As interest in local democracy falters while the position of the powerful in society becomes more powerful again, all set against a backdrop of powerful and influential millionaires, the rest of us need a signal from Scotland’s politicians that we still matter.
It is perhaps the great clash of the age in one counterpoint of news reporting – is the most important information you’ve picked up over the last two days the Sunday Times Rich List or the preview coverage of the Scottish local elections? This drives to the heart of the state of Britain (and let’s not kid ourselves, of Scotland). On the one hand are a group of giants (and it is interesting to note that in fact the super-rich are actually taller than the average human). The people on the Rich List are very, very rich. The possess money beyond the comprehension of the rest of us. This is where the 99 per cent thing really is absolutely spot-on – while one might argue that many in the top 20 per cent of society have benefitted personally from contemporary capitalism (a very special distortion of capitalism generally), when you get to seriously, seriously rich it becomes a much, much smaller percentage of the population. They have money in such a manner that crow-bars them out of society in any meaningful way. Society is a set of relationships to each other and to the infrastructure that surrounds us. But when you get that rich you only have to meet people of your choosing and barring motorways there is almost no part of the infrastructure of society that they have to ‘share’ with us. Hospital, school, police station not to your liking? You can buy replacements (the security aspect of the super-rich looks very like a private police service).
That’s on one hand. On the other is your local school, childcare provision (if you can afford it), the protection of your local environment, that sort of thing. But when these issues are decided on Thursday it looks likely that two out of three of you won’t bother to get involved. ‘Local’ is of no interest to the people who describe our existence to us because it is not as interesting as the rich and as the interests of the rich. And so as we make clear in our new report The Silent Crisis, Scotland has become the least democratic country in Western Europe but largely we are supposed to be more interested in how much richer Jim McColl got.
So far, so much standardised bleating about class and society. The question detaining me this morning is what is going to happen now in Scottish politics? There are a number of agendas that flow from this divide, this split. The major remedy that we have for a divided nation and an over-powerful elite is the promotion of participative democracy. It is not a simple solution on its own and there is more that must be done simply than letting people vote more. But in 2012 we need to be clear that the only possible balance to the piles and piles of money that sits in one side of the measuring scales is piles and piles of votes in the other. (Just in case anyone is thinking ‘armed struggle’ or ‘revolution’, it still needs to result in some means of representing the views of many people. Democracy – good, informed, participative democracy – really does matter). The recommendations in the report are an important starting-point in shifting the balance of power in society. Souped-up community councils might not seem like much of a bulwark against financial capitalism but unless we find ways to get a mass of ordinary people properly involved in making decisions that shape society, the shaping will be done by others. Which now means those with money.
But there are other things. It is now coming up for a week since we really began to learn about how the Murdochs have now got their claws into Scottish politics and since we saw Trump being invited in to spew out his opinions on, well, whatever he likes. Has my sense of despondency and betrayal receded? No, not really. I just can’t see how a political class which gets itself into these kinds of situations voluntarily (it was utterly voluntary – Trump could have been told to beat it and Murdoch could have been offered nothing) is going to get itself back out of it voluntarily. (And it really is the political class – virtually every senior figure I can think of is many times more likely to accept your call or agree to meet you if you have money than if you don’t. I’ve had a few cancellations in the year I’ve been trying to meet people with the Reid Foundation. I’m sure they were completely understandable, but I know that if I had a couple of hundred million pounds in my bank account those meetings would not have been cancelled.) We need to find a way to control the influence of money – more from us on that subject soon.
And then there is information. Information is crucial in all of this, but again, money has too firm a grip on information. Expensive PR works if you want to control the news agenda. Buying yourself a newspaper works better and buying up all of the newspapers and then all of the broadcasters works better still. Funding the economics departments of universities and sponsoring academic events helps very much as well – all those Edinburgh University/RBS tie-ups but barely an economist in the institution that asked the right questions about financial capitalism. What we ‘know’ is in many instances a function of what someone has paid for us to believe. Again, look at who appears before committees of the Scottish Parliament and consider how many of them, one way or another, represent the interests of money.
The Rich List is grotesque. The fact that the List just keeps getting richer and richer as the rest of us suffer is more grotesque still. The disregard of the poor by the rich (along with their unshakable belief that ‘they’re worth it’) makes Mary Antoinette look as if she was running a soup kitchen. (And remember, the rich aren’t better than us, they have better PR than us. Wealth is not a sign of merit, despite what the wealthy tell you.)
It has been a longer period of gloom than usual. Generally I can shake off the dark realisation that politics is working against the interests of people in the hope that (a) things in Scotland are better and (b) we can do something about this. But I look at the giants – Murdoch, Trump, McColl, Wood – and I try to remember when they ever lost a battle. And I think of them in direct competition with the ‘minnows’ on my local community council. Good people and committed, but in a battle with the giants they would have no chance.
If Scottish politicians want to remind us that in fact they are here for us and not for either an elite or in the interests of their own closed profession, it would be nice to get some kind of signal. And no, that doesn’t mean conflating the interests of the rich with the rest of us by saying ‘jobs’. Some passing interest in local democracy could be a start (yes, this is on my mind just now). But if it isn’t that, then something – anything – to remind those of us not on the Rich List that we still matter.