The fundamentals: why we need to  talk about place and populism 


Commentary by Christopher Silver

What does it mean to live a life tied to a particular place? To feel your fate inescapably tied to it? Is it to be trapped? Is a need to linger just a quiet fear of the great beyond? Or is to bravely embrace that deep human impulse, to have a place to stand?

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh once noted “parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.” As place and our relationship with it becomes an increasingly controversial issue in a world once again on the move, we’d do well to remember this nuance.

Christopher Silver

We are living in a new era of migration set in motion by planetary changes that we cannot control. As a result, we the politics of place has become a constant theme in the emergence of the new unruly presence of right-wing populism taking hold in Europe and North America.

A new divide?

At the same time, the initial wave of excitement and energy unleashed by ever expanding globalisation at the end of the 20th century is starting to ebb away. The winners and losers pace around each other awkwardly, desperately trying not to address the fact that the promises made at the birth of this new hyper-connected world were often disingenuous.

That much should be obvious, but given the ideological commitment of the political centre to deregulation and the free flow of capital, liberal elites need stories that identify the problem in cultural rather than economic terms. In the wake of Brexit the British political classes have become entrance by the story told to them by David Goodhart in the The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, an account that explains all by naming the two competing tribes behind the new political upheaval.

Essentially, it claims that there is a new divide in Britain that transcends the old class politics of left-right – on one side are the Somewheres (the lumpen half of the population stuck in a particular locale who value tradition) and on the other the Anywheres (the mobile, educated elite).

Goodhart and other centrists see the new angry politics of emboldened Somewheres as the inevitable product of mass immigration, mass higher education and a social liberal consensus determined to pursue change at breakneck speed. For the author, this is underlined by surveys which find substantial numbers feel that their home country is now foreign to them.

Today, everywhere, the crises we’re experiencing are about the exploitation of that basic anxiety writ large – the Somewheres are encouraged to fear both migrants, with nothing, and the global elite, with everything. In contrast to the settled populace, both the migrants and the elites are defined by their mobility and both provoke envy and jealousy.

At its most explicit, this can be seen in claims that George Soros created the migrant crisis to destroy European culture. At its most subtle, it takes the form of a pervasive notion that someone – probably with a synthetic cosmopolitan identity – is constantly sneering at you for having lost out in the global knowledge economy – the game that confers the elixir of mobility, cultural confidence and relative economic freedom.

Space for solidarity?

There’s another, less neat, explanation.

National solidarity has been chipped away at, not by mass influxes of foreigners or gay marriage – but by the relentless force of the current phase of capitalism. With less and less capital moving into productive sectors in the wealthiest countries in the world, inequality has soared – but capital has also sought to create markets by colonising the most vulnerable parts of the modern nation state too. In doing so it has hollowed out the media, state bureaucracies, education systems and public infrastructure: all of the institutions that once supported a sense of national belonging and common inheritance.

It has become so much harder to live in the imagined community of the nation – because the institutions that keep that imagination sparked are being eroded by global capital. With vanishingly few exceptions, the content, products and information we consume no longer stop at the national border, whilst the identities we express, and the range of visible ways we can live, have multiplied.

This is a remarkable, liberating, moment – but it is also inherently unstable. Yet of all the dangerous positions available, the liberal centre is the most precarious. But its absurdity is seen not simply in its attachment to a doomed economic system – it is more blatant still in its failure to understand that local experience is also universal.

Promises unravel

Though their isolation is surely real enough, the ‘left-behinds’ have internet connections and smartphones too. Identities are layered, not fixed. But the left everywhere must be wary of the siren call of the new cultural divide because it is founded on the falsehood that there is a hinterland of small towns and rural communities where modernity and connection has never taken place. The depth of this falsehood is not just represented by the image of the derelict factory town – it’s better seen in the now abandoned railway line that once connected it, the useless bus service, the identikit high street, or the dying local newspaper. It was not social liberalism or a cumbersome welfare state that cut all those old bonds and links – it was the destructive force of capitalism moving through a locale unchecked.

That disappointment – captured in a thousand news despatches from a thousand “forgotten” places – has made foreigners and itinerants aplenty of both native Britons and migrant workers. A residual sense of pride and identity becomes all the more significant in such circumstances, it seems to offer something solid and true in the face of irrational, distant change.

Today scholars of the liberal centre, seeing the promises they made about economic liberalism unravel in front of the masses, assert that the great sin of the left has been its embrace of identity politics: an approach which is said to privilege minority identities and protest, over common citizenship.

They see a new politics full of narcissism and individualism. This tends to ignore both the populism of the centre (such as Gordon Brown’s attempts to promote Britishness) and the fact that the forces behind Trump and Brexit themselves offer a form of identity politics, the identity just happens to be nativist and white.

No escape

There are a number of reasons why Scottish politics finds itself in its current state of inertia: not least sheer exhaustion after several years of electoral high drama. But though it’s seldom considered, part of the cause of this stasis must surely be the country’s inability to grapple with the questions that are dominating politics in Europe and North America. Yet the great debate about how to create a sense of belonging and solidarity in a post-national world barely seems to register, and countless easy assumptions abound. However, we cannot escape the new volatility abroad with a patchwork centrist consensus based on service industries and tourism at home, any more than Trump can revive the fortunes of the coal mining towns of West Virginia.

The current position of the Scottish Government, which should be fleshed out by Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission later this year, seems to be to want more of the mobile: both migrants and transnational elites must be drawn here for the nation to flourish. It’s a posture that echoes Tony Blair’s oft-repeated view that the old left-right divide has been replaced by an opposition between “open” and “closed” societies. With isolationism on the cards in the south and across the Atlantic, the temptations and the opportunities are obvious.

But if Scotland is to hitch its future to centrist politics at a time of such great volatility, it risks arriving late to a party that has already finished. Instead, it needs to learn to engage wholeheartedly with this new world and its current troubled birth.

Scotland needs to deal with the fundamentals.