I’ve already made my feelings on this referendum clear: it has been profoundly depressing in pretty much every conceivable way. Revelling in ignorance and prejudice has been reframed as ‘taking control’; facts unfavourable to your cause have been cast as ‘scaremongering’ and ‘Project Fear’. It’s easily been the most hateful, and terrifying, campaign of my lifetime.
Yet I still have hope. The above photos were all taken this morning on a single 100-metre walk in Hackney. Hackney is one of the most diverse boroughs in one of the most diverse cities in the world – over 60% of its population is not White British. Approximately 25% of its population have a main language which isn’t English. It’s one of the most deprived local authority areas in England. It has a higher than average LGBT community. There are powerful forces in this country, as we have seen over the past few months, who seek to turn diversity into division and blame poverty (along with every other problem imaginable) on anyone who is perceived as ‘different’. For all its problems, Hackney says a clear “no” to this. The far-right, whether it be UKIP or any other group, are not a force here. Last year Hackney again returned the black female socialist Diane Abbott as its MP, with a vote share increased by 8%. I am confident that today Hackney will reject the politics of racism and hatred by voting to remain in the European Union.
This matters. The far-right and those who validate it try and suggest that not to be hateful, not to be fearful, not to be racist, is somehow a ‘metropolitan’ value held by an out-of-touch elite. No-one could ever claim this about Hackney, which has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country. The fact that the places with most immigration tend to be most positive about it (and the converse) seems instructive here: everyone living in Hackney, no matter where they are from, is surrounded by immigration, surrounded by diversity. We know it’s not a problem. We know it’s a good, a great, thing.
Those living in areas with little immigration, on the other hand, are obviously more likely to be taking their views on it from the dominant narratives pushed by the media and our political class. This brilliant article is enormously insightful regarding this, explaining how a manufactured ‘public opinion’ is used to mainstream racism, stigmatise migrants and the working-class (while framing these two identities as mutually exclusive) and “deflect responsibility away from government and capital”. We have seen this in abundance in this campaign, where mendacious politicians who have been cutting and privatising our public services, imposing harsher immigration regimes and building a low-wage, precariat job economy have had the audacity to blame immigrants for their continuing policies.
This has gone on too long and we on the left have been too complacent in fighting it – and fight it we must, from germs of hatred expressed in casual racist remarks in Hackney to EDL marches in Coventry to the far-right killing Jo Cox in Birstall. People usually wheel out Lincoln’s quote about ‘the better angels of our nature’ as a trite Hallmark sentiment about everyone getting along, depoliticising what must be a political fight against hatred and bigotry. Fighting fascists and the far-right is a political act. Fighting Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove is a political act. Fighting racism requires action above platitudes. This is why, whatever the faults of the EU, in the current climate voting Remain is a political blow against these forces. Make no mistake, the fight will, must continue past today but it’s time to draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more’ to the wretched rhetoric and policy that has characterised our politics for too long. Vote Remain. Vote ‘no more’.
It’s up to all of us.
I wrote in February about how the EU referendum ‘debate’ would be a clusterfuck of ignorance and prejudice. That required no particular insight – it was always going to be that way – yet I still find myself surprised and dismayed by just how dreadful the discourse has been. Last night’s ITV debate, which found Boris Johnson essentially parroting Daily Express headlines, was astonishingly grim to watch. It was particular breathtaking to see Johnson accusing the Remain campaign of being ‘Project Fear’ literally moments after claiming that the EU was flooding our streets with ‘terrorists and murderers’ (something which, incidentally, isn’t true.)
(photo by @nikvestberg)
I think most people have known all along how they’ll vote in the referendum, even if they can’t quite admit it; I think some can’t admit it because they know, deep down, that they’re voting based on kneejerk prejudice rather than any informed opinion. These people tend to adopt a ‘plague on both your houses’ stance, complaining that both sides can’t be trusted and it’s difficult to know who to believe. At face value this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable complaint but then you consider that it has never been easier to educate yourself about issues you are interested in. On Channel 4 news the other day a teenager began speaking about how she had felt uninformed but then went online and found an abundance of information, not produced by either campaign, which struck her as impartial. Now, I realise and accept that not everyone will have easy access to the internet or be particularly adept at using it but I also think if you’re self-aware enough to say ‘I don’t trust the campaigns, I just want some impartial information’, you then have an obligation to make an effort to find that information. It takes seconds to find descriptions of the structure and powers of the EU. The European Parliament offers a series of factsheets on various aspects of the EU. This LRB article on why leaving the EU would be enormously complicated offers a good, relatively brief, overview of its powers in the context of this referendum. Organisations like the BBC and Wikipedia have put together simple overviews of the EU. The entire point of a referendum (and a big part, I think, of why they are invariably disastrous) is that no-one is going to come along and hand you a 5-page dossier explaining the ‘right’ way to vote. It’s up to us and it requires a bit of work.
As a general rule of thumb, if it sounds utterly absurd it’s probably not true. The EU has not banned kettles. The EU does not ban bananas being sold in bunched of more than three, as a trip to your nearest grocers or supermarket will confirm. The profit margin of the UK fishing industry has increased under the Common Fisheries Policy, in contrast with the tabloid stories of rampaging foreigners stealing ‘British fish’ and destroying boats. At every turn we should seek out the truth of what we hear and aren’t sure about; importantly, we should seek to understand, rather than seek out facile memes which merely stoke our prejudices as happened too often in the Scottish independence referendum.
One of the more unexpected developments in the ‘debate’ has been the tactic of people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and even Nigel Farage to blame any and all problems with the NHS, wages, immigration policy, housing etc on the EU (and specifically on immigration) and suggest that all these would improve if we left. These extremely right-wing politicians have suddenly discovered that they’re actually rather left-wing, wanting to increase NHS spending, increase wages, relax our immigration policy, build more housing. It’s mendacious in the extreme. Let’s be clear here: they could do all of these things now. The reason they haven’t is that they don’t want to. They are no friends of the NHS and the Tories have presided over “the smallest increase in (NHS) spending for any political party’s period in office since the second world war”. Only last year Boris Johnson was demanding a UK opt-out from EU employment laws, “stopping EU social and employment law imposing costs on business”. His government has presided over restricting access to employment tribunals, freezing maternity and sick pay and a draconian crackdown on trade unions. It has tightened immigration laws based not on evidence but on cheap party political gain, with an entirely arbitrary promise to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, absurd restrictions on international students and pointless and cruel promises to deport non-EU migrants earning less than £35,000. The government’s extention of ‘right to buy’ to tenants in housing associations, meanwhile, is an ill-thought out disaster and its housing policy generally is predicated on keeping private housing costs high rather than investing in affordable homes. If anyone thinks Johnson, Gove and co will row back on any of this post-Brexit, I have some magic beans I think they might be interested in.
The common foundation to this line of ‘attack’ is, of course, that the UK is beseiged by immigrants and cannot cope. Yet what matters aren’t scary big numbers but investment, population density, resource use and consumption patterns. The vast majority of the UK isn’t built on, London’s population density compares favourably to other big cities while the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, isn’t even in the top 100 when it comes to population growth. We are not bursting at the seams.
To be blunt, most people have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about when they speak about immigration. The *entire* foreign-born population in the UK increased by less than 5 million in 21 years, and 3 million of these people went to London. Approximately 12% of the UK population was born outside of the UK, a percentage which puts us towards the bottom of the OECD chart (and most of this population is found in London). Most migrants only come here for less than 2 years. Migration most certainly has a positive impact on our economy and due to our population demographics, we’re going to need more of it. Most evidence suggests that migrants do not cause unemployment of UK citizens and have minimal-to-no impact on wages (government policy is far, far more important for these matters).
Far from being ‘scared’ to have a discussion about immigration, our politics and media has for too long been complacent in challenging pernicious myths (that’s putting it generously – clearly many have been strongly pushing these myths themselves). Anyone who speaks to you about the NHS or housing or a ‘strain on public services’ without referencing government investment and (of particular relevance to this debate) government cuts is seeking to mislead you. It’s time we grew up when it came to immigration. It is not a problem, we do control our borders and leaving the EU will not reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ (and neither should we want it to).
Some people have spoken of ‘lexit’, as if the left could benefit from leaving the EU and have some say over the aftermath. This, as some of these people are now recognising, is a myth. There is no such thing as ‘lexit’. A vote to leave the EU will not help the refugees trying to enter Fortress Europe. A vote to leave the EU will most definitely bolster the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, John Mann, the EDL, the BNP and every two-bit ‘I’m not racist’ in the country who moans about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and repeats drivel about the EU banning kettles. It will have a material impact on the lives of thousands of migrants in the UK. Racists and reactionaries are by FAR the dominant forces seeking to leave the EU and you can’t separate yourself from it. Perhaps you are aware of that and still want to leave. Ok – but please do so based on some semblance of fact and not because of the drivel which has characterised this debate. As Jeremy Corbyn has argued, the EU is far from perfect but right here, right now, one option is clearly far worse than the other. Vote remain.
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. Scotland is a place where cultural artefacts and past battles – the Stone of Destiny, Robert Burns, Braveheart, Bannockburn – have more impact on people’s sense of moral action than politics does. The people have no real commitment to the public sphere, and are not helped towards any such commitment by the dead rhetoric of the young Parliament. 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.
I have quoted this piece before and return to it often. Although written in 2002, I find it astonishingly prescient with regards to Scottish politics over a decade later. Yesterday’s Holyrood election underlines that ‘nationalist’ vs ‘unionist’, or competing versions of nationalism if you like, has become the dominant division in Scottish politics. It gives me no pleasure to be proved right in my assertions that this is a disastrous state of affairs for the left. Let’s be clear here: the Scottish electorate has elected two parties who advocate low tax and spending cuts as their government and its opposition. It has done this due to at best misguided, at worst deeply stupid battle over rearranging the chairs of government; many of those who voted SNP have supported conservatism in the belief that an imagined future radicalism is worth inaction now. The myths of Scottish exceptionalism, particularly that it is more left-wing than rUK, have never looked so facile. With a turnout of 55% we can also lay to rest the notion that Scotland is in the midst of some ‘carnival of democracy’. It’s deeply ironic that many loud voices have spent the past few years demanding more powers for Holyrood and pointing the finger at Westminster, yet when it comes to it the just-over-half of the electorate who bother to vote go for parties who don’t actually want to do much with the new powers (it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge the SNP’s proposed Air Passenger Duty cut, which I’m sure will usher in a golden age).
I’ve seen some people wondering how on earth Scottish Labour could move clearly to the left of the SNP and still come third. As I’ve been arguing for some time, much of the hatred for Labour in Scotland has become pathological and owes little to policy or even its record. It’s for this reason that Labour achievements in office are ignored, distorted or claimed for the SNP. This goes hand in hand with nationalists wanting the Tories to do better than Labour and celebrating this as a ‘good result for Yes’:
The Tories pose no existential threat to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the existence of the Tories as a party of government, to the right of the SNP, is absolutely essential to feeding the myths of Scottish exceptionalism, enabling nationalists to argue that fault lies elsewhere and portraying independence as the only way to achieve ‘progressive values’. A left-wing Labour party, led by an unabashed socialist in the UK and advocating old-fashioned tax and spend policies in Scotland, does pose an existential threat to nationalism. We caught a glimpse of this when Owen Jones asked Mhairi Black if she would rather have a UK governed by a socialist government or an independent Scotland. She of course chose the latter and the reality behind her assertion that ‘Labour left me’ (which already made no sense given she was 3 when Blair came to power) was laid bare. Whether it be Black, RISE or even to a large extent the Green Party, the ‘it’s not nationalism, it’s socialism’ advocates tend to favour and/or provide cover for the former when push comes to shove. The opposition to the SNP provided by the latter two parties has been woeful (the Greens voting against a tax rise to offset cuts, in the hope of some vague future radicalism, was a particular low point) and it has been clear that they hoped to ride the SNP’s coattails into power on second preferences. RISE in particular has unthinkingly bought into nationalism while insisting it’s actually socialist:
You would think that ‘socialists’ would be willing to work with other socialists whatever their view of the constitution, rather than dismissing them as ‘unionist’. This dreck was never going to fly and it’s why RISE polled a woeful 0.5% in the election.
Now, it’s interesting that the SNP have fallen just short of an overall majority as this poses a challenge for the party. If it replicates its strategy of the 2007 strategy and does deals with the Tories, much of its rhetoric of grievance will fall apart. Yet if it relies on the Greens (or even Lib Dems) you would (hopefully) expect that the latter parties would push for the kind of tax rises, extensive land reform and radicalism elsewhere which the SNP has avoided in its clear desire not to scare the horses. It could be argued that if this second route is taken the SNP’s constant fixation on what it can’t do would be greatly undermined; on the other hand, with the constitutional question looking set to remain the defining issue for the foreseeable future, you could also argue that conservative Yes voters don’t really have anywhere else to go.
One thing which is clear is that Scottish Labour’s manifesto has exposed the lie of SNP ‘progressiveness’ and Scottish exceptionalism. ‘Red Tory’ has never sounded so hollow. This is why it was an important strategic move in an election Labour were never going to win (if Thomas Docherty‘s view that a more right-wing manifesto would have helped matters is remotely typical of opinion in the party then I despair – it would instead only have provided fuel to the ‘Red Tory’ fire). I see some Scottish Labour figures are already arguing that Full Fiscal Autonomy is the only way to save the party. Perhaps this is true but, if so, it’s an acknowledgement that left-wing values cannot defeat popular nationalism (though there are thoughtful left-wing voices who are discussing how to ensure a federal UK can be progressive).
We also see that it’s in Scotland where the Tory vote has surged most in the UK – an over 10% increase on 2011 in the list vote – whereas Labour in England seems to have avoided the catastrophe expected under its beleaguered socialist leader, has done surprisingly well in the south of England and is almost certain to win back London City Hall. In Wales, meanwhile, Labour will remain the largest party but UKIP have surged by 12% in the constituency vote, an interesting if bleak indicator of the kind of nationalism which is dominating there. Myths have been shattered, certainties have crumbled and the politics of the UK has rarely looked more regional and dominated by competing nationalisms. If, as expected, Sadiq Khan becomes London Mayor later today I will celebrate. I will celebrate because being a socialist who loathes nationalism offers few moments of satisfaction and the future doesn’t exactly inspire.
Sadiq Khan romped to victory in Labour’s mayoral selection contest due, in large part, to the same wave of restless dissatisfaction which saw Corbyn elected Labour leader. Khan positioned himself as the left-wing candidate most likely to defeat Tessa Jowell, the Blairite candidate clearly favoured by the Labour machine, and reaped the benefit. One of his aides was quoted as saying:
Almost all Jeremy Corbyn voters are voting for Sadiq Khan. There is a 90 per cent crossover. Most of these new people joined for a reason, and that was to vote for Corbyn.
It was disappointing, then, when Khan immediately veered right and began feeding tabloid attacks on Corbyn. Since then he has run a deeply conservative and uninspiring campaign strongly resembling Labour’s ‘35% strategy’, which Khan allegedly masterminded for the 2015 General Election. The focus has been on laying low, not rocking the boat and assuring everyone that Khan would be a safe and steady hand rather than a radical, transformative Mayor.
Speaking now, I would argue, it’s difficult for any but the most dogmatic of observers not to see that this strategy might have had more to it than conservativism or a lack of boldness. Zac Goldsmith and the Tories have ran one of the most shameful and nakedly racist campaigns in modern political memory. The increasingly hysterical attempts to link Khan with ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalism’, either directly or via Jeremy Corbyn, culminated in the disagrace of yesterday’s PMQs where David Cameron ignored questions on his government’s policy to instead opportunistically raise remarks Corbyn had made about Hamas and Hezbollah. Whatever you think of Corbyn’s remarks, let’s recall that only a few months ago Cameron was rejecting his criticisms of the UK government’s support of the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia and trying to evade the matter of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr’s proposed execution. Let’s also recall that Cameron and the UK government have gone well beyond calling violent extremists ‘friends’ and have actively enabled them:
If the cynical opportunism should be clear, Goldsmith and Cameron’s deliberate attempt to exploit racial tensions, perceived or otherwise, was an attempt to weaponise Khan’s status as a Muslim and a British Pakistani. This is inexcusable and unforgiveable in any context but in the race to lead one of the most diverse cities in the world, it is also extraordinarily stupid.
Khan’s rather insipid campaign, then, can be said to have served some purpose in neutralising much of these attacks. While his programme doesn’t get the blood racing, the Tories deserve to be smashed for their campaign alone. If, as expected, Khan is victorious, the left-wing Labour members who elected him must work to hold him to account and push for the radical policies which most people in London need.
The ‘divide and rule’ strategy pursued by the Tories has been typical of their period in government. Whether it be painting the poor as people “sleeping off a life on benefits”, continually othering Muslims and linking them to ‘extremism’ or blaming immigration for people’s economic woes, the Tory government appeals to the basest and most uninformed prejudices in people. The assertion of the Scottish Conservatives, that they would offer the ‘best opposition’ to the SNP, is laughable when it is the Tories’ calculated inflaming of English nationalism that has so fed the dramatic rise of its Scottish counterpart.
Such tactics are necessary when you are unable to defend your record in government. Tory policy on housing, schools, universities, the justice system, the economy, immigration, poverty and, of course, health are all disingenuous and disastrous, driven by an extreme right-wing ideology. To support the Conservative Party is to support unabashed racism, misogyny and a concerted attack on the most vulnerable people in our society (of which the tax credit and personal independence payments debacles were but small glimpses).
You cannot support the Conservatives and say ‘but I don’t like the bad things they do’. You either actively opposite or you are complicit. The party deserves to lose.
There is, of course, another party of government which has been using divide and rule nationalism to distract from the paucity of its record: the SNP. No-one who reads my blogs or Twitter could fail to notice my feelings for the SNP and what has happened to Scottish politics. As I wrote here:
My disdain for the SNP is clear: I find its use of populist nationalist rhetoric (‘Scotland’s voice’, ‘standing up for Scotland’, ‘the Scottish lion’) to frame the important divide as ‘Scotland/England’ rather than class and economic power to be hugely damaging and not a little embarrassing. I find its eagerness to turn everything into a matter of grievance against Scotland, while dismissing criticisms as ‘talking down Scotland’ to be tragic. Yet even I remain shocked at just how mendacious the party continues to be in its ditching of ‘progressive’ policies (council tax reform, higher rate of tax) while pointing the finger at ‘unionists’ with flat-out lies which rely on people taking its word and not doing any fact-checking.
Yesterday Nicola Sturgeon encouraged supporters to tweet why they were supporting the SNP using the hashtag #SNPBecause. The tag was a fascinating glimpse into the ‘twilight world of unreality‘ which is both fed by, and feeds, nationalism. There were many references to the meaningless stance of ‘standing up/speaking for Scotland’. There were many of the now-typical assertions that independence would make things better, just because. There was the now-standard accrediting of everything and anything viewed as ‘progressive’ to the SNP (including quite explicitly non-SNP achievements like free bus travel for the elderly and/or disabled, abolishing tuition fees or free personal and nursing care). Perhaps most dishearteningly, there was the pathologised hatred of Labour (the ‘Red Tories’) and ‘unionists’ which has become commonplace since September 2014.
The SNP’s record in government has been poor to say the least. It has cut relative spending on health and education in Scotland, with achievements against key NHS targets such as A&E or cancer waiting times worsening and both literacy and numeracy levels declining. Its fixation on ‘free education’ (as issue of ‘Scottish/English distinction’ above all else) masks the fact that poor students in Scotland are less likely to go to university than in any of the other countries of the UK, that “in Scotland, the arrangements for student funding are unique in the UK in assuming the highest levels of student debt amongst the poorest students” or that Further Education in Scotland has been cut. Those ‘free’ tuition fees have been paid for by cutting support for the poorest students and cutting funding for colleges. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted that under the evil Red Tory/Lib Dem coalition, Scotland had some of the lowest levels of poverty in the UK, a trend which levelled off in 2007:
The centralisation of policing and of local government have been plagued with problems and belie the SNP’s claims to favour ’empowering’ people. The party has similarly pursued centralisation in higher/further education, health and even the arts.
Recent events, meanwhile, have exposed the lie behind SNP rhetoric that oil was a ‘bonus’ for the Scottish economy. Its decline and Scotland’s higher public spending (than rUK) has led to Scotland’s financial situation worsening.Such is the SNP’s mendacity regarding this that they actually trumpet the fiscal framework agreement as them defeating the dastardly Tories (it features prominently in the SNP manifesto) when the First Minister actually acknowledged that Scotland’s demographics meant that more financial responsibility would lead to far more financial risk (compared to the current set-up and to rUK). Yet rather than acknowledge that Scotland has higher public spending, a bigger deficit and benefits disproportionately from Barnett, the SNP prefers to push the politics of grievance and point the finger at dastardly Westminster.
It is because of this latter point that the SNP’s record will make little difference to its support today. As this article puts it:
The SNP enjoys strong support in large part because identity politics have become the defining currency of discourse in Scotland. The governing party has eclipsed the once mighty Scottish Labour movement, stealing many of its left-leaning policies while also rejecting Labour’s commitment to unionism.
The constitution has become the defining issue in Scottish politics and support for the SNP (and for independence) has become synonymous with both a love for ‘Scotland’ as an abstract concept and for ‘progressiveness’. Yet the latter is so taken as a given that SNP supporters don’t actually expect anything to be done to pursue social justice now, telling themselves it may interfere with the independent valhalla which lies just over the hill. The SNP aren’t going to deliver social justice by freezing income tax, tinkering with council tax and cutting air passenger duty yet the furious response which greets even pro-independence critics of the party is instructive as to what’s really important here: the identity, not the doing.
Of course, many of those who have decided independence is the path to social justice furiously deny being nationalist any sense. They furiously deny this while engaging in rhetoric which portrays ‘unionists’, ‘Tories’ and ‘Red Tories’ as bodies foreign to Scotland. I had noticed this long ago in pieces by ‘socialists’ like Alan Bissett, which led to this exchange on Twitter this week:
This is rhetoric which is frequently deployed by the SNP and will be recognised, I would bet, by most Scots who criticise the party and independence. Yet it’s dismissed by a ‘socialist’ as ‘inelegant phrasing’. It is this mindset which leads to an inability to see the nationalism which is integral to the SNP’s appeal. “STRONGER FOR SCOTLAND. Standing up for Scotland is what we do’. This dreck leads the SNP manifesto. It devotes pages to documenting the SNP battle with ‘Tories’ and ‘UK parties’ while its intro begins “All of us who live here in Scotland love our country.” The message is barely even implicit: the SNP love Scotland. The UK parties do not. Leaving aside the issue that whether or not someone ‘loves’ the idea of their country should be a total irrelevance, it’s actually pretty insidious. It’s this underlying narrative which has led both RISE and the Scottish Greens to mute their criticism of the Scottish government, hoping to ride the coattails of nationalism to a list vote.
This year’s Scottish Labour manifesto, on the other hand, takes giant steps away from Jim Murphy’s ‘ultra-nationalist’ horrors of last year to commendably focus on social justice. Its intro begins, “We want to create a Scotland where it is a young person’s potential, ambition and work rate that determine how far they get on in life – not where they were born.” The only references to ‘standing up’ for anything are with regards to women’s equality and against “hate crime and exploitation”. This is a manifesto which recognise that people do not have common interests because they share the same country. It is because of this that the policies it contains are manifestly to the left of the SNP, notably including the 50p tax rate on the wealthiest which the SNP have now ditched and proposing higher taxes to pay for some of Scotland’s higher public spending.
Yet Scottish Labour are battling to avoid coming third, due to the nationalist pathologising of the party. This is nothing to do with an interest in a ‘fairer’ society and everything to do with a facile imagined identity.
We see, then, that nationalism and attempts to divide are at work in various ways on this election day. I support Jeremy Corbyn because I believe he offers something more; something better. He is not appealing to our basest instincts nor is he telling us that we are exceptional because of where we live. The Labour election poster unveiled last week explicitly acknowledges the divisions within society in a way which saw some attack it as ‘class war’:
They are right. There is a class war and currently the wealthiest are winning, with the support of the Tories and the SNP. In word and deed Labour recognise that the interests of a single parent living in social housing are not the same as those of a millionaire landlord, even if they only live one mile apart. It’s no secret that the Labour machine remains against Corbyn and that the Labour right is constantly seeking to undermine him. These forces are eagerly hoping that Labour does badly today, in the naive hope that losses will enable them to reclaim the party and reinstate their ‘it’s not racist to be worried about immigration’ dreck. Corbyn is something different. He deserves the support of anyone who believes in socialism. That is why I voted Labour today and why I hope anyone who professes to care about social justice will reject the Tories and the SNP.
“Nothing we say is gonna change anything now” – Independence Day, Bruce Springsteen
So here it is: independence day. The day on which, for many nationalists, Scotland would have gained its ‘freedom’ from the wicked union and embarked upon its journey towards better days; the day on which, for me, some powers would have been transferred from one parliament to another and the latest iteration of pooled sovereignty would have begun.
One thing clear to all but the most rabid of nationalists is that, economically, Scotland would have started life as an independent country in a pretty weak position. Given anti-austerity posturing has been so central to arguments for independence, and the economic position would almost certainly have necessitated ‘austerity’, nationalists do their best to prevaricate and even mislead on this point. This does a very good job of addressing most of the lines wheeled out but one absolutely key point is that much of Scotland’s economic position is due to higher public spending rather than some inherent flaw in the Scottish economy. This isn’t to say that policy at Westminster is irrelevant – indeed it’s essential to acknowledge that different choices have been and are possible. Still, nationalists who seek to blame ‘the union’ for Scotland’s economic troubles would do well to remember that, until the global recession, the SNP vision for the country was as part of a regulatory light-touch ‘arc of prosperity’ with Iceland and Ireland. That ‘arc’ didn’t work out too well.
Anyone who reads me with any regularity, whether on here or elsewhere, will know what I think of Scottish politics post-referendum. I am more convinced than ever that much of the country, and crucially much of Scotland’s left, has gone down a cul de sac of self-delusion. Despite the economic issues I have never argued against independence, and against nationalism, because I don’t believe Scotland could ‘work’ as an independent country. Of course it could. Yet the response to the economics is one of many illustrations of the faith-based nationalism which now dominates politics in the country. As I wrote in this post, “the SNP get the credit for everything perceived as better than the status quo in England/Wales, but anything difficult is judged against an imaginary independent Scotland.” Indeed, independence itself is framed as the repository of all that is good and pure. To believe in independence is to be more noble, more progressive, more correct than the dastardly ‘unionists’ who are, in turn, framed as reactionary, conservative, wicked. This is how the nationalists pull off the bizarre trick of claiming to be for ‘democracy’ and ‘self-determination’ while dismissing the ‘self-determination’ exercised by the majority in the referendum – these people were either hopelessly mendacious and thus not worth bothering with or they were duped by the wicked state/establishment/media, unlike the nationalists who saw The Truth.
That the central political divide in Scotland is now ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ is a source of huge sadness for me. What a state for a country to be in, where we end up with the absurd situation where self-proclaimed ‘socialists’ have more ire for socialists who oppose independence than for a Scottish government passing on cuts while reneging on promises to raise the top rate of tax (for example). There is a very real sense that many ‘socialists’ in Scotland would rather Jeremy Corbyn fail than have to face the reality that they privilege nationalism over socialism – as perfectly evidenced by Mhairi Black’s recent admission to Owen Jones that she would rather have an independent Scotland than a UK with a socialist government. Of course, it seems glib for me to complain about the nationalist/unionist framing when I so freely call people nationalists. Nationalism is not, of course, something unique to Scotland and certainly not to those wanting independence. British nationalism is very real, as Scottish nationalists never tire of pointing out. Yet as I’ve covered before, no matter whether they view themselves as left, right or neither, few who push notions of Scottish exceptionalism and who buy into the idea that Westminster is the problem for Scotland (always conveniently ignoring complex questions of sovereignty re: the European Union, NATO, economic power etc) ever view themselves as nationalist. I couldn’t really care less about being labelled a ‘unionist’ but I certainly have little in common with the (Tory) archetype that term has come to evoke. I am a socialist republican who wants fundamental reform of the UK state and who believes that international co-operation, of a substantial kind rather than glib statements of solidarity, is essential to achieving lasting radical change. The independence movement in Scotland has, I think it is clear, placed unnecessary obstacles in the way of this. For all the talk of solidarity which the ‘left-wing, not nationalist’ advocates are fond of, it’s notable that in Scotland the immediate response to any and all Tory attacks is ‘independence’ and ‘Scotland is different’. For example, much of the left in Scotland responds to Tory attacks on trade union laws by demanding that employment law is devolved to Holyrood, rather than seeking to join and build a cross-border movement against them (or, indeed, face Holyrood’s own shortcomings in this area;) similarly, the response to proposals to relax Sunday trading laws in England & Wales was to try and protect the ‘premium’ pay of some Sunday workers in Scotland rather than even begin to address the real issue of employment rights and labour power. These are the very real consequences of the nationalist cul de sac and those who stridently assert that they are pro-independence for reasons of social justice must surely take stock of the movement they are part of: one where the gains have overwhelmingly gone to the SNP and to nationalism, not to socialism and solidarity.
It’s a cul de sac the SNP seem very eager for Scotland to remain in. My disdain for the SNP is clear: I find its use of populist nationalist rhetoric (‘Scotland’s voice’, ‘standing up for Scotland’, ‘the Scottish lion’) to frame the important divide as ‘Scotland/England’ rather than class and economic power to be hugely damaging and not a little embarrassing. I find its eagerness to turn everything into a matter of grievance against Scotland, while dismissing criticisms as ‘talking down Scotland’ to be tragic. Yet even I remain shocked at just how mendacious the party continues to be in its ditching of ‘progressive’ policies (council tax reform, higher rate of tax) while pointing the finger at ‘unionists’ with flat-out lies which rely on people taking its word and not doing any fact-checking. Only yesterday, Philippa Whitford asserted that Labour hadn’t voted against the Budget in a tweet which was swiftly being shared by the faithful. There is no way Whitford could not have known this wasn’t true. Yet in the ‘carnival of democracy’ that is post-referendum Scotland, being ‘engaged’ and ‘educated’ seems to mean sharing nonsense memes about whisky duty and how ‘the vow was a lie’ rather than actually doing the boring work of doing research on the issues you are seemingly so aggrieved about. It seems clear to me that few of those who rant about ‘the vow’ have read the Scotland Bill, just as few who rant about EVEL have the faintest clue what it actually means. It’s telling how quickly the SNP line that a 1p rise in the Scottish rate of income tax wasn’t progressive was taken up and repeated, despite every independent body who looked at it finding otherwise. Yet when the SNP ditch abandoning the council tax or raising tax, the criticism is muted at best (and, at worst, leads to a chorus of excuses from supporters who previously passionately supported these policies).
Displaying not a hint of self-awareness, comedy rag The National has today published a couple of ‘what if’ pieces which are perfect examples of the faith-based nationalism I have described above. This one describes a world where an independent Scotland has become a one-party state with free energy on tap, the ditching of Trident has led to world peace and Nicola Sturgeon becomes President of the world having eradicated poverty. Somehow Scotland hasn’t cured cancer, which seems to me to be talking Scotland down. This nonsense from Lesley Riddoch goes even further into fantasy land by suggesting that an independent Scotland would have led to Prime Minister Andy Burnham. Note, however, this section:
Andy Burnham, with his narrow 2015 General Election win producing a small working majority, is set to cancel Trident to appease the left-wing grassroots of his own party while stopping short of announcing a permanent end to the UK’s nuclear deterrent for fear of provoking anxious Tory,
Unionist voters. Who’d be an rUK Premier?
This no doubt seemed like a comedic aside to Riddoch but it illustrates the state Scottish politics is in and the dark underbelly of the nationalism which dominates it. Compromise is presented as something unique to the UK, with left/right division incredibly being attributed to ‘unionist voters’. This is contrasted with an independent Scotland where “there’s worry over the number of long-awaited and ambitious progressive policies being implemented simultaneously” and there are plans “to replicate the astonishing human chain created in Catalonia three years ago, with folk from all nations creating human chains over hills, glens, straths, riversides and pavements to link Oban with Aberdeen and John O’Groats with Berwick.” With independence, all division in Scotland has melted away and it’s full-steam ahead to utopia now that the wicked Unionists are defeated. It’s not just drivel, it’s dangerous.
Sadly, I think this kind of thinking that is so impervious to reality has taken firm hold in much of Scotland. The nationalists are happy in their cul de sac, projecting whatever they like onto a brick wall rather than having to walk blinkingly into the cold light of day. Nothing we say is gonna change anything now but all those of us who think independence is a harmful diversion can do is keep saying what we think and keep fighting the lie that ‘progressive’ = ‘independence’ and vice versa. Bruce Springsteen has spoken of his song ‘Independence Day’ being about becoming an adult and facing the compromises you have to make in life – the kind of compromises you don’t have to make when you’re young and can angrily point the finger at those you view only as barriers to your freedom.
Happy independence day, Scotland.