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.

We Get What We Can However We Can Get It

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As we edge towards the 2015 General Election or, to give it its proper name, The Worst Election of All Time, we’ll be seeing a lot of boilerplate columns, articles and opinion pieces. You know the ones: a lot of partisan opining on how the deficit is on the right track/doesn’t really matter, about how the Tories are getting people back to work/are building a low-wage precariat economy, about how the Tories/Labour can/cannot be trusted with the NHS. Not all of it will be without merit, of course, but it will be largely predictable.

It’s already clear that one of the boilerplate pieces we’ll be seeing a lot of is on Labour and the Green Party. There’s a lot of undignified mud-slinging going on in both directions but here I want to focus on the ‘ignore the scaremongering, vote Green!’ angle as I’ve seen it quite a lot in recent days – always with a sneering tone which suggests that anyone on the left who disagrees with this stance is a craven Labour stooge.

I’ll focus mainly on Ian Sinclair’s Open Democracy piece as it covers the most ground. Its subheading asks “will it ever be acceptable to vote for a lefty party that isn’t Labour?” Well, that’s easy. Yes, it is. I do it every single year. I’ve voted for Labour only a handful of times in my life and only once at a General Election, in 2010. I did that despite considering myself far to the left of Brown’s Labour government and having many issues with it. I did that because I knew that it would be a tight election and I knew that a Tory government would be a disaster, especially in the immediate aftermath of a financial crash. Others, of course, disagreed and thought that those on the left should vote Liberal Democrat – including figures like George Monbiot, who is now recommending we vote Green – and we all know how that turned out (I’ll return to this later). So the issue here isn’t that left-wing people are arguing ‘never vote for any party but Labour’ (I don’t think anyone but the most slavishly loyal Labour Party hack would argue that) but that they’re arguing ‘this is clearly going to be a very tight election and only Labour or the Tories are going to ‘win’’. This is clear from the daily polls which have Labour/Tories neck and neck but around 20 points ahead of the nearest challenger. The Greens are not going to form the government. As it stands, they’re almost certain to not even win more than one seat. They won’t be kingmakers (and there won’t be a Lab/Green/SNP coalition – the only reason the SNP are floating this is because they know that arrangement will inflame both English and Scottish nationalism, serving no-one other than themselves).

No-one on the left who’s been paying attention could possibly deny that the coalition has done enormous damage to the country. This piece argues that it’s gone ‘further than Thatcher’ in its attack on the vestiges of the post-war settlement and the welfare state. The usual response to this from ‘vote Green’ advocates is ‘Labour were right wing/embrace austerity too!” Well, yes…but do the ‘they’re all the same’ advocates really think that the past five years would have unfurled in the same brutal way under Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband (I know there’s existential points about the relationship of parties to capital etc and I’ll return to that)? I don’t think many would deny that there would have been very real differences in the lives of a great many people. Sinclair mentions Owen Jones’ invoking of the Bedroom Tax as a concrete harmful policy which will be removed by a Labour government, dismissing it because the Greens are picking up support “because of their emphasis on social and economic justice and their opposition to the bedroom tax.” Well that’s great – where does that emphasis get us with one or two MPs? Absolutely nowhere. He also inevitably cries ‘IRAQ!’ Again, great – I marched against the war too. I just don’t see how the Green Party are going to go back in time and stop it.

The point about the Bedroom Tax is important in illustrating that, even within the ‘pro-austerity consensus’, there are important and material differences. The IFS analysis of the three main parties’ stated spending plans for 2015 onwards states that:

The spending cuts required by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to achieve their stated borrowing targets would be significantly smaller than those required by the Conservatives.

and identifies the different plans as one of the “key dividing lines” between the parties. None of this is ‘anti-austerity’ in any sense but the crucial point is that there is no scenario in the 2015 election where ‘anti-austerity’ wins the election. None. As such, we have to be about ameliorating the impact on people’s lives as much as possible.

This doesn’t mean that you suddenly wholeheartedly endorse Labour and everything it does. It doesn’t mean you have to stop supporting the Greens. It doesn’t mean you can’t fight against the Labour right with every fibre of your body. It’s notable that the decline of the two-party system hasn’t been accompanied by a corresponding decoupling of personal identity from parties. We still on the whole think of them in the same way we think of football teams, picking one and ‘supporting’ it. A lot of minority party votes seem to be in protest to the main parties – a ‘not in my name’ mentality. I think this is completely wrong-headed. I think you can vote for a party on the understanding that it might win power in this election and prevent something worse, while still being opposed to what that party stands for. It’s lesser-evilism, yes, but that becomes less of an issue when your politics extends beyond voting and you don’t then feel the need to defend ‘your’ party. Hell, even a lot of people who *do* identify with a party still fight against it. Another characteristic of all this is a failure to consider *why* the two-party system has endured. It’s not just because of the voting system – the fact that parties are broad churches. As much as we may think/be told otherwise, ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’ has never been a neat signifier and it’s clear that even the Greens and SNP bridge the left/right divide.

Indeed, it’s mandatory that we create movements which are able to influence parties and, perhaps more importantly, wider opinion. It’s an inconvenient truth ignored by everyone from ‘radical’ pro-independence campaigners to ‘vote Green’ advocates that the bulk of the population holds reactionary views on welfare and immigration, is convinced by ‘deficit reduction’ as an important target and doesn’t feel particularly inclined towards what we call ‘the far-left’ (even taking into account support for nationalisation, higher taxes on the wealthy etc). We’re told that if enough of us vote Green then they’ll win – but that relies on the assumption that people merely don’t vote Green because they either don’t know about them or don’t think they can win, which is a BIG assumption and does nothing to parse the reactionary side of ‘the electorate’. The response usually comes “well of course they have those views, that’s what they get from the media and the main parties’.” True. It’s not going to change any time soon and it’s incumbent on all of us to change that rather than pushing the myth that the 7-11% who currently support the Greens are somehow ready to storm the barricades and transform the culture overnight. This ties to the important point of why left-wing parties have moved right in the UK and beyond. The ‘vote Green’ argument would have us believe that it’s simply because the politicians in question are dicks and we have to just keep going til we find the ‘right’ one (see Monbiot with his jump from Green to Plaid Cymru to Lib Dem to Green). Once we begin to understand the importance of the context (the global capitalism system, the UK state, societal pressures) and the break this puts on radicalism (this book is good on that in terms of the Bennites) then our politics begins to shift and we become a bit less precious about what we’re ‘endorsing’ with our vote.

Sinclair suggests that critics of ‘vote Green’ should look to Labour’s growth at the beginning of the 20th Century. It’s absurd enough, having to go back over 100 years to try and illustrate why we should vote a certain way now, but even on its own terms the comparison falls flat. Indeed, it illustrates the importance of context. The Labour Party grew out of trade unionism and socialist movements representing the growing number of ‘urban proletariat’ who had, quite crucially, only recently been granted the vote (and this was still before of universal suffrage). Its breakthrough in supplanting the Liberal Party as one of the two main parties, with a surge in 1918 and a breakthrough in 1922, corresponded with extension of the franchise and is impossible to separate from the small matter of World War One. Comparisons with the Greens in 2015 are utterly useless, especially in an age of instant opinion polling where we can see that, even in elections fought under PR, the Greens are a minority interest (and I think a reform to the voting system should be a BIG priority for the left).

So no, the argument isn’t ‘never vote for any party except Labour’. The argument is ‘get the best outcome we can get in elections and keep fighting for what we believe through whatever means necessary’. You can still be a Green. You can be a radical anarchist opposed to representative democracy. It doesn’t matter. We get what we can, however we can get it.