JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 30.1.15.
EVEN BY HIS OWN flamboyant standards, last weekend was perhaps not the best of times for Owen Paterson MP, formerly Secretary of State for the Environment in the Coalition government. Well known as a pillar of the Tory right, he was to be heard on the BBC’s Any Questions last Friday night suggesting that Alex Salmond’s main political platform was to bribe Scottish voters with “free holidays in Lanzarote,” at the expense of English taxpayers; I suspect this was Mr. Paterson’s idea of a joke, albeit an alarmingly feeble and hostile one.
Even more striking, though, was Owen Paterson’s response to the Syriza victory in Greece; for no sooner had he heard that a victory for the Greek left alliance was likely, than he announced that Alexis Tsipras’s new government was bound to fail, because communism failed in the former Soviet Union.
It was a ridiculous remark, of course; if Syriza uses the iconography of the Greek socialist left, its policies amount to little more than a moderate Keynesian programme of reflation. Yet this strange combination of sheer intellectual laziness in identifying Syriza’s politics, and pass-the-smelling-salts horror at the democratic decision of the Greek people, was echoed across Europe last weekend, by an unlovely assortment of spokespeople for various economic and political elites. Essentially, the message emerging from Berlin, Brussels, and London was that Greece’s voters had made an infantile mistake in imagining that there could be any alternative to the swingeing austerity programme imposed on them by the EU and the IMF; and that while democracy is all very well, it only works if voters do as they are told, and vote for those who know what is best for them.
And in outline, this represents a pattern that is becoming ever more familiar in global politics, as some population somewhere rises up in the hope of trying to create a more rational and sustainable system, and is speedily slapped down again by a display of financial muscle. The Scottish referendum was, of course, a blessedly mild-mannered and peaceful instance of this global argument. Yet still the same tension could be detected, between the hopeful insistence that there must be another way, and the flat denial that any divergence is possible from the rigorous self-serving rules laid down by the current global financial system; and part of that denial, of course, involves the caricaturing of any opposition as “extremist”, or “communist” – or, at the very least, unable to understand economic reality.
Yet in truth, the argument that is now evolving is not between fantasy and reality, or between capitalism and socialism. The argument is rather between the high-handed and ill-regulated form of capitalism that has dominated the global economy for the last quarter-century, and the Keynesian social democratic model which delivered such high growth in western economies for a generation after the Second World War, mainly through the steady redistribution of wealth to an ever-more-prosperous working and lower middle class; and the question is whether the global capitalist system now retains enough flexibility and wisdom to reform itself, as it did in the 1940’s, in ways that might offer it a sustainable future. There is, I would say, not a shred of evidence today that “socialism”, in the sense of public ownership of almost all economic activity, is the answer to current European problems of chronic underemployment, stagnant wages and possible deflation.
History does strongly suggest, though, that the answer should involve governments regaining control of their money supply, and setting about boosting and securing the incomes of ordinary households, so that citizens have the confidence not only to buy and consume, but also to take part in civic life, and to develop alternatives to our current unsustainble relationship with the planet’s physical resources. And history suggests, too – above all in this week of the holocaust memorial – that this kind of path also tends to reduce the social strains that encourage intolerance, hatred, and the most violent forms of racism.
And it’s only if we recognise this tension between two models of capitalism as the key debate of our time, that many features of our current political landscape begin to make sense. It largely accounts, for example, for the huge current popularity of the SNP, which has consciously positioned itself as a far more vocal defender of Britain’s social-democratic post-war settlement than the Labour Party. It accounts for the fact that although the SNP is a more “capitalist” party than Syriza, it can still be seen as occupying a similar place on the current political spectrum, as a challenger to the right-wing economic orthodoxy of the current political establishment.
And above all, it accounts for the problems that continue to plague the Labour Party, the once-mighty force in UK politics that has effectively been split from top to bottom by the conversion of many of its leaders to broadly market-led, neoliberal thinking, and is struggling, under Ed Miliband, to find its way back to a centre-left position. Labour is not alone, of course, in having members on both sides of the divide between neoliberals and social democrats; only this week, the SNP minister Fergus Ewing stood accused by some of his own colleagues of instinctively backing big fracking companies against local communities.
In Scotland this spring, though, the battle is on to determine which of these parties more convincingly occupies the moderate centre-left social-democratic position that seems to attract maximum support in Scotland. And so far, if opinion polls are to be believed, the SNP is winning that battle hands down; not because its policy positions are always clear or coherent, but because it lacks the handicap with which Ed Miliband must contend every day. For as this week’s row over the NHS made clear, the Labour Party still has a cohort of senior members who, faced with dissent from the current neoliberal orthodoxy, sound fully as dismissive as any banker or business leader; and as unable to grasp that in exercising their right to choose a different way, the Greeks are only doing what the west must always empower its peoples to do, if its fine talk of freedom and democracy is not to become the ultimate empty soundbite, without substance, good faith, or any viable future.