The democracy illusion

Karl Marx believed that participative democracy had a bias towards the proletariat, owing to their greater number compared with the bourgeoisie. This, he argued, would inevitably lead to the powerful attempting to overthrow democracy and institute a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” – thus, to protect their interests, the working-class must pre-empt this and establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Marx’s mistake, an illusion shattered conclusively by the election of Donald Trump, was to consider democracy an alternative system to tyranny. The reality is that democracy is merely a (superficially) more civilised arena for different “interests” to do battle in.

Western liberals evangelise around the globe for the democratic ideal. There is no such thing as an “ideal” democracy. It is not simply a matter of tweaking the constitution until an optimally fair outcome is achieved. Any democratic framework intentionally promotes the interests of some groups at the expense of others.

Universal suffrage doesn’t equal one person, one vote if participation is voluntary and turnout is low – such a setup empowers the white, the well-off, and especially the elderly. Mandatory voting on the other hand not only empowers labour at the expense of capital, but also makes space for populism on the margins and potentially allows minorities to be tyrannised by the majority. Build a rule-of-law system to protect those minorities, and you create a mechanism for blunting democracy which shores up the status quo and empowers established interests.

Which interests are to be empowered and which contained may be a selfish judgement, based on what benefits oneself the most. It may be a normative judgement, based on what one considers to be a morally “just” distribution of power. But what shape democracy should take is always, a deliberate judgement about empowering certain interests at the expense of others.

Hugh McDiarmid once wrote: “No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote | But misapplied is aabody’s property, … toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an | Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.”1 Too many commentators try to reinterpret Marx in order to lend his authority to their own conclusions. I will not pretend to know with certainty that when he spoke of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, he didn’t have an actual dictatorship in mind – perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t. But a quick scance at democracy today reveals what I believe can reasonably be called a creeping dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

In Britain – in contrast to many developed nations – we have the good fortune of parliamentary sovereignty. In America, liberal ideologues with good intentions designed a number of checks and balances to regulate power in what they believed to be an ideal system. Almost two and a half centuries later, none of them is working as intended – and chief amongst them the constitution and the Supreme Court. Though intended as a guarantee of basic rights – and a defence against the tyranny of the majority – it turns out that a piece of paper written over two hundred years ago, when guns were a necessity and slavery was legal, isn’t necessarily the optimal framework of protections for the citizen today. Though amendments are possible, the process is fraught and laborious. Worse, the constitution actively suppresses the democratic will of people today by overruling the campaign pledges of successful candidates – from progressives trying to ban guns at a state level to right-wing demagogues trying to ban Muslims at a national one. However well intentioned, a major consequence of the US constitution is to shore up the status quo until it becomes farcical, forcing the values of the past upon the present.

And SCOTUS only exacerbates the problem. The idea of giving power to unelected, unaccountable judges was to put the basic rights of citizens beyond the reach of politicking. But the rationale behind the Supreme Court is fatally undermined by the fact that in modern times, its Justices are incredibly political. Unlike normal politicians, who have limited terms and rely on the enduring confidence of the electorate to persevere, Supreme Court Justices serve life terms and are shielded from general scrutiny by an almost iconoclastic taboo. The checks and balances intended to embolden American democracy only serve to weaken it – many Trump voters wrote off much of the outrageous nonsense the reality TV star spouted as impossible due to those checks and balances, and treated the election as a mixture of entertainment and protest opportunity.

Though the US is the most extreme example, any liberal republic with a written constitution and supreme court is vulnerable to similar issues. In Britain, we are fortunate enough to have an unwritten constitution and an elected parliament which derives its absolute sovereignty from the Crown, thus (legally, by “divine right”) from God. Nevertheless, we are not impervious to the tyranny of the judiciary that plagues liberal republics.

Those who argued that the judges of the UK “Supreme Court” deliberately ruled as they did out of personal prejudice to try and thwart Brexit are dangerous raving zoomers; yet that doesn’t mean those judges were right to hear the case in the first place. Our judges are the envy of the world: in terms of freedom from corruption, objectivity, consistency and training, the arbiters of the UK’s jurisdictions are second to none. Yet inevitably, excellence leads to arrogance, and – consciously or not – the judiciary of late has been undertaking an increasingly audacious power grab. I have no doubt that the judges in the Brexit case, in both England (and Wales)’s High Court and the UKSC, conducted themselves professionally, knowledgeably and as objectively as possible; but what is of concern is that – from Article 50 to Named Person – these people arrogate unto themselves, junta-like, the tutelage of our democracy, appointing themselves the task of approbating the expressed will of the electorate.

Besides the judiciary, another major interest vying for influence in modern democracies is what Wolfgang Streeck calls the Marktvolk2. In the era of public debt, the god of policy is the bond market. Again, those liberal republics who have fallen for a written constitution are more vulnerable than the UK, because they can be pressured into writing debt ceilings or even surplusses into binding undemocratic law. Yet noble Britain, despite having never bought into the bold yet naïve experiment of the liberal republic, is far from free from the influence of lenders. There is no easy freedom from these masters, but growing our economy whilst reducing our reliance on borrowing by setting sustainable tax rates and increasing revenue through state enterprise are the best way to strengthen our bargaining position.

Another grave threat to proletarian democracy is differential turnout. This favours the well-off, the educated, the white – but especially the old. The baby boomers are the most gilded generation in our history. Baby boomers worked all their lives – in secure, well-paid jobs – to fund their own and their immediate ancestors’ welfare in a time of rising prosperity (and therefore tax revenue). In a time of austerity, “choices must be made” – and because of the size and dependability of the grey vote, pensions and retirement benefits are ringfenced or even increased, while the welfare and public services on which those of working age on zero hours contracts in the service industry rely are cut to fund them. Because middle-class homeowners are more likely to vote than the young poor, policies which boost the price of houses are prioritised over policies which make them more affordable – despite the rhetorical lip service often paid. If we are to honour democracy’s proletarian bias, we must push for mandatory voting.

Another malign influence in modern-day politics is lobbying. Whilst key players in industry who create jobs and bring in revenue must rightly be entitled to protest their interests, a system where deep pockets allow one to frustrate the passage of bills in a democratically elected parliament cannot be a just one. I offer here no easy solutions to this problem, but – as even, to his rare credit, David Cameron had the courage to point out – the system of lobbying that exists at present is a problem, and must be tackled.

As common as it is in our culture to proselytise for “democracy” as a homogenous ideal, we must acknowledge the flaws in its every current implementation. I do not proffer that a valid democracy is one that blocks Trump’s “Muslim ban”; I proffer that a valid democracy is one which prevents Trump’s election in the first place. A system that permits his election on the premise that he won’t fulfil his promises is a broken system. Optional participation is a disaster, especially when one tacks on “rule of law”.

“Democracy”, as a singular ideal, does not exist. We must accept that democracy is not a single system, but a spectrum. We must have the courage to reform the system, and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat within a democratic framework. Parliamentary sovereignty, mandatory voting, controls on lobbying and keeping borrowing on Faustian terms under control.

Footnotes:
[1] MacDiarmid, Hugh (aka Grieve, Christopher); A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, 1926
[2] Streeck, Wolfgang; Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, 2014. The Marktvolk he contrasts with the Staatsvolk, i.e. the voting citizenry.

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The Case for Market Socialism, part 1

I was originally going to publish this as a single post, but am too tired to finish this now and don’t know when I’ll get back to it, so I will split into two parts in order to put something out today. Once complete, I may join the two parts together in a single post. For now, here’s part one:

Part 1: The woes of the left and the space for market socialism

The left, in Scotland, in Britain, in Europe, is in crisis. It is not the case that the forward march of time has induced a Hegelian Aufhebung, and rendered socialist ideas irrelevant. But there is a deep confusion over where to go next. The left is split between those who want to reheat the socialism or social democracy of the past, and those who judge the task of reform too hard or the socialist moment to have passed and assert the left should turn instead to liberalism. Both these camps are dangerous. History has not transcended socialism; but socialism must adapt to meet the present.

The current rift in the Labour party, between the “hard left” and the “Blairites”, reminds many commentators of the divisions of the past. It shouldn’t. The battles of the past were between people with many genuinely good and coherent ideas who were too doctrinaire to compromise with the electorate, and more flexible characters who set their agenda – often including very bold ideas – per their instincts. Today’s camps are hollow imitations.

Today’s war is waged by two sets of narcissists, neither of whom are good for the Labour party, the left or the country. On the one hand there are those, chief amongst them Jeremy Corbyn, who care more about being socialists than they do about actual socialism. Corbyn does not have a coherent ideology – his policy is a lucky-bag of grievance, identity and sentimentalism. His championing of progressive causes is somewhat undermined by the fact that he is more of a contrarian than a crusader. His primary goal is never to achieve what is moral, but the moral high ground – and is in this sense more of a liberal than a genuine socialist.

Just as bad however are the (in denial) identity centrists, who like the sound of electability, but couldn’t for the life of them show you what it looks like. They convince themselves that being “moderates” is enough to make them winners, and religiously sculpt their image in that vein. Their decisions are not led by sound instincts about what is best for the country; they largely lack ideas, and disbar any bold ones – even good ones that are popular – for fear of looking too “radical”. Theirs is not an electable agenda, but an agenda pruned of all ambition. Tony Blair, to give him his due, was a genuine centrist with many bold ideas – but he was elected in a different time in a radically different country. The solution to winning in 2020 and beyond lies no more in 1997 than it does in the 1970/80s.

Socialism today is concerned too much with tribes, and too little with people. The mission of socialism is not to represent the unfortunate, but to empower them. To lift them up above their situation and give them a hand in their own destiny. It’s not enough to know what it feels like, to speak with the right accent or to feel angry on “their” behalf; socialists must offer not just sympathy, but solutions.

A lot of people on the left like to talk about ideological purity; there is no such thing as “pure socialism”. Socialism is not the task – fascist-like – of divining the perfect harmonious structure for society and the economy, then constructing a utopia. There are no utopias. There is no such thing as the “achievement of socialism”. Socialism is a war. It is about constantly choosing and fighting the right battles as and when they arise. Too many ideologues, on both the left and the right, concern themselves with designing the perfect country on paper; they think if they can just get the system right, everything will magically fall into place. Reality doesn’t work like that. You have to respect the facts on the ground and govern the country you’ve actually got. The flow of time will always breed new inequalities of outcome. It will always open up new apertures for the opportunism of power. Socialism is about responding to them as they appear. But delivering socialism is also about choice. It involves compromise. It can involve – God forbid! – listening to the people in order to achieve power. It involves tempering what is desirable with what is realistically achievable.

Though many would-be liberals viewed it merely as an opportunity to jettison the socialist baggage that embarrassed them, the most sincere arguments for social democracy were always those still voiced in Marxist terms. Likewise, though we must accept that social democracy has run its course, the next incarnation of socialism cannot be developed by those who refuse to acknowledge that in their turn both industrial socialism and social democracy were credible solutions for their times.

The social democratic model of private ownership plus regulation worked when the economy was largely still embedded within the nation state. It meant consumers could reap the rewards of a competitive market system whilst still enjoying socially mandated benefits and protections and insulation from the business cycle. In a globalised world where states compete with each other for investment, this can no longer work. Socialism must accept the reality that regulation on a national level cannot tame an economy that operates on a global one.

There are three options. The first is to attempt to reverse course: to withdraw from global markets, put up barriers to trade, and try desperately to re-embed the economy. Though this may yield limited benefits if done properly, it would by and large be a disaster for the economy – assuming it even proved possible. If one cannot bring the economy back down to the level of national government, the second option is to expand governance to the level of the global economy. Yet attempts at global governance have been made before, and have only been partially successful. Bretton Woods collapsed when America ditched the gold standard; the European Union is a nest of tensions and has already lost its second largest economy; and these are agreements between a limited number of mostly developed countries with similar cultures and values – any system that was truly to tame the global economy would have to have agreement not just from the West and Japan, but also China, India, Brazil, Russia and a plethora of other countries with radically different economies and attitudes to regulation and trade. For practical reasons, we can rule out such an option as de facto impossible.

The third – and only credible – option is market socialism…

The crisis of commodities for the concept of capitalism

Capital today pursues the goal of its own accumulation through a bizarre inversion of its materials. On the one had, what Karl Polanyi dubbed “fictitious commodities” – namely money, land, and labour1 – are increasingly commodified by modern law and fiscal policy (a topic beyond the scope of this essay). Yet on the other, those objects that another Karl would have readily recognised in his day as commodities (Waren)2, have been subjected over the past century to a process of rapid decommodification.

The capitalism of old relied on the notion of Homo economicus, a rational individual who sought out largely homogenous commodities at the best available price, as and when they needed them. But the all-pervading advertising industry developed by capital (through the vehicle of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays) in the early twentieth century to accelerate accumulation now does all it can to encourage individuals to behave irrationally. Advertising plus prosperity shifted the economies of advanced Western nations from economies of need to economies of want. No longer did the interests of capital lie in the utilitarian consumer: instead, the consumer had to be reprogrammed to behave irrationally, buying things they didn’t need at uncompetitive prices. In short, they had to be trained to stop buying commodities, and start buying post-commodities.

Consumers today increasingly buy not use values (Gebrauchswert)3, but stories (what Guy Debord calls “star commodities”, vedettes-marchandise)4: this car will take you on adventures, this deodorant will make you irresistible to women, this handbag will make people like you more. The transition from industrial capitalism to consumerism has produced a peculiar fusion of commodity fetishism with pre-capitalist mythical society.

During the earlier stages of capitalism, as Debord points out in The Society of the Spectacle, exchange value – though distorted by market forces – maintained an essential link with use value, because the consumption of goods in society was still largely determined by utility. In the age of advertising and designer brands however, that link has been all but severed5. Two products with exactly the same propensity to fulfill exactly the same function can sell at radically different price points to radically different consumers, simply because of a logo. This not only lulls us into a manifold of artifice (le spectacle)6, but undermines the very effectiveness of the capitalist system, because market saturation no longer induces price competition which forces capitalists to switch to the production of things that society actually needs in order to make a profit.

In their paper, The Economic Life of Things7, Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre divide “things” into three categories: commodities, as conventionally understood, and two categories of post-commodity, collectibles – broadly analogous to Debord’s vedettes-marchandise – and assets. Like advertising before it, finance has fundamentally revolutionised the mechanics of capitalism and brought about a modern economy in which speculative investment – investment in assets – competes with productive investment for the affections of capital, thus supplanting the production of genuine commodities.

The failure of the tax system to discriminate effectively against returns on productive and speculative investments – erroneously lumped together under the misnomer “capital gains” – only exacerbates this. Attempts to stimulate productive investment by cutting capital gains tax only serve to increase the relative attractiveness of speculative investments.8 Fixing this is not straightforward: a simple new-issue shares/bonds equals productive investment, “assets” equals speculative investment formula is vulnerable to exploitation via new companies being set up who issue new shares, but derive all or most of their profits from speculative activities. But if we are to find a solution to this crisis of value9 – whereby the production of actual use values (in the form of genuine commodities) is supplanted by a virtual economy of speculative gambling – then CGT must be replaced with a smarter framework for the taxation of profit.

Having just emerged from a seemingly fundamental crisis, the vague notion of “capitalism” is still the only game in town. Though flawed, I will not venture here to suggest there is an obviously better alternative. But everyone, those who critique and those who proselytise for capitalism alike, must accept that the economic system that is dominant today is unrecognisable from that of the late nineteenth century, and thus the term “capitalism” – originally predicated on the formula M‑C‑M’ 10– is fundamentally meaningless.

Footnotes:
[1] Polanyi, Karl; The Great Transformation, 1944
[2] Marx, Karl; Das Kapital, Buch I: Der Produktionsprocess des Kapitals, 1867
[3] Marx, ibid.
[4] Debord, Guy; La Société du spectacle, 1967
[5] Debord, ibid.: “Exchange value could arise only as a representative of use value, but the victory it eventually won with its own weapons created the conditions for its own autonomous power. By mobilizing all human use value and monopolizing its fulfillment, exchange value ultimately succeeded in controlling use. Use has come to be seen purely in terms of exchange value, and is now completely at its mercy. Starting out like a condottiere in the service of use value, exchange value has ended up waging the war for its own sake.” (translated by Ken Knabb)
[6] Debord, ibid.
[7] Boltanski, Luc; Esquerre, Arnaud; The Economic Life of Things, New Left Review vol. 98 (March-April 2016) pp. 31-56
[8] If Y is the yield on a particular investment, and T is the rate of capital gains tax, the ratio between the return on two investments – and thus the relative attractiveness of the juicier over the drier – is:   {{1 + Y_1 (1-T)}\over{1 + Y_2 (1-T)}},Y_1 >= Y_2 , which increases as T decreases.
[9] Westra, Richard; Unleashing Usury: How Finance Opened the Door for Capitalism then Swallowed it Whole, 2016
[10] Marx, ibid.

Can Labour win in 2020?

I haven’t put anything out on this blog for a while, due to a combination of factors: my phone breaking and being sent in for repair has left me relatively disconnected from the news, I’ve had little free time and when I have been working on this blog, it has been on a few more thought-out essay-type posts that are still in development. To try to keep up some momentum, I offer here a quick (EDIT: turned out to be not quite so quick after all in the end) piece of political analysis.

Can Labour win in 2020?

The press of late has suggested that Jeremy Corbyn’s team is planning to emulate parts of Donald Trump’s strategy to try to win the next UK general election. To describe the policies and personalities of the two men as “different” is an understatement and a half; the strategy however is not necessarily a daft one. Part of the reason for Trump’s victory is that he fought the election on policy. When Hillary Clinton asked American voters to vote for her because of her political experience and fitness for office (juxtaposed to failed adult Trump’s complete lack of both), she was asking Americans to judge her on her personal qualities and attributes. And they did: they judged her on her sincerity, they judged her on her trustworthiness, they judged her on her judgement – and found her sincerely wanting.

Trump on the other hand could not ostensibly care less what people thought of him as a person. He focussed his campaign not on who he was, but what he would do. He was going to ban Muslims from entering the US. He was going to pull America out of some of “the worst trade deals ever.” He was going to build a big, beautiful wall – and Mexico was going to pay for it. If you were to stop Americans on the street at random during the run-up to the vote and ask them to list both candidates’ major policies, chances are they’d find Trump’s far easier to recall.

Beneath the darkly farcical theatrics of the horror show of his campaign, The Donald fought the election on policy – and many of those sympathetic to his ideas and sentiment judged him accordingly. They didn’t view Donald Trump as a great potential president, or even a good person, but as the embarrassing leader of a necessary movement. They went to the polls not thinking that Trump was 100% fit for office, but that a Trump presidency was a necessary evil if the movement was to achieve its aims. If anything, amid the melancholy of the post-crash era, having a terrible leader may sometimes be an advantage, because it takes personal credibility out of the equation and focusses campaigns onto policy.

There are lessons that Corbyn, and Labour, can learn from this. Jeremy Corbyn is not going to win an election on personality. Jeremy Corbyn is not going to win an election on perceived suitability for office. Labour’s only route to victory under Jeremy is to develop a bold, coherent vision for Britain that excites people enough to make a Corbyn premiership seem like a worthwhile sacrifice – a vision that convinces people that they and their country will be better off under Labour, even with JC in Number 10. Such an offer, however, still seems a long way off for the Labour Party.

Until recently, despite the consensus amongst economists being otherwise, the electorate bought into George Osbourne’s line that austerity was necessary to save the economy. Today the public mood is more sceptical, and there is real opportunity for Labour to beat the Tories on the economy. To give them credit, Corbyn and McDonnell recognise this; moreover, many of their economic policies are both practical and potentially popular. The problem is with packaging and communication. Good economic policies seem to be produced at random, rather than as part of a coherent new economic model, and their announcement is draped in so much grievance, sentiment and tribalism that many are put off who might otherwise be curious. If Labour is to win on the economy, it needs to present the public with a consistent, credible economic programme to definitively draw a line under Thatcher’s neoliberalism and – just as bi-partisan Thatcherism supplanted a long period of bi-partisan social democracy – move Britain into a completely new phase of economic thought. Further, this new model must be communicated in the accessible language of pragmatism and efficacy, sans harmful virtue signalling.

Labour’s base has long been an increasingly incongruous alliance of the liberal metropolitan elite and a more socially conservative working-class. Brexit has only propelled this duality into even sharper focus. The fact is, Labour has long relied on (and taken for granted) a peripheral working-class that is not particularly left-wing. Were they in America, they’d have no qualms about voting Republican. In Britain, they could never bring themselves to vote Tory due to history and class; UKIP presents them with no such moral conundrum. Part of the reason the left lost in the US is because liberals focussed too much on patronising the working-class about guns, religion and social issues, and not enough on addressing the economic problems that were severely affecting the American working-class. Though it was certainly a major factor in their near wipeout in Scotland, it would be naïve to put the threat from UKIP down simply to identity politics. If Labour is to fend off the UKIP challenge, it must stop offering the working-class hymns to Labour’s history and “values”, and start offering them solutions.

The British working-class of old did not start voting Labour because they were hardcore Trotskyites whose primary concern was flying the red flag outside parliament; nor have the present working-class abandoned the party because they are disillusioned by its loss of ideological purity. The working-class voted Labour in the past because it offered them four things: security, opportunity, money in their pocket and – thanks to the militaristic patriotism of those like Atlee and Bevan – a country to be proud of. If Labour is to win again, it must dispense with vague, meaningless, sentimental rhubarb about its “values”, and desperate, nostalgic, triumphalist reiteration of its past achievements. If Labour is to win again, it must once more be the bold, pragmatic, patriotic socialist party of Atlee, and offer people security, opportunity, money in their pocket and a country to be proud of.

Furthermore, Corbyn must overcome his perceived (and actual) weakness on defence. A prime minister who makes poor decisions on foreign policy and is a bit of an embarrassment on the world stage can be forgiven if he or she works wonders domestically. A prime minister who is unwilling or incapable of defending the realm is a non-starter. Were Corbyn to ditch his long-held positions on defence issues and, like every other politician, pretend to believe in what he thinks is popular, his entire anti-establishment shtick would be ruined. But, however passionately he may hold the views he does, he must acknowledge they are a hindrance to winning an election and implementing any of his other equally passionately held ideas. Part of what made Trump electable was the presumption that much of the nonsense he spouted wouldn’t actually happen due to various “checks and balances”, including a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Labour can have six good ideas in government or six hundred in opposition – Jeremy must accept this and visibly cede control of defence and security matters (ideally foreign policy also) to tougher characters in the party.

Another crucial issue will be division within the party. Corbyn will not win, or lose, the election on his own. Trump’s open warfare with the Republican establishment, in an election under an executive presidency system, if anything bolstered his appeal among his supporters as an anti-establishment reformer. After getting them in to power, Republicans who had spent the previous months warning of the apocalypse suddenly rallied behind Trump predicting four years of greatness. In a parliamentary democracy, leaders of parties do not have the luxury of acrimony. The public will see no point in electing a Labour government that can’t command the confidence of its own MPs to deliver on its promises.

Corbyn has spent his entire political career as a rebel, campaigning to remove three previous leaders from post, and defying the party whip 537 times. Now, he demands loyalty and takes offence at his MPs trying to topple him. This makes him a hypocrite. Many of his “moderate” critics however have largely supported the leader and obeyed the whip through many incarnations of the Labour Party, because they understand the importance of unity in achieving power and getting things done. Howsoever they endeavour to justify it, that they have understood this previously shows that their extreme defiance of the current leadership is primarily out of spite, not principle.

As much as they might complain about the “hard left” being “unelectable”, the electability of a modern left-wing Labour Party has never actually been tested. In the 80s, the party formally split into socialists and social democrats – and both were beaten resoundingly. Regardless how little esteem each faction holds the other in, both must accept that each has appeal to a sizeable section of the electorate, and Labour only ever wins as a coalition.

During periods of “right-wing” Labour leadership, the party has taken working-class and left-leaning voters for granted. If the anti-Corbyn majority in the PLP wants to prove once and for all that a left-wing Labour party cannot win elections, they should extend to Corbyn the same courtesy they have to other leaders:  get stuck in and ostensibly do everything they can to support the party, the leader and the message – if the party still fails to win, Corbyn will have failed on his own merits and deficiencies. Many on the left will claim that the failure of a left-wing Labour Party under a terrible leader does not prove conclusively that a left-wing Labour government is a pipe-dream, but the argument of the party’s right would certainly be bolstered and the path to unity would be eased. The alternative is a continuation of the present strategy of recalcitrance, in which case inevitable electoral failure will present both camps with a plausible scapegoat.

Those Labour MPs who say they respect the result of the last two leadership elections, then refuse to serve in the shadow cabinet, do not respect the result of the last two leadership elections. Big names with good ideas and the talent to help win elections cannot wash their hands and harp from the sidelines. A decent policy platform is a prerequisite for victory, but once it has been developed a bold reshuffle is required – bringing big beasts back into the cabinet singing from the party hymn-sheet – to send a strong signal to the public that Labour is united and ready for government.

For Labour, winning in 2020 (or sooner) is far from inevitable – in all honesty far from likely – but not impossible. If it does happen, it will largely be despite Corbyn, as opposed to because of him. But Corbyn’s leadership, during a global wave of populism, does allow the party to fight an entirely different type of election – and that’s something the Parliamentary Labour Party need to appreciate and get behind.

Britain needs a real Foreign Secretary

Today Boris Johnson, our actual foreign secretary, opened his mouth. His ill-considered comparison of François Hollande to a Nazi prison guard was not his first gaffe, nor will it be his last. With Trump in the White House – a man so unpresidential even his name is unfit for office – British foreign policy will be more important than ever. We must do better than Boris.

Foreign policy is not the Prime Minister’s area. The very fact of her appointing Johnson in the first place speaks of the regard she has for international affairs. In doing so, she effectively changed the remit of Foreign Secretary from “Chief Diplomat” to “National Mascot”. She needs a good Foreign Secretary that can make smart decisions and offer informed advice. Instead, she has BoJo (or BawJaws as he’s known in Scotland).

In these turbulent times, there are a number of looming challenges that Britain must confront. Neither Johnson nor May are apt to them. The first major diplomatic task we face in the next few years is to maintain good relations with our European allies during and after the acrimony of Brexit. This is not a difficult task – mutual interest makes sure of that – but it would help if we didn’t have a Foreign Secretary making arrogant protestations about Prosecco.

Britain’s long-term relevance as a top-tier world power largely depends on us being able to build a strong relationship with China whilst maintaining our ties with America. With the Donald stoking tensions across the Pacific, and China-sceptic Nick Timothy in the Prime Minister’s ear, this will require deft and intelligence. Britain must build a relationship with China that goes further than mere trade. In response to Trump, China has two options. It could attempt to partially supplant America as a responsible world power, in areas such as climate change – or trade, as Xi Jinping’s Davos speech suggests he’s eyeing up. Alternatively, it could decide to view Trump’s election as justification for the idea that big countries, “great” countries, are allowed to throw their weight around – an ideology that China has thus far espoused. A Britain with a warm relationship with China could nudge it towards the former. A cold Britain could enrage China into the latter.

Another looming challenge comes from the Middle East. If Donald Trump moves the US embassy from Tel Aviv, Israel’s capital, to Jerusalem, a regional crisis could ensue. Israel is a useful ally, but ultimately a disposable one. The Arab states are vital allies. In addition, the Iran nuclear deal offers a real chance to not only reset a historically hostile relationship, but exploit a massive trade opportunity – from oil, to aeroplanes, to arms (as unpopular as these industries are), there is potential for billions in trade. We should be allies with Israel, if Israel makes that easy. Should Israel and Trump cause a regional crisis, with an embassy move, the smart option is for Britain to (cautiously) back our vital Arab allies over our token Israeli ones. May’s response to John Kerry’s speech suggests that, on her own, she would take the daft decision and bow to pressure from Conservative Friends of Israel. A proper Foreign Secretary could guide her towards the smart one. Boris Johnson, in the words of an Israeli embassy official, is “an idiot”.

Boris Johnson, to give him his due, is not a moron. He is certainly cleverer than he seems. This however, is irrelevant. The mere fact that he seems a buffoon is enough to render him unqualified for the post of Britain’s Foreign Secretary. Boris’ primary problem is not speaking before he thinks – though the Nazi analogy was certainly ill-considered, such a colourful simile requires prior thought. His problem is trying too hard to be liked. The character he plays, the lovable buffoon, worked well for him as a well-paid columnist trying to grow a readership. Being a “character” worked well for him as a minimally-powered Mayor of London, where he contributed to winning the London Olympics (though more as a mascot than as a diplomat). But the British people want a Foreign Secretary who evinces competence, even if boring. Boris is not without his charm, but if Britain is to do well in the next four years (assuming Trump doesn’t get impeached), we have to do better than this pretender.

Scotland Today

Nineteen ninety-nine, the year the new Scottish Parliament opened, was a year of excitement and anticipation. No-one knew quite what to expect. Over the years there have been some great moments, from the smoking ban to the abolition of tuition and prescription fees, from the legalisation of gay marriage to reducing carrier bag usage by 80% – and, however begrudgingly, one has to acknowledge that the most exhilarating democratic moment in British political history happened in September 2014, regardless of which side you were on. Even today, it is true to say, it is not all doom and gloom. But there is much about the state of politics in modern Scotland to be disenchanted about.

The SNP government has been stripped, by UK-wide austerity, of the funds necessary to fuel the populism that used to distract people from their inability to run schools and hospitals on anything other than empty promises to do better next time. Now, their governmental style has become one of inverse-populism, an unexciting, ultra-cautious project of not upsetting anyone too much until such time as independence is achievable. Yet they are, for the time being, the only conceivable party of government.

The largest opposition party, the Scottish Conservatives, still look a million miles from government. It is true that Ruth Davidson, a woman of as close to rock star status as a politician can get (barring Nicola Sturgeon), has gone some way to detoxifying the Tory brand. She is not a neo-liberal free-market zealot. Though proudly Protestant, she is not cripplingly conservative in her social attitudes. She is from a working‑class background – nigh on compulsory in a country where the dominance of Glasgow’s voice in our national conversation warps our sense of who and what is legitimately Scottish. And she has great personal attributes: strong leadership, great communication, a sense of humour. The Tories’ success in the last Holyrood election owes much to her personal brand – but that is precisely why winning the right to govern is still a country mile away.

Because apart from promoting Ruth Davidson, constantly bringing up the constitution using the transparent but effective trick of constantly telling the SNP to stop bringing up the constitution (even when they weren’t), and offering the electorate a “strong opposition” (as opposed to the lacklustre one Labour had supposedly been offering), there was very little of substance to their campaign. They didn’t just not talk up their policies for government; they deliberately didn’t come up with any for fear – most likely justified – that it would cost them votes. The Tories have, unlike Labour, decided conclusively what they are against (mostly whatever the SNP does). But apart from raising the 40p tax rate threshold to £45,000, neither they nor the electorate have the faintest idea what they are for.

Labour meanwhile are in the middle of something that is not quite (yet) an existential crisis, but is a hell of a lot more than a mess. Though not without her flaws, Kezia Dugdale is undoubtedly the best leader Scottish Labour has had since Donald Dewer. She is arguably the first real leader the party has had. This may have more to do with the departure of Gordon Brown, the annihilation of Scottish Labour in Westminster and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader as anything she’s done, but it is still a fact. Her main defaut is being a good party leader in an age of great party leaders. She does have a good grasp of how the country is feeling (though is not always good at showing it due to constant backtracking and triangulation). But she is inconsistent. On occasion, she has a brilliant performance in the chamber during FMQs – though this is often followed up within a week or two with one of her infamous car-crash interviews, where she manages neither to dodge nor to answer straight forward questions asked a farcical number of times.

The key to Labour winning an election again lies in getting past the constitutional question, and being (once again) a home for those of both opinions and none. Dugdale knows this, and must look at a united Tory party divided over Europe with envy. Every time she tries to move in this direction however, she is forced to backtrack, both by Ruth Davidson constantly bringing up the constitution, and by her own membership. Most independence-inclined Labour members left for the SNP during and after the referendum, thus most of the active members who remain are those who went out in the cold, and the mist and the rain in 2014 knocking on doors and handing out leaflets; who spent hours on end listening to “stop talking Scotland down” after “fuck off ye quisling” in phone banks. And they are still immensely proud of it: to them, any lurch towards agnosticism renders their hard efforts vain.

Contrary to some hysterical accounts, the Scottish independence referendum did not result in the “Ulsterisation” of Scotland. But its wake was not free from ripples. I now live in a country where, as a politically interested person, I’m expected to have a strong opinion on how strawberries are packaged. I now live in a country where what brand of teacakes I’m supposed to eat depends on the price of oil. And Twitter has only exacerbated things. 140 characters leaves little room for nuance. The requirement to actively choose which people you want to follow coupled with the ability to block or mute those you disagree with lays the foundations for deafening echo-chambers of confirmation bias.

Our print media, it is true to say, is not neutral. A large chunk of it has a right-wing bias. Almost all of it has an anti-independence bias. So it is perhaps understandable that many on the pro-independence left felt the “MSM” didn’t have time for voices like theirs, thence the pro-independence “new media” as a natural reaction. But there are now blogs upon blogs, trolls upon trolls, even satirists and political cartoonists dedicated solely to defending the government regardless of the situation and attacking the opposition no matter what. This is not the case in most advanced democracies. Some, like Chris Cairns, have made a welcome and needed contribution to Scottish satirical discourse; others, like Greg Moodie, pursue a niche vein of “humour” which uses vitriol as an ersatz for actual wit – a style pioneered by the Nazis – which the faithful lap up in blissful ignorance. This situation may (or may not) be a natural reaction to our uniquely British press setup. But it IS weird.

Despite its many positive contributions to our discourse, Twitter is an abstract, meaningless, truncated slugfest. Every party, regardless of their record or ideology, is secretly a version of the Tories (Red, Tartan etc.) – except of course the actual Tories, who are now the Ruth Davidson Party of Ruth Davidson. Any drunken bampot who supports a particular political party or cause is conclusive proof that everyone with the same opinion is vile. And everyone, of any political colour or opinion, is part of the persecuted non-establishment.

For some people, Twitter has gone from being a hobby to an ideology. There are many thoughtful contributions from across the political and constitutional spectrum. There are also a seething mass of zealous idiots. Whenever a large pool of previously disengaged people are made passionate about a political subject, there is a period of nastiness. Such has been the case with Brexit and Trump. Such was also the case with the #IndyRef. The “cybernats” phenomenon, though distorted by the press, was not imaginary. It was not the case that pro-independence trolls were ruder than unionist trolls, or even more numerous: but it was the case that many of them were genuinely and uniquely offended by the existence of a plurality of opinions, and would go for people in an indignant way that suggested they had started it. A large chunk of the cybernats of 2014/15 were of that ilk – but that period has passed, and all the major parties have today achieved a parity of zoomers.

Yoon(atic)s scour their timelines for examples of Nats(-is) being “vile,” then generalise to tar all nationalists with the same brush – in the desperate hope that History Moron will approve and retweet them. They spend hours on Twitter outing heretics who lie/“lie” about how old Rangers are, then deny that being nationalists makes them nationalists because “British Nationalism doesn’t exist”. Nats meanwhile have poly-hour debates about which Scottish journalists hate their motherland the most, and compile weekly stats on how many positive stories the BBC runs about the government versus how many negative ones to conclusively prove that it is biased.

Despite vast ideological differences, the one thing that unites the politically passionate in Scotland is the certain knowledge that the BBC is biased against them. They never stop to question whether the BBC’s simultaneous anti-Tory, anti-Labour, anti-SNP bias might not just be called holding power to account. It is an indisputable fact that the BBC in Scotland is a unionist foghorn whose sole purpose is to undermine Scotland’s national self-confidence by subduing her people with baking; and yet, BBC Scotland can definitely never be trusted to produce its own news programme without turning into an overtly pro-independence propaganda channel, because the only way to sustain the union is to force the Scots to watch cricket scores.

Though Ken Macintosh briefly managed to turn it into a weird custody battle over Laura Kuenssberg (Scotland shouldn’t settle for just seeing her at weekends), like a now wearisome number of political issues, the question of whether BBC Scotland should produce its own 6pm bulletin became polarised by the constitutional axis. It is far from alone…

Whether the government should protect children from potential abusers, whether sectarianism should be challenged in football grounds, whether an endangered ancient language necessary to access some of the most underappreciated European poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries should be preserved by spending public time (though not money) ramming it down the throats of communities that have little if any historical connection with Gaelic – these are questions decided for oneself by the constitutional axis.

Whether the only political editor working for a UK TV news programme to write opinion pieces was “shut down” by the keyboardist from Runrig, whether David Torrance was bullied off Twitter, whether Stuart Campbell is the divine messenger or the dear leader of an organised cult of anti-English trolls, all depend on how you voted in 2014. Even such trivial issues as whether Harry Potter is a work of genius or a toilet book, or whether “hit the nail on the head” is an idiom or a threat are determined by which flag makes you tingle downstairs.

There is much about the state of politics in modern Scotland to be disenchanted about. Let’s hope things pick up in 2017…

Hello world

I have decided to start a blog this year, as a channel for my many ideas and opinions. It will mainly offer my comments and analysis on Scottish and international politics, economics and current affairs, but may occasionally venture into policy suggestions or commentary on other topics. Using WordPress with a basic theme to begin with for convenience, but if I decide to stick at it might explore different options. If you enjoy any posts, please consider tweeting/re-tweeting links to them. Thanks.