The Cul De Sac of Self-Delusion – A Year After Indyref

This was my Facebook status on the morning of 18th September 2014:

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I wasn’t going to write anything about the anniversary of the referendum as I’ve written at length about the result, the sad collapse of much of the left into nationalism, the nationalist myths which have firmly taken hold and the left’s delusions about the SNP. I even wrote in December, only 2 months after the vote, about how my prediction in that status was quickly being shown to be true. There seems little more to add but a couple of things I’ve read today made me want to put down a few thoughts. Both pieces, I think, clearly show the predicted ‘cul de sac of self-delusion’.

The first is this statement from RISE, the new ‘left alliance’ in Scotland which professes to represent Respect, Independence, Socialist and Environmentalism, on the election of Jeremy Corbyn. RISE is, apparently, a ‘people’s movement’ based in ‘discussion and dialogue’ – yet not if you’re a supporter of Scottish Labour, it seems. The statement drips with glee at the ‘historic meltdown’ which has seen Labour rapidly decline in Scotland, with most of its support going to the SNP which, as Colin Kidd argues here:

…did not so much topple Labour as impersonate it. But the situation is more complicated still. The SNP had for decades courted old-style Liberals in small towns and the rural peripheries, and more recently has also won the votes of disorientated Scottish Tories, impressed by the SNP’s unfussy competence as a minority government between 2007 and 2011. As a result, the SNP currently occupies virtually the whole bandwidth of Scottish politics, unionism included.

As has been typical of the left, RISE seems positively joyful at this rearranging of the chairs. Its statement presents Scottish Labour as fundamentally broken, going to pains to separate it from UK Labour under Corbyn (an interesting move given the pro-indy movement’s fixation on Johann Lamont’s comments that Scottish Labour was treated as a ‘branch office’ by the leadership in London). It asserts:

The vast majority of progressive opinion in Scotland has rejected both austerity and the Westminster set up which is imposing it at the behest of the big business and the bankers. These voters back both socialist answers to the crisis and the independent Scotland we need to implement them.

This is typical of the delusions which comfort the left in Scotland. Voters opting for austerity imposed by the SNP rather than the Conservatives is presented as a wholesale ‘rejection’ of austerity. This is also bizarrely presented as support for ‘socialist answers to the crisis’. Current polls for next year’s Holyrood election have the SNP on over 50% of both constituency and regional vote, with some having it above 60%. The socialist parties, on the other hand, hover between 0%-3%. Even if you generously include the Greens, this amounts to less than 10% support for parties clearly to the left of the SNP – a very strange support for socialism indeed.

It’s notable that the mention of socialism is very quickly followed by a mention of independence. This is new paradigm of Scottish politics, the prism through which everything must be viewed. We saw as much in the SNP’s spectacularly crass statement, issued within seconds of Corbyn’s victory, setting him up to fail and presenting such a failure as a pathway to independence. It underlined that constitutional issues remain the central reason for the SNP’s existence, even if its mention of Trident (one of the only issues it has credibly been able to outflank Labour on from the left) attempted to obscure the fact. Corbyn’s response to this highlighted the gap between the SNP’s rhetoric and its actual record in power:

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Rather than face the reality that almost all of the electoral benefits of the pro-independence referendum fallout have been captured by the SNP, RISE smugly asserts that the movement Corbyn wants to build “is not possible to develop…around the Labour Party.” The unspoken remainder of that assertion is ‘because it does not support independence’. As the RISE statement shows, independence in itself continues to be presented as inherently progressive, inevitably leading to better things.

This is also the case in a Bella Caledonia piece marking the referendum anniversary. This begins with an entirely not-nationalist appeal to a quote from 1935 asserting that the “Celtic fringe” is always opposed in attempting to build nationhood. This not-nationalist rhetoric rests on the continuing myth that there is something fundamentally different about people in Scotland compared to the evil oppressors in England (the ‘Celtic identity’ is a modern invention – this is very good on that) and also the collapsing of everyone in Scotland into the pro-independence camp. You cannot, after all, continue to contrast ‘Scotland’ with the wickedness of the ‘UK’ if you recognise that Scotland is not a homogenous mass of opinion.

Yet, hilariously, BC immediately moves on to attack the “absence of self-awareness, the lack of history, the shallowness of empty promises” of Better Together. Of course it does. Better Together has, with the ‘Red Tories’, ‘Westmonster’ and ‘unionists’ come to represent all that is wicked in the binary world of the nationalists. Rather than just being a bit of a rubbish (at times offensively so) campaign, it is now a byword for “lies distortion and fear”, contrasted with the ‘hope’, ‘ideas’ and ‘vision’ of the Yes movement (the white paper’s corporation tax cut really carries a lot).

Despite a claim that “Self-criticism is key to building a stronger Yes 2.0” the piece is resplendent in the worst aspects of the ‘Yes movement’ – aspects which have become absolutely central. It lists ‘Proud Scots but’ amongst the enemies of independence, insidiously conflating national pride with support for independence. It asserts that, rather than wait, the Yes movement should “begin to build the institutions, structures and projects” crucial to make its case. This has been the mantra of the ‘it’s not about the SNP’ left for the past two years – when exactly are they planning to start?

It heaps every problem of the political system, every flaw in every politician, onto the back of ‘unionists’, as if pro-independence politicians are saintly (and Sturgeon didn’t lie about, for example, Labour ‘signing up to £30 billion of cuts). I doubt many sympathetic to Bella Caledonia’s aims will bat an eyelid at a sentence as lazily sinister as “the Unionist side will always have the might of the propaganda machine behind them”. That, as someone who doesn’t support independence, he will have ‘the might of the propaganda machine’ behind him will certainly be news to Jeremy Corbyn, who has been subjected to a swift media mauling in his first week as leader. It will be news to him that he is “inexorably tied” to the House of Lords and the monarchy, both aspects of the constitution on which he is far more radical than the SNP.

Yet it’s one of the founding myths of the modern Yes movement that the evil media lies about noble independence. BC writes:

As we look back we can see the Project Fear as a form of inoculation against British propaganda. Having been exposed to a small amount of the virus, next time we will be immune.

This sounds positively unhinged yet it’s typical of a significant body of opinion. All those pesky questions about the currency, pensions, national debt, energy, oil, defence etc – they are reduced to a ‘virus’, dismissed as not worth bothering with. As I wrote the day after the referendum:
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It’s silly to dismiss all challenge to and criticism of the media. It’s equally silly to go to the opposite extreme and suggest that everything in the media which challenges your own view is ‘biased’ and the product of wicked unseen forces. Such thought takes us to very dangerous places indeed and closes off the possibility of serious, constructive media reform (of the type suggested by e.g. Dan Hind). This is why it is so important that Corbyn’s supporters couch their response to the media’s recent hatchet jobs in an understanding of power and interests, presenting facts and alternative views rather than retreating into hysterical shrieking about ‘propaganda’ and ‘viruses’.

The central failing of the BC article is emblematic of the most damaging cul de sac which the left has gone down. It presents “the day-to-day grind of poverty, poor housing and low wage(s)” as the product of “British governance”. It draws on a Lancet report suggesting life expectancy in Southern England is amongst the ‘best in the world’ while in Scotland it is amongst the worst, clearly continuing the narrative of poor Scotland being oppressed by the wicked, decadent ‘Southern Englanders’. Aside from completely ignoring the myriad of complex, interacting reasons for any ‘north/south divide’ (not least industrialisation and its decline) it completely avoids the massive inequalities which exist within Scotland itself. Recognising this means recognising that poverty, housing and pay are not constitutional issues but rather ones related to our economic system (something which leaps out at you in the Guardian’s reporting of the issue).

Poverty may be present, to varying degrees, in all advanced capitalist economies but we’re somehow asked to believe that the central problem for Scotland is which parliament is making which decisions. If Holyrood had some more control, it could somehow stop it. This delusion not only divides the left, suggesting that a socialist Labour led by Corbyn could never be a true ally, but also draws immense talent and energy away from the real issues of importance. Even RISE, professing to want a socialist Scotland, would rather make electoral hay by dividing people with similar views along constitutional lines than point out that independence would only defer the battles which need to be won (while presenting the working-class in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as ‘different’.)

The left has become entrenched in these cul de sacs, to the extent that I am under no illusions as to the likelihood of Jeremy Corbyn winning much of it back in Scotland. I am very sympathetic to this argument that only a vote for independence could restore some perspective to Scottish politics. In the meantime, however, I am hopeful that Corbyn will be able to expose that the independence movement is overwhelmingly built on nationalist ground, with the ‘socialism’ bit being little more than a decorative afterthought to make it seem more appealing. Then, at least, the self-delusion will be exposed.

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1 Comment

  1. What the nationalists are proposing is certainly an illusion and with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, with the support of hundreds of thousands, there is an alternative. Unfortunately, as you have said before, much of the Scottish Left is so far down the rabbit hole it is rejecting being part of this new movement because it is British (spit).

    For many Scottish people however Corbyn will be an alternative and for this left to refuse to unite with him is nothing less than refusing to join a strike in your pit because you think there’s plenty of coal left in it and the other pits that are on strike are running out.

    These people will have no reason to support the left nationalists because if you want nationalism you will vote SNP and if you want a left alternative you will want to vote for Corbyn.

    This is therefore the real choice, the real alternative and the practical immediate way to fight nationalist division. Of course if Corbyn fails we might well have a bigger vote for independence and it may even happen, and then the argument in the FT might prove correct – independence will demonstrate to be a poisoned illusion.

    Unfortunately this will then have come from demoralisation arising from defeat of the genuine left alternative and from such demoralisation it is likely only more demoralisation will follow. The nationalist left will then collapse completely into the new successful right wing leaders of Scotland or take their role as happy Oliver Twist victims asking for more nationalist gruel for the poor – for real Scottish independence from imperialism etc.

    The argument from the FT is comforting only if you have given up hope of the alternative. It is a recipe for passivity and defeat. It reminds me of the argument of the German Communists in 1933, whose strategy for stopping Hitler was a complete disaster and who claimed that his election as Chancellor was only a precursor of their own victory. And we know how that worked out.

    I’m afraid a vote for independence may not explode the lie but inflate it further and yes, it may burst, but in the meantime, and as a result, the possibility of anything progressive coming out of it will be seriously reduced.

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