The Collapse of the Left into Nationalism

freedom2014

My previous blog was about the contortions which the Scottish left have been making to avoid facing the fact that the pro-independence movement has been utterly dominated by nationalism. It’s a position, I’ve noticed, which tends to frequently be associated with ‘Green Yes’, as if saying you support the Green Party (who got less than 5% of the vote at the last Scottish Parliament election) removes the wider context. A context in which, since I last wrote, the First Minister has drawn allusions between independence and apartheid, drawn distinctions between the ‘Team Scotland’ of Yes and the ‘Team Westminster’ of No and applauded a protest against the public broadcaster utterly dominated by flag-waving. You will search long and hard for condemnation of any of this from the Scottish Greens, who appear to have utterly abandoned any criticism of the SNP, or indeed from most of the left who support independence. For all the criticism of Labour sharing platforms with the Tories (something the SNP have no business complaining about, as Annabel Goldie pointed out) they at least haven’t completely given up the business of being an opposition. Yet much of the left shouts ‘it’s not about the SNP!’ while offering absolutely no alternative beyond ‘there are some far-left parties too’, choosing to ignore the Hollywood treatment being afforded to the nationalist politicians and the very ugly scenes we’re seeing on Scotland’s streets. Let’s be in no doubt here: if this was UKIP or another brand of English nationalism, no-one on the left would have any difficulty in drawing links between such events and the language and tone of the nationalist politicians, who would be swiftly and widely condemned.

I have finally started to see some good pieces on this from left-wing writers in recent days. Carol Craig in the Scottish Review is one of the best things I’ve read in this whole sorry affair, pulling no punches with the No campaign while ruthlessly parsing the pro-independence rhetoric and leaving readers in no doubt that it has been nationalistic. John Wight, who has written a few referendum pieces offering a class-based critique, laments:

Thus the complete collapse of a large section of the left in Scotland with its embrace of a nationalist project as a shortcut to what they believe will be a socialist dawn has been tragic to behold.

while writer CJ Sansom observes that:

Some, certainly, will be thinking of voting yes on Thursday, not from nationalism, but in the hope of social change. Yet they will not get it, because, like it or not, they are voting for a nationalist outcome.

This piece in Jacobin, meanwhile, similarly notes the “potentially ugly, nationalist taint” while stating that:

The likening of Scottish independence to anti-imperial movements is a devastating repression of Scotland’s own deep complicity in the British imperial project.

This quote leapt out at me because, while the left in Scotland has largely gone down the rabbit hole, much of the left in the rest of the UK has revealed itself to be utterly clueless (and rather opportunistic) in its analysis of the debate. It has rarely risen above the level of ‘this has been presented as the progressive view, I am progressive, hence this is my view’. Billy Bragg, advocate of a ‘progressive English nationalism’, suddenly comes over all coy and denies that independence is about nationalism (he also, incidentally, repeats the common trope that independence will save Scotland from the TTIP, despite no major party in Scotland opposing it and the SNP explicitly welcoming it). You’ll notice his line about Scotland ‘regaining its sovereignty’. This has been a central theme in the analyses of the rUK left. Anthony Barnett’s astonishingly patronising open letter to ‘Scottish voters’ (which, it becomes clear, actually means Yes voters) begins by suggesting independence could be a model for world peace and only gets worse. He draws analogies with Tibet, Chechyna, Palestine and in the comments actually compares independence to a slave achieving freedom. Dan Hind has written several times about Scotland achieving its ‘freedom’. George Monbiot and Suzanne Moore have wheeled out successive columns berating ‘London’ for its ignorant treatment of Scotland, dealing in nationalist myth-making, while being completely blind to the irony of these being their first columns devoted to Scotland in living memory.

The idea that Scotland is aiming for ‘freedom’ is also common on social media. Yesterday I had to point out to an activist that Scotland was not colonised and was not comparable to Palestine. Last week a long-term mutual follower on Twitter blocked me after I questioned her assertion that an independent Scotland would be an ‘ex-colony’ of England. You’ll notice, as I noted in my last blog, that the arguments about Scotland achieving its ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking control of its destiny’ almost never extend to its membership of the European Union and other transnational bodies, still less to questions of economic democracy (the interventions by various banks and companies last week caused wide outrage but rather than leading people to the conclusion that perhaps transnational capital might be the enemy here, we instead ended up with more nationalist drivel about the Tories coordinating the campaign and the SNP somehow being an exit from it).  No, the arguments are always aimed at ‘England’ and ‘Westminster’. The dominant narrative seems to be one of Scotland as the plucky, oppressed underdog. All this analysis offers is a glimpse of the patronising ignorance of those who advance it – ignorance both of Scotland’s history and its central role in Empire, and of Scotland as a nation.

With regards to the latter point, I think this 2002 essay by Andrew O’Hagan is absolutely essential reading in helping those without a deep understanding of the Scottish psyche to gain some semblance of context to all this. It’s almost certain that it would be met with accusations of ‘doing down the people of Scotland’, an argument all nationalists love to deploy, yet its description of the darker aspects of our collective identity has resonated with most Scottish people I’ve discussed it with:

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…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.

If this seems rather prescient with regards to the current debate, the next statement could have been written yesterday:

Free-falling anxiety about Scottishness has a tendency, among Scots, not only to turn into hatred of others, but into hating bad news about the country itself, and seeing critics as traitors.

It’s not easy reading, certainly, but I think it’s a deeply insightful one and it largely captures the mentality which Scottish nationalism plays to. This is what makes it particularly tragic that so many of the left have pursued it, convinced that things would be better if not for ‘Westminster’ and, as the Guardian put it, pursuing the ‘unattractive’ habit of “attacking the messenger and ignoring the message”. Indeed, if there was any doubt that a demogogic, cynical populism is significant here you need only look at the endless outpouring of criticism and ridicule aimed at any No supporter deemed to be part of the ‘establishment’ (a terms used spectacularly nebulously here) and their contrasting with the SNP who, lest we forget, have been the government of Scotland for years now and are led by as establishment a politician you could possibly find. Nationalists, however, have a knack for painting themselves as figures of rebellion, even when they offer little more than a change of paint.

Scotland goes to the polls in three days now and the result is too close to call. I am certain, however, that the swift narrowing of the polls owes more than most would like to admit to the nationalist sentiment which is currently being inflamed. Perhaps in response to this, the latest line from pro-independence lefties has been that anyone who opposes it must necessarily be a British nationalist. I’ve read this repeatedly in the past few days, and have had it thrown at me more than a few times. Of course it will be the case that some, perhaps many who support the UK are nationalists. The fact remains, however, that it’s the Scottish nationalists who have shifted the ground beneath our feet. I have attended anti-fascist marches, protested against the 2012 Olympics, protested against the Jubilee, protested against the Royal Wedding, was a vocal critic of the hoopla over the royal baby, have long written about and campaigned against our immigration laws and have never laboured under any illusion as to the negative force of British nationalism. I do not become a British nationalist because I oppose a false notion of ‘independence’ premised on the absurd idea that Scotland is not free and instead support the notion of common solidarity in the belief that the real oppressions which matter are those which transcend borders: class, race, gender, sexuality and so forth. As I wrote previously, this solidarity is codified into the UK at present, even if we have to fight long and hard to achieve it and then fight longer and harder to effect change. It’s no secret that the left is in a dire state at the moment: unfortunately aforementioned collapse of much of the left into nationalism is only going to ensure this remains the case for a long time to come.

It’s not about nationalism…

Scottish-Independence-2Presumably because nationalism has such a regressive reputation (to put it mildly) and the Scottish Yes campaign wants to be viewed as the sole repository of progressive thought in the UK at the moment, one line I keep seeing wheeled out is that independence ‘isn’t about nationalism’. We’re asked to ignore the fact that it only became an issue because the nationalist SNP, a party which lest we forget has one single unifying cause, won a majority in Holyrood (with poll after poll putting support for independence at a third or less of the electorate around that period, no-one could possibly argue that it was a necessary response to a swell of demand). We’re asked to ignore that the independence on offer has been framed almost entirely by the SNP, not least with their White Paper which amounts to an SNP manifesto. We’re asked to ignore that the Scottish NHS only appeared to become ‘under threat’ when the SNP decided it was a few weeks ago (an SNP who don’t oppose TTIP, which is one of the most commonly mentioned ‘threats’). We’re asked to ignore, of course, the ubiquitous presence of the Saltire and its colours (seen most commonly in the ‘Yes’ twibbon which adorns many social media profiles). Most absurdly, we’re asked not to parse the ‘us and them’ rhetoric which has so characterised this debate – a rhetoric which many Yes supporters seem unwilling or unable to accept as a reality but rather just another example of pro-unionist ‘scaremongering’. The ugly language which has greeted Jim Murphy (a politician I am no fan of) and, more to the point, vocal No supporters at his meetings – cries of ‘traitor’, ‘Apartheid Jim’, ‘quisling’ and even “stop acting English” can be heard in videos – can only seem to be condemned in the most half-hearted manner imaginable. Not only are these condemnations invariably followed by a ‘but’, they were also widely-followed both by assertions that Murphy and the No campaign were making capital from the scenes but also even behind some of the aggressive behaviour themselves (what a great phrase to google).

Speaking anecdotally, of course, I have yet to have a debate with a single pro-independence person which doesn’t result in them pushing nationalist myths. The most common, and one I have already written on, is the notion that the people of Scotland are ‘different’. Their social democatic (or socialist depending on who’s making the argument) impulses are frustrated by conservative voters in England. Scotland did not vote for the Bedroom Tax (we must ignore that England didn’t either). Scotland did not vote for the restructuring of the NHS in rUK (neither did rUK). Scotland doesn’t get the government it votes for (as most people don’t – just as most of the UK did not vote Tory or Liberal Democrat at the last election, most of the Scottish electorate did not vote for the SNP at Holyrood. This is the nature of representative democracy.) The left has made much capital from this myth of difference, advancing ideas that an independent Scotland will be a left-wing beacon for the world. When examined, however, we see that these ‘not nationalist’ arguments rely on mischaracterising, lifting of SNP policy and plain fantasy. This Rainbow Paper released by LGBTI Yes campaigners is a perfect illustration of this. I could write much devoted to this single document but suffice to say it’s full of assertions about the ways in which Scotland will be ‘better’ with absolutely no explanation as to why and how this will happen. Its promise of a ‘more humane immigration’ policy, for example, completely ignores the fact that a majority of the Scottish people want immigration rules made tougher and think immigration has been ‘bad for the British economy’. It’s also interesting that the Paper promises that an independent Scotland would “take a more proactive approach to promoting LGBTI equality and human rights around the world than is currently done by Westminster on our behalf.” This is the rhetoric of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and it’s again notable that Scotland is no more against military intervention than rUK.

What we find overwhelmingly in the Yes campaign, then, are people whose views are more left-wing and progressive than the rest of the general public’s believing that these views would be widely shared if it wasn’t for rUK. If this isn’t a nationalist argument, I’m not sure what is. We’re asked to believe that the magical power of independence will destroy neoliberalism and British nationalism (this is fine to criticise because it’s a ‘nasty’ nationalism rather than a ‘civic’ one, apparently) and usher in a new dawn. How this will happen, no one can say. If it’s seen to rest on common solidarity and fighting together, the argument in favour of independence crumbles because such fights are already happening around the UK.

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. This is another argument nationalists don’t like, so we have endless bluster about the wealth of ‘London’ and ‘Westminster’ contrasted with poverty in Scotland. Yet a report released last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation completely undermines this nonsense:

The nations of the UK have seen significant decreases in headline levels of poverty over the past two decades, particularly in the years before the economic downturn. Since 2007, the path of poverty has shifted, from a general picture of falling poverty levels to a more nuanced one. Poverty levels in England have resumed their gradual downward path, while the lowest levels of poverty in the UK, found in Scotland, have levelled off in the last three years. In Wales and Northern Ireland, increases in poverty have been more marked; in the former they appear to have stabilised, in the latter they appear to be falling once again.
There are significant differences between the different nations before and after housing costs. The highest levels of poverty are found in Northern Ireland before housing costs and in Wales after housing costs. Yet the extent of housing cost-induced poverty is most evident in England. The English housing market has typically higher rents and house prices than the other parts of the
UK and England shows a six percentage point difference in poverty levels before and after housing costs.

The report states that “overall poverty trends have much to do with prevailing national and international economic conditions” and explicitly argues that:

The redistributive functions of government require pooling risk across the largest possible area to insure against the uneven impact of economic shocks. And so for many aspects of the social security system – particularly for cyclical and redistributory benefits – the role of central government remains key.

Who could read this and think that poverty is inflicted on Scotland by Westminster, or that Scotland could only tackle poverty if it was independent? Yet a significant aspect of the nationalist rhetoric around independence is the idiotic idea that Scotland should look after ‘its’ poor because ‘Westminster’ doesn’t care about them.

Certainly, we do live in an age of neoliberalism and austerity – one which extends across the world. If we accept the nationalist argument, this neoliberalism in the UK is either because rUK supports it or because UK politicians are evil sociopaths who abandon all pretence of social democracy when given the chance. A structural analysis of this, however, paints a very different story. This excellent blog compellingly makes the case that the issue is global capitalism, not which Parliament has which powers in Scotland. Given that there are zero indications capitalism will be under threat in an independent Scotland (and the SNP’s pro-business, low-tax policies underline this) it reaches the conclusion that:

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.

Wandering into independence based on the idea that Scotland is somehow except from the realities of existing capitalism is, again, a nationalist notion. The fundamental importance of an economic analysis such as Michael Roberts’ is obscured by demagogic banalities such as ‘don’t you think Scotland should control its own destiny?’ and ‘why aren’t we better together now?’ The former line is, in a slightly altered form, the exact argument UKIP makes in favour of leaving the EU – something few Yes campaigners are vocal about because anti-EU sentiment is not viewed as ‘progressive’. Under the logic of nationalism pooling wealth and sovereignty makes perfect sense amongst 28 countries but is inexcusable amongst 4. Also, as Roberts argues, the EU has been a major force in pushing austerity policies upon its members but the lack of any analysis other than the nationalist one means this reality is lost. It’s easy to ask ‘why aren’t we better together?’ when the only point of comparison is a mythic place the likes of which currently cannot be found elsewhere in the world.

Nationalism, then, is absolutely central to the independence case. Indeed, it’s telling that the lines about how it’s ‘not about the SNP’ but rather ‘democracy’ and ‘the will of the people’ are completely abandoned when it comes to taking the argument to No supporters. Most of the arguments against the United Kingdom rely on anti-Tory rhetoric, anti-capitalist arguments and liberal use of phrases like ‘illegal war’ (an illegal war which, lest we forget, the apparently democratically-superior Scottish Parliament supported – but in another supreme turn of ‘not nationalism’, this is excused on the basis that it was the ‘unionist parties’ who voted in favour). I have been repeatedly told that I am ‘partnering with the Tories’ and ‘not on the progressive side’ despite the fact that I have been a socialist all of my adult life and was voting for socialist parties when Scotland was still heavily in the grip of Labour. I’m told I’m a ‘British nationalist’ despite the fact that my instinctive anti-nationalism has led me to critique and march against jingoism on many occasions. Yet the arguments remain difficult to argue against, because you’re arguing against thin air. For independence to make sense it must be a case of us and them and so other progressive forces either must be denied or subject to absolutely tortuous arguments about how the magical power of independence will free them. It comes back, again and again,  to the fantasy of Scottish exceptionalism, no matter how often it’s denied.