The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Mr McLeish said Scottish Labour […] should be taking on the SNP by developing policies and an outlook “embracing pride and patriotism and wrapping them in the Saltire”.

The Herald, May 2011

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,
Take these rags and wrap them round you!

Goethe, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Would it not be easier to cast a spell? To mutter some dark phrase, right there on stage in front of the remaining members, that sends everything back to a time when things were as they should be? The headline speakers at Scottish Labour conference wrestled with ancient, archaic incantations, political formulae handed down through generations. Gathered around the cauldron, Khan, Kez and Corbyn tossed in the traditional ingredients: “There’s no difference,” intoned Khan, “between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish, and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion.” Here was the old “patriotic” twist on Labour’s so-called “internationalism”. The secret of real magic is concealment, and the hidden signifier of the word “us” is the core of the spell, an example of what Michael Billig calls “banal nationalism”: what could “us” mean but Britain, that famous force for unity-by-gunboat? Kez was more explicit: “the Labour Party I lead will never support independence,” – her party would instead stand up for the workers at Faslane, in the financial services sector, and on the oil rigs in the north-east. Bombs, banks and black gold form the crux of the party’s last-gasp British nationalism, the final desperate linkage of class and nation that allows Labourism to continue its ritual procession between the two with whatever intellectual dignity it has left. Corbyn, priestly as ever, aimed for spiritual uplift: it is not nation but class that divides us, he pronounced. But the faint outline of Keir Hardie’s ghost was left fumbling with the keys to the conference centre, unnoticed by the scrum around Khan.

Scottish Labour’s spells do not work any more. There are far darker forms of magic in play now, and the cheap constitutional tricks which the party has been pulling in Scotland since the 1970s have lost their charm. The latest idea, a ‘People’s Constitutional Convention’, is a perfect example of the extent of the crisis. By the time you’ve finished reading the name, the whole proposal has collapsed in on itself. It begins with a crashing, unavoidable admission of failure: the last ‘Constitutional Convention’, the one whose proposals shaped The Scottish Parliament, was manifestly not ‘of the people’. In the words of Convention participant John McAllion: “The Scottish Constitutional Convention claimed at the time that it was open, inclusive, and broadly-based, but in fact it was none of those things. It was self-appointed, it was elitist, and it was ultimately unrepresentative.”

Within the parliament’s first few years, historians and political scientists were scrambling for answers about why high expectations had been so radically disappointed. Lindsay Paterson identified a “utopian” tendency amongst the Scottish electorate, the inevitable pathology of a small country with big ideas that could never be satisfied by reality. But whose expectations were these? Had anybody seriously believed that a chamber stuffed with sneering debate-club chums, overexcited local councillors and jaded Westminster veterans would be anything other than a disappointment? In a 1978 diary for the short-lived socialist newspaper 7 Days, Donald Dewar wrote that “an assembly controlling education, health, social work may be a talking shop but what it says will be really important.” Over two decades there was little improvement on such paltry ambitions.

And yet now the Scottish Parliament, and Scottish ‘representative’ politics in general, enjoys a legitimacy – or at the very least an extraordinary lack of popular dissent – which far outstrips its equivalents elsewhere. The SNP can bear much of the credit. They seized upon Scottish Labour’s vacuity and complacency, and articulated a distinctively ‘national’ populism that lifted theme after theme from the Scottish Labour playbook: Scottish-accented managerialism, a bolshy and defensive approach to the all-encompassing other of ‘Westminster’, and a rhetorical obsession with vaguely social-democratic ‘Scottish values’. They upstaged Scottish Labour’s dated performance of precisely the same lines, despite their unpopular constitutional politics and coming back from a dire showing in 2003. In spite of all of this, Scottish Labour still thinks that the best route to resurrection is to dress up the same old boring technocracy with a newer, smarter position on constitutional change.

All the most powerful constitutional proposals have a clear sense of who ‘the people’ are, be it Brexit’s Anglified Britons or the cosmopolitan Scots of independence (see, for instance, the smart-casual everyman holding a cup of coffee and gazing from the balcony of his nice, ‘Yes’-stickered flat in the SNP’s recent TV spot). Devolution, on the other hand, has always reflected the fundamental uncertainty of the Scottish labour movement on this question. One of its finest devolutionist thinkers, John P. Mackintosh, sought a twinned British-Scottish identity, but the politics of the British state from the 1970s onwards made such a fusion inherently unstable.

‘Scottish and British’ hovered between two poles, drawn towards whichever element offered the greatest strategic benefit in any given conflict. In almost every case – with the mid-late ‘90s as a possible exception – Scotland had the upper hand. In the 1960s and 1970s, industrial struggles pitted Scottish workers against British economic planners and multinational capital, and the STUC developed a potent rhetorical cocktail of class and national identity which drew an ever-wider spectrum of Scottish civil society towards it. Thatcher’s indifference towards Scottish politics in the 1980s alienated much of the Scottish elite, and by the time of Major and Forsyth’s limp, tartan tokenism there was a near-unstoppable consensus behind a bizarre sort of solution: a retrospective political settlement that supposedly would have stopped it all from happening in the first place, but offered little hope for a genuine reversal of the damage done.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is about hubris. The apprentice confuses power with wisdom, and in his master’s absence enchants a broom to do his chores for him. But once the broom has begun fetching pails of water, the apprentice has no idea how to stop it; he hacks at it with an axe, but only produces more brooms. Only the master’s timely return rescues the apprentice from the ensuing flood. Several scholars have offered persuasive accounts of the ways in which Scottish Labour, caught between Scottish predominance and British collapse, adopted an enthusiastic anti-Tory Scottish nationalism in the 1980s and laid the ideological groundwork for the big-N Nationalist deluge of the new millennium. But while Scottish Labour makes a fittingly farcical apprentice, few of these accounts ever consider the sorcerer. Some on the left believe that only independence, against which Labour’s “tartanisation” was pitched, can halt the saltire-bearing enchanted brooms which have overwhelmed the Scottish public sphere. Once we answer “the national question” for good (the logic goes), we can ask new, more important questions about class power, imperialism, and so on.

That’s exactly what Labour thought they were doing with devolution. It was supposed to “dish the nats” and kill nationalism “stone dead”. Scottish Labour still believe that they need only offer a clear position on the constitution, combine it with an appealing programme of UK-wide economic transformation, and suddenly the people (which people?) will come flocking back. The problem is that Scottish nationalism has never been about constitutions, or ‘civic’ institutions, or the democratic deficit of an unevenly balanced multinational union; like every nationalism, it stems from the contradiction between on the one hand, an unavoidably ‘national’ articulation of raw human identity, and on the other the inhumane experience of life under a state and economic system that does not care about human beings. The constitution, the institutions, the parties and so on force the boundless, uncommodifiable substance of human life into bordered forms of discipline and control, making people comparable and exchangeable as subjects of this or that political-economic regime. To retain popular legitimacy these static forms must offer a kind of ethno-cultural palliative – a decent, incorruptible ‘homeland’ in which people can still grasp at some memory of the togetherness and commonality robbed from them by the generalised violence of commodification. Is this not the twinkle in the eyes of every punter with a ‘Yes’ badge? As if national independence will stop people being nationalist! But this gives us an idea about the true sorcerer in question, who ought to return and stop the brooms from marching: surely it’s the labour movement itself?

It was Labour, after all, who cast the spell at its most powerful. Labour was the force that managed to fully integrate the British working class into a nation-state that has always been resolutely opposed to working class interests. Did the British left cease to be nationalist when they finally ran a state of “their own”, in 1945? On the contrary: they doubled down, wrapping themselves in the Union Flag, left-chauvinism reaching fever-pitch in 1968’s Commonwealth Immigration Act. And when the hostility of the British state to the left became all too obvious, Labour found a new one: Scotland, Keir Hardie’s birthplace and his faltering party’s chosen retirement home. But Scottish Labour never had the same integrating skill of the master. Populated by a new class of professionals and technocrats, with its connection to the working class left threadbare under the pressures of postmodernity, the party formulated a laboratory nationalism which could never survive sustained conflict with the real thing. Those advocates of a more popular, dissenting nationalism like Dennis Canavan and Jim Sillars either got shunted aside or left in frustration. All that was left was Dewar, ready to say “really important” things in his tartan talking shop.

The smugness that Labour brought to the new parliament in 1999 is still there in its defeat. There is something profoundly self-satisfied about the condemnations of nationalism that echo through the increasingly empty stalls of conference after conference, as if the party’s internationalism is confirmed by every further chunk that nationalism takes out of its poll ratings. On the contrary, it is precisely Labour’s nationalism that has made it so easy for nationalism to defeat it, and which still makes Labour so clueless about how to fight back. This is in the DNA of nationalism itself: it is powerful because it always fails, always leads you to the next false summit but offers just enough hope of the real thing to carry on trudging upwards (Camus wrote that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”). It is simultaneously utopian, fusing personal and national liberation together, and resigned to its fate: a white flag raised against capital becomes a blank canvas to be filled in with whatever national colours you like.

The real horror of it all is this: the SNP’s ‘civic’ nationalism will fail too. They are reproducing all the worst aspects of Blairism: technocracy, bland identitarianism, corporate capture and the total subordination of politics to marketing. Sturgeon’s latest posturing as saviour of the liberal establishment will leave her shaky coalition in an extremely tight spot when the international wave of populist reaction inevitably reaches Scotland.

All of which brings us to the furious debate over Khan’s remarks comparing Scottish nationalism to racism. Many are offended that support for independence is being equated with racism, and are reacting angrily to a recent article exploring the darker racial undertones of Scotland’s myth of progressiveness. Both accusers and accused are, I think, failing to distinguish between the vast sweep of Scottish national identity and the narrower field of constitutional politics. It’s worth remembering that Scottish independence and the SNP are in fact highly partial expressions of Scottish national identity. There are huge numbers of people for whom ‘Scotland’ is a powerful signifier, but who do not support independence or vote SNP. Nationalism is not just about making territorial national borders match political ones; it also means aligning a contested, constructed ideal of what it means to be (eg) Scottish with the political priorities of the state.

It is highly likely that in the coming years as Brexit, austerity, and Scotland’s dire economic state all continue, the focus of this deeper ‘national question’ will slowly shift: this time towards the identities of those who feel left out of Scotland’s cosy liberal ‘consensus’. A new referendum may serve as a rallying point, though post-independence their fury may be even more severe, and they will find new recruits from SNP deserters frustrated by yet another constitutional flop. There is already a political party ready to take up their claim, and it’ll be too late by the time we realise that the Tories aren’t as alien to Scottish political culture as we’ve been led to believe. What if the sorcerer, when they return, isn’t on our side?

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

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Editorial: Into The Abyss

Those who take the meat from the table
Teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.

Bertolt Brecht

The left wing of Scottish politics has been broken, and the country’s political flight path is listing towards the right. In the election just past, Scottish Labour stumbled uncertainly leftwards, tripped over their own position on the constitution, and fell gracelessly into third place. The Scottish Greens gained seats, but the left of the party was disappointed to see socialists Maggie Chapman and Sarah Beattie-Smith unexpectedly stranded outside Holyrood, while the arithmetic of the new Parliament offers few chances for Green kingmaking.

RISE were beaten by the National Front in the north-east, and by the Scottish Christian Party and Solidarity nationwide. Fascists, theocrats and a personality cult triumphed over ‘Scotland’s Left Alliance’ just two years after the independence referendum was supposed to have thrust the population into their outstretched arms. The risk of using seasonal metaphors in Scotland is that they can be all too accurate: after the vaunted ‘Scottish Spring’ we appear to have vaulted over anything resembling summer, and the leaves are already turning brown.

whobenefits

The SNP spent the election positioning themselves in the centre, digging bunkers into the open ground vacated by tax-hiking Labour and tax-cutting Tory manifestos. A Nordic-inspired emphasis on childcare was at the heart of their centre-left social policy programme, but their centre-right economic prospectus included tax cuts for the air travel industry and a stubborn reluctance to make rich people pay more income tax.

The main opposition party is now the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, a group dominated by land and business owners who like their justice tough and their taxes flat. If the SNP are the parliamentary representatives of the ruling class, the Scottish Tories are the bastards themselves. In government the SNP will have to deal with an increasingly disastrous economic situation in a chamber where “entrepreneurialism” has louder advocates and public ownership more braying, tweed-jacketed critics than ever before.

This is what we crusty anachronisms on the far left might call an unfavourable balance of forces.

It ought to have taken a lot of people on the left by surprise, given the hitherto widely-held belief that the left was doing better than ever in Scotland. Instead, people don’t even seem to think it’s happening. Robin McAlpine, great chieftain of the CommonSpace, believes everything is fine. “Stop worrying about the Tories,” he writes. They’re “just a slightly bigger bunch of people stranded on a remote island with little influence over mainstream politics in Scotland.” If the second largest party in the Scottish Parliament has “little influence over mainstream politics”, who does?

Is it possible that only one party – the SNP – determines Scotland’s political life? Some political commentators seem to think this is the case, and the reason given is that the party is not particular to any one interest group, but universal. It is a curious facet of Scottish politics that no one really knows who the SNP stand for. We know about the other parties. Scottish Labour are either stooges for the Tories, a job-creation scheme for useless councillors or the parliamentary wing of the organised working class, depending on your perspective. The Scottish Tories are the party of good decent orangemen, noble small businesses or old rich bigots, again depending on where you stand. The Greens are either a bunch of nerds and hippies or the vanguard of the precariat. And so on.

But the SNP are a mystery, and their members and parliamentarians appear to come from a range of social classes and from across the political spectrum. Even their funding offers few clues; much of their spending power appears to come from fortune itself, thanks to two lifelong members’ massive Euromillions win a few years ago. Obviously lots of people think they know who the SNP stand for: “all of us”, that common wail of the Common Weal. We are to believe that they encompass every class and subculture of Scottish society, as if we could simply negotiate our way out of capitalism without a single person losing their house, or head.

For all their talk of parliamentary consensus and working together, the SNP claim they are the only party anyone in Scotland could ever need, posting leaflets during the election which asked “who benefits most from our policies?”, with the fantastically illogical answer: “we all do”. When one party successfully presents itself as encompassing almost every interest in Scottish society, it’s no wonder that opposition parties, particularly opposition parties that represent clear sectoral interests, seem irrelevant.

This view of the SNP has led parts of the Scottish Left to view the SNP as ideologically neutral, open to being swayed this way and that by the clever manipulation of public discourse. Apparently all that is needed is for the left to create or appropriate a set of ideas that produce (as if by magic) various good policy outcomes, and then persuade the SNP to adopt those ideas too. A side-effect of this strategy, though not one that is particularly problematic for its proponents, is that power on the Left drifts away from any substantive socialist movement and into the hands of a little clique of ideologues and left gurus.

These are, of course, the absolute worst people to be tasked with assaulting the structures of power in Scotland. The SNP’s actual ideological character is totally hidden from them, because they don’t think there’s anything ideological about the belief that all the different social interests in Scotland can work together for the common good. They just think that’s the truth. The most important feature of ideology is that so long as you’re in it, you can’t see it.

roch_windsThat shared ideology sustains an approach to government which we call “social nationalism” in our recently-published book Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland. Social nationalism isn’t a creation of the SNP but the product of a decades-long rise to parliamentary and societal hegemony. Its roots lie in the self-interest of a distinctly Scottish social stratum that emerged from what political scientists call “administrative devolution”.

Since the Act of Union, a significant amount of responsibility for enforcing the power of the British state and capital in Scotland has been delegated to local administrators, first through moral and educational institutions of ‘civil society’, then expanded after the Second World War through various devolved aspects of welfare bureaucracy. There has always been a distinct Scottish establishment tasked with managing, persuading and disciplining the working class in Scotland on behalf of the British state and capital.

The unionist bargain between Britain’s ruling class and its administrative Scottish fraction remained strong so long as the British state and economy had the requisite energy to sustain the diffusion of some power to its northern periphery. But Thatcher’s inheritance – a crumbling state apparatus and a tanking economy – meant the Tories’ traditional sensitivity to Scottish autonomy was subordinated to the rapid concentration of power at Westminster as the crisis demanded a speedy resolution. The simultaneous attacks on the British working class and on the autonomy of Scottish institutions by Thatcher’s government provoked a reaction not only from the working class, but also from those to whom state power had been delegated in Scotland.

reidheathThis reaction pushed many working class Scots into an awkward embrace with Scotland’s imperilled managerial establishment. The former had a long tradition of radicalism, and had recently given Ted Heath’s government a bloody nose during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in 1972. Their obvious place, therefore, was not with the Scottish elite whose key role and expertise in society is to persuade people to be governed.

One of the most effective tools of persuasion is the ability to present one’s own particular interests as universal. Scotland’s political managers absorbed the defensive demands and militant methods of the Scottish working class into a pacified cross-class ideology that rejected the outright conflict of Thatcherism in favour of a moralising, communitarian ethos of public service and corporatist negotiation. Alex Salmond once said that Scots “didn’t mind the economic side” of Thatcherism, but disliked “the social side.” The alternative to Thatcherism, which split the nation along clear class lines, was to dissolve class differences into a new national project: that of defending the remnants of social democracy, expanding Scottish autonomy, and holding a stratified society together through thick and thin.

This did little to halt the destruction of working-class lives at the hands of capital, but it did a lot to protect Scotland’s administrative elite from the same onslaught. They won themselves a parliament, constructed in a lab by a ‘Constitutional Convention’ of the great and good and implemented by a Labour government with little interest in redistributing power to the working class.

The Scottish Government which emerged from that process now funds, or at least provides a profitable focal point for, a grand constellation of voluntary organisations, think tanks, expert advisors, media pundits, consultancies, lobbying firms, public sector boards, lawyers, advocacy groups and media institutions – the list goes on and on.

Almost every single one of these organisations or individuals reproduces social nationalism through their work, papering over the cracks in Scottish society with platitudes about our common interest in social justice, human rights and sustainable growth. The SNP thrives on this, keeping Scotland placid and governable so that capital can continue to exploit the people’s labour power with as little resistance as possible.

Scotland’s imagined political community is classless, consensual and run by disinterested technocrats, and this makes it hard to envision success for a party of open class interest. But imagining a classless Scotland doesn’t make it real, and the Tories are not as isolated from this ideology as Robin McAlpine seems to think.

Our post-election editorial discussed how the Ruth Davidson For A Strong Opposition Party might effectively navigate social nationalist currents. But they’re also well-placed to profit from any emerging discontent with an increasingly stagnant consensus that doesn’t actually manage to resolve social antagonism. As the SNP continues to settle into power and the promise of a better nation disappoints, popular discontent will gradually but surely grow.

So long as the left allows itself to be pulled by social nationalism into the SNP’s orbit, the Tories may come to offer the only obvious source of resistance to a new Scottish establishment. The new Tory MSP Adam Tomkins has already made a start on this, asking crucial parliamentary questions about the same politicisation of Freedom Of Information responses that RISE sought to expose during the election – a noteworthy shift in critical responsibility from left to right.

The Tories are already mastering the SNP’s old trick of operating simultaneously within and outwith the existing structures of power and influence, deferring to social nationalism in some ways and distinguishing themselves from it in others – just as the SNP attacked Labour while appropriating its traditional message. They have an influential cohort of quiet sympathisers in Scotland’s burgeoning corporate lobbying sector, and their distinctive positions on tax and land have drawn them closer to other powerful interests in Scottish society. It’s likely we’ll see them play a key role in a Scottish Government in our lifetimes.

During the UCS work-in the Scottish Trades Union Congress called for a “workers’ parliament” in Scotland. Now we’ve got a parliament with more powers than ever and a popular Scottish Government, with a minister for Fair Work and a partnership system of industrial relations that is lauded by social democrats. But it’s no workers’ parliament – the two largest parties represent everything but the working class.  Nothing sums up the Scottish left’s complacent tolerance of social nationalism as clearly as its embrace of the reactionary slogan adorning Holyrood’s north wall: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” With the right wing gaining ground, perhaps it’s time to strike as if we live in the early days of a worse one.