Article 50 and Scotland

Rory Scothorne, one of the insightful authors of Roch Winds, has written an interesting blog which serves as a counterpoint to my argument on Article 50. It’s compelling in parts but on reflection I disagree and I wanted to outline why:

1 – It stands as one of those arguments which should have been made prior to the referendum happening, appearing as a desperate afterthought now. As a basic point of principle, it’s difficult (not impossible, of course) for your opponents to condemn you for doing what you said you would. Much of the capital Rory believes Labour could win by professing to ‘stand up’ for Scotland and Northern Ireland could have been won previously by insisting on the mooted ‘quadruple lock’. Yet Labour was largely mute on this, due in large part no doubt to the fact that it was seen to fuel ‘separatist’ ideas: Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland are not members of the EU except as part of the UK, so the referendum was framed as a ‘UK-wide’ question. Scotland is no more being ‘dragged from the EU against its will’ than London or Newcastle is, yet the idea Labour would oppose Article 50 ‘on behalf of London and Newcastle’ would be widely viewed as absurd.

2 – Having not previously been loudly making the ‘quadruple lock’ argument, hinging opposition to Article 50 on it now would be viewed as weak and opportunistic. Crucially this would not only be the case in England – it would 100% be how it was framed by the SNP, which never misses a chance to stick the knife into Labour. It would further destroy Labour’s base in England without offering any certain uplift in Scotland, where Labour would be viewed as very late to the party and dependent on the whims of its Westminster leadership. In that regard it could actually further strengthen the Nationalist cause.

3 – Rory argues (rightly) that Corbyn and Labour are not well-placed to capitalise on English nationalism. It does not follow that it should then attempt to capitalise on Scottish nationalism, on which it is always going to be outflanked by an SNP which does not have electoral or indeed moral considerations beyond Scotland’s borders. If “your average English petit-bourgeois” considers Corbyn to be unpatriotic, the exact same could be said of his/her counterpart in Scotland. Indeed, Rory himself speaks of “the current lack of interest in Scottish politics coming from Corbyn and his supporters down south”. I don’t think this is entirely fair because, as it stands, Corbyn speaking on ‘Scottish politics’ is easily presented as ‘Westminster interference’ while leaving it to Scottish Labour is viewed as either not caring or outright contempt. Such are the dynamics of nationalist politics and feeding the SNP narrative of Brexit as a ‘Scotland’ vs ‘England’ issue fuels both English and Scottish nationalism and only further destroys any possibility of a future Labour recovery in either.

4 – Rory speaks of how it would be necessary to ‘abandon socialism’ in order to appeal to ‘English populism’. While this isn’t incorrect, the implicit counterpoint is that this isn’t the case in Scotland. Yet as the past few years have amply demonstrated, while Scottish nationalism may posture as far more left-wing and radical than its English counterpart, when it has actually come down to practical action and policy it has proved itself to be largely cautious, conservative and not far removed from the right of the Labour party. There is little evidence to suggest that Corbyn pursuing radicalism offers any more electoral gain in Scotland than in (parts of) England (and indeed Scottish Labour’s 2016 manifesto, clearly to the left of the SNP’s, tells us that Labour’s problems in Scotland go far beyond offering any move towards socialism).

5 – The fundamental point remains that both parliamentary and electoral maths mean Brexit is going to happen, whatever Labour’s position. If, as Rory states, Brexit is “is unavoidably a symbol of anti-immigrant sentiment, nostalgic fantasies of foreign despotism, and the least useful (though still, admittedly, politically interesting) sort of anti-elitism”, then that reflects dominant trends in politics more widely which won’t be swept away by opposing Article 50. If anything they will, as I argue, be further emboldened. Labour’s great failure in the Scottish independence debate was to largely co-sponsor the Conservative Party’s doom-laden vision of Scotland outside of the UK rather than pushing a positive, left-wing argument for a UK rooted in the solidarity which is essential for any large-scale left-wing platform to succeed. It is crucial that it does not now make the same mistake and distinguishes itself from the Tory vision of Brexit as loudly as possible – a case which simply won’t be listened to by many (including many Remainers who have accepted the result) if they are viewed as trying to reverse the referendum.

6 – The idea that opposing Brexit offers a way back for Labour in Scotland seems more rooted in the nationalist narrative of Scotland than in anything tangible. It’s worth remembering that behind the ‘Scotland voted Remain’ story, 1/3 of the electorate there didn’t vote and the difference between Leave and Remain was approx. 600,000 votes (1.66 million for remain vs 1.01 million for leave). As I noted in my blog, last week’s Yougov poll suggested that while a majority in Scotland still want to remain, clear majorities also endorse Theresa May’s main ‘negotiating points’ for Brexit, including on immigration where Scottish public opinion remains regressive. We can also note that behind Scotland ‘relative europhilia’ lies a more complex history where a plurality or majority have wanted to leave the EU or reduce its powers. I have long argued that Brexit becoming tightly associated with right-wing English nationalism has far more to do with a majority in Scotland falling ‘in love’ with the EU than any substantive support for it. It’s also been clear in polls that a majority in Scotland currently have no appetite for leaving the UK in order to join the EU, hence even the SNP focusing on the single market rather than EU membership. Rory even notes that it’s the Tories, not Labour who seem most likely to experience a significant revival in Scotland – a fact which owes much to the centrality of the ‘national question’ in Scottish politics. As it stands, a significant % of those who currently support the SNP will never vote Labour unless it supports independence, and many of those going to the Tories want nothing less than total opposition to further devolution.  Labour opening itself to countless, easy attacks in England on the basis of Scotland’s support for the EU would seem to me to be a battle lost before it even begins.

7 – Nicola Sturgeon has indeed been successful at positioning herself as ‘Scotland’s chief lobbyist’ on this issue. Yet, given what I’ve outlined above, the answer to this isn’t to seek to join her but to hammer home the contradictions inherent in her position. As I’ve said, there is no doubt in my mind that the SNP would not welcome a commitment from Corbyn to oppose Article 50 but would instead quickly find a new angle of attack. A (welcome) commitment to federalism does not mean pretending we currently have it – Labour is best placed to argue that the current set-up in the UK isn’t fit for purpose while constructively offering solutions, just as it is best placed to argue that if Brexit is (regretfully) going to happen, it should happen on as social democratic a platform as it can secure (which admittedly is perhaps not much of one). These may not be compellingly instant positions but I think they will stand the party in good stead in the long run, just as hammering home the SNP’s incoherent position on the UK vs the EU and its singular fixation on referendums will.

8 – As Rory argues, the current Labour position is weak and subject to attack by both political and media opponents. I don’t dispute this, instead arguing in my blog that their current position is the least bad of the terrible options. Yet in speaking of the position most likely to bring Corbyn to power Rory ignores his own compelling arguments, both with regards to the UK and to the wider environment for socialism, as to why that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Labour should have been positioning itself on Brexit, on the English and Scottish questions (and on a whole lot else) for the past 2 years but has instead been consumed by infighting. It has likely squandered its chance and, barring any seismic occurrence, it is not going to come to power any time soon. It is not unreasonable, then, to be concerned with minimising losses and seeking to guard against a reactionary post-Corbyn future for the party. It’s clear that some on the left harbour illusions that a socialist leader without Corbyn’s baggage or presentational issues would be a compelling figure for the electorate, yet it is undeniable that the stakes are piled formidably high against any such leader. This is why I argue that turning the tide is going to take time (something I think Rory agrees with) and that it requires all of us committed to socialism to engage in social movements. So, while I think Rory’s course of action would only make the terrain more treacherous for socialism in the long run, I fully agree with his conclusion:

The world that socialists must navigate is increasingly one of hermetic subcultures, economic decline and political crisis as a form of governance. I suspect that the most effective responses will be closer to the traditions of anarchism than socialism. If national struggles for constitutional power are not working, then localised extra-legal resistance which emphasises subcultural or community solidarity must take precedence. If national identities cannot be mobilised for the left then they must be disrupted and subverted, their institutions disrespected and their everyday cultural manifestations ruthlessly undermined. There may be no more room for good patriots; only good traitors. Corbyn has shown the occasional, accidental flash of treason — it’s up to those who have supported him this far to start doing it deliberately.

We Must Unite

Brexit was the blowback from David Cameron and the Tory party’s embrace of a toxic English nationalism, a tactic which seemed to pay dividends in addressing the challenge of UKIP, wrong-footing many on the left who are instinctively uneasy with patriotism and feeding the Scottish nationalism which has led to the dominance of the SNP. Cameron clearly thought he could control the beast and was proved disastrously wrong; now Theresa May seeks less to control it and more to satisfy its every whim. Make no mistake – last week’s Tory party conference displayed a deranged, dangerous government very deliberately using racism and xenophobia to divert attention from its failings. As Seb Cooke writes:

The glue that May hopes will hold all of this together has been the overriding theme of the conference: immigration. Government departments have been lining up to declare war on foreign workers and students in a terrifying manner. They hope that this increase in anti-
immigrant policy and racist rhetoric will paper over the visible cracks elsewhere and wrong-foot Labour. The argument that May uses focuses on the idea that the white working class feel shat on because of huge inequality and immigration. It is an acknowledgment that class is back at the heart of British politics, but a vicious attempt to divide that working class.

Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion that “Conservative Party leaders have sunk to a new low” almost seemed charitable: this is truly frightening stuff. It feels like the UK is at a moment of some significance; a moment where we must all choose our side. Are we going to stand with the racist bullies scapegoating migrants and appealing to the absolute worst in people’s natures, or are we going to fight for compassion, tolerance, the vibrant internationalism which is essential for any kind of ‘good’ modern society?

The left needs to unite to fight this. Clearly Jeremy Corbyn has a hugely important role to play and his appointment of Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary is welcome. Abbott has devoted her career to combatting racism and having her respond to deplorable policy ideas such as forcing companies to list foreign workers will really matter. As she said in 2014 in a speech on racism:

So, let me say this about race and anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia; I think that it is important that we unite on these issues, nothing is gained by separating off and fighting each of our campaigns in a separate corner. These are difficult times, these are dark times, and maximum unity is vital.

It is heartening to have the opposition led by people saying such things. The Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Owen Smith sorts continue to try and pander to anti-immigrant prejudice (and it is prejudice) and consign themselves further to the dustbin of history. We are socialists and solidarity is central to our cause – a solidarity which is not conditional on colour or country of origin.

We must unite and give new life to solidarity. If the Labour right have yet to get the memo, it’s also sad to see Scottish politics still firmly stuck in the cul de sac of self-delusion. Things are playing out exactly as I predicted on the morning after the Holyrood elections, when some more brazen nationalists were celebrating the fact that the Tories had overtaken Labour in Scotland:

The Tories pose no existential threat to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the existence of the Tories as a party of government, to the left 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’.

We have seen this illustrated perfectly this week, with the Tories’ eager embrace of racism and xenophobia seeming like catnip to Scottish nationalists who have their notion that Scotland (as a country and as a people) are just inherently ‘better’ further inflated. So, in response to a speech from Nicola Sturgeon responding to May’s toxic rhetoric, the hashtag #WeAreScotland took flight, portraying Scotland as a progressive and open society in contrast to mean-spirited Tory England. Once again, Scottish identity was erased of all complication, all division, and put to the service of a wooly ‘civic nationalism’ which essentially begins and ends at ‘we are better than Tory England’.

It is, of course, to be celebrated when any politician tackles anti-immigration sentiment. Yet this is an unhelpful, perhaps even dangerous, response. I say this because the main issue that we on the left need to deal with is the fact that public opinion on immigration is regressive and there is clearly a deep well of racist sentiment which May is tapping into. We need to tackle the myths and prejudices around immigration head on rather than complacently assuming that we are just ‘better’ or ‘different’. The Scottish nationalist response completely elides the reality of immigration politics in Scotland, something which is possible because Holyrood and the SNP do not have power over immigration policy. As we saw with raising taxes or on fracking, the SNP like to posture as ‘more progressive’ than the ‘unionist’ parties when it can contrast itself with Westminster policy but when it actually gets the powers to make radical change it shifts to the right. It matters, then, that SNP rhetoric on immigration policy has been rather more similar to the Tories than #WeAreScotland would have us believe. The White Paper presented for Scottish independence, for example, had this to say about immigration policy:

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The SNP proposed a points-based system – the same kind which had ‘progressives’ howling when presented by Boris Johnson. Sturgeon, meanwhile, used some rather familiar rhetoric in her 2015 General Election debate appearance:

Keen to keep up with the latest instalment of the thrilling battle, I tuned in on Thursday night to cheer on the new golden trio of politics.  It was all going down as expected, the leader of a nationalist movement started talking about wanting to get rid of, “people with no right to be here,” calling for “strong controls” on immigration and declined to give a straight answer as to whether there were too many immigrants in the country.  Nigel…fucking…no wait, that was Nicola Sturgeon.

The devolution set-up has meant that progressive posturing flourishes in the gap between Westminster and Holyrood. For many Scottish nationalists, this is enough: actually fighting for progressive politics, tackling regressive attitudes and recognising that people across the UK aren’t inherently ‘different’ is difficult, slow and unlikely to give a warm glow inside.

It would mean confronting the reality of opinion in Scotland. A reality where 68% supported tougher restrictions on immigration. A reality where 63% thought immigration was too high and should be cut. A reality where 41% agreed with the statement “Scotland would begin to lose its identity if more Muslims came to live in Scotland”, where around a third think that “people from Eastern Europe/ethnic minorities take jobs away from other people in Scotland”. A reality where a great majority don’t believe that living in Scotland for years makes you ‘Scottish’. A reality where the wicked Tory Ruth Davidson has higher approval ratings than Nicola Sturgeon (and where the even more wicked Theresa May has a double-figure positive approval rating).

You don’t have to confront this reality when you can point your finger at the Tories and pretend that Scotland is a happy land free of all division, where everyone holds hands and sings The Proclaimers beneath saltires. Indeed, when you raise these issues with Scottish nationalists the most common reaction by far is not to engage with how things actually are in Scotland but to start ranting about Tories, ‘unionists’ and how much worse things are in ‘England’. As long as there’s a perception that things are worse across the border, that’s enough. Racism in Scotland can be swept under a fetching saltire rug.

It’s not good enough and no-one on the left should embrace it. This is an issue across the whole of the UK. We must unite. To repeat Diane Abbott’s words, “nothing is gained by separating off and fighting each of our campaigns in a separate corner.” We must unite: unite against racism, unite against xenophobia, unite against fascism. We must take the fight to our friends, our family, our workplaces. We must begin to break down the myths and prejudices which have led us to this dark time. We must rediscover solidarity and we must unite. This week offers an anniversary of a striking example of what ordinary people can achieve when they come together to fight the bastards. This is too important. We must unite.

 

 

 

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.

Election Day: Rejecting the Tories and the SNP

Sadiq Khan romped to victory in Labour’s mayoral selection contest due, in large part, to the same wave of restless dissatisfaction which saw Corbyn elected Labour leader. Khan positioned himself as the left-wing candidate most likely to defeat Tessa Jowell, the Blairite candidate clearly favoured by the Labour machine, and reaped the benefit. One of his aides was quoted as saying:

Almost all Jeremy Corbyn voters are voting for Sadiq Khan. There is a 90 per cent crossover. Most of these new people joined for a reason, and that was to vote for Corbyn.

It was disappointing, then, when Khan immediately veered right and began feeding tabloid attacks on Corbyn. Since then he has run a deeply conservative and uninspiring campaign strongly resembling Labour’s ‘35% strategy’, which Khan allegedly masterminded for the 2015 General Election. The focus has been on laying low, not rocking the boat and assuring everyone that Khan would be a safe and steady hand rather than a radical, transformative Mayor.

Speaking now, I would argue, it’s difficult for any but the most dogmatic of observers not to see that this strategy might have had more to it than conservativism or a lack of boldness. Zac Goldsmith and the Tories have ran one of the most shameful and nakedly racist campaigns in modern political memory. The increasingly hysterical attempts to link Khan with ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalism’, either directly or via Jeremy Corbyn, culminated in the disagrace of yesterday’s PMQs where David Cameron ignored questions on his government’s policy to instead opportunistically raise remarks Corbyn had made about Hamas and Hezbollah. Whatever you think of Corbyn’s remarks, let’s recall that only a few months ago Cameron was rejecting his criticisms of the UK government’s support of the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia and trying to evade the matter of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr’s proposed execution. Let’s also recall that Cameron and the UK government have gone well beyond calling violent extremists ‘friends’ and have actively enabled them:

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If the cynical opportunism should be clear, Goldsmith and Cameron’s deliberate attempt to exploit racial tensions, perceived or otherwise, was an attempt to weaponise Khan’s status as a Muslim and a British Pakistani. This is inexcusable and unforgiveable in any context but in the race to lead one of the most diverse cities in the world, it is also extraordinarily stupid.

Khan’s rather insipid campaign, then, can be said to have served some purpose in neutralising much of these attacks. While his programme doesn’t get the blood racing, the Tories deserve to be smashed for their campaign alone. If, as expected, Khan is victorious, the left-wing Labour members who elected him must work to hold him to account and push for the radical policies which most people in London need.

The ‘divide and rule’ strategy pursued by the Tories has been typical of their period in government. Whether it be painting the poor as people “sleeping off a life on benefits”, continually othering Muslims and linking them to ‘extremism’ or blaming immigration for people’s economic woes, the Tory government appeals to the basest and most uninformed prejudices in people. The assertion of the Scottish Conservatives, that they would offer the ‘best opposition’ to the SNP, is laughable when it is the Tories’ calculated inflaming of English nationalism that has so fed the dramatic rise of its Scottish counterpart.

Such tactics are necessary when you are unable to defend your record in government. Tory policy on housing, schools, universities, the justice system, the economy, immigration, poverty and, of course, health are all disingenuous and disastrous, driven by an extreme right-wing ideology. To support the Conservative Party is to support unabashed racism, misogyny and a concerted attack on the most vulnerable people in our society (of which the tax credit and personal independence payments debacles were but small glimpses).

You cannot support the Conservatives and say ‘but I don’t like the bad things they do’. You either actively opposite or you are complicit. The party deserves to lose.

There is, of course, another party of government which has been using divide and rule nationalism to distract from the paucity of its record: the SNP. No-one who reads my blogs or Twitter could fail to notice my feelings for the SNP and what has happened to Scottish politics. As I wrote here:

My disdain for the SNP is clear: I find its use of populist nationalist rhetoric (‘Scotland’s voice’, ‘standing up for Scotland’, ‘the Scottish lion’) to frame the important divide as ‘Scotland/England’ rather than class and economic power to be hugely damaging and not a little embarrassing. I find its eagerness to turn everything into a matter of grievance against Scotland, while dismissing criticisms as ‘talking down Scotland’ to be tragic. Yet even I remain shocked at just how mendacious the party continues to be in its ditching of ‘progressive’ policies (council tax reform, higher rate of tax) while pointing the finger at ‘unionists’ with flat-out lies which rely on people taking its word and not doing any fact-checking.

Yesterday Nicola Sturgeon encouraged supporters to tweet why they were supporting the SNP using the hashtag #SNPBecause. The tag was a fascinating glimpse into the ‘twilight world of unreality‘ which is both fed by, and feeds, nationalism. There were many references to the meaningless stance of ‘standing up/speaking for Scotland’. There were many of the now-typical assertions that independence would make things better, just because. There was the now-standard accrediting of everything and anything viewed as ‘progressive’ to the SNP (including quite explicitly non-SNP achievements like free bus travel for the elderly and/or disabled, abolishing tuition fees or free personal and nursing care). Perhaps most dishearteningly, there was the pathologised hatred of Labour (the ‘Red Tories’) and ‘unionists’ which has become commonplace since September 2014.

The SNP’s record in government has been poor to say the least. It has cut relative spending on health and education in Scotland, with achievements against key NHS targets such as A&E or cancer waiting times worsening and both literacy and numeracy levels declining. Its fixation on ‘free education’ (as issue of ‘Scottish/English distinction’ above all else) masks the fact that poor students in Scotland are less likely to go to university than in any of the other countries of the UK, that “in Scotland, the arrangements for student funding are unique in the UK in assuming the highest levels of student debt amongst the poorest students” or that Further Education in Scotland has been cut. Those ‘free’ tuition fees have been paid for by cutting support for the poorest students and cutting funding for colleges. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted that under the evil Red Tory/Lib Dem coalition, Scotland had some of the lowest levels of poverty in the UK, a trend which levelled off in 2007:

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The centralisation of policing and of local government have been plagued with problems and belie the SNP’s claims to favour ’empowering’ people. The party has similarly pursued centralisation in higher/further education, health and even the arts.

Recent events, meanwhile, have exposed the lie behind SNP rhetoric that oil was a ‘bonus’ for the Scottish economy. Its decline and Scotland’s higher public spending (than rUK) has led to Scotland’s financial situation worsening.Such is the SNP’s mendacity regarding this that they actually trumpet the fiscal framework agreement as them defeating the dastardly Tories (it features prominently in the SNP manifesto) when the First Minister actually acknowledged that Scotland’s demographics meant that more financial responsibility would lead to far more financial risk (compared to the current set-up and to rUK). Yet rather than acknowledge that Scotland has higher public spending, a bigger deficit and benefits disproportionately from Barnett, the SNP prefers to push the politics of grievance and point the finger at dastardly Westminster.

It is because of this latter point that the SNP’s record will make little difference to its support today. As this article puts it:

The SNP enjoys strong support in large part because identity politics have become the defining currency of discourse in Scotland. The governing party has eclipsed the once mighty Scottish Labour movement, stealing many of its left-leaning policies while also rejecting Labour’s commitment to unionism.

The constitution has become the defining issue in Scottish politics and support for the SNP (and for independence) has become synonymous with both a love for ‘Scotland’ as an abstract concept and for ‘progressiveness’. Yet the latter is so taken as a given that SNP supporters don’t actually expect anything to be done to pursue social justice now, telling themselves it may interfere with the independent valhalla which lies just over the hill. The SNP aren’t going to deliver social justice by freezing income tax, tinkering with council tax and cutting air passenger duty yet the furious response which greets even pro-independence critics of the party is instructive as to what’s really important here: the identity, not the doing.

Of course, many of those who have decided independence is the path to social justice furiously deny being nationalist any sense. They furiously deny this while engaging in rhetoric which portrays ‘unionists’, ‘Tories’ and ‘Red Tories’ as bodies foreign to Scotland. I had noticed this long ago in pieces by ‘socialists’ like Alan Bissett, which led to this exchange on Twitter this week:

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This is rhetoric which is frequently deployed by the SNP and will be recognised, I would bet, by most Scots who criticise the party and independence. Yet it’s dismissed by a ‘socialist’ as ‘inelegant phrasing’. It is this mindset which leads to an inability to see the nationalism which is integral to the SNP’s appeal. “STRONGER FOR SCOTLAND. Standing up for Scotland is what we do’. This dreck leads the SNP manifesto. It devotes pages to documenting the SNP battle with ‘Tories’ and ‘UK parties’ while its intro begins “All of us who live here in Scotland love our country.” The message is barely even implicit: the SNP love Scotland. The UK parties do not. Leaving aside the issue that whether or not someone ‘loves’ the idea of their country should be a total irrelevance, it’s actually pretty insidious. It’s this underlying narrative which has led both RISE and the Scottish Greens to mute their criticism of the Scottish government, hoping to ride the coattails of nationalism to a list vote.

This year’s Scottish Labour manifesto, on the other hand, takes giant steps away from Jim Murphy’s ‘ultra-nationalist’ horrors of last year to commendably focus on social justice. Its intro begins, “We want to create a Scotland where it is a young person’s potential, ambition and work rate that determine how far they get on in life – not where they were born.” The only references to ‘standing up’ for anything are with regards to women’s equality and against “hate crime and exploitation”. This is a manifesto which recognise that people do not have common interests because they share the same country. It is because of this that the policies it contains are manifestly to the left of the SNP, notably including the 50p tax rate on the wealthiest which the SNP have now ditched and proposing higher taxes to pay for some of Scotland’s higher public spending.

Yet Scottish Labour are battling to avoid coming third, due to the nationalist pathologising of the party. This is nothing to do with an interest in a ‘fairer’ society and everything to do with a facile imagined identity.

We see, then, that nationalism and attempts to divide are at work in various ways on this election day. I support Jeremy Corbyn because I believe he offers something more; something better. He is not appealing to our basest instincts nor is he telling us that we are exceptional because of where we live. The Labour election poster unveiled last week explicitly acknowledges the divisions within society in a way which saw some attack it as ‘class war’:

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They are right. There is a class war and currently the wealthiest are winning, with the support of the Tories and the SNP. In word and deed Labour recognise that the interests of a single parent living in social housing are not the same as those of a millionaire landlord, even if they only live one mile apart. It’s no secret that the Labour machine remains against Corbyn and that the Labour right is constantly seeking to undermine him. These forces are eagerly hoping that Labour does badly today, in the naive hope that losses will enable them to reclaim the party and reinstate their ‘it’s not racist to be worried about immigration’ dreck. Corbyn is something different. He deserves the support of anyone who believes in socialism. That is why I voted Labour today and why I hope anyone who professes to care about social justice will reject the Tories and the SNP.

 

 

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.

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.