Joyce McMillan: Imagination can beat authoritarians

"Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation", Alasdair Gray said. Picture: Jayne Emsley
"Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation", Alasdair Gray said. Picture: Jayne Emsley
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Time to take the narrative into our own hands and stop asking permission, writes Joyce McMillan

Know your enemy. It is the first rule of war, and of the proxy ­warfare we call politics. Yet in the weeks since the general ­election, it has been comprehensively broken, by left and centre-left political actors and analysts across the UK; so much so that when Boris Johnson appears on the political stage waving his supremely hypocritical olive branch, the temptation for many must be to knuckle under and take the proffered pudgy hand, purely because, from a ­Westminster perspective, the Prime Minister and his backers seem like the only functioning political game in town.

In the aftermath of the ­election, it seems that the ­primary impulse of many among the losing parties has not been to understand the force that defeated them, but to use the election result as a stick with which to beat old enemies on their own side, and to refight the ever more bitter internecine battles of the last two decades.

READ MORE: The year ahead in politics

For Labour Blairites, for example, this result is the chance to take back the party which they believe was somehow stolen from them, between 2010 and 2015. For ­Corbyn supporters, by contrast, it is the final bitter fruit of the Blairite betrayal of the British working class, which hollowed out Labour ­support in areas like the ex-industrial north. Either way, the aim seems to be to return to something lost; nor, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s impressive electoral victory in Scotland, is the SNP, the third party at Westminster, entirely free of similar yearnings and recriminations.

Yet the most cursory examination of the Conservative Party and government that won power last month confirms that no past template, in the recent history of British politics, is likely to be of much use in creating a successful opposition to it. In the first place, both Blairite moderation and Corbynist radicalism emerged as responses to the four decades of neoliberal economic policy imposed on Britain since 1979; Blairites want to go with the neoliberal flow but ameliorate its impact, ­Corbynists to challenge the fundamentals of neoliberal thinking.

Yet while the row between these two factions continues on the left, the Tories – over the last three years – have quietly abandoned most of their neoliberal rhetoric, and begun to present themselves as a party of patriotic top-down statism. The magic money tree whose existence was so robustly denied during the Osborne ­austerity years has been found, and is about to rain down largesse, particularly on those who are prepared to eat their cornflakes, and adorn the public spending projects of the future with large Union flags.

Opposing this kind of pseudo-patriotic Toryism is a very different business from opposing global neoliberalism; and both Labour and the SNP risk finding themselves deploying the anti-austerity ­arguments of the 2010’s against a government riding the populist-nationalist wave of a new and very different decade.

Secondly, the Boris Johnson government has given clear warning that the days of constitutional flexibility and politesse are over. In post-Brexit Britain, power resides at Westminster, and with those who fund and back the governing party at Westminster – all other levels of administration, from the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh to the city mayors of ­England are, I suspect, in for a series of short sharp shocks about how little real power they have, when Westminster decides to play hardball.

Thirdly, that authoritarian attitude will also extend to individual rights, on ­matters from employment rights to freedom of movement and freedom of speech, as dissident anti-government views are increasingly dismissed as the griping of a defeated and irrelevant faction. Fourthly, future oppositions must learn how to contend with the near-absolute control of the political narrative, and the national political conversation, now exerted by the Tory ­government and its wealthy backers, via a predominantly right-wing print media whose news agenda is loyally mirrored by the major broadcasters.

So that is where we stand, as the new decade dawns. Any ­successful political opposition will have to find profoundly new ways of challenging the hegemonic power of this new generation of leaders, and those who stand behind them. The essential counter-force is the fact, and the spectacle, of ordinary people at the grassroots of society doing things differently, doing it for themselves, and making it work; from Extinction Rebellion to transformative local power projects, people increasingly need to stop waiting for permission and begin to embody the change our society and environment desperately needs. We should also bear in mind that there is no real majority for Johnsonism in the UK, any more than there is one for Trumpism in the USA; these movements only represent the largest minority, in both cases, and can be defeated by strong strategic alliances at all levels among those with different priorities.

In Scotland, likewise, we urgently need a new independence movement that goes far beyond the SNP, to build strength from the grassroots, and to look outwards to new confederal alliances, against the growing constitutional absolutism of the old power centres; in a decade or two, what will matter between nations will not be the idea of absolute sovereignty, but the extent to which the structures within which they work together are based on creative mutual respect, rather than brutal and destructive power-plays.

As for the forces that shape our political narrative and debate – well, the truth is that we will have little future, environmentally, politically or personally, unless we stop listening to narratives framed by the people in power who have brought us to this point, and start writing our own stories, about how to build a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren. Artists and other visionaries – like the mighty Alasdair Gray, whom we lost this week – do this all the time, and now we must do it for ourselves.

“Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation”, Gray famously said, inspiring a generation of Scottish artists – now, every one of us needs to begin to work, create and imagine, as if we were ­living in the early days both of a better nation, and of a better world.