Conter editor David Jamieson asks who really wields influence in Scotland, and what opposing them means.
Just a few years ago, political leaders fell to their knees and exclaimed to the heavens. We would never, they promised, return to the complacency of the years before 2008. Unfettered free-market capitalism had generated wealth and freedom, so the argument went, but it also created ‘left-behinds’ and ‘discontents’, who were falling prey to populism and bigotry.
Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK both pointed to sharp deterioration in public trust in the political class. Liberal opinion demanded that we oppose both, and examine the wells of disenchantment they had come from. It was acknowledged that politics had been debased. It’s leading figures, aloof. Meanwhile wealth and power were much too unevenly distributed, and for millions of working people life had become precarious. To arrest the slide to authoritarianism and irrationality, all this would need to change.
Regardless of how much of this analysis you agree with, ask yourself: have political leaders and the intelligentsia continued their vigil against self-satisfaction? In Scotland, a mix of “sensible” sounding centre-ground politics is combined with a clamour for ill-defined but radical sounding reforms. This is practically state ideology. The panic of those early days evaporated, replaced by a familiar smugness: “Holyrood is better than Westminster”, “we’re such a great wee country that welcomes immigrants (as long as they’re European)”, “isn’t it wonderful that Green Party activists sold out their principles so they would be allowed to perform a few administrative functions of the state.”
Holyrood’s five socially and economically centre-liberal parties help generate an atmosphere of consensus, broken only by the national question, which has been deliberately purged of popular engagement. Scotland’s press has shrivelled in both capacity and ideological scope. It couldn’t have survived the pandemic without Scottish Government assistance, and is now a full member of the Scottish governments patronage network alongside NGOs, academics, and much of Scotland’s civic organizations.
More than two decades after devolution, our nation hasn’t escaped the democratic void that engulfed the global north. It is emblematic of it. Lacking the full powers of an independent state, Holyrood has been surrounded by a web of lobbyists, policy wonks and hangers-on. But the Scottish system lacks the dynamism of even Westminster, where despite everything, powers to tax, spend, borrow, and set monetary and foreign policy mean there is the possibility of departure from the status quo.
In recent years, Westminster has broken with some neoliberal strictures, while Edinburgh has remained tied to business as usual. The Bank of England printed money and invested in furlough schemes to drive public spending. But in Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and her entourage have maintained that we need to demonstrate “responsible governance,” a euphemism for austerity. If the Scottish Government has a big economic idea, it is to attract foreign direct investment, even as global production chains fail.
So who are the Scottish “establishment?” They are the network of individuals who use varying types of power to make sure no one rocks the boat: chief executives, lobbyists, university principles, quangos, corporate Scotland, and the court journalists and academics who surround the Holyrood machine. Some wield their power and privilege for self-interested reasons. But many, by just “doing their job,” quietly and unthinkingly reproduce the structures of power that cause so much suffering and injustice in modern Scotland.
Consider Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s “top-tier” politician and a self-proclaimed social democrat. When she finally steps-down, she won’t be remembered for her most significant acts: support for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (even after the occupation collapsed), and defence of Europe’s immigration regime that saw tens of thousands of refugees drown in the Mediterranean Sea. Few of her political obituaries will note the rear-guard defence she mounted for neoliberal economic and social policies, her inaction on climate change, or her failure to even attempt meaningful land reform.
Instead, Sturgeon will be cast as a rational figure at a time of national derangement (Brexit), who fended-off the populist instincts of some of her own supporters to achieve “serious politician” status. Metrics of success that see more value in a “presidential” demeanour than a substantive policy record should concern all of us who value critical thinking in modern Scotland. In recent months, protests by unions and campaign groups have moved from the Scottish Parliament to the First Minister’s residence at Bute House, a recognition of the centralised and personal nature of power here.
But Sturgeon is just one example of a wider phenomenon. The fundamental problem is not media bias towards the Union, the right, the left or any other political tribe or institution. This implies our official political divisions are more meaningful than they really are, and that the establishment can be found in this or that party, one or other faction in the culture war.
The problem is, rather, an unthinking commitment to those things we simply don’t debate. In Scotland these dominant ideas belong to the “left”. The establishment left has occupied an almost unassailable position in Scotland. It has constituted every government since Holyrood opened in 1999. How many other western countries can say that?
There’s a temptation for socialists to say that this is just a façade – it’s not real – and we represent true left-wing politics. But would government function as it does in Scotland today without the pervasive ideas that what’s going on here is fundamentally progressive; environmentalist, feminist, pro-independence, European, “open” and so on?
Opposing the establishment is the principle political and intellectual task for radicals in Scotland. Without serious opposition, we are meaningless. The urgency of this is clear – the global economy is changing. Central bank intervention, supply chain failures, labour shortages and industrial unrest suggest that neoliberalism might be coming to an end. With this comes new possibilities.
The changes we need aren’t going to come from a new website. But at Conter, we want to contribute to discussions about how we can transform Scotland. This is a place where radical ideas can be developed. The starting point is knowing who rules us, and challenging them. We hope you’ll join us in this journey.