Some Post-Election Thoughts

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’:

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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:

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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.

Saving Syriza and Shooting Foxes: The Incoherence of the SNP

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It’s a grim marker of how firmly much of the left remains lodged down a nationalist rabbit hole that this week is not being widely viewed as exposing the facile incoherence at the core of much SNP rhetoric.

The dramatic events swirling around Greece have confirmed that, by most reckonings, the European Union is a more dysfunctional and less democratic union than the United Kingdom is. The ‘agreement’ reached over the weekend has been described as “one of those moments that changes everything” and has led to an upswing in left-wing criticism of the EU with demands for a vote against the “ruthless imposition of neoliberal policies across the continent” in the forthcoming UK referendum on membership. Yet despite explicit attempts by the SNP to draw parallels between the referendum in Greece and last year’s Scottish independence referendum (and thus acquire some of Syriza’s now-tarnished anti-austerity aura for itself) the party remains firmly pro-EU and continues to present Brexit as an eventually which will lead to a second indy referendum. EU membership is apparently ‘crucial to Scottish jobs and economy’ – an argument which was lumped in with ‘unionist scaremongering’ when made about the UK. As David Torrance argued in the Herald, these positions made absolutely no sense in the context of SNP rhetoric both past and present:

SNP logic is also baffling. Faced with two failing banks headquartered in Scotland, the UK Government bailed them out and although it proceeded to cut spending, successive administrations ensured the Scottish Government got a proportionately lower reduction than most other Whitehall departments. The Scottish Government has presented this as proof that the British Union is unreformable, broken beyond repair.

Yet when the EU imposes austerity on Greece so crippling that its economy starts to collapse, causing hardship the Scottish middle classes wouldn’t tolerate for longer than it took them to read the Guardian, the SNP treats it as an unfortunate mistake and urges the troika to come up with something a bit less punitive. The EU, they suggest at every turn, is capable of reform.

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This again highlights the self-defeating nature of the SNP’s fixation on ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’, an argument which was made but rarely central during the referendum campaign. As Marxist economist Michael Roberts argued:

At best, the majority of the Scottish people will find little difference under Holyrood than under Westminster and it could be worse if a global crisis erupts again. Scotland as a small economy, dependent on multinationals for investment, still dominated by British banks and the City of London and without control of its own currency or interest rates, could face a much bigger hit than elsewhere in terms of incomes and unemployment.

So independence would not bring dramatic economic improvement to the majority of Scots; indeed, it could mean a worse situation. But then the decision on independence is not just a question of the economy and living standards. That brings us back to the issue of the Scottish and English/Welsh (and Irish) working class sticking together in the struggle against British capital. Will an independent Scottish capitalist state strengthen that in any way?

The notion that ‘Scotland’ would be an ‘independent country’ in terms of its sovereignty if it only rid itself of Westminster has always been a fantasy – a truth which this week’s developments in the EU make unavoidable. Even if Scotland were to reject EU membership, the realities of globalised capitalism and the dispersion of economic power, both within and external to nation states, mean that the issue can never be one of ‘becoming independent’ but rather a question of how to pool sovereignty and who with.

Now these are not discussions which are inherently pro-UK (and certainly not as it’s currently configured) but, rather than attempt to have them, the SNP adopt an ‘EU good, UK bad’ stance and shriek a lot about ‘Westminster’, ‘Scotland’s interests’ and ‘Scotland’s voice’. The swiftness with which ‘unionist’ has come to mean ‘enemy’ is astonishing (and not a little disturbing) and, most depressingly of all, has been widely adopted by those who identify as ‘socialists’. See this adolescent drivel from Scottish Socialist Voice last week, which uses ‘unionist’, ‘London’ and ‘Tories’ interchangeably while arguing that the left should largely ‘join together’ with the SNP.

This typifies the complete absence of any left-wing opposition to the SNP which I’ve written about previously. Nationalism has become so central to these people that they think socialists should remain quiet about falling literacy and numeracy levels, relative declines in health and education spending, falling teacher numbers, cuts to further education which have led to declining student and staff numbers, an authoritarian centralisation of police which has led to routine armed patrols and a massive increase in stop and search, proposals for a central ‘super ID’ database and guardians for every child under 18 and rising unemployment in Scotland. Indeed, it was with depressing inevitability that I noted the (rightful) uproar over the Tory plans to abolish grants for poorer students contained no mention of the SNP’s own disastrous record on this, with Scotland being “the only part of the UK where borrowing is highest among students from poorer backgrounds.”

This is a record which would shame any government, yet with the SNP it’s largely buried beneath rhetoric about the wicked Tories and cruel ‘Westmonster’. It’s a ploy the party is eager to embrace, from its rubbishing of the Smith Commission report almost the instant it was released (despite the SNP being central to its negotiation) to their recent games surrounding the Scotland Bill. The latter has been particularly egregious with the absurdity around ‘Full Fiscal Autonomy’, a policy barely mentioned by the SNP either in its manifesto or election campaign and then only in the context of being delivered ‘years’ in the future, yet now presented as a central and essential demand of ‘Scotland’s voice’ (despite most informed opinion presenting the policy as a disaster.) The utter lack of scrutiny the SNP have faced in these negotiations is underlined by the total lack of uproar over its MPs supporting an amendment from pro-life Tories to devolve abortion law to Holyrood, despite abandoning this previously and opposition from 13 Scottish women’s and human rights groups. Note that the SNP also voted with the EVIL TORIES against “appointing a group to analyse and report on the impact of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland on the Scottish economy.”

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In this context of an utter lack of scrutiny it makes perfect sense that, with scandal engulfing Police Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon felt able to fly to London this week in order to discuss the SNP’s policy on fox-hunting in England and Wales. Since devolution it has long been SNP policy not to vote on matters which directly only impact on England and Wales, though their interpretation of this criteria has at times been curious (the arguments that Westminster policy on private involvement in the NHS would impact on Scotland’s NHS budget were convoluted at best, especially in the context of relative cuts to NHS Scotland’s budget implemented by the SNP). As recently as February this year, however, Nicola Sturgeon was stating that fox-hunting was something the SNP would not vote on. The last minute u-turn on this position has been breathtakingly cynical, leading to the absurd position where the SNP would vote against bringing ‘England’s law into line with Scotland by allowing hunts to flush out foxes with a pack of dogs before they are shot.’ Rather than being motivated by a sincere concern for foxes, this move was intended to increase tensions and led to this spectacular justification from Sturgeon worth quoting in full:

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The third reason is essentially ‘we haven’t gotten our own way entirely and want to annoy the Tories’. That’s politics, of course, but not a particularly compelling reason to abandon a core principle of the party. The first two reasons are far more interesting: solidarity with others in the UK and the law created by Westminster being better than Scotland’s current law. These are arguments in favour of the UK! Solidarity was absolutely central to my own arguments around the referendum:

If you make this point in favour of common struggle across the UK – a common struggle which created the NHS, welfare state, trade unions, the minimum wage, formal LGB (I’m leaving out the T due to the spousal veto) equality and more – you’re liable to be met with the response that solidarity doesn’t depend on borders and we can share in struggles around the world whatever our constitutional arrangement. I find this argument rather disingenuous. While we may feel solidarity with people in Gaza, or Ukraine, or Washington, there is not much we can practically do about it. Our solidarity extends to signing some e-petitions, attending some marches, donating some money, petitioning our government and for a minority of people getting involved in specific organisations devoted to a cause. In the UK, however, cross-border solidarity is fostered by our system of government: we truly rise and fall together.

It’s heartening to hear the First Minister echoing my views. It’s also reassuring to hear her asserting that SNP MPs can not only exert influence on Westminster but recognise when its laws are worth keeping. Yet rather than leading to any adjustment in position or rhetoric, this is clearly the latest in umpteenth opportunistic gestures which are concerned solely with the SNP and its goal of independence. As I’ve noted, these gestures are more and more underlining the utter incoherence of the SNP’s nationalism: that it hasn’t even begun to buckle beneath these contradictions, let alone collapse, is a damning indictment of the left.