Dominic Alexander reviews Neo-Liberal Scotland: Class and Society in a Stateless Nation, ed. Neil Davidson, Patricia McCafferty and David Miller (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 459pp

Neo-Liberal Scotland

This book is needed, according to the forward by Neil Davidson, due to the failure of Scottish academics to acknowledge neo-liberalism in Scotland, let alone to challenge it effectively. Indeed there is a pervasive sense that the assumptions of neo-liberal thinking have become so dominant that they are invisible to their proponents. This problem would certainly be familiar to many outside Scotland, but there the additional twist is an assumption that neo-liberalism has by-passed Scotland, or that Social-Democracy has been largely maintained.

These are the assumptions challenged by each of the separate studies making up this very useful book. Indeed it should be of value not just to those interested in Scotland in particular, but to anyone concerned with the ideological and material circuits of neo-liberalism. Many of the studies are particularly illuminating on the ways in which neo-liberal ideology has become embedded in academia and politics, linked particularly to the intertwining of these two sectors in Scotland.

Volumes of this nature are always rather difficult to balance properly, with individual contributors always likely to be at cross-purposes at least part of the time. Nonetheless, the variety of opinion can just as easily be a source of strength. The editor’s opening essay is thus crucial in defining the parameters of the study, and the various ways in which individual contributors may differ in their approach according to a certain remit.

Neil Davidson’s ninety page contribution, ‘What was Neo-Liberalism?’, goes some way towards fulfilling this function, but barely mentions Scotland at all. Instead Davidson attempts an outline of a range of Marxist analyses of post-war capitalism, as well as various contemporary left approaches to neo-liberalism. While much of this is interesting, the task is too much for a single chapter, which itself is already very large in relation to the rest of the book. In addition the focus is very often upon intra-Marxist debates that would need considerably more explanation and argument if they were either to persuade an outsider that they were worth pursuing, or to change the mind of one whose position were already decided. The attempt to squeeze in so much into a single chapter also produces a problematic tone in places, with Naomi Klein dismissed peremptorily, and David Harvey hectored for his misjudgements. A book length study may have been a more appropriate place for this essay to have found its mark.

David Miller’s contribution is a forensic examination of the connections and crossovers of individuals and institutions which go up to make the web tying the Scottish elite into the wider ruling class. This is a persuasive demonstration of both the simple existence and inherent anti-democratic nature of the capitalist ruling class, and has significance beyond Scotland. The focus upon a relatively small region is helpful in demonstrating how the construction of the ruling class would work on a more global level. The observation that the centres of real decision making lie, to a great extent, outside Scotland, would of course not be entirely new for Scotland. Global neo-liberalism has however deepened and extended the powerlessness of particular regions throughout the developed world.

The self-comforting idea that Scotland is somehow an exception from neo-liberalism, or that particularly humanitarian values rule still in Scotland, is attacked through Miller’s argument and succeeding contributions. Chapter Three demonstrates the connections between the processes of ‘financialisation’ and ‘proletarianisation’, and attacks the argument that Scotland is now a ‘middle-class’ nation. This is also an argument that remains of great value beyond Scotland’s border. A similar form of the claim is made by neo-liberal ideologues throughout the developed world. This chapter also contains a satisfying critique of Weberian approaches to class. Weberian conceptions enable neo-liberals to remove class from the picture, focusing simply on the ‘skills and resources’ individuals bring to that place which, emptied of all the real power relationships individuals are caught within, is called ‘the market’.

Alongside economic restructuring, the funding of public services is a key area in which neo-liberalism has prioritised ‘business’ interests over social justice in Scotland as elsewhere. Patricia McCafferty and Gerry Mooney in Chapter Four focus on this area, where Scotland does have some real differences from the rest of the UK, but where they show the fundamental directions of policy are not at variance from neo-liberalism. They also elaborate a critique of the SNP, which is shown not to have broken from neo-liberalism at all. Private capital remains key to SNP policy, and their rhetoric of ‘fairness’ is familiar from the language of mainstream champions of neo-liberalism. Following chapters echo this critique, with their commitment to Environmental Justice, for example, essentially being abandoned already.

Succeeding chapters focus on urban development policy, migration, criminal justice, and, interestingly, ‘confidence and well-being’. Davidson concludes the volume with another long contribution, this one focused on the party politics of devolved Scotland. Each of these deserve discussions of their own, but in the remaining space, some general points need to be made.

The focus in many of the contributions on policy papers lends itself to a perspective which emphasises the discourse of neo-liberalism as the key agency. That is, neo-liberal discourse, and the way it evades reality, appears as the source of the power needed to impose neo-liberal policy.

This is particularly noteworthy in Scotland, where resistance on the left is stronger than in England at least, and where a neo-liberal ideologue acknowledges socialism and a figure such as Tommy Sheridan, (p.301) in a context which is hard to imagine occurring in London. Clearly neo-liberal policy was imposed from outside Scotland for twenty years and that is the background for its victory after devolution in Scotland. Nonetheless, the approach of many of the authors is to present this largely in terms of ideological communication and networking rather than social power or class forces. The two domains intertwine of course, and this may be a matter of favoured nuance in places. The emphasis does however leave the impression that resisting either the language or the reality of neo-liberalism is close to impossible.

Despite some promises, there is very little on the means and opportunities whereby neo-liberalism has been or may be resisted, or even rolled back. Nonetheless, this book is a serious and important contribution to the necessary critique of neo-liberalism and contemporary capitalism with Scotland as a singular example from which everyone inside and outside that nation can learn.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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