Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
The British left south of the border took little interest in Scottish politics even after the SNP became the government, seemed unconcerned about the agreement to hold a referendum there, and then largely ignored the campaign. With the exception of openDemocracy, Red Pepper’s openness to invention and creation, and the New Statesman under Jason Cowley, who grasped the profound cultural impact for Britain of somewhere that was alive and not Westminster, the Anglo‑British left patronised the whole experience. It was petty nationalism; the priority is for working-class solidarity across borders; we know better than to be diverted from the ‘real’ issues – all the mind-numbing, thought-suppressing clichés that condemn the left to the comforts of futility came wheeling out.
But in the course of the summer of 2014 it become clear that, in addition to Greece and Spain, another country was giving birth to a popular politics of opposition to neoliberalism. It was as if, when viewed from space, the English left was as much in the dark politically as North Korea can be seen to be in terms of electric light – while north of Hadrian’s Wall, far-reaching argument was lighting up cities, towns and islands and an entire country was visibly alive.
How to account for this exceptional, intelligent release of political energy across Scotland? The lesson is surely the importance of the shift from one level of politics to another: from the level of policies, legislation and parties to the more foundational level of political structure, in effect the constitution. Not in its legal and specialist form, but with respect to the nature of government, the relation between government and citizens and how these relations are organised in a democracy so that the people can genuinely hold power to account – issues of equality, therefore, the nature of rights both social and individual, the nature of sovereignty in the modern world and what kind of country one wishes one’s country to become.
This shift came about because, in effect, the future of their constitution as a whole was put to the people of Scotland, for real, in real time, with a process that had a beginning, middle – a long middle that allowed all the issues to be considered – and a decisive conclusion. That this happened was thanks to the skill, popularity and relative lack of corruption of the SNP and its leader Alex Salmond. But what then happened took even him and his party by surprise.
When the referendum was being negotiated it was the view of Alex Salmond and his colleagues that the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people was ‘devo-max’, not full independence. The prime minister, David Cameron, undoubtedly knew what they thought and why – the secret services would have listened in, since the ‘security of the country’ was at stake. Cameron resolved not to allow a third option of devo-max, or domestic home rule within the UK, on the referendum ballot paper. That way, he would deprive Salmond of an easy success. Then the prime minister sat back, confident of a victorious No vote. For his part, Salmond agreed to a two-question referendum rather than trying to stage his own, because, he explained, the vote had to be a fully legal process endorsed by the Westminster government.
The SNP then ran a campaign that seemed to me at the time, admittedly mostly from afar, to be over-cautious and too much like a party political campaign rather than a referendum on the future of a nation. But Salmond’s judgement was that his country’s temperament was sober rather than radical. His emphasis was on the reasonable nature of independence with him in charge, a friend of the queen, keeping the pound.
Yet this tapped into what I call ‘the revolution of the normal’. Full employment, greater equality, free education, decent childcare, a reasonably funded health service, not having lords and ladies as your legislators – in short, becoming an average European country. What could be more reasonable? Yet such things are transformational in the UK context, an argument beautifully made by Adam Ramsay in a widely-read openDemocracy essay, ‘Scotland isn’t different, it’s Britain that is bizarre’.
The SNP’s call to make Scotland a regular country exposed the constitutional fit between the hyper‑centralised Westminster system and the neoliberal world order. This started to become apparent as the referendum conversations intensified. The Yes campaign began to be driven by the energy of young people frustrated by the lack of options within the legislative institutions, by communities feeling abandoned or taken for granted by the old political parties, by policy thinkers seeking creative ways of responding to a profoundly changing world. The deeper that issues were mined for ideas and alternatives, the stronger the pull became.
How do we best understand this form of politics? The mental inheritance of the left can lead to a language that says the Scottish movement embraced a ‘deeper’, foundational level of politics and political argument among a critical mass of public actors and citizens and saw a shift that reflected a widespread recognition of the exhaustion of the superficial level of politics, revolving around policies and parties. Not just an intellectual process, in other words, reflected in opinion polls and the like, but the active assertion of a desire, a demand even, for the creation of a deeper level of politics.
In English terms we can see a glimmer of this in direct‑action tenants, like the E15 women, insisting on their right to housing. They are in effect demanding a political solution based on a fundamental right to a home – rather than this or that policy.
There is a danger of trying to fit this approach into the classic analysis of base and superstructure. The radical politics that we need demands fundamental revision of classic Marxist determinism and can’t be shoehorned into it.
We should define our politics around the central concept of livelihood. As Raymond Williams argued, this unites production and consumption, family and work, generations and environment. For all to enjoy the livelihood that fulfills our potential we need a cluster of networks, some of which will be local communities, some employment-based, some educational and others governmental: local, national and international.
A constitution sets out the framework governing our networks. It fulfills three functions (and all constitutions, both codified and uncodified, do this).
• To establish the rights of individual citizens, our claims on the institutions of power and the authority that institutions can exercise over us as citizens.
• To set out the power relationships between the different institutions of authority within a society.
• To express what kind of community a society aspires to be.
The last defines what a constitution means, its moral purpose, for all constitutions are above all claims about how a society should live. They stand or fall by the way they are lived, not what is written down, important though that is for them to be owned by all citizens.
According to vulgar Marxism all such superstructural, ideological emanations are determined by economic realities. Going on about them is a bourgeois deviation. It is true that no one with a mite of intelligence will gainsay that states are shaped by the modes of production of their epoch. But how things are determined within an epoch is another matter.
Determination in this context can be governed ‘from above’: the constitution can define what is possible, can release or confine social energy, can defend or undermine the commons. Hence the importance of who decides the constitution. If, genuinely, the people make the final call, then a society has good reason to describe itself as a democracy. The constitution is not a materialist base, but it is a determining framework. To see this involves raising our heads and looking up not down.
This should now be the ambition of the left: to add to its economic and social demands the vision of a democratic constitution, a new settlement decided by an open process, bringing in as many allies as possible from across the spectrum as it will have to belong to the right as well as the left if it is to command legitimacy. The time is ripe for a return to the call for a new constitution.
The call first surfaced at the end of the 1980s and led to the important yet partial and incoherent changes of New Labour. Then much of the left scorned such efforts. It is worth looking at one example because it signals the profound cultural growth that the Anglo-British left will need if it is to catch up with its Scottish comrades.
Today Larry Elliott is an outstanding critic of the criminal foolishness of coalition economics. Back in 1998, with Dan Atkinson, he published The Age of Insecurity. It opened by declaring: ‘The central struggle of our time is that between laissez-faire capitalism, which represents the financial interest, and social democracy, which represents democratic control of the economy in the interests of ordinary people.’
But for these authors democratic control of the economy did not extend to advocating a democratic constitution. The authors tagged the campaign for constitutional reform as a ‘mystery tour down a blind alley’. Charter 88 was derided as ‘pseudo-underground chic’. Will Hutton was scorned for connecting the ‘winner-takes-all’ electoral system with the cash-in-your-winnings of the City. Far from being ‘semi-feudal’ as the reformers claimed, the British constitution was no more full of oddities than other European democracies.
Scotland had just voted for its parliament. Elliott and Atkinson saw this as having ‘a rag bag of functions and responsibilities, the selection of which was a poor advertisement for “rational” constitutional reform . . . Scotland, with its new legislative class itching to start work, marked a key point of fusion between constitutional reform and social control.’ The authors concluded that, ‘There is not and will never be anything specifically “left-wing”’ about constitutional reform. It may sometimes be good but it is ‘a terminus not a corridor . . . Hugely irrelevant to Britain’s real problems’.
Wrong! What Scotland demonstrates is that taking on the constitution, far from being a dead end, a blind alley or a ‘terminus’, opens up the whole field of politics to the public and in so doing unleashes a democratic process that cannot but confront corporate dominance.
The question, then, for the rest of us in the UK is: can we now learn from this and start to generate equivalent, connecting energy?
Outside the old doors of parliament the idea of a new constitution is no longer scandalous. During the hacking controversy, leading newspapers called for a ‘first amendment’ to establish the right to publish. Since Edward Snowden’s revelations many have called for a ‘fourth amendment’ to safeguard privacy. With the creation of secret courts, some seek a ‘sixth amendment’ to protect the right to due process of law. But we do not have a constitution to amend or a Basic Law that can entrench such principles.
Thirty years ago the received wisdom judged that a new constitution was simply impossible this side of an insurrection or defeat in war. Britain’s framework was regarded as virtually eternal. We only did partial constitutional change once every 50 years or so when it might just be needed, certainly never a constitutional ‘revolution’. Back then, however, the idea of a Human Rights Act was ‘foreign’; there were no Scottish or Welsh parliaments; freedom of information was for Americans; the government of London could be and was summarily abolished; and numerically most members of parliament inherited their seats in the legislature.
Today, by contrast, these changes and more have broken the coherence of Westminster’s rule and political specialists are researching how to hold an effective constitutional convention. On the right, Conservative Home carries posts arguing ‘We must look at our constitution as a whole’ or ‘We need a written constitution’. From the House of Commons itself, A New Magna Carta?, a report published by the select committee for political and constitutional reform, sets out what a written constitution could look like.
It is a neat idea to bring the idea of an alternative, democratic constitution to life by linking it to the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in June 2015, a month after the general election, for the legacy of the Magna Carta poses four sets of contemporary questions:
• How do we check arbitrary power today and ensure both the executive and corporate ‘barons’ are accountable?
• How do we ensure there are basic rights for all, protected from government and corporate power, including access to the law?
• How do we protect and develop our commons: essential public goods and spaces, including the environment?
• And who are today’s Barons?
They put party politics into the shade.
Anthony Barnett is the founder of openDemocracy. Illustration by Andrzej Krauze.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control.
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going