Kiruna’s Choice

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism) reflects on A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside The Swedish Model (Luath, 2016) by journalist and academic Dominic Hinde. This essay was first published in the Glasgow Review of Books

Utopias are hard to avoid. Look at the popular culture of rich western societies, for instance. TV series like Master of None show implausibly wealthy millennials spending implausible quantities of free time in Manhattan’s best bars and coffee shops. Advertisers tell us that kind of life can be ours at the tap of a credit card. From Facebook to LinkedIn, social media lets us swap finance for fiction, meticulously curating our personal Pravdas of social and professional achievement.

These utopias are generally considered to be safe. Sure, in reality it’s all pretty toxic: the implication of those monetised cultural utopias is that our own poor and boring lives aren’t good enough, that we should spend more money and time trying to attain the unattainable. But Facebook’s dark side pales into insignificance compared to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Now there’s a utopianism worth forgetting.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, political utopia has been shuffled quietly off the agenda. The Cold War’s binary utopias have been replaced by a messy convergence on pick ‘n’ mix politics, a middle-ground of “social” enterprise, “ethical” consumption, and their foreign policy equivalent: “pro-democracy” drone strikes on picturesque little villages in the Middle East. Find your nearest non-profit cooperative bakery and the menu will offer you the chance to have your cake and eat it too.

Anybody insisting on an alternative to this social order – not some free-range bunker untainted by the system, but worldwide transformation – is inevitably dismissed as utopian. Not in the harmless, profitable, cultural sense of the term, but as a political utopian. Utopia, as we learned from the gulags, has no place in politics.

No place. That’s what it means. Any understanding of utopia – as critique, as social phenomenon, as political project – has to start with Thomas More’s foundational pun. In Greek, οὐ means “not” and τόπος means “place”, but “utopia” is ambiguous enough to hint at the term εὖ as well, meaning “good”. “Good place” and/or “not place”: More’s intention when laying out the ideal, peaceful and property-less society in 1516’s Utopia is similarly ambiguous, but later uses of the term have been less so.

Marx and Engels sought to distinguish their variant of socialism – “scientific socialism” – from the “utopian” work of their predecessors, Sebastian Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. In its utopian form, socialism sought

to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda and, wherever it was possible, by the example of modern experiments. [italics my own][1]

For Marx and Engels, the trouble with this was that it wasn’t rooted in the realities of “time, space, and the historical development of man [sic].” Utopian socialists placed too much faith in the abstract truth of their model future, and in their ability to persuade the world of its rightness. The “scientific” alternative was to identify real, social forces in the world as it exists, which can lead towards something better. Chief among these forces was, of course, the working class, pressed by the fatal contradictions of the capitalist system into revolutionary agitation and the construction of socialist society.

For utopian socialists, the reason the world wasn’t socialist was simply that nobody had thought of socialism yet, or hadn’t been persuasive enough in advocating it. For Marx and Engels, the world wasn’t socialist yet because capitalism and the working class had not reached the necessary stage of historical development at which the next mode of production – socialism – could supersede the existing one.

But isn’t communism the utopia? For Marx and Engels, socialism develops into communism, class society is abolished, and the state withers away. All of that is quite unlikely, and I say that as a dedicated communist. Marx and Engels were certainly right to suggest that capitalism was, in the long term, unavoidably doomed (I give it 100 more years at most), and that the working class – the vast majority of people who depend on a wage to live – were the only social force able to replace it with something better. But there’s nothing certain, never mind “scientific”, about the idea that its replacement will be any more stable or humane than capitalism. It could even be worse.

Here’s a workably broad definition of utopianism: it’s the intransigent belief that, despite the lack of much evidence, things can – and should – be better. Not just briefly, but better for good. As the 19thcentury socialist Louise-Auguste Blanqui put it: “what exists is bad: something else must take its place.” But even here, there are distinctions within utopianism. Blanqui ended his aphorism with the unfortunate insistence that “…and gradually things will become what they ought to be.”[2] The Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin, an admirer of Blanqui, didn’t share the Frenchman’s optimism:

On this planet a great number of civilizations have perished in blood and horror. Naturally, one must wish for the planet that one day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am […] inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this. But it is terribly doubtful whether we can bring such a present to its hundred- or four-hundred-millionth birthday party. And if we don’t, the planet will finally punish us, its unthoughtful well-wishers, by presenting us with the last judgment.[3]

Benjamin’s utopianism, like Marx’s, had a fundamentally pessimistic premise: either the future is communist, or we’re all doomed. His pessimism fits our age too, where the prospect of ecological Armageddon meets its older economic and military equivalents. Benjamin’s pessimistic utopianism is far more realistic than the insistence that we compromise with the “reality” of capitalism because it’s here to stay. No social order has survived indefinitely thus far. There’s no reason to believe this one will break the trend, and plenty of evidence (CO2 emissions, for example) that suggests it won’t. There’s nothing more utopian than thinking we can avoid catastrophe without a fundamental transformation of society. Utopias are hard to avoid.

But is there not something else, that doesn’t require all the effort, uncertainty and upheaval of a worldwide socialist revolution, yet which can still avoid capitalism’s ecological and moral collapse? In the 1930s, as the world stood at an existential crossroads between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the American journalist Marquis Childs published a book called Sweden: The Middle Way. He travelled through Sweden as the country was constructing its now-famous welfare system, and the book describes a society that offered something very different to both the red peril in the East and the brown-shirted horrors driving Germany’s economic revival.

Capitalism in the north, it seems to be, has been modified and, in a sense, controlled; the profit motive in many fields drastically curbed and abolished – subjugated might be a better word. To a considerable degree it is true that the domestic economy has been made to serve the greatest good of the greatest number.[4]

Sweden, and the Scandinavian or “Nordic” world in general, has found itself associated with this kind of thought for a long time. A little brook of Scandi-utopianism has trickled away through one hundred years of wars, crises and atrocities, occasionally disappearing underground only to re-emerge deeper and wider than before. In the 1950s the Labour Party intellectual Anthony Crosland described Sweden as coming close to an “ideal of the ‘good’ society.” It had high welfare provision, low rates of economic inequality, and yet private property remained very much intact alongside the institutions of liberal democracy.[5]

Crosland’s fondness for Sweden was inextricable from his disagreements with Marxism. Chief amongst these was a belief that, after 5 years of transformative Labour government from 1945-51, British capitalism had been transformed into something that did not need to be overthrown. The Labour Party, he believed, had democratised capitalism to the extent that socialists could now focus on gradually reducing the power that markets and property had over people’s lives, without actually doing away with the market and property altogether.

Crosland wrote during an era known variously as the “post-war consensus,” the “golden age,” thetrente glorieuses and so on. The depression, the Second World War and the Communist threat had combined to give an enormous amount of political influence to the West European working class, while America’s newfound global power kept this influence contained within the basic parameters of capitalism (if not always democracy).[6] Runaway rates of capital accumulation provided sufficient room for an unprecedented rise in material wealth for workers. Back then, the Swedish model looked like a sort of destination for a journey already underway, a modern society relatively free from the class hierarchies and stuffy traditions that continued to infuriate the British left. However, by the end of the century the imaginative function of the Nordic Utopia had changed. In the late 1960s a wave of economic and political crises shook the world, provoking capital to begin the sustained assault on the working class that is now vaguely described as “neoliberalism.” Trade unions were crushed, wages, taxes on the rich and regulations were slashed, and democratic institutions were gradually hollowed out – often replaced by opaque, transnational bureaucracies ruling by financial diktat.

CoverNowhere in the world escaped these changes. But the Scandinavian welfare states approached the millennium with far more grace than their European neighbours. In 1990, a year after poll tax riots had broken out across Britain’s streets and Thatcher wobbled, the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen published The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, a comparative study of welfare systems in western world.[7] Even at the high point of neoliberal advance, Esping-Andersen described a Scandinavian welfare system that continued to reduce the subordination of people’s lives to market forces. The “liberal welfare states” of countries like Britain and the USA, on the other hand, offered paltry, means-tested payments and encouraged the stigmatisation of recipients. Trade unions and social democratic parties continued to fare much better in Scandinavia than elsewhere in the western world, and Sweden had been at the forefront of measures to combat gender inequality in politics and the workplace.

Resurfacing in the 21st century, the quiet little stream of Nordic utopianism has changed course. Far from being seen optimistically as “the future of socialism”, many on the centre-left cling to it as the last glimmer of hope during a worldwide collapse in social democratic fortunes. While Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in the USA has referenced Scandinavia as an example of “democratic socialism” in action, it is Scotland where the new Scandi-utopian logic has been applied the most consistently. The Scottish National Party point to Scandinavian countries to show that it’s possible to be a small, independent state with a big, generous welfare system. Common Weal, a pro-independence “think-and-do-tank,” has repeatedly drawn on Nordic examples to show how social democracy can be rescued from “neoliberal” Westminster. The “Nordic model” even has its own Scottish think-tank, called “Nordic Horizons.”

In the Lilliputian world of Scottish politics, the quiet little stream of Nordicism often looks and sounds like a river. The Nordic utopia is very nearly the only utopia in town, transplanted onto an imagined independent Scotland of the future. Dominic Hinde has gone wading into the middle of that river withA Utopia Like Any Other, a welcome critical exploration of what the “Swedish model” really means beyond the idolatry and mythmaking of faraway utopians.

Hinde follows in Childs’ footsteps, highlighting key aspects of Swedish society through a series of journalistic snapshots. A discussion with hotel workers (Hinde speaks fluent Swedish) in a wealthy Stockholm suburb frames an explanation of Sweden’s consensual labour relations model. The important thing about this system is that while it relies on the legal backing of the state, it requires little active government intervention. Once embedded in law, Sweden’s collective bargaining occurs between employers and workers at a national level, and trade unions have representation on various important legal, public and corporate boards. Thus we get a “delicate triangle of government, business and unions,” with no party able to dominate.

This theme of equilibrium – between classes, genders, and between humanity and nature – is crucial to the image of Swedish society at home and abroad, but one of Hinde’s crucial insights is to show the origins of equilibrium in struggle. Sweden’s system of labour relations was “the result of almost 40 years of destructive conflict,” thrashed out after the army massacred striking sawmill workers in 1931. The country’s renowned efforts to combat gender inequality, and indeed gender binaries themselves, have their roots in the bolshy activities of feminist organisations like Gruppe 8, who disrupted Trade Union rallies, established local feminist cells and terrified politicians with threats of direct political competition. If Nordic utopians are enamoured with Sweden’s seemingly peaceful, consensual social order, they may be turned off by Hinde’s exposition of the outright conflict that has been necessary in building it.

Hinde offers an even stronger rebuke to the Scandi-fetishists when his analysis enters the “neoliberal” era that Sweden so often appears to have escaped. In the 1980s, the Swedish working class sought to reassert their interests over those of Swedish capital with an approach calledlöntagarfonder. This diverted private profits into employee funds, allowing the employees to buy shares in their companies: gradually, workers would come to own the means of production. But this quiet revival of class conflict threatened to snap the supposedly benign equilibrium, and the equilibrium snapped back. A single-term right-wing government abolished löntagarfonder in the 1990s and it has never been restored. A more sustained right-wing insurgency in the late 2000s attacked trade union rights, along with public services and top tax rates. Trade union membership duly fell from eighty to sixty-eight per cent. On his travels around Sweden Hinde finds himself in Kiruna, a city in the arctic far north. Kiruna is entirely dependent on its vast iron ore mine: so dependent that it is being forced to move en masse down the road, “to last another hundred years or until the ore runs out.” The “green” state-owned mining company is paying for relocation. A local lake is now “a sealed off zone of scrub and unstable black spoil speckled with snow.” The relocated railway line runs between frozen ponds of dirty waste runoff.

Hinde writes that “Kiruna is in a Faustian pact with the industrialised world outside, selling its mineral wealth and culture in return for being allowed to exist.” Kiruna is a microcosm of Sweden: “the success of Swedish capitalism abroad was integral to the development of socialism at home,” and as capitalism abroad falters, Swedish “socialism” risks losing permission to exist. At the heart of the Swedish model is this idea of a profitable niche in the world where, so long as the dirty work is done elsewhere, Swedes can brand themselves as an attractive alternative while benefiting enormously from the established order. “Kiruna wants to carry on living. To do so it needs the dirty world around it to buy its environmentally-friendly Swedish ore.”

As the international basis of Sweden’s utopia – post-war capitalist growth – has worn away, its domestic foundations have begun, embarrassingly, to poke out from under the surface. Those foundations are inescapably nationalistic. In the 1930s, when the Social Democrats began constructing Sweden’s welfare state, they consciously rebranded themselves from a party of the blue-collar working class to become a party of the nation or “the people.” The welfare system was calledfolkshemmet, the “people’s home.” Much of Sweden’s universalist, egalitarian national identity is built not on the image of the worker, but on that of the small-town independent farmer. But as urbanisation and globalisation have continued, Hinde argues that this aspect of Swedish life has “played less and less of a role in the national picture.”

Key constituencies in Swedish politics feel forgotten – and as UKIP’s success in Britain’s decaying seaside towns has shown, forgotten people can be an important political force. While Sweden seeks to maintain its global reputation for tolerance by welcoming thousands of refugees, the far right has surged. The Sweden Democrats, with their roots in Sweden’s White Power movement, have made significant electoral gains by playing on a sense that the threatened “people’s home” can be best protected by excluding non-Swedes from it. Sweden’s Social Democrats and their international admirers believe that nationalist consensus can make capitalism work for everyone, but the inclusivity of nationalism can only be guaranteed so long as capitalism provides enough to go around. With the world-economy stumbling along at rock-bottom growth rates, there is little reason to believe that efforts at a “civic,” inclusive nationalism such as the SNP’s can remain plausible. Sweden offers a warning about where things might go next. The last stand of democratic capitalism, before it collapses into outright authoritarianism, will be the restriction of democratic rights to “nationals” and their denial to outsiders. As the welfare-and-wage pie shrinks, those less powerful groups inside or outside national borders will be denied a slice entirely, to ensure those with more power still get their fill.

The trouble with the Swedish utopia is that it’s not really worthy of the name. Rather than insisting that things could be better and taking the future as their model, Scandi-utopians look for something that already exists – what Erik Olin Wright calls a “real-utopia.”[8] But Sweden’s real-utopia is far too real, too dependent on a happy little “good-place” in a vicious worldwide economy. Now the niche is vanishing, and something deeply unpleasant is emerging instead. A decent, committed utopianism would envision a better world, not just a “better Scotland” following Sweden’s path. Hinde writes that “Sweden for the Swedes could be a positive rallying cry if everyone can indeed be Swedish,” but of course, the problem is that not everybody can be. The nature of Swedish exceptionalism is that not everyone can follow that path – and those who do, can’t do so for long. There is no safe “middle way”, as Childs hoped. Success might be hard to imagine without one, but the choice remains unavoidably binary: socialism or barbarism, on a world scale.

Dom will be launching A Utopia Like Any Other at The Glad Cafe in Glasgow this Sunday (the 29th) at 19:30. See you there!


[1] Engels, F., ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (, 1880),

[2] Blanqui, L., quoted in David Van Dusen, ‘Worlds Without End’, 3AM Magazine (September 2014),

[3] Benjamin, W., quoted in Arendt, H., ‘Introduction: Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940’ in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (Pimlico, 1999), p.42

[4] Childs, M.W., Sweden: The Middle Way (Faber & Faber, 1936), p.18

[5] Crosland, A., The Future of Socialism (Jonathan Cape, 1956)

[6] US-backed dictatorships and military coups across southern Europe in particular were needed to keep the more militant sections of Europe’s working class in check.

[7] Esping-Andersen, G., The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 1990)

[8] Wright, E.O., Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010)


The Scandamerican Dream


‘We can afford to be a fairer nation’: a slogan aimed at those who feel the squeeze of post-crash living, who long for comfort instead of late-night shifts. But fairness is a bird’s eye not a cat’s eye view. Seen from below, wealth is like buildings that are grand on higher floors – the grandeur is not on your levels, but it doesn’t exactly seem unfair until you are told that you deserve to enjoy it too.

The nationalist vision of sharing the nation’s wealth resonates most with well off, moneyed folk who are familiar with the higher levels and think a fair society is one where everyone can reach their social heights. This class, the professional and public elite, lap up Richard Wilkinson’s argument that inequality is bad for the privileged as well as the poor. When they hear that it would be good for their own wellbeing if there were less inequality, they sit up and listen. They flatter themselves that so many people, poor or working class people, aspire to be part of their class, and they are happy enough to help people up to it.

Theirs is the SNP’s promised land full of progressive professionals and soft-left lawyers. This class is reassured that their level of living would not be damaged by upwards mobility: ‘prosperity and fairness are two sides of the same coin’. Fairness will not threaten prosperity for those who have already made it, because fairness according to this formula in fact means prosperity – lifting the poor up to the higher levels. And so the social standard of the prosperous class becomes the model for everyone else. Those who lack the means to rise up in society do not look to some ideal of equality, they look to the rich. And as the wealth expands, so the hope of people will grow too. Like the American Dream, being aware of national wealth does not result in anger but in aspiration.

This ideology, to universalise the conditions of the prosperous class, has its own slogan, ‘all of us first’. It wants to lift us all to those grand levels where the comfortable classes live, with their balconies, cheese-boards and sofas. Nordicism in a nutshell, the Scandamerican dream, is the promise of social nationalism that has been critiqued in recent Roch Wind articles.

Levelling up also requires that upwardly mobile citizens are able to reach the great glass elevator. Those on lower levels unfortunately suffer obstacles and barriers to progress. They are hungry, often bitten by breadline living, cold and without the kind of income to afford travelling of any kind, let alone between the classes. Scotland’s new philosophy preaches that we need to offer not some ideal of equality, but rather the help eradicate the ‘social bads’ they live with. To quote Therborn, a theorist of ‘inequality’: “While I am commited to equality as a value, I see no reason to spell out an ideal state of Equality… A focus on social bads, rather than on a social ideal, was… a crucial decision of the path-breaking, Swedish Social Democratic Level of Living Investigations from the late 1960s, later exported to several countries.”

Whilst effective programmes for eradicating ‘bads’ might lack an ideal, a material approach will alleviate social ills thanks to the richer classes’ compassion and willingness to share. This inclusive nationalism, if it works, will ferment solidarity between the upper and the lower classes. When this works its way into the public mindset, we will have almost achieved a final element of this ideology: all of us participating in one nation, aspiring to Michael Sandel’s definition of democracy where “democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life” (2013).

This kind of social-nationalism was the target of Torcuil Crichton’s perceptive article in last week’s Daily Record. We worry that independence will consolidate this social democratic nationalism. Inequality is the absence of shared prosperity.

Therborn says the middle class is the power to which egalitarians must appeal – egging on the people to cry ‘it’s not fair’. For reducing inequality relies on the desire of the middle classes to live in a fairer society (and the belief that we can afford to do so). It relies on their opposition to the wealth of oligarchs (or the ‘one per cent’), and on their aspiration for a rational and civilized society. Each is a feature of social nationalism, which says the problem is not the rich but the very rich. In summary, admiration of the middle class and conviction in its potential for changing society is a central impulse of what Stephen Maxwell called ‘left-wing nationalism’.

So what’s the problem? Why should such a society be enough to put off radicals from skipping blithely towards independence. Our middle classes can carry on their Scandi-navel gazing while working people will rightly see that life in Scandinavia is better than their own living standard. If that’s not class politics, what else is it?

Radical Independence firebrands like to say that a Yes vote will be a victory for the working class. But though they occasionally talk with Marxist rhetoric, they obfuscate the truth that the dominant class in this bid for independence is the middle class. One chief result will be that middle classes will set the pace of society after independence. This is not only harmful for those excluded from it (which is a crucial concern, but not the focus of these comments), but also holds back the whole society. Here is where levelling up and levelling down have very similar consequences, and where, in a society with a dominant middle class, today’s left can learn from ideas of the twentieth century, including from Hayek.

It was Hayek’s notion that the popular public must not be allowed to impose its ideology across society, otherwise society will begin to stagnate. Hayek builds on Tocqueville’s belief that the middle class holds back public thought. When the middle class has accumulated the kind of wealth on which it can settle down – say, because it believes that it is the middle class of one of the wealthiest countries in the world – then social progress begins to halt. It is an concern not so different from Adam Smith’s worry that society, when it has reached a certain level of wealth, begins to wallow in this wealth and become stationary, leading to the decline of innovation and of workers’ wages. Ordinary middle classes do not create real social change but, being content with the state of society, they begin to settle down, leaving workers to smaller wage-packets.

This is why we should not enjoy the ascendency of the middle class nationalism, but should critique it, point out ways it corrupts thought and manners, and work to challenge it. In the face of crude Nordicism, how can we ensure these theorists’ omens won’t apply to an independent Scotland? Whatever happens in September, there has to be the stirring of some new ideas that will challenge the dominance of the ideology of middle class progress that has ascended with this campaign. In the absence of a creative aristocracy that Tocqueville believed drove society forward, we need an alternative agent of social thought and progress, and we need to take care to preserve what we can of the mores and ideas of the class that is submerged as the middle class expands: those of the Scottish working class.

To name such a thing as a Scottish working class is not to claim that it, and only it, will bring about the kind of conflict Scotland needs; but to question whether its political, cultural and industrial power and identity is able to challenge social nationalism. It appears the class is weak, is being seduced into a social partnership system with hardly any bargaining power, and being offered a social wage that is determined by the government rather than set through their own industrial leverage. Nationalism will find workers a solid place in dull civic society, leaving them powerless and making Scottish society stagnant. This is not progressive.

The answer to this stationary, corporate society must come from socialism. Socialism means not just advancing the interests of working people, but taking society forward, not in line with mutual middle class interests, but with the demands of the organised working class, which are qualitatively different from middle class goals. Many advocates of independence who consider themselves to be on the left pay little attention to the interests and the demands of the organised working class. A few dismiss class politics as arcane, others hold trade unions in contempt, while others still say that socialism and business interests are not only compatible but are coherent. They are no socialists, but are charlatans we have to challenge.

We start by proving – as best we can without the power to realise it – that if workers held the power to innovate and direct industry, then as well as accumulating more power and wealth the working class could revitalise society. So who will be the agents? Some who are at odds with the middle class, including eccentrics and socialists, can emerge from the middle class and understand its limits and barriers. They can dream of a better kind of society, better forms of working class control, and a better kind of class struggle. But the ideas that come from the middle class are not enough, for progress must come through organised demands of ordinary working people, as they associate and are represented in society.

The prospects for the organised working class in an independent Scotland, and the space it has in the economy, is therefore a central concern for those discontent with a future spent staring into Nordic horizons. As a starting point, we should admit that class interests have been missing from the independence debate. Too little thought has gone into considering whether the working class in Scotland would benefit from what the SNP offers following independence. Too many Yes advocates deflect this debate, insisting that the vote is not about the SNP’s policy, and that after a Yes vote we can create a society where the interests of the working class have a place alongside those of the other classes (perhaps through forming a new party). ‘No’ advocates are wiser to say that the terms and structures of the initial stages of independence will do much to determine the direction of Scotland and the place of the organised working class within it.

This debate is what Roch Wind intends to explore over the coming weeks and months. Central to this exploration will be the terms and structures of the SNP’s plans for industrial and economic development, at the heart of which is a weak social partnership model. Given that independence will happen immediately after the next elections in 2016, then, supposing the SNP win, its agenda and objectives will be crucial in establishing the model for industrial and labour relations for an independent Scotland. For instance, the government has said it will establish a National Convention on Employment and Labour relations post-independence. What they say about it must come under far more scrutiny.

None of this is to say the government’s position will define or determine what follows from a Yes vote, but rather that it will be part of the scenario into which the working class movement will enter after a Yes vote. If it seems likely to leave the class weaker, with its power diluted, it would be folly to back Yes. But if the labour movement is confident this scenario is a better one in which to advance the interests and power of the Scottish working class without harming the interests of the working class elsewhere, then a Yes vote makes sense. Preparing to take the opportunities this scenario presents is therefore of utmost priority.

A match made in heaven – Common Weal and the Rich


There is no hiding the fact: we live in a period when moral sense is totally expunged from the minds of the people in the big cities… The worker cannot see why he should lack everything when the rich man goes short of nothing. He revolts against the unjust distribution of wealth which, in his eyes, has ceased to be compensated for in any way. He blames our social system and sees some sort of justice in overthrowing it. He wants, in his turn, to enjoy all the good things of life. This becomes a consuming and intoxicating passion. It is no longer a question of victory over some verbal quibble, or over the form of government. What is at the root of these impious endeavours is the total reshaping of society. From political riots we have passed to social war.

To so grave a malady there would be but one remedy – a return to moral and religious beliefs.

La Liberte, 3 July 1848

Robin McAlpine, in his recent book “Common Weal: All of us first”, is keen to curb the passions of the people. He says that we are often told to blame the poor or immigrants for the wrongs in our society, and claims that instead we should not blame anyone. Blame is an unconstructive action, since really there is nobody standing in the way of a better society – not rich powerful men, not multinational corporations, not violent people. In fact, the main thing standing in the way of our better society is ourselves: “Until now the biggest barrier has been confidence – we have been trained to believe that no alternative is possible, that achieving a decent society is just too damn complicated, so best not to try.” So take the red pill.

We are kept in our state of inertia because some people have the ability to make us believe that change isn’t possible, but in fact these people are easy to overcome, all we need is democracy. For McAlpine, as for Pat Kane, change can be brought about by good citizens with grand ideals, who can construct their utopia with only the power of a democratic mandate. Indeed, democracy is the only counterbalance to vested interests and commercial power (no work-ins for us).

All we need to do to construct a new world order is take a good hard look at ourselves, and question our morality. Our society is built on a “Me-first” agenda – selfishness – while we should aspire to an “All-of-us-first” society, which, in a utilitarian way, would benefit everyone. Me-first is the politics of conflict, All-of-us-first is the politics of consensus. Me-First believes falsely that we have different interests, while All-of-us-first sees the light: more things bring us together than divide us, common needs tie us together in common interests, and the interests of companies and workers are often broadly shared.

So far, so Christian socialist.

Quite a large section of the book is given over to an excitable defence of universalism, which is, apparently, the “fundamental principle that binds Scotland together”. Wow.

“Whenever we create public policy based on putting people on different sides, it is always the side with less power that loses out – the poor or the disabled or women or ethnic minorities. If we create public services which are only for the poor and exclude everyone else, other people don’t have a vested interest in making sure they are great services. And great services is what people who face poverty really need. Targeting, means testing or any other system which makes the poor stand apart from everyone else will fail them.”

As the above section insists, it is we who are creating divisions in society, not ownership of the means of production, not patriarchal systems of oppression. We shouldn’t be targeting resources in order to empower the oppressed – poor people, women, disabled people – but instead we should just give the same resources to everyone – that way everyone is equal, and no middle class people get angry. This, for McAlpine, is the main reason for universalism. If you give £100 to the poor, he says, then people will demand that this stops. If you give £100 to everybody then nobody complains. The Roch Wind answer to this is to increase the power of the poor so that the protests of the rich mean nothing. McAlpine’s answer is to give the rich free things.

The problem is, although apparently the principle of universalism should apply to education, health, policing, justice, infrastructure, childcare, and social security income, McAlpine doesn’t seem to have thought much beyond free prescriptions, bus travel for the elderly, and university tuition fees.

‘Fairness comes not from denying universal services to some people to ‘punish’ them for being better off but from paying for universal services through progressive tax that asks the better off to foot a larger proportion of the bill.’

This is his solution to the criticism that universalism benefits the middle class. He will admit that there are still high levels of inequality in access to university education despite universalist payment of tuition fees. McAlpine says that since a system of more progressive taxation would make the middle classes pay much more for services than the poor pay, it would become fairer. But this is not the case: middle-class people who could potentially afford to pay tuition fees would continue to attend university for free, while poorer people will still be excluded because of inequality and deprivation on many levels, not necessarily simple monetary ones. The central flaw in his argument is the idea that since universal services are paid for with progressive taxation, they are fair.

McAlpine’s obsession with consensus and commonality leads him to describe the boundaries between different groups as simple monetary ones rather than complex power-related ones. This is wrong. For instance, women experience oppression through having power taken away from them on many levels. One of these is low wages, but there are many others – discrimination in education and in the workplace, violence in many forms, the expectation of childcare. Oppressed groups need their own resources, because the equation isn’t as simple as  progressive taxation + universal services = redistributive utopia.

McAlpine does talk about power, but when he does, he wilfully misinterprets its form. He discusses the influence of those who give evidence to committees and play a behind-the-scenes role in government, pointing out that they are often wealthy with no clear mandate or expertise. He says ‘Patronage is a medieval process in which powerful people divide up power between themselves. It is not democracy’. But of course, this is not patronage – it is managerialism. It is running government like a business where a few consultancy experts with no specific knowledge are considered to be able to improve things. McAlpine is right in saying that a change in civic expectations and process can change this, but he pits ‘democracy’ against ‘patronage’ (nationalists’ favourite way of describing Westminster as well) rather than recognising that the problems with a modern state arise not only from conservatism but from the increasing power of business.

McAlpine might say that it doesn’t matter what democracy is fighting, since democracy is a glorious thing, able to overcome any obstacle. He proposes forms of local governance, which are all the rage nowadays. His most radical democratic proposal is participatory budgeting. A community would get to decide whether they would like to build a swimming pool, or more social housing, for instance. How could this possibly go wrong? In McAlpine’s jolly world, the rich would recognise their longer-term interests, and agree with the poor to build more social housing, if it was needed, because in the long run they would end up living in a better society if more people had decent housing. This just seems bizarre. We await with great anticipation McAlpine’s paradigm shift when rich people will let the homeless move into their houses, stop sending their children to private schools and donate to the trade union movement. We’ll keep an eye on George Soros, maybe he’ll make us change our minds.

Amy Westwell

Inflating the Lifeboats: On The Rise of Emergency Nationalism


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


Levelling Up

To dismiss the idea of equality, some liberals call it ‘levelling down’, or ‘politics of envy’. They characterize the pursuit for equality as the masses’ envious desire to lower the living standards and material wealth of the rich to the level of the ordinary person. Such a politics undermines reward for effort, pride in property, and diversity of lifestyle, sapping the moral lifeblood of vibrant civilised society.

Crude egalitarians rise to this bait, and insist that equality need not lower the rich’s lifestyles and living standards. They believe that if the proceeds of growth were shared then the standard for those at the top would hardly suffer, whereas it would rise for the mass of people, as small boats on a tide. Their celebrated research proves that sharing wealth more equally is good not just for the poor but for society and everyone in it. Their philosophy amounts to levelling up.

A breed of this egalitarian politics has seeped through the left of Scotland’s Yes campaign. Its propagandists have named it Common Weal: “an old Scots phrase that means both ‘wealth shared in common’ and ‘for the wellbeiing of all’. It has come the name for a different kind of politics, a politics that puts All Of Us First.”

Common Weal has a variety of demands and dimensions. It looks for progress through mutual agreement and shared interests. It looks to raise the level of the poorest without harming the interests of those at the top. It starts from the hopes and aspirations of the citizenry, as they express themselves publicly.

Its guidebook opens with a question: what are the hopes of citizens? It answers with a list of things that characterize ‘a good life’, such as a comfortable home, a secure income, and good relationships. This is a fair description of the lifestyle of our comfortable classes. Raising people to this level is the aim of Common Weal.

It is no wonder that parts of Scotland’s political and public elite have gladly welcomed this doctrine, for it flatters them directly, describing their lives as the model lifestyle. Its ideas have found fertile ground on high plains, amongst those whose lives already are comfortable – the upper middle classes – but who are morally awkward about the poverty around them. Such people are concerned about the lives of those less privileged, but naturally do not want their own quality of life to decrease. Thankfully, their philosophers (like Richard Wilkinson to Robin McAlpine) insists it will improve their lives too. ‘A fair society is good for everyone’. ‘Inequality is bad for the privileged as well as the poor’. It is no wonder that rich middle classes, not the mass of people, lead the Common Weal.

These noble levellers, demanding the distribution of rights and raising of standards, set their aims within the frame of wealth and living standards that already exist in the country. The experts come from within their own ranks. They are the ones with experience of this better life, and access to the power of distribution. They want others to share their privilege, and with a language of rights and citizenship, they spread their faith in Levelling Up.

In the seventeenth century, an organisation of reformists called themselves the Levellers. Their demand was for the extension of rights and ownership of private property to the people – not to everyone, but to many more people than before, to Level Up the rights and property ownership held by ordinary men.

As time went by, this movement presented itself to the establishment. Its most vocal proponents were part of a rich class, so they were heard at court. Theirs was a moral demand for equal rights to property, but was increasingly presented in a politically astute and mutual way so as not to upset the authorities that held power. Compromise by compromise, progress was made, but the movement did not create the revolution of demands that could have sent a shudder of hope through the poor. Most remained without the rights that the Levellers sought.

Disillusioned with their establishment brethren, a band of radicals emerged from these ranks. They called themselves the True Levellers, and have come to be known as the Diggers. For them, the call for private property and ownership of land did not go far enough. In order to disrupt the concentration of land, which at that time was the primary means of production, the land had to be seized and held in common ownership, to be worked in common for all to share in. They would not accept that they were levelling down, and indeed they were not. To level up or down, the system has to remain the same. The Diggers wanted to reach a wholly different level, of common ownership of the means of production.

The division between the Diggers and the Levellers is a historical issue. But the Diggers’ frustrations with the modest Levellers’ demands are easy to understand. The Levellers said they sought equality, but did not question private property. They wanted to advance the interests of the poor without toppling the rich, but were blind to the chains of bondage and law that tied the poor beneath the rich. They did not seek to cut down the men of property, but to raise up men of labour. The Diggers, more honest and more radical, voiced the real demand for equality – they were slandered and patronized, and the orders came to cut them down.

A similar conflict is going on today. The Common Weal, purporting to be radical, has appropriated language of equality and common wellbeing. Conscripting academics to prepare papers setting out their politics of mutual gain, their philosophy is toothless because it wants to seduce the establishment from which it came. It will not fight or challenge, but is bound by chains of law and property. It wants to raise the fortunes of the poor without coming into conflict with the rich. It says “politics of conflict have set us all against each other… We don’t need blame, we don’t need resentment, we don’t need anger. We need change.”

These words should provoke anger. The elite itself could have written them. When an ever-smaller class holds wealth, when work is done for ever-lower wages, and ever-fewer proprietors own the land, the politics of mutual agreement is an affront to the poor. Anger is legitimate. Power to appropriate and share the land and wealth in common is something to be taken from the rich – not by mutual consent, which will never be reached, but by conflict.

If not by force, then by friction. If not by social science, then by polemic. Not in terms that flatter the rich, not by presenting some ‘real alternative’ that is close to the present arrangements, but by making the kind of demand that everyone knows will not be attained without struggle that the Common Weal cannot suffer – cannot suffer because in truth they represent the very class with most to lose.


Roch Wind’s response to Foley and Ramand’s critique: A prefatory note


The latest article from Ramand and Foley was enough to occupy a lazy afternoon. But in 5000 words of scatter-gun pellets they’ve left us wondering what exactly they were aiming at. Little of their long retort engages directly with one 1500 article written as a one-off post by guest writer Ewan Gibbs, and I, on a site which has been otherwise written solely by the three members of the Roch Wind collective (Westwell, Scothorne, and myself).

Most of Ramand and Foley’s response parodies or lazily criticises some impressions of Roch Wind’s critical project. It is lazy because they say we are loyal to Labour and its history, when we have spent much energy attacking our party, and especially British Labour’s record. Lazy because they dismiss the idea of a Nordic consensus and call neoliberalism the ‘true ideological consensus’ when not just ourselves but a range of experts, academics and commentators have demonstrated how effectively Nordicism is becoming a consensus within the pro-independence movement. Lazy because they misattribute to Gibbs and me various writings from Westwell and Scothorne, misconstrue comments on Gramsci, and say we offer no suggestions for a left-wing programme for an independent Scotland.

To illustrate that they are wrong, using their arbitrary tactics of searching the site for quotes, here are two counter-examples. They may read our site to find some more.

Regarding the current state of Labour, they say we believe that “since it remains a workers’ party, Labour governments will be socialist again as soon as workers recover their confidence. Labour, [Roch Wind] urge, at any given time always expresses the severity of working class needs”. Well, in light of the Collins Review we wrote that “the vote to snap the union links places [British Labour] almost beyond repair” and that the Scottish Labour leadership’s “politics of pessimism are one of the most depressing marks of a withering Labour party that has lost its sense and will descend to the grave.”

They say that we have offered no single measure to “redress the inequalities we’ve spoken of; all we’ve heard is snarky pessimism and utopian fantasy.” But I have written that we should have “three initial goals: higher taxes for the rich, laws to provide secure high-paid work, and an industrial plan under public control… to regenerate Scotland from below, moving beyond conscripted armies of call-centre workers and cashiers, to an industrial strategy suited to people’s ambitions, the condition of certain regions, and the threats of capital flight.”

And they similarly pick us up for neglecting the sphere of education – which they call a means to “mak[ing] working people capable of ruling society’. Their idea orbits around abolishing private schools – but Westwell writes that one direction for higher education is “for academics and students to seize democratic control of universities through mechanisms like students unions and the Senates. Another solution, not necessarily opposed to the first, would be for members of the public and cities to exert control and declare ownership, bringing universities back to the people in a place, for their own pursuit of understanding. The educational impulses of working people in Glasgow, were they to direct the university, might take a different direction… Thus, if someone is oppressed by wage labour, they naturally seek an education that helps them to understand capitalism, socialism and collective organising – this is their own basis for understanding the world.”

So this long article from Foley and Ramand is unspecific, attributes to us a range of views without citation, and conflates one outlying article with a bigger project. Since they know Roch Wind is written by three sceptical, pro-independence Labour members, why do they take one article, co-written by a pro-independence and an anti-independence Labour member who elsewhere have clashed (in the latest issue of Citizen), to be representative of the Roch Wind project? Perhaps they have motives that extend beyond the intellectual pursuits they laud; perhaps they feel more confident in their own compromises if they can watch left-nationalist hawks scrapping on the writings of those who challenge the Nordic consensus they’ve found themselves promoting?

It was amusing, given the range of agreements that Foley and Ramand could have chosen, that they said they agree with us “on one thing: consensus isn’t always a virtue”. We thought that meant that we could at least agree that if there were an emerging consensus in the pro-independence movement between, say, the interests of business and those of the workers, then they would stand not with it but against it. Later on we learnt what they actually mean. They reject consensus in general, but insist that what we characterise as a consensus is not a major issue; the problematic consensus is not the Nordic one promoted again this weekend by the SNP at their conference in overtures from Sturgeon and Lamont, not to mention dozens of delegates, not the ‘social partnership’ model that Jim Mather is working on, cited last week by Oxford and Strathclyde university research as an irresistible new demand to bring employer and worker together in harmony.

No, they see a different consensus to rail against – the consensus against the Nordic model. With their familiar sarcasm, they place us in this sphere:

“Uncritical attacks on Nordic policies are reactionary stock-in-trades, made clear from a recent Newsnight Scotland broadcast on childcare. Susan Deacon, that proletarian icon, endorsed the view that higher taxation would remove “parental choice” from the system… Gordon Brewer, the presenter, agreed, and refused to brook Sweden’s advantages [in the field of education]… That’s the mind-numbing consensus Gibbs and Gallaghershould attack, if they wish to “retake Labour”. Without reforming our education system, criminal justice, and the economics of gender inequality, the preconditions for social change will not exist. In our real context, not the imaginary projection of society fifty years ago, references to Nordicism can be subversive and important.”

Here we get back into the area that myself and Gibbs discussed – on the merits of adopting the Nordic model, in part or as a whole, and of social reforms being “the preconditions for social change”. We will not address this here, but a piece will follow soon from myself and Gibbs responding to the parts of the article which we think engages directly with The Emperor’s New Clothes, addressing again the merits of picking certain parts of the Nordic model and promoting them as an alternative to ‘capitalist realism’. Further responses will follow from Roch Wind, not least addressing the suggestion that we are too fixated on the worker/citizen dichotomy (an accusation previously made by Pat Kane in his response to Westwell and myself’s Citizen Kane), and the strange claims that we somehow aspire to a Labour party based around the Old Labour model.

It is also clear that Foley and Ramand are tough on a sense of humour, and tough on the causes of a sense of humour, so we apologise for any misconceptions caused by our flippant quotation from Johann Lamont. Chiefly used because it was a ridiculously clumsy line which fitted in with our metaphor of the Emperor’s clothes, its only serious content was to illustrate that even the far-from-radical Scottish Labour leadership understand that there is egalitarian posturing going on by the nationalists. As for describing Lamont in casual conversation as a ‘radical egalitarian’, well, next time I will do my best not to keep a straight face when being ironic about the integrity and Communist inclinations of our party leader.

Perhaps the use of the quotation also lit the touch-paper for those left-nationalists who insist they are not nationalist, and who, if you call them nationalist, will tell you how you are ideologically blind to your own uglier kind of nationalism. Ultimately we see nationalism as a distraction, and are anxious when the full spectrum of people who believe in independence for Scotland purport to be pursuing a general, unitary social vision rather than distinguishing their national sentiments from their social ones. Indeed, it is clear to us with the perspective we have into Yes Scotland, and with various other vantage points on the campaign, that there is a nationalist consensus. The Yes campaign promotes the idea of consensus, especially around single issues, as a basis for political predictions for after a Yes vote. Even the BBC criticised Nicola Sturgeon for it this weekend. It is a consensus that we do not like. This is the basis for our criticism of the Nordic model and the left’s flirtation with Nordicism in the name of challenging capitalist realism.

Indeed, it seems plain that Foley and Ramand are quite happy to align themselves with this kind of nationalism in a greater struggle against neoliberalism. Although they dispute the badge of nationalism, we wonder whether they find some affinity with the nationalism described recently by Ben Jackson, the left-wing academic:

“The brand of nationalism that now plays such an influential role in Scottish politics… emphasised that independence was the most effective way to promote the political agenda of the left in a neoliberal era. Insofar as an ancestral culture was believed to be threatened by the British state, it was the culture of social democratic corporatism, which scottish nationalists regarded as well-suited to Scotland’s long-standing egalitarian and democratic traditions. In the face of the neoliberal restructuring of the British economy that emanated from London, Scottish nationalists interpreted growing opposition to the Conservative party in Scotland as expressive of a deep political divergence that could only be resolved by the creation of a new Scottish state.”

But challenging this nationalist agenda is not our principal project. It is, like so much inspired by nationalism, ultimately a distraction, which leaves the more powerful interests unaffected. This is why the powerful are so relaxed about it. Whether the left realises this will determine the kind of political struggle that could emerge after a Yes vote, and whether the left is equipped not with a set of maps of some foreign policy-pathways, but understands the lay of the land in Scotland and the force required to take it.

Foley and Ramand accept that:

“the right-wing has a pre-prepared program. They know how to exploit societal shocks: look at the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Iraq, South Africa, and so on. Gibbs and Gallagher maintain any dabbling with a Common Weal-style framework (or any “blueprint”) will be disastrous for the working class. Our hypothesis is the opposite. Without some framework for unity, whether it’s Common Weal or something more radical, we vacate policy to organised neoliberals, with off-the-shelf free market proposals.”

This takes us back where we started – on the merits of having a programme that is not based on working class interests, but on the cross-class, unifying Common Weal project that is eating up the pro-independence left. Radicals have their own obscure language to identify the power which the right will wield. But all they invoke against it a Nordic ghost.

So we may well be “boxing phantoms”, but we do so because the ideas they summon and conjure are not rooted in the real. We may be lampooned as out-of-date Marxists, refusing to ride the ‘revolution of the normal’ with which Scotland will outstrip the rest of the world on the back of a set of radical demands. But we think their ‘revolution of radical needs’ is groundless, or at least that it requires conjurers like McAlpine to stir up belief in the Common Weal, to shout from the sidelines ‘C’mon Scotland’.

Whatever they say about strategy, the Nordic model is not based on the conditions of modern Scotland, and it flies in the face of the much rougher winds that will sweep over a new nation-state. If all that summons these demands are national attachment and national belief, then they are phantoms that do not need any assault; they will fade on their own, leaving the masses disappointed and dejected. Call us moralistic, call us scientific, but these spells are not the stuff of socialism. As a community campaigner said recently of the Yes movement, what activists are doing is ‘building a wave’. McAlpine, sitting next to her, nodded in approval. But this wave will crash against the rocks, leaving nothing in its wake.


The Emperors’ New Clothes


A guest post from Labour activist Ewan Gibbs, co-written with Cailean Gallagher

“We will not wear nationalist clothes – but we will rip from the nationalists the threadbare garments they dress in to appear to believe in equality.”
                     Johann Lamont, Speech to Scottish Labour Conference, March 2014

In their latest contribution to Bella Caledonia, James Foley and Peter Ramand suggest that in an independent Scotland “the SNP leadership plans… to swap British laissez-faire capitalism for Nordic social democracy” in order to make Scotland a more egalitarian and economically prosperous society. But short of developing a whole new level of retail politics – where the people will be able to hand in one historically contingent ideological system in exchange for a better one – why do Foley and Ramand believe Scotland would adopt this new garb? And what would be the limits of their second-hand ‘Nordic model’ even if Scotland managed to fit into it?

First, on the temptations of the model, the authors conclude that:

“The Nordic model matters because it demonstrates that Scotland can do better. Leveraged as it is on the financial services industry and cheap retail labour, British capitalism is structurally weak. An independent Scotland shouldn’t aim to simply imitate Scandinavian social democracy. It should adopt its best features – strong public and industrial infrastructures, low levels of inequality, a first rate educate system – and adapt them to specific Scottish needs. Then Scotland should aim to set precedents of its own.”

In other words, an independent Scotland should adopt good things. It goes without saying that we all want better infrastructure, industry, less inequality and a better education system. But in adopting the best features of the Scandinavian model and adapting them to Scottish needs, are Foley and Ramand demanding anything more than a change in Scotland’s appearance? Certainly a few new features make a difference to self-confidence, but not to what is underneath. This is just as true in national contexts as individual ones.

Even if it were desirable to ‘go Borgen’ there seems to be very little foundation to the argument that Scotland can simply imitate or improve an existing, and arguably declining, Scandinavian model. Foley and Ramand cite the vague comments made by the omnipotent SNP in support of the Common Weal and Nordic Horizons, but don’t recognise the contradictions between their commitments to a state-interventionist economy and the White Paper’s outline for further cuts to corporation tax and a “business friendly” environment.

Perhaps these are not contradictions, but rather mutually reconcilable interests? After all, behind the SNP’s interests lie the interests of everyone in Scotland – the essence of modern or civic nationalism – helpfully spelled out by the Nordicists as ‘all of us first’. Their appealing case is that the Nordic model offends nobody’s interests. Thus the other evidence they marshal in their support is Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level, which makes a utilitarian case for the broad benefits more equal societies attain in a broad range of areas from economic growth to social trust and cohesion – everyone benefits: businesses and churches, the poor and the middle classes.

In many ways it is a reflection of the defeats and setbacks the left has suffered in recent decades that the current state of Scandinavian societies is held up as an example to be followed. Historically Sweden in particular was cited by right-wing social democrats within the British labour movement as an example of a society where capitalism had been adapted to the needs of social equality, and where welfare policies rather than large-scale state interventionism in the workings of the economy had furthered society towards socialism. In the early 1960s Perry Anderson responded to those on the right of the Labour Party around Anthony Crosland who held these views by emphasising that Sweden fundamentally remained a class society marked by inequalities in not just wealth but in power over economic resources. [1]

The SNP may believe that “Scandinavian policies would generate greater equality and faster growth, balancing private enterprise with a social safety net”. But whether these are in the interests of working people, and of those who suffer poverty, is contentious. Poverty and powerlessness in Scotland remain endemic crises, embedded by falling real wages, a decline in full-time employee jobs and rapidly increasing underemployment. This would not be solved but salved by the free childcare and social wages handed out by a future SNP government. Kneading poverty out of society with certain state-directed policies does not amount to empowerment for working people.

Even if it were desirable, the authors make no robust case as to why, or whether, Scotland will be able to change into the Nordic model. The Common Weal and others have cited the ‘Varieties of Capitalism’ literature that examines similarities between national political economies, suggesting there is ample scope for transition from one model to another. But the Common Wealers fail to address the historically evolved, ‘locked-in’ nature of national varieties of capitalism, which is stressed in the literature. [2] They imply that Scotland will shed its current model of capitalism by escaping the constraints of “structurally weak” British capitalism, but provide no argument as to why an independent Scotland wouldn’t continue to have an economy dominated by cheap, under-unionised labour. Given the Scottish Government’s focus on sectors like financial service, oil, electronics and call centres, we can expect that it will be.

With a Scottish Government that has tied its hands with currency and labour market plans, it is perhaps better to regard their Nordic imitation less as a sincere attempt at social reform, and more like the highest form of flattery of social-nationalist designers. The centre-left Nordic utopians are certainly easily flattered. And flattery is best defined as excessive and insincere praise, offered especially to further one’s own interests. The SNP’s interests are to win cross-society support for their independence project. Imitating the Nordic model does not harm the interests of those who see in an independent Scotland the opportunity to fashion their own designs; not the Nordicists, but those who actually control the wealth means to change society – the powerful rich.

The Nordic model’s benefits seem even more dubious given the trajectory of nations which have followed it. In practice Swedish progress towards socialism was abruptly halted in the 1970s. When the socialist economist Rudolf Meidner proposed dealing with wage restraint through the allocation of shares by large companies to workers’ pension funds in an effort to gradually allow the socialisation of big business, the plan was met with “the fierce opposition of all non-socialist parties and business organizations [which] forced the labour movement to make repeated retreat.” In the face of a threat to its power the Swedish ruling class responded aggressively. Meidner concluded that through the ‘Swedish model’, “the strong Swedish labour movement had proved its inability to encroach upon private ownership, the very core of the capitalist system.” [3] He noted that in the years since then the labour movement had been forced onto the back foot as unemployment grew and universal welfare was eroded.

To their credit, Foley and Ramand provide statistics indicating that these regressive trends have continued in Sweden in the decades since. This confirms that both the limitations of an ideological commitment to managing capitalism, and the dynamics of shifting balances of class power, are as relevant in determining political outcomes in Sweden as any other society. They also recognise that to approach Scandanavian societies with “uncritical enthusiasm” would be dangerous and cite examples including last year’s riots in Stockholm and Denmark’s involvement in the occupation of Afghanistan as example of failings. However, these were not merely protests against changing national trends, but symptoms of the fundamental contradictions contained within the Nordic models. They are the smoke but not the fuel of class dynamics that have shaped and reshaped the model they extol.

It becomes apparent that Scandanavian societies are not redoubts of resistance to neo-liberalism but societies that went through similar processes to Britain. The results of class conflict are not historically guaranteed. It goes without saying the British labour movement suffered a greater setback and the societal effects have been deeper and more negative than in Scandanavia. Thus, the positive aspects Foley and Ramand cite are ointment for a nation, applied across the class divides. The negative aspects are not simple blemishes, but are reflective of the fundamental tensions at the heart of those societies. These tensions remain in our society, in a tighter and more straining form.

So even if we wanted to ‘go Borgen’, Scotland cannot hope to simply lift the historically specific positive garments of Nordic societies over our heads, and slip them on. Even if it is seductive, whether we could even reach such circumstances will be the outcome of an active political struggle. The most concerning aspect of Foley and Ramand’s article is that it does not mention that this would be necessary. In any case, the model is a sham, because without a politics that is fundamentally driven by an understanding of social conflict that places at its core the empowerment of working people to create their own conditions, and the redistribution of wealth and power that are the means to do this, we will have none of the prerequisites to create something better for Scotland. This goes for a yes or a no vote in September, and is a reality that the Scottish Left must be preparing for. Otherwise we will be left as naked the emperor.

Ewan Gibbs

Cailean Gallagher


[1] Perry Anderson, ‘Sweden: Mr Crossland’s Dreamland (Part 1)’, New Left Review vol.1 (7)(1961) Perry Anderson, ‘Sweden: Study in Social Democracy (Part 2)’, New Left Review vol.1 (9) (1961)

[2] See Varieties of Capitalism: the institutional foundations of comparative advantage Peter A. Hall, David Soskice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) especially introductory chapter.

[3] Rudolf Meidner, ‘Why did the Swedish Model Fail?’, Socialist Register vol.29 (1993) p.225.