Inflating the Lifeboats: On The Rise of Emergency Nationalism

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Are we special in Scotland? There is a tendency, throughout the independence campaign but also popping up amongst some unionists and federalists, to see in Scotland a “unique opportunity” to do, well, something or other. It’s part of a general exceptionalism, be that historic (in the context of the referendum) or political (“we don’t get the governments we vote for!”). But deep political changes are occurring all over the world right now: in England, we may be seeing a shift towards a four or five-party system and a strong move towards populism; across Europe, right-wing euroscepticism is on the rise, but so is the radical left in many places. Too many commentators in Scotland obsess about Scotland’s “place in the world” while completely ignoring the world’s place in Scotland. Questions about broader global trends or the dependence of the Scottish economy on the world-economy tend to be obscured by a superficially “internationalist” parochialism. Below are a few thoughts on the nature and veracity of Scottish exceptionalism, and how it might fit into a more general British and global context.

Mr Coburn goes to Strasbourg

UKIP’s acquisition of a single MEP in Scotland has been hailed by some as vindication for the “we’re not so different after all” camp, who for some time have been grumpily challenging those who view Scotland’s electoral peculiarities as indicative of distinct “Scottish values” which go under-represented at Westminster.

UKIP’s small success discredits the differentiation narrative to a similarly small extent. But to point to the splodge of purple on Scotland’s european pallette as evidence against difference seems to rather miss the point. Scotland’s electoral behaviour is obviously different from the rest of the UK’s at a superficial level – a glance at the electoral map will suffice – and UKIP’s relatively poor performance here is arguably better evidence for a degree of Scottish distinctiveness than David Coburn’s new EU pay packet is against it.

A key pillar of the “not so different” argument is that this electoral distinctiveness doesn’t actually reflect much of a fundamental difference between Scotland and the rest of the country. People at the radical end of the left tend to agree that the important thing to consider when making political decisions is the extent of the power of the ruling class, the location of capital and the development of industry. At this level, Scotland is no more unique in the UK than, for example, North-West England.

That’s not a “British nationalist” position, it’s a recognition of material fact. The trade union movement is overwhelmingly pan-British, while there is no uniquely Scottish capitalist class to speak of, with most of the Scottish economy’s “commanding heights” owned either in south England or abroad.  But if our economic circumstances and interests are the same, why the electoral divergence?

Lifeboat Scotland

The existential-nationalist answer is that there is simply something innate to the Scottish psyche that is communitarian, egalitarian, perhaps even “radical”, but this is hard to justify. The SNP are fond of discussing “Scottish values,” but recent research has found little (and indeed declining) difference in social attitudes between Scotland and England, and even less of a distinction between Scotland and various similarly-sized English regions. Social attitudes surveys show that in 2013, 28% of Scots said they had “some level of racial prejudice,” just 2% less than the British average and the joint second highest rise (14%)in racism of any part of the UK since 2000. Inner London, on the other hand, saw a massive fall in self-defined racism, challenging the “dark star”/”northern light” polarity established by Alex Salmond.

Tom Nairn answered the question of electoral divergence to an extent, arguing that Scottish nationalism as a political force has emerged from the crisis of the British state or, more specifically, the inability of British political institutions – including its parties and its labour movement – to “deal with” a deepening global crisis of capitalism. While the working and “middle classes” (the latter being, essentially, a clumsy conflation of the relatively secure working-class, affluent “professionals” and small and medium business owners) across Britain found little comfort in an antiquated and unresponsive British political establishment, their Scottish contingent checked their pockets for change and heard the jangle of a hitherto fairly depoliticised alternate nationhood, and the potential of “Scotland’s oil”.

If we’re to accept Nairn’s analysis of a “crisis” of the British state, its declining power to meet the economic and political needs of the British people should be considered central. At the heart of the British welfare state was the supposedly classless ideal of what the sociologist T.H. Marshall called “social citizenship”, abstracted from a set of newly guaranteed benefits (full employment, public services, free healthcare, social security and so on) and supported by the prosperity of the postwar trente glorieuses and the lingering spoils of empire. But as the world economy plunged into a fresh crisis in the late 1960s, it began to drag those guaranteed benefits with it. British people felt the impact of this across the country, but in Scotland many found a particularly Scottish lightning rod for their discontent. Scottish identity had until then been quietly preserved in the country’s distinct institutions, themselves rescued from assimilation in 1707 by the willingness of an imperiled ruling class to accept English rescue in exchange for political union.

It’s no surprise then that supporters of independence repeatedly express their desire to reassert “social citizenship” with Scottish characteristics, for it is to a large extent the continued decline of social citizenship’s material basis across Britain which nudges Scots towards disunion. The SNP have long discussed a “social wage,” described by Salmond as “the contract between the people of Scotland and their government,” which “affords people the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families.” In James Foley and Pete Ramand’s Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence, the de facto manifesto of the Radical Independence Campaign, Marshall is referenced directly and with approval:

Social citizenship…endured during Britain’s most successful decades of growth; [it] continue[s], to varying degrees, in similar northern European economies, which have higher taxation, lower inequality and better living standards. We are not fated to walk Westminster’s path.

This appears to be the pragmatic icing on an existential nationalist cake; we can accept that this social-nationalism is an ideological response to decades of stagnant or falling wages, demeaning working conditions, a housing crisis, long-term unemployment and so on, but it is an ideological response which sees potential in Scotland, not Britain, despite the fundamental structural covariance of the two and the common nature of the crisis from which the response has emerged. “Another Scotland is possible,” goes the slogan, but not another Britain.

Lifeboat England

So what does England have? Well, England “has” UKIP. Peter Geoghegan has written perceptively elsewhere that both SNP and UKIP draw much of their success from “an inchoate reaction to a series of discrete but overlapping social, economic, political and cultural calumnies that many of us are experiencing but would struggle to name.” Without the promise (though it remains doubtful that the promise will be kept) of Scottish nationalism and a renewed social citizenship, which proclaims that we can grow the economy and spread the wealth, the same crisis in England, experienced in the same way, produces a profoundly different reaction; rather than reconstructing a ruined social citizenship, UKIP propose that we make what’s left of it even more exclusive – otherwise the immigrants will take your overpriced house, your low wage, your crumbling health service, your punitive benefit system and so on. They say: ignore that the British state offers its people a crap deal, let’s focus on making sure it’s our crap deal.

UKIP’s faux-compassionate obsession with immigration’s impact on the labour market is significant here. For many of UKIP’s voters – particularly older ones – the chortling, pint-sloshing, chain-smoking Farage is not reminiscent of Thatcherism, nor Enoch Powell, but of something much earlier: the blokey patriarchs of the old social state, with cigar or pipe in hand and a perpetual whiff of booze. That nostalgia manifests itself politically in a vague sense of who “deserves” the meagre benefits left intact, based on assumptions that jobs are widely available and that British social-citizens deserve priority, relics of a society which had lower immigration and far higher employment than today.

Difference and repetition

This is all rather odd. Scottish nationalism, emerging from the same general issues, produces an obviously different electoral result than British or English nationalism. The SNP certainly have their tartan tory side, and their voters and members don’t seem to have much of a problem with that; but support for the Tories in Scotland is lower than elsewhere amongst all social classes, and the risk of Tory government at Holyrood is clearly lower than at Westminster. Scottish nationalism contains a crucial performative element, where a strangely conservative but nonetheless vocal anti-Thatcherism tends to be perceived, presented and ultimately practiced in polling booths as a defence of the nation itself. This is perhaps a legacy of the poll tax, and the involvement of a cross-class (but elitist) “civic Scotland” in opposition to the Tories during the 1980s. This means that electoral competition usually takes place between parties of the centre and the centre-left, with the Conservatives accepted as the grouchy old uncle who says troubling things but can’t do anyone any harm.

But UKIP’s rise in Scotland has challenged that to an extent, and may have exposed the limits of Scottish nationalism’s capacity to soothe the Scottish contingent of a disenchanted British electorate. If it turns out – as is very possible – that some are voting UKIP who would otherwise vote SNP, the power of Scottish nationalism to divert Scottish votes down a distinctly Scottish and “progressive” electoral road is surely in doubt. And if UKIP begins to offer a visible electoral expression for anti-immigrant and right-eurosceptic sentiment in Scotland that has hitherto gone under-represented, the kernel of truth in the “more left-wing” narrative will grow smaller still.

Despite efforts to claim there’s an unbridgeable chasm between the successes of the SNP and UKIP, both are clearly symptoms of the same malaise, with varying strains developing in the distinct (but overlapping) institutional/cultural climes of Scottish and British nationalism. The widespread surprise at UKIP’s modest success in Scotland betrays a complacent and misguided understanding of our political makeup. Scotland’s “more left-wing” electoral tendencies are primarily a result of nationalism, not a justification for it. But, with a cynical audacity, it has become both at the same time, resulting in an absurdly tautological exceptionalism: we’re left wing because we’re nationalists, so we need to be nationalists to be left wing.

James Maxwell has argued that UKIP’s failure to win more support in Scotland is indicative of their English nationalism and Scotland’s understandable immunity to it. There is probably some truth to this. But Maxwell also thinks that UKIP and the SNP don’t really have anything in common. It could just as easily be the case that Scots don’t vote UKIP because they’ve got the SNP instead. Both parties certainly have different programmes, but they push similar buttons – faced with an apparently shrinking pie, nationalisms of all stripes offer the same thing: to divert more of the pie to you. In Scotland, it’s Scotland’s pie, but Scotland tends to be defined in civic rather than ethnic terms; in England, less immigrants and less Europe means, supposedly, more pie for the “indigenous Brits”.

The nexus of class conflict, institutional divergence and general crisis remains ultimately British. But the ideological response to British-wide crisis (which, it mustn’t be forgotten, is also a European and ultimately a global one) is refracted through distinct cultural-institutional lenses to illuminate two different aspects of Britishpolitics which slightly unsettle the established order of things: the first is the populist left-neoliberalism of the SNP, unveiled by a cocksure nationalism. The second is the populist right-conservatism of UKIP, unveiled in the same way.

One Nation Lifeboat

Where does this leave Labour? It is arguably the only party which could even try to nip both the SNP and UKIP’s appeal in the bud, by reducing the sense of generalised scarcity and competition which provides such fertile ground for nationalism of both the left and right varieties. Labour also remains the only party with a Britain-wide mass appeal, and with “One Nation,” Ed Miliband has identified the common ground across the country: populist nationalism, with an emphasis on distributional conflicts. This contains a clear degree of ideological room for manoeuvre, evidenced in polling showing high rates of support for nationalisation, price controls and redistribution across Britain but also anti-immigrant and anti-welfare sentiment.

But populism doesn’t always manoeuvre; sometimes it just ploughs through everything, so we find the Labour Party promising “use it or lose it” expropriation of land and tax rises alongside welfare caps and anti-immigration measures. Similar contradictions are also present in the SNP and UKIP, but unlike Labour those parties come across as relatively forceful and coherent largely thanks to the forceful and coherent personalities of their leaders. It is Farage and Salmond (although Sturgeon should also be included here) who provide the spark for their populist tinder, and Labour’s failure to fend off the UKIP and SNP challenges has a lot to do with Ed Miliband’s personal unpopularity with voters.

It also has something to do with the media, who treat Farage and (in the Scottish media at least) Salmond with a mixture of restrained hostility and perverse fascination. Miliband, in part due to his own personal awkwardness and an excessively “intellectual” image, tends to face a far more difficult mixture of outright hostility and cheap ridicule. The UK’s right-wing media, still sore from Leveson and historically hostile to anything left of Blair, also understandably see Miliband as far more of a threat than Salmond and Farage.

That is, implicitly, also a recognition of Miliband’s significance. His influence in pulling Labour to the left on economic policy (but bearing in mind his support for austerity) – something his brother would likely not have done, at least with similar vigour – can’t be ignored. There are no clear alternatives to Ed Miliband’s leadership who would be committed to a similar programme, and his replacement would likely be a disaster not only for the Labour left but for the whole party. Labour are on a vaguely electable course with One Nation, and a (further) rightwards shift on the economy would render them incapable of competing with a Tory appropriation of UKIP’s right-populism. Miliband remains Labour’s best bet.

Social-nationalism: the shape of things to come?

But all three – Labour, SNP and UKIP – remain incapable of actually overcoming the crisis at its root. Independence will not mend global capitalism, but nor will One Nation Labour. UKIP’s plan to leave Europe and restrict immigration certainly won’t. Trying to marshall nationalism for “progressive” ends in a rich state (either Scotland or the UK) will do more to protect the status quo than undo it; if there is a “national interest” that can plausibly transcend class divisions, it is the quasi-imperial economic foundation on which the UK and Scotland’s welfarist capitalism rests. Our ability to maintain a welfare state within a mode of production which tends to generate poverty and inequality demands that we take up a privileged position near the top of the global pecking order; only then can reformists guarantee a sufficient share of global wealth, redistributed upwards from poorer, weaker states, to grant massive profits to capital while simultaneously providing something to everyone else in the nation.

“Social citizenship” here shares more with its ancient predecessor than its advocates would like to admit: just as the citizens of the Athenian polis enjoyed immense freedom and security thanks to the labour of rural slaves, “social citizens” in a capitalist world-economy rely on the massive exploitation, without benefits, of a global proletariat situated out of sight and out of mind.

The growing demand for a renewed social citizenship also represents a general decline of the more market-centric and overtly inegalitarian approach to policy that has been ascendant for at least four decades; now the project is to “save capitalism from itself,” in Ed Miliband’s words – “responsible capitalism” is the implicit systemic demand of the Common Weal and the SNP as well. UKIP, while more openly Thatcherite, nonetheless drew success from a widespread hostility to the EU and the supposed “undercutting” of wages by immigrants. While the latter may be utterly misguided, a basic desire for higher wages is nonetheless at odds with the interests of monopoly capital, and the EU has been a crucial facilitator of austerity and market expansionism.

But undermining a declining paradigm does not necessarily promote the destruction of the class who benefit from it; oligarchs are chameleons, not in the evil lizard conspiracy sense, but in their ability to adapt to maintain their power and wealth by diverting the energies of crisis and change to their own ends. That adaptation usually requires a degree of concession, and to view those concessions as constitutive of an actual relocation of power is to completely misunderstand the nature of their power. Social-nationalism may well be the new order of things, and this should not be cause for celebration.

We’re going to need a bigger boat

It is only an unapologetic socialism, refusing to drape itself in any national flag and refusing to hide its intentions, which can hope to undo the crisis from which Britain’s competing new nationalisms have emerged. That’s why those on the Scottish left who celebrate Scotland’s “difference,” and who call for a resurrection of stale, social democratic capitalism are so dangerous; they seek to justify or combat nationalism with nationalism, ignoring the broad nature of the crisis and the necessity of a broad solution.

Social citizenship with Scottish characteristics will not “break up” the structures that facilitate this crisis. It will perhaps adopt or (in Pat Kane’s utopia) innovate new methods of (in the words of Wolfgang Streeck) “buying time” for a system en route to collapse. But it will certainly not help to facilitate socialism, for it relies on forces – the nationalism of “citizenship”, the defeatism of social democracy – which time and again throughout history have precluded and postponed the necessary and fundamental transformation of society.

If independence can be shown to counter these forces as well as the right, it can perhaps be justified. The UK’s “progressive” nationalists are certainly no less reliant on them than Scotland’s, and are arguably more influential, particularly in the Labour Party. But there are reasons for scepticism towards both sides, and the smug complacency of those who initially dismissed UKIP’s chances in Scotland before treating them as an aberration is cause for deep concern about the direction of travel of left-wing politics in Scotland.

Rory Scothorne

 

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