Cooperative mo(ve)ment

A message from Maurice about the cooperative movement.

The Mondragon cooperative HQ in the Basque Country

To mark Cooperatives Fortnight (22 June – 5 July 2020) we have released a podcast interview with Tiziana O’Hara of Cooperative Alternatives, and Ellie Perrin, who is writing a PhD thesis on the cooperative movement in Northern Ireland. Search for The CombOver podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or the other platforms, and subscribe to hear this and the rest of the series.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone to hear that The Combination is supportive of the cooperative movement – not least those of you who watched our short film about the history of coops, ‘The Zirimiri’. So it was a pleasure to talk to two well informed activists about workers’ cooperatives in Northern Ireland – and when lockdown ends, I intend to get out and make a film on the subject.

But recently, I came across another cooperative, this one farther from home, at least geographically speaking – though are those who make the very clothes on your back really all that remote?

Oporajeo is a worker-owned cooperative in the garment sector in Bangladesh, launched by survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster of April 24, 2013, to create good jobs in safe conditions in an otherwise precarious industry. They have continued to work ever since, ensuring the members get a decent wage and receive an equal share in any profits generated.

Their UK partners, and a key outlet for Oporajeo’s products, are No Sweat, a London-based organisation dedicated to combatting the use of sweat-shops. Visit their website here to find out more about them. And visit the page about their partners to find out more about Oporajeo, here.

It is an inspiring example of the sort of democratically owned companies we could help build if we had the political will to do so. But Oporajeo, like so many in this industry across the global south, are facing terrible headwinds in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Clean Clothes Campaign have documented cases of corporations, many of whom have their key outlets on our high streets here in Ireland and the UK, or in Europe and America, cancelling orders, in some cases even after production has commenced. The garment industry in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Guatemala and elsewhere has been hit hard, with many workers being sent home without pay – and this in countries where there is little or no support from the public purse, and where there are a growing number of Covid-29 cases, and little testing.

Oporajeo, I understand, has cautiously reopened its factory after a period of lockdown during which they managed, somehow, not only to survive, but to make PPE for local health workers, and distribute thousands of meals to families in their neighbourhood.

The No Sweat team are hoping they will be able to pick up orders again soon. What can we do? Keep an eye out for developments on their website; follow them on social media (@No_Sweat), buy some T-Shirts if you can.

And learn about, and spread the word about, these sorts of people-powered, democratic alternatives to the dominance of the crank economy. We have to keep talking about these initiatives, telling each other about them, passing on details, reminding people that coops exist, that they work – think of Mondragon, with its tens of thousands of owner-workers and decades of success. Contrary to what we’ve repeatedly been told, there is an alternative.

So tell us more. Have you any other examples like Oporajeo? Or like any of the workers’ coops listed by Cooperative Alternatives or TradeMark here closer to home? Tell us, tell me. Tell a neighbour, a friend. If we keep doing that, then it’s just possible that eventually, like the fine rain of the Basque country – the Zirimiri – we will, all of a sudden, discover the idea of the democratic economy has soaked right in.

Maurice Macartney

27 June 2020

The smallest stream

A Tweet from Matha Raddatz showing the militarised occupation at the Lincoln Memorial, 3 June 2020

It has become a cliché to talk about the unprecedented times in which we live, but even by that standard this past fortnight has been staggering.

The anger that erupted after police officers killed George Floyd swept America, and then the world. President Trump’s response has compounded the outrage.

The President, who had just finished a Memorial Day weekend filled with golfing and insulting women when Floyd was killed, seized on destructive elements of the protests to declare some of the demonstrators ‘domestic terrorists’, claiming further that he would declare Antifa (which is not an organisation) a ‘terrorist organisation’ (which he cannot legally do).

It makes a telling contrast to his attitude to the heavily armed right wing militia group who occupied Michigan’s state capitol building earlier in May. They, apparently, were ‘good people’ – presumably much like the ‘very fine people’ who marched with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017.

The President went on to harangue state governors, telling them to crack down and ‘dominate’ the protests or he would send in the US military. His Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, urged them to ‘dominate the battlespace’.

He used his hand-picked, willing judicial henchman, Attorney General William Barr, without legal or constitutional authority, to order armed police, using clubs, pepper balls and smoke canisters to beat hundreds of peacefully demonstrating citizens – and reporters – off the streets in Lafayette Park, violating their First Amendment rights, just so that Trump, surrounded by the unqualified family members he has elevated to positions of high authority, could lumber to a church he clearly cares nothing about (members of the church were among those cleared out), for a publicity stunt with a Bible he has clearly never read.

And the smoke had barely cleared before he was invoking the name of George Floyd in an almost unbelievably crass celebration of an uptick in the economy.

The spirit of the man who died in an act of racist police violence, Mr Trump claimed, would hopefully be “looking down and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. (It’s) a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody…This is a great, great day in terms of equality”.

This, remember, is the President of the United States.

But it is important – literally vital – not to let the crudity of Trump’s utterances distract from the dangerous substance of his actions.

While everyone outside the Republican Party is staring open mouthed at this Id with an Ego problem, he and the GOP continue to fire inconvenient inspectors, dismantle environmental protections (while the globe continues to heat – this May was the hottest on record), appoint hand-picked Judges to the courts and above all, ignore mounting evidence of systemic racism and police brutality across America, rather than quickly move to implement policies to end it.

True, the protests, though largely peaceful, have been in some places destructive, and due attention must be paid to restoring damage to local businesses; but to make this the focus of condemnation is, frankly, perverse. I suspect those shouting loudest against the destructive side of the protests (including some misusing the term ‘nonviolence’) were also among the loudest voices shouting ‘outrage!’ and calling for the firing of Colin Kaepernick for going down on one knee during the national anthem. If you tried to silence Kaepernick, you’re in no position to call for nonviolent protest now.

If you really want to live by the principle of nonviolence, dismantle the conditions and structures of violence. Instead of selectively picking violent incidents to bolster calls for a militarised approach to clearing the ‘battlespace’, join the call for reforms such as those set out by the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ campaign.

Of course, all of this is primarily for the people of the US to address, but what can we do, here, on the other side of the Atlantic? Well, educate ourselves on the issues – heed the voices of African Americans direct from source, by watching and listening to Black Lives Matter material, for example, and consider carefully what parallels there are over here.

And get involved in justice campaigns, to join the fight to eliminate racism, overt and structural. Across the UK and Ireland there are many organisations working in this area, but here in Northern Ireland you could follow the recently launched Migrant and Minority Ethnic Council, Northern Ireland on Facebook, for example, or ACSONI, to find out what is happening.

But as we have said before on this website, all the problems we have talked about – racism, inequality, massive spikes of wealth for a few amid poverty for many, violence, the destruction of the living planet – are interconnected, so we must join the dots and combine the campaigns, the red, the green and the rainbow, to bring about a transformation on all the issues.

What we at the Combination have called the Crank Economy is directly evolved out of the global system of Empire and enslavement, which worked, among other things, to keep those who did the bulk of the work from sharing in the power by dividing them by ethnicity, by gender, by sexual orientation, by denomination, and by whatever other means necessary, including brutal violence.

You may think you have little to bring to this global struggle. But let there be no mistake: the Trump Administration has turned the civic arena into ‘the battlespace’, and is furiously stoking division, precisely because, like the Empires before them, they know there is nothing people cannot achieve in combination.

The smallest stream contributes its share to the power of the river into which it flows. Find a river flowing in the right direction, and join in.

Maurice Macartney

6 June 2020

#GreatRevaluation: Justice all down the chain

Following our call for a great revaluation in the previous post, Maurice highlights one area where such action is urgently needed: clothing supply chains

We need to revalue the contribution of those currently risking everything to keep us safe and well in these precarious times. But it is worth remembering that, for some people upon whom we depend in order to enjoy our way of living, times have long been precarious.

I have written before about those who make our clothes, workers in the supply chains of shops here in our towns, people who have, literally, given us the shirts on our backs through their hard, often ill-paid and dangerous labour. See this piece on the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, for instance (the seventh anniversary of which is rapidly approaching, by the way).

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting them too. The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an alliance of labour unions and NGOs, has warned that a number of big UK and EU High Street brands are responding to the current crisis by cancelling orders placed with clothing producers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and other countries in the global South.

The organisation says the Arcadia Group, “which owns brands including Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge, is estimated to have cancelled in excess of £100m of existing clothing orders worldwide from suppliers in some of the world’s poorest countries as the global garment sector faces ruin”.

Many of these orders were placed before the COVID-19 crisis reached its peak. In some cases, companies are issuing cancellation threats even where production of the items was already under way – that is, after the manufacturers had made major investments in materials for the job – or even completed, but not yet shipped.

One CEO of a well-known store reminded suppliers that his company had the legal right to cancel contracts ‘at any stage’, and then demanded discounts of up to 30 percent on goods in transit since 17 March.  “If you do not wish to accept the proposal” he added, “the order will be cancelled.”

Garment workers in the global south, already hard pressed at the best of times, are now facing a potentially devastating loss of jobs and income.

The Indonesian government estimates that up to 4 million Indonesians could fall into poverty and about 5 million could become unemployed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, as Yang Sophron, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, has said, Cambodia’s garment factories, “with cramped and closed-air conditions and workers passing clothes down production lines, share all the conditions for the virus to spread”.

Faced with this crisis, some companies have already stopped wages. CCC reports that workers in Bangladesh have protested for days in the streets, “demanding payment of wages for March, and protesting termination and layoffs of workers.

The state minister for labour warned that stern legal action would be taken against the factory owners who fail to pay workers before 16 April (today). But some of the workers have already been out of work since February and have not received wages since then.

Moreover, threatening the factory owners in the global south with stern action is not much use unless our companies in the north pay for work already undertaken.

If corporate social responsibility is to mean anything more than an empty slogan, we need to insist that our companies uphold workers’ rights. And if we expect to enjoy rights here in the global north, we have a responsibility to ensure they extend all the way down the supply chain, without which we could not enjoy the goods upon which our way of life is based – such as the very clothes on our backs.

To find out more and support the campaign, visit cleanclothes.org, or follow them on social media, @cleanclothes

Maurice Macartney

16 April 2020

After this, the Great Revaluation

Balloons. At local foodbanks.

In Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens introduces us to the character Newman Noggs, who has, it appears, borrowed more than he could pay back from one Nicholas Nickleby senior, father of the novel’s eponymous hero. Noggs then ends up working for Nickleby, for a pitifully small wage.

“I took him on out of charity, and he has remained with me ever since”, says Nickleby. Dickens continues: “The kind-hearted gentleman omitted to add that Newman Noggs, being utterly destitute, served him for rather less than the usual wage of a boy of thirteen”.

This is the Dickensian bargain.

You create the conditions which allow you to accrue wealth but by which others are reduced to dependency levels; you then offer those others an exchange which, within the framework of the system may appear generous, charitable, even. But those others only take the bargain because they are virtually powerless to do otherwise. They are destitute, in Dickens’s word.

Newman Noggs sprang to mind recently because, during this crisis, there have been a number of instances where those placed in a position of need, or made ‘destitute’, by policy decisions have been left to depend on charity.

It was reported in March that “Major UK supermarkets have been asked to set aside supplies for food banks after a tumultuous few days in which several emergency food aid charities closed and others struggled to meet rocketing demand from people hit by the fallout from coronavirus.”

One of the lessons we need to learn from this crisis is that the very existence of food banks is an outrage. There were some 1.6m emergency 3-day food packages given out, by the Trussell Trust alone, last year in the UK – up from a few tens of thousands in 2008-9.

So if demand is ‘rocketing’ this year, we are looking at people, in their millions, dependent on an essentially Dickensian institution, in the UK, this far into the 21st century.

How has this been allowed to happen? How have we got to the stage where we are so used to food banks as the norm that you can see politicians with balloons smiling in pictures at the opening of a new one? In my local paper recently, I even saw a food bank fundraiser featuring an Elvis impersonator trying to jolly the general public into giving a bit more to a worthy cause.

Elvis, God bless him, should not have to be soliciting donations at a food bank.

We have allowed these Victorian structures to become just another part of the 21st Century charity circuit, alongside fundraisers for abandoned puppies and rare heart conditions.

This is not to diminish the effort and goodwill that goes into such things, and certainly not to criticise the organisations who provide food for the hungry, work to end animal cruelty, or take care of the ill. I have nothing but admiration for them and for those who need their help. My point is, rather, that the state, as a result of the policy choices of recent governments, has so washed its hands of responsibility, and done it so cleverly, that many don’t even notice there is something wrong any more.

Something similar has just been reported on the BBC NI website. A network of volunteers, under the name NI Scrubs, has sprung up to fill the gap in protective clothing – scrubs – for those working in health care during the pandemic. They are using their traditional skills, combined with the powerful communication tools of the internet era to create and distribute thousands of these homemade scrubs. This network of generous, skilled, active citizens is absolutely fantastic, a great story; but it is also terrible. Terrible because it so starkly highlights the problem it has arisen to address.

After this, there can be no going back to ‘normal’, because, as a graffito in Hong Kong puts it, ‘normal’ was the problem.

Like Nickleby the elder, the government, from 2010, created the austere conditions in which, if we are not to see our health workers without safety equipment, even to see neighbours starve, we ordinary citizens must pick up the slack. We must get out the sewing machines, pull on the Elvis suits, or blow up the balloons. And those who ought to be well-equipped, or those who until a few years ago, could rely on a publicly funded social security system, must now rely upon the charitable gesture – against which, as Samuel Beckett said, there is no defence.

As for the politicians using these sorts of activities as a photo-opportunity, William Blake perhaps put it best: ‘They reduce the Man to want, then give with pomp and ceremony’.

We should feel sympathy, but not only sympathy: we should feel outrage. The policies that have brought us to this point amounted, essentially, to a deeply regressive form of taxation. Rather than raise tax on the wealthy or on profitable corporations, the government allowed the development of a food bank system that depends on the donations of ordinary shoppers in ordinary High Street superstores. You do your shop; the superstore makes a (lightly-taxed) profit; and out of solidarity you put a few tins and dry goods into a food bank box at the end of the tills.

Essentially, as someone on a fairly average wage, you’ve just voluntarily taxed yourself, because you don’t want to live in a society that lets the vulnerable starve.

Essentially, if you donate your spare bedsheets or your skills to sew new scrubs, you are plugging the hole in public finances. Essentially, the champions of austerity, those kind-hearted gentlemen, charitable to a fault no doubt, whose watches cost more than your family car, would sooner see a load of generous but relatively poor people set aside a few packets of spaghetti for their even poorer neighbours than allow the government to raise their taxes by a penny.

But the current crisis is exposing all kinds of flaws in the system. Suddenly the government has had to ask the supermarkets themselves to chip in. Suddenly the government has had to rush to throw all kinds of money at a genuine emergency – funny how quickly it managed to find the magic money tree it said did not exist – or face complete disaster. Suddenly corporate owners need the collective power of the public, for that’s the power upon which the state is built.

Years of austerity have made us forget this. We are scrambling now to make up for lost time, to regain some sense of solidarity in the face of a crisis. And it has started to work, along with those sewing machines all over the country.

When it is over, those kind-hearted gentlemen, having come to the public for support in a time of need, will want us to go back to ‘normal’. They will want to go back to collecting their bonuses and setting limits to government attempts to raise taxes; they will want us to go back to ‘normal’ too, tightening our belts, shouldering the burden of austerity – just as we did after the crash of 2008.

But we cannot do that again. Not least because once this immediate crisis is over, we will need to take all the lessons we learned from it a ramp them up to face the even bigger crisis that has been unfolding all along – environmental breakdown.

We need to take this moment as the starting signal for a revaluation of our political economy. It will be a struggle: we will need all shades of progressives, leftists, democrats, equality and sustainability campaigners – the red, the green and the rainbow – to build the new network together, in order to resist those proposing a return to ‘normal’. We have to democratise the economy and re-democratise politics, because our politics has moved away – has been moved away from democracy towards plutocracy over the last few decades.

How? Well, the current crisis offers some leverage. We now know – governments and corporations alike are telling us this – that there is a whole network of essential workers, key workers, front-line workers who have come out heroically, some of them risking their very lives to rise to the challenge of the pandemic. Are we, the public, really going to stand by and watch when having saved lives including that of the Prime Minister, they are refused a pay rise afterwards, as they were refused, to cheers from the Tory benches, in 2017?

Are we going to watch as corporations that have come to the public purse for assistance, later attempt to crank still more wealth to those in the boardroom by cutting wages, terms and conditions for those on the floor?

Any corporation which comes asking for help from the power of the public now must remain democratically answerable to the public hereafter. If you want help, we will give it; but on condition that you put workers on proper contracts and on your boards, lift the salaries of the lowest paid, divest from fossil fuels, get your profits out of the British Virgin Islands or other tax voids. And so on.

Remember this: when the chips were down, the elite, corporate and otherwise, needed the help not of the oligarchs and the online influencers, but of the ordinary workers; and the ordinary workers, the cleaners, the posties, the drivers, the shelf-stackers putting out the toilet paper and pasta, the stitchers and scrub-makers, and not least the care-workers, shouldered their tools and set about their work. At least a million of them in high risk jobs that paid, according to an Autonomy study, “poverty wages”. Oh and, for some not in the least inexplicable reason, 98 percent of workers in that category are women. (See this excellent Scope NI article for more on this – and read the rest of their posts to boot!)

After this, charity will not do. After this, should they be told to go back to ‘normal’, we, the public, the Demos of this our democracy, must rise to defend them. As you valued them during the crisis, so must you value them after this. After this, any talk of rewards for the ‘risk takers’ must start with those who risked their lives.

After this, the Great Revaluation.

Maurice Macartney

14 April 2020

Everything Must Go (or everything must change)

It’s deja vu all over again, as Maurice rediscovers a review he posted on another site in 2014.

(I published the following review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ over five years ago, and thought of it again after referring to the book in my last post. As the piece has now been taken down from that other site, I thought it worth re-publishing here, not least because the lessons of Klein’s great work are more relevant than ever).

Just this week [the first week of October 2014] we learned that global wildlife populations have halved in a mere 40 years, largely because of human activity. If the report is right, it should shock us to the core: we have wiped out over half the world’s wildlife in half a human lifetime.

Just this week the European Commission, amid much talk of reducing emissions and diversifying power sources, attempted to give former oil man, Miguel Arias Cañete, the job of Energy and Climate Action chief. And as he had to give up his shares in oil companies to take up the post, the word ‘former’ perhaps applies only technically.

Just this week in the UK, the Conservative Party showed they were so determined to go ‘all out for shale’ – at least in England and Wales – that they set aside some of the basic principles of democracy, permitting gas companies to mine under people’s houses without asking permission, despite evidence of overwhelming (99%!) public objection to the decision.

All of these stories – and there are more where those came from – emerged just too late to be referred to in Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, published last week. But they provide clear confirmation of her analysis.

For Klein, the economic system that has been in the ascendancy since the era of Thatcherism and Reaganomics – the ‘Washington consensus’ – has both ramped up the pace of resource over-consumption, and opened a yawning gap between those at the lowest income level and a tiny elite at the top. Crucially, these two era-defining problems – environmental destruction and egregious inequality – both spring from the same source.

The ‘extractivism’ that leads to fracturing rocks and digging under your home without permission is by no means unconnected to the slow violence of the dismantling of the public sector, the reduction of wages, the cutting of hours, the imposition of zero-hour contracts and the creeping denigration of those on welfare that we have seen over the last few years, here and elsewhere. As Klein puts it, ‘the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapours of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy’. The drive towards extensive privatisation, too, is governed by the same logic. Everything that can be bundled up and sold off, according to this model, must be so bundled and sold. Everything that is now held in common must be enclosed and commodified, made to work towards boosting GDP.

Everything must be industrialised, scaled up, mechanised. All inputs must be measurable and disposable, including what business leaders have taken to calling ‘human capital’. Everything – including human capital – must contribute to maximising profit, or it is so much waste, to be cut off in the name of streamlining. Sold off or dumped; everything that isn’t profitable is landfill.

It’s as if we’re running some generalised closing down sale in which Everything Must Go.

Indeed if the ZSL-WWF report is correct – to say nothing of a huge range of reports on matters from melting ice-sheets to disappearing forests – everything is going already. In the words of the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, ‘humans are cutting down trees more quickly than they can re-grow, harvesting more fish than the oceans can re-stock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them, and emitting more carbon than oceans and forests can absorb’.

The problem is – and here’s where the above examples from Europe and the UK come in – the ascendancy of this destructive model has gone hand in hand with the progressive relinquishing of democratic control over the economy, handing power increasingly to ‘the markets’ – otherwise known as big corporations and wealthy individuals, those who gain most from dumping pollutants and low wages on the people below them.

There is a sort of vicious circle at work: the more resources you extract and control, the more power you have; the more power you have, the more resources you can extract and control. And these resources include political and social resources, such as the media. Hence the huge sums poured into politics in America, and increasingly on this side of the Atlantic, as well as, for instance, into organisations dedicated to sowing doubt about the science of climate change. Anyone who proposes to change the system can expect to have the full force of those resources ranged against them.

But change it we must. And the longer we fail to take decisive action the deeper and more painful the changes up ahead will be. Already the world’s poorest – that is, those who have done least to cause the problem – are suffering the worst consequences of severe and unpredictable weather exacerbated by climate change. To postpone the task of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is to risk acquiescing in this suffering, this injustice.

Yet embracing the task of making the transition gives us the chance to create both a more sustainable, and a more equitable human society – a more humane, inclusive political economy.

We need to join up all the movements that have sprung up to resist ‘extractivism’ in all its various forms, and start making the transition to a new model, one based on a ‘deeper form of democracy’, in Klein’s words, ‘one that provides communities with a real control over those resources that are most critical in collective survival’. It’s already under way. Unlikely alliances are forming in various parts of the world, a ‘powerful combination of resurgent Indigenous Nations, famers and fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean water and soil’ along with modern urban environmentalists and lovers of nature, and of the places where we belong.

Making this transition is more than just a question of changing power sources from oil to renewable: it is also a ‘fundamental shift in power relations between humanity and the natural world on which we depend’.

Klein might just as well have added that it is a shift in relations between ourselves and others too. The transition calls as much for a change in ethics as for a change in the political economy. Insulating and solarising buildings, expanding public transport, producing low-carbon equipment for schools and hospitals in developing countries, providing outlets for locally produced goods and reinvigorating workplace and local democracy – all of these things are more than merely economic issues, have more than merely economic effects. Such projects help construct models of what Klein calls ‘nonextractive living’ – or in another register, nonviolent living.

Given all the bad news, and the evidence that all too many of our political and business leaders are still wedded to the extractive, indeed violent, dominant model, perhaps this, finally, is what gives us room to hope. What Klein is calling for, what all who are alert to the crisis of unsustainability are yearning for, is a capacious movement, or network of movements where we don’t have to agree with each other all the time on all points, but where we agree to learn to make the transition together.

The title of Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, refers, of course, to climate change. Let’s hope one day it will retrospectively turn out to refer equally to her book itself – or rather to the strong, dignified, and above all humane movements it so powerfully describes.

Maurice Macartney

Originally published 3 October 2014; reproduced here 11 April 2020

This is what an emergency looks like

The dark clouds are huge, says Maurice, and will not soon disperse; but is it too soon to look for silver linings?

Yesterday, 16 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suddenly ramped up measures to combat the spread of the Coronavirus in the UK, apparently because the researchers whose advice he is following suddenly changed their thinking. As the BBC’s health and science correspondent puts it: “Change course or a quarter of a million people will die”, appears to be the new line.

Some would say this move, welcome as it is, has come rather belatedly. Other countries appear to have grasped the need for emergency measures a good bit earlier than the UK. The World Health Organisation warns that even the more dramatic measures being taken are not enough: “we have not seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing – which is the backbone of the response”.

Still, here we are. We have at last realised that this is what an emergency looks like.

When Naomi Klein published This Changes Everything, (see my review here) she was referring to the climate crisis, but for most people in Europe and America and other areas as yet relatively unscathed, not much did change. Probably this was because there was no single, worldwide event to mark the onset of a new era in which, indeed, everything would have to change.

We are, perhaps, witnessing such an event now, not climate related (or not directly so), but nonetheless a stark lesson in how to respond to an emergency. There must be Cobra meetings in Governments, Major Incident Teams mobilised in other institutions, scientific reports, clear and frequent communication (including daily briefings), updates on websites, advice on how to prepare, plans drawn up for keeping vulnerable populations supplied, detailed business continuity plans, careful thought about the implications for public transport – to say nothing of the impact on an already strained health service.

This is going to affect everyone and everything for an indefinite, but prolonged period. Many media outlets have focused on the huge turmoil in stock markets, and indeed, this may well be the beginning of a crash even worse than that of 2008. But it is the effect on ordinary workers and High Street businesses that should draw our attention, and an immediate government response – not least so called ‘gig’ workers, delivery people, short term contract workers, waiters, cleaners and so on, who are likely to be left worst off. And let’s not forget the original gig workers – those musicians who make their living playing in what are now likely to be empty bars.

We have been warned about likely death tolls, but we should be prepared for large scale job losses too. We need to start planning mitigation and suppression measures for that side of the pandemic, just as we have for the medical side. If governments can provide guarantees to the big banks, as they did in 2008, they can provide support for ordinary families, who may be facing prolonged hardship. This may be a good time to try out some form of basic income, or a version of People’s Quantitative Easing.

Lest this sound too radical, even the International Chamber of Commerce has joined forces with the WHO to respond to the current crisis, together calling on national governments everywhere to “adopt a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic”.

So yes, governments should do this for the current crisis. But we also need to do this as societies, as democracies, as neighbours, from this point on, in relation to much more than COVID-19.

The dark clouds are huge, and will not soon disperse; but if there is a silver lining to the spread of this virus, it is not only that governments have begun to adopt what John Cassidy calls ‘wartime economic thinking’, though this is a significant breakthrough in itself (demonstrating that governments can step up, intervene, mobilise resources and provide leadership in a way no other institution can match).

It is also that many people are already showing great generosity and solidarity – buying goods for foodbanks, phoning elderly neighbours to see if they need help, setting up mutual aid networks and so on. Singing to each other, from their balconies.

Such mutual aid and solidarity from neighbour to neighbour is the fertile soil from which progress grows. No one can predict the full range of consequences of the spread of the pandemic, but let’s do what we can to make sure that the generosity and solidarity continue to grow, even after the crisis eventually recedes.

After all, the still greater crisis already unfolding all around us in the shape of climate breakdown, and the ongoing emergency of systemic poverty in the global south – and even in communities within the so called ‘rich countries’; why do we need those food banks after all? – will require such a response in perpetuity.

We may not have the levers of state power, you and I, but the network we build in response to the virus will help show that we can live differently, we can work to ensure that no one is left behind, and we can build a new kind of democracy from the ground up.

Stay safe , eveyone, and take care of each other.

Maurice Macartney

17 March 2020

PS, happy St Patrick’s Day!

Updated 11 April 2020 to include link to ‘Everything must go’.

The trouble with the BBC

Boris Johnson would be mad to end the BBC, especially as Britain embarks on Brexit, but the BBC needs set free of his government, writes Stephen Baker

Alternative Auntie…

Is the BBC in trouble? And if so, how much trouble?

Culture Secretary Nick Morgan has stated that the TV license fee could be abolished by 2027, while the corporation has just announced 450 job cuts from its news operation in a bid to save £80m. This comes in the wake of a difficult General Election for the broadcaster when it came under fire from left and right for perceived bias. And before that it was getting it in the neck from all sides for its reporting of the EU referendum and its aftermath. Go a little further back and in 2012, it was charged with “parroting government spin as uncontested fact” during the parliamentary passage of the controversial Social Care Bill. Similarly, “official” bias was revealed in a study conducted into both ITV and the BBC coverage of the Scottish independence referendum that concluded neither were fair or balanced and had likely damaged the Yes campaign. That conclusion is confirmed by a BBC ex-employee, Allan Little, who led the broadcaster’s Scottish referendum coverage. Little claims that some of his BBC colleagues had operated on the assumption that the Yes campaign had got it wrong and to vote for it was foolish. The row about how the BBC treats Scotland rumbles on and since the independence referendum the BBC’s approval rating has fallen in Scotland.

The modern precursor to the BBC’s present woes is the Hutton Inquiry that reported in 2004 on the death of the Ministry of Defence weapons expert Dr David Kelly. Kelly was found dead after he was named as the source of a quote used by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. The quote was the basis of a Gilligan’s report that claimed the government had deliberately “sexed up” a report into Iraq’s weapons capability. The implication was that a war against Iraq was being sold on a false prospectus by the Blair administration. Despite public protests the war went ahead, and later Lord Hutton’s report exonerated the government, while at the same time it was damning in its judgment of the BBC. It found that Dr Kelly had not made the remarks attributed to him by Gilligan; that the claims made in the resulting broadcast were “unfounded”; and that by broadcasting Gilligan’s story the BBC had shown its editorial procedures were “defective”. When Hutton criticised the BBC’s governors for their deficiencies, it resulted in the resignation of its chairman, Gavyn Davies and later the sacking of Director General Greg Dyke.

Hutton’s acquittal of the government was seen by many as a whitewash. When it became clear that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, trust in the British political class took a hammering, but the BBC seemed never to recover from Hutton’s admonishments and has been cowed before government ever since. But we shouldn’t take from this that pre-Hutton the BBC was an inquisitor feared by the establishment and the political class.

The truth is the BBC has always been subservient to, as well as intimate with, executive power and the State. In his book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, Tom Mills (2016) refers to the incestuous relationship journalists have enjoyed with Westminster politicians and their spin doctors. And he highlights a revolving door through which personnel move between jobs at the BBC and appointments and positions in Westminster. This is the circulation of a particular subset of a political class with experience, expertise and connections in the intertwined world of media and politics. This, says Mills,

illustrates that the BBC, whatever liberals would like to imagine, does not stand apart from the world of politics and power and the corporate interests that predominate there. Rather it is an important part of those complex networks of power and influence. It further shows that insofar as the BBC can be said to exhibit any political bias, it is not based in political partisanship, but rather in an orientation towards networks of power and their shared interest – interests which, it should be noted, are not necessarily self-evident or immutable, but are worked out in and through these networks, and in and through key political institutions like the BBC.

David Butler offers a powerful metaphor to illustrate the intimacy and connectedness of the BBC to power, and the state especially.

In a figurative sense the state is to broadcasting as the uterus is to the zygote: the growth of the latter is decisively influenced by the conditions of the former. The idea of an umbilical relationship is instructive because it stresses the dependency of the organisations of broadcasting on the apparatus of government.*

It is, of course, an unequal relationship. The BBC’s funding may come from license fee payers, but the corporation exists, ultimately, at the government’s discretion, with the Culture Secretary responsible for the renewal of the Royal Charter that sets out the constitutional basis for the BBC and its public purpose. It is also supposed to guarantee the corporation’s independence. But as Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor points out:

The BBC is always fighting to retain its editorial independence. Though if you were going to design a system for jeopardising that independence, and making it hostage to political whim, the current approach of renewing the Royal Charter every decade or so would be hard to beat.

The BBC’s struggle to maintain its independence from government has been demonstrated recently by Tony Hall stepping down early from his role as Director General. Some commentators see this as an attempt to outmanoeuvre a hostile Tory government that has the power to “recommend” appointments to the BBC’s governing board and the role of chairperson. In turn, it’s that same board and chairperson that appoints the Director General. However, Hall’s premature departure means that David Clementi, the current chair of the BBC board will lead the hunt for a new DG, before the Johnson/Cummings administration has a chance to appoint Clementi’s successor.

While the Conservative Party is usually perceived as the potent political threat to the future of the BBC, it has survived Thatcher, Major, Cameron, May and, I have hunch, it will still be going in some form or other when Johnson has vacated No. 10 and taken to the lecture circuit. There are of course those on the Tory benches who find the very existence of the BBC such an affront to their faith in privatisation and free-market economics that they would cut the corporation’s throat in heartbeat by removing its Royal Charter and abolishing the license fee. But there are wilier Conservatives who see value in the BBC and may stay the hand of their more belligerent party colleagues. On the whole the tensions that exist between the party and the BBC are more like those between quarrelsome siblings. Cain may do for Abel in the end, but not quite yet. What we have witnessed so far is a spat at the dinner table. There’s no immediate fratricidal intent.

So we have had Boris Johnson ducking the scrutiny of the corporation’s chief interrogator, Andrew Neill, during the election campaign, and now his newly minted ministers are boycotting Radio 4’s Today programme. On top of this, and just days after the election, Treasury minister, Rishi Sunak, floated the idea that non-payment of the TV license fee might cease to be a criminal offence, which could cost the BBC £200m in lost revenue. Then the culture secretary, Nick Morgan, warned of disgruntled voters, complaining “on the doorstep” about having to pay a TV licence fee, laying the ground for her latest pronouncement about her “open-mindedness” with regards how the broadcaster is funded. This is Tory sabre-rattling. It’s not policy. Why would Johnson want to destroy the BBC, especially as Brexit Britain ventures out into the world on its own? Wouldn’t a supine media and cultural organisation capable of projecting British soft power around the globe be invaluable at this hour?

No. It won’t be Johnson who does for the BBC. Nor need the corporation be finished off by the new media-age ecology of subscriptions and streaming services. Don’t heed the doomsters and gloomsters (to coin a Johnsonian phrase) who tell you that the BBC is an anachronistic failure in the digital free market. A publicly funded organisation like the BBC could wipe the floor with its rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime, if only it were allowed to. Indeed, the argument against the license fee is in part to do with the competitive advantage it gives the corporation, and the attacks upon the BBC are an attempt to stop its growth. When in 2010, the then Director General Mark Thompson announced an end to the era of BBC expansion, particularly online, it wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was because of pressure from commercial rivals who couldn’t compete, among them the Murdoch dynasty. The BBC’s problem is that as a publicly funded national media provider it has been too successful, and it has the potential to stand in contradistinction to the free market partialities and nostrums of English Tories and their allies in business. That’s what the cuts and the government threats are designed to remedy – the BBC’s embarrassing and inconvenient accomplishments.

Whinging commercial competitors and their political allies might wound the BBC, but what will kill it is the disintegration of Britain; the internal fracturing of the nation it assumes to represent, speak to and make. The corporation is struggling to hold onto working class viewers and the young. It can add to that the growing alienation of Scots, as well as the disillusionment of a constituency that has been among the most consistent and ardent defenders of public service values – the centre-left – smarting from the BBC’s appalling performance during the election campaign, in particular its ‘mistakes’, all of which favoured the Tories. Imagine all those disappointed young Labour campaigners and supporters – reared on digital diet of social media and streaming – who might now decide to leave the BBC to its fate at the hands of the liars and charlatans whose passage to power it helped facilitate.

Tied to the UK’s archaic state apparatus the BBC has struggled to respond to the changing political and cultural landscape around it. In the face of Britain’s break-up, its outmoded democracy, crewed by political leadership that has given up any semblance of honesty and integrity, the BBC is ailing. That’s the problem with umbilical cords. If they aren’t severed, they can choke you, or if the parent becomes malignant, the malady spreads to the dependents and progeny.

The BBC might await its ignominious end as the enervated mouthpiece of a littler Britain; or its license fee might be relinquished and it can become just another commercial media outlet, stripped of its special status and privileged role in national life, selling life insurance and soap powder in-between inane rolling coverage of royals and Red Arrow displays. However, there are more exciting alternatives. Maybe it can become properly and demonstrably independent of government and the State; devolve and democratise; drop the “Corporation” and be reconstituted as a Cooperative with a national membership of millions.

*David Butler, The Trouble with Reporting Northern Ireland: The British State, the Broadcast Media and Nonfictional Representation of the Conflict, 1995

Stephen Baker

8 February 2020

The red and the rainbow

Maurice experiences déjà vu…and puts out a call for a meeting to combine campaigns

After the storm…

There are currently two big stories dominating the news: Brexit and Trump. It’s like 2016 all over again.

But this time, the Brexit that has riven our politics for over three years has finally arrived. We have left the EU. And in a couple of days from now, Donald Trump will be acquitted by an evidence-allergic Senate, and will launch a braying, triumphalist campaign against the Democrats, whom he will portray as failures, ‘partisans’ full of hatred for Trump’s ‘great’ America, traitors whose ‘baseless witch-hunt’ only hampered him from making it even greater.

That this narrative will be entirely false will not stop him repeating it at full volume, and will not stop his followers swallowing it without even chewing.

So now what?

Well, it’s déjà vu time again: as I said in a blog post in 2016:

“the left needs to give itself a shake, pull itself together and start articulating a new message. It needs to address the anxieties that the losers of the globalisation game have felt (and which Mr Trump played expertly). It needs to set out a new, positive and inclusive vision, to counter the narrow, US-first and Britain-first xenophobic version successfully sold in this [Donald Trump’s] election”.

One problem of the left and progressive movement in the UK, as I argued then, is that it has split into at least two broad movements – one more traditional, appealing to workers, trade unionists and so on, another appealing more to a multicultural, socially progressive community – and that the two dynamics have been allowed to run in parallel, separately, or even set against each other. You can be ‘red’ or ‘rainbow’, but apparently not both.

Except that you can. You can be red and rainbow. Indeed, it is imperative now that Brexit has gone through, and with Mr Trump about to emerge claiming ‘total vindication’ that we create a new discourse beyond the related binaries of Remainers versus Leavers, and red versus rainbow.

Doubtless there will still be differences between us – but what kind of movement, or indeed society, does not make room for difference? Not one to which I would want to belong. For all their differences, then, former Lexiteers and former progressive Remainers need to rapidly ditch those labels and start building towards our shared goals of creating a democratic, sustainable, inclusive and equitable political economy. 

How to get started? Well, let’s meet up. Let’s set a date, borrow or hire a room, or do it virtually, and start working out a programme we can agree on. Let’s share communications, promote one another’s events, connect the issues and combine the campaigns. Ready to join in? Contact me here: jointhecoo@gmail.com

Maurice Macartney

3 February 2020

New Decade, New Approach: New DNA?

Are there hopeful signs of change in the agreement that got Stormont up and running again? Maurice combs over some of the highlights.

New life up on the Hill?

The new decade has got underway with some huge international developments – the impeachment of President Trump, a dangerous collision between the US and Iran, and, at the end of this week, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Here in Northern Ireland, though, we too have our own developments to boast: our political institutions are at last up and running again at Stormont. But has the ‘New Decade, New Approach’, the document that sealed the deal, really injected New DNA into our body politic?

At first glance, not particularly, since it restores the institutions, and indeed largely the same MLAs, we had three years ago when it all came tumbling down. And as the document explicitly commits participants to the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that created the institutions in the first place, arguably we are going back even further.

But look a little closer and it becomes clear we are not merely returning to the status quo ante. Firstly, the context has changed. When the GFA was formulated, and right through until the elections of 2017, unionists of various stripes collectively took more than half the votes and seats. They could plausibly claim to represent ‘the majority community’ (though had I time and space I would critique that kind of use of the term community). Since 2017, that is no longer the case. Unionist parties command less than half the vote; so in effect we now have three minorities in terms of the designation in Stormont – unionist, nationalist, and other.

This is significant because the GFA was set up to share power out between the majority, unionists, and the minority, nationalists – ‘others’, significantly, literally did not count, when it came to votes requiring so-called ‘cross-community support’.  

But the GFA also ensured there would be no constitutional change unless a majority supported it. So, if nationalists, as before, are a minority, and now unionists are also a minority, then both groupings are going to need the ‘others’ to side with them if they are to get their way on the constitutional question. And you don’t do that by hectoring and bullying – heaven knows, both main traditional sides have tried.

The strength of the hand of the others may even be all the greater because of revisions in the Petition of Concern mechanism, recently used by the DUP, for instance, to block equal marriage even after a (narrow) majority had voted for it.

It should be harder (though not impossible) for parties to use this mechanism, originally intended to protect minorities not deny them equality, for such purposes. But of course, we didn’t need to await the reform of the POC mechanism to get equal marriage – that ship, happily, has now sailed, presumably off on a long-delayed and well deserved honeymoon.

Which brings us back to changing contexts. Three years have passed since the Executive and Assembly collapsed on the back of the just-emerging RHI scandal.

Since then, we have had the enquiry, innumerable news reports, and the publication of a best-seller exposing the failings and corruption that led to it. The DUP have returned to power, and are still the biggest party in the unionist camp, but it is clear they have been badly damaged by that scandal.

If RHI brought the institutions down, though, it was another issue – the Irish language – that kept them from resurfacing. Sinn Féin said they would return to power sharing if the language were protected in legislation; the DUP said they would not return if such an act were to be the price.

To circumvent the impasse, the New DNA agreement came up with a compromise of sorts: rather than full blown legislation, there would be one Commissioner for the Irish language, and one for Ulster Scots. Some voices, not unexpectedly, have been raised in complaint about this, but it seems to have proved sufficient to get both sides across the line.

Thus, we find ourselves with a devolved regional government again. There are at least two more pieces of context that have dramatically changed since the previous instalment, though, which may prove decisive in terms of the direction of politics in Northern Ireland.

The first can be summed up in one wearily over-familiar word: Brexit. How will power sharing work when such unwilling collaborators suddenly have to contend not only with a renewed focus on the border on the island, but also, apparently, some sort of border down the Irish Sea?  The details are anybody’s guess, but it would not take a particularly gifted soothsayer to predict turbulence ahead – especially if, as expected, increasing numbers of Scots begin agitating for an independence referendum in the near future.

Secondly, less obviously, but ultimately of profound significance, there is an inescapable broader context: we are all, of whatever political stripe, faced with the unfolding, intertwined crises of deepening inequality and unsustainability.

Here the New DNA document may in fact have brought something really new to the table, at least for Northern Irish politics. For example, from the start and throughout the document, there is some remarkably progressive language on social and fiscal issues – a shared commitment to “improving lives across Northern Ireland” involving extra funding for public services and infrastructure; a commitment to removing the historical debt of the Housing Executive and building social housing; extending welfare mitigations; a commitment to developing and implementing an Anti-poverty strategy. There is a section, would you believe, on Workers’ Rights.

It is almost as though reanimating the NI institutions has become possible only on the basis of an outright rejection of the politics of austerity – perhaps even on the basis of the adoption of a left-of-centre policies.

One welcome development is that a commitment to environmental measures is built into the agreement. One of the ‘priorities of the restored executive’ is to “tackle climate change head on with a strategy to address the immediate and longer term impacts of climate change. The Executive will introduce legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Change Accord”.

Indeed, the New DNA includes a proposal for a “new Energy Strategy [that] will set ambitious targets and actions for a fair and just transition to a zero carbon society”, as well as mentioning a Climate Act and a Green New Deal. The ‘just transition’, along with the Climate Act and the Green New Deal, are goals that activists and campaigners have long been calling for here; so to see them built into the New DNA as an aim of the NI Executive, even as aspirations, is quite something. It’s not that long, after all, since we had an Environment Minister who thought climate change was “not the disaster which the green lefties are getting hysterical about.”

Of course, politicians are not known for the frequency with which their deeds are found to match their words. So there remains much to be done. Nevertheless, the New DNA injected into our regional politics gives us a standard to which we can hold our elected representatives.

From now and for the remainder of this electoral cycle, we as an electorate must remind them that they have made a commitment to tackling poverty, inequality and the climate crisis – and we expect them to act on it.

Maurice Macartney

28 January 2019

Melancholy in the UK

In the wake of the general election, Stephen Baker is feeling his age… perhaps so is the United Kingdom, he argues.

If precedent and predictions are to be believed, the Conservative Party have a Parliamentary majority so big that Boris Johnson can look forward to two terms as UK Prime Minister. That means I’ll be in my 60s before there is any likelihood that he or his damnable party is removed from power: that’ll be 19 successive years of Tory led government between 2010 and 2029.

Think about that.

A party composed of rogues and scoundrels, that exists purely to secure and increase power and wealth in the hands of the rich; that has already spent the last ten years imposing grinding austerity; that has been inert in the face of the climate emergency; and that instigated a deeply divisive constitutional crisis in a bid to save itself, has just been returned to power with a landslide election victory. I find it almost unbearable to contemplate.

I’ve lived most of my life under Tory governments of one stripe or another. The first general election I remember was in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher defeated Labour’s James Callaghan. I was 11 years old and relatively unperturbed by the result at the time, but as teenager I grew to loath the Conservative Party for its socially illiberal politics, its casual racism and its appetite for wrecking industries, working class communities and underfunding public services.

After Thatcher’s election in 1979, the Tories went on to win three more general elections in a reign that lasted 17 years before Tony Blair led Labour back to power in 1997. If the Tories win the next election in 2024, the memory of that New Labour government will seem a mere intermission in a lifetime of otherwise uninterrupted Tory rule.

With hindsight, I suspect Labour was only given access to Number 10 because Blair broke bread with the ruling class and offered assurances that there would be no significant deviation from the agenda set by Thatcher. Ruling class acquiescence to Labour’s assent to power was signaled to all throughout the land when Rupert Murdoch’s influential Sun newspaper declared its support for Blair in March 1997. Sure enough, the three Labour governments – elected in 1997, 2001, and 2005 – kept faith with marketisation and privatisation, and just as Thatcher had her military adventure in the Falklands, so Blair had his in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All those years of free market zealotry and post-imperial melancholia – with potentially 10 more years of it to come. It all takes its toll on a mind and a body; as it does on a nation and a union.

Living in Northern Ireland, as I have done all my life, I’ve never voted for any of the UK’s governing parties. Labour doesn’t stand here and I’ve never, nor will I ever, vote Tory. Instead I regularly participate in elections that reduce politics to sectarian head-counting and proxy border polls, and at the end of each I get a unionist MP. This means that I’ve never been represented by anyone I’ve actually voted for.

Never. Not once.

As if that’s not bad enough, the politics I believe in are rarely given a fair hearing; either ignored in mainstream debate or raised only to be knocked down like a fairground Aunt Sally in the flow of dominant opinion. Forty odd years of watching BBC’s Question Time, or Newsnight, or listening to Radio 4’s Today, or reading the Guardian, only to have it confirmed time and time again that I exist on the lunatic fringe because I believe in public ownership and oppose imperialist wars.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s youthful supporters have discovered, if you espouse anything so radical (and necessary) as a green industrial revolution, or if you refuse to press the nuclear button and send the world and humanity to oblivion, you’ll be presented by the ruling class’s flunkeys in the media as a dangerous subversive. If you’re lucky, they’ll cast you as a mere harmless eccentric.

And maybe such opinions are eccentric in a country that is effectively a one-party state, with its soap-opera of a monarchy and its unelected second chamber; where politicians welcome the opening of foodbanks to feed the ‘left behind’ and working poor; where thousands of lives can be sacrificed in the pursuit of ideologically driven austerity while banks receive bailouts; where the likes of Jimmy Savile and Ian Duncan Smith get honoured; where an antediluvian rent-a-ghost like Jacob Rees Mogg is elevated from backbench obscurity to Leader of the House of Commons; where the political ambitions of a liar are abetted by a compliant media and public service broadcaster to boot.

Frankly, I want none of this, but I can’t see any effective way of speaking out against it, let alone changing it; certainly not under the UK’s withered democratic system, underscored, as it is, by a media that is driven by ideological and commercial imperatives at the expense of democratic ones.

That’s why the last election feels like a decisive moment to me. I am now middle aged, staring into a future of continuous English Tory government, confronted with the awful realisation that I am politically insignificant. Neither my opinions nor my vote matters one iota.

Why should I care? I have, after all, as my Granny might have said, an arse in my trousers. I could probably see out my life in relative domestic comfort, despite the feeling of political impotence. But where is the dignity in that? As the veteran actor Michael Caine said when asked about the potential economic downside of Brexit: “I’d rather be a poor master of my own fate than a rich servant of someone else’s.” Who wants to be a well-kept vassal?

That’s why I never resented people who voted to leave the EU, even though I voted to remain. Brexit’s simple message (some would say simplistic proclamation) to “Take back control” resonated with me too. Of course, it was an empty signifier, capable of appealing to the politically and economically disenfranchised, just as much as those who wanted a return to empire’s imaginary glory.

I confess I was even quietly delighted at the evident shock among some of my fellow Remainers: their tantrums and their tears as they accused their opponents of racism and stupidity. I looked at employers, pundits and politicians in their convulsions and thought, “Hell slap it into ya!” In all their inglorious arrogance, complacency and greed they were in my eyes the progenitors of Brexit and its attendant turmoil: they can own it. Perhaps not the most nuanced or considered analysis, but it’s how I felt then. That’s how I still feel, if I’m honest.

Consequently, I am in the market for wholesale constitutional reform. I suspect I’m not the only one. I have, as outlined above, my own grievances, but a sizeable chunk of the Scottish electorate also look (oven)ready for constitutional change – 1,617,989 (44.7%) of them at last count, in the independence referendum of 2014. That figure looks like it is going to rise, prompting former UK PM Gordon Brown to warn this week that “Unless the regions and nations feel they have a voice that is respected in the United Kingdom, the UK’s three hundred year old history may at some point soon be over.”

Scotland’s First Minister Nichola Sturgeon has demanded a second referendum in the wake of the SNP’s landslide election victory in Scotland. Legally it is for Westminster to decide if and when another referendum takes place, and with Boris Johnson having enjoyed a landslide of his own in England, a second Scottish independence referendum might not happen anytime soon. Indeed, there are rumours that after Brexit the government will focus on strengthening the Union. To this end, a senior Government source is reported as saying that, “Scotland is going to see a lot more of Boris and his ministers in 2020.”

Scotland can only shudder in anticipation of such visitations!

However, it is hard to imagine that a Westminster government would try to keep Scotland in the UK against its will.

All the momentum is with nationalism. But not just Scottish nationalism. As the DUP discovered too late, Brexit is less a project to “make Britain great again” than an expression of English self-determination, which begs the question: is there anyone interested in, or even capable of making the unionist case?

The empire has gone. The post-war social democratic settlement is repealed. The welfare state is withering away. A convivial multicultural society is beset by a hostile environment. The things that once made the United Kingdom imaginable and attractive to many have been jettisoned since that election in 1979 that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. As the eminent Scottish historian, Tom Devine, explained back in 2014 during the independence referendum campaign:

I come from a Labour background that includes my grandfather, mother and father and I was very much anti-independence at the start of the campaign. For me, the catalyst for change has been how threadbare the union has become since the early 1980s and linked to that is the transformation of Scotland. I wouldn’t have voted for this in the Scotland of the 1970s or 80s. It’s the Scotland that has evolved since the late 80s and 90s that is fuelling my Yes vote. It now seems to me to be in a fit condition to run a successful economy. There is a list of reasons for this. 

There has been a Scottish parliament which has demonstrated competent government and that parliament has also indicated, by the electoral response to it, that the Scottish people seem to be wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the 1950s. In fact, you could argue that it is the Scots who have tried to preserve the idea of Britishness in terms of state support and intervention, and that it is England that has chosen to go on a separate journey since the 1980s.

The UK now faces a Tory Brexit withdrawal bill that the Scottish Parliament has just voted to reject by a margin of 92 MSPs to 29, the Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected unanimously, with the Welsh Assembly rejecting it as I write. This is all to no avail. The Brexit bill will be passed in Westminster anyway.

The imbalance of power between the constituent parts of the UK is obvious. It was clear during the general election campaign, which in the end boiled down to one thing: what mattered most to English voters? Was it getting Brexit done? Or was it the NHS, the climate emergency and even the United Kingdom itself? Well, now we know the answer. It seems that the vote to leave the EU wasn’t just some splenetic eruption at the injustices of austerity, although that may have played into it. It represents a genuine desire for English national self-determination. People in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland need now to consider what a more assertive, self-conscious Englishness will entail; an Englishness that has found its political expression in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

Stephen Baker

22 January 2020