Scottish people will vote tomorrow in elections to the Holyrood parliament, after an election campaign that has been a “performance of democracy”, bearing no relationship to the hopeful spirit of the politics of the 2014 referendum.
The options facing the electorate are woeful, with the issue of independence, for example, muddied by confusion, deception and opportunism. This has made it all but impossible to suggest who you should vote for!
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has spoken with two voices throughout the campaign. On the one hand it tells supporters of IndyRef2, kind of whispering it behind their hand, that they will hold a new independence referendum by 2023. This is hardly mentioned in their campaigning to the wider electorate.
They fear the fight they would have to carry through to achieve independence. Boris Johnson will never give Westminster’s permission to hold a binding referendum – and so any referendum would be “advisory” – as happened in Catalonia.
The idea is that they would then fight the UK government through the courts to order Westminster to authorise a referendum. The idea of this bunch of career-focused, deeply conservative politicians being up for such a fight – as the leaders in Catalonia were, ending up in jail – is vanishingly slight.
The real “IndyRef2” party is the Tories. Led by a strange little man called Douglas Ross, they never talk about anything else. Ross insists that the Union with the rest of the UK is great, and people should vote Conservative to defend it. Meanwhile, he keeps the current boss of the Union – Johnson – as far away from Scotland as possible.
Labour, with its new leader Anas Sarwar, also want to keep quiet on their pro-Union stance. They want to focus, they claim, on the real issues – SNP failures in education, employment, housing, economic opportunity and the shocking number of drug deaths in Scotland. That might have had some traction if Jeremy Corbyn was still leader, but with Sir Keir Starmer’s New New Labour Project, it is just not credible that in power they would tackle any of these social problems.
The fact that Sarwar is a millionaire businessman whose company doesn’t pay the Living Wage “because it doesn’t have to”, and sends his kids to expensive private schools, adds to the cognitive dissonance.
Labour had the chance to elect a leader who had a clearer grasp of the constitutional crisis, in Monica Lennon. She said that it was undemocratic to insist there could not be another referendum “for a generation” and also wanted to replace Labour’s right-wing Unionism with the kind of radical federalism now being proposed by Welsh Labour.
A telling moment was when Nicola Sturgeon admitted to Channel 4 news that the Growth Commission Report, which was her party’s 2016 neoliberal economic plan for an independent Scotland, is out of date because the figures are out of date post-Covid, but insisted that the underlying approach is “one that I fully endorse and sign up to”.
And just to underline the extent to which the SNP are all over the place, Sturgeon says that the agreement reached for Northern Ireland as part of the Brexit deal could provide a model for an agreement for a border between England and Scotland if/when Scotland rejoins the EU. She said this in the week of the worst riots in Northern Ireland for a decade, with empty shelves in supermarkets.
As Ian McWhirter writes today in The Herald: “It’s something a French post-modernist, like Jean Baudrillard would instantly recognise: a meta-battle fought over signs and signifiers of independence rather than self-government itself. A simulacrum of political reality.”
Totally missing from the campaign is the radicalism and spirit of hope epitomised by the YES movement and summed up in Alasdair Gray’s romantic injunction “work as if you are living in the early days of a better nation”.
In the course of the 2014 referendum campaign, the SNP were ready to adopt the discourse of left social democracy, and work with the Radical Independence Campaign to mobilise hundreds of thousands of new voters. The YES campaign held out the aspiration of a better democracy where people would have a real say and power would be shared with them.
They demonstrated it in the way they organised, with mass assemblies, non-party, non-hierarchical structures and a focus on mutual aid, youth, sharing food, art and music, care and solidarity. The YES movement had both a populist nationalist side, which continues in the flag-waving marchers of All Under One Banner, and a more radical side – which failed to survive the referendum defeat and is in desperate need of restructuring in a new form.
As Elżbieta Matynia wrote in the introduction to her book “Performative Democracy”: “What does it take for societal hope to emerge and be sustained? What are the necessary conditions for the enacting of democracy by citizens in hopeless circumstances—that is, under and despite autocratic regimes, but also in the old, well-consolidated democracies that began to reveal their illiberal temptations? What I call performative democracy is exactly this kind of phenomenon that constitutes the early stages of a democratic project or that supplies strategies to keep a well-established democracy vibrant.”
Well, we are perhaps between those two descriptions. The Westminster government is totally autocratic and brutal as it has shown with anti-immigration laws and proposed curbs on the right to protest in the Police Bill.
And the SNP government is showing clear illiberal tendencies. A case in point is the Hate Crime Law which puts women in fear of being prosecuted if they suggest that transwomen are not exactly the same as people born as a woman, or “assigned female gender at birth”, and that people with male bodies should not have the right to enter women only spaces like refuges, changing rooms, toilets; or take up places designated for women in public bodies, to ensure sex equality. If they make that argument using intemperate language, as people do, they can be accused of “stirring up hatred”, even if they are speaking in their own home. Whatever your view is on the specific topic of trans rights – that is an illiberal law.
And to then say, as Patrick Harvey of the Greens did, that if this is later shown by a court to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, oh well, we can amend it then – shows a kind of arrogance of power that must be challenged.
It was perhaps inevitable that the radical side of the YES movement would not survive the referendum defeat. It was entirely focused on achieving a YES vote and not on building the kind of popular movement for real democracy that can truly challenge the status quo of capitalism in crisis – whether that is based in Westminster or Holyrood.
Performative democracy has strength as an organising concept, but only if it is aiming for the eventual dismantling of the state structures that are the political and legal props keeping the capitalist economic system in power.
There is no reason not to vote, stand for elections as a people’s candidate, participate in Citizen’s Assemblies set up by local or national government – but always and invariably from a critical standpoint, from what Lenin called the need for “exposures” of the state, of its class nature, its inherent weaknesses and crisis – as part of popular education on the need for revolutionary change.
These are the “inside” aspects of a “dual power” approach. At the same time, we must be creating the “outside” – a new movement, with its own democratic bodies, that will carry out a consistent, ongoing contestation of state and capitalist institutions with a view to replacing them.
That is the side neglected and then abandoned in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum. It shows the limitations of hitching your wagon to the state’s star, even when the state is looking its best, in its wee tartan shoes! These are the lessons that need to be learned as we develop a strategy for today’s political and economic crisis, including for self-determination.