In the early 80’s I became politically active in London. Scotland? I couldn’t wait to run away from a drug ridden past in Edinburgh, filled with recent memories of broken love affairs, family fights, my father’s death and mum’s chronic depression. I needed to spread my wings and get my feet back on the ground and that ground was South London and the joys of New Cross, Deptford, Peckham, and Brixton. I joined the proto Industrial band Test Dept and found my creative voice and pitched into the major political struggles against Thatcher throughout that decade.
The Miners’ strike, the Print workers strike and the epic siege of Murdoch’s fortress at Wapping. As a band it was the making of us, we got stuck in, organised benefits, toured and recorded with the South Wales Striking Miners Choir. Alan Sutcliffe a Kent miner ended up joining us for a couple of years performing intense vocal attacks against the misuse of state powers and police brutality. At the time it was natural to vote Labour, which was still seen as the main voice of opposition in mainstream politics, I found the SWP and other hard left factions too divisive, even if we shared common tactics through a belief in the importance of direct action.
Fast forward two decades and I’ve moved back to Glasgow, established the public arts organisation NVA, married Ann and we have twin girls and are wheeling them out (in prams joined together by string) on the biggest anti-war march in British history and I simply cannot believe what has become of the Labour party. You did not need a crystal ball to recognise that power had gone to Blair’s head and that he had entered a very weird space that he has never returned from. Most of the party elite that delivered devolution and brokered peace in Northern Ireland seemed to be mutually supporting his war mission like zombies.
Where was the resistance in the Scottish membership? However uncomfortable they were personally, most MPs still felt impelled to follow the Westminster line. That was it for me and for many of my generation, the party that had given such hope when they finally swept the Tories aside had left us utterly disillusioned and as I result I have never built up the trust to vote for them again.
A decade later and early in the referendum campaign I still felt drawn to English friends and compatriots that I had fought and campaigned with in the 1980’s, united in our hatred of continuing neo-liberal free market agendas, wouldn’t a ‘yes’ vote mean abandoning them, did we not face the same enemies? I also didn’t like the campaign being so closely identified with the SNP. The Creative Scotland fiasco, one of the first new fully devolved national institutions had shown just how weak the civil servants were in the devolved government and little real attention had been paid to delivering a progressive cultural strategy and coherent policy direction. As a result the messengers were shot, but it was poor political planning that led to the fiasco.
Typical I thought of another hierarchical government that pretends horizontality, who fakes being outward looking while actually doing hee-haw to change matters for the better. And therein lies the rub, a new independent Scotland might be pretty inadequate at some aspects of governance and managing change; we will quite possibly be poorer and at some point in the future feel deeply disillusioned as some scandal reveals secret deals for Scottish arms manufacturers , or police being surreptitiously armed, or long coorie-ins with the usual array of corporatist and multinational players.
And yet the tantalising possibilities of real democratic change are so exciting, with all the blue sky thinking about what a small left leaning progressive democracy could mean that my sulky post 90’s disillusionment gets blown out of the window. I have thought and talked about better more than at any other point about political process and how continued participation could change the political landscape for ever. Our MSPs will be held to account and many are listening because they recognise the incredible energy that the campaign has released. I don’t believe post referendum the loose grassroots network will just quietly go back into some backwater if real change is not implemented in the way the left lost their way in post Thatcherite Britain.
What is new here is the step beyond antagonistic politics to some as yet inchoate definition of a profoundly democratic participative process. It is way beyond discussions around ethnicity and the myths of oppressed nationhood. Articulate people are emerging as the next political generation; non-aligned, feisty, confident and open to a wider world that they have no desire to dominate or exploit. If the aspiration to see that manifest makes me a bit less well-off, then it’s a price worth paying. Matters could still conceivably revert back to the old ‘top-down’ ways, but I like the pragmatism of the words, ‘ it doesn’t matter who is in power, it is how they use it that counts’ and it will be up to each one us to commit to staying involved and holding our elected representatives to account to fight for those things that bring us closer to the world as we would like to live in it.
Image from David Aitchison