On 9 March, Whitehall was a road awash with blood. Much of the grey tarmac of Westminster’s governmental thoroughfare was turned to a dark, sanguine red by the climate activists of Extinction Rebellion in a show of direct action. Like a biblical plague informing the people of impending doom, it is a metaphorical indictment on the UK’s deathly political landscape. Just a few hundred meters down the road, the Westminster cartel bicker endlessly about different forms of the same disastrous Brexit or the same broken social order that has blighted Britain for decades. There is, however, a path out of the darkness. For socially-conscientious students living in Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland that feel the same anguish with our political system, becoming involved with the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the independence movement could be a remedy.
We in Edinburgh do not have to stand for the drawn out social and economic disaster that is Brexit. Scotland did not vote for this - in fact it voted overwhelmingly against. Independence provides an emancipatory escape route which we would be foolish not to follow. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament Elections, the SNP stood on a manifesto that said it would call for an independence referendum if there was a ‘significant and material change in circumstances, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will.’ A mandate for autonomy exists, now all that is needed is political will.
Our solidarity and relationship with the rest of Europe is not the only thing that Westminster leaves in ruins. British society is laden with glaring injustices, from the scandal of bosses earning 312 times that of an average worker, to the four million children that live in poverty despite the UK being the fifth richest country in the world. Around 3,500 people are homeless in Edinburgh and one in five working age Scots live in poverty.
The Conservatives will not confront these issues because it was their own rigid dogma of Thatcherism and austerity that caused them. The Liberal Democrats stopped being a serious political force in 2010, when they reneged on manifesto promises and enabled the destruction of the social state. The fledgling ‘Independent Group speaks of changing the old order but in reality is just more of the same dysfunctional Westminster model. Sarah Wollaston, one of their ex-Tory MPs, claimed yesterday in the New Statesman that ‘we cut too much’. What a pathetic admission to hear, years after the damage has been done. As for the Labour Party, it is too mired in internal strife and debilitated by unpopular leadership to bring about progressive change anytime soon. Scotland should not have to wait in the wings. Furthermore, even with real socialists at the helm, they cannot totally separate themselves from the Westminster establishment. At the last election, they remained committed to keeping £7 billion of welfare cuts and blowing at least £205 billion on illegal weapons of mass destruction.
In Holyrood, the Scottish government is taking a different approach. The SNP’s latest budget mitigated austerity by investing £42.5 billion in Scotland’s economy and public services. This included extra money for schools, mental health, and social care. Last year, the finance secretary Derek Mackay raised taxes on the top 30% of earners and lowered them for the bottom 70%, in an attempt to correct the highly regressive British tax system. This, however, is only the beginning. Only independence will be able to free Scotland from Westminster’s cruelty and incompetence.
Germany is often seen as the industrial success story and beating heart of the Eurozone, with few issues in comparison with its debt-ridden, stagnating southern European partners. It is on the brink of having the world’s largest export surplus and has over a quarter of the Eurozone’s gross national product. Its elder stateswoman Angela Merkel has ruled over Germany as chancellor since 2005. She has for a long time been known by much of the German public as ‘mutti’- an almost mother-like figure that watches caringly and responsibly over her people. This exultant image does not resemble the reality and lived-experience of many ordinary German people, however. According to Sarah Wagenknecht, a leading member of Germany’s radical left party Die Linke, Germany is witnessing a ‘tangible crisis in democracy’.
With 40% of Germans having less disposable income than they did 20 years ago and many giving up on politics or opting for the xenophobic, if not outright racist, Alternative für Deutschland there is a large and growing feeling of pent up anger directed at Germany’s political elites. Last September, around 6,000 far-right protesters with links to neo-Nazis took to the streets in the eastern city of Chemnitz. Many were seen making illegal Nazi salutes and immigrants were reportedly chased through the streets. It is against this deeply worrying background that Aufstehen (‘Stand Up’), a new left wing populist movement, has been formed. It was founded by Wagenknecht, a figure often compared to Rosa Luxemburg, in the summer of last year. It is not just a movement brought together by Germany’s official radical left, but brings together a number of high-profile figures from other left-of-centre parties and German civil society.
Aufstehen founders hope to emulate the success of other left-populist movements across Western Europe like Britain’s Momentum, France’s La France Insoumise and ‘gilet-jaunes’ street protesters. To understand Aufstehen’s political project one must delve into the ideological roots of Europe’s new left. They take much inspiration from the Belgian post-Marxist philosopher Chantal Mouffe who understands the centrist social democracy or ‘Third Way’ of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and today’s Emmanuel Macron as facilitating the rise of the far-right. The triangulation of traditionally left-wing, social-democratic parties towards a technocratic neoliberalism has caused capitalism to veer towards oligarchy and has left populations facing little real choice at the ballot box. Mainstream parties have for a long time simply offered voters slightly different variations of what is essentially the same hegemonic, neoliberal capitalism. Disgruntled voters faced with stagnating wages, insecure jobs, financial crises, and austerity have looked to the far-right for a genuine alternative to their misery. The new left-populists hope to channel this anger into progressive and inclusive movements that can fight for the common good against Europe’s self-serving establishments and oligarchies.
Since September last year more than 150,000 Germans have signed up to be part of Aufstehen, which is a promising start to what is still a nascent movement. The fact that it goes beyond Germany’s established radical left party Die Linke, attracting figures from across progressive German politics, is a welcome development. Die Linke is not necessarily a reliable antidote to Germany’s political crisis because it currently holds only 10% of the vote and has not yet been able to enact decisive change on German national politics. Aufstehen’s emphasis on grassroots action and populist rhetoric could provide a solution to Germany’s malaise, if one buys into Mouffe’s diagnosis of Europe’s problems.
There is, however, one serious problem with Aufstehen’ politics. Whilst it is right to challenge Germany’s political elite, mainstream parties, and rigged economy, it wrongly brings the country’s immigration policy into question as well. Wagenknecht sees Merkel’s ‘open-borders’ approach to economic migration as contrary to the interests of Germany’s popular classes and benefitting only large corporations. She sees restricting immigration as one way in which German progressives can win back popular support. But the facts do not support this regressive narrative and strategy. Countless research studies have shown immigration to have no significant negative impact on native workers of advanced Western economies and to be vital for economic growth. Furthermore, as the eminent political scientist Cas Mudde has stated recently, academic research ‘consistently shows that when mainstream parties move to the right in an attempt to co-opt the issues of the radical right, it does not hurt populist right parties – in fact, it often helps them.’ Aufstehen’s right-wing deviation on immigration tarnishes its legitimacy and potential effectiveness as a movement. Nonetheless, its grassroots style of politics may still be Germany’s only hope against a resurgent far-right when mainstream left politicians lost touch with the people a long time ago. As Rosa Luxemburg said in 1919: ‘The leadership has failed. Even so, the leadership can and must be recreated from the masses and out of the masses. The masses are the decisive element, they are the rock on which the final victory of the revolution will be built.’
*Illustrated by Hazel Laing*