From Places Like Mine and Yours

23/04/2011 by


The strong Scottish accent was conspiring with the noisy pub background to prevent me from understanding the words spoken in my ear by an imposing trades union figure. Thankfully, I managed to decipher the words he spoke, and which I still recall verbatim to this day: “The omens are horrid for your people and mine. Brussels will go the way of London. It will take decades before Scotland and Greece can rise again. Mark my words.” The calendar showed October 1979, a few short months after Mrs Thatcher’s accession to 10 Downing Street. The hoarse voice belonged to Mick McGachey. 

[Before proceeding, does anyone, outside of Scotland or the British mining community, remember that striking figure of a man? For those who do not, a brief CV is in order: Miner since he was 14, a life-long socialist, the man that the Tories feared more than anyone in the 1970s, Vice-President of the NUM (the once almighty National Union of Mineworkers) and, to boot, a man renowned for his sense of humour. Upon his retirement from the NUM a journalist asked him about his post-union plans: “I shall probably seek a safe communist seat”, he replied playfully.]

What was Mick McGachey doing talking to me, a young, inconsequential Greek University student, whose only significance at the time to him was that I had briefly joined a picket line in support of striking steelworkers? Let me tell you: When he heard that I came from Greece, he got up from his seat, shoved out of the way a Yorkshire steelworks shop-steward to seat next to me, and quickly proceeded to lecture me boisterously about how crucial the Greek Civil War, and its persecution by Churchill and Attlee, had been in defeating the British labour movement. He was talking seamlessly for more than half an hour, not once interrupted by me or anyone else. Of the 60% that I understood at best (the rest was consumed by the noise and that Lanarkshire accent), all of it made perfect sense.

When that tide of passionate words ebbed, I took the liberty of asking him about Mrs Thatcher and her likely impact on British politics. I can now reveal that, at least on that night, Mick McGachey’s powers of prophecy were intimidatingly sharp. His answer still rings in my ears: We are fucked. And so are you (meaning Greeks and assorted Europeans). Then he added something that history has not as yet delivered its verdict on – but which I hope (and also trust) may well come true: Democratic politics will recover again. It will take quite a few decades. But its recovery will not come from the metropoles; from London or from Paris or from Rome. When I asked him to pinpoint the loci of the far-off ‘recovery’, he thought about it, entered into an exchange with another unionist (that went totally over my head), and only then turned back to me, looked at me in the eye, and delivered the answer: “From places like mine and yours. From Scotland, from Greece, from Ireland.” The final-orders’ bell then rang ending our conversation.

Why am I telling you all this? Because recently Peter Welsh suggested I look at this policy initiative by Scottish union Unite and because, upon reading it, Mick MacGachey’s words came back flooding my mind. The initiative in question is, clearly, at an early stage of its development. Regardless, its basic premise is that the Scottish government ought to establish “sector forums throughout the economy which would help to combat inequality and assist in improving workers’ purchasing power”. In particular, that these forums look carefully into how wages, productivity and quality can be raised, together with demand for the final goods and services in the “voluntary, road haulage, renewables industries and tourism sectors”. Key to the proposal is that which no one in Europe really wants to hear but which the Unite webpage states clearly and crisply: “There is one way out of recession – and that’s by investing in growth,”

And here is the rub: What ought to be common ground for all (that, following a catastrophic world crisis like that of 2008, strategies for promoting growth is the way to go) is now fiercely contested terrain. London, Brussels, Frankfurt  and Berlin (not to mention Washington and New York) are behaving as if the opposite were true; as if the way forward is cutbacks, negative growth, deflation, internal devaluation (for the eurozone countries), and a series of attempts to shrink the national debt by squeezing labour, industry and the already dispossessed. One might have thought that the Thatcher experiment’s gross failure at re-establishing a sustainable industrial economy [through a mix of (a) contractionary macro policies and (b) spiv-friendly privatisations] should have taught the ruling ‘elites’ a lesson. But one would be wrong to think that: As Mick told me all these years ago, we should not expect rationality (let alone decency) from the ‘metropoles’; from London, New York, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Rome. But if not from there, where should we expect it to emerge from?

When Scottish devolution was effected by the Blair government, I have no doubt the English ‘elites’ rationale was to placate the Scottish people’s demands in a manner that concedes the minimum in order to avoid the (feared) maximum. I think that, with hindsight, the Scots have out-manoeuvred the southern elites. Having established a working government that can extend a certain degree of protection to the Scottish population from the vagaries of idiotic neoliberalism (that the London government will never provide to the English working classes), Scotland has the autonomy it needs to make moves of the sort that Mick McGachey believed may make the difference Europe-wide.

One may protest that this is far-fetched. That Scotland has, in fact, failed to achieve full autonomy, of which devolution is a very poor cousin. Indeed, it may well be true that after the crash of Iceland, even of Ireland, the prospects of full Scottish independence have taken a battering. But who cares? Yes, who cares? Take my beloved Greece. Nominally independent since 1827 and yet, presently, lacking any means by which to effect monetary, fiscal, health, education or social welfare enhancing policies. In fact, I submit that the Edinburgh government currently exercises more autonomy than the Athens government! When, for instance, London ups the cost of a higher education to British students, Scotland can deliver a simple and straight ‘No!’. Greece, in contrast, has a nominally socialist government whose only role is to try to portray every socially destructive policy that is dictated to it (by the IMF-EU) as its own next great idea for enhancing ‘efficiency’ and, in a frenzy of cynicism, ‘fairness’.

To recap, in our brave post-2008 world, there is no difference between formal independence and devolved autonomy. Scotland, Greece and Ireland are on the very same boat. Small countries, with ruling ‘elites’ that have long been discredited, they can play a major role in putting out a new agenda for Europe. One that is extremely modest in its ambition: To restore a modicum of sanity in a European Union that has gone utterly loopy. Unite‘s proposal for sectoral studies on how wages, skills, renewable energy and growth can all begin to point ‘north’ is a move that has many greater chances of leading Europe out of its cul-de-sac than any proposal that is likely to come from Brussels, Frankfurt, London, Berlin or Paris.

Indeed, the Modest Proposal for the eurozone (that Stuart Holland and I have been peddling for a while now – interestingly from Athens and Lisbon respectively) is totally in tune with the idea of a Pan-European investment drive that is rooted in small, local peripheries where the financial might of the European Central Bank is combined with the European Investment Bank’s capacity to fund a new Marshall Plan for European growth (see, in particular, Policy 3). Just like the original Marshall Plan was based on local, sectoral accounts of how wages, productivity and production could all rise together, so can the new one. The ‘Think Global – Act Local’ slogan of the environmental movement can then be combined with a new one: ‘Think Europe – Act Sectoral’.

As Mick McGachey told me in that awful, noisy pub so many years ago, Reason may have to emerge “…from places like mine and yours – from Scotland, from Greece, from Ireland.” It may take some time to prove him right. We may well fail. But we have no excuse to shirk the historical responsibility history has placed upon our small countries’ surprisingly broad shoulders.

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