Brexit was the blowback from David Cameron and the Tory party’s embrace of a toxic English nationalism, a tactic which seemed to pay dividends in addressing the challenge of UKIP, wrong-footing many on the left who are instinctively uneasy with patriotism and feeding the Scottish nationalism which has led to the dominance of the SNP. Cameron clearly thought he could control the beast and was proved disastrously wrong; now Theresa May seeks less to control it and more to satisfy its every whim. Make no mistake – last week’s Tory party conference displayed a deranged, dangerous government very deliberately using racism and xenophobia to divert attention from its failings. As Seb Cooke writes:
The glue that May hopes will hold all of this together has been the overriding theme of the conference: immigration. Government departments have been lining up to declare war on foreign workers and students in a terrifying manner. They hope that this increase in anti-
immigrant policy and racist rhetoric will paper over the visible cracks elsewhere and wrong-foot Labour. The argument that May uses focuses on the idea that the white working class feel shat on because of huge inequality and immigration. It is an acknowledgment that class is back at the heart of British politics, but a vicious attempt to divide that working class.
Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion that “Conservative Party leaders have sunk to a new low” almost seemed charitable: this is truly frightening stuff. It feels like the UK is at a moment of some significance; a moment where we must all choose our side. Are we going to stand with the racist bullies scapegoating migrants and appealing to the absolute worst in people’s natures, or are we going to fight for compassion, tolerance, the vibrant internationalism which is essential for any kind of ‘good’ modern society?
The left needs to unite to fight this. Clearly Jeremy Corbyn has a hugely important role to play and his appointment of Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary is welcome. Abbott has devoted her career to combatting racism and having her respond to deplorable policy ideas such as forcing companies to list foreign workers will really matter. As she said in 2014 in a speech on racism:
So, let me say this about race and anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia; I think that it is important that we unite on these issues, nothing is gained by separating off and fighting each of our campaigns in a separate corner. These are difficult times, these are dark times, and maximum unity is vital.
It is heartening to have the opposition led by people saying such things. The Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Owen Smith sorts continue to try and pander to anti-immigrant prejudice (and it is prejudice) and consign themselves further to the dustbin of history. We are socialists and solidarity is central to our cause – a solidarity which is not conditional on colour or country of origin.
We must unite and give new life to solidarity. If the Labour right have yet to get the memo, it’s also sad to see Scottish politics still firmly stuck in the cul de sac of self-delusion. Things are playing out exactly as I predicted on the morning after the Holyrood elections, when some more brazen nationalists were celebrating the fact that the Tories had overtaken Labour in Scotland:
The Tories pose no existential threat to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the existence of the Tories as a party of government, to the left 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’.
We have seen this illustrated perfectly this week, with the Tories’ eager embrace of racism and xenophobia seeming like catnip to Scottish nationalists who have their notion that Scotland (as a country and as a people) are just inherently ‘better’ further inflated. So, in response to a speech from Nicola Sturgeon responding to May’s toxic rhetoric, the hashtag #WeAreScotland took flight, portraying Scotland as a progressive and open society in contrast to mean-spirited Tory England. Once again, Scottish identity was erased of all complication, all division, and put to the service of a wooly ‘civic nationalism’ which essentially begins and ends at ‘we are better than Tory England’.
It is, of course, to be celebrated when any politician tackles anti-immigration sentiment. Yet this is an unhelpful, perhaps even dangerous, response. I say this because the main issue that we on the left need to deal with is the fact that public opinion on immigration is regressive and there is clearly a deep well of racist sentiment which May is tapping into. We need to tackle the myths and prejudices around immigration head on rather than complacently assuming that we are just ‘better’ or ‘different’. The Scottish nationalist response completely elides the reality of immigration politics in Scotland, something which is possible because Holyrood and the SNP do not have power over immigration policy. As we saw with raising taxes or on fracking, the SNP like to posture as ‘more progressive’ than the ‘unionist’ parties when it can contrast itself with Westminster policy but when it actually gets the powers to make radical change it shifts to the right. It matters, then, that SNP rhetoric on immigration policy has been rather more similar to the Tories than #WeAreScotland would have us believe. The White Paper presented for Scottish independence, for example, had this to say about immigration policy:
The SNP proposed a points-based system – the same kind which had ‘progressives’ howling when presented by Boris Johnson. Sturgeon, meanwhile, used some rather familiar rhetoric in her 2015 General Election debate appearance:
Keen to keep up with the latest instalment of the thrilling battle, I tuned in on Thursday night to cheer on the new golden trio of politics. It was all going down as expected, the leader of a nationalist movement started talking about wanting to get rid of, “people with no right to be here,” calling for “strong controls” on immigration and declined to give a straight answer as to whether there were too many immigrants in the country. Nigel…fucking…no wait, that was Nicola Sturgeon.
The devolution set-up has meant that progressive posturing flourishes in the gap between Westminster and Holyrood. For many Scottish nationalists, this is enough: actually fighting for progressive politics, tackling regressive attitudes and recognising that people across the UK aren’t inherently ‘different’ is difficult, slow and unlikely to give a warm glow inside.
It would mean confronting the reality of opinion in Scotland. A reality where 68% supported tougher restrictions on immigration. A reality where 63% thought immigration was too high and should be cut. A reality where 41% agreed with the statement “Scotland would begin to lose its identity if more Muslims came to live in Scotland”, where around a third think that “people from Eastern Europe/ethnic minorities take jobs away from other people in Scotland”. A reality where a great majority don’t believe that living in Scotland for years makes you ‘Scottish’. A reality where the wicked Tory Ruth Davidson has higher approval ratings than Nicola Sturgeon (and where the even more wicked Theresa May has a double-figure positive approval rating).
You don’t have to confront this reality when you can point your finger at the Tories and pretend that Scotland is a happy land free of all division, where everyone holds hands and sings The Proclaimers beneath saltires. Indeed, when you raise these issues with Scottish nationalists the most common reaction by far is not to engage with how things actually are in Scotland but to start ranting about Tories, ‘unionists’ and how much worse things are in ‘England’. As long as there’s a perception that things are worse across the border, that’s enough. Racism in Scotland can be swept under a fetching saltire rug.
It’s not good enough and no-one on the left should embrace it. This is an issue across the whole of the UK. We must unite. To repeat Diane Abbott’s words, “nothing is gained by separating off and fighting each of our campaigns in a separate corner.” We must unite: unite against racism, unite against xenophobia, unite against fascism. We must take the fight to our friends, our family, our workplaces. We must begin to break down the myths and prejudices which have led us to this dark time. We must rediscover solidarity and we must unite. This week offers an anniversary of a striking example of what ordinary people can achieve when they come together to fight the bastards. This is too important. We must unite.