2020, the historian Adam Tooze writes in Shutdown, his brilliant, bracing account of the Covid pandemic and its protracted political aftermath, was “merely a moment in a process of escalation”; a trial-run for the “systemic mega-crises” to come. The “shocks of the Anthropocene”, he warns, are not going to arrive “in neat sequence.”
Tooze is dazzled by the power of two radically different institutions: the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping and the US Federal Reserve. Beijing’s hardline response to the virus meant that China had effectively contained its domestic Covid outbreak by the end of February last year–just as the chaotic liberal democracies of the West were beginning to grapple with the reality of SARS-CoV-2. At the same time, without the extraordinary borrowing and liquidity measures enacted by Fed Chair Jerome Powell, the entire global financial system could have buckled under the weight of an unprecedented economic contraction. Over three billion adults were furloughed or forced to work from home during the first half of last year, Tooze writes. 1.6 billion children had their educations disrupted. $10 trillion worth of earnings were lost. Never before have so many people simultaneously suffered “such serious interruption to their daily lives.”
I spoke to Jacobin features editor Daniel Finn about the Sturgeon-Salmond split, Scotland’s new Nat-Green government, and the long-term prospects for Scottish independence.
You can listen to the interview here.
On Friday, August 20, just over a week after the IPCC delivered its latest, chilling assessment of the state of global environmental breakdown, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) struck a governing deal at Holyrood, Scotland’s semiautonomous parliament in Edinburgh, with the Scottish Greens.
The deal is loosely based on the cooperation agreement signed in New Zealand last October, which handed Green legislators ministerial portfolios in Jacinda Ardern’s Labour administration without binding them to the rules of collective responsibility. As things stand, the pact is provisional: Green activists have to ratify the agreement at a special party conference at the end of this month.
Since the 1970s, the number of mental health ‘disorders’ formally recognized by Western medical science has jumped from 106 to more than 370, the academic and psychotherapist James Davies notes in the opening pages of Sedated. The use of antipsychotic drugs to treat “sustained emotional distress” has climbed over that period, too. In 1988, roughly 2 per cent of American adults consumed some form of mood-altering or mood-enhancing medication. By 2017, that figure was 12.7 per cent. In Britain, the rise of anti-depressants has run parallel to the expansion of cheap credit and the Thatcherite unravelling of economic regulation: as the country’s stockpile of private debt has grown, so has its dependency on pharmaceuticals.
In his first book, Cracked (2013), Davies exposed the rampant profiteering of the drugs industry and the corrosive effects of mass-marketed prescriptions. In Sedated, he advances a similar argument but within a broader thematic remit. Ordinary human suffering has been medicalized and commodified by the free market, Davies says. Capitalism’s emphasis on individual responsibility keeps us locked in a state of existential unrest. Contrary to popular opinion, depression isn’t a biological condition triggered by “misfiring chemicals” in the brain; it is a rational response to material factors – grief, poverty, unemployment, isolation – that lie beyond our immediate control.
Late last year, the New York Times christened the United Kingdom “plague island.” In recent months, that epithet has lost some of its edge. The country’s COVID-19 vaccination program has been hugely effective. Just over 28 million Brits—almost half the country’s population—have been fully dosed against the virus; death and hospitalization rates have plummeted. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promises spring and summer will be “seasons of hope,” with social distancing rules relaxed and economic restrictions lifted.
But in a devastating, blow-by-blow account, investigative reporters Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott argue that nothing the Tory leader says about COVID-19 can or should be taken at face value. Despite the striking turnaround exhibited by the vaccine rollout, Calvert and Arbuthnott contend in their recent book, Failures of State, that policies implemented throughout the pandemic failed to prevent Britain’s grim absolute mortality figures (the highest in Europe, in absolute numbers) and the severity of its recession (the deepest in the G7).
On May 6, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) came within 2,000 votes of winning an outright majority at Holyrood, the country’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh. Holyrood’s proportional voting system was designed to discourage majority results. Sturgeon has won every election she has fought as SNP leader – six in seven years. By the time the next Scottish election takes place in 2026, the SNP will have held power at Holyrood for 19 years, more than two-thirds of the total lifespan of the parliament itself. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, Scottish nationalism has become virtually hegemonic. The SNP has no serious electoral rivals; the party draws support from a sizeable cross-section of demographic groups.
Sturgeon is the lynchpin of this success. She has been a member of the Holyrood chamber since it was created, or ‘reconvened’, by the House of Commons, in 1999. She became (de facto) leader of the opposition at the age of 34, deputy first minister and health secretary at 36, and first minister at 44. Journalists have spent the last few months poring over the breakdown of Sturgeon’s relationship with her bitterly estranged former boss and mentor, Alex Salmond. Increasingly, however, Salmond – who ran the Scottish government with Sturgeon as his deputy between 2007 and 2014 – looks like a supporting act in the history of modern Scottish nationalism. His newly established party, Alba, took less than 2 per cent of the vote on May 6.
Last week’s local and national election results in the United Kingdom revealed a country radically, and perhaps irreparably, divided.
Labour retained power in Wales; Boris Johnson’s Conservatives scored huge victories throughout England; and in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won a remarkable fourth term in office.
After 14 years in power – and one earth-shatteringly unpleasant internal party split – the SNP has secured a fourth consecutive election victory at Holyrood. The votes are still being tallied; an outright majority may have just slipped beyond the grasp of the nationalists.
And yet, next week, Nicola Sturgeon will still be first minister – and the question of independence will still lie at the heart of Scottish political debate. If, as looks likely, the SNP doesn’t reach that all-important 65-seat threshold, Green MSPs will make up the numbers. Both parties favour another referendum on self-government once the worst of the COVID pandemic has subsided, with 2023 mooted as one potential staging point for a fresh vote.
For Scots of my generation — millennial and younger — the belief that Scotland would be better off running its own affairs, free from the strictures of Westminster, is almost axiomatic. From the Iraq war to Brexit, the financial crash to austerity, Britain feels trapped in a spiral of crisis and decline. According to a September analysis of recent polls, more than 70 percent of Scots under the age of 35 think Scotland should abandon the United Kingdom. And the abrasive right-wing premiership of Boris Johnson, increasingly mired in accusations of cronyism and sleaze, has only strengthened that view.
At the other end of the spectrum, Scotland’s older, asset-owning classes remain staunchly opposed to a political breakup and the economic instability it might entail. An election this week should show which side has the wind at its back.
GLASGOW, Scotland—Now 14 years in power in Edinburgh’s devolved Parliament, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is polling ahead of its nearest rivals by at least 25 percentage points as elections approach on May 6. The party’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, remains the country’s most popular and trusted politician. Her steady handling of the coronavirus pandemic has garnered praise, bolstering the feeling that Scotland could thrive on its own—cut loose from the legislative ties of the United Kingdom.
Sturgeon’s SNP will win the elections. The only question is, on whose terms? A slight shift in the polls could mean the difference between an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament or another five years of rancorous minority coalition rule. If her party wins the majority, Sturgeon has pledged to call another independence referendum by the end of 2023. She remains locked in a high-stakes standoff with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has said he will block Scotland from voting again on the question of leaving the United Kingdom.
In the rancorous aftermath of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s prime minister sees an opportunity: Boris Johnson wants to position the country as a global champion in the fight against climate change. With both eyes fixed firmly on the world’s next major climate summit, the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), which is scheduled to take place in Glasgow this November, the British leader recently unveiled a suite of headline-grabbing new climate policies. Johnson’s “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution” would, he declared late last year, “create, support, and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net zero by 2050.” For the conservative populist, COP26 presents an opportunity not just to bolster his country’s green credentials but also to repair some of the diplomatic damage sustained during the Brexit process.
Achieving this vision may be easier said than done. It’s possible the United Kingdom’s progress in cutting carbon emissions could grind to a halt over the coming decade, jeopardizing London’s push for green diplomacy. British climate campaigners are also skeptical about Johnson’s professed enthusiasm for environmental issues given the limited spending he’s committed to them so far.
Scotland’s coalfields once sprawled across the central belt, from Ayrshire and Lanarkshire on the west coast to Fife and the Lothians on the east. In 1947, 77,000 people worked in Scottish coal. By 1990, that number had slumped to just 6,000. Popular history dictates that the UK coal industry was rapidly wound down during the latter part of the 20th century by Conservative politicians hostile to organized labour. But as Ewan Gibbs explains in Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland, the reality is more complicated.
Competition from cheaper fuels and the emergence of nuclear power pushed British coal into decline soon after the Second World War. In the 1950s and ‘60s, governments and mining unions negotiated the closure of nationalized pits and collieries. In the 1970s, there was a sharp uptick in industrial action. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher abandoned the consensual strategy of previous decades in favour of a more militant – and politicized – approach to the sector. Coal mining in Scotland had already shed half its pre-war employee base by the time Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964. That base had halved again by the time Thatcher entered Downing Street 15 years later.