2014 – The Year of Nationalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

wallace berman fuck nationalism

So This Thing Happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Collapse of the Left into Nationalism

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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.

Valhalla vs Apocalypse: Enduring #IndyRef Myths

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I wrote a couple of months ago on the myths which pervade the #indyref campaign and I don’t think much has changed on that front. It’s funny – a common theme from commentors on the debate is how mature and civilised it is, yet each ‘side’ delights in pointing out the myriad of ways in which the other is talking bollocks without ever removing the logs from their own eyes. Tonight’s debate between Salmond and Darling will almost certainly see more of this and it’s been fairly fascinating seeing the myths which sustain particular identities laid bare. Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps have attempted to lay claim to ideas that they are beacons of fairness, tolerance and justice in the world. Writing from a left-wing perspective, it seems fairly accepted amongst peers that it’s at best ridiculous, at worst grotesque for anyone to argue this on behalf of the UK, which is beset by a bleak assortment of social problems and has some of the worst poverty and inequality in the developed world. So if I don’t write much about the myths advanced by Better Together and their ilk it’s because I take it as given that those of a ‘progressive’ ilk don’t buy into them in the first place.

The myths around Scotland, however, not only seem to be burrowed deep into the national subconscious but have found themselves flourishing wildly during this debate. The great unknown offered by independence sees every problem, from the arms trade through to uninspired Scottish architecture, reframed as a ‘Westminster’ or ‘England’ issue which the plucky Scots can solve by voting ‘Yes’. Sure, most people have enough sense not to say it as bluntly as this but the overwhelming narrative is the very familiar one of Scotland being both more progressive, and more oppressed, than its neighbour to the South. The troubling subtexts in this message can’t help but seep through the cracks, whether it be in the suggestion that opponents to independence are suffering from a “deep-seated cultural self-hatred” or in the utterly idiotic notion that voting ‘no’ is giving “Westminster permanent permission to do whatever it likes forever. No questions asked.” The choice is between an independent Scotland full of hope and optimism and general niceness or a UK which is dystopian and apocalyptic. All progressive thought, opinion and action in the rest of the UK is erased.

I was surprised to see this exact framing in the latest issue of London Review of Books, a journal which consistently presents some of the best writing in the UK (and beyond) The piece, called What Sort of Scotland? and written by Neal Ascherson, is behind a paywall but I’ve copied some relevant sections with my commentary:

It does Yes campaigners some credit that they haven’t launched their own ‘Project Fear’ concentrating on what happens if independence is rejected on 18 September. They don’t talk about it, affect not to think about it. But the landscape beyond that day is growing darker.

It does credit to Yes campaigners (which Ascherson clearly is, despite making an odd distinction by claiming to only be a Yes ‘voter’) that they don’t scaremonger…except when they do. It’s ironic that for all the (correct) complaints of Better Together’s ‘negativity’, much of the Yes campaign’s energy comes from its opposition to the current state of a Tory-led UK and its apocalyptic predictions of a ‘darker landscape’. How Lord of the Rings. As I’ve written previously, the UK-wide opposition to this is never going to be found in a campaign against Scottish independence – why would it be? It’s found in the recent strikes, in fights against changes to welfare, in campaigns for a living wage, in mass demos for Gaza. This progressive body of opinion exists across the UK but many independence campaigners pretend that it doesn’t while complaining that ‘unionists’ offer no vision of a better society. It’s disingenuous in the exteme.

The Unionist parties say that they will agree on further devolution of powers to Scotland. But these don’t seem likely to go much beyond a little more discretion on some taxes. There’s talk of calling a national convention on the constitutional future, but this would apparently be led by the Scotland Office – a London ministry – with Scotland’s elected government and Parliament reduced to mere participants among a crowd of British bodies.

This complaint has been voiced with increasing frequency: the UK government might promise more devolution but it doesn’t really mean it! And even if it did, it’s worthy only of derision because it would be led by…the UK government. ‘A London ministry’. The outrage that a parliament made up of the nations of the UK would ‘apparently’ lead on constitutional change, rather than the parliament which only represents Scotland! It’s all chip-on-shoulder nonsense relying on ‘Scotland vs London’ sentiment.

It’s possible that Scotland might decline too, sharply and even irreversibly, in that first No decade. It’s not just that pro-Europe Scotland might well be dragged out of the EU by a Europhobic southern majority.

I’ve long found it ironic that pro-independence voices are almost uniformally uncritical of the EU, a body which by any measure has greater problems regarding legitimacy and democracy than Westminster. Criticism of the EU is, however, largely associated with right-wing opinion and so isn’t helpful to the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon. Leaving that to one side, the suggestion that Scotland could be forced out of the EU by a ‘southern majority’ is another one which you hear fairly regularly and is commonly accepted. Yet it belies a far more complex reality where a majority in Scotland have consistently adopted a critical approach to the EU. A recent Yougov poll on the EU, meanwhile, found majority support for remaining in the EU across the entire UK. Most interestingly, it found that if people believed UK membership had been renegotiated more favourably, opinion on EU membership was almost uniform with 54-61% opting to stay in.

Or that English hysteria about immigration could block young European incomers to Scotland – a need first recognised when the then first minister Jack McConnell sent recruiters to the bus-parks of Poland in 2004.

A consistent majority in Scotland want less immigration while a very small minority want more. As we saw in my previous blog, 49% in Scotland thought that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thought the same about more black and/or Asian people living there. None of this is good, of course, but it demonstrates how smugly complacent it is to believe that immigration ‘hysteria’ (and by extension racism) is an English problem.

It is, above all, the damage London governments might well now inflict on Scottish social policies. After eight years in power, the polls still give the SNP a startling lead: it is currently at 43 per cent. This is mainly because it has carried on the social policies of the Lib-Lab coalitions which preceded it in Edinburgh. These parties barricaded the welfare state – higher education, free social care and the Scottish National Health Service above all – against the tide of privatisation and marketising ‘competition’ which is washing away the British postwar social settlement south of the border. But that barricade would probably crumble in a post-No Britain.

Again, an argument you hear frequently – that even the devolved NHS will crumble if Scotland votes against independence. Putting aside the question of how that would actually happen in practice, this would have us believe that people ‘south of the border’ want to wash away the ‘British postwar social settlement’. There are wide and loud campaigns against the changes to the NHS which have led Labour to pledge a reversal of the Health and Social Care Bill. Then there is the fact that over half (52% in 2013) of people in Scotland complain that unemployment benefits are ‘too high’, which doesn’t exactly suggest it as a welfare state valhalla.

On top of that, the neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may soon force all public health services in the UK – Scottish as well as English – to invite competition from American private firms. This ravenous alien was only able to squirm into the UK spaceship because in 2012 Cameron’s coalition had already legalised an internal private health market in England.

This is the most bizarre complaint, to put it generously. The TTIP is being negotiated by the EU (which, lest we forget, the writer was fearful of leaving) and the United States. It’s about far more than ‘public health services’ and the idea that it’s somehow the doing of David Cameron is risible beyond belief. While there are several campaigns against TTIP I can’t find any indication that an SNP (or indeed any other party) government in an independent Scotland would oppose it.

The piece advances a heap of unexamined half-truths and distortions about the evils that will be visited upon poor, defenceless Scotland in the event of it remaining in the UK. It’s embarrassing stuff yet sadly typical of the level of debate. To underline how far these myths endure without question I want to look at one other issue: that of Trident. The British Social Attitude survey looked at this and found that “public opinion on the subject of nuclear weapons is nothing like as different on the two sides of the border” as we’re led to believe. The most interesting finding, however, was that in Scotland “slightly more people agree (41 per cent) than disagree (37 per cent) with the proposition that:

If Scotland becomes independent, Britain’s nuclear weapons submarines should continue to be based here”

In England and Wales, however, 63% thought the weapons should leave Scotland if it became independent! This doesn’t fit the common narratives around this issue at all.

It seems odd to me to have a debate around ‘the kind of country Scotland would like to be’, based on noble ideas about furthering democracy and improving people’s lives, which relies so much on myths and a refusal to engage with existing opinion. Indeed, when I’ve raised e.g. the matter of public opinion in Scotland being firmly against more immigration or more unemployment benefits, the response I invariably get is ‘well of course it is, they are brainwashed by the UK media’. Quite how the media in an independent Scotland will be different so as to help these poor brainwashed, self-hating masses, I’m not quite sure. Presumably this media will also report on the secret oil field which the dasterdly Cameron is keeping from the poor oppressed people of Scotland.

It’s all pretty gruesome, desperate stuff. Just to repeat, there’s plenty of that from Better Together and it’s covered in detail elsewhere. I don’t endorse it. Yet if I’ve always been against Scottish independence, my one abiding hope were it to happen has been that it would lead to a more mature Scotland where we don’t feel the need to revel in a sense of victimhood, inventing paranoid conspiracies and blaming the wicked English for our woes (as many in England blame the EU – as I say, we all have our enduring myths). I remain strongly of the opinion that the Scottish form of social democracy lives and dies in the perceived gap between it and England. If and when that gap goes, I would hope that attitudes would change. I’m sad to say that this seems further away than ever.

‘Civilised’

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With the Commonwealth Games starting in Glasgow this week, the usual suspects have been out in force complaining about homophobia in many of the Commonwealth countries. Never one to shy from the limelight, Peter Tatchell actually travelled to Glasgow to call on Alex Salmond and organisers to condemn these nations and even ban them from competing (quite how travelling up to Scotland to tell its First Minister what to do squares with his support for independence, I’m not quite sure.) By far the most prominent example of this trend, on social media at least, was this meme from Stonewall:

10475673_10152519854650399_2571160274686206565_nStonewall went to town with this one, posting it several times and retweeting posts of it by others. Its many retweets means that it will have been seen by many thousands of people and it led to a predictable outpouring of anger and condemnation. Then, in a perfect fuelling of this narrative, the opening ceremony featured that kiss. Or should I say ‘that stunning rebuke’? Take that, savages! Many of those tweeting their outrage regarding homophobia went crazy for this kiss, as if it was single-handedly going to stop bigotry in its tracks. More worryingly, it quickly became proof of our superiority, with comments like this being fairly common:

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‘Civilised’. The use of this word alone should have set alarm bells ringing as to the subtext being pushed beneath this facile outrage.This language and the ideas behind it were absolutely central to colonialism and slavery, with “Africans…thought to be sub-human, uncivilised, and inferior to Europeans in every way.” It’s notable that the same arguments are also used by supporters of Israel. Their deployment against the countries of the Commonwealth, almost entirely made up of countries which were formerly part of the British Empire, is disturbing to say the least. Take that, savages, indeed.

A typical response to this concern from the outraged is ‘oh so we can’t attack homophobia in these countries because they were colonies then?’ The implication is that if you find this racist moralising distateful you must support anti-LGBT laws. This is, of course, utter nonsense. It’s very telling that the outrage is almost entirely aimed at these countries en masse and expressed via organisations such as Stonewall, which explicitly links its own ‘international work’ to the issue in an effort to raise more money. Here we have the White Saviour Industrial Complex which Teju Cole wrote about with regards to Africa blended with homonationalism (note, for example, that there is little outrage about any other human rights issues in these countries, including poverty, or about the LGBT record of ‘civilised’ countries like the USA) There is no consideration that work to change these laws goes on within these countries and there is certainly no appreciation that these must be the way change happens. It cannot and will not be imposed by us. Scott Long wrote a typically good piece on this a few years ago where he noted that LGBT activists from these Commonwealth countries were being shut out by ‘Western’ interests (including Tatchell). As he writes:

The successes achieved at the past two Commonwealth summits came because LGBT advocates from the countries targeted and affected were there, proving they existed and their lives counted.

In his piece Teju Cole directly addresses Americans swept up in the Kony fever, telling them how they can ‘help’:

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact…If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself.

It’s that Biblical parable about removing the log from your own eye before judging, or attempting to ‘help’, others. This is utterly fundamental to this Commonwealth issue. In the minds of the outraged, these countries become demonised others, reduced to nothing more than their laws regarding LGBT people. In condemning them while patting ourselves on the back, the central role played by the United Kingdom (and contrary to what some seem to believe, this absolutely also means Scotland here) in how these countries have developed is completely elided. When there was yet another brief e-petition frenzy over Uganda’s homophobic laws earlier this year, some pointed out that these laws were introduced by colonial powers. This has been pointed out in the past regarding the Commonwealth – this very good piece looks at not only the colonial legacy but the problem of approaching these issues in terms of a ‘LGBTI’ framework in the first place – and researchers state that anti-LGBT laws are “mostly a legacy of British colonialism“. So we are berating these countries for laws which we largely introduced to them!

It’s essential to be aware of and consider our role in this because it blows the racist ideas about the ‘civilised’ and the ‘savages’ wide open. Lest we forget, the British Empire was absolutely brutal. Britain massacred, tortured, starved, ethnically cleansed and had concentration camps well before the Nazis came along. It’s also completely forgotten that the overwhelmingly poor countries which retain these laws aren’t inherently ‘broken’ – their current status is heavily shaped by colonialism’s history of slavery, cultural oppression and the theft of wealth and resources on an unimaginable scale. Let’s be in no doubt here: the UK’s position as a wealthy nation owes much to its horrofic subjugation of these countries people are now wagging their fingers at.

Colonialism isn’t some distant relic as many seem to think -as late as 1997 the UK was still decolonising (Hong Kong) and its sovereignty over places like Gibralter and the Falklands endures to this day. Yet if British rule isn’t the terror it once was, the legacy of this remains strong (and is precisely one of the main reasons why the UK bears some responsibility for the Israel/Palestine conflict). Many of the ‘tinpot dictators’ we love to hate are there largely because of us. We continue to arm these countries even while expressing mock-outrage at their transgressions, with Campaign Against the Arms Trade documenting that the UK sold arms to 46 of the 52 other Commonwealth countries in the past three years, including the maligned Uganda and Nigeria (as Eleanor Harris put it on Twitter, we sold them both arms and attitudes). It’s also argued by some that the modern framework of aid, international development and economic ‘support’ is a form of neocolonialism, wherein the ‘former’ colonial powers retain their paternalism and exercise power in these ostensibly liberated countries.

It should be clear, then, that we are in no position to lecture the rest of the Commonwealth on the matter of how ‘civilised’ they are and we should be wary of indulging in that rhetoric. Yet even taken on its own terms, this behaviour is staggeringly hypocritical. It beggars belief that LGBT laws have become totemic of ‘civilisation’ when the UK is still very much on that journey itself. Homosexual activities were only legalised in Scotland in 1980. Section 28, our very own law banning homosexual ‘propaganda’ in schools, was not fully abolished until 2003 and was aggressively supported by our current Prime Minister, David Cameron. Even the much vaunted ‘marriage equality’ finally obtained this year was only ‘equality’ for some, with the ‘spousal veto’ discriminating against transexual people. Yet transexual rights are a poor relative of ‘gay rights’ here, as seen in Stonewall’s award of ‘Politician of the Year’ to Baroness Stowell and the owner of Pink News tweeting his congratulations to her on her promotion. Stowell was a staunch defender of the veto.

The Scottish Government’s 2011 report on Discrimination and Positive Action, meanwhile, shows that there is a long way to go in the host country of the Commonwealth Games. In it we find that 55% of respondents would be ‘unhappy/very unhappy’ at the prospect of a family member entering a relationship with a ‘cross-dresser’, and 49% would be unhappy if it was a relationship with a transexual. 30% would be unhappy if a family member married someone of the same sex (though the campaign for marriage since then may have eroded this % somewhat). This is without getting into truly terrifying statistics such as 49% agreeing that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thinking the same about more black and/or Asian people living there.

Remove the log from your own eye. It’s worth repeating. We are not going to change laws in Commonwealth countries by tweeting a meme and indulging in ramped up racist rhetoric online. We’re not even going to do it by protesting, or writing to our MPs. The only way to progress is to listen to the activists who actually live in these countries and amplify their voices whereever possible. Just as they have responsibility for change within their own countries, we must take the same for change within ours. Our countryis not a benevolent force promoting good throughout the world. We can and should oppose the disgusting arms trade; we can and should oppose our government’s support for dictators and massacres like the one currently taking place in Gaza. But more than that, we must educate ourselves about the injustices which persevere in our own country. The scourges of poverty, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality, political corruption and more are very much alive in the United Kingdom. Solving them will take a lot more than a staged kiss.

#INDYREF AND THE POSITIVE MYTHS WHICH DIVIDE US

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I’ve written here about Scottish independence only once before, largely because it seems more hassle than it’s worth. Opinions run high, to put it mildly. As a Scot who is now based in London I don’t have a vote but, if I did, I’d almost certainly vote ‘no’. This isn’t because I’m a ‘unionist’, a ‘loyalist’, a ‘Tory’ or any of the other absurd slurs which tend to be wheeled out when you state this position. It is rather because I find myself more sympathetic to arguments based on cross-border solidarity and a combined push towards socialism. That’s how I approach the question of independence – as a socialist. I’ve long been a critic of Labour, the kind of person who gets called ‘a Trot’ by the kind of person who participates in NUS, and the sole time I’ve voted Labour in a General Election was in 2010 when it was clear the Tories had a real chance of winning. I would never and have never voted Tory or Liberal Democrat. I say this only to counter the inevitable assumptions that some would make as a result of my stance.

As I wrote in my previous blog on this issue, I think the problems Scotland faces are rooted in a global neoliberal capitalism rather than being the ‘fault’ of Westminster or even England; I concomitantly find the argument that independence = ‘more democracy’ to be rather meaningless in an age where global capital is largely unchallenged and easily overrides national governments. Anyone who’s watched the documentary You’ve Been Trumped will be under no illusion that the SNP are immune to this.

As I’ve also previously said, the debate around independence has been utterly woeful. I don’t need to dwell on how terrible Better Together is because pretty much everyone accepts it at this point. What’s less accepted is how awful the ‘Yes’ campaign is. We’re continually told that ‘Yes’ is positive, inspiring, creative, energetic and a heap of other adjectives which sound like a Shoreditch marketing brain fart on a Monday morning. This has taken hold to the extent that any criticism or questioning of ‘Yes’ or independence is immediately met with howls of derision about ‘negativity’ and ‘scaremongering’. I don’t think it has been widely considered how important the framing of this issue has been, not least in the referendum question itself. Of course a ‘no’ campaign is going to be ‘negative’ – it’s in the name! What matters is whether the negativity has substance. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t – recognising which is which requires critical engagement rather than a facile, silly dismissal on the basis of ‘negativity’.

This dismissal and much of the rhetoric around ‘Yes’ seems strongly linked to the cult of positivity/’positive thinking’. Much has been written on this elsewhere but one fundamental aspect of the phenomenon is its dampening of critical thinking, which is portrayed as ‘negativity’. I can hear the howls already. I’m not for a second saying that the ‘no’ campaign has been an exemplar of critical thinking and I’ll re-iterate that I think it’s been dreadful. I also think, however, that too many of the responses to anti-independence arguments have been led by this guff which would have us believe that ‘Yes’, as a ‘positive’ message, isinherently good. Keep this in mind when reading much of the ‘Yes’ rhetoric and I think it’s impossible not to notice. Closely linked is the ‘Yes’ obsession with theopinion of ‘creatives’, people who are presented to us as fetish objects, a cut above your ‘non-creative’ types. I don’t think it takes much thought to realise how problematic this is but, again, it’s so unquestioned that even this sympethic interview with Alistair Darling presents the lack of ‘writers and artists’ in the ‘No’ campaign as a ‘problem’ for it. ’No’ faces a dual problem here, then: it is not only negative, it also sets itself against this inherently good positivity and creativity and so becomes even more easily positioned as the petty carping of small-minded people.

This brings me to the one aspect of the ‘Yes’ rhetoric which has probably bothered me more than any other, the positioning and contrasting of nationalism and racism in Scotland against that of England. In the acres of text written about UKIP in the run-up to the European elections it was often noted (accurately) that they had less support in Scotland than in England. When they won a seat in Scotland, Alex Salmond said that they were “a party beamed into Scotland courtesy of the BBC”. This message was eagerly taken up by many ‘Yes’ supporters despite it being enormously trite and simplistic. In itself it perhaps wouldn’t be worthy of much comment but it fits neatly with a subtle narrative which has presented racism as an English problem, with much tutting at its anti-immigration attitudes despite the fact that they aren’t hugely different from those in Scotland.  A couple of months ago I found myself having a bizarre debate on Twitter with two ‘Yes’ supporters who were adamant that racism was more of a problem in England than in Scotland, citing hate crime statistics and pointing to parties like UKIP and the BNP. Again, there are a lot of fluffy ‘positive’ words about ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’ thrown around to subtly highlight the perceived differences.

Make no mistake, having a major party in the UK arguing in favour of more immigration is a big deal and worth praising. It’s not, however, rooted in any particularly marked difference in Scottish attitudes compared to English ones. My own theory, one which informs much of my responses to independence, is that anti-Thatcher attitudes, which bled into anti-Tory attitudes, which in turn bled into anti-Westminster attitudes, have created a buffer for a particular strand of Scottish identity (one which has been on the increase) which defines itself in opposition to a conception of England rooted in a Tory-voting South East. This identity has no time for the notion that much (most?) of England is largely indistinguishable from Scotland in its attitudes to social and political issues; no time for the fact that most of England does not support the Tories and certainly no time for the history of Scotland’s intrinsic involvement and benefit from colonialism and imperialism. Its founding myth is that Scotland is different and it requires England to be right-wing in order to sustain this. I think it’s a quite similar dynamic to anti-EU sentiment in England which similarly finds its expression in nationalism – but the different dynamics at work there make this nationalism more identifiably rooted in national myths and much uglier. It could be argued that it’s a positive force in Scotland in some ways, uniting enough people in its collective myths to create a small but crucial space where it is more progressive in its politics. Yet that’s a precarious position to be in, liable to collapse in on itself if the dynamics change.

I have absolutely no time for anyone who would deny that racism is a problem in Scotland and turning it into a competition or campaigning tool is insidious. The lack of independence was not to blame for the racist abuse which I witnessed my Korean-born friend face almost every single time I spent any time with her in the East End of Glasgow, just as it was not to blame for the casual racism I would hear on a daily basis (usually with regards to corner shops, takeaways etc). It’s possible to argue that independence would destroy the anti-Westminster buffer and cause those who hold onto these myths of Scotland to look at themselves more honestly. If so, it might even be worth it. Yet it seems so ingrained now that I can’t see it changing any time soon and the positive infuence of the myths could be destroyed. After all, the cult of positivity loses its potency when you don’t have the perceived negative force to rally against.

It’s easy to understand why many in Scotland are caught up in the ‘positive’ myth of a better nation – but the ‘Yes’ notion that Scotland is alreadyinherently that nation attempts to destroy UK-wide aspirations towards it. Many throughout the UK want it – I know some myself and I encounter many more. I think this is where many ‘no’ people are to be found. They aren’t British nationalists, royalists or eager supporters of the status quo. Instead they want a better society which doesn’t end just before Carlisle and find the dog-whistle messages that England are the evil Empire to be a distraction – an obstacle, in fact – to this. They think a change in the system of governance in Scotland is not going to deliver this better society. Only work, solidarity and a collective will can do that and that means leaving no-one behind. That sounds utopian, yes – that’s the ‘positivity’ to be found in ‘no’. It’s just not compelling because a long hard slog isn’t particularly ‘positive’, especially when contrasted with the myth of quick and radical change. But myths and a misplaced valorising of positivity displace aspirations, dividing and ultimately weakening us.

Edit: And if you want to see why I began by saying that it seems more hassle than it’s worth, look no further than this quite ridiculous response where I’m basically history’s greatest monster.

Are we really going to have to endure over 2 years of the SNP attempting to paint anyone disagreeing with them on this issue as a Tory and/or “anti-Scottish”? The whole tone of this ‘debate’ has so far been very depressing. In some ways it’s reminding me of the AV debate, where support for AV was seen as the ‘progressive’ option and anyone opposing it on the left was quickly portrayed as an out-of-touch dinosaur who was aiding the Tories. Far too many on the left appear to be afraid to be forthright for their support of the Union for fear of ‘offending’ the Scots. Sod that.

Joan McAlpine quotes herself as saying:

“The Liberals, the Labour party and the Tories are anti-Scottish in coming together to defy the will of the Scottish people and the democratic mandate that they gave us to hold a referendum at a time of our choosing.”

Perhaps someone should point out to Joan that, between them, these parties gained 53% of the vote (and even more in the regions list) and that by ‘coming together’ they could be presented as representing more of the ‘Scottish people’ than her party? This hysterical shrieking whenever any of the parties in favour of the Union express an opinion on the matter and, in particular, on the matter of the referendum, is juvenile. Furthermore, as much as I despise David Cameron, it’s disingenuous to say the least to attempt to argue that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has no right to be involved in this. Between them, the parties in the coalition has 20 MSPs and 12 MPs in Scotland, a reality which doesn’t quite suit the hysterical ‘the Tories are interfering!’ narrative which continually draws attention to the single Tory MP. I’m not in favour of independence – however, I’d rather Scotland voted for that than for ‘devo-max’. Independence and the Union both have a coherency to them which d-m simply does not. It strips away many of the benefits of the Union without proferring enough benefits to be worthwhile. Fundamentally, it doesn’t bestow the major benefit of independence that I can see – namely that Scotland would be unable to blame nasty Westminster for much of its ills. Perhaps the EU would take over that mantle, given the SNP’s antipathy towards the UK government but support for the far less democratic (and unabashedly neoliberal) institutions of the EU.

I like much of what the SNP have done in Scotland. There is a good likelihood that I, like many in Scotland, would vote for them in the Scottish Parliament without supporting independence. However since moving to England Salmond’s ‘blame the English’ rhetoric has become even clearer and even more embarrassing. I’ll live with the result of a referendum, whatever it may be, but the prospect of an infantile shouting match (and of course there are plenty of equivalent voices on the other ‘side’) until then is grim.

I’m not anti-English – but the coalition has hijacked Scotland’s referendum