There is a line in our society. Yesterday I tried to explain how 40 post-war years of trying to erase that line was reversed again in the 40 years that followed. But that line has always been there, and you will rarely mistake what side of it you’re on.
The line is sufficiency, the point at which you have everything you need to live a decent line. You can tell what side you’re on by how you feel about money. On one side of the line money is a key that lets you in. On the other side money is a barrier that keeps you out. The way you see the world is defined by what side you are on.
On one side you see a world of plenty. People on that side probably never quite think they’ve got quite enough money but they are only forced to make choices between nice things. They can go a fancier holiday this year but that would mean they probably can’t also do the landscaping project they’d planned for their garden. Money limits them, but not as much as it enables them.
On the other side of the wall money is a barrier to living. It stands between you and having a house, between you and heating your house, between you and food, between you and everything. Money is fear, anxiety, panic. Money is hunger and cold.
I know what it is like to be on both sides of this line. I sacrificed a high salary and a successful professional career for low pay in a start-up think tank. In the early years of Common Weal I had not only a low salary but there wasn’t enough money to pay my expenses. I measured my life by how late into the month my debit card would be declined in the Coop. One minute I’m making nice choices about holidays, the next I see queues in supermarkets as kind of ‘humiliation landmines’ which could go off at any moment.
The world looks different when you cross that line – and millions of people are about to cross it. With one in three households projected to be in full-on fuel poverty by October and no-one not feeling the impact of inflation, very few people on the lucky side of that line will not be creeping closer to or crossing it and no-one on the other side isn’t in serious trouble.
Money anxiety will impact on people it has never affected before. Others will be moved beyond desperation. We had the financial crisis and austerity, but those cruelties were designed to batter only a select few. This is different. My guess is that we are in a different political environment than at any time since the 1980s.
So we all have to face up to that reality. There are fundamental changes taking place and it is quite unlikely that they are going to go away again. Politics needs to adapt, but social movements simply cannot wait for that.
It is cold and calculating to say that crisis opens up opportunity – but it doesn’t make it any less true. For climate change, for anti-poverty and for independence supporters, the rules of the game are about to change. We must adapt or fail.
So how do we adapt? Crisis is not inherently good for those seeking any kind of change. There is a very delicate balance between where crisis creates stasis as people are paralysed by fear and where crisis creates change as people no longer feel the status quo is working for them. You have to read that balance accurately and respond carefully.
There is a very delicate balance between where crisis creates stasis as people are paralysed by fear and where crisis creates change as people no longer feel the status quo is working for them
The biggest challenge lies for the independence movement. This has always contained two fundamental schools of thought – ‘don’t scare the horses’ and ‘independence for a reason’. The former believes that either democratic principle or pride in your own nation are sufficient to win. The latter believe that you have to paint a picture of a better, different future to motivate people.
The motto of the former group has always been ‘that’s for after indy’. They worry about upsetting small-c conservative pensioners and the affluent middle classes. Their primary champion is Andrew Wilson of the Growth Commission, a document which couldn’t have put more effort into telling people that the future would be nothing more than a very slowly improving version of the present.
I’m hardly unbiased here as a prime instigator of the other lot, the ‘another Scotland is possible’ lot. And it is generally assumed that this was because I’m a leftie. What was often not accepted is that this is also very clearly what the available public attitude data tells us.
There isn’t space to go into all of it here but there is next to no evidence that an abstract plea to democratic principle will shift anyone’s opinion. There is equally scant evidence that there is anyone motivated by ‘national pride’ left to win over. Where there is strong evidence is that ‘affluent middle classes’ are most certainly not the next cohort most likely to convert to a pro-independence stance.
In fact the biggest cohort likely to change are ‘No-voting peers of Yes voters’. That is to say people who voted No who in most ways seem identical to people who voted Yes. They’re not a single coherent block. And the biggest single cohort that decide whether we win it or not are low-turnout voters, the voters who tend not to vote in elections (who are largely poorer).
In the case of the former there is solid evidence that the decisive factor in achieving a shift is the balance between motivation and hesitance. This group want to believe that Scotland can be better after independence but they hesitate because they have fears about whether we’re really capable of doing it. We have to increase their motivation and decrease their fear.
So we need to make the prospect of independence more exciting, something they actively want, while at the same time we need to take their concerns seriously and address them. With the other group (low turnout voters) the weight is all on motivation. They will not leave home for more of the same.
That’s the basic background and it hasn’t changed. What has changed is the balance. The former group is now much more scared of the status quo than they were. They are generally not low income but not high income and losing disposable cash is immediately noticeable. They will now want hope more than they fear change (I wish we had the resources to properly test this).
The second group is almost certainly furious. They want a rebellion. They want change. But what will unite both groups is anger at who is exploiting them. Both are going to move sharply in an anti-elite direction, because almost everyone is going to be moving in that direction.
There is a straightforward conclusion from all of this. You can do one of two things; you can make people believe you support households or you can make people believe you support energy corporations. What you can’t do (since they now largely see themselves as being in conflict) is support both.
Let’s not kid ourselves on; the 2014 Yes campaign was an anti-establishment campaign. It was polite and friendly and earnest and enthusiastic, but it was anti-establishment. In the last eight years a tight-knit group around the First Minister tried very, very hard to dispose of that image. They wanted to be on the side of the establishment.
The actions of the Scottish Government have put it miles on the wrong side of this moment and it clearly doesn’t know where to go next
That is why we have had such a ‘pick and mix’ government – it threw out symbols left and right and you could just pick the ones you fancied. If you’re a social democrat you can choose ‘wellbeing economics’ and ‘baby boxes’; if you’re an oligarch you can hear ‘open for business’ and ‘investor friendly’.
If those symbols were real then it would at this point be possible to pivot – i.e. shift stance towards a more people-orientated agenda and away from a corporate-orientated one. But our problem is that the symbols were not real, and there was a reality. That can’t be wished away.
The reality is that the SNP were pretty far-end corporate friendly. This is the government who just gave away all Scotland’s energy future to precisely the big energy companies that are screwing people over, for a pittance. It may just be their bad luck that they chose to lick the boots of a corporate sector just before it chose to seriously fuck over households. But they did.
In fact just today, the day after a radical anti-establishment campaign showed enormous momentum in an incredibly short time, Scottish Twitter is filled with pictures of energy execs and their facilitators positively gloating about their latest tax-dodging wheeze – the Scottish Government’s Thatcher-gone-mad Freeports.
In fact the Scottish Government’s first instinctive response to the crisis was worrying. They press released a spending package they claimed they’d introduced to help, but it quickly became apparent that the big majority of that money wasn’t new at all and much of it dated from the Jack McConnell era. The choice was ‘spin our image’ or ‘help struggling families’ and the Scottish Government chose wrong.
The movement is going to have to make a choice too. Unless you are really living in a very small bubble you cannot fail to have noted the rapidly-growing unease everywhere among independence supporter. That unease is well founded based on the Scottish Government’s woeful case for independence so far and its deeply unconvincing strategy for getting there.
If I was acting as a professional strategic consultant to social movements right now I’d be advising them that there may only be a brief window in which to grab the public mood and marshal it behind a proposal for change. Hesitation is a major risk because the other side is working aggressively to close down this moment like they did in 2007 (just look at how the CBI is calling for government to subsidise energy bills – they’re not suddenly socialists, they’re suddenly petrified).
The indy movement must absolutely break from its recent dalliance with being a ’cause of the establishment’ and recognise that it is what it always was – a clear and present danger to the status quo. It is the only dynamic that will propel us forward in a crisis (which will absolutely not be over by the spring).
This does not mean smashing windows or clenching fists. It is about creating a new alliance, one that includes domestic business, public sector workers, financially-stressed middle class households, those on fixed incomes (pensioners), the poor and the young. Every one of those groups benefits from a change in the status quo. Only bankers, the corporate sector and the very rich stand outside this coalition.
The opportunity is enormous, but there is little reason to believe that this Scottish Government is capable of taking it. Unless it reverses its corporate asset giveaway, ends its Freeport madness, breaks up with the big housing developer lobby and buries the Growth Commission down a very, very deep hole, it will make itself irrelevant to the cause of independence ahead.
I can’t provide you with all the answers to this problem right now, but I can give you an important starting point. We are in a different political climate. The political calculus has changed significantly. The actions of the Scottish Government have put it miles on the wrong side of this moment and it clearly doesn’t know where to go next.
The starting point of a campaign that uses this crisis to propel Scotland to independence is to stand with workers, the poor and small businesses and resist the instinct to defend the Scottish Government.
If it was ever the solution to the problem of how Scotland becomes independent, it certainly isn’t now.