Tickling the Tummy of Nationalism

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The boyfriend was watching The Voice the other night (yes, I know) and I caught a section where they were discussing one of the contestants who happened to be Scottish. Now, I say ‘happened to be’ but the presenters and judges mentioned it so much that you would have thought it was the most interesting and remarkable thing in the world. It’s pretty standard for these kinds of shows – Scotland is one of the ‘regions’ to be patted on the head and patronised with affection and ‘pick up the phone, Scotland!’ pleas, as if the Scottish people are a homogeneous bloc of simple folk thrilled to simply see ‘one of their own’ on the television.

The troubling thing is, it has a degree of traction. Some people are always going to like having their tummies tickled and if ‘Scottishness’ is an integral part of your identity, you might respond to this guff (and anyone who’s regularly watched shows like The Voice and X Factor will be familiar with terrible acts progressing quite far by pushing the ‘regional’ vote to its limit). The patronising ‘look at how great we are to these little people’ attitude of the ‘metropolitan’ media endures because it finds a willing audience.

This trend isn’t confined to rubbish talent shows. Days before the Scottish independence referendum vote I wrote about how much of the left in the rest of the UK had been ‘utterly clueless’ in their analyses of the debate, eagerly buying into every myth of Scottish exceptionalism and failing to seriously question the pro-independence movement in any way whatsoever. They were, in effect, tickling the tummies of those who believed that Scotland was better and largely doing so in order to demonstrate how progressive they were themselves. Of course, despite Billy Bragg’s ‘best’ efforts, few progressives are happy to be identified as nationalists, a word which is loaded with connotations of parochialism and small-mindedness. An inordinate amount of time was spent on tortured arguments as to why Scottish independence wasn’t a nationalist cause, closely tied to the ‘Green Yes’ and Radical Independence Campaign movements. This wasn’t about nation, flags or parochialism – it was about unleashing the magical progressive forces of Scotland and in the process setting free the rest of the UK. Solidarity brothers and sisters!

From the vantage point of 6 months later, it’s pretty remarkable how swiftly this rhetoric has fallen apart. This from ‘socialist’ Tommy Sheridan, urging support for the SNP, seems fairly typical:

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To say the SNP have been the main beneficiaries of the surge in nationalism-which-isn’t-nationalism since September would be an understatement. We can see the spike in their support, coinciding with the referendum, here – notice that the ‘others’ line remains flat during that period:

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Recent Westminster polls have the Scottish Greens polling around 3% – around the same as UKIP which, we are repeatedly told, is an ‘irrelevance’ in Scotland. The other parties involved in RIC like the Scottish Socialists don’t even figure. It’s true there has been a small increase in Green support in Holyrood polls over the past couple of years but an average of 9.6% in 2015 so far compared to 7.8% in 2014 isn’t earth-shattering considering the centrality of the Greens to the ‘it’s not nationalist’ argument for independence. I’m personally aware of a few people who were staunchly of the ‘Green Yes’ variety who are now planning on voting SNP; Vonny Moyes in this hilarious piece tries vainly to explain why Green and socialist voters opting for the SNP has nothing to do with nationalism…still.

The myths of Scottish exceptionalism are stronger than ever and have in fact been fed by the referendum – look at Moyes’ breathtaking assertion that Scots are now ‘fact-checking’ and (by implication) more informed than the rest of the UK, something which doesn’t bear a moment’s scrutiny and is based on nothing more than nationalists talking to themselves. These myths are feeding, and fed by, support for the SNP who have been reframed from a bog-standard centre party to something comparable to Syriza – witness Monbiot somewhat amazingly stating that support for the ‘lower corporation tax’ SNP is a sign of the end of neoliberalism. The narrative settled quickly – Labour are the ‘Red Tories’, evil allies of the Tories while the SNP are Our Only Hope.

You would think this would present a delicate tightrope for the SNP to walk. It is, after all, difficult to present yourself as a radical left-wing party when your main appeal is to Scotland’s middle-classes (see this excellent piece on how the SNP’s student finance policies hit the poor hardest) and you have supporters like Brian Souter to keep on board. It’s difficult to attack Labour for standing with the Tories on Better Together when you governed informally with the latter and frequently voted with them at Westminster. You would surely think that your radical credentials would be questioned when you not only want to reduce corporation tax but state that you would vote against any Labour proposals to raise taxes on the rich. Even Nicola Sturgeon’s vague noises on opposing austerity aren’t as hugely different from Labour’s plans as the rhetoric would have you believe.

Yet the SNP hasn’t found itself challenged whatsoever. Indeed, when the oil price collapse happened and government data on Scotland’s economy revealed a deficit bigger than rUK, they presented it as an argument as to why Scotland should be ‘masters of its own destiny’ without batting an eyelid that throughout the referendum campaign they argued that Scotland’s finances were healthier than those of the UK. It seems the SNP can say and do whatever it likes at the moment and face practically zero scrutiny – you can be certain that if Cameron or Miliband were doing premature victory laps like Salmond and Sturgeon currently are, they would be crucified for it.

As with the referendum, the response of much of the left is instructive as to what’s going on here. We are seeing countless think pieces which, rather than scrutinising the SNP, present them as offering a bloody nose to Westminster and even as synonymous with ‘Scotland’. This latter point is crucial as it’s something the SNP have been trying to do for a long time and, with the referendum, they seem to have succeeded to a large extent: witness the tweet at the top where, atop a mass flag-waving rally, a vote for the SNP is presented as a ‘vote for your country’. SNP success is uncritically presented as a ‘stronger voice for Scotland’ as if ‘Scotland’ is some unified whole with zero conflict or class division. We can note here that Scotland has gone so far down the nationalist rabbit hole that the other parties are dancing to this tune: witness this painful backdrop at a recent Scottish Labour event:

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The lack of scrutiny of the SNP (who are, lest we forget, the government responsible for most matters of daily interest in Scotland) is a symptom of a surge in nationalism which has turned politics on its head. The claims of UK-wide solidarity which the Scottish left made repeatedly during the referendum campaign are all but dead: a plurality of SNP voters would rather a Tory government than a Labour one if it meant more SNP MPs, a position shared by 34% of all voters in Scotland (with 21% not knowing). For all the talk of Green and Plaid Cymru alliances, there is no sense here of a UK-wide left, of shared goals (including of a Labour Party fit for purpose) which can be pursued wherever in the UK you may live. Instead the SNP are viewed as noble defenders of ‘Scotland’ against the evils of ‘Westmonster’, a narrative laid bare in the increasingly hysterical front pages of The National.

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The SNP’s rhetoric has been pitch-perfect in engorging Scottish nationalism while inflaming the English equivalent. Salmond knows exactly what he’s doing with assertions that he’ll ‘write Labour’s budget’ and there has been a concomitant rise in the rhetoric of English nationalism, with David Cameron and right-wing columnists playing up the ‘SNP wagging the Labour dog’ theme.

Of course, if it seems a no-brainer why many would have an issue with a party whose sole reason for existing is to break up the UK governing that same UK, no-one has told the Guardian left. They keep tickling the tummies, the myths keep growing and no-one must mention ‘nationalism’. In the process divisions grow ever wider and the left grows ever more insular. We’re going to be stuck here for a while.

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Valhalla vs Apocalypse: Enduring #IndyRef Myths

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I wrote a couple of months ago on the myths which pervade the #indyref campaign and I don’t think much has changed on that front. It’s funny – a common theme from commentors on the debate is how mature and civilised it is, yet each ‘side’ delights in pointing out the myriad of ways in which the other is talking bollocks without ever removing the logs from their own eyes. Tonight’s debate between Salmond and Darling will almost certainly see more of this and it’s been fairly fascinating seeing the myths which sustain particular identities laid bare. Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps have attempted to lay claim to ideas that they are beacons of fairness, tolerance and justice in the world. Writing from a left-wing perspective, it seems fairly accepted amongst peers that it’s at best ridiculous, at worst grotesque for anyone to argue this on behalf of the UK, which is beset by a bleak assortment of social problems and has some of the worst poverty and inequality in the developed world. So if I don’t write much about the myths advanced by Better Together and their ilk it’s because I take it as given that those of a ‘progressive’ ilk don’t buy into them in the first place.

The myths around Scotland, however, not only seem to be burrowed deep into the national subconscious but have found themselves flourishing wildly during this debate. The great unknown offered by independence sees every problem, from the arms trade through to uninspired Scottish architecture, reframed as a ‘Westminster’ or ‘England’ issue which the plucky Scots can solve by voting ‘Yes’. Sure, most people have enough sense not to say it as bluntly as this but the overwhelming narrative is the very familiar one of Scotland being both more progressive, and more oppressed, than its neighbour to the South. The troubling subtexts in this message can’t help but seep through the cracks, whether it be in the suggestion that opponents to independence are suffering from a “deep-seated cultural self-hatred” or in the utterly idiotic notion that voting ‘no’ is giving “Westminster permanent permission to do whatever it likes forever. No questions asked.” The choice is between an independent Scotland full of hope and optimism and general niceness or a UK which is dystopian and apocalyptic. All progressive thought, opinion and action in the rest of the UK is erased.

I was surprised to see this exact framing in the latest issue of London Review of Books, a journal which consistently presents some of the best writing in the UK (and beyond) The piece, called What Sort of Scotland? and written by Neal Ascherson, is behind a paywall but I’ve copied some relevant sections with my commentary:

It does Yes campaigners some credit that they haven’t launched their own ‘Project Fear’ concentrating on what happens if independence is rejected on 18 September. They don’t talk about it, affect not to think about it. But the landscape beyond that day is growing darker.

It does credit to Yes campaigners (which Ascherson clearly is, despite making an odd distinction by claiming to only be a Yes ‘voter’) that they don’t scaremonger…except when they do. It’s ironic that for all the (correct) complaints of Better Together’s ‘negativity’, much of the Yes campaign’s energy comes from its opposition to the current state of a Tory-led UK and its apocalyptic predictions of a ‘darker landscape’. How Lord of the Rings. As I’ve written previously, the UK-wide opposition to this is never going to be found in a campaign against Scottish independence – why would it be? It’s found in the recent strikes, in fights against changes to welfare, in campaigns for a living wage, in mass demos for Gaza. This progressive body of opinion exists across the UK but many independence campaigners pretend that it doesn’t while complaining that ‘unionists’ offer no vision of a better society. It’s disingenuous in the exteme.

The Unionist parties say that they will agree on further devolution of powers to Scotland. But these don’t seem likely to go much beyond a little more discretion on some taxes. There’s talk of calling a national convention on the constitutional future, but this would apparently be led by the Scotland Office – a London ministry – with Scotland’s elected government and Parliament reduced to mere participants among a crowd of British bodies.

This complaint has been voiced with increasing frequency: the UK government might promise more devolution but it doesn’t really mean it! And even if it did, it’s worthy only of derision because it would be led by…the UK government. ‘A London ministry’. The outrage that a parliament made up of the nations of the UK would ‘apparently’ lead on constitutional change, rather than the parliament which only represents Scotland! It’s all chip-on-shoulder nonsense relying on ‘Scotland vs London’ sentiment.

It’s possible that Scotland might decline too, sharply and even irreversibly, in that first No decade. It’s not just that pro-Europe Scotland might well be dragged out of the EU by a Europhobic southern majority.

I’ve long found it ironic that pro-independence voices are almost uniformally uncritical of the EU, a body which by any measure has greater problems regarding legitimacy and democracy than Westminster. Criticism of the EU is, however, largely associated with right-wing opinion and so isn’t helpful to the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon. Leaving that to one side, the suggestion that Scotland could be forced out of the EU by a ‘southern majority’ is another one which you hear fairly regularly and is commonly accepted. Yet it belies a far more complex reality where a majority in Scotland have consistently adopted a critical approach to the EU. A recent Yougov poll on the EU, meanwhile, found majority support for remaining in the EU across the entire UK. Most interestingly, it found that if people believed UK membership had been renegotiated more favourably, opinion on EU membership was almost uniform with 54-61% opting to stay in.

Or that English hysteria about immigration could block young European incomers to Scotland – a need first recognised when the then first minister Jack McConnell sent recruiters to the bus-parks of Poland in 2004.

A consistent majority in Scotland want less immigration while a very small minority want more. As we saw in my previous blog, 49% in Scotland thought that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thought the same about more black and/or Asian people living there. None of this is good, of course, but it demonstrates how smugly complacent it is to believe that immigration ‘hysteria’ (and by extension racism) is an English problem.

It is, above all, the damage London governments might well now inflict on Scottish social policies. After eight years in power, the polls still give the SNP a startling lead: it is currently at 43 per cent. This is mainly because it has carried on the social policies of the Lib-Lab coalitions which preceded it in Edinburgh. These parties barricaded the welfare state – higher education, free social care and the Scottish National Health Service above all – against the tide of privatisation and marketising ‘competition’ which is washing away the British postwar social settlement south of the border. But that barricade would probably crumble in a post-No Britain.

Again, an argument you hear frequently – that even the devolved NHS will crumble if Scotland votes against independence. Putting aside the question of how that would actually happen in practice, this would have us believe that people ‘south of the border’ want to wash away the ‘British postwar social settlement’. There are wide and loud campaigns against the changes to the NHS which have led Labour to pledge a reversal of the Health and Social Care Bill. Then there is the fact that over half (52% in 2013) of people in Scotland complain that unemployment benefits are ‘too high’, which doesn’t exactly suggest it as a welfare state valhalla.

On top of that, the neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may soon force all public health services in the UK – Scottish as well as English – to invite competition from American private firms. This ravenous alien was only able to squirm into the UK spaceship because in 2012 Cameron’s coalition had already legalised an internal private health market in England.

This is the most bizarre complaint, to put it generously. The TTIP is being negotiated by the EU (which, lest we forget, the writer was fearful of leaving) and the United States. It’s about far more than ‘public health services’ and the idea that it’s somehow the doing of David Cameron is risible beyond belief. While there are several campaigns against TTIP I can’t find any indication that an SNP (or indeed any other party) government in an independent Scotland would oppose it.

The piece advances a heap of unexamined half-truths and distortions about the evils that will be visited upon poor, defenceless Scotland in the event of it remaining in the UK. It’s embarrassing stuff yet sadly typical of the level of debate. To underline how far these myths endure without question I want to look at one other issue: that of Trident. The British Social Attitude survey looked at this and found that “public opinion on the subject of nuclear weapons is nothing like as different on the two sides of the border” as we’re led to believe. The most interesting finding, however, was that in Scotland “slightly more people agree (41 per cent) than disagree (37 per cent) with the proposition that:

If Scotland becomes independent, Britain’s nuclear weapons submarines should continue to be based here”

In England and Wales, however, 63% thought the weapons should leave Scotland if it became independent! This doesn’t fit the common narratives around this issue at all.

It seems odd to me to have a debate around ‘the kind of country Scotland would like to be’, based on noble ideas about furthering democracy and improving people’s lives, which relies so much on myths and a refusal to engage with existing opinion. Indeed, when I’ve raised e.g. the matter of public opinion in Scotland being firmly against more immigration or more unemployment benefits, the response I invariably get is ‘well of course it is, they are brainwashed by the UK media’. Quite how the media in an independent Scotland will be different so as to help these poor brainwashed, self-hating masses, I’m not quite sure. Presumably this media will also report on the secret oil field which the dasterdly Cameron is keeping from the poor oppressed people of Scotland.

It’s all pretty gruesome, desperate stuff. Just to repeat, there’s plenty of that from Better Together and it’s covered in detail elsewhere. I don’t endorse it. Yet if I’ve always been against Scottish independence, my one abiding hope were it to happen has been that it would lead to a more mature Scotland where we don’t feel the need to revel in a sense of victimhood, inventing paranoid conspiracies and blaming the wicked English for our woes (as many in England blame the EU – as I say, we all have our enduring myths). I remain strongly of the opinion that the Scottish form of social democracy lives and dies in the perceived gap between it and England. If and when that gap goes, I would hope that attitudes would change. I’m sad to say that this seems further away than ever.