INCREASINGLY Britain looks like Absurdistan, a bizarre dysfunctional place where the centrist political parties converge on doing nothing about the ongoing genocide in Gaza and share a dismal economic outlook as Britain heads again into recession.

Take a glance at the chaos of the Rochdale by-election or the manic debate about naming the London Overground trains (Liberty Lioness, Mildmay, Suffragette, Windrush and Weaver) which threw right-wing pundits into a spasm of outrage.

Yet Scotland too has become a strangely stuck and stagnant place, having moved from the liminal to limbo where so much dwells in everyday banality. As the writer Neil Mackay wrote last week: “Scotland has become Lilliput – a place of small ideas dominated by small people. Across nationalism and Unionism, Scotland’s political discourse – from the street to social media and all the way to Parliament – has become petty and absurd. We fail ourselves.”

It was brutal but he’s partly right.

The National: The Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh, which provides accommodation for 129 members, their researchers and parliamentary staff. The parliament is in recess ahead of the election on 6 May. Picture date: Thursday April 29, 2021..

We are caught in between a devolution settlement that satisfies nobody and any opportunity for constitutional change being quashed and delayed. Under devolution, managerial classes and landed power are quite content and empowered. Any attempts at more radical changes (or even very ordinary and basic policy changes) from Holyrood are deemed a threat by the Unionist parties and by the UK Government.

Twenty-five years ago, we voted in the first elections for the new Scottish parliament and witnessed the opening of Holyrood with a fair amount of hope and expectation. Much of that seems lost now. The Catalan architect Enric Miralles, one of Europe’s leading contemporary architects, was chosen unanimously from a worldwide list of 70 applicants to create the building.

His outline designs for the £50 million complex were intended to resemble a cluster of upturned Scottish fishing boats. Kathleen Jamie described it in a two-line aphorism: “An upturned boat/a watershed”. But it doesn’t seem much of a watershed today. We are now trapped in a political settlement that many see as inadequate and severely limited, and others view as deeply threatening.

Devolution has been a useful stepping stone, a measurement of power and an exercise in partial democracy. We have two legislatures now, one we elect and one we do not, one that issues destructive or dysfunctional legislation that the other one tries to mitigate. It’s an extraordinary and unsustainable dynamic to be in.

A quarter of a century on from devolution, surveying the wreckage of post-Dewarite Scottish Labour, we see a party hollowed out, even as it stands on the verge of peripheral power. Anas Sarwar tells us in the Daily Record that he will “stand up to Starmer for Scotland”. It’s a strange message that somehow the main threat we should be worrying about is the leader of his own party.

Labour – the party who claim to have delivered devolution – are now largely hostile to it and the mission creep of shooting the nationalist fox (again) has disintegrated into an altogether different tone. So deeply wedded to the idea of Union are Labour that they view the devolved parliament as something that should be managed, limited and contained. With the democratic blueprint that Gordon Brown was assiduously nurturing (in private) over years for extended devolution – the F Bomb, infamous reform of the House of Lords or whatever – quietly shelved, the party have little to say.

It looked for a while like the SNP government was a mirror of the Conservative one in London. Both were incumbent parties running out of energy and with ideas mired in controversy. But polls last week show the possibility of the next election being an extinction event for the Tories in Scotland and the possibility of the SNP winning 40 MPs – making gains from the Conservatives – with Scottish Labour on 13, and the LibDems on four (Tories face wipeout in Scotland at next General Election, bombshell poll predicts, as the Daily Record headline read).

This would be a remarkable victory for the SNP after such troubled times that would have been unthinkable only weeks ago. Yet would such a result actually change anything? It used to be that electing 40 SNP members would be seen as a seismic event, sending shockwaves down to Westminster and heralding momentous change. Now it will be shrugged at.

The consequences of this moribund politics is the hyper-banal. Unionist politicians in Scotland are forever in opposition where they operate the Bain Principle (the idea never to support an SNP motion even if you agree with it). Instead of big ideas, we get the endless discussion about Michael Matheson’s iPad, Nicola Sturgeon’s WhatsApps, ferries with painted windows, cold trains and the latest Kate Forbes intrigue. Scottish politics seems dominated by petty and dull minutiae, internecine squabbles and relentless negativity.

Without a vision beyond devolution or without the levers of a functioning democratic state, we are destined to be served up cauld kale – ideas that are banal, stale and of low aspiration.

Can you imagine, for example, someone (anyone) coming up with ideas as bold as the hydroelectric dam scheme for the Highlands? Or a genuinely radical intervention to the housing crisis? Or a really ambitious move to face the climate crisis? It’s difficult to imagine any such thing happening.

Part of this is to do with the limitations of the political class and the powers of the parliament, but it is part of a wider and deeper malaise.

Running Out of Time, Running Out of Ideas

Politicians are facing levels of problems and levels of complexity as system breakdowns kick in that few have witnessed before. If many Western countries (our own included) failed badly in their response to the pandemic, for example, who can really blame them?

In the face of gigantic bewildering problems, we have old-school politicians, states and systems using old technology, old ideology and old ways of thinking. The scale and nature of the problems we face are of a different order if you consider global pandemics, AI and the impact of climate catastrophe.

The National: Bill McKibben, environmentalist, speaks to the tens of thousands that gathered on the Washington Mall and marched to the White House asking President Obama to reject Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipe Line in Washington D.C. February 17, 2013. Protestors are

Reflecting on the environmental cataclysm we face, the American writer Bill McKibben (above) has said that we have lived through the death of nature itself. Not just in the sense of the mass degradation of ecosystems but in the sense of the death of the idea of nature itself. McKibben states that humanity has stamped its presence over every geophysical aspect of life on Earth, so that “we have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial.  We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning.  Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it, there is nothing but us”.

“A child born now,” states McKibben, “will never know a natural summer, a natural autumn, winter or spring ... he might swim in a stream free of toxic waste, but he won’t ever see a natural stream. If the waves crash up on the beach, eroding dunes and destroying homes, it is not the awesome power of Mother Nature. It is the awesome power of man, who has overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the Earth was born.”

Others have suggested that the idea of the future itself has been lost in the metacrisis. Writing about Jonathan White’s book In the Long Run: The Future As A Political Idea, Simon Ings says: “If democracies are to survive and flourish, they need to believe in the future. The prospect of brighter times ahead – that the problems of today can be solved in the elections of tomorrow – has been one of the key underpinnings of modern democratic systems.

“But what if that claim no longer holds? What if, say, you believe that an immediate crisis or issue is so pressing – climate change, for example – that the promise that things will work out in the long run no longer rings true?”

We can add to the death of nature and the death of the future the often-used phrase from Fredric Jameson that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. This puts the sort of dire, relentless managerialism into a global and historical context. It’s parochial to think that we are uniquely unambitious or especially useless. If this sense of impotence in the face of breakdown is all-pervasive, maybe we need to step back and reflect on the goals and functions of Scottish politics.

The central goal and analysis of the independence movement is to break with the British state. That state being tied to an ancient and decrepit regime that is rotten to its core is a major handicap to the creation of a contemporary functioning democratic state. We can see this play out almost every day. But the problem is not that this is true, it is that we need to create a really compelling alternative that people will be drawn to in overwhelming numbers. Even in the condition where the present constitutional relations deliver abject poverty on a wide scale, a large minority of people are still wedded to it.

If we look at how our thinking about independence and self-determination has evolved – and could evolve further – the following statements seem to hold true:

1. We thought we needed a parliament when what we need is an actual democracy.

2. We thought we could elect a new government when what we need is to overthrow one.

3. Independence was understood as a seamless transition. It can’t be – if it is, it’s not going to be worth anything. Independence is rupture.

4. This was always about Raploch, not Bannockburn.

5. The problem of creating a new state is hampered by social breakdown.

The first point is really that devolution has outlived itself and its usefulness. Some of this was anticipated at the time of its invention. New political institutions without deeper political and social upheaval and change would be – by definition – managerial, it was argued.

The second point is really about the failure and limitations of electoral change. The failure and (in)competence of politics is often ascribed to personal failings in the soap opera of Scottish politics and social media. What’s become apparent is the limitation of effecting real social change through the ballot box or electoral politics within the current systems.

Third, as social and economic breakdown continues and accelerates, the idea of change being a gradual process that will leave power bases intact and the current authority undisturbed is fanciful. Independence will only come about through resistance, protest and a radical shift of power.

Fourth, this is to say that the banality of politics we discussed earlier has its mirror with the independence movement itself. “Banal nationalism” exists and needs to be self-critiqued from within. Exerting new forms and cultures within a new Yes movement could occlude reactionary elements.

Fifth, finally, the problem of building a political movement with the energy and momentum to do any of these things is severely hampered by the lived experience of everyday life. The need to build infrastructures that allow people to overcome basic economic needs seems essential. They would include alternative institutions, ways of providing practical solidarity and mutual aid and also forms of articulation – song, poetry, theatre, film, writing, art – a general culture that endowed the wider movement and society with an enriched worldview.

The challenge for Scotland is not just to stare at the state of Britain in gleeful delight at its disarray but to imagine something better, and to build it with values and cultures that are appropriate to the actual challenges we face. That could take us beyond banality and begin a real watershed.