The Collapse of the Left into Nationalism

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My previous blog was about the contortions which the Scottish left have been making to avoid facing the fact that the pro-independence movement has been utterly dominated by nationalism. It’s a position, I’ve noticed, which tends to frequently be associated with ‘Green Yes’, as if saying you support the Green Party (who got less than 5% of the vote at the last Scottish Parliament election) removes the wider context. A context in which, since I last wrote, the First Minister has drawn allusions between independence and apartheid, drawn distinctions between the ‘Team Scotland’ of Yes and the ‘Team Westminster’ of No and applauded a protest against the public broadcaster utterly dominated by flag-waving. You will search long and hard for condemnation of any of this from the Scottish Greens, who appear to have utterly abandoned any criticism of the SNP, or indeed from most of the left who support independence. For all the criticism of Labour sharing platforms with the Tories (something the SNP have no business complaining about, as Annabel Goldie pointed out) they at least haven’t completely given up the business of being an opposition. Yet much of the left shouts ‘it’s not about the SNP!’ while offering absolutely no alternative beyond ‘there are some far-left parties too’, choosing to ignore the Hollywood treatment being afforded to the nationalist politicians and the very ugly scenes we’re seeing on Scotland’s streets. Let’s be in no doubt here: if this was UKIP or another brand of English nationalism, no-one on the left would have any difficulty in drawing links between such events and the language and tone of the nationalist politicians, who would be swiftly and widely condemned.

I have finally started to see some good pieces on this from left-wing writers in recent days. Carol Craig in the Scottish Review is one of the best things I’ve read in this whole sorry affair, pulling no punches with the No campaign while ruthlessly parsing the pro-independence rhetoric and leaving readers in no doubt that it has been nationalistic. John Wight, who has written a few referendum pieces offering a class-based critique, laments:

Thus the complete collapse of a large section of the left in Scotland with its embrace of a nationalist project as a shortcut to what they believe will be a socialist dawn has been tragic to behold.

while writer CJ Sansom observes that:

Some, certainly, will be thinking of voting yes on Thursday, not from nationalism, but in the hope of social change. Yet they will not get it, because, like it or not, they are voting for a nationalist outcome.

This piece in Jacobin, meanwhile, similarly notes the “potentially ugly, nationalist taint” while stating that:

The likening of Scottish independence to anti-imperial movements is a devastating repression of Scotland’s own deep complicity in the British imperial project.

This quote leapt out at me because, while the left in Scotland has largely gone down the rabbit hole, much of the left in the rest of the UK has revealed itself to be utterly clueless (and rather opportunistic) in its analysis of the debate. It has rarely risen above the level of ‘this has been presented as the progressive view, I am progressive, hence this is my view’. Billy Bragg, advocate of a ‘progressive English nationalism’, suddenly comes over all coy and denies that independence is about nationalism (he also, incidentally, repeats the common trope that independence will save Scotland from the TTIP, despite no major party in Scotland opposing it and the SNP explicitly welcoming it). You’ll notice his line about Scotland ‘regaining its sovereignty’. This has been a central theme in the analyses of the rUK left. Anthony Barnett’s astonishingly patronising open letter to ‘Scottish voters’ (which, it becomes clear, actually means Yes voters) begins by suggesting independence could be a model for world peace and only gets worse. He draws analogies with Tibet, Chechyna, Palestine and in the comments actually compares independence to a slave achieving freedom. Dan Hind has written several times about Scotland achieving its ‘freedom’. George Monbiot and Suzanne Moore have wheeled out successive columns berating ‘London’ for its ignorant treatment of Scotland, dealing in nationalist myth-making, while being completely blind to the irony of these being their first columns devoted to Scotland in living memory.

The idea that Scotland is aiming for ‘freedom’ is also common on social media. Yesterday I had to point out to an activist that Scotland was not colonised and was not comparable to Palestine. Last week a long-term mutual follower on Twitter blocked me after I questioned her assertion that an independent Scotland would be an ‘ex-colony’ of England. You’ll notice, as I noted in my last blog, that the arguments about Scotland achieving its ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking control of its destiny’ almost never extend to its membership of the European Union and other transnational bodies, still less to questions of economic democracy (the interventions by various banks and companies last week caused wide outrage but rather than leading people to the conclusion that perhaps transnational capital might be the enemy here, we instead ended up with more nationalist drivel about the Tories coordinating the campaign and the SNP somehow being an exit from it).  No, the arguments are always aimed at ‘England’ and ‘Westminster’. The dominant narrative seems to be one of Scotland as the plucky, oppressed underdog. All this analysis offers is a glimpse of the patronising ignorance of those who advance it – ignorance both of Scotland’s history and its central role in Empire, and of Scotland as a nation.

With regards to the latter point, I think this 2002 essay by Andrew O’Hagan is absolutely essential reading in helping those without a deep understanding of the Scottish psyche to gain some semblance of context to all this. It’s almost certain that it would be met with accusations of ‘doing down the people of Scotland’, an argument all nationalists love to deploy, yet its description of the darker aspects of our collective identity has resonated with most Scottish people I’ve discussed it with:

A half-hearted nation will want to hold fast to its grievances, and in that sense Scotland has done well. The nation’s brickwork is cemented with resentments, from ruined monastery to erupting towerblock: blame, fear, bigotry and delusion, their fragments powder the common air – and always the fault is seen to lie elsewhere, with other nations, other lives…Yet the problem is not the Parliament, it’s the people, and the people’s drowsy addiction to imagined injury – their belief in a paralysing historical distress – which makes the country assert itself not as a modern nation open to progress on all fronts, but as a delinquent, spoiled, bawling child, tight in its tartan babygro, addled with punitive needs and false memory syndrome.

If this seems rather prescient with regards to the current debate, the next statement could have been written yesterday:

Free-falling anxiety about Scottishness has a tendency, among Scots, not only to turn into hatred of others, but into hating bad news about the country itself, and seeing critics as traitors.

It’s not easy reading, certainly, but I think it’s a deeply insightful one and it largely captures the mentality which Scottish nationalism plays to. This is what makes it particularly tragic that so many of the left have pursued it, convinced that things would be better if not for ‘Westminster’ and, as the Guardian put it, pursuing the ‘unattractive’ habit of “attacking the messenger and ignoring the message”. Indeed, if there was any doubt that a demogogic, cynical populism is significant here you need only look at the endless outpouring of criticism and ridicule aimed at any No supporter deemed to be part of the ‘establishment’ (a terms used spectacularly nebulously here) and their contrasting with the SNP who, lest we forget, have been the government of Scotland for years now and are led by as establishment a politician you could possibly find. Nationalists, however, have a knack for painting themselves as figures of rebellion, even when they offer little more than a change of paint.

Scotland goes to the polls in three days now and the result is too close to call. I am certain, however, that the swift narrowing of the polls owes more than most would like to admit to the nationalist sentiment which is currently being inflamed. Perhaps in response to this, the latest line from pro-independence lefties has been that anyone who opposes it must necessarily be a British nationalist. I’ve read this repeatedly in the past few days, and have had it thrown at me more than a few times. Of course it will be the case that some, perhaps many who support the UK are nationalists. The fact remains, however, that it’s the Scottish nationalists who have shifted the ground beneath our feet. I have attended anti-fascist marches, protested against the 2012 Olympics, protested against the Jubilee, protested against the Royal Wedding, was a vocal critic of the hoopla over the royal baby, have long written about and campaigned against our immigration laws and have never laboured under any illusion as to the negative force of British nationalism. I do not become a British nationalist because I oppose a false notion of ‘independence’ premised on the absurd idea that Scotland is not free and instead support the notion of common solidarity in the belief that the real oppressions which matter are those which transcend borders: class, race, gender, sexuality and so forth. As I wrote previously, this solidarity is codified into the UK at present, even if we have to fight long and hard to achieve it and then fight longer and harder to effect change. It’s no secret that the left is in a dire state at the moment: unfortunately aforementioned collapse of much of the left into nationalism is only going to ensure this remains the case for a long time to come.

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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: So This Thing Happened. | howupsetting

  2. Pingback: Tickling the Tummy of Nationalism | howupsetting

  3. Pingback: The Cul De Sac of Self-Delusion – A Year After Indyref | howupsetting

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