Joyce McMillan: Times need a’ changin’ in politics

Voters are fed up of mainstream parties and attracted by a fresh start in an independent country

COME gather round people, wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown… Bob Dylan’s great anthem, The Times They Are A’ Changin’, was the rallying-cry of protest in the 1960s; and suddenly, it seems like a song worth singing again, once more with feeling. At Harvard and Berkeley, students rage against a system that seems broken. In leafy Worcester, well-heeled school kids howl down Any Questions? panellists who propose more deregulation as the answer to Britain’s youth unemployment crisis. And in the world of economics, even fairly conventional commentators begin to face the truth that decades of downward pressure on the real earnings of ordinary workers is now causing a fatal weakness of domestic demand in many western countries.

The difficulty is, though, that while the politics of the street, and of most thinking commentators, turns increasingly against the economic orthodoxy of the last 30 years, the politics of government across most of Europe seems doomed to repeat the same tired old remedies, in ever more destructive doses. And nowhere is that more obvious than at Westminster, where the coalition government’s talk is all of more downward pressure on earnings, benefits, wages and job security, combined with pompous – and, under the circumstances, ridiculous – moral censure of the public-sector employees who are planning to strike next week.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So it’s small wonder that many British voters are desperately scanning the political horizon in search of a mainstream party willing to break the consensus, and speak up more strongly for social justice and decent public services; and small wonder that here in Scotland, they are increasingly concluding that electoral alternative is already in place, and in government.

For whether it likes it or not, the SNP has now become the party of choice for a huge cross-section of politically active Scots, many of them refugees from parties of the left and centre-left that have failed them in the past.

They are attracted by the SNP’s robust defence of the NHS in Scotland, and of free university education for Scottish-based students; but more than that, they are attracted by the dream of a fresh start in a newly independent country, one without the heavy baggage – imperialist, anti-European, militaristic – they associate with the old British state. And increasingly, they have become impatient with anyone who preaches caution on the dash for independence; the idea seems to be that if we can just get the independence struggle over with quickly, and shake off the bonds of Westminster, then the real political battle can begin, to create a truly social-democratic Scotland for the 21st century.

All of which, as a plan, has its merits. There’s no denying that a powerful process of political renewal will be necessary, to generate the sense of social solidarity that such a centre-left project needs; nor is it easy to imagine any process, short of another European war, that would now help to re-create that solidarity at UK level. The idea of Scottish independence therefore seems to offer a fast and relatively painless track to that sense of a hopeful new beginning, at a moment when other parties promise little but austerity and despair.

Yet the very testiness with which the new generation of left-leaning SNP supporters defend their choice reflects the possible fragility of the hope it offers. It is based on the twin assumptions that Scotland is, at heart, a far more left-wing county than England; and that it will prove practically possible for Scotland to buck the austerity trend now sweeping Europe, and to maintain those social values against the full force of global market pressures.

The first of these assumptions is true, but greatly exaggerated. At worst, it requires a dangerous amnesia about the depth of the shared working-class struggle, across the whole of Britain, that was one of the great driving forces of UK history in the 19th and 20th centuries; a shift away from strongly-based class politics, and towards vague national myth-making, that is painful to observe, in the week that marked the death of the playwright Shelagh Delaney, one of the great voices to emerge from working-class England in the post-war period.

And as for the assumption that Scotland will somehow be able to escape from the pressures currently forcing austerity measures upon governments across the west – well, it is just possible that a new Scotland could emerge as a persuasive leader, in the global fightback against a failed economic orthodoxy. The difficulty there, though, is that the SNP shows little more of a sharp ideological cutting-edge, when it comes to the reinvention of centre-left politics, than Tony Blair’s New Labour Party did 15 years ago. It talks the talk of sustainability and equality, but often retreats from walking the walk, particularly if it involves confronting strong commercial interests; and it is interested in social justice, but most interested when it can stick a Saltire on it, and – absurdly – claim the idea as peculiarly Scottish.

This is intellectually feeble stuff, compared with the commanding heights of socialist theory – flawed but majestic – on which many current SNP supporters spent their youth. In the end, human solidarity is indivisible; and the very best that can be hoped from any future independent Scottish Government is that it will do better than most recent UK administrations in empowering young people born in Scotland to recognise, to understand, and to express in creative ways, the common humanity they share with the whole human race.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For that end to be achieved, though, would require an exceptional combination of commitment to a political goal – Scottish independence, or something very near it – combined with a deep, intelligent scepticism about the theory of national identity and destiny on which that movement is based. It seems like a long shot. But in the absence of any better progressive project, there is a strong temptation to take a deep breath, and give it a go. The times are a’ changin’, after all. The current UK government is firmly on the wrong side of that change. And as the man said, we’d better start swimmin’; or we’ll sink like a stone.