Jonathan Rimmer

20 years on: Against the Devocrats

Jonathan Rimmer
20 years on: Against the Devocrats

The Scottish Parliament was opened on 1 July 1999. It represented the culmination of decades of shifting political plates, and also the opening of a long awaited new era. But has it failed to escape the fundamental realities of social relations under capitalism? For the Conter Editorial Board, Rory Scothorne provides his panorama of the devolution era landscape, and calls for a rebellion against the ‘Devocracy’ that has installed itself at Holyrood.

What do we talk about when we talk about devolution? This week saw the twentieth birthday of the Scottish Parliament; if that is “twenty years of devolution,” then “devolution” refers to a specific constitutional feature through which the Scottish people have recently begun to elect the governing body of Scotland’s centuries-old semi-state. But when commentators talk about “devolution” they tend to mean a broader set of changes in Scottish public life that have accompanied the arrival and growth of the Parliament; a more profound thaw, beyond mere electoral politics, in the centuries-old grip of cringe, Calvin and constitutional ca’canny. Devolution in this sense – to paraphrase the literary critic Scott Hames – is more like a cultural and political condition, a broader state of affairs only vaguely associated with the physical embodiment of “Scottish democracy” in that odd concrete toybox at the bottom of the Royal Mile.

Yet even here, the scope of “devolution” is slippery, for to express these changes it must also embrace four or five decades of cultural and political activity – by nature extra-parliamentary – which preceded and aspired to a Parliament. Scottish cultural historians often talk of ‘cultural devolution’ being ‘declared’ in the 1980s, supposedly bootstrapping the national Id out of the murky depression that followed Argentina ’78, the first devolution referendum of March 1979 and the subsequent General Election that put Thatcher into Downing Street. Political historians emphasise the divergence of Scottish electoral behaviour from the ‘British’ norm after the 1950s, providing an index of collectively expressed ‘difference’ that dominates contemporary nationalist discourse. Economic historians, meanwhile, stress the long decline of native Scottish capital that began even earlier, a slow but painful structural transformation which drew Scottish elites and masses together into a genuinely ‘national’ coalition where self-preservation and self-determination blurred into one.

The narrative that draws all these accounts together is one of compromise and consensus, as “utopians” and “pragmatists”, “radicals” and “elites”, or “nationalists” and “unionists” eventually submerged their differences in the common cause of Scottish democracy. With the Scottish Office in the hands of a Tory Party that had “no mandate” in Scotland, its oversight of our understated nation became a “democratic deficit”. During the 1980s, this strange framing of democracy as mere accountancy existed happily alongside the language of colonisation and anti-Thatcherite resistance, with the Secretary of State for Scotland as an unaccountable, alien “Governor-General”. Was devolution to be a radical assertion of Scottish popular sovereignty or a rational smoothing-out of undemocratic bumps in the British state? Could it be both?

The radical challenge to the British state was also a threat to the old, pre-devolved Scottish establishment, who ran Scotland with a great deal of autonomy and little accountability. Yet Thatcherism threatened them too, and the necessary re-stating of their autonomy followed the classical bourgeois nationalist model, incorporating folksy ethnicity and popular protest into territorialised constitutional demands. This story of devolution, however, downplays the other essential ingredient: the glowering threat of big-N Nationalism itself, as the SNP’s cultureless economism – It’s Scotland’s Oil – soldered the rotten conscience of Scotland’s grasping petit-bourgeoisie to the wandering loyalties of a fragmented working class. It was this profane threat that first stamped the ugly word “devolution” onto the popular consciousness, with unexpectedly sublime results: the prospect of an Assembly, intended to contain and manage national sentiment, blasted open the horizons of Scottish political and cultural life, producing short-lived but radically imaginative theories and projects from Tom Nairn’s “socialist nationalism” to Jim Sillars’ “breakaway” Scottish Labour Party. Coinciding with a burst of militant industrial unrest that claimed the nation as its own at the height of the UCS work-in, this new, invigorating political ambiguity allowed the idea of devolution to be invested with political hopes that far outstripped its actual potential.

The result of all this clamour to reduce Britain’s democratic deficit was, ironically, a dangerous democratic surplus. Devolution’s publicity and potential became extravagantly overdeveloped, producing a soaring discourse of national-popular emancipation that landed on Donald Dewar’s desk with a dry, papery thud in 1997. The populist hot air that lifted the campaigns for an Assembly and then Parliament was probably necessary in getting the result over the line. But the strangest feature of the Parliament’s subsequent lifespan has been that the sudden, formal closure of democracy’s yawning horizon in 1999 was not widely acknowledged by its vanguard. Instead, the activists, artists, third-sector bureaucrats, academics, politicians and commentators of the 1980s and ‘90s, bound together by the long struggle for an establishment of their own, became an illustrious, self-mythologising Devocracy. Despite everything, they still exist in the happy democratic bubble that preceded Holyrood’s investiture, sternly ignoring the one thing that always, eventually, confronts liberalism’s perfect vision of democracy with its own grisly portrait in the attic.

That thing is capitalism. It is the boring old fact of capitalism that renders the ‘progressive’ self-image of devolution’s stale, liberal consensus so infuriating for socialists. The Scottish Parliament is celebrated as having led the way in Britain on issues of public health, women’s representation, political participation, land reform and human rights, and indeed it has. But the Scottish Parliament’s “achievements” have largely fulfilled some of the most basic requirements of bourgeois democracy, holding the “universalist” discourse of British liberalism to account and little more: the extension of rights, the representation and vocalisation of popular demands (crucially, in place of their realisation), meeting basic living standards and so on. The fact that land reform is regularly promoted as a blow against feudalism is not a sign of progressive politics but treading water. Devolution’s curious surplus of ‘democratic’ and ‘popular’ symbolism allows it to drown out the howling contradiction at the heart of democracy under capitalism; that the most fundamental realm of life – how we produce and reproduce the world around us through labour – is always kept out of democratic reach. The whip hand of liberal democracy is always hidden behind its back; under devolution, we use our only free hand to shake it.

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The Parliament, despite its liberal achievements, has done little to stop or reverse the decades-long trickle of wealth and economic power out of Scotland. The Devocrats can barely even think about that. The newspapers in which they once raised the alarm about the “branch-plant” trajectory of the Scottish economy are themselves becoming the bare-bones outposts of foreign multinationals. Meanwhile, the slow replacement of a powerful, intelligent but highly elitist Scottish broadsheet press by the angry marketplace of social media is not a revolution in the Scottish public sphere but an insidious reconsolidation of ruling class monopoly. Mark Zuckerberg is no improvement on Roy Thompson. Holyrood’s relative ambitiousness in combating climate change cannot be realised if green industries are based overseas thanks to the internationalist tyranny of the market. There is more devolved governments can do on all this, as both the Scottish Greens and Scottish Labour regularly point out, but the problem goes deeper. By claiming to embody the popular will, Holyrood draws all political ambition into its sullen orbit, rendering anything outside of its remit not just unachievable but almost unimaginable.

The depths of this problem can be illustrated by a glance at the one wild attempt thus far to escape from the devolved bind, the Scottish independence movement. The 2014 referendum enabled a brief, cautious reopening of Scottish political inventiveness: the SNP, never at home in utopia, reluctantly granted planning permission for an eccentric, unstable lean-to at the side of their own carefully triangulated blueprints. This sheltered various odd tendencies, bound by a more ambitious vision of sovereignty and a predilection for grassroots power and direct action. Had independence been won, the Yes movement’s radicalism would most likely have suffered from the same institutional enclosure as the campaigns for a Scottish Parliament; in defeat, however, its networks, experience and media infrastructure were diverted with some success into coordinating and publicising extra-parliamentary action, above all in the Living Rent campaign, now an increasingly militant tenants’ union.

But with the more explicitly socialist minority drifting away from constitutional politics, the majority of the grassroots Yes campaign has dropped any pretence of political clarity and coalesced around the lowest common denominator. That the ‘All Under One Banner’ marches regularly clash with May Day indicates the low esteem in which they hold the labour movement, still our only serious source of economic counter-power. Unlike the constitutionally timid trade unions, however, AUOB are at least sustaining the demand for a sharp reopening of political horizons through a new referendum; the latter’s absence has only allowed the Scottish radical imagination to degenerate further, with the SNP leadership running a mile from any prospect of genuine political rupture with the British state. Independence, we are now promised, will not break out of our devolutionary enclosure but defend and reinforce it through Sterlingisation, somehow alchemising an explicit and specific absence of sovereignty into its direct opposite: give us just a few more “powers” and we will be a nation again. At this rate, the only thing that will differentiate Scottish independence from devolution is that we won’t be so surprised when it lets us down.

This great lowering of expectations is perhaps the most outstanding achievement of devolution’s long run. No more can we expect little old Scotland to be the wedge that breaks the world order, as Nairn did in 1977; today, we will settle for the low-bar political imaginary of “Anyone But England.” Compared solely with the lumpen democracy down south, Scotland really does appear to be a model of participation and progress: but our democratic surplus is little more than the enchanted reflection of a neighbouring deficit. Every other international comparison that should be a source of critical self-knowledge – what made us like this, and not like that? – becomes a lever of self-delusion, where supermarket-shelf policy ‘models’ from Finland to New Zealand can be cherry-picked and sketched happily onto the blank slate of not-England.

This situation cannot be seriously understood as “pragmatism” or “compromise.” The one-way relationship between radicalism and moderation encapsulated in these terms can be better expressed in a concept well suited to the prevailing social system: exploitation. For too long the left has generated the “utopian” and “radical” fuel to be burned in Holyrood’s “progressive beacon,” with little to show for it. We should judge the Scottish Parliament by its political potential in the struggle against capitalism, not its ability to measure up to some delusional ideal of a ‘normal European country.’ Scottish democracy should be breaking with the terrifying normality of ‘business as usual’ liberalism, not glamourising it. Yet the Scottish parliamentary left today is divided and confused, split across parties and traditions and largely devoid of new ideas for a distinctively Scottish way of revolution. In the 1970s it was Scottish radicalism’s job to completely reimagine Scotland’s political potential; they began by eviscerating it, sweeping away the old ideological regime before envisioning a “radical Scotland” in their own strange, particular image. That misfit nation was impossible, utopian and – in the way of all radicals – elitist in its own ways. But it was a firm basis from which to fight for socialism on our own terms, with our own cultural and political context in mind. Its subsequent incorporation into the mythic architecture of devolution now has to be reversed. Ours is not a tradition that can be fixed in its parliamentary place, stone-dead amongst Edinburgh’s other volcanoes gone dark. Any left revival demands the critique and negation of the existing political order, and the imagining of a new one. The Devocrats, safe in their Parliament, are Scotland’s new party of order. We shouldn’t be afraid to fight for a world without them.