Rory Scothorne, one of the insightful authors of Roch Winds, has written an interesting blog which serves as a counterpoint to my argument on Article 50. It’s compelling in parts but on reflection I disagree and I wanted to outline why:
1 – It stands as one of those arguments which should have been made prior to the referendum happening, appearing as a desperate afterthought now. As a basic point of principle, it’s difficult (not impossible, of course) for your opponents to condemn you for doing what you said you would. Much of the capital Rory believes Labour could win by professing to ‘stand up’ for Scotland and Northern Ireland could have been won previously by insisting on the mooted ‘quadruple lock’. Yet Labour was largely mute on this, due in large part no doubt to the fact that it was seen to fuel ‘separatist’ ideas: Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland are not members of the EU except as part of the UK, so the referendum was framed as a ‘UK-wide’ question. Scotland is no more being ‘dragged from the EU against its will’ than London or Newcastle is, yet the idea Labour would oppose Article 50 ‘on behalf of London and Newcastle’ would be widely viewed as absurd.
2 – Having not previously been loudly making the ‘quadruple lock’ argument, hinging opposition to Article 50 on it now would be viewed as weak and opportunistic. Crucially this would not only be the case in England – it would 100% be how it was framed by the SNP, which never misses a chance to stick the knife into Labour. It would further destroy Labour’s base in England without offering any certain uplift in Scotland, where Labour would be viewed as very late to the party and dependent on the whims of its Westminster leadership. In that regard it could actually further strengthen the Nationalist cause.
3 – Rory argues (rightly) that Corbyn and Labour are not well-placed to capitalise on English nationalism. It does not follow that it should then attempt to capitalise on Scottish nationalism, on which it is always going to be outflanked by an SNP which does not have electoral or indeed moral considerations beyond Scotland’s borders. If “your average English petit-bourgeois” considers Corbyn to be unpatriotic, the exact same could be said of his/her counterpart in Scotland. Indeed, Rory himself speaks of “the current lack of interest in Scottish politics coming from Corbyn and his supporters down south”. I don’t think this is entirely fair because, as it stands, Corbyn speaking on ‘Scottish politics’ is easily presented as ‘Westminster interference’ while leaving it to Scottish Labour is viewed as either not caring or outright contempt. Such are the dynamics of nationalist politics and feeding the SNP narrative of Brexit as a ‘Scotland’ vs ‘England’ issue fuels both English and Scottish nationalism and only further destroys any possibility of a future Labour recovery in either.
4 – Rory speaks of how it would be necessary to ‘abandon socialism’ in order to appeal to ‘English populism’. While this isn’t incorrect, the implicit counterpoint is that this isn’t the case in Scotland. Yet as the past few years have amply demonstrated, while Scottish nationalism may posture as far more left-wing and radical than its English counterpart, when it has actually come down to practical action and policy it has proved itself to be largely cautious, conservative and not far removed from the right of the Labour party. There is little evidence to suggest that Corbyn pursuing radicalism offers any more electoral gain in Scotland than in (parts of) England (and indeed Scottish Labour’s 2016 manifesto, clearly to the left of the SNP’s, tells us that Labour’s problems in Scotland go far beyond offering any move towards socialism).
5 – The fundamental point remains that both parliamentary and electoral maths mean Brexit is going to happen, whatever Labour’s position. If, as Rory states, Brexit is “is unavoidably a symbol of anti-immigrant sentiment, nostalgic fantasies of foreign despotism, and the least useful (though still, admittedly, politically interesting) sort of anti-elitism”, then that reflects dominant trends in politics more widely which won’t be swept away by opposing Article 50. If anything they will, as I argue, be further emboldened. Labour’s great failure in the Scottish independence debate was to largely co-sponsor the Conservative Party’s doom-laden vision of Scotland outside of the UK rather than pushing a positive, left-wing argument for a UK rooted in the solidarity which is essential for any large-scale left-wing platform to succeed. It is crucial that it does not now make the same mistake and distinguishes itself from the Tory vision of Brexit as loudly as possible – a case which simply won’t be listened to by many (including many Remainers who have accepted the result) if they are viewed as trying to reverse the referendum.
6 – The idea that opposing Brexit offers a way back for Labour in Scotland seems more rooted in the nationalist narrative of Scotland than in anything tangible. It’s worth remembering that behind the ‘Scotland voted Remain’ story, 1/3 of the electorate there didn’t vote and the difference between Leave and Remain was approx. 600,000 votes (1.66 million for remain vs 1.01 million for leave). As I noted in my blog, last week’s Yougov poll suggested that while a majority in Scotland still want to remain, clear majorities also endorse Theresa May’s main ‘negotiating points’ for Brexit, including on immigration where Scottish public opinion remains regressive. We can also note that behind Scotland ‘relative europhilia’ lies a more complex history where a plurality or majority have wanted to leave the EU or reduce its powers. I have long argued that Brexit becoming tightly associated with right-wing English nationalism has far more to do with a majority in Scotland falling ‘in love’ with the EU than any substantive support for it. It’s also been clear in polls that a majority in Scotland currently have no appetite for leaving the UK in order to join the EU, hence even the SNP focusing on the single market rather than EU membership. Rory even notes that it’s the Tories, not Labour who seem most likely to experience a significant revival in Scotland – a fact which owes much to the centrality of the ‘national question’ in Scottish politics. As it stands, a significant % of those who currently support the SNP will never vote Labour unless it supports independence, and many of those going to the Tories want nothing less than total opposition to further devolution. Labour opening itself to countless, easy attacks in England on the basis of Scotland’s support for the EU would seem to me to be a battle lost before it even begins.
7 – Nicola Sturgeon has indeed been successful at positioning herself as ‘Scotland’s chief lobbyist’ on this issue. Yet, given what I’ve outlined above, the answer to this isn’t to seek to join her but to hammer home the contradictions inherent in her position. As I’ve said, there is no doubt in my mind that the SNP would not welcome a commitment from Corbyn to oppose Article 50 but would instead quickly find a new angle of attack. A (welcome) commitment to federalism does not mean pretending we currently have it – Labour is best placed to argue that the current set-up in the UK isn’t fit for purpose while constructively offering solutions, just as it is best placed to argue that if Brexit is (regretfully) going to happen, it should happen on as social democratic a platform as it can secure (which admittedly is perhaps not much of one). These may not be compellingly instant positions but I think they will stand the party in good stead in the long run, just as hammering home the SNP’s incoherent position on the UK vs the EU and its singular fixation on referendums will.
8 – As Rory argues, the current Labour position is weak and subject to attack by both political and media opponents. I don’t dispute this, instead arguing in my blog that their current position is the least bad of the terrible options. Yet in speaking of the position most likely to bring Corbyn to power Rory ignores his own compelling arguments, both with regards to the UK and to the wider environment for socialism, as to why that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Labour should have been positioning itself on Brexit, on the English and Scottish questions (and on a whole lot else) for the past 2 years but has instead been consumed by infighting. It has likely squandered its chance and, barring any seismic occurrence, it is not going to come to power any time soon. It is not unreasonable, then, to be concerned with minimising losses and seeking to guard against a reactionary post-Corbyn future for the party. It’s clear that some on the left harbour illusions that a socialist leader without Corbyn’s baggage or presentational issues would be a compelling figure for the electorate, yet it is undeniable that the stakes are piled formidably high against any such leader. This is why I argue that turning the tide is going to take time (something I think Rory agrees with) and that it requires all of us committed to socialism to engage in social movements. So, while I think Rory’s course of action would only make the terrain more treacherous for socialism in the long run, I fully agree with his conclusion:
The world that socialists must navigate is increasingly one of hermetic subcultures, economic decline and political crisis as a form of governance. I suspect that the most effective responses will be closer to the traditions of anarchism than socialism. If national struggles for constitutional power are not working, then localised extra-legal resistance which emphasises subcultural or community solidarity must take precedence. If national identities cannot be mobilised for the left then they must be disrupted and subverted, their institutions disrespected and their everyday cultural manifestations ruthlessly undermined. There may be no more room for good patriots; only good traitors. Corbyn has shown the occasional, accidental flash of treason — it’s up to those who have supported him this far to start doing it deliberately.