An appealing alternative?

A guest post today from Stuart MacLennan on the Labour Party: leadership and policy. Thanks Stu!

2ldg9znIn the couple of months that have passed since the election, I find myself increasingly despondent with our hopes for the future. It seems I’m not alone in this. I started writing this post over a month ago, but buried it for fear of seemingly like a stereotypical lefty crank. But even the noble and learned Lord Mandelson seems to share my despondency, so I felt, perhaps, it was worth commenting further upon the Leadership election presently underway within the party.

We are repeatedly told that the Labour Party has failed to “learn the lessons of the past” – which is true. Unfortunately for us, far too many people who are keen to learn those lessons have been going to the wrong classes altogether.

In the 2015 General Election, Labour suffered a double whammy, losing support on our right – to the Tories and UKIP – and on our left – primarily to the SNP, but also to other parties too. This poses a dilemma to the party. In the past we’ve suffered losses at either end, but never before in recent memory have we suffered both at the same time. How do we address this? The fact that losses to our right occurred primarily in England, and losses to our left occurred primarily in Scotland has led people to the obvious, but incorrect, answer that we need to move to the right in England, and to the left in Scotland – and that only a total separation between Scotland and England enables this.

Chasing voters is the most cynical – and usually least effective – way of doing politics. “People voted for X, so if we’re more like X then they’ll vote for us instead.” This is utter nonsense, and Scottish politics illustrates this. In response to a sizeable number of former Labour voters voting for Scottish independence, Jim Murphy sought to woo them back by being more “patriotic”. But if you vote for the SNP because you’re an existential nationalist, why on earth would you vote for Labour because they’re a bit nationalistic, but nothing like as much as the SNP? The answer is, of course, that you wouldn’t.

Nonetheless, this is the exact same approach that is advocated by fellow vote-chasing cynical Blairite, Liz Kendall. Kendall’s answer to Labour’s lack of electoral appeal is, as Yvette Cooper put it, to swallow the Tory manifesto. Think about this from the same perspective as above: if you support the Conservative position on most things, why would you vote for a party that’s basically the same, just a bit less so? The answer, again, is that you wouldn’t.

The need for an alternative

Opposition parties are at an incredible disadvantage. Not just in terms of resource (although having the machinery of the civil service to work out your policies for you is an undoubted advantage over reliance upon Short Money staffers) but because Britain is an inherently conservative country. That is not to say that the majority of Britons are ideologically right-wing, but that we are inherently suspicious of change. That suspicion can be overcome, but the strong presumption in the minds of British electors is that the devil you know is always preferable.

So the first task in winning elections from opposition is persuading voters to defy their conservative tendencies and agree that an alternative to the present government is desirable. Sometimes you can get lucky – as Tony Blair did – and find yourself up against a government of whom the electorate have grown so tired that you barely have to make this argument. David Cameron arguably benefitted from such a sentiment, as did Wilson in 1964; but this alone is not enough to propel you to Number 10. Labour undoubtedly made this case well in the late 80s, which spurred the Conservative Party – and subsequently the electorate – to agree that a change was needed (which, unfortunately for Neil Kinnock, was not him). Similar observations could be made of Tony Blair’s Government in 2005. On both occasions incumbent governments of whom the electorate had grown tired were not challenged by opposition alternatives that the electorate found remotely attractive.

In 2015, contrary to the “Red Ed” dogma that appears to permeate the Blairite right since the election, Labour’s economic message was, in fact, a conservative one. There can be little doubting that we accepted the premise of the Conservatives’ economic message. Our own economic position was “we’ll be basically like the Tories, but shitter at it”. For this reason, we fundamentally failed the first test for winning elections from opposition – that we need an alternative. If you believe that the Tories’ approach to the economy is the right one, then why on earth would you vote for Tory-lite? Why have the shandy when you can have Special Brew? On this basis, Labour fundamentally failed to persuade the electorate that an alternative to the present government’s approach was either needed, nor desirable.

Therefore, once you have achieved the difficult task of persuading the electorate that an alternative to the present government is required, you then have to persuade them that you are an appealing alternative. The prerequisite of this step is that you actually have to be an alternative.

The need for an appealing alternative

Having made it through stage one – either by accident or by design – it then follows that you have to adequately meet the second test. That is to say, that the electorate, now convinced of the need for an alternative to the present officeholders, have to believe that you are the alternative that they crave. Failing this second test will result in people either plumping for what they know, or those who crave a change looking elsewhere. So it’s not simply enough to be an alternative, you have to be an appealing alternative.

In 2015, Labour suffered the catastrophic double-whammy of failing both tests.

As I detailed above, by the mid-90s Labour did not have to do very much to persuade voters that an alternative was required. However, for all he was painted as a centrist, Tony Blair’s Labour was distinctive to an extent. In the same way that Wilson focused on technology and modernisation, New Labour – at the very least – embodied an energetic renewal of Britain’s stuffy politics. It wasn’t radical, though it was distinctive; and, crucially, New Labour smacked of managerial competence and personal appeal – which by this stage was the exact antithesis of John Major’s government.

It is not necessary to stray particularly far onto your opponents’ political turn in order to win office. For all his critics on his own side might have decried him for being the “Heir to Blair”, there has never been much doubt that David Cameron is planted firmly on the political right. Certainly, Margaret Thatcher never felt it necessary to embrace any part of the Labour platform in order to win office, and comfortably retain it.

But I do not advocate that was is needed is an alternative that is necessarily radical, but rather, an alternative that has mass appeal. Our platform in 2015 was anything but appealing. Our offering to the public was composed of a handful of minor platitudes to the left and right. The gist of the 2015 manifesto was:

• “Banning zero-hours contracts” – except that hardly anyone is actually on a zero-hours contract and a lot of the people who are, it turns out, actually quite like them;
• “Ending the bedroom tax” – a noble pursuit, except, again, it’s something that hardly anyone has actually been affected by;
• “Cutting tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000?” – we’re going to cripple students with *slightly* less debt;
• “NHS” – Britain’s answer to motherhood and apple pie.

Where is the appeal to the masses? Where is the distinctive position? It’s certainly a long way from the radical platforms upon which the governments of 1945 and 1979 were elected.

Is all lost for the Kendallites?

Those adherents to the Kendall-cause aren’t entirely without hope. It might well be that – for reasons unrelated to policy – the present conservative government might become so unpopular that the electorate seeks out another conservative government – just one that isn’t run by the Tories. But unless it transpires that David Cameron and George Osborne are manifestly corrupt and/or incompetent (which they’re not) then the Liz Kendall approach to leadership – which is, ostensibly, following voters – is doomed to failure.

We cannot win elections by chasing voters and, worse still, following our opponents. It may be an article of faith to the Blairites in England, and the Trots in Scotland, but the mountain cannot come to Mohammed. To win again, we need first to convince electors that an alternative to the approach of this Conservative government is required – something you cannot do by emulation. We then need to persuade voters that we are the alternative that they crave, and we cannot do that with insipid, piecemeal policies aimed at a fraction of a percent of voters at a time.

In 1945, we fought an election ostensibly on the issue of housing. Its mass appeal is that everyone needs a house and we didn’t have enough of them. The same could be said for today. Similarly, as a population we are more mobile than ever, and evidence appears to suggest that the public are open to radical ideas with respect to transport. These are just two areas in which the potential exists for alternative approaches that appeal to the masses, and not just the fringes.

What we need is an appealing alternative. Is that too much to ask?

Labour in Scotland: past, present and future

A long read today on the history and future of the Labour Party by Tommy Kane. Thanks Tommy!

left_turn_only_by_awetumjoygasmEarlier this month the well known political commentator Peter Kellner contentiously challenged the Labour Party to ask itself ‘why it would be invented if it did not exist’. There were no such doubts about the purpose of the Labour Party when it was formed in 1900. The 129 delegates there passed Keir Hardie’s motion to establish ‘a distinct Labour group in Parliament’ and did so with the full intention of ‘promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour’.  The rationale behind the creation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), that 6 years later would become the Labour Party, was clear. They were determined that the LRC would provide political representation to working people and to fight for them within – and against – a political and economic system that hitherto had exploited them and continuously wrought misery and poverty to them, their families and their communities.

As alluded to by Kellner, 115 years later that clarity of purpose is lacking, the Labour Party is facing an identity crisis and in Scotland (arguably also in England) it is facing an existential crisis. These are integrally linked challenges. Labour’s fight for survival is undoubtedly related to the aforementioned identity crisis and a vagueness and confusion over its purpose. Complicating matters further is the divergence of worldviews and ideological terms of reference that currently co-exist within the Labour Party. From Progress and Movement for Change in one corner to the Campaign for Socialism (In Scotland) and its sister organisation, the LRC (in England and Wales), on the other it often appears the much-heralded Labour broad church is stretching the metaphor way beyond its original meaning.

May’s General Election result has understandably provoked a period of introspection in the Labour Party. In Scotland the unprecedented result, which saw all but one of Labour’s MPs lose their seats and the leadership of  the divisive Blairite Jim Murphy come to a shuddering halt after only 6 months, the Labour Party appears unsure how to stop the (apparent) SNP juggernaut.  In England Ed Miliband, despite a decently progressive prospectus which proposed limited state intervention in the energy and housing market as well as challenging the use of zero hour contracts (though still nowhere near clear enough on Labour’s purpose, not least in the confused message over austerity) has carried the can for Labour’s electoral defeat.

The unexpected but disastrous reality of five years of a destructive and cruel Tory Government has, in apportioning blame almost exclusively in the direction of Miliband, exposed the ideological divide in the Labour Party. Centrist policies that accept austerity, and based on a discourse the Tories would be proud of, have been voiced by most Labour leadership hopefuls, while New Labour apparatchiks have emerged from under their stones with attacks on Ed Miliband for being too ‘left-wing’ (if only) (a simplistic analysis without evidence, obviously based on their own biased ideological worldview and found to be flawed by pollsters such as John Curtice). All appear to be falling over themselves to centre their vision on ‘aspiration’ – code for acceptance of inequality, individualism and greed – with recipients of social security and immigrants seen as fair game and who, following the New Labour logic, seemingly don’t aspire towards enjoying a better and more prosperous life.

Some leadership hopefuls retort ‘this is what we heard on the doorstep and we must respond to it’. This type of response since the election exposes the lack of purpose and ideological incoherence by some who reside within the 2015 Labour Party. Politics is about leadership as well as listening. It is also about having an understanding of and explaining the fundamental failings (not least the growing inequality) in and of the system and its exploitative character, for example its dependence on cheap labour enabled by the (EU) free movement of Labour and its need for a pool of unemployed.

Labour should also be about offering a vision of a fairer society which would allay the genuine concerns and fears that people have. This must include a policy programme, paid for by economic policies of redistribution that invests in housing and public services, encourages and facilitates public ownership, creates jobs and makes work fairer and better paid. Labour should also be articulating a vision that sees workers and communities empowered and given control of their lives via decision-making influence over their workplaces and in their communities. Taking such an approach would also necessitate an explanation of how recipients of benefits and immigrants are victims of the system, not the cause of problems within it. Labour should be confident enough to build a narrative around a positive vision of how they want society to be and how they will achieve it: rather than the ideologically and morally timid reaction to immigration and welfare that it peddled before, during and since the General Election.

What of ‘labour’ itself? We are told by Kellner and his ilk in the political class and commentariat that the Trade Union movement is a busted flush. If that were so, why do the right wing media and Tories spend so much time attacking them? The reason, of course, is that organised labour remains the biggest threat to the system that they benefit from, defend and propagate. But the tension between the Trade Unions and some within the Labour Party is palpable. Too many, like Murphy in Scotland, appear to see the unions as a bigger enemy than the tax avoiders and tax evaders, the market rigging spivs and wide boys of the City of London. This tension is seeing that relationship almost reach tipping point; a point that is increasingly topical in Scotland. The link must be defended and sustained if Labour is to have any chance of recovery, if broken then the Labour Party, as we know it, will also be broken.

How does Labour recover from here?

So where else does Labour go from here? Nationally, Jeremy Corbyn, the first properly socialist candidate since 1988, with a clear anti-austerity and redistributive message, has got on the ballot paper for the leadership with an agenda that is clearly about challenging, not safely managing, capitalism and neo-liberal orthodoxy and for the benefit of ordinary people, both those in work and others dependent on social insurance. Corbyn offers a politics that recognises the fundamental inequality in our society, and that accepting it should never be the purpose of the Labour Party. If Labour does accept this brand of politics and austerity then Kellner is right. After all why would you need to create another party to manage the system, and oversee its reconstruction in favour of the wealth and powerful as is happening at the moment, when there is a political party already in existence that has proven fairly adept at it over the past century or two?

Nevertheless, whether he wins or not (and OMOV makes it less predictable than some are suggesting) Corbyn’s candidature illustrates, just as Neil Findlay’s leadership bid did in Scotland, the enduring strength and ideas of the left in the Labour Party, despite proclamations otherwise by the various left factions currently doing the rounds in Scotland. Albeit, it also exposes the tensions and differences that co-exist within the Party. If Jeremy Corbyn was to win (despite being a non-believer I’m almost seeking divine intervention to help make it happen) one can only imagine how the Progress wing will react? Conversely, if some of the others win, particularly Liz Kendall with her strong Blairite message, it’s safe to assume that a significant proportion of the membership and affiliates will feel doomsday has finally happened.

In Scotland the SNP finds itself in an unprecedented position of power and Labour is unsure how to react. Agreed amongst all is the need for a root and branch review of internal organisation, campaigning, policy and politics. Only with such a review, intent on clarifying Labour’s purpose can there be a base for recovery. Unfortunately, many are focused on debates over internal structures, most prominently the outgoing leader Jim Murphy who had the temerity to think he could direct the future rules of the party despite knowing he was soon to depart as leader. A ridiculous situation, akin to a football manager sacked after relegation deciding what new players the new manager would buy for the following season.

A structure that Labour in Scotland must change is its relationship with the wider UK party. Scottish Labour must, for practical as well as political reasons, make its own policies and take its own positions, perhaps a federal structure in an increasingly federal UK? New powers coming to Holyrood necessitate an autonomous Scottish Labour in some shape or form. Similarly, if Labour takes a rightward drift down south, then Labour in Scotland must be able to distance itself from that agenda. Only then can Scottish Labour take on the opportunist SNP who give an appearance of progressiveness but in essence are no such thing. That said, measures towards autonomy will only be as politically effective as Scottish Labour’s willingness to break with small c-conservativism and  make distinct Scottish Labour arguments that clearly challenge the SNP’s claims to represent a unified set of interests, between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the disempowered, in Scotland.

How Labour takes on the SNP and reacts to them is one strategic decision that Labour and its new leadership team must make immediately. It is right that where appropriate Labour should confront the SNP’s phoney socialism/social democracy (which is just another vehicle for them to achieve their ‘raison d’être’) and their regular construction of contrived grievance based on nation not class, and the division and the divisiveness that it brings. Labour should also hold the SNP Scottish Government to account, something which of course is the opposition’s job to do so, and which it’s compelled to do given the 8 years of failure in various policy areas that the SNP have presided over.

However, while the current nationalist dominance has resulted in a nasty and intolerant strain of nationalist sentiment the reality, which many in Labour must start to acknowledge, is that most SNP supporters are not part of that particular strain.  They are voters who instead have ran out of patience with a Labour Party that has, over time, disappointed and failed to inspire them. The more Scottish Labour bases its activity almost solely on having a go at the SNP and, by extension, the voters who voted for them, the more damaging it will be for the Labour Party.

To restore trust and to renew itself Labour in Scotland must also clarify its purpose with a positive vision of transformative change based on genuinely socialist policies. Labour must understand both the current and forthcoming powers coming to the Scottish Parliament and work out how best to use them to tackle the scandal that is health and wealth inequality that continues to shame Scotland. They could/should introduce emblematic policies rejecting Trident, rejecting austerity, promoting redistribution through progressive taxation, building social housing to solve the housing crisis, keeping public services public and buying back the highly questionable PFI schemes, as well as offering a vision for local government that strengthens and re-democratises it while reforming its funding arrangements. Labour must also become again a campaigning party that works hard and remains rooted in the communities it serves.

If all of this is informed and inspired by a broad understanding of the need to challenge inequality in power and wealth Labour will signal that it intends to sort itself out rather than focus on what the SNP are doing or not doing. This will send a message to the Scottish people that the Labour Party is again the party of working people as intended by Keir Hardie and his 128 comrades back in 1900. By situating itself in that historic corner, Labour will not only survive: there is no reason for it not to once again thrive in Scotland. If it doesn’t……..

 

Punching a black dog in the face (metaphorically)

Another in the sequence of personal guest posts from Malcolm Harvey, one of the founders of this blog. Many people in similar circumstances have found his openness helpful, and I’m most grateful to him for continuing to write about it. Also, even if actual black dogs aren’t always as cute as the one below, please don’t punch them.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 16.59.39At the end of October, I wrote this piece about my diagnosis of depression.  Five weeks later, I wrote a follow-up, a note of progress and developments.  Five months on from that, I’m writing another update.  There are several reasons for this.

That first piece contains the line:

I have depression and I’m dealing with it.

While this was and is an accurate and admirable sentiment, I do wonder if it might have been more accurate with the addition of the word “badly” at the end of the sentence.  Because here’s the thing: recognising depression for what it is is hard: fixing it, well that’s a whole other challenge, and one I’m probably not doing as well as I could be at.

Let me back up a bit.  After I wrote that last piece in December, I resolved to change a few things.  From 1 January, I made contact with one of my friends every day – usually via an email – which got me talking a bit more, socialising, and let me get back in touch with lots of people I hadn’t spoken to in years.  This coincided with what appeared to be progress:  I was having “down” time, but it was less frequent, I was (generally!) more pleasant company (I think) and I thought I was getting better.

I managed to keep that going until the end of March (and I still have a backlog of emails to reply to…) but then work got busy (there was an election on, dontcha know?!) and I had some conference papers to write, and just ran out of time to do these kinds of things.  As a result, I haven’t written any of these emails since then.

Since the beginning of April, I’ve pretty much been in a crater.  Lots more down time, low moods, no energy, irritability… in short, pretty much everything that was the case prior to my first GP appointment was back.  The medication seemed to have stopped working and I’d regressed significantly.  I got frustrated (and continue to be frustrated) by it which really doesn’t help improve the situation.

So back to the GP, a change of medication (which, I’m just starting this week: expecting side-effects, but I’m happy to persevere, because whatever the side-effects, they are better than snapping at everyone constantly) and enrolment on an online CBT course.  On the latter, I’ve done two of the eight sessions thus far, and while I understand the rationale and logic, and I’ve tried to do the activities set, it feels a lot like a waste of time.  Sure, I’m learning more about depression – though I’ve read plenty around it – but the methods it is teaching don’t really seem likely to work for me.  I understand them, but I can’t tell my brain not to think a particular way.

Writing this on a “good” day seems a bit counter-productive: I should really use the good days to do other things.  But if I left this to a bad day to write, I wouldn’t write it, and I think writing is helpful.  If nothing else, it helps me clarify some of the thoughts I’m having about depression.  I said the last time that I wasn’t just writing for myself, that I wanted others to read it and to recognise some of the symptoms within themselves, and to do something about them.  While that’s still true (really: don’t suffer in silence) I have to be honest: this is a much more selfish piece.  I’m writing this one for myself, to try to identify more of the issues I’m experiencing and to think through better mechanisms for coping.  In some senses, it doesn’t matter to me if this one gets read as much – though if you’re reading it, and recognise some of these things in yourself, do get in touch.  Talking helps.

I should try to end on a positive note (at least, I think that’s part of the CBT talking).  Once again, those around me have been fantastically supportive: family, friends, work colleagues, casual acquaintances who got in touch after reading the earlier posts.  I’ve grateful for that support, and I’ll resolve once again to get in touch with people more often.

Finally: this video about depression is really very good, and helps to provide more of an understanding as to how you see things when the black dog is in town.

Apex predator

trexSay what you like about the Tories from a policy perspective – like, they exist to protect the interests of the powerful, to redistribute wealth to the rich, etc – but their strategic prowess is frankly extraordinary.

Throughout the 20th century they were renowned as the “best election-winning machine in Western Europe”, and indeed after the Attlee government they were only ejected from office three times by Labour: 64, 74 & 97.

Blair’s three wins led to smug conclusions from the centre and left that the Tories had lost their magic touch. But everyone has an off decade from time to time, and besides (again, say what you like about him in policy terms) Blair was the master of his medium.

The Tories are back, though, and they appear to have developed a new art, or refined an old one: a trick which should give any party considering working with them good reason to think twice about it. They have become very adept at destroying their partners, and it is no mere coincidence. They know exactly what they’re doing as they do it.

First, the Lib Dems. It’s reported that, just after the coalition deal was inked, William Hague said “I think I’ve killed the Liberal Democrats“, and history has proved him right. Clegg’s spectacularly inept approach to the 2010 hung Parliament – and, prior to that, the supremacy within the party of the Orange Book brigade – meant they gleefully signed up to a Tory programme of government where very little was moderated and which John Major or even early Maggie might have regarded as too extreme.

In fact, sometimes I wondered whether the Tories pushed the Coalition’s agenda even to the right of where they wanted to be, primarily to destroy the Lib Dems. That’s a long-term aim I know many in other parties have had vaguely in mind. But no-one else could have carried it out so expertly.

What I hadn’t seen, which was hiding in plain sight, was the way in which this project would be used to deliver a Tory majority. My bet on them to win overall was a mere hunch, based on a lack of faith in the electoral system, not on good analysis of what they were up to. What the Tories worked out (and handed to Crosby to deliver) was that if they could hold Labour to a draw in England and crush the Lib Dems across the south, especially in the south-west, they could potentially convert a comfortable combined majority into a narrow one-party majority.

It’s a moment of strategic genius, and it worked perfectly. To sit chummily with the Lib Dems for five years, to let them hand you power, and all along to plan to take their seats off them by way of a thank-you: it’s cold, brutal, impressive. Last time, with the National Liberal Party, the Liberals would eventually come back. It’s unclear whether the Lib Dems will.

But to pull off two such manoeuvres in one electoral cycle is truly extraordinary, and that’s what they’ve done. The other victims were Labour, both in England and in Scotland. Scotland wasn’t designed as direct help, i.e. to provide any more Tory wins, more as a way of making Labour’s life more difficult in the event of an anti-Tory majority. But it was done the same way. Like a mafia don at the height of his powers, they kept their enemies closer.

In the case of Labour, the independence referendum was the perfect opportunity to do just that. It couldn’t have been a closer embrace: they effectively subsumed all three unionist parties into Better Together, and killed Labour with apparent affection. The Tories know how the left two thirds of Scotland see them, and they saw the opportunity to let that rub off on Labour. In fact, the aim was not just to drag Labour down with them, but in fact make Labour more hated in Scotland than the Tories. It worked a treat: remember the surprise when polls showed Cameron was less unpopular in Scotland than Miliband.

It’s the same trick as with the Lib Dems. Tory voters got mostly what they wanted out of coalition – and no-one else was surprised, that’s just how Tories are. Ditto with the independence referendum. Everyone expects the Tories to be in favour of the status quo, so they didn’t lose any credibility – in fact Ruth Davidson accrued more through a matey profile – but the way Labour worked hand-in-glove with the Tories immediately put the former people’s party squarely in the role of Betrayers of Scotland.

And again, they knew what they were doing: I bumped into a Tory MSP of my acquaintance as the post-indyref surge in SNP membership was underway after Johann Lamont’s resignation. I’ve never seen him so cheery, and he declared: “we’ve managed to make Labour look like the party of Scotland in England, and to look like the party of Westminster in Scotland”. It’s a brutal vice to squeeze them in, and I admit I only really thought about the implications for Scotland, i.e. the likelihood that Labour would take a drubbing in the election just past. I’ve been sceptical of the impact the “fear of Scotland/the SNP” message had on English votes, especially given how popular Nicola was in England after the first debate, but this fits alongside it nicely. The Tories clearly had a plan. And again, Labour helped them by endlessly trying to demonise a party which broadly occupies the same space as them on the spectrum. Every time Ed tried even more desperately to distance himself from the SNP it just helped the Tories… and the SNP. It’s the old LBJ anecdote: “I wanna hear him deny it.. on TV!”

To dip back to the Lib Dem example, the poor fools thought they could “take credit” for some of the coalition’s changes in this election, such as the surprisingly regressive personal allowance changes, and for even more absurd wins, such as things that might hypothetically have happened without them restraining the evil Tories. This too has a parallel. Scottish Labour really thought they were using Tory money to support Labour when in fact they were digging their own political graves through Better Together.

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 17.31.21

Obviously, in Scotland the Tories’ objectives were shared with the single-minded SNP, who squeezed both Labour and the Lib Dems almost off the board. None of this is to deny the skill with which the SNP have parlayed a programme quite similar to Labour’s into a generational shift in their own favour. But this stunning SNP success was essentially a full-frontal assault, aided by Labour’s indyref mistakes, and feels like a blunt instrument compared to the Tory moves.

I’m not sure what the Tories are up to with UKIP, but it seems certain it involves looking Eurosceptic and staying in the EU, possibly even getting pro-business concessions that will make the left very uncomfortable about being on the Stay In side alongside him. Alternatively (unless Farage completes their self-destruction in time) Cameron might come back from Brussels, declare he didn’t get quite enough concessions, and end up on the same (presumably losing) side as UKIP, making them seem doubly irrelevant but uniting his party in the process. “Losing” gracefully would shut up the “bastards” and UKIP and make the Tories even safer for business. To be honest, I don’t see the threats to him either way, and whatever they’re up to I wouldn’t bet against them.

This return to strategic form by the Tories is sadly not just of academic interest. Anyone who wants to beat them needs to outsmart them (which is not the same as tacking right to meet them). And anyone considering working with them should take a quick step backwards, too, so long as they’re sure they know which direction the cliff is in.

A Provocation

A guest post this afternoon from Kieran Hurley to raise the tone somewhat. Thanks Kieran!

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 17.43.52On  Sunday the 10th May I was invited to give a short ‘provocation’ at a sort of conference discussion day thing called “Culture: What Next” at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. The day was about coming together to talk about Scottish culture and the arts – where we are and where we might be going – with particular acknowledgement of the experience of the referendum and where it leaves us.

This is what I had to offer. It’s pretty short. It is made up of five propositions that don’t sit easily with each other, that contradict each other quite knowingly and deliberately. It is intended, by its nature, to simply spark a conversation.

There were lots of other great speakers at the event, and lots of interesting conversations that followed. For anyone interested in reading more about it you can follow the Twitter account @For_Culture_ and the hashtag #ForCulture, or if you don’t do Twitter you can go to the website www.culturalactivism.scot. I believe they’re going to have a video of some of the day up soon.

Five Strategies For Artists Wondering What They Should Do About Scotland

1. Remember Scotland

There’s a lot that’s gone before us here that we’d do well not to forget. The questions facing us today might not be that different from the questions that were grappled with by those that went before. Writers and singers and musicians and poets from a generation ago, and one before that, and one before that, and one before that asking what is our place in the world, what are we guilty of, what blood do we have on our hands, what gifts to do we have to offer, and what do we mean when we say the word ‘us’? The most formidable artists are those who can engage with the conditions of the world around them with a deep understanding of their own roots. To know what’s gone before even if only to reject to it. To understand our place within a muckle sang.

2. Imagine Scotland

There is no Scotland of the past because Scotland does not yet exist. This is not about whether or not Scotland is a fully recognised nation state. Scotland does not yet exist because it exists only in the moment of our making. A lot has been said in Scotland about the importance of art and of artists in imaging a future we might collectively try to build. Well, if there’s any truth in that at all it surely doesn’t just apply to a time-limited political campaign. Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well-fed, and art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it. The job of work now and always is to imagine and build, conceive and create, work as if you live in the early days… ok enough inspirational quotes already…

3. Shut up about Scotland

Shut up about it, shut up about it, shut up. Stop going on about it. Forget it. Ignore it. It’s a distraction, it’s a waste of time. Carry on being artists and get on with the job of making art. Art that’s about all sorts of things. Art that tries to wrestle with and shed light on the complexities of being human and alive in a broken world. Not art that functions like content generated for an advertising agency given a brief for ‘visioning’ a new nation. How can we demonstrate to the world that Scotland is this, that, or something else? We don’t. It’s not our job. Which is probably just as well because, honestly, I’m not sure we’re very good at it. No more pictures of Mother Nation type women with long flowing hair clutching thistles, no more male heroic muscular topless avatars with steely warrior eyes and national flags emblazoned across their chests. No. No more. Enough. Shut up about Scotland. Shut up about it. Shut up.

4. Chronicle Scotland

There are two things we might mean when we talk about ‘Scottish culture.’ The first is the culture of officialdom; art that is formally recognised as such and given the label ‘culture’ to denote something of its important ‘cultural-ness.’ The second meaning refers to the movements and trends within a wider, bigger, people’s story. All too often when we talk about ‘Scottish culture’ we mean the first one when really we should be talking about the second. It is, now as ever, in the big people’s story of Scottish culture that something interesting is happening, not in the preoccupation of what in business-speak is sometimes termed the ‘cultural sector.’ We don’t need to try to lead Scottish culture and if we did we’d only find ourselves trampled on. Instead we need to ride it, follow it, go where it asks us. We’ll be the chroniclers, the bards, telling sad stories of the deaths of kings and writing bad jokes about the births of new ones; making sense of the shrapnel and debris as the real story unfolds before us.

5. Destroy Scotland

Aye. Tear it to the ground. Destroy Scotland even to the extent to which it means destroying ourselves, or at the very least the privileged position that this Scotland of ours has afforded us. Like any nation on the planet Scotland is just the name we give to a set of structures, institutions, and establishments within a defined geographical place. The only art of any value whatsoever is art which seeks to illuminate the dehumanising power relations within these structures with the express aim of ultimately dismantling them. Somewhere in amongst this moment of hoping and dreaming, of nostalgia and yearning, we’re in danger of losing this critical eye. Don’t ignore Scotland, no. Don’t forget about it. Fix it firmly in our sights with the intention of blowing it up. Start by recognising that the power relations that make up Scotland aren’t just something external to us, they act within and through us and we’re complicit in maintaining them for our own benefit. Be prepared to scrutinise ourselves and each other, let the scrutiny be uncompromising, and let it be, in truth, an act of care. As we set about destroying Scotland, let’s hold on tight to one another. Be prepared to stand amongst each other naked, and be prepared for it to hurt in order for it to heal. Ask ourselves who gets to be the chronicler and why? Who gets to speak? Look around and ask who is here and who is not here and ask why that is. I’m able to stand here making these so-called provocations as a direct consequence, in some ways, of the cultural privilege Scotland has afforded me as a white middle class male, and each time I speak it takes up space which could be occupied by someone else. I have no idea how to address this reality in the long term, but it’s probable that I’m not the one who has the answers to that question and the best thing I can do right now is clear some space by sitting down and belting up.