize that matters in Conservatism, United Kingdom leader. However, she will define even less support for her progressive neoliberal worldview in the Westminster Conservatives, who, having recognised a crisis of faith in markets, are intent on leading the global north to a new order based on white identity politics.

The main historical outcome of 2014 is the hegemony of Nicola Sturgeon. She has developed strong, centralised control over what was once a disparate independence movement, and she has a legion of fanatical supporters, even if their numbers have dropped off a little. Her activists tend to imagine Sturgeon as faced down by a hostile media establishment, and their uncritical defence of her, therefore, as inherently chivalrous and heroic. This belief does not accurately reflect actual reporting and is merely based on the a priori assumption that journalists are “unionist” and so hostile to the SNP and its leader. Alex Salmond was indeed openly vilified. Jeremy Corbyn and even, lately, Theresa May have suffered similar fates.

Sturgeon, by contrast, has drawn considerable praise, particularly since the EU referendum, even in actively unionist newspapers that openly dislike her aims. Following Brexit, a Guardian editorial that was openly dismissive of Corbyn was headlined “Sturgeon speaks for Britain”. Sturgeon seems, uniquely, to have establishment sympathy – on a personal basis, at least – and a cultish, populist, anti-establishment following.

How can we explain this unusual synthesis? Certainly, Sturgeon is a strong debater, skilled at commanding facts and bludgeoning opponents, and she took principled positions on immigration and war long before any Labour leader was willing to do so. Yet, of all UK leaders since 2007, Sturgeon seems the least impacted by the unfolding of recent events that reflect the crisis of neoliberalism. She seems stuck in another era. Her success seems to refute the assumption that successful leaders are intellectually in command of the world political moment.

David Torrance observes in his biography of her that: “Sturgeon revealed her relatively weak grasp of economics in her failure (like Salmond) to offer any coherent response (or indeed any response at all) to the 2007–08 economic crash beyond a retreat into simplicities: that only independence could end austerity, that the downturn was due to a failure of Westminster regulation (with which the SNP had concurred) and that a swift return to ‘growth’ would put right numerous economic difficulties.” Since then, Sturgeon has attempted to sketch the general politics of market capitalism since the crisis, most notably in her recent speech at Stanford University.

But Sturgeon’s worldview is the classic, 1990s “Third Way” model that has collapsed everywhere else: this may account for her popularity with nostalgic “centrist dads”, including many journalists, but it becomes peculiar when we remember that the SNP is usually – and rightly – considered an anti-establishment reaction to the crisis and its aftermath. The Third Way formula, combing openness to market globalisation with social inclusion, has been central to the intellectual outlook of every Scottish administration, SNP or Labour, since 1999. Sturgeon’s Stanford speech reiterated its basic message: “we can only sustain support for a dynamic and open economy if we do more to build a fair and inclusive society”. Leaning in two opposing directions, the speech was hailed by commentators with wildly different agendas, each seeking the ear of a powerful, popular leader. Michael Fry welcomed a swashbuckling conversion to turbo-capitalism, calling it “liberal in economic terms”. CommonSpace, meanwhile, found in it a return to social democracy, arguing that, while the speech sounded Blairite, where “she differed was a strong emphasis on responsible decision making in diplomacy and matters of conflict and additionally a focus on making sure that ‘openness’ meant the majority of people were benefiting”.

Reading these words, it’s unclear how, precisely, this differs from a broadly New Labour philosophy. Would Blair really disagree with diplomacy in matters of conflict and the majority of people benefiting from globalisation? In practice, certainly; rhetorically, almost certainly not. These sound like words lifted straight from one of his speeches, and their vagueness leaves everything down to interpretation. The real difference is Sturgeon is trusted and Blair is not. But both developed their approach to governing capitalism in an era where social democrats laid down their defences to the inevitability of markets, and sought to channel the latter to achieve progressive aims.

Today, Western leaders of all ideologies are increasingly admitting you can’t pursue liberalised world markets and equality as two harmonious projects. The two goals actively conflict. This is what separates Blair’s ideological era, with its underlying foundation in the booming debt economy, and the post-2007 situation. Attempts to rebalance the formula have exposed underlying disorder in capitalist democracies. Mainstream parties are trying to adapt to this realisation and remain electorally popular while also fulfilling the reforms demanded by financial markets and minority neoliberal interests. This is the challenge of capitalism in the developed world today: the rise of so-called populism is the dominant political expression of it.


Rather than offering answers to this conflict between markets and equality, Sturgeon simply restates it. At its worst, in the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy for Independence, the formula becomes: “A competitive economy and a fairer society: two sides of the same coin.” At best, in Sturgeon’s clearest effort at acknowledging the conflict, she cites Stiglitz’s claim that the inequalities of American and British capitalism are harmful to growth, and applauds the post-War German Ordoliberal state and the Nordic model. However, Sturgeon does not identify the two factors that account for the actual differences between Anglo-American and Scandinavian capitalism, namely (much) higher personal taxation and relaxed trade union laws.

The SNP has been vague about whether an independent Scotland would allow either. Stephen Boyd, remarking on this, says: “Not a single voice on the left of the Yes campaign managed to summon the intellectual honesty to admit that the Nordic society they desire and promote so relentlessly simply cannot and will not be funded on current levels of taxation”. This verdict is both bad-tempered and technically untrue, but it contains more than a hint of truth. A low tax Nordic model is like a fat free Mars bar, either a fantasy or a sickly concoction that has lost all the flavour of the original. Under global economic pressure for more than two decades now, the Nordic countries have begun experimenting with moves to neoliberal norms, and, as a result, they are wracked with endemic social problems and the rise of xenophobic parties. Notably, the UK Tories have stolen a neoliberal policy idea or two from Sweden. Too often, the contrast between the two models is both exaggerated and ill-defined.

Populism, right-wing and left-wing, has become the dominant expression of the crisis of the stable centrist politics of the 1990s and 2000s. In socio-political terms, the SNP is a mirror of these movements, moving into the depressed urban spaces vacated by a centre-left party – Scottish Labour – that pursued development through the debt economy. However, the national question has allowed Sturgeon to exploit disenchantment without modifying her underlying ideas. While moderate liberal leaders elsewhere have been forced to acknowledge, for instance, the argument in Piketty’s Capital – which, regardless of its technical merits, asserts that capitalist development has an inbuilt tendency to growing inequality unless checked by massive, disturbing interventions – Sturgeon has been unmoved. At least part of her appeal consists in permitting nostalgia for the 1990s, as if the fondly remembered features of that era, its easy credit, rising incomes, moderate inclusiveness, can be restored once Westminster, the barrier to development, has been removed. This is only one side to the SNP’s attraction.

Another, as Neil Davidson observes, has been the Yes campaign’s effective channelling of nostalgia for the post-War British welfare state as the Tories and Liberals set about dismantling it. However, while this latter certainly helps explain the influx of left-inclined members into the SNP, Sturgeon rarely casts up these memories and seems only partially influenced by old fashioned social democracy. Her influences reflect her first era of political maturity. While these ideas remain unanimously popular among liberal journalists, they are being overthrown in mainstream politics because they are almost universally failing to win popular support, having become everywhere associated with machine politics and careerist creeps. Everywhere except Scotland, where the national question has given the Third Way a second wind.

As Gerry Hassan recently noted, the nationalists’ ascendency has been accompanied by a serious decline in its intellectual leadership. No thinkers and perspectives have emerged of the scale and durability of the likes of Nairn, Ascherson and Harvie and their interventions. The likes of Nairn et al fed into the intellectual body of Scottish nationalism – in and outside the SNP. They engaged with and were engaged by the party in serious debates. Ascherson and others such as William McIlvanney gave prestigious lectures to the party in the 1980s. Today, there’s an obvious gap between the ferment of ideas and the SNP and Scottish nationalism. Part of this is the perils of success. The SNP has in many ways become a conventional political party. But any party that becomes disconnected from ideas – from small policy ones to big intellectual narratives – eventually withers.

Sturgeon, who barely shifted her ideas after a decade of capitalist crisis, is also skilled in the art of stasis in government, or what Yes Minister once called “creative inertia”. This, again, is part of her appeal: she has shielded Scotland’s public sector and welfare claimants from Westminster’s most experimental neoliberal reforms. Nobody claims this is a bad thing. It merely illustrates her underlying political character, and the source of her attraction to progressives in an era of defeats for leftist politics. She is a stabiliser and a crisis manager, endlessly positioning the government without trying to change the debate and, ultimately, this is what “progressive” Scotland seems to want: a shield rather than a sword. It’s difficult, however, to imagine how this leads to the upheaval of independence. Habituating the country to nationalist rule is just as likely to lead to exhaustion, as any Scottish Labour politician can tell you.

Interestingly, Sturgeon’s one attempt at a serious manoeuvre – under duress – has also exposed her weaknesses. Following the Brexit vote, she pushed for a new referendum on Scottish independence, seemingly confident that the Scottish middle class were now exhausted with Westminster. Instead, her tactics disenchanted many pro-Brexit Yes voters, while the middle classes who loathe Brexit the most have been unwilling to make an economic sacrifice for their essentially aesthetic cosmopolitan value system. The SNP’s recent troubles exposed the underlying tension between Sturgeon’s pro-globalisation, Third Way perspective and the SNP’s new populist roots.

On many issues the SNP retain the moral upper hand over the average Labour politician. This will make them difficult to dislodge. Taxation aside, they usually pitch to Labour’s left, or occupy the same centrist ground. Yet the suspicion remains that Scotland’s peculiar structures have allowed Sturgeon to evade hard choices. Devolution structurally separates Scotland from actual decisions on international affairs, which is precisely the area where the SNP has developed its thriving liberal-left reputation, and, of equal importance, from responsibility for raising the bulk of tax revenue. Independence would expose harsh choices. Will NATO permit Scotland’s membership if the government plans to slash military spending and scrap Europe’s nuclear “defence”? Will Scotland’s external creditors allow the country to spend vast amounts on new services without higher taxes (considering Sturgeon believes the latter always leads to falling revenues)? Would a substantial anti-immigrant sentiment emerge when Scotland controls its own borders, putting pressure on the SNP in its heartlands?

Even on basic philosophical questions of nationalism, the SNP remain divided under Sturgeon’s blanket cover of personal loyalty and party unity. The EU has actively supported the Spanish state’s brutality against Catalan voters, calling it a “proportionate use of force”. Catalonia is the clearest possible parallel to Scottish nationalism, but, under Sturgeon, the SNP has increasingly reduced the whole case of Scottish independence to the question of EU membership, and, to gain the latter, Scotland would need Spanish support. So far, the SNP has largely got away with a soft position, largely because the Labour Left find it hard to overcome an instinctive, discreditable sympathy for the Spanish state. But the SNP’s tactical indifference to the EU’s real, often brutal behaviour could haunt them in future, especially if it leads to a state of moral exhaustion among its activists.

Part Two, on Scottish Labour’s role and ‘draining the marsh’ of half-baked social democracy, comes next week…


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