The world fell apart in 1991 and since then we’ve been living through the looking glass. People who don’t remember the Cold War can’t grasp how permanent it seemed. When I was a child, the idea that the USSR would cease to exist was as preposterous as the idea that the USA or UK would break up. Even when I moved to the USSR, I didn’t dream that it was on the verge of break up. There was shock in Russia in 1991 and chaos, not least in the minds of people. Suddenly, almost everything everyone believed turned out to be false. The Party was a sort of religion. We in the Komsomol were the youthful acolytes. You didn’t question the truth in our meetings. You didn’t even hint at doubt. You agreed or kept silent. But suddenly, self-evident Komsomol truths became as empty as the places where we used to have our meetings. Everything people thought they knew turned out to be questionable. Career paths that previously had led to success now led to failure. A taxi driver earned more than a professor, because he did something that didn’t depend on the state. In bewilderment no-one knew what was true anymore.
When people cease to believe in God, it’s not that they believe nothing it’s that they believe anything. This is attributed sometimes to Chesterton, but it’s also an expansion of the idea in Dostoevsky that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. I have seen this at first hand in Russia. People who had lost their faith in the Party needed something to fill the gap. They started to believe anything. There were cults.
I don’t wish to criticise anybody’s religion, not least because I have no rational justification for what I believe. There was a revival of interest in what had for centuries been the foundation of the Russian character, the Orthodox Church. But there was incredible ignorance. I met people who brought icons out of hiding. But they didn’t know who the icons depicted. But the simplicity of these people’s faith was genuine. It protected them and they remained grounded in the traditions of a thousand years.
But Russia was suddenly open and became flooded with charlatans. I received a visit from the mother of one of my students. Her daughter had joined the Hare Krishnas. She’d changed her name and was refusing to even speak to her parents. I went to try to rescue her. Their guru was from England. He had a very pretty Russian “wife” who translated all he said and lived like a little king on the back of donations. My husband used his connections to find out what he could and I did the same. I spent a few days with the Hare Krishnas getting the full on treatment. We knew the guru was a charlatan, but the brainwashing was too powerful. I couldn’t get through to my student. She had ceased to reason. All I saw was a blank face, eyes glazed. The person I had known had ceased to exist.
The reforms that Gorbachev began in the Soviet Union can be likened to the reforms that Neil Kinnock began in the 1980s. John McTernan is very good on this.
It has often been observed that the Left won the Sixties - in terms of equalities and social issues - and that the Right won the 1980s – in terms of economic management. All true. As is the fact that no political party represent what mainstream voters really want – a socially liberal party that is also economically liberal.
It was because economically the Right won the 1980s that Labour could no longer keep on with the ideas of the past. This became still more abundantly clear with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Given the choice between Capitalism and state Socialism, people simply voted with their feet. The ideological foundation of the Left creaked. What to do? The only sensible thing was to build a new foundation. This is exactly what the Labour party did. New Labour was about making free market economics work for everyone. The idea no longer was to overthrow capitalism, but to make it fairer so that no-one was left out. If an economy grows, there is more to share round.
Sensible people on the Left realise that this is the only game in town. The rejection of capitalism makes everyone poorer, most of all, the poorest. Believe me I've been there. It didn't work. Apart from the nobility in the inner circle of the Party we were poor.
The Left’s role is to use economics to make the economy more wealthy, but to use what we know about economics and the growth obtained for the benefit of all. If we can just make a bigger cake, there will be more for us to divide up. Everyone will get enough. Above all, the poorest will get a bigger slice than if the cake were smaller because we made a mess of the economy. The debate between Left and Right becomes as much as anything a debate about competence in running an economy and a country. This is quite dull, but it will have real world rewards.
But some people and an especially large number of them in Scotland, simply don’t get this. They complain to me bitterly about Red Tories. They obsess about issues of the 1980s like nuclear weapons. They think the process by which Labour transformed itself into a modern party was a mistake. Those on the Left who were unwilling to make the intellectual transformation that was made by the Labour party have found themselves without a coherent role. They go on demonstrations. They occupy buildings. They complain about cuts. They leak secret documents. They wear masks. They oppose, but what they lack is a coherent alternative plan.
Much of the Nationalist left in Scotland is stuck in some sort of odd time warp. They have not made the intellectual leap from the 80s. They reject the intellectual change made by the Labour movement. The foundation of this is that they cannot get over their hatred of Margaret Thatcher. They cannot accept that she won the economic argument of the 1980s. She remains the devil incarnate and bogeywoman all rolled into one. An independent Scotland has become the Nirvana where all things are possible. It’s a place where there will be ever more increases in public spending and no cuts whatsoever. There will be manna from heaven, only the manna is black liquid that looks like treacle. There are mantras that everyone keeps repeating. They involve words endlessly repeated and chanted like 'Trident', 'cuts', 'bedroom tax', 'wicked Tories', 'Norway'. When facts change like the fall in the oil price, they just believe ever more in the coming Nirvana. There’s no way of disproving that this Nirvana exists. It’s like heaven. You just have to wait and see about the hereafter.
I don’t wish to be nasty about my nationalist friends. Many of them are perfectly reasonable and many have the best of intentions. But I found throughout the summer that I could not reach most of them intellectually. We could not have a rational discussion. This has increased since the referendum rather than decreased. They prophesised that Scotland would vote Yes, but when the prophesy was disappointed, they simply dusted themselves off and began prophesising again. The guru is always right: it’s always possible to reinterpret the prophesy. The end of the world didn’t after all happen today, but wait: it’s actually going to happen next year.
In Russia today the popularity of a man who has led his country to disaster is sky high. I told friends and family months ago that this path was folly. But they would not listen. I told them what would happen to their savings, but they did not care. I hate seeing leaders worshiped. I hate coming across people who can see no wrong in the Party and who are unable to reason and criticise. This is all too familiar. The intellectual case for independence was destroyed in the summer by reason and has become still more untenable since owing to the collapse of the oil price. But support for the SNP just keeps rising. This is not politics. This is religion. Hare Alex, Hare Nicola. It’s Scotland that needs rescuing now.