Robin McAlpine: Scots anger to boil without change

The dissenting voices were just aimed at public speakers like Jim Murphy. Picture: John Devlin
The dissenting voices were just aimed at public speakers like Jim Murphy. Picture: John Devlin
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SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: Amidst the pain of defeat, I hope you will allow me at least a wry smile to myself. The entire political and media elite is in agreement – politics in Scotland has changed fundamentally and nothing will ever be the same again.

Every time I hear this said I chuckle to myself. It is like hearing a tourist trying to order dinner in a foreign language – the lips move in roughly the right way, but it’s far from clear that the speaker understands what they’re saying.

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I spent most of my career in and around professional politics, much of it as a political lobbyist for a key part of the Scottish establishment. But over the last four years I’ve spent a lot of time with both practitioners and theorists of participative politics and governance. And in the last two years I’ve been deep among a genuinely grassroots politics.

I spoke at well over 200 public meetings in those two years, many in small rural villages as well as in large working class urban areas. Overwhelmingly these meetings do not involve anyone that might be mistaken for a member of the elite or the establishment.

These meetings do not sound or act like the so-called “mainstream” of politics. Alistair Darling complained bitterly about “being talked over and shouted down”. Welcome to participatory politics.

It has been a telling aspect of the campaign that unionists genuinely believe that if someone with authority (such as Jim Murphy on a milk crate or Nigel Farage in a pub) arrives in a public place and starts to talk, everyone in the vicinity must remain quiet until invited to speak. There is a new generation of people taking an interest in their society and how it is run and no-one has taught them “the rules” of elite politics. I have seen senior politicians sit in these meetings, thinking they will somehow get away with reciting the same-old soundbites. And I’ve seen them demolished by grannies, teenagers, labourers and office workers.

The other big shock for the political class is what is talked about in these meetings when audiences set their own agenda. It simply does not sound like what you hear from the elite. Leaner and more efficient service delivery through managerial innovation (usually through bureaucratic reorganisation and outsourcing to the private sector) dominates the talk of the establishment.

Simple rage at the sense society is not being run in their interests dominates these meetings. A woman with osteoporosis forced to work over 100 hours a week, a housing estate whose community centre and park are being sold to housing developers, a village without a single public transport link, a woman in her early 30s incandescent that she feels forced to choose between her career and children because of the cost of childcare…

Politicians spent the small hours of Thursday morning claiming they realised things had fundamentally changed and that they would have to behave differently. Outside the TV studios, they’ve heard it before. After the Iraq war, the expenses scandal, the financial crisis, the phone hacking scandal.

My assumption is that in a week the political establishment will have forgotten all about it and will be back to behaving like normal. In fact, that network of corporations, political parties, arms manufacturers, newspaper proprietors, bankers, large landowners and the rest have already indicated their intention to take an increasing proportion of the nation’s wealth over coming years through biting austerity.

The grassroots independence campaign was predominantly a fight against establishment politics. The establishment won this time. Had they not pretended to offer very substantial change it would have lost. Trust has fundamentally broken down and the elite will not give the masses what they want – which is real power.

In my opinion, the clock is now ticking on an even angrier reaction from the Scottish people. «

Robin McAlpine is director of Common Weal