Russia? It’s not just the football that deserves a look

Russia? It’s not just the football that deserves a look

by Tom Gallagher
article from Wednesday 13, June, 2018

AS THE WORLD anticipates a thrilling football World Cup football from Russia, few minds will be dwelling on the Russian Civil war that began a century ago. Yet I hazard to ask what relevance, if any, does it have for Scotland now?   

On the surface not much. Russia was a country reeling from its disastrous participation in World War I. A power vacuum at the top enabled a small band of plotters to stage an audacious coup d’étatin late 1917. Germany had provided a sealed train that enabled Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik revolutionaries to travel from Zurich to St Petersburg and transform history.   

The suppression of moderates who desired a constitutional monarchy was easily accomplished. Far-left groups operating in the shadows and skilled at intrigue continue to use the 1917 operation as a template for renewed power-bids right up to Corbyn and McDonnell in our own time.    

For those looking at a Scottish government neglecting government business in favour of its ideological objectives, and experiencing a fall-off in support, the Russian parallel from the dawn of communism, can offer some insights provided they are not pushed too far.  Scotland has not experienced revolution nor a devastating war.  But like Russia then it is a country lacking independent spheres of power capable of thwarting any implacable group intent on seizing power at the top.      

In a month when Nicola Sturgeon’s approval ratings have plunged into negative territory, it is worth recalling that the Bolsheviks were soon wildly unpopular. They promised much but their ruthlessness, mania for centralisation, and impractical economic plans alienated perhaps most Russians who came up against them.    However, this runaway unpopularity failed to prove their undoing. This was owing to their relentless determination to impose a dictatorship on a vast country. Their ideology ensured single-mindedness. They also had tight-knit leadership from Lenin.    

A century on, in a polarised but non-violent Scotland a party rules which confronts high levels of opposition to its holy grail of independence. But it ploughs on regardless with a cohesive leadership and determination to horde power at every turn.    There is nothing like the Cheka, the Soviet secret police but information is power. The SNP’s prowess in the communications field enables it to mould many, especially the young to its way of thinking. In the pre-Facebook era, the Bolsheviks also prioritised dominating people’s minds. Having control of Russia’s main population centres right from the outset was a great advantage.    

They also sought to exploit huge frustrations across much of Europe where the hold  of the old order had been weakened by years of military carnage. Revolutions were hatched by communist comrades in order to export the Russian revolution.  

Arguably, Sturgeon has been trying to reinforce her own domestic flank in similar ways. SNP support for the Catalan independence cause is obvious. But she has also been using the Brexit drama to try and establish Scotland as a progressive bastion of radical global change. Sceptical voices arguing for ‘nationalism in one country’ are audible. But they have failed  to steer her away from a ‘one world’ crusade in which she makes common cause with others who wish to promote a new global politics with environmental, gender and multicultural issues centre stage.    

Unlike her the Bolsheviks relied on military might to export their ideas. According to many historians, the role of one man, Leon Trotsky, was crucial. His skills enabled initial military disadvantages to be overcome. He was a brilliant organizer and an able improviser who turned around desperate situations with his courage.     

Thankfully, Scotland is not at war but the nationalist movement was propelled from the political margins to the heart of power by the inspired generalship of one man, Alex Salmond. Today not only does he seem a burnt out case but the SNP often appears flabby and reactive. It relies on old tactics to grab territory in the constitutional trench warfare. Nicola Sturgeon bears more resemblance to a dogged and unimaginative First World War general than to a revolutionary captain. Inspired leadership, enabling a movement to compensate for objective weakness, is absent. Even those choreographing the SNP’s latest conference recognised this, promoting her as a dedicated national manager rather than a feminine Che Guevara.   

But it is perhaps over-hasty to simply discard the parallel with Russia a century ago. If the Bolsheviks had confronted a formidable internal opponent, it is likely that they would have crumpled. But it was the opposition’s deep shortcomings which enabled a minority sect to triumph.   

The opposition, often labelled as the Russian Whites,  was sharply divided. Monarchists, anarchists, constitutionalists and militarists eyed each other with mistrust. No leadership proved capable of knitting together an anti-Bolshevik alliance. Nothing on the scale of effective Bolshevik propaganda was ever visible. These flaws meant that civilians who soon had cause to dread the Bolsheviks held back from supporting their opponents.    

It is exactly here where perhaps the most apt parallels can be drawn with Scotland now. The SNP’s opponents are not as variegated as those ranged against the Bolsheviks but the mutual distrust is huge. The SNP is able to divide and rule just as the Bolsheviks did (successfully exploiting Brexit in this regard).   

It is true that there was no figure comparable to Ruth Davidson among the White forces a century ago, nor a party as sizeable as the Scottish Conservatives. But the contemporary appeal of the Scottish centre-right appears as narrowly based as that of the Whites. They lack a motivational idea and Davidson is reluctant to emphasise the Tory themes of private enterprise and limited government. She prefers to run with social liberalism while insisting that the mounting negatives of the SNP mean that change is surely overdue in Scotland.  

Davidson is undoubtedly a leader who stands out in an age of often insipid characters in UK politics. But it is unclear whether she sees her destiny as rooted in Scotland or will she instead be lured southwards to try her luck in the treacherous waters of Westminster politics?   

A bold and cleverly-couched appeal to Russian patriotism just might have halted the Bolshevik juggernaut if the Whites had possessed the means to project it across a vast continent. Similarly, a Scottish New Deal, sketching out a vision very different from the top-down ideological blueprint of the SNP, could dislodge it from power. It would need to recognise the fears and frustrations of working-class Scots and not just emphasise stock middle-class issues. But it is unclear if a collage of decent initiatives and promises and reliance on the shortcomings of SNP rule can shift the arithmetic in the Tories favour.        

As Russia suffered terrible distortions during the three generations the communists were in power, many kept raising the question, ‘just how did the Bolsheviks pull off their terribly audacious success in the first place’?  

There is a real danger that the same question will be asked of Scotland and the SNP if it grimly clings to power through the 2020s. No crystal ball will be required in order to forecast that few improvements will occur on the ground. Scotland will notch up one lost generation (while Russia had three) as the country wallows in futile constitutional argument.   

Beyond a few gleaming cities, Russia still shows the scars of the Bolshevik hold over the land. It will be tragic if Scotland is hollowed-out on account of people with impractical ideological obsessions of their own staying on for far too long.   

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who lives in Edinburgh. He published ‘Scotland Now’ A Warning to the World’ in 2016. His 14th single-authored book and debut novel, ‘Flight of Evil: A North British Intrigue’, came out in March.  He can be followed on twitter at @Cultfree54 and he blogs at ‘News from the British Volcano’.

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