Robin McAlpine: Buckle in, here are my seven key points about 2016

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine outlines his main takeaways from 2016

IT'S my last column of the year, so here are seven thoughts about what just happened.

1. 2016 is not the problem

You will read much about how 2016 is like some kind of low point for human civilisation. This is weirdly summarised in a holy trinity of catastrophe – Brexit, Trump and the death of David Bowie.

And herein lies the major dividing line for the west – which year do you think was the real crisis, 2016 or 2008? Is the loss of the automatic right to work in Bratislava and the potential loss of your offspring's chance of a year abroad funded by Erasmus the problem? Is it lack of Hilary Clinton?

Alternatively, did the near-collapse of the global banking system in a flurry of criminality and corruption lose you your house, your job, you savings? Did the onset of austerity, the war on the poor, the massive citizen-funded bailout of the same corrupt bankers hit you more?

Which was worse – 10 years of stagnant wages, the proliferation of poorly-paid, insecure work, the sharp rise in inequality as the rich got very much richer? Or the loss of privileged access to EU markets for the corrupt financial industry which caused the suffering?

And herein lies the major dividing line for the west – which year do you think was the real crisis, 2016 or 2008?

2008 was a fundamental rupture with the extreme ideology of free market capitalism as it became clear it was largely based on practices which no-one should have supported. And it was met with the most intense governmental intervention to protect the rich and their interests.

Nothing like the same governmental intervention was made to protect even the basic wellbeing of the poor and the many people who rely on public services. Quite the opposite in fact.

So if you think 2016 was some kind of monumentally awful year, you're probably well educated, free from real fear and almost certainly comparatively affluent. There is a fair chance that you went along with the bail-out of bankers and subsequent imposition of austerity as 'unfortunate but necessary'.

You will have dropped the occasional food parcel into the foodbank collection, but there is a very good chance that in the last eight years you've seldom looked poverty and real desperation in the eye.

Many bad things happened in 2016. Most of them stemmed from what you did and didn't do after 2008. So perhaps consider 2016 your punishment and learn some lessons from it rather than condemning the people who suffered as a result of 2008.

2. We don't have the words to deal with the new world

Neoliberalism and triangulated politics was a head-on assault on the meaning of words. The elite became so super-elite that people in the wealthiest 10 per cent of the population (about £50,000 salary and above) don't think there is any legitimate word which should be used to describe their very good fortune.

Despite the very obvious madness of the string of catastrophic military interventions the west has been involved in, despite the rampant criminality of the bankers, the people who want to throw a protective shield round that dirty, corrupt, failed politics call themselves the 'moderates'.

You can support austerity, you can support wildly ideological 'trade deals', you can refuse to consider any actions that would amount to even mild economic redistribution, you can be in favour of mass-scale execution by drone – but if you take a virtue-signalling position on some question of minority identity you can call yourself 'of the left'.

The old political order is at some kind of end and we don't appear to have the language yet to describe the one that is emerging.

You can be a female misogynist, a black white supremacist, a liberally-minded racist, a progressive populist or a rightwing progressive. Or rather, you can be if the moderates decide that's what you are.

The meanings of political terms almost always start to dissolve under closer scrutiny. In 2016, they just plain dissolved. The old political order is at some kind of end and we don't appear to have the language yet to describe the one that is emerging.

So I'm just using a shorthand. If you think 2016 was the crisis year because before 2016 things were broadly fine, you're a moderate. If you think 2008 was the crisis year because it showed that things were definitely not broadly fine, you're some kind of insurgent. Join your respective queues and wait until you are more successfully defined.

3. This is the era of denial

The week after Brexit I wrote an angry column which my team warned me not to publish because I was missing the public mood (they were absolutely right). It began by suggesting that of the five stages of grief, the EU-rophiles were taking a long time to get past denial.

That this is still the case six months later is indicative of an endemic problem. The Scottish Government's official position is that it is staying in the EU but will accept membership of the EEA as a kind of fall-back position. It might as well legislate for 'more sun' for all the sense it makes.

And so we've been stuck in a six-month period of manic hustle and bustle as people run around trying to look purposeful and proactive – or anything else that saves them from admitting that they have no real idea what they're doing.

We've been stuck in a six-month period of manic hustle and bustle as people run around trying to look purposeful and proactive – or anything else that saves them from admitting that they have no real idea what they're doing.

In Westminster, Theresa May believes in secrecy at all times – to cover up the fact that she has no idea what she's doing. In the US, the Democrats believe that Russia stole the presidency – again, much easier than asking why it was they who lost the presidency all by themselves.

The only thing more obvious than the fact that the old order is over is the amount of effort being expended by political insiders to enable a kind of 'plausible deniability'. Except it's barely plausible any more.

Sooner or later we'll need to face up to the fact that something has changed. Preferably sooner.

4. The independence movement went backwards

It was a mistake to put the case for independence into mothballs after the 2014 referendum. It was a mistake to behave as if, when the time came, the old case would be nearly fit for purpose. It was a mistake to allow the anti-independence people to keep campaigning while indy supporters were told there were other priorities.

It was a mistake not to react to the collapse in oil prices. It was a mistake to freeze up in the face of each new GERS report. It was a mistake to allow the geographic networks of the independence movement to disintegrate.

It was a mistake to assume that the SNP had a plan (for reasons that escape me a lot of people seem to believe that the SNP has a comprehensive and detailed route map for getting us to independence while at the same time it hasn't yet been sufficiently organised to vet the potential candidates for a crucial election which kicks off in about three months).

Briefly, people thought that we had moved forward because of Brexit. Then they realised we hadn't. Gradually people are starting to realise that, in fact, over 2016 the independence movement went backwards.

It was a mistake to appear to announce a referendum the morning of Brexit without any polling or message testing. It was a mistake to tie independence so closely to support for the European Union without exploring the consequences.

Briefly, people thought that we had moved forward because of Brexit. Then they realised we hadn't. Gradually people are starting to realise that, in fact, over 2016 the independence movement went backwards.

It was only the crisis in unionism and the continued collapse of Scottish Labour that obscured a listless and unproductive year for independence supporters. We can't survive many more of them.

5. The Scottish Government is in trouble

As an independence supporter, I am inevitably tied to the successes and failures of the Scottish Government. It means I've been unable to be properly candid about the state of affairs. But they should give all indy supporters real concern.

The SNP has a 'something for no-one' approach to policy. It is hard to identify much support for any single thing it is doing (outside the airline industry) but it is easy to identify people who are enraged.

Be it the highlands and islands, the environmentalists, the poverty campaigner, the parent or teacher, the supporter of local democracy, the believer in redistribution, the democrat, the anti-centraliser – there is something to antagonise every one of them.

The list of impending crises is lengthy, starting in local government and education and stretching onwards pretty well as far as the eye can see.

The list of impending crises is lengthy, starting in local government and education and stretching onwards pretty well as far as the eye can see. And the approach that seems to be dominant is 'kick the hand grenade another 10 metres forward and talk about how competent you are'.

At some point in the very near future it's going to dawn on people that we're right on the cusp of a Scotland which is governed by a de facto SNP-Tory coalition. Personally, I don't see that as helpful.

6. The media in Scotland has ceased to function

Set aside the lack of balance in the Scottish media, straightforwardly there are simply no longer enough journalists working in Scotland to monitor and interrogate public life in any kind of sufficient way.

There are hardly any specialist correspondents left, so on most occasions the journalist is the person who knows least about the story they are writing. Whole swathes of policy areas are simply not investigated.

And once a 'story' exists, it is recycled via the repetition of a tiny number of boilerplate arguments with no development or progress. Sturgeon is still against Brexit, the opposition parties are still outraged about educational standards, the Police Scotland merger has still been a mess, the same old is still the same old.

There are simply no longer enough journalists working in Scotland to monitor and interrogate public life in any kind of sufficient way.

I can be very critical of journalism in Scotland – why do so many mainstream outlets fail to cover any of Common Weal's research? Why is the APD cut still being opposed purely on environmental grounds and not on economic grounds which are by far its weak spot (as we demonstrated via careful research)? Why is Scottish journalism so endlessly petty?

But this is way beyond the fault of journalists, individually or collectively. If every one of them was totally brilliant, they still couldn't comprehensively scrutinise the business of the Scottish Parliament. And so, often the wheels have to fall right off the bus before anyone notices they are shoogly.

A functioning media is a key part of a functioning democracy. And we don't have a properly functioning media.

7. Scotland is in a state of paralysis

The world may well be in chaos (though again, it mainly looks that way if you think 2015 was the pinnacle of sense and stability), but not in Scotland. In Scotland we're in paralysis.

It feels like nothing can happen, nothing can change, no progress can be made, no realignment can occur because most of the players are using the constitutional question as a party political tool.

The Scottish Government manages a distinctly restive membership by telling them to suck up (say) mandatory testing of primary school children or the uncomfortable relationship between the party and big money lobbyists as a price they must pay to get a second referendum.

The Tories use the constitutional question to consolidate the anti-independence vote in Scotland. They keep attacking independence not to take SNP voters but to take Labour voters.

It feels like nothing can happen, nothing can change, no progress can be made, no realignment can occur because most of the players are using the constitutional question as a party political tool.

Meanwhile, Labour approaches the constitutional question like an ape staring at a giant black obelisk – confused, scared, angry, broadly clueless. Selling 'progressive unionism' in Brexit Britain is barely credible, but there don't appear to be two of them in a row that can agree what would be a better sell.

And so we are stuck, paralysed, unwilling or unable to move forward. When the government response to the collapse in the global economic order is to merge another four quangos, we realise that we are very much still living in Jack McConnell's Scotland.

The only way to move forward is to settle the constitutional question one way or another. And the longer we take to do that, the further closes the window of opportunity for real progress in Scotland.

But... 2017 is ours

I'm grim about 2016, not because of what happened but because of how we – the left, the independence movement, Scotland as a whole – responded. This is a moment of change, filled with opportunity.

In 2017 we can carve out those opportunities or continue to seek to prevent the change. The former moves us forward, the latter simply proves the unionists right in suggesting that Scotland isn't up to being its own nation.

I'm in favour of the former.

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine

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Comments

Mike Fenwick

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 14:08

… and it goes

a year

known

formed

written

full

Its farewell – Learn from my passing, learn from all the years that have passed..

… and it comes

a year

unknown

unformed

unwritten

blank

… and it comes

a year

yours

ours

waiting

Its greeting – Scotland: Give me life, write my story, I am in your hands.

Deferd

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 19:10

An overreaction Robin,the independence movement didn't collapse or go away it is waiting for the announcement of when the next Scottish independence referendum will be.
As for 2008 or 2016 what a silly way to look at the problems people have faced.2008 was a disaster that we are still recovering from and 2016 is just disappointing for so many people just as 2014 was.If you look at the Scottish independence referendum 2014 figures and the Brexit figures there is hardly anything of a difference between yes and no and stay and leave and there lies the problem huge numbers would be disappointed whichever way the votes went.
Scottish independence does not have to be hurried it will not go away because there are so many people now in favour of Scottish independence who are in favour for reasons other than economic reasons so 2008 and Brexit and trump don't prevent them from having the will for Scotland to handle its own affairs.
The British press and British politicians that lie and are prepared to do anything at all to keep Scotland under the control of Westminster get more and more sloppy in their presentation, their lies eventually get found out and although we do not have a newspaper that is prepared to report in an honest fashion the lies and deceit of Westminster and British politicians eventually gets out it just takes a bit longer than it should.
We in UK now live in a country where news is not reported we get frivolous opinions and tittilating stories instead,the rich now have control of newspapers and Westminster and the House of Lords and broadcasting all of these collaborate to keep the majority of people in U.K. working for low pay whilst they themselves organise our future and blame anyone but themselves.
Scottish independence is inevitable as the number of people affected by the British governments corruption rises.

peterabell

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 09:53

I just read through my 1000-word response to Robin McAlpine's comments about the independence campaign "going backwards" only to realise with a sense of weary despair that it was a total waste of words. I am now resigned to the fact that, to have any hope of success, the Yes movement must figure out how to deal with both the bitter and unprincipled opposition of British nationalist ideologues and a corrosively negative internal narrative conducted by those who are repulsed by the thought that their idealism might be tainted by contact with the sometimes crude tools of real-world politics.

To those who evidently didn’t get that memo about there being other priorities than independence....

To those who busied themselves pointing out the flaws and deficiencies in those GERS reports...

To those who, throughout 2016, have been busy rebuilding and revitalising the “geographic networks of the independence movement”...

To those who reacted by challenging the grinding negativity of the unionist narrative rather than echoing it...

To all of those so pompously dismissed by Robin McAlpine, I say thank you for your efforts in 2016.

stuart@ifoundry...

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 11:59

Nail hit on head.

Ian Clark

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 13:09

To those who see the ideological speck in the eye of the politically pure, check that you don’t have a pragmatic log in your own eye.

To those SNP apologists who magnanimously admit “the SNP is not perfect, but …”, it often sounds like “SNP never baaad”.

To those narrow nationalists who say “Independence first, everything else later”, for many of us “Social justice deferred is social justice denied”.

But to corporate interests indifferent to anything other than profit, I say it’s only fair that you got paid access to our politicians at conference.

And to you comfortable, middle class ‘No’ and ‘Remain’ voters who don’t care to see what is happening to others, I say I know just the party for you.

Ian Clark

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 14:44

I screwed up my reply above. The last two sentences should have been as follows:

"But to corporate interests indifferent to anything other than profit, Peter Bell says it’s only fair that you got paid access to our politicians at conference.

And to you comfortable, middle class ‘No’ and ‘Remain’ voters who don’t care to see what is happening to others, Peter Bell says he knows just the party for you."

This is the second or third time that I've replied to a comment and it's ended up in the wrong place. My original comment was a response to Peter Bell. A minor glitch or a more enduring problem with the site?

florian albert

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 16:26

Robin McAlpine deserves credit for his willingness to accept that the Independence cause is going backwards.
The whole idea of 'radical Scotland' deserves similar scrutiny.
The referendum campaign gave Scottish radicals an unreal perception of their support and importance.
They achieved success on the coat tails of the SNP. Once the SNP made it clear that they had no interest in a 'YES coalition', the radicals were adrift. They still are.
The logical solution would be to create a political party. The problem is that R I S E tried that and it sank.
The likelihood is that radical Scotland will continue to be splintered and to have little impact on mainstream politics.
One point worth noting is that, after the referendum, Common Weal decided to make a priority of on line politics. It is clear that on line politics can only take you so far - and that is not very far at all.

geacher

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 17:50

Robin,
You can rest assured that if you have written something that Mr Peter A Bell disagrees with and criticises, then you know that you have written something of substance and something worth reading.

peterabell

Sat, 12/17/2016 - 06:39

By what authority do you presume to speak for me?

geacher

Sat, 12/17/2016 - 10:11

Speaking about you, not for you.

Paul Donnachie

Sat, 12/17/2016 - 13:07

Always good to read alternative media on common space. I manage @scopoliticsnews @imadscotland ...Scotland is crying out for the established media to be challenged more by new media.

The main item I'd agree on here is independence should be moving forward more but it seems to be lost in the yes/no stand off in terms of % movement at the moment?
If you look at the amount of tories govts Scotland gets as part of uk its 6 of the last 9...45 years of Tory gov 1951 to 2020....yet the tories last Scot vote in ge2015 was 15%. Scotland should be crying out for independence? There is no way 55% of Scotland are hardline unionists irrespective of policies...that must mean the status quo is still controlling the narrative and the Scot gov is not getting the economic message across etc. If the yes vote is still solid at 45% survey there must be any number of scots up to at least the 70% mark who see themselves as Scottish as opposed to unionist. So why aren't those numbers reflected in polls...it must be about the message, the media, the narritive...its not getting across to the people that need to vote to get independence over the line?

stevieanderson67

Sun, 12/18/2016 - 17:24

Peter A Bell

It's like some powerful witch mixed the hubris of Tom Harris with a colourful tartan

On that note a serious point. The SNP are offering Tartan Blairism. There lies the populist problem and the political dead end. There are no "third way" fantasies as solutions to the structural and political crises since 2008. Independence offered a progressive pressure valve in Scotland. It'll go the same way as Tony and chums (Tom included) if the SNP continue to channel the steam of pressure for change through the piston of a Scottish populist Blairite politics.

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