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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