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.

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After the Election

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….for the 31% of the public who voted for Labour, they may not ring absolutely true. Those people may feel, as they haven’t for a generation, like aliens in their own land. Promised that social justice was a cause that would ultimately resonate with the whole country, they have instead been reminded that to vast numbers of people, their beliefs seem peculiar, their cause an unholy alliance of the snooty and the feckless. They could live with the disapproval of the newspapers they didn’t like. But now they must admit that the Mail was not a mouthpiece, but an amplifier.

I was fortunate enough to be on holiday when the dreadful election results were announced so that perhaps played a role in why this description of the aftermath, taken from here, so resonated with me. It’s really not over-stating things to say that the UK really does currently feel like an alien land. It was relatively easy to remain optimistic in the face of the cruelties and traumas of the past five years, as the Tories hadn’t been able to win a majority, no-one had actually voted for much of what the coalition did and it seemed certain that we would (at the very least) face an even wider (and thus more diluted) coalition after this election. I went off on holiday with a bounce in my step, creating a playlist called ‘All Things Seem Possible in May’ to mark May Day and my sense of optimism that better days were near. Yet it wasn’t to be: enough people voted for the horrors offered by the Tories to give them a full majority, free from even the moderately palliative influence of the Liberal Democrats.

The real kick in the teeth is that this didn’t happen, I believe, because most people are just unabashed dickheads. I could parse that and feed strength from my sense of righteousness. No, rather this result underlines the state of unreality our politics exists in, the sense that we are all wading through bullshit. As I mentioned in that piece most people, whatever their political identification (if they have one), have no idea of the reality of welfare, immigration, spending etc. It doesn’t seem to me that most people in this election chose a party because they felt they could support its policies; rather it was about emotional identification. This is, of course, always an important factor but the role of nationalism in this election has certainly been stronger than any in my adult life. The Tories pulled off their victory because they spent the last 3 weeks of their campaign not discussing their policies or articulating a vision for the country but rather invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government beholden to the SNP. Again, the easy and self-righteous interpretation here would be to believe that ‘England’ was terrified of the SNP dragging Labour to the left. A more honest one, I think, is to acknowledge that the SNP spent their campaign invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government at ‘Westmonster’ which they could exert influence on to amplify ‘Scotland’s voice’. There is, of course, no such thing as ‘Scotland’s voice’ and that rhetoric, along with digs about ‘writing the Labour manifesto’ and ‘making Labour bolder’ were aimed at appealing to Scottish nationalist ideas of ‘us vs them down there’ while equally inflaming a reactionary English nationalism which could only ever serve the Tories.

While on the left it’s been (and remains) easy to attack the Tories and Labour, casting a critical eye over the SNP remains a (very controversial) niche pursuit. The responses have been predictable: the left in Scotland largely keep telling themselves that Scotland is ‘different’, they are not nationalist and the Tory government is England’s fault; the left in England largely indulge this and keep fighting about how inadequate Labour is; the right swiftly gets on with things like removing the Human Rights Act which underline how facile the ‘they’re both the same’ or ‘Red Tories’ lines are. When I wrote about the #indyref I predicted that it would (further) divide the UK left, that the SNP would almost entirely mop up the spoils with the ‘Green Yes’ and RIC campaigns largely irrelevant and that we would disappear down the rabbit hole of nationalism. I think all these things have come to pass and, as I wrote in March, I think we’re going to be here for some time (as does Patrick Cockburn in this good piece placing nationalism in context). Certainly the fact that we now face the actual Tories means there will be no further parsing of Scottish nationalism, the myths of difference which sustain it or the fact that Scottish politics exists in a same-but-different state of unreality as the rest of the UK (a state brilliantly demolished in this blog). This is a particularly egregious example of what we can expect, portraying the SNP vote as against ‘colonial nationalism’ and explicitly mentioning Libya, clearly utterly oblivious to the fact that the SNP supported the ‘intervention’ there (as it did in Afghanistan and in the first Gulf War). I do, incidentally, think Scottish independence is far more likely – I don’t however think this will change the above situation for at least a decade. This piece shows why. Even after a surge in SNP support which literally started the week of the referendum result and has led to an almost one-party state in Scotland, prominent ‘Green Yes’ supporters are still arguing that this ‘isn’t about nationalism’, the Greens polling 1.3% in Scotland (less than UKIP) is a good thing and a ‘real left’ will emerge at some point in the future. The absolute need for these ‘progressives’ to feel dissociated from nationalism has completely blunted their critical faculties. They are forehead deep in the unreal bullshit.

The state of unreality trundled on as soon as Labour’s defeat became obvious and we’re already seeing the right of the party trying to capitalise on it. Make no mistake about it, speaking as a socialist the Labour Party manifesto was inadequate in many ways, sometimes indefensibly so. Yet there was also much to be excited about and it was in some aspects the most left-wing manifesto Labour has had in decades. This manifesto saw the Labour vote increase in England and Wales – not enough, clearly, but it’s important to remember this in the face of instant rhetoric about how this was a disaster comparable to 1983.

Nonetheless, just as the unreality of ‘Labour spent too much and wrecked the economy’ became quickly accepted as truth after the 2010 election (something Labour clearly has large responsibility for) we can already see the bullshit we will be wading through for the foreseeable future: on the right it will be cemented that Labour were too left-wing, that austerity is working, that the coalition’s legacy has to be accepted. The left will prove more fractious, as ever, but it will be cemented that Labour were too right-wing and that ‘Scotland’ voted for a more radical left-wing party and nationalism played little role. There will also be an increase in despair and the notion that electoral politics is a busted flush for the left, something which overwhelmingly manifests itself in attacks on the electorally-minded left-wing.

I feel despair too, of a kind I have rarely known politically. It does cause an existential questioning of what we’re doing here, exactly. Yet there are things I still firmly believe: that you can argue for and fight for a better government than the Tories without believing that it’s the be all and end all of politics or, indeed, abandoning opposition to much of a Labour government platform; that electoral reform is an absolutely crucial goal for the left; that the past five years have shown the power and brilliance of people joining together, whether locally or across the UK, to fight the Tories.

I also believe that it’s always easier to appeal to people’s base instincts and apportion blame to ‘others’ in politics and I believe that we (and I) on the left do this in our own ways, which we remain largely blind to. If the UK currently feels like an alien country, we need to start fighting against the bullshit unreality which dominates and get back to what kind of society we live in, what kind of one we want to live in and how we take ourselves there. It’s only with a keen understanding of now that we can begin to fight back. The fact we need to fight back now rather than indulge in hand-wringing doesn’t make this any less possible or necessary. That is the one thing I still believe which is keeping me sane: people largely do not vote any way in particular because they are intrinsically anything. They’re all just wading through the same bullshit as the rest of us and joining together to build movements is the one sure fire way to begin to change that.

No Matter

Untitled The above is from Patrick Wintour’s breathless eulogy to the Tories’ ‘brilliant strategy’ of painting the SNP as dastardly puppet-masters pulling Ed Miliband’s strings. ‘No matter’ that it’s almost entirely based on falsehoods. ‘No matter’ that it’s an irrelevant spectacle. ‘No matter’. ‘No matter’. ‘That’s politics’, many will say. They wouldn’t be wrong. Yet there’s never been an election in my lifetime where the narrative of ‘broken politics’ and ‘failed democracy’ has been as strong as in this one, so you would expect/hope that the twilight world of unreality where most mainstream politics takes place would be under unprecedented scrutiny. Certainly there are some eloquently making the case that our current obsession with the deficit and ‘austerity’ is based largely on misinformation but this has had little effect on our politics. “But what about the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru’, some will cry? Even their ‘anti-austerity’ politics doesn’t push the envelope too far –the Greens in 2010 promised to “halve the deficit by 2013” and now promise to ‘end the current account deficit’ (albeit not as a main priority) while the SNP manifesto promises to enshrine deficit reduction in law:

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Indeed, while independent analysis of the SNP and Labour plans for dealing with the deficit suggest the difference could be ‘relatively modest’, we have a situation where the two parties must perform a dance of exaggerated differences in order to appease their respective audiences. The Conservatives and Lib Dems, meanwhile, are able to push the narrative of ‘economic recovery’ relatively unchallenged with questions as to the nature of the ‘recovery’, the underlying state of the economy, the role of consumer debt and housing or the impact of austerity left largely unasked. Few in the UK will have read about how the coalition pulled back on its austerity agenda and how this impacted the economy. Many of us on the left are used to chatting about the pervasive right-wing myths which play such a large role in our political discourse, not least with regards to welfare and immigration. We gnash our teeth and wail at the pervasive, destructive influence these myths hold over our politics. We’re less willing, however, to examine the shortcomings of those we view as being on our ‘side’, something I’ve documented with regards to the left’s approach to nationalism and ‘The 45’ and evident in the need to portray The Greens et al as embodying a ‘real’, frustrated left-wing politics which we need only vote for to unleash. This week Richard Seymour wrote of the ‘anti-racist’ politics of The Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, a claim which doesn’t stand up to any close scrutiny: Untitled This is politics as comic book, where bad things happen because of bad people and all we need is to get the goodies, our goodies, into office. This is the logic which lies behind the fixation, led by the left, on getting people to vote or the notion that PR will fix ‘democracy’. It’s the logic which lies behind the idea that ‘Scotland’ is inherently more progressive than ‘Westminster’. It’s the logic which lies behind the notion that if we can only defeat UKIP the battle re: racism is won. We think we can change things cos we’re inherently better than those other folk and in the process blind ourselves to the fact that we can’t reduce politics to such a facile level (something made clear in this great piece on the allure of UKIP in Grimsby). Politics is obviously a lot bigger than politicians, than parliament and than elections. This is why I have previously argued that we can afford to be less puritanical about who we vote for. The dispiriting spectacle of the election campaign and the discourse around it, from both left and right, is based on fighting moral phantoms. We pick our teams and go forth from that position, processing information accordingly. Nicola Sturgeon is villain or hero, identical immigration controls are terrible or great, the ‘need’ to tackle the deficit is indefensible  or revolutionary, all depending on who is presenting to which audience. Structural considerations and any attempt to understand the relations of power are almost entirely absent. The idea, for example, that democracy serves a minority not because of our voting system but because of capitalism is one which you will only hear on the fringes of ‘acceptable’ politics. Yet it seems to me that it’s only by beginning down the road of such an analysis that we can begin to break out of this cycle of voting followed by disappointment and cynicism; it’s only with such analysis that we can begin to even seriously discuss the existential question of climate change and our future on this planet. God knows it’s more comforting not to do this; to keep picking our side, keep believing we’re the ‘goodies’ and keep wading through bullshit, whether that be cheerleading for our party or sitting at our keyboards bemoaning the futility of voting. These battles seem so much smaller, so much easier to win, so much less threatening to our identities. ‘No matter’ is a mantra for doing the same shit over and over and over. Aren’t we tired of live-tweeting Question Time and validating all of this? It matters. We matter. I don’t pretend to have the answers but we all need to start asking the questions and fight our way out of this shit.

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.

2014 – The Year of Nationalism

My first blog post in 2014 was about the Scottish independence referendum and nationalism – topics which came to dominate my writing over the year and which I’ll no doubt continue to write on. On the morning of the vote itself, I posted this:

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Though the vote was ‘No’, I think much of Scotland has indeed gone down a ‘cul de sac of self-delusion’. If anything, the unreflective certainty that independence a) will make things better and b) is absolutely the only way to make anything better has grown stronger in those who identify as ‘The 45’ and even many who do not. Opposition to and criticism of the SNP government has all but collapsed with the ‘enemy’ being firmly entrenched as Westminster, No voters, London, No-supporting parties. This isn’t about social justice – it’s a peculiar blend of nationalism, victimhood and narcissism. Wha’s like us? The conviction seems to be that absolutely no-one is and it manifests itself in everything from a queasy instrumentalisation of food banks/poverty to the recent claims that Glasgow was ‘special’ in how it responds to tragedy. You can see both in this terrible poem posted by a Scottish comedian after the bin lorry tragedy:

C360_2012-09-14-23-14-03In being directed to imagined enemies this is a good representation of the culture of ‘grievo-max’ which more critical commentators have identified in the Scottish national character. O’Hagan writes that anxiety about Scottishness tends to manifest itself in “hating bad news about the country itself, and seeing critics as traitors”. The poem above neatly shows that ‘traitors’ doesn’t quite capture the complexity of it – critics are viewed as ‘above themselves’, outsiders thinking they are ‘better’. I think most people who grew up there (certainly in central Scotland) would recognise this tendency. Issues like racism and poverty are reframed as plagues visited upon a good-hearted people by others who lack their unique character.

Of course, it bears repeating that I write about this because it’s been massively inflamed by the referendum and not because it’s unique to Scotland: we certainly don’t have to look far to see the awful manifestations of English and/or British nationalism which, as countless commentators have pointed out, certainly looks and feels a lot uglier than Scottish nationalism. Yet the former is widely recognised as nationalism – certainly by those who identify as being on the left – while the latter was and still is repeatedly denied. I noticed yesterday that a vocal Yes supporter, who argued throughout the year that their nationalism wasn’t nationalist, posted a status complaining that ‘nationalism’ was the most overused word of the year. If the intent wasn’t clear, they explained in the comments that ‘nationalism’ was incorrectly applied to any and all arguments for independence. Yet from our discussions I know that the definition of nationalism they cling to is an extremely narrow one, almost entirely expressed in support for the SNP. It seemed (and clearly still seems) impossible to this person, and to many others, that the very way ‘independence’, ‘self-determination’, ‘social justice’ and all the other ‘not-nationalist’ arguments were framed could be (and was in my opinion) nationalist in and of themselves.

‘I’m not nationalist’ became something of a mantra for left-wing supporters of independence, even as the many meanings of the term remained unexamined. ‘Nationalism’ became something few understood but no-one wanted to be – a dynamic which is equally applicable to racism. My second blog post was about racism in the UK after the Mark Duggan inquest verdict and as we end the year it is wretchedly obvious that we’ve made absolutely no progress on that front. Few non-poc take the time to think about what racism is yet most of us are absolutely certain it doesn’t apply to us. It remains an ugly stain at the heart of the UK  and one which only seems to be getting worse. Diane Abbott states here that she has “never known a more toxic atmosphere of issues around immigration & ‘the other'”. The rise of UKIP has been disturbing but the speed and ease with which the ‘main parties’ have (again) adopted their rhetoric is truly terrifying. As I stated, the English/British nationalism embodied by UKIP (albeit of a sort which won UKIP an MEP in Scotland) is different from Scottish nationalism but it shares the conviction that it is not actually ‘nationalism’. It certainly doesn’t view itself as racist and everyone from The Sun to The Guardian has played a part in pushing the ‘UKIP aren’t racist, they’re reflecting the reasonable concerns of ordinary people’ line (one which, as we see in the above blog and here, has also made insidious use of the relatively recent shorthand that ‘gay rights = progressive’).

It seems likely that the 2015 election could be defined not by Labour and the Tories but by the SNP and UKIP. Not only in their success but in their setting of the agenda and tone (witness Jim Murphy’s awkward attempts to play up his Scottishness at every available opportunity). Nationalism hasn’t been the most overused word of 2014, it’s been perhaps the most neglected and misunderstood: it has become absolutely central to our politics and our national character. Anticipating objections, this isn’t to say that nationalism hasn’t always been present – of course it has – but it hasn’t been so overt and so dominant certainly in my living memory. It seems like a bleak time to be a socialist and an internationalist – someone who doesn’t think that the people of Glasgow are particularly different in their ‘specialness’ from the people of London, or Cardiff, or Lisbon, or Budapest etc. People don’t make ‘Glasgow’ – we make and define each other and in that process we make the world. And what a world it can be when we remember the things which unite us and the international battles which must take place for things to get better. 2015 is going to be a difficult year and we’ll have to step up to play our parts. Solidarity, always.

wallace berman fuck nationalism

Is this what we’ve done to ourselves?

Just pick up a copy of the Sun. Is this Britain? Is this what we’ve done to ourselves? How can the people who work on that paper go home and face their families without any sense of shame? I’d be ashamed to the pit of my guts if I were forced to do it, and some of them are, to be fair, forced to do it, because they don’t want to be unemployed. They need to earn. Some of them do things that they are appalled by. I know that, I’ve met some of them. But my God, what a system.

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The quote above is from Dennis Potter’s final interview, an astonishing, moving affair which stands as a transcendent piece of art in its own right. I was instantly reminded of it when I saw the above excerpt from The Sun’s front page.The interview is 20 years old and much about it belongs to another time (can we even envisage such an interview being broadcast in 2014?) Yet a great deal of what Potter says is remarkably prescient and powerful (and it’s almost impossible not to contrast his dignified authority with the facile attention-seeking of Russell Brand today). Potter, of course, came from a working-class background – the son of a miner, no less – and his voice belongs to a long and rich history of working-class intellectualism. We’re not supposed to remember this history. We’re not supposed to remember that to be working-class and intelligent, working-class and articulate, working-class and autodidactic, is no aberration. We’re not supposed to remember this because if we do, we remember the power and possibility which we possess. This just wouldn’t do. So instead we’re encouraged, made even, to shrink our horizons and shackle our imaginations. We’re told that to be ordinary, to be working-class, is to know our place. To defer to authority, stand proudly before the flag and blunt our minds. To believe that more is not only possible but necessary is to have ideas above our station, to be a snob, to sneer. So here’s your free flag to show that they care. They respect your right to be the kind of ordinary person who channels their ire at working-class immigrants rather than billionaire media oligarchs. Raise a glass to being ordinary!

I offer these excerpts from Potter but impore you to put aside an hour to watch the full interview when you can – you won’t regret it:

…I call my cancer—the main one in the pancreas—Rupert, because Murdoch is the one. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life, and it’s an important part of the cynicism and misperception of our own realities that is destroying so much of our political discourse.

Q. You do feel the state of decay has deeply set in, don’t you?

I do. With great regret and pity, and a feeling of shame of self. But it’s rescuable, just. It’s up to people to stand up and shout a bit. Not to turn it into cynicism, which I’m afraid is what is happening. Politics is still crucially important. Our choices are vital, and we’ve got to make them and not just say, ‘Oh they’re all the same.’ They are all the same in certain ways, alas—a political animal is such an animal. But lurking somewhere behind their rhetoric and their spittle are important choices that we should make.

Q. Do you think the overall sense of decay that you’ve talked about stems from political decay, or that political decay stems from other powerful symptoms?

Both. They interlace. The press and politics. The commercialization of everything means you’re putting a commercial value upon everything and you turn yourself from a citizen into a consumer, and politics is a commodity to be sold. Look what’s happening to television in general. Look who owns it. The arguments of respectable, liberal commentators about size, economies of scale, and so on, are all nonsense. A programme costs what a programme costs. It can be made by a tiny company. It’s a question of ownership of the means of communications, ‘the mass media’ in J.B. Priestley’s phrase; of political control. How can we have a mature democracy when newspapers and television are beginning to be so interlaced in ownership? Where are our freedoms to be guaranteed? Who is going to guarantee them? Look at the power that Murdoch has. Look at the effects of all these takeovers.The world of television or radio when we came into it, I’m not saying that world wasn’t paternalistic, and I’m not saying it can be preserved as it was, and I’m not saying there mustn’t be change, but that world was based upon a set of assumptions that are now almost derisible,laughable. Like in politics, certain statements become derisible. We’re destroying ourselves by not making those statements.

…Sometimes I get out of bed and I don’t know whether I’m right-wing or left-wing, to be honest, because I feel the pull of both. I feel the pull of tradition, and I love my land, I love England, and when I’m abroad, I genuinely feel homesick. I’ve always loved my country, but not drums and trumpets and billowing Union jacks and busby soldiers and the monarchy and pomp and circumstance, but something about our people that I come from and therefore respond to. And I expect other people to do it of their own backgrounds and nations and cultures, too. But those things are very difficult to put prices on and to quantify in the terminology of Mrs Thatcher and the current government. They use phrases like ‘community care’ when they mean ‘Close that costly thing and put that madman onto the street.’ And then if it’s in front of their noses they’ll do another makeshift measure and claim that things are getting better, or that the per-head spending has gone up. So what? It may have done, but what is actually happening when a young person in many, many a town in this country sees no prospect of a job?Then they will moralize, that’s the worst thing, and say, ‘Oh, crime is everything to do with the criminal.’ What is a life of not expecting to get work? What is a life of only expecting cynicism in political conversation? What is a life that sees no horizon further than the latest nasty video and cable tv and the Murdochs and The Sun?

So This Thing Happened.

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So that was that. 18 months after the date of the referendum on Scottish independence was announced, the vote happened and the answer was ‘No’. The result was closer than most would have expected back then; wider than most probably expected in the final month. The emotion and rhetoric ramped up in the final run-up to the vote, culminating in a massive Yes rally in George Square. No-one could possibly argue that this rally wasn’t well-intentioned and good-natured (especially when compared to what came later, which I’ll come back to) but it inadvertently highlighted a big part of the problem with the general pro-independence movement. Its considerable denial that nationalism was playing any part in their movement meant that they couldn’t understand what was happening outside the bubble; its conviction that all progressive thought and moral righteousness was with them was alienating to anyone who hadn’t drank the Kool-Aid. The movement cemented into a self-defeating narrative of the enlightened (who were able to pierce through the bias and scaremongering of the mass media, ‘Westminster’ and ‘establishment’) versus the scared and huddled masses who were blinded by all of the lies. Critical thought was replaced by grasping onto anything and anyone who supported a pro-independence stance and dismissing everything which didn’t as part of some wicked conspiracy. This absolute, passionate certainty made itself known very vocally and, I think, was largely to blame for the incredibly different experiences of the campaign reported by Yes and No voters.

The thing is, I don’t think most engaged people would deny that the media isn’t ‘objective’ and has an inbuilt bias towards the status quo. Greater minds than mine have already tackled this. The answer to this, I think, is to cultivate a critical approach which enables you to consider everything you read/see and why/how it is being presented. This allows you to understand and form arguments which don’t rest on any single source and, crucially, make the argument to others in your own way. It’s not to repeatedly assert that the media is biased while continually posting columns and articles from this media which support your point of view – that’s completely nonsensical. It’s definitely not to vocally make the argument that most people are being fooled while you can see ‘the truth’, leading only to the misguided notion that the people you should be convincing are idiots.

While it was undeniably the case that many of us got carried away in the heat of the campaign’s final days, it’s to be hoped that the aftermath will let everyone step back and take stock. It’s already clear, however, that at least a sizable minority of the independence campaign remains firmly in the grim of an almost pathological certainty that their cause is the only ‘good’ and ‘true’ one. In the space of a few days we’ve gone from rhetoric centred on the ‘sovereign will’ of the Scottish people and the ‘democratic carnival’ of the referendum campaign to a wounded, embattled pride that the vote was stolen by ‘fear’ and Yes voters are the forces of light. Jim Sillars has thrown his toys out of the pram quite spectacularly, throwing around allegations of fraud and insisting that pro-independence forces dispense with a referendum strategy completely. Many, led by the vile Wings Over Scotland, have been directing deeply unpleasant rage at Scotland’s over-65 year olds, who voted overwhelmingly against independence compared to 16-17 year olds who voted for it. Even on its own psychotic terms (any consideration that your vote at 65+ is going to be influenced by radically different factors than if you are a teenager is entirely absent) this makes no sense – a majority of 18-24 year olds voted against independence while the disparities in support from those aged 35-54 are hardly significant. Astonishingly, much of this has been fanned by the First Minister himself today.

(23rd September edit – @urbaneprofessor has pointed me towards this Yougov poll of the referendum voting, which is far more statistically significant than the Ashcroft one. It pretty much blows a hole in most of the above lines– No won all age groups other than 25-39 and the ‘rich people were No, poor people were Yes’ claim clearly isn’t nearly as neat. Also, if you look at a majority of people born outside Scotland voting No, with those born elsewhere in the UK doing so decisively, you quickly see how sinister the rhetoric about No voters could get.)

So far, then, there has been no significant attempt to take stock by pro-independence forces. In fact, there have been concerted attempts to make sure this doesn’t happen, with lots of talk of ‘keeping the momentum’ and ‘building the movement’. There can be no question of doubt creeping in. This statement by National Collective is fairly typical: they lost because of “the full might of the British state, corporate and media power, that was designed to demonise, smear and alienate”. There are the usual mentions of ‘hope’ and ‘fear’, complaints about ‘scaremongering’ and statements that the Yes campaign wanted “to make people think”. There is not an inkling of self-criticism. They write of pensioners being ‘lied to’ about the affordability of their pensions as if the alternative view is self-evidently correct – but it’s not. They would have had to make the case beyond ‘it’ll be fine’ and ‘it’s scaremongering’, which was the response to far too many of the concerns raised. This isn’t to argue that an independent Scotland couldn’t afford pensions but that the claims of scaremongering and ‘fear’ largely replaced actual argument. ‘Fear’ is clearly in the eye of the beholder anyway – once the SNP decided on its ‘vote Yes or the NHS is doomed’ line, the entire Yes campaign swung behind it without criticism. Anyone who’s looked at National Collective’s Twitter over the past few weeks would have seen plenty of ‘scaremongering’ that a post-No Scotland would be a dystopian hellhole. Their complaint is not so much that people were scared but that people weren’t scared into the right result. It’s risible and embarrassing.

It’s important to reiterate at this point that this does definitely seem to be a minority response. This blog from Peter Matthews, who voted Yes, is a masterclass in a reasoned, thoughtful response and I’ve had some great discussions with people who were vociferously Yes. Yet the reason the minority response made me want to write something is in the indications that it wants to make itself a dominant force in Scottish politics. That indication is in the movement christened ‘We Are The 45%‘. On the morning of the referendum I wrote that I feared a Yes vote would send Scotland down a cul de sac of self-delusion and this is exactly the kind of thing I meant. It underlines how divisive this has been, and how accurate the predictions of the debate eliding class solidarity were, that we have thousands of people engaging in hyperbole essentially resting on the idea that they are the ‘goodies’ and the people who voted No are the ‘baddies’. Someone who voted Yes because they hoped that an independent Scotland would tackle a ‘something for nothing culture’ (Tory language if ever there was) took me to task for criticising this movement, highlighting how utterly bizarre things have become. The denied nationalism remains denied but is more overt than ever, with the movement’s central conviction being that independence is the only path to social justice and many pleas to ‘make Scotland yellow’ by voting for the SNP en masse in 2015, albeit with a smaller benefit for the Green Party also. Indeed, the ‘it’s not about the SNP’ arguments have swiftly fallen apart with a movement utterly unable and/or unwilling to critique them in any way, despite them never once (for example) coming out against the TTIP or explaining how they would avoid austerity (especially as a new member of the EU). We Are The 45% is more of this ‘things will get better because independence’ magical thinking. Apparently there are suggestions that it may change its name to be more ‘inclusive’ but I don’t see how a movement premised on ‘independence will lead to social justice, No voters were scared and tricked’ can ever reach beyond its bubble. It’s the Yes campaign making the same errors and being too wrapped up in sentiment to question it. There are already movements for social justice across the UK which we could all pour our energies into.

The awful events in George Square on Friday night were a gift for this bruised pride in being the ‘good minority’. I wrote about the likelihood of sectarian violence kicking off in Glasgow on Twitter last May, after spending a couple of hours walking around its East End and seeing countless union jacks and ‘no surrender’ slogans. I lived in Bridgeton, an area mired in sectarianism, for about five years and I was unsurprised to see allegations that the George Square trouble had its roots there. This problem has existed for my entire lifetime and these people were always going to make themselves heard, whether the result was Yes or No. Yet some, whether because of a desire to lash out or a lack of understanding of sectarianism, have attempted to portray these people as ‘what No voters wanted’ (actually written on Facebook) and an example of the British nationalism which independence would have magically made disappear. I can understand the temptation to make these arguments (and certainly when faced with polls like the Buzzfeed one above) but they’re entirely cynical and profoundly depressing if they offer a glimpse of the future. People can unite to tackle the horribly complex problem of sectarianism, as they can unite to tackle the horribly complex problems of poverty, misogyny, racism and more, or they can retreat into a conviction that it’s all the fault of those other people and that only getting independence will sort them. This will go absolutely nowhere. On the part of No supporters stepping back, we need to be wary of responding to Scottish nationalist sentiment by turning a blind eye to or inadvertently supporting British nationalism, whether that be the extreme kind we saw or the more insidious kind which boasts of ‘British values’ and the like. The goal must be social justice and solidarity, not the ‘United Kingdom’.

Clearly it’s still very early days and the chips are still falling. We have the greatest chance in our lifetimes so far of a massive devolving of power across the UK and we have to ensure it happens. I can understand and can’t complain about people fixating on the ‘timetable’ promised by Gordon Brown but, for my part, I’d actually rather the change was more considered. A constitutional convention looking at the entire state seems like the best option and the one most likely to deliver lasting, useful change. I think a cobbled-together ‘devo max’ delivered in the next 7 months or so will only lead to further issues. What’s now clear is that the majority of people in the UK want to continue pooling resources, sovereignty and effort and we need to make that work. More importantly, we need to tackle the regressive attitudes which most people in every region of the UK have about welfare, immigration, employment and the like and actually build a movement to try and make things better. It’s important that we realise that there are no politicians and no parties who will just ‘make things better’ – I just finished reading this book which is a sobering account of the range of forces which stood against radical left-wing change. The British state was such a force but I agree with Phil Burton-Cartledge here that this state is now weakened and is best tackled by unity; the might of the capitalist system, on the other hand, is even greater now. The author argues that any response must be as united and as international as possible to have any hope of success. God knows this will be difficult but I firmly believe it’s something we can only do together – a hefty part of the left in Scotland setting off on an endless quest for independence will only damage us. I hope we can progress from recrimination and bitterness to forge alliances anew – or even for the very first time.