AROUND the world – Scotland included – two powerful political forces are about to collide. First, powerful new anti-austerity protests are on the rise, spreading from southern to northern Europe. Witness the Nuit Debout street occupations in France, the junior doctors’ strikes in England, and the latest rise in SNP membership north of the Border.

Second, we are experiencing a sudden slowing of the global economy, as it lurches inexorably towards deflation, recession and another banking crisis. This outburst of popular anger — plus a growing realisation that free market capitalism and so-called globalisation have failed to create sustainable prosperity for the many — makes for a combustible international situation.

Let’s look at the new protests. In France, we have seen the rise in recent weeks of the Nuit Debout movement. The name means “up all night” because it began as a nightly mass occupation of the iconic Place de la Republique in Paris. More loosely it carries the injunction: “seize the night”. The movement began at the end of March as a spontaneous youthful protest against a “reform” of labour laws by the Socialist Government of Francois Hollande to make it easier for employers to dismiss workers. But Nuit Debout has quickly widened in its critique of French politics and society, as well as spreading across towns the length and breadth of the country.

Nuit Debout has no leaders and is not affiliated to a political party, though polls show that it has the support of 61 per cent of French 18-25 year-olds. There are nightly general assemblies open to everyone. A moderator allocates time to speak, and propositions are debated and approved by a qualified majority of those present. Expression though music and art is encouraged, as well as traditional talk. Wary of abandoning its citizen roots, Nuit Debout remains somewhat unwieldy if not chaotic. But already it has forced concessions from President Hollande: two weeks ago the French Government called in student union leaders and promised £300 million to help young people find work. Unemployed high school graduates will get financial help for four months and temporary work contracts will be taxed, to encourage employers to hire permanently.

Nuit Debout is important for two reasons. First, it marks a shift of French popular anger against austerity into the streets, following disenchantment with the performance of the Hollande Government. Second, the movement is turning from a specific critique of labour reform into a general movement for social and political change, challenging the neo-liberal model that has dominated political thinking (even in France) since the 1980s.

Exactly the same radicalisation process is taking place in England, detonated by the junior doctors’ strikes. The starting salary for a junior doctor is only £23,000 a year. Even with extra payments for unsociable hours, it barely reaches £30,000. That’s not a lot when you still have £60,000 to £100,000 of student debts to carry. Besides, the term junior doctor is very misleading: it also covers medics who are doing long in-service training. That can be a decade for a trainee GP or 14 years for a hospital specialist. Don’t be fooled by the Tory plan to increase the basic pay of junior doctors by 13.5 per cent – the Government plans to slash the extra payments to save money. In other words, it’s another Tory austerity measure.

What the Conservative Government failed to grasp in resisting the demands of the junior doctors was (1) their determination to resist hidden cuts to the NHS, and (2) the popular support they would receive. As a result, the junior doctors’ campaign has begun to morph into a genuine mass movement in England against austerity. I glimpse this each morning when I walk by the pickets outside St Thomas’ Hospital on Westminster Bridge, on my way to Parliament. On the picket line there is almost a festive air, with hundreds of folk on their way to work wishing the junior doctors good luck – and even stopping to take selfies with the strikers.

Having underestimated support for the junior doctors, the Tories may be about to repeat their mistake on an even greater scale when it comes to Chancellor Osborne’s plans to turn every local authority school in England into an “academy”. This scheme has nothing to do with improving education standards and everything to do with destroying the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and undermining elected local authorities and parent organisations. If implemented, it would effectively mean state education in England was run centrally from Whitehall, allowing more cuts and greater involvement of private sponsorship. The degree of opposition to these dictatorial plans — even from Tory backbenchers worried about the impact on good local authority schools in their constituencies – has alarmed the Government.

The obvious weakness in these social protest movements in France and England is that they lack a solid political expression. Here in Scotland we have been fortunate that the anti-austerity movement has been channelled through the SNP. Indeed the near-victory of the Yes campaign in the independence referendum of September 2014, and the subsequent SNP victory in the May 2015 UK General Election, could be said to have spearheaded the rise of anti-austerity struggles in north Europe.

The rise of these anti-austerity struggles in northern Europe is somewhat belated. It comes after the movement has been ongoing in Greece, Spain and Portugal for years, to the point of imminent exhaustion. In Greece, the Syriza Government has capitulated to the cuts diktat of the European Central Bank. In Spain, last December’s General Election seemed to promise change when millions of people voted for new anti-austerity, anti-corruption movements. But since then the country has been without a government as the mainstream Spanish Socialists have manoeuvred to avoid forming an effective anti-austerity coalition with Podemos, which emerged out of earlier radical street protests. Result: King Felipe has just dissolved parliament and called new elections for June — elections that could see a revival of the conservative right.

One part of the Spanish state where progressive politics have advanced is Catalonia. There the new Prime Minister, Carles Puigdemont, has used the crisis in Madrid to push forward plans for independence. Puigdemont says he only expects to be in post for 18 months. Meanwhile the Catalan coalition is making preparations for elections to a constituent assembly, which will draw up a new Catalan constitution. This will be put to a referendum after which (if accepted) Puigdemont will declare a new independent Catalan state.

What next? The rise of new anti-austerity currents in northern Europe could give the international movement new heart, especially in the south where the economic crisis has been harsher. But that only buys time. What is desperately needed is for those movements in power – as in Scotland and Catalonia – to pioneer new economic models that transform popular resistance to austerity and globalisation into a practical alternative.

The key here is to extend democratic control over the financial system before the next banking crisis erupts. Taking social control over investment and lending flows is vitally necessary to maintain stability and re-order the economy for social need, rather than speculation. Street protest is healthy but pressure politics are not enough. Real change means having power. Remember than next Thursday.

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