THE spiral of disempowerment meted out by politicians can be broken by the grassroots, writes Joyce McMillan
In a small parliament of just 129 members, in a small northern country, the finance minister stands up to deliver an annual budget statement for an age of “austerity”. He’s a good enough technician, this finance minister; and he delivers a budget that balances the books within the legal parameters of his job. There’s no evidence, of course, that he wants to make most of the spending cuts he is making; indeed less than year ago, his gifted party leader ran a stunningly successful election campaign based entirely around their party’s total opposition to the cult of austerity. Yet he makes them anyway, slashing local authority spending here, trimming the arts and culture budget there.
And although the pressure of day-to-day politics compels the opposition parties in the chamber to talk as though these cuts were entirely the consequence of this particular government’s malice and incompetence, the truth is that this finance minister is not alone. All across Europe, since 2008, this kind of scene has been played out in many small nations and national regions, often with far greater levels of despair and acrimony; in Greece during the summer of 2015, or in Ireland in the bitter winter of 2010-11, when a nation that had once fought so doggedly for its independence had to watch as the high officials of the IMF and European Central Bank walked into their corridors of government, and started – as a condition of the nation’s bailout – to ask the most detailed questions about why they had not cut this rural bus service, or that element of GPs’ pay.
There was, of course, no real “need” for any of these cuts; if Europe had adopted the same path of mild expansion taken by president Barack Obama’s United States in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, most of these corrosive attacks on basic household incomes and essential social infrastructure could have been avoided. Instead, though, Europe – including the semi-detached UK – chose to make the public sector, and the poorest citizens who depend most on it, pay for the failures of the world’s largest financial corporations and institutions; and the scene was set not only for the humiliation of Greece and Ireland, but for the much less dramatic – but perhaps equally humiliating – scene played out in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.
And the question that arises now is exactly how those of us who reject the austerity mantra – including what now seems ike a majority of the world’s senior economists – can do to help governments at any level escape from this trap of institutionalised miserabilism. The opposition parties at Holyrood, of course, would say that the answer lies in John Swinney’s own hands; he has the power to raise the basic rate of income tax, and should use it. Yet the fact that that is his sole other major policy option only highlights his impossibly small room for manoeuvre; a rise in the basic rate of income tax hits hardest at average earners, and after three decades during which any surplus value in our economy has been steadily shifting from ordinary wages into bonuses and dividends, average earners often now struggle to make ends meet.
The truth is, in other words, that for all the talk of “new powers” for Holyrood, it’s a stench of fundamental disempowerment that hangs over most of our elected political authorities today. And it’s no accident that John Swinney’s most striking single act, in this year’s budget, was simply to pass that misery on down to the next layer of increasingly discredited government, Scotland’s once-proud local authorities; now utterly bereft of their own financial powers, hemmed in by regulatory and financial restrictions, and largely reduced to the status of an under-funded delivery agency for central government policy.
And if it’s at local level that the consequences of this negative cycle of disempowerment can be seen most clearly, then it’s also at local level that the fightback against it has to start. At the moment, the parlous state of Scotland’s local authorities – often mirrored across the UK – has a profoundly negative effect on the self-esteem of citizens; they come to believe that they live in a community of numpties represented by numpties, that they and their neighbours are powerless to improve their own shared lives, and – in a profoundly authoritarian and anti-democratic shift – that we are therefore better to leave decision-making to the big boys of the planet, such as the Westminster and US governments, and their friends in the corporate world.
Yet as we learned during last year’s Scottish referendum campaign, there is also positive alternative to that vicious downward spiral of disempowerment, in which ordinary citizens – once they glimpse the possibility that they might actually be able to change their communities for the better – unleash huge waves of political energy, capable of transforming political landscapes, re-empowering the politicians who represent them, and, given the right alliances, perhaps even eventually winning the changes we need in global and international structures. No-one imagines, of course, that harnessing and sustaining those energies will be easy, particularly in a nation sharply divided over the issue of independence.
Yet if we want a resilient, progressive and democratic politics for the 21st century, there is no other route than to rebuild it from the bottom up. At the grassroots, Scotland is a nation with strong civic traditions, and huge potential for local action in areas from green energy to food poverty, and the loving care of the elderly. And if we want to reclaim some element of power over our shared lives – through revitalised and much more “local” local institutions, through a Scottish government that gains positive power from the people rather than passing negative decisions down to us, and through more democratic and creative layers of government beyond that – then the grassroots is where we have to start: first, by saying a firm internal “no” to the authoritarian technocrats of the current world order, who tell us our role is to stay at home and take our medicine; and secondly, by putting our feet on the ground in the communities where we live, believing in the dignity, capacity and creativity of the people around us, and getting to work.