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.

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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.

 

 

Independence Day

Nothing we say is gonna change anything now” – Independence Day, Bruce Springsteen

So here it is: independence day. The day on which, for many nationalists, Scotland would have gained its ‘freedom’ from the wicked union and embarked upon its journey towards better days; the day on which, for me, some powers would have been transferred from one parliament to another and the latest iteration of pooled sovereignty would have begun.

One thing clear to all but the most rabid of nationalists is that, economically, Scotland would have started life as an independent country in a pretty weak position. Given anti-austerity posturing has been so central to arguments for independence, and the economic position would almost certainly have necessitated ‘austerity’, nationalists do their best to prevaricate and even mislead on this point. This does a very good job of addressing most of the lines wheeled out but one absolutely key point is that much of Scotland’s economic position is due to higher public spending rather than some inherent flaw in the Scottish economy. This isn’t to say that policy at Westminster is irrelevant – indeed it’s essential to acknowledge that different choices have been and are possible. Still, nationalists who seek to blame ‘the union’ for Scotland’s economic troubles would do well to remember that, until the global recession, the SNP vision for the country was as part of a regulatory light-touch ‘arc of prosperity’ with Iceland and Ireland. That ‘arc’ didn’t work out too well.

Anyone who reads me with any regularity, whether on here or elsewhere, will know what I think of Scottish politics post-referendum. I am more convinced than ever that much of the country, and crucially much of Scotland’s left, has gone down a cul de sac of self-delusion. Despite the economic issues I have never argued against independence, and against nationalism, because I don’t believe Scotland could ‘work’ as an independent country. Of course it could. Yet the response to the economics is one of many illustrations of the faith-based nationalism which now dominates politics in the country. As I wrote in this post, “the SNP get the credit for everything perceived as better than the status quo in England/Wales, but anything difficult is judged against an imaginary independent Scotland.” Indeed, independence itself is framed as the repository of all that is good and pure. To believe in independence is to be more noble, more progressive, more correct than the dastardly ‘unionists’ who are, in turn, framed as reactionary, conservative, wicked. This is how the nationalists pull off the bizarre trick of claiming to be for ‘democracy’ and ‘self-determination’ while dismissing the ‘self-determination’ exercised by the majority in the referendum – these people were either hopelessly mendacious and thus not worth bothering with or they were duped by the wicked state/establishment/media, unlike the nationalists who saw The Truth.

That the central political divide in Scotland is now ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ is a source of huge sadness for me. What a state for a country to be in, where we end up with the absurd situation where self-proclaimed ‘socialists’ have more ire for socialists who oppose independence than for a Scottish government passing on cuts while reneging on promises to raise the top rate of tax (for example). There is a very real sense that many ‘socialists’ in Scotland would rather Jeremy Corbyn fail than have to face the reality that they privilege nationalism over socialism – as perfectly evidenced by Mhairi Black’s recent admission to Owen Jones that she would rather have an independent Scotland than a UK with a socialist government. Of course, it seems glib for me to complain about the nationalist/unionist framing when I so freely call people nationalists. Nationalism is not, of course, something unique to Scotland and certainly not to those wanting independence. British nationalism is very real, as Scottish nationalists never tire of pointing out. Yet as I’ve covered before, no matter whether they view themselves as left, right or neither, few who push notions of Scottish exceptionalism and who buy into the idea that Westminster is the problem for Scotland (always conveniently ignoring complex questions of sovereignty re: the European Union, NATO, economic power etc) ever view themselves as nationalist. I couldn’t really care less about being labelled a ‘unionist’ but I certainly have little in common with the (Tory) archetype that term has come to evoke. I am a socialist republican who wants fundamental reform of the UK state and who believes that international co-operation, of a substantial kind rather than glib statements of solidarity, is essential to achieving lasting radical change. The independence movement in Scotland has, I think it is clear, placed unnecessary obstacles in the way of this. For all the talk of solidarity which the ‘left-wing, not nationalist’ advocates are fond of, it’s notable that in Scotland the immediate response to any and all Tory attacks is ‘independence’ and ‘Scotland is different’. For example, much of the left in Scotland responds to Tory attacks on trade union laws by demanding that employment law is devolved to Holyrood, rather than seeking to join and build a cross-border movement against them (or, indeed, face Holyrood’s own shortcomings in this area;) similarly, the response to proposals to relax Sunday trading laws in England & Wales was to try and protect the ‘premium’ pay of some Sunday workers in Scotland rather than even begin to address the real issue of employment rights and labour power. These are the very real consequences of the nationalist cul de sac and those who stridently assert that they are pro-independence for reasons of social justice must surely take stock of the movement they are part of: one where the gains have overwhelmingly gone to the SNP and to nationalism, not to socialism and solidarity.

It’s a cul de sac the SNP seem very eager for Scotland to remain in. 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. Only yesterday, Philippa Whitford asserted that Labour hadn’t voted against the Budget in a tweet which was swiftly being shared by the faithful. There is no way Whitford could not have known this wasn’t true. Yet in the ‘carnival of democracy’ that is post-referendum Scotland, being ‘engaged’ and ‘educated’ seems to mean sharing nonsense memes about whisky duty and how ‘the vow was a lie’ rather than actually doing the boring work of doing research on the issues you are seemingly so aggrieved about. It seems clear to me that few of those who rant about ‘the vow’ have read the Scotland Bill, just as few who rant about EVEL have the faintest clue what it actually means. It’s telling how quickly the SNP line that a 1p rise in the Scottish rate of income tax wasn’t progressive was taken up and repeated, despite every independent body who looked at it finding otherwise. Yet when the SNP ditch abandoning the council tax or raising tax, the criticism is muted at best (and, at worst, leads to a chorus of excuses from supporters who previously passionately supported these policies).

Displaying not a hint of self-awareness, comedy rag The National has today published a couple of ‘what if’ pieces which are perfect examples of the faith-based nationalism I have described above. This one describes a world where an independent Scotland has become a one-party state with free energy on tap, the ditching of Trident has led to world peace and Nicola Sturgeon becomes President of the world having eradicated poverty. Somehow Scotland hasn’t cured cancer, which seems to me to be talking Scotland down. This nonsense from Lesley Riddoch goes even further into fantasy land by suggesting that an independent Scotland would have led to Prime Minister Andy Burnham. Note, however, this section:

Andy Burnham, with his narrow 2015 General Election win producing a small working majority, is set to cancel Trident to appease the left-wing grassroots of his own party while stopping short of announcing a permanent end to the UK’s nuclear deterrent for fear of provoking anxious Tory,
Unionist voters. Who’d be an rUK Premier?

This no doubt seemed like a comedic aside to Riddoch but it illustrates the state Scottish politics is in and the dark underbelly of the nationalism which dominates it. Compromise is presented as something unique to the UK, with left/right division incredibly being attributed to ‘unionist voters’. This is contrasted with an independent Scotland where “there’s worry over the number of long-awaited and ambitious progressive policies being implemented simultaneously” and there are plans “to replicate the astonishing human chain created in Catalonia three years ago, with folk from all nations creating human chains over hills, glens, straths, riversides and pavements to link Oban with Aberdeen and John O’Groats with Berwick.” With independence, all division in Scotland has melted away and it’s full-steam ahead to utopia now that the wicked Unionists are defeated. It’s not just drivel, it’s dangerous.

Sadly, I think this kind of thinking that is so impervious to reality has taken firm hold in much of Scotland. The nationalists are happy in their cul de sac, projecting whatever they like onto a brick wall rather than having to walk blinkingly into the cold light of day. Nothing we say is gonna change anything now but all those of us who think independence is a harmful diversion can do is keep saying what we think and keep fighting the lie that ‘progressive’ = ‘independence’ and vice versa. Bruce Springsteen has spoken of his song ‘Independence Day’ being about becoming an adult and facing the compromises you have to make in life – the kind of compromises you don’t have to make when you’re young and can angrily point the finger at those you view only as barriers to your freedom.

Happy independence day, Scotland.

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.

It’s not about nationalism…

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

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

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

If you make this point in favour of common struggle across the UK – a common struggle which created the NHS, welfare state, trade unions, the minimum wage, formal LGB (I’m leaving out the T due to the spousal veto) equality and more – you’re liable to be met with the response that solidarity doesn’t depend on borders and we can share in struggles around the world whatever our constitutional arrangement. I find this argument rather disingenuous. While we may feel solidarity with people in Gaza, or Ukraine, or Washington, there is not much we can practically do about it. Our solidarity extends to signing some e-petitions, attending some marches, donating some money, petitioning our government and for a minority of people getting involved in specific organisations devoted to a cause. In the UK, however, cross-border solidarity is fostered by our system of government: we truly rise and fall together. This is another argument nationalists don’t like, so we have endless bluster about the wealth of ‘London’ and ‘Westminster’ contrasted with poverty in Scotland. Yet a report released last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation completely undermines this nonsense:

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

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

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

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

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

At best, the majority of the Scottish people will find little difference under Holyrood than under Westminster and it could be worse if a global crisis erupts again. Scotland as a small economy, dependent on multinationals for investment, still dominated by British banks and the City of London and without control of its own currency or interest rates, could face a much bigger hit than elsewhere in terms of incomes and unemployment.

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

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

#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.

I find this piece fascinating in its highlighting of what infuriates me about much of the independence debate. It’s certainly a level beyond Better Together’s ‘independence will be armageddon’ or the Yes campaign’s obsessive sniping at ‘unionists’ but it highlights just how inadequate this debate is in many ways.

Greig complains of “the UK goggles which say you never ask questions” but then we’re later told “Greig said that the outburst in October by the comedian Russell Brand, who said he had never voted, was a symptom of wider alienation with the democratic system in England”. Brand’s words clearly hit a nerve, suggesting the idea that people in the UK are generally living in some catatonic trance is rather misguided at best. Yes, there is much disillusionment with the UK political system – that is different from ignorance which Greig initially complains about. There is a tangible sense that a significant proportion of people in the UK want political change – indeed, there is this sense in most of the developed world. 

This leads us onto Greig’s big point:

“When the City of London wields such astonishing power, it entirely dictates the terms of how we view each other as human beings. We’ve lost the idea that an economy exists to make sure we’re happy and fed. It’s as if we exist to feed the economy.”

What Greig is complaining about here is capitalism and, with his words about being estranged from the economy, he is echoing Marx’s theory of alienation. The City of London could be described as ‘hyper-capitalism’ but given that we all live in a capitalist system, its ‘faults’ are by no means unique. The idea that an ‘independent’ Scotland could reject these basic tenets of capitalism is naive, to say the least. Greig states that “London is essentially an entirely different economy, an entirely different society”. Reading this as a socialist, I find it pretty harmful stuff, eliding the common class interests which exist across the UK and indeed the world in favour of some notion that London is the Capitol in contrast to the rest of the UK’s Districts. People in London are not the enemy and most of them share the same concerns, fears and hopes as most people in Scotland…or Greece, or Spain or etc.

(As an aside, it’s also worth noting that under the independence proposals Scotland would retain the pound and so the Bank of England, based in the City of London, would still exercise strong influence.)

Since the (ongoing) financial crisis, there is a widespread sense that capitalism is deep inside one of its periodic moments of crisis. This brings misery but also opportunities to expose the fundamental contradictions of capitalism and drive change. Much of the political action we’ve seen around the world in recent years, from Occupy to SYRIZA to the Scottish independence movement, seems to largely be a response to, and attempt to capitalise on, this crisis.

In order to do this, however, we need to know what we’re fighting against. Greig says “We don’t need to reform the House of Lords: we need to start again” yet in failing to identify ‘capitalism’ as the fundamental problem he’s discussing he ends up advocating a different kind of reform. Indeed, it’s noted that he would be open to rejecting independence if the ‘pro-UK’ parties offer “greater devolution and reform.” Fine, in and of itself, but ultimately nothing that will address the roots of Greig’s disaffection. When he says that “Scotland’s first independent government would make mistakes and disappoint people who had campaigned for it” it’s difficult not to conclude that this is the inevitable result of a capitalist democracy with social democratic leanings under the current system of global neoliberalism.

Indeed, it’s notable that the sole mention of the EU in the piece is in reference to the ‘modernisation’ of the ‘old nation state’. One of the biggest issues I have with the independence movement is that it seeks to critique the union of the United Kingdom yet, because of the offer on the table, has nothing to say about the European Union and in fact tacitly accepts that it’s a ‘progressive’ institution. Yet by any stretch of the imagination the EU is far less democratic than the UK. It also has immense power over the future of any independent Scotland. From the actions of the Troika to its current negotiations regarding the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement, far-reaching and possibly mendacious decisions are made with little-to-no scrutiny in the UK (or Scotland). A large part of the reason for this is that ‘anti-EU’ rhetoric has been largely lost to the right, despite the efforts of coalitions like No2EU, so the idea that the EU could be pushing austerity, privatisation and an attack on welfare states is at best mocked, at worst ignored. Similar points could be made regarding NATO, the Council of Europe, the UN and the IMF. There is no such thing as true ‘independence’ and we cannot choose to criticise one ‘membership’ while deeming the others to be off-limits.

The same is true of ‘English nationalism’. The Scottish independence debate has been pushed by the Scottish Nationalist Party and is seen as a progressive force. Yet in complaining that such a debate isn’t happening in England, it’s impossible to ignore that anyone labelling themselves as ‘English nationalist’ is immediately viewed with distrust. It’s ground which has again been abandoned to the right. Clearly there are complex and often legitimate reasons for this, with the legacy of Empire having damaging effects on the English psyche. However this narrative obscures Scotland’s own history as a partner in Empire and its own current problems with racism. As we’ve seen, a ‘progressive’ discussion about the future of the political system can originate in England.

Some argue that independence is a way for Scotland to move beyond its tendency to positively contrast itself with England/London/Westminster. This would undoubtedly be healthy and I find it to be one of the most compelling arguments in favour. It would also be remiss not to note campaigns such as Radical Independence, which has offered critiques from a left perspective. Yet the debate generally seems to insert damaging division where there should be class solidarity. It’s completely lost, for example, that most people in England did not vote for the Tories or that no-one voted for the Bedroom Tax. It’s also completely lost that “Although Scotland is more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best.”  ‘Westminster’ is not waging a war against Scotland but rather conducting a class war across the whole of the UK.

It seems clear to me that the argument which needs to be won is not whether Scotland is capitalist within the EU or within the EU and the UK; rather, we need to be reminding people of their class solidarity regardless of nationality and encouraging further debate regarding capitalism and our current global political system. There are certainly arguments that independence can play an important role in this but, on the whole, I see only the naive and obfuscatory narrative found in the article above which confounds matters at a time when the majority in the UK should be united.

Scottish independence yes vote would drive change in England, says writer