Jim Sillars: No answer to march of the robots

The White Paper was merely managerial rather than the latter-day Declaration of Arbroath we were promised. Picture: Robert Perry
The White Paper was merely managerial rather than the latter-day Declaration of Arbroath we were promised. Picture: Robert Perry
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NOTHING is certain in politics. I am not as sure as others that, when votes are counted on 5 May, it will all pan out as the opinion polls indicate at present – SNP majority, Tory vote up, and the rest also-rans.

The political scene right now is dreich. Debate, if such an elevated description can be given to what takes place at Holyrood, is standard fare. Labour says A&E waiting time targets are not being met, and the SNP replies that the NHS has never had so much spent upon it. No one asks why arbitrary chosen times are the way to judge the qualitative value of medical care. Education is failing say the opposition, no it isn’t says the SNP.

It has become a boring predictable ding-dong that adds nothing to public knowledge of the complexities of rationing health care (which is the way we do it here, rather than ration by money as in the US), or how to really remove the affliction of poverty on one in four of our children. And Nicola Sturgeon sails on supreme, exuding an air of confidence and control.

Is that SNP confidence justified? Certainly the SNP in Holyrood has mastered the art of managerialism, with John Swinney the outstanding example – he is like a 1950s bank manager cautiously turning the pages of a small business’s accounts before deciding whether to lend £100. Well conducted managerialism requires administrative competence, mastering of the civil service brief, and on that score SNP ministers do well.

But where over the past five years has there been the dynamism or imagination to set parts of Scotland on fire with new possibilities, lifting the depression that lies upon so many with ideas that will truly lift them on to a new level of life?

The major SNP document of the past five years was the independence White Paper in 2014. Many have forgotten that Alex Salmond said it would be as eloquently written as the Declaration of Arbroath. It did not sparkle – it was the essence of managerialism, punting change-no-change, a political dumpling.

The SNP dominance is due, I suggest, less to an outstanding radical record but more to the abysmal performance by Labour, a body still not able to grasp that its adherence to unionism in 2014 was atomic-style self-destruction. Watching Labour now is like gazing at a big rainfall in the desert (it does happen) disappearing, as if it had never existed.

With but a few weeks to run until May, it is difficult to imagine a Labour revival. Until it resolves its identity crisis, whether it is an independent political body or a branch of the UK unionist Labour party, which cannot help but decry Scotland’s potential, I cannot see any recovery. It isn’t about nomenclature, but the implications of it. An independent Scottish Labour Party will think and act for itself, and that will open up areas of policy and ideas about independence that are not possible if you are in lock-step with big brother in the south.

But enough of the present. It is the future of society that worries me. A future that is coming down the technology track at gathering speed, seemingly unnoticed by our political class, whether they be of the left, right or centre. Academics have written books about it, columnists have drawn attention to it and Bill Gates has called for debate about it. A few months ago four experts gave a seminar about it in Downing Street. The Chief Economist of the Bank of England gave a speech to the TUC about it, warning of 11 million jobs disappearing in Britain. Yet it does not figure in political debate. I refer to the phenomenal advances in Artificial Intelligence, the robot community.

As one expert author has written, what do we do when the signs go up “no humans required”? Who will control the robots, who will own the wealth they produce, how will that wealth be distributed and gross inequalities avoided? Has 21st century democratic socialism any answers? This is a more important issue for the socialist movement than any that will present itself to us on 5 May.

• Jim Sillars is a former MP for Labour and the SNP, as well as a former official at the STUC. This article appears in the March/April edition of the Scottish Left Review