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The McShock Doctrine

Rory Hamilton

It is little over a week since John Swinney took over the leadership of the SNP. In that time we’ve seen him lay out the markers on key issues for the SNP: He wants to eradicate child poverty – bold. He believes that independence can be achieved in five years – bold. His government announced a housing emergency, one partially of its own doing – flop?

These headline grabbers continue in the vein of SNP government by press release. I’ve seen comments criticising Common Weal’s critique of this strategy as hindering the case for independence. But as Robin, and others, have laid out many times, what is the point in staying quiet about poor performance and incompetence if we know it hinders the argument. As much as the case for independence should be built on the better Scotland to come, we also need to start building that Scotland now. We cannot give a blank cheque to the SNP simply because we’re striving for the same end goal.

However, ten years on from the referendum and what’s changed? “Support for independence is at its highest ever” – true, but comparatively it’s moved a maximum of 8% in 10 years (45% in 2014 to 53% in 2022 its highest polling). The success of pushing support up from 29% in 2012 to 45% come the referendum is frequently heralded, and there were a lot of good reasons for this, including effective campaign tactics, and mobilising a positive message. So why hasn’t that trend continued?

The SNP were able to harness this support into an unprecedented electoral machine at the 2015 Westminster election, and the 2016 Holyrood election – momentum was funnelled into the party machine on an optimistic belief that the campaign would continue (not remembering that party politics and referendum campaigns are different beasts).

Did we learn any lessons? The only serious stocktake was done by the SIC in 2017, and largely ignored – at least by the SNP. Some of the research’s key findings were outlined by Common Weal’s own Iain Black in The National at the time:

  • Voters are overwhelmed
  • Brexit is expected to be a shambles but is not yet clearly influencing voting intentions
  • No and undecided voters want information and facts but did not get these during the last referendum …
  • … and they have been given very little reason to change their minds.

And now as the dream appears to fall apart (or the realisation of this stagnation sets in at least), many continue to opine about their experiences of 2014 and the unifying, positive energy of the independence campaign. So why do we feel stuck in this doom loop?

Invention of Tradition (Hobsbawm)

I’ve leaned heavily on historian Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of ‘invented tradition’ in the past, and I dont feel it is inapplicable here. The invention of tradition is a set of practices, ‘which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983: 1). For nationalists, invented tradition is established by a ruling elite, and usually to imply continuity with a suitable version of history.

Albeit the narrative has somewhat subsided, one need only look at the Scottish Government’s long-running, long-ignored series of white papers on independence to observe the comparisons with Nordic economies. This comparison has been so ingrained in our narrative of independence that it fails to take account of the changes since 2007 which have impacted how directly comparable we are. In particular, this heralded cultural synchronicity we may or may not share. And yet, for this open borders, pro-EU positions of the SNP, the impacts of this have been so severely felt in Sweden, and Denmark that their positions are hardening and opening up discursive space for far right arguments.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government’s economic strategy for almost the entire decade since the referendum has leaned heavily on more neoliberal UK-adjacent mechanisms such as FDI, which we have shown to be extractive and leak wealth. This is hardly the social democratic vision of countries which own their own energy companies, and in many cases invest in our energy sector, so much that we contribute towards financing the public sectors of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

The notion of Scotland being something of a Nordic country in waiting has become ever-so-increasingly proved to be an invented tradition. Its the carrot that gets dangled in front of SNP activists whilst simultaneously slashes local government finances (conveniently overlooking how much more decentralised the democracies and economies of Nordic countries are compared to our super-unitary authorities (super in size).

Why is this important? Its important because the point of the independence debate is to talk about the kind of country we want to be, and while there are many admirable characteristics in the Nordic countries, as well-highlighted by Lesley Riddoch’s series of films, they are not without their problems, and we should stop kidding ourselves that we are anywhere near to fostering a Scandinavian culture in our society, in our economy, or in our politics.

Hobsbawm’s theory, therefore works on two levels: at a first level, we feel nostalgia for a past that never actually happened, that the Nordic comparison has become so ingrained in our arguments/nationalist movement culture, and yet we have never been a Nordic country; at a second level, the SNP narrative of the small successful independent nation has built a feeling of ingrained continuity with a future which we have not yet achieved, and until we do we are in servitude to the ruling elite which pushes this narrative.

The politics of recognition and redistribution (Fraser)

A second crucial element that hinders our understanding of where the movement and the SNP are at is related to this Scandinavian falsity. So we aspire to be more redistributive like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and elsewhere, but if the SNP’s policies don’t reflect that, then those arguments are hollow. This much is clear. Don’t proclaim yourself a social democratic party if you can’t deliver on that. The Scottish Government has a good record on standing up for the rights of LGBTQ+ groups and women’s rights, and that is a noble cause, but this politics of recognition is entirely divorced from a politics of redistribution.

Nancy Fraser argues that these politics should be in balance with each other – it is not enough simply to recognise these rights if there are no measures in place to help their economic status. Great, we legalised gay marriage in 2016, and introduced free period products for women and girls in 2022, this advances their social rights, and demonstrates that we are a progressive society actively recognising the right to equality for women and gay people, this is an increasingly important message in a time when leading figures across the political spectrum are pursuing narratives that John Knox could find a lot to agree with.

One case, where the disparity between recognition and redistribution is clear is the baby box. A good policy imported from Finland, and a good headline generated for the SNP government. But dig deeper, and what is there to see? The original baby box idea came with a full package of support measures to encourage new parents to access resources that would help them adjust to parenthood – the baby box was just the physical incentive to join the programme. Come to Scotland, though, and the SNP like the headline announcement that we’re giving out free things to new mothers: great – equality. But the well-thought through programme delivered in Finland was ignored and as a result the data that has come back on the impact of the baby box shows how minimal it has been.

So, good, champion the causes of the marginalised, but don’t forget they have economic rights as well as social rights. 

The McShock Doctrine (Klein)

Naomi Klein penned, arguably her defining piece of work, The Shock Doctrine, in 2007. In this she argued that Chicago school economics – the neoliberalism of Milton Friedman – had been rolled out in countries across the world via the means of ‘disaster capitalism’. Disaster capitalism conceptualises the actions of neoliberal thought leaders and practitioners in identifying, or in some cases engineering, moments of economic shocks which opened up a space to swoop in and wipe the slate clean. This blank canvas on which to operate provided the opportunity to reset from Keynesian economic orthodoxy (in earlier cases), or redefine the economies in the interests of trickle down economics, free markets, de-regulation and privatisation. Classic examples she deploys include cases in Louisiana post-Hurricane Katrina, the Chilean coup of 1973 which ousted Salvator Allende and thrusted General Pinochet’s reign of terror on 10 million Chileans, and also the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. However, she also highlights some cases which often fly under the radar, such as Mandela’s South Africa, Solidarity in Poland or Yeltsin’s new Russia, all of which highlight how moments of constitutional change created new opportunities for neoliberal economists to ‘create new markets’ and exploit the wealth of previously unavailable populations.

Now, its not as if Scotland’s wealth was not previously available, I’m sure the comments of this article will be reeling with fury at Thatcher’s snatching of ‘Scotland’s oil’. Furthermore, it would be wrong to suggest that Salmond’s SNP governments of 2007-2014 pursued a socialist economy – far from it, he actively push neoliberal orthodoxy and saw Ireland’s Celtic tiger economy as a model to follow, even if measures like free university education and free prescriptions have been used to tout the SNP’s progressive credentials for as long as the Nordic countries have served as a model for ‘small, independent nations’ to ‘make their place in the world’. 

But the parallels between the 2014 moment and Klein’s shock doctrine argument appear too close to ignore, particularly given the profit extraction we recently highlighted in our latest policy paper, and the public private partnerships rife in public life from ScotWind to PFI for trees. Whilst Scotland didn’t break away from the United Kingdom, treating 2014 as a ‘McShock Doctrine’ moment in itself foreshadows things to come if and when we achieve independence if we are not critical of the SNP’s economic programme, its (heavily outdated) Sustainable Growth Commission plan, and its role in coordinating the independence movement.

2 thoughts on “The McShock Doctrine”

  1. Hasn’t the Growth Commission Plan been superseded by the Social Justice and Fairness Commission report of 2021 which aims to *deliver a route map to the real prize of independence – becoming a truly rich society, where we ensure that no one has to rely on a food bank to eat*. Another document with lots and lots of words.

  2. Matthew Crighton

    “We cannot give a blank cheque to the SNP simply because we’re striving for the same end goal”. We aren’t! Supporters of Common Weal are striving for a socially just, economically equal and environmentally sustainable society, I believe. Who now believes that the SNP are?

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