The March Left at Noon

march and rally

Saturday’s march and rally for independence was a notably left-wing affair. Under a stereotypically nationalist forest of placards and saltire flags, the crowd cheered and applauded enthusiastically as speaker after speaker imagined an independent Scotland of public ownership and wealth redistribution. The rapturous response to Alan Bissett’s description of so-called “wealth creators” as “greedy selfish bastards” must have made the lonely souls at the Business For Scotland stall feel rather queasy. Indeed, the general tone of the rally and march was considerably to the left of the official Yes Scotland campaign, whose videos and leaflets seemed tame in comparison to the rabble-rousing speeches and slogans.

So why the contrast? It’s very unlikely that Yes Scotland are to the right of popular opinion in general; calls for them to adopt a more ‘radical’ position are going unheeded because shouting about your radicalism is a very good way to lose votes in a small-c conservative country like Scotland. Most people don’t want ‘radical’ change. They want, broadly speaking, the ‘fairness’ and ‘prosperity’ that the Yes campaign are working to emphasise. Yes’s political base, on the other hand, comes from what can be loosely described as a nationalism of progressive reaction – against the disintegration of a British welfare state that tied the union together, and against the cut-throat unpleasantness of the society that followed it.

It might not be quite this simple. There is, perhaps, also something in Gerry Hassan’s notion of a “third Scotland”, a vague green-red spectrum focusing on communitarian localism and human wellbeing rather than the old centralising and managerial tendencies of Labour Scotland or the nationalist universalism of SNP Scotland. But this vision, while certainly popular amongst the commentariat and twitterati, remains too vague and cerebral to have a powerful impact on people’s sense of how their lives will be immediately changed by independence. Yes Scotland are trying to find a middle ground between this rather lofty vision for a “better nation”, and a broader appeal to the public with the basic idea that we’ll all be richer, safer, happier – and so on – with independence.

In this sense, much of the Yes campaign is stiflingly bourgeois. Offended by the open assaults being waged on the poor by the British ruling class, the well-meaning Scottish middling sort has decided that such an open demonstration of class war (and the insinuation of their own murky involvement in such an uneven struggle) just won’t wash. Measures must be taken, it seems, to counteract this vulgar disregard for common decency, and these have taken the tokenistic form of vague demands: equality, fairness, democracy, etc. When politics reaches this level of abstraction, it resorts back to the basic micro-managerial approach of technocratic liberalism. Influential books like Wilkinson & Pickett’s The Spirit Level identify various social ills – poor health, violence, crime and so on – before identifying a simple, catch-all cause (economic inequality, in this case) and proposing policy-level solutions. They point to certain levers within the existing political and economic system, and suggest that we pull them. It all seems very simple, and that’s why policy wonks and left-liberal politicians love them so much – Ed Miliband made The Spirit Level required reading for his staff after becoming Labour leader.

The trouble is, not everyone is a policy wonk. If the best argument for independence is that Scotland can be a fairer and more prosperous society with independence, we need a better way of getting that argument across than lofty claims about our “social-democratic consensus” or “breaking with the neoliberal model”, which don’t relate to the the material realities of people’s lives. Yes Scotland, in trying to make the idealistic message of their centre-left base more accessible and palatable to those outside the policy bubble, end up tying themselves in rhetorical knots and tossing out bland catchphrases. Most Scots don’t see a difference between ‘fairness’ and ‘prosperity’. In our everyday lives, we experience low wages, long hours, demanding bosses and rude customers; a society with less of those things would be both fairer and more prosperous. Higher wages would give greater personal comfort and security, as well as higher tax revenue and better public services; shorter working weeks would give us more time to pursue opportunities outside of rigid work structures and spend time with families; and more control, security and respect in our working lives would give us a better experience of life in general. Fairness and prosperity are two sides of the same coin – and it is only in a politics that recognises the deeply political nature of work that they can be seen and expressed as such, with real relevance to people’s lives.

Here it becomes clear – as it was on Saturday – that there is a gaping hole in the Yes campaign where the labour movement and the Labour Party should be. There is something about labour politics that is both quietly radical and yet profoundly popular: it doesn’t shout about its radicalism from the rooftops, because it doesn’t need to. The political nature of labour – of work – is experienced by the vast majority of the population every day, and a politics which recognises this cannot help but be radical in its implications (though rarely in its manifestations): to put the power of workers above the power of corporations and their owners, a fundamental transformation in the structure of society is necessary. In mainstream British politics it has consistently been the labour movement and the Labour Party that have understood the political nature of work, and that have sought to intervene in this realm. Even at its lowest point, after the “radical implications” embodied in Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution were jettisoned by Tony Blair, Labour remained uniquely aware of the workplace as a place of politics. This is why they remained popular, and it is why the trade unions continued – and continue still – to support them.

As Ed Miliband begins a Labour conference that will focus on zero hours contracts and the minimum wage as well as ending the bedroom tax, Yes Scotland and the SNP risk being outflanked on the left in a way that is both radical and popular. The march and rally was certainly dressed in the flowing, colourful robes of radicalism, but it would be a mistake to think that the politics on offer reflected the priorities of the wider population. There was little mention of work, outside of that confusing old slogan “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” (with the obvious, cheap retort: will the “better nation” pay me a living wage to do so?). A Yes campaign without labour politics is a Yes campaign that cannot help but be condemned to the sterile no man’s land between radicalism and populism. It need not advertise political and economic upheaval to be radical, and it need not tack to the centre to be popular. Rather than banging on about abstract notions of democracy, neoliberalism and the “good society”, Yes needs to talk about the thing that dominates our daily lives more than anything else: work. Not just quantity, but quality. That’s the only way to win the essential votes of Labour members and voters and to convince the general public that independence will have a direct and emancipatory impact on the structure and substance of their lives.

Rory Scothorne


12 thoughts on “The March Left at Noon

  1. Not so much a gap, as a well-oiled open door. But so far, not many walking through from Labour movement to YesScotland (even though Dennis Canavan – & me, & others – are waiting for them). I tried to talk both about inequality AND about a better, richer quality of productive life (widening our usual understanding of “creativity”) in the Sunday Mail today and have tried to get a shorter work hours debate going here But it’s been a roch wind indeed, in terms of responses from the Scot Lab tribunes over the years. I think it’s them who need to ask about their own intellectual turpitude on a futuristic labour-politics, not YesScotland.


  2. It’s hardly a “well-oiled open door”. The SNP have spent years alienating the Labour Party (maybe an unavoidable side-effect of being the other party in Scotland), and we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the benefits of independence are obvious to Labour (or indeed anybody). It’s a party historically tied to the union and it has a westminster fetish – and many are understandably worried about the hegemonic ambitions of the SNP. Dismissing that as “intellectual turpitude” isn’t particularly helpful, and doesn’t acknowledge the similar levels of ignorance and intolerance towards labour ideas on much of the Yes side. One big, glaring question is: why *won’t* the SNP talk about work?


    1. Sorry previous reply misposted… Cancel that… But why has your crit of Yes scotland campaign & work in blog slipped to SNP in reply? It’s clear SNP an ideological coalition, weighted slightly to the left as it responds to public opinion. But the Common Weal you so disdain is a straightforward attempt to pull general civic-nationalism in the direction of a left political economy on jobs, both their quality & quantity. Do you disdain being involved in wars of position like these? Are hegemonies not worth the effort to shift, if the intervention & leverage points are so obvious, & the prize so clear?


      1. Yes, as Amy says – the Common Weal is precisely the kind of cerebral technocratic liberal-leftism that I talk about in the article. It’s sought to bypass working-class institutions rather than grow through them, which gives it a rather hollow ring. There has to be something between the ambitious but top-down radicalism of the intelligentsia and the populism of the SNP. Yes Scotland is trying to do that, but instead of occupying the distinct space in the middle, they’ve split themselves in twain to accommodate both. Without some more explicit overtures towards the labour movement that – horror of horrors – allow Yes to define themselves *against* the SNP to an extent, then they’ll continue to give off the mixed messages we’re currently getting.


  3. I agree with Rory’s analysis above – whatever your opinion on the left politics of the Common Weal, it is not a populist movement, it doesn’t change public opinion (unless we are happy to take public opinion as meaning the opinion expressed by the static public sphere in Scotland). There seems to be no change in hegemony if a Common Weal – SNP spectrum emerges, as both are bourgeois ideologies, designed to appeal to a philanthropic middle class. Where are the class politics here?


    1. Scratching my head a little at the characterisation of YesScotland as insufficiently defined vis a vis the SNP. Do you discount the presence of Colin Fox & Patrick Harvie, or left non-partisans like myself or Elaine C Smith, on the board? Or in the former two’s case, do you also discount the activist networks and mobilisations that these parties bring to YesScotland, by their support? Particularly for the SSP, there’s an implied dishonouring of their past resonance as a left force in Scottish life (absent the hard lessons they’ve learned about the dangers of charismatic leadership…) And although the Greens now group themselves on the left in Scotland, don’t they represent a useful corrective to a Labour movement productivism which might not be as attentive to environment externalities as it might be (ie, nuclear power is a Labour policy?). Never mind the (now perhaps forever lost) Scottish Liberal politics of local democracy and land, still fIickering in minds like Lesley Riddoch & Neal Ascherson. I do deeply appreciate your insistence that the Labour movement’s historic concerns are addressed at the core of the independence movement – a task I’ve been applying myself to for a while, for decades actually (see Jim Sillars in the 80s). But I think it’s the least useful kind of reduction (however satisfying) to call the big tent of YesScotland “bourgeois”. Temper your Gramsci with your Habermas, and let’s *get* to the event horizon.


  4. The presence of left-wing people in the campaign does not necessarily translate into a public image. Yes Scotland does not simply peddle SNP policy, but in many cases it is difficult for it to do anything else, as no other policy is available or demonstrably likely.

    The case of the SSP is interesting, but as a party they no longer have the publicity, following Sheridan, to influence public opinion. I would love to see the SSP rise again but it is unlikely before the referendum. I disagree with your stance on the Greens, as am more interested in the labour movement than environmentalism, though the Greens are moving towards a way of making them work together. The Greens have also been publicly silent on work and many other issues though, probably due to their split membership. As for the issues around local democracy, I do not believe they are framed in a Labour left, but in a bourgeois liberal way. Their premise is land rather than work, they speak to a feudal past, something only the bourgeoisie can relate to.

    The term “bourgeois” is useful because it refers to the immediate political concerns of a class. In a liberal democracy these concerns do not necessarily arise from bad sentiment, but they do arise from the wrong sort of experience, they do not contain the motives to action that will emancipate the worker. I think Rory shows pretty well in the article above that the pursuit of the politics of policy specialists and the commentariat is not the politics of the people that surely nationalism and independence is all about.

    You say you agree with our angle, but think we are over-critical. But for years the liberal left in Scotland has been allowed to sit in self-satisfied gluttony. We are simply prodding them a bit, and trying to be true to the real left as expressed through working class action and institutions.

    Personally, I think Habermas would be disgusted at the Scottish public debate and be calling for a plebian one.


    1. Well as far as I understand my Habermas, YesScotland represents the kind of “constitutional patriotism” he’s been advocating for most of his mature intellectual life. but anyway…

      “Real” left as a qualifier is always a buzzword to note here. All I would say, in order that I can get back to my wage labour, is don’t underestimate the left intelligentsia. In comparing the various recent Springs to the Paris Commune, Paul Mason said that it’s when the lawyers start to revolt that you should be seriously worried. “The French historian Hippolyte Taine understood the essential danger of this social mix. When it comes to revolution, he warned, forget the poor and worry about poor lawyers: “Now, as formerly, students live in garrets, bohemians in lodgings, physicians without patients and lawyers without clients in lonely offices … so many Brissots, Marats, Dantons, Robespierres, and St-Justs in embryo. Only for lack of air and sunshine they never come to maturity.” Taine put his finger on what, in 1789, had turned the normal rebelliousness of impoverished graduates into a force that would reshape the world. He saw that the “worm-eaten barriers [had] cracked all at once”.


  5. I’m not sure what constitutional patriotism has to do with the left in Scotland, as it does not seem to be a particularly ideological position, but I have not read Habermas’ views on constitutional patriotism so am not qualified to say.

    You say “don’t underestimate the left intelligentsia”. All I can go on is what has been produced by them in the public eye so far. It does not seem to lean towards creating an independent workers republic. In any case, Rory’s point and mine is that the intelligentsia is a useless political class without some sort of popular engagement in their ideas. I just don’t see that happening, though I think it should happen.

    For that sort of popular engagement in left ideas of an independent Scotland, I really believe that the intelligentsia, the Greens, Yes Scotland, or even the SNP need to talk about work, rather than going on and on about the welfare state.


  6. if “independent workers republic” is the de jure goal… then we need to have a proper discussion about the nature and primacy of work. Which may require a different level of conceptual discourse than this (see Anyway, lots of time to discuss that in our real-utopia of a 25 hour work week in the 5th year of radical-reformist independence!


  7. I am not sure I understand what is meant by working class today? For most of the twentieth century in Scotland the term was very easy to understand. It meant the mass of workers in Scotland, working in the heavy industries, such as mines, shipbuilding, manufacturing industries, steelworks, labourers of many types etc. With many of these kinds of jobs gone, I believe that the gap between working class and the middle class has narrowed. Are teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers middle class? Even doctors and lawyers, who can earn a substantially yearly wage, see that top footballers can earn more in one week than they can earn in a year. My father came from a working class background, left school at 15, worked for a few years, did his highers at evening class, went to university, and became a doctor. Consequently, my family went from working class to middle class. Does it mean my father forgot where he came from? Of course it did not. My grandfather was a local shop steward at his place of work. He had to leave school at 11 because his father was killed at his work. There was no trade union presence (as it was early 20th century) so the owners never paid any compensation to the family. In fact they came round to the family home, and asked if he had been unwell before he had left for work, before telling my great grandmother that he was dead. This all created a very close bond in the family, as they all had to support my great grandmother. I have very, very proud of my family roots. I am not keen on talk that seeks to divide working and middle class people from one another. Terms like working class and the bourgeoisie are easy to threw about in political debate. However, they are complex groups that are constantly evolving.


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