IN 2010 British politics seemed hopelessly static: a total consensus on the need for austerity, a two-party system so closed that Nick Clegg appeared radical, and the parties themselves staffed by an elite who all went to school together.
Now seven parties are represented in the leaders’ debates, the consensus on austerity has publicly ruptured amid the nightmare of cuts, and Scotland is the scene of an unprecedented political mobilisation.
‘Labour has been promising a more equal society for 100 years’
Britain and Scotland are undoubtedly changed. When this great era has passed what country will it have left in its wake?
The referendum has compounded Britain’s political crisis. Traditional concerns of the left have become the talking points of the population: Trident, cuts, the Bedroom Tax, unemployment, Iraq, and the democratic deficit were defining features of our popular referendum. Now, the hope is to translate this new left-wing mood into a genuine transformation of people’s lives.
But make no mistake: talk can and often does fail to move beyond talk. The Labour party have proved a masterclass in rhetoric. They’ve been promising us a fairer and a more equal society for the best part of 100 years. Good words, but shallow on deeds.
The new SNP-dominated Scotland could suffer the same sorry fate as the old Labour Scotland – its dreams forever deferred. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Not because the SNP will deliver from on high, but because mass layers of Scottish society are demanding a break with the old order, and are determined to see justice. This long after the No vote, we still believe another Scotland is possible.
In this new political moment we can draw from our history books, and learn from previous upsurges in political awakening. Astute observers will notice that once again Scotland is set to send a battalion of driven MPs to Westminster, as it once did for a very different ideological cohort; the pioneering Labour Party in 1922.
Then, as today, the Conservative Party vexed about the alien nature of the challenge from Scotland “more like the voice of Bolshevik Russia or Sinn Fein Ireland than of Glasgow”. But ultimately this can also lead to passivity – passing on responsibility to what many will regard as a heroic trainload of representatives. We aren’t cowed any more. But change takes ideas, planning, organisation and a society-wide intervention.
It is to that end that the radical left must now apply itself. The left, despite suffering major setbacks in recent history, made a tremendous effort during the referendum. Initiatives like the Radical Independence Campaign helped to recast the national debate. The left are a big part of the reason that Scotland’s historic cities of the labour movement, Dundee and Glasgow, were won to Yes.
In the new Scotland that will emerge from the general election earthquake, the radical left must insist upon the demands it made during the referendum and oppose compromise with Westminster. The vehicle of those demands can be made up of those people who were the backbone of the Yes movement: community organisers, trade unionists, campaigners old with experience and those young with new energy. And to go further, in the context of Labour decline and SNP surge, we need to rise to the fore in developing a mass pro-independence, radical left challenge at the ballot box. It is vital that we use this moment in Scottish history, where people have a sense of their own power, to begin the long process of dislodging the corporations and professional political class from power, and to campaign for a bold vision which overcomes the constraints of casino capitalism.
Today, Scotland is a land of change. But real transformation will take more than train loads of well-meaning politicians. We ourselves must redesign our society. We need to combine the spirit of the UCS work-in with the radicalisation of the independence movement. The radical left will make itself a force to reckon with hereafter – and Scotland’s new centre can be built around the ideas of fundamental social change.
Jonathon Shafi is co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign and a supporter of the Scottish Left Project