Curse of the Unicorn

No Land in Sight

In a recent article about the Common Weal and its Nordic inspiration, I compared the social democracy of the mainstream Scottish left with a unicorn – a nice thing, but also a fantasy. Dan Paris responded, with an eloquent piece claiming that I had invented the Nordic aspirations of the Common Weal (although Pat Kane, one of its most vocal supporters, has called the Common Weal “Nordic-style” several times).

Dan’s central argument is that the Common Weal has no intention to simply reapply the Nordic model in Scotland. Moreover, he suggests that the model is not even real. After quoting a Danish academic who calls it a “myth”, he says that:

“Rather than a model to be imposed, Nordicism, as far as we understand it, offers a very convincing argument against the inevitability or superiority of the Anglo-American model of deregulated capitalism.”

The response of many to “Riding the Unicorn” has been similarly insistent that, whatever the theoretical or practical flaws of the model, Nordicism is a good ‘strategy’ for the pro-independence left, as it denies the hegemony of the Anglo-American model. In the face of the neoliberal doctrine of TINA (There Is No Alternative), the left can say “but look! It’s at least possible to be not-neoliberal!”

This is why we have the simplistic conception of the various Nordic systems as a singular ‘model’. The approach is a centre-left mirror image of the disastrous off-the-shelf ‘liberalisation’ programmes imposed in former Soviet states, in Pinochet’s Chile, or indeed in Iraq, by American expert ‘consultants’. Nordicism adopts the same kind of method of ‘nation-building’, but with a social democratic rather than a free-market outcome.

So the Common Weal tell us that they have evidence of a model that disproves TINA. This gives us hope for an alternative to neoliberalism, but Dan agrees that this particular one can’t be replicated here. So the Nordic example is no concrete alternative, only a clearing of the table. But then something funny happens – like a nightmare, the reader of Dan’s article escapes the cage of the neoliberal-nordic binary only to find the  very same cage on the other side of the door!

“Scandinavia offers, if nothing else, a compelling argument: that quality of life and levels of equality are strictly related and are best delivered through a committed social democratic state operating in a small nation.”

My initial article described Nordicism as a ghost, an empty resurrection of the British social democratic consensus that was (in nationalist myth) savagely murdered by the zombie-demon of Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps, in light of the above quote from Dan, I ought to revise the metaphor. Nordicism is no mere ghost, but a terrifying poltergeist, repeatedly flinging the Scottish centre-left against a brick wall. It is in its mythical status that it becomes real – regardless of whether or not it is adopted en masse, its example sets the parameters of what the social democrats deem possible, even desirable. This is clear from Dan’s aspiration for a “committed social democratic state operating in a small nation.” The phrase begs for deconstruction, but resists it at every turn. Every one of the conditions must be met for the Common Weal case to survive: it requires a kind of One Nation commitment from various interest groups, and this kind of solidarity can only be found in a small nation. And, we on the left are to assume, without social democracy (and therefore without commitment to Common Weal), There Is No Alternative!

But it is with the odd assertion that Nordic-style success will be “best delivered” that we come to the crux of the matter. Against what is “best” measured? The Common Weal is, quite explicitly, a movement against something – neoliberalism. The Nordic model, Dan argues, has emerged as some of the most useful evidence against the TINA neoliberalism of the past 30 years. But that 30 years has been one of the most devastating periods in the history of the political left. Therefore, “best” is measured against essentially nothing – under the onslaught of global capital, social democratic parties across the world have bowed to the cold logic that says they must efficiently and benevolently ‘manage’ the market and no more. The notional power of politics over economics is reversed, and the market becomes first provider of wellbeing, the state a backup for those who fall through the cracks. So, five small nations from one geographical area, with their own peculiar history and culture, become a desperate benchmark for the world. In those nations, the state operates in a way far removed from the punitive welfare reform, market deregulation and pervasive surveillance of its neighbours.

The idea that their success has been “delivered” by the state is one that understands the “quality of life and levels of equality” in Scandinavia within a neoliberal logic. The assumption is that they were handed down to a grateful public by the benevolent administrators of the market and its welfare-state constraints, and the Common Weal need only repeat this method in Scotland for us to enjoy similar prosperity and fairness. In this there is no place for, as I said in my original article, “the decades of class struggle that produced Sweden’s Folkshemmet as a compromise between workers and capital”. Nor, indeed, is there a place for labour movement victories like the NHS, the 8-hour day, the weekend, and so on.

And who is to deliver this social democracy? Here we come to Dan’s admirable devotion – and who could miss it? – to his own political party, the SNP. Dan’s argument is that an independent Scotland will have the means, at last, to “extend” its social democratic instincts to all areas of society. He quotes selectively from Cailean Gallagher’s article on the SNP’s careful evasion of class politics, picking a section that appears to reflect positively on the SNP’s social democratic credibility:

“It was not the SNP who displaced class from Scottish politics but the architects of devolution who allowed no issues of economic contracts to pass the Castle’s firmly closed door, behind which the Court sits in social democratic consensus. The SNP hold Court having played social democracy better than the other parties, in a system where class was already excluded.”

This is an impressive bit of misrepresentation, for it allows us to focus on how the SNP “played social democracy better than the other parties,” and places the real blame with Labour, the “architects of devolution.” Cailean’s argument – which is not so simple – is better summed up here:

“The SNP are bourgeois in the old sense that they are concerned with people as they operate freely outside work. They deal with the public as a body of burghers, not workers. Through this lens they come to believe that all a government can ever do for the working class is to implement measures to improve people’s ability to enter the labour market, through skilling-up individuals, informing people of jobs available, attracting business to Scotland and creating ‘shovel-ready’ projects. But they ignore one of the central features of class politics: that we can, through political action, change the conditions of the labour contract itself.”

Dan ignores the final sentence entirely. The SNP is not a party of class politics. At its best, it is a party of social democratic nationalist politics, and as such aims for a state in which workers and capital can happily coexist, the inherent tension between the two carefully mediated by a supposedly classless party acting in the national interest.

This is also the position that the Common Weal hopes to assume – a model to be offered to the ‘natural’ social democratic majority in Holyrood in the hope that it will be reproduced as policy. Indeed, it is easy for the Common Weal to attempt this, because they aren’t in power – and a lack of power is the first condition for this kind of social democratic nationalism. This is the essence of Cailean’s argument. The SNP are able to play the game of social democracy so well because they don’t have the powers that most closely relate to the ongoing struggle between workers and capital in Scotland. Any top-down attempt to improve working conditions, pay, hours and so on will come up against the unflinching obstacle of the ruling economic elite. The SNP – or any other governing party – will quickly realise that you can’t do top-down when you’re not at the top.

This is why, before any programmatic solution to our woes is offered, Scotland needs to develop the material basis to challenge capital, in the shape of a powerful labour movement. Cailean and Amy Westwell have argued that this is where the potential of independence lies, and it is here that the independence movement has to focus its attention.

Rory Scothorne


3 thoughts on “Curse of the Unicorn

  1. In terms of “changing the conditions of the labour contract itself”, where does a class-struggle analysis place the initiatives for a shorter working-week, as advocated by environmental think-tanks like NEF, aiming to push back the planetary carbon-toxicity of work-to-consume? Or by Keynesians like the Skidelskys, as alert to the next wave of capitalist automation as they are to the necessary conditions of “wellbeing” It seems to me like a beachhead that we talk about the “social wage” in Scottish national-political discourse – an acceptance that we might approve of a realm of regulation, or public good, that gives us an alternative way of supporting our purposeful lives, rather than just through capitalist wage-labour.

    Can’t we build on that – and in interesting ways? The Oscar Wilde witticism of the “problem of socialism is that it takes too many evenings” still stands. If the Scottish “labour movement” thought a bit more like Andre Gorz, and a bit less like Ernest Mandel, we could use the shorter working week as clearing space for a new narrative around what Ulrich Beck once called “civil labour” – the community-building, relationship-building stuff of life that the happiness scientists rightly tell us constitutes the core meaning of our lives. The “land activism” and “grassroots democracy” agenda of writers like Riddoch, Whiteman – and to be fair, the Reid Foundation in their democracy document – could then becomes the kind of engagements (as well as cultural matters) that fill our erstwhile consumerist soul-gaps. IF we could get the “Labour” movement to be as interested in reducing the domain of wage-labour, as it was in securing recompense for the “alienations” (pace Jimmy and Karl) it imposes.


  2. […] This is not a revolution in the old sense, it is a recombination of previously existing ideas, moulded in the image of currently functioning democracies and state systems. No bloodshed is expected, no Thermidor. There is nothing heroic in a plebiscite (except in the imaginary: we may carry our claymores into the booth); it is only a mass-bureaucratic form-filling of licence for the political class. The most radical end of the debate is that of the Common Weal, its plausibility challenged. […]


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