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.

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The Sun, UKIP and Racism

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The Sun’s ‘attack’ on UKIP homophobia was today shared approvingly in some quarters (‘Nice one, Sun’). This is utterly absurd. The Sun should never, ever be applauded for ‘opposing’ homophobia – it has been one of our society’s main proponents of it for a long, long time. As recently as 2010 it ran the poll ‘should gay people be cabinet ministers?’ while in 2012 it called for a referendum on gay marriage  while bemoaning the emphasis placed on it by David Cameron. This, of course, came after decades of utterly vile and aggressive homophobia, the most famous example probably being the 1988 editorial on Brighton labelling it a ‘nasty town of drugs, gays, AIDS and drunks’. It has freely and liberally used homophobic slurs (a fairly recent example being their coverage of Derren Brown’s coming out) and still pushes a firmly heterosexist agenda. Let’s not be in any doubt here – The Sun’s contribution to fuelling homophobia and a climate where queers ‘get beaten to death’ is practically second to none. The only response to it claiming the moral high ground here is to laugh hysterically, dump the rag in the nearest bin and waste no time holding your breath for the day it issues a grovelling apology for all of the misery it has caused.

Usually I would just ignore The Sun’s mendacity – it’s what you expect, after all. This, however, interested me because it ties in exactly with my previous thoughts on The Sun’s treatment of Thomas Hitzlsperger’s coming out. There, I suggested that The Sun was using an apparently liberal attitude towards homosexuality to mask and push its insidious racism, writing that:

It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic.

I think this is exactly what we see again here. The Sun’s racism is evident and it continues to write about immigration in the language of ‘floods’ and “tidal waves of immigrants threatning to swamp Britain”. It has been courting UKIP for a while now, with proprietor Rupert Murdoch openly courting Farage. This is hardly a surprise – UKIP’s extreme anti-labour, pro-1% stance tallies perfectly with Murdoch’s interests. You will not, then, find The Sun seriously taking UKIP to task and certainly not for its attempts to stir division via racism. Hence today’s editorial. Here The Sun can be seen to be ‘taking a stand’ in opposing the ‘extremist’ elements of UKIP, effectively positioning their racism (and extreme right-wing policies) as mainstream and ‘reasonable’. Its opposition to homophobia is entirely instrumental here – it can’t remain silent when the media has been dominated by UKIP extremism for much of the past week but it won’t oppose the racist ideology which is absolutely central to its purpose. Once again, its ‘liberal’ take on homosexuality is a diversion tactic. Nice one, Sun.

Helmer provides the convenient ‘extremism’ here, being used to obscure the fundamentally violent bigotry at UKIP’s core. The effect of such positioning, where UKIP’s racism is viewed as ‘reasonable’ and ‘common sense’, can be seen all around us. I wrote in that previous piece that:

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them.

This denial is clearly seen in the increasingly frequent pleas that we don’t call UKIP ‘racist’ – here’s one from The Guardian today. These calls come from an understanding that calling someone ‘racist’ is a terrible, terrible thing – perhaps one of the worst of things. People don’t like it. They deny it. They shut you down and go on the attack. Best not, then, to use ‘racist’ as a pejorative. Better to quietly drop it and focus on something else. In its own way this line endorses UKIP’s racism (and racism more generally) just as damagingly as The Sun does, pushing the pervasive idea that few people are actually racist and the people saying so are the ones who should be taking a step back.

It’s interesting that Harris suggests a focus on UKIP’s ‘ridiculousness’ instead, because this betrays a lack of understanding of where many of the attacks come from. A lot of people are happy to call UKIP ‘racist’ precisely because they are seen to be ridiculous. This racism is viewed as glaring, funny and toothless and ostentatiously condemning it is as an easy way to assert your own credentials. I think this is fairly common in discussions of racism, where it is seen to exist as something obvious and external. Racism is the BNP, the killing of Stephen Lawrence (a cause even the Daily Mail could get behind) and now UKIP. It is not an inescapable system of oppression with produces and cements the superiority of white people. So, then, if UKIP voters react badly to being labelled ‘racist’, many of their accusers are ultimately equally as close-minded. This refers in obvious ways to the racism found in all of the main parties in some form (not least their immigration and asylum policies and discussions) but also (and far more importantly) to the racism found in our own everyday lives and within ourselves. If you’re like me, this racism is rarely explosive and rarely easily identified. Rather it’s an unconscious assumption you make about someone or joke you pretend to laugh at or a little voice inside saying ‘do we have to talk about race again?! Aren’t we done with this?!’ Personally, I think it’s simply impossible as a white person to be raised in this society and not have racism deeply-embedded within. Yet on both left and right we have become so enamoured with the idea that a ‘racist’ is a grotesque ogre that we instinctively rush to deny that we could ever be that. We do this to the extent that any person of colour speaking about racism and/or, God forbid, identifying it, is demonised and shut down. And we do it even when an obviously racist rag like The Sun pats our bellies and parades its liberalness in order to further push racism. The only way to even begin to break out of this is to acknowledge that racism isn’t pathologised in ‘bad people’ but rather something which we cannot hope to avoid. Racism does not continue in our society simply because the ogres keep being racist. We are all affected by it and speaking as a white person, I believe we are all warped by it. Only by accepting this uncomfortable reality can we ever begin to move forward.