‘Give Us Peace’: On The Scottish Conservatives

This article was originally posted on the website of Salvage, a communist quarterly based in London

They make a desert and call it peace – Calgacus

In 1968, a few months after Winnie Ewing’s shock victory for the SNP in a by-election to the hitherto safe Labour seat of Hamilton, Tom Nairn sought to get to grips with Scottish nationalism in the pages of the New Left Review. The Scottish National Party did not come off well. They were, he wrote, “lumpen-provincials whose parochialism finds its adequate expression in the asinine idea that a bourgeois parliament and an army will rescue the country from provincialism; as if half of Europe did not testify to the contrary.” Nairn’s main target was clearly Scotland as a whole: the SNP was just the latest sad fetish of a country hobbled by “a history without truth, a sterility where dream is unrelated to character, and both bear little relationship to what happens.” As for the question of a devolved Assembly, soon to dominate not just Scottish but British politics, Nairn feared what it would become in the hands of a bleakly Calvinist Scottish bourgeoisie, whose “rough-hewn sadism – as foreign to the English as anything in New Guinea – will surely be present in whatever junta of corporal-punishers and Kirk-going cheese-parers Mrs. Ewing might preside over one day in Edinburgh.”

Yet fifty years on, the popular history of Scottish devolution – told not just in public meetings and parliamentary speeches, but also textbooks and best-selling novels – is one of hope, radicalism, democracy and a liberated national spirit, reaching its peak in the so-called “festival of democracy” that accompanied the vote on Scottish independence three years ago. Since 1968, when the poet Edwin Morgan wrote that Scotland was “too cold for flower people,” Scotland has supposedly loosened up, let its hair down, and come to terms with its place in the world.

The Scottish Parliament, which came into being in 1999, is at the centre of this. Gerry Hassan has recently argued that Scotland’s “swinging sixties” happened four decades late, with the debate over the repeal of Section 28 in 1999-2000. Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act banned the discussion of homosexuality in schools, and when a fresh-faced Scottish democracy sought to repeal it, Hassan writes,:

It brought a dark, repressive Scotland out of the shadows led by millionaire bus tycoon Brian Souter and PR hatchet man Jack Irvine who even organised an unofficial national referendum against it. Somehow the forces for change won – and the nasty, nervous and homophobic parts of the country, eventually went away. Attitudes changed and the country worried about more important things.

It is fitting, then, that the belated emergence of that vicious junta prophesied by Nairn should occur under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, one of Scotland’s four openly LGBT+ party leaders and a woman widely credited in the media with having detoxified Toryism in Scotland. Nairn was perhaps too engrossed in the culture wars of les années ‘68 to foresee the assimilation of cultural and sexual revolution into a programme of worldwide economic reaction, but he understood something that has been forgotten: Scotland is a country as ripe for right-wing insurgency as any other, regardless of what we tell ourselves.

The Conservative and Unionist Party is the second largest in the Scottish Parliament. Their thirteen Scottish MPs seem set to prop up a Tory-DUP alliance of the far right at Westminster having won 29% of the Scottish vote. After successive gains in Scottish Parliament, local government and Westminster elections, their momentum is still building. The Scottish National Party, despite the reputation for exotic tartan radicalism that so excites English leftists, are so ensconced in spin-driven Blairite managerialism that they cannot bring themselves to spend a penny of their once-vast political capital on raising taxes to stop the “Tory austerity” on which they blame almost every policy failure. Nicola Sturgeon’s recent sharp decline in popularity is partly down to a firming-up of anti-independence sentiment; but it’s also about her failure, particularly when compared to Corbyn, to live up to the anti-austerity image she cultivated for herself in her first major campaign as leader in 2015. Her deliberate shift from populist social democrat to the last defender of elite technocratic liberalism could not have been more poorly timed. The Scottish Labour Party leadership nevertheless remains stubbornly resistant to Corbynism despite the crashing failure of its set-piece campaign to get Blair McDougall, who ran the ‘Better Together’ campaign against independence, elected on an aggressively unionist platform in East Renfrewshire. He came third. This is not the “Radical Scotland” that 1980s devolutionists and 2014’s Yes campaigners asked for. While the rest of Britain rediscovers its radicalism at last, the Scots – once famed for our militancy – are going in the opposite direction.

In a way, Ruth Davidson and those pundits who regurgitate her defining message are right: the Scottish Tories are different. But this doesn’t make them better, only better equipped to win power here than their English colleagues, a quality which gives them significant influence in a party narrowly clinging to power. They belong to a proudly indigenous tradition of Scottish Toryism, one that has been almost entirely written out of mainstream accounts of Scottish political identity. Gramsci argued that to write the history of a party is also to write the history of a country, but Scottish Conservatism defines recent Scottish history largely in terms of its noisy absence: so much of Scotland’s modern identity has been defined by a deeply self-conscious rejection of “Tory rule”.

The idea of a Tory-free Scotland, supposedly made manifest in 1997 when all eleven Scottish Tory MPs lost their seats, is also what underpinned arguments for devolution. During the long ebb and flow of various campaigns for a Scottish Assembly or Parliament from the 1960s onwards, everyone from the Communist Party to the Blairites seemed to believe that a Scottish parliament would be congenitally more radical than the rest of the UK. A similar assumption came to dominate the ‘Yes’ campaign for independence, and prompted a widely misinterpreted televised outburst from an infuriated then-leader of the Scottish Labour Party who said that “we’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions.” Johann Lamont, who meant of course that Scots will not necessarily always vote against the Tories, is surely being proven right.

But the re-emergence of Scottish Toryism has not happened through sheer bad luck. On the contrary, the party’s success is in large part rooted in exactly those anti-Tory assumptions and political strategies on which devolution, and later the Yes campaign, was based. It has burst through the progressive curtain that generations of academics, commentators and politicians have drawn over Scotland’s real history and character, as if the country’s past itself is taking revenge against those who – in their complacency and opportunism – have distorted it beyond use.

Of course, any ideological distortion relies on a degree of recognition as well as misrecognition. For some time, Scotland has been more left-wing than the rest of UK in electoral terms. Since the 1959 General Election, Scottish voting behaviour has diverged from the rest of United Kingdom when a swing of 1.4% from Labour to Tory in England was inverted in Scotland. Harold MacMillan’s “never had it so good” optimism was poorly received in a Scottish economy that stagnated while England boomed. From the abolition of rent controls in the Rent Act of 1957, Tory housing policy has hit with particular force in a Scottish market dominated by the public sector, and the emerging postwar middle class of the self-employed, mid-level managers and small business owners that has been so crucial to Tory politics down south never carried the same electoral weight north of the border. Where this class did exist, its sympathies often lay with a sizeable public sector; and where it didn’t, Scottish industrial workers were amongst the most militant and left-wing in Britain.

Through the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in and the National Union of Miners (Scottish Area), all of which were heavily influenced by the Communist Party, Scottish workers played a key part in industrial struggles which eventually brought down the Heath Government in 1974. Under pressure from internationalisation of capital and the broader decline of British industry, indigenous Scottish capital declined throughout the postwar era, but until the 1980s Scottish Toryism remained a powerful, distinctive force, arguably outperforming what Scottish demographics should have allowed. Tory Secretaries of State for Scotland and MPs rooted their politics in an indigenous tradition of elite paternalism, protestant “unionist [Scottish] nationalism” and local patronage.

In their previous incarnation as the Unionist Party, Scottish Tories are the only party to win a majority of the vote in Scotland after World War Two, amassing 50.1% in 1955 – matched only by the SNP’s 49.97%* in 2015. Their grip on much of the protestant working class was loosened in part through the impact of Tory economic and housing policy, but also thanks to the growing secularisation of Scottish society – something which did not affect the traditionally Labour catholic vote to the same extent. In this context, the fact that Ruth Davidson’s Unionists are now using their prospective DUP allies as the flint on which to sharpen their ‘progressive’ blade is one of many bizarre ironies of the current situation. The Scottish Tories have been forced to secularise, putting aside anti-Catholic, anti-Irish bigotry (as the SNP have also done) and rhetorically embracing the politics of shifting identities – shifting so rapidly, in fact, that even the stubbornly left-leaning Scots can suddenly imagine themselves voting Tory.

That Scottish Toryism is still based on unionism goes without saying. But that unionism is not the shallow tactical variety implied by some commentators, skipping easily between Labour and Tory depending on the constituency, and free from deeper right-wing sentiment. Tory unionism is motivated by a more complex set of political desires, masquerading as anti-politics, encapsulated in Ruth Davidson’s demand in the final Scottish leaders’ debate of the general election campaign: “give us peace”. Few slogans can better express the basis of elite legitimacy in Scotland, for this is a country whose rulers thrive on a promise to manage and contain social conflict, whose propaganda asks us to leave the tricky business of governing to them and get on with our lives, and who dress this up as radicalism by assimilating critique and externalising it onto the ‘Westminster elite’. Such an attitude has deep historical roots.

One crucial aspect of the old Tory vote was its basis in dense networks of local middle-class patronage that spurned the supposedly “political” management of local government, manifested through anti-Labour coalitions with names like “Progressive” and “Moderate”. This apolitical stratum of local middle class administrators was a version of “civic Scotland” long before the term itself became popular, now loosely referring to the coalition of institutional and political elites which led the campaign for devolution in the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet while the newer civic Scotland was driven and coordinated at first not by local businessmen but by the trade unions, during the 1980s its characteristics soon came to resemble its predecessor: though the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly forged close links with trade unions and the socialist journal Radical Scotland, the increasingly defensive nationalism of the Scottish radical left and labour movement during that decade allowed for its quick incorporation into a more moderate coalition, the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989.

The convention was an elite stitch-up, its strategy based on high-political backroom manoeuvres rather than popular struggle. Its politics were defined by the defensive fear felt by Scottish elites as Thatcherism eroded the autonomy and flexibility they had enjoyed within the union for much of the twentieth century. For decades, Scots had been able to “play the Scottish card” in British policymaking, gaining extra resources and autonomy in exchange for delivering Scottish votes down south.

But with Conservative governments increasingly minded to forget about Scottish votes and Labour far from power in England, there was less and less leverage for Scotland’s establishment to use against Westminster short of threatening independence. The latter was certainly not what they wanted, the SNP having stormed out of the Constitutional Convention at an early stage in protest at unionist dominance. It was this tension – between Tory neglect and SNP nationalism – that produced the ideology of “civic nationalism” which has dominated Scottish politics to the present day.

The trouble with civic nationalism is that, as nationalisms go, it is extraordinarily boring. By defining the nation in terms of the ossified values and institutions of Scottish civil society it hands immense popular legitimacy to those already in power, who get to define those values through the institutions they control. With this as its guiding ideology, the results of the devolutionary project were predictable. Just a few years into the Scottish Parliament’s existence, satisfaction with its politicians was depressingly low and the academics who had been so involved in its foundation were forced to find increasingly cynical explanations for its failure to set the heather alight. Suddenly, Scots were by turns “utopian”, “miserablist”, “overwhelmingly middle-class”, increasingly prone to voting for strange anti-establishment parties like the Scottish Socialists or the Scottish Greens. In danger of collapse, civic nationalism was only rescued by the emergence of its erstwhile enemy as a serious contender for power: the SNP’s shock victory in 2007 was the result of over a decade of “modernisation”, as the party gradually cast aside its radical impulses, centralised party control in the hands of the leadership, and began branding itself as just another competent party of government.

The SNP benefited from an image of youthful vitality, too, one which they had cultivated for decades since their popularity amongst young Scots in the 1960s. This reached its zenith in the independence referendum campaign of 2012-2014, when young, happy faces dominated pictures from independence rallies and ‘Yestivals’, and the social media war was convincingly won by a digitally savvy Yes movement. This movement, however, rejected much of the quiet, consensual politics of the Scottish elite and opted instead for bolshy exuberance. The popular excitement it generated grew far beyond the SNP’s grasp. But if ‘Yes’ began to look and feel like an out-of-control house party, then ‘No’ were the police that turned up to shut it down.

“Give us peace”, as good a definition as any of modern Scottish Tory ideology, has to be understood in this context. It reflects, in part, the desire of the house party’s quiet, scowling neighbours for a restraining order on the hosts. So much of the furious opposition even to a second referendum, never mind independence, is rooted in a miserly disdain for precisely the joy and excitement that the last referendum provoked. It is political nimbyism: another referendum on independence threatens to bring the raw, febrile activity of popular politics right back into the pristine gardens of socially conservative voters, and they just won’t stand for it. This is as much a part of Scotland’s cultural heritage as anti-Toryism. In 1968 Nairn wrote that the “odious, grudging tyranny of the older generations over youth which distinguishes Calvinism from civilization will naturally be reinforced after independence,” but simply asking the question seems to have done the trick. The liberation of Scottish culture since the 1960s may not be as permanent or secure as once thought.

The Tories’ ability to benefit from this backlash goes somewhat deeper than their enthusiastic unionism. How is it that an electorate which was already deeply hostile to Toryism has managed to go through almost a decade of Tory governments far worse than Thatcher and ended up more likely to vote for them? The answer to this lies in the most miserable paradox of all: it is precisely the defensive ramparts of devolution, designed to protect Scots from Tory governments, that have insulated Scotland’s new Tory voters from the experiences that have turned people against the government down south. While austerity undoubtedly exists up here too, Scots are simply not subjected to the same unyielding barrage of reaction as the English. The SNP, still Scotland’s most credible party, flatters and reassures a wide spectrum of Scottish society when it portrays the country as a safe haven from English Tory cruelty. It should be no surprise that people who associate this comfort with Scotland’s place in the union decide to vote Tory to protect that. Devolution has also allowed the Scottish Tories to reaffirm their distinctive identity, using the Holyrood pulpit to preach their own fiscally conservative, socially liberal variant of civic nationalism that promises to “stand up for Scotland” through their direct line to the British government while fighting for bland administrative competence in devolved institutions that avoid conflict at every turn. It is this total vacuity of devolved politics, self-consciously free from conflict and danger, that allows the spectre of Scottish Toryism to haunt us so brazenly. They can happily adopt the rhetoric of the centre-left parties that have predominated in Scottish politics, articulating a politically empty “Scottish” interest that means whatever the voters want it to. To make matters worse, the party of capital will find far more support in the media and amongst those with deep pockets than Labour or the SNP ever could. And finally, they can tap into deep wells of frustration with a seemingly left-leaning Scottish establishment which has done little of note with the parliament it built for itself. The Tory route to power at Holyrood is now clearer than ever.

Scottish politics, then, finds itself in a strange position. At Westminster, the British ruling class is gripped by a profound crisis forced upon it by the organisation and energy of the Labour left. Britain seems closer than ever to “the sunshine of socialism,” as Corbyn called it in a recent speech to the STUC. But things, as we’ve been told for decades, are different in Scotland. In the Scottish Parliament, the sun, when it comes, bursts enthusiastically through windows set high in the debating chamber; once inside, its thick pillars of light find little to illuminate but the dust that floats there in flat, bureaucratic air, particles of dead skin drifting aimlessly upwards from the assembled shuffling bodies of our representatives. Shuffling where? Why? Nothing grows in the grey, concrete halls of Holyrood, no new ideas or battles erupt; the great upsurge of the independence referendum happened outside, on the streets and in town halls, and the immense political capital it granted to the SNP was frittered away on posturing and pandering to everybody and nobody. They are a party that seizes on their supporters’ radicalism only in order to crush it. But they can’t take all the blame: the Scottish Parliament has the political culture of a desert. It is not a place where politics lives. If Ruth Davidson’s voters want peace, they’ll find it there.

Rory Scothorne – @shirkerism 

*this article originally said that the SNP also won a majority of the vote, with 50% in 2015. They actually won 49.97%. Thank you to Gerry Hassan for the correction.

Advertisements

The Coming Referendum

Should we write another book? Echo the old lines, attack the old enemies, show up to the old events with the same slightly-older people, and relish the opportunity to do it all again? This time maybe it’ll work. With a blast of Sturgeon’s trumpet, the settled will of the Scottish people has been unsettled, forced to stumble forwards into independence or backwards into Brexit. We know the script already: the radicals will trot along dissatisfied behind the SNP, the establishment case for independence will not work, a mid-campaign tactical shift to the left will lead to a thrilling last dash to the polls, and we’ll lose. There might even be a ‘Yes’ vote, but the socialists – on both sides of the divide – will finish in the same position as last time: sidelined, confused, and angry at one another.

In 2016 we wrote that the 2014 referendum had become fossilised, its molten, complex life tramped down into something dead and solid under the boots of two warring tendencies: instrumental analysis and romantic nostalgia. The SNP surged onwards, their energy waning under the shock assault of Brexit. But Scottish nationalists understandbetter than anybody else the energising potential of fossil fuel: with a new referendum they hope to ignite 2014’s buried power for their ‘progressive beacon’ to burn now that the embers of Thatcherism and Labourism have faded to dust. Within moments of Sturgeon’s announcement, Twitter – that venerated battleground – featured reenactments of ancient arguments, with the same contradictions and frustrations, the same sense that everybody was hiding something sinister beneath their loyalty to naive notions like the British working class or the Labour Party, Scottish radicalism or social democracy. The old lines, like old shoes, fit both comfortably and uselessly. Worn again after years in storage, their holes have grown, letting all the outside elements in. Each side has taken on characteristics of the other – Corbynites are devoted to the same wild hopes for ending austerity that they parodied in the Radical Independence Campaign, who in turn are considering whether to feign the enthusiasm for the EU that Corbyn tried and failed to make convincing. The soiled costumes of dead referendums hang like habits from the frames of the young.

There’s nothing new under the sun, except what we might imagine. But the Scots have learnt to be careful with their imaginations. During the reign of James VI and I, at the point of the real political union of Scotland and England in the early 1600s, some women imagined the king’s death all too vividly, and were put to death for treason. One Agnes Sampson sailed with 200 other women in sieves from Leith to North Berwick, on the way baptising a cat and then drowning it, in order to kill the king in a storm. Thus it became High Treason to imagine the death of a king. Since then, we’ve been careful to keep our minds in check. No treacherous thoughts pass through our empty heids beyond a desire to shuffle the sovereign from one capital to another, and shuffle capital from one sovereignty to the next. Scotland captures the seditious imagination as a trap captures a hare: during excitable moments the people imagine a better Scotland, but they never begin to conjure up the image of a life without sovereigns. Real imagination is sorcery, and sorcery is dangerously and powerfully independent.

Many in James’s court were agitating for him to break from the British Union and restore the Union with France that had clothed his provincial nobles in garments of genteel worldliness. These were contending bonds pulling the Scottish sovereign in two different directions. Sturgeon, too, has started to carefully ease the nation towards the second choice, a settlement that will protect – or if needs be restore – Scotland’s Union with Europe. A free trading, NATO-nurturing, North European satellite-state is the strict limit of the nationalists’ imagination. Sorcerers reject the sovereign choice altogether.

One of the most debilitating features of the independence movement is its careful destruction of any serious, critical imagination of Scotland’s future. Criticism of the ‘Yes’ campaign that imagined a worse Scotland, one of strife and turmoil, was roundly condemned as being the product of a lack of imagination or decried as imagination’s undesirable cousin, fantasy. In demanding that we imagine ‘another Scotland’ after independence, nationalists are really asking us to suppress all those aspects of our collective imagination other than the emptiest dream of all: a ‘blank canvas’ for the infinite possibilities of civil participation.

Who does such an image serve? People will wake up on the day of independence and find businessses and bureaucrats filling the whole canvas with their own monotonous hues. Thinking about the practicalities of statehood – migration rules, benefits systems, tax regimes and ‘national security’ – stirs up a certain dejectedness about political reality, like the exhaustion that arises from a quest for the end of the rainbow. The attempt only emphasises the dull materiality of the ‘one great thing’ on offer. But if we soberly imagine the affairs and actions of an independent Scotland under (and after) Sturgeon, then our own grievances and gloom about that Scotland will become clearer. We can start to inspire resistance to that future Scotland, casting spells against what we expect will emerge after the referendum. Anticipating an independent Scotland but refusing the path being offered means choosing a more treacherous and uncertain route. Right now, Scottish traitors can plot with impunity: there can be no trials for sedition in a state which does not yet exist. A thoroughly imagined community entails an imagined resistance, so amidst the referendum haze Roch Winds (and anyone who cares to join us) will illuminate the future Scotland, and describe the actions – mutinies, barricades, and resistance – that we can pitch against it. It will be fiction, but it could be future history.

Behind the dark, seductive images of conflict and resistance there is something gentler that motivates us, and others like us. It is undoubtedly something we partially share with the independence movement. On the one hand, it is a longing for the free play and transformation of our identities in their fullest sense – our selves – collectively made and shared, defined in relation to (and sometimes against) those we hold close and call friends. On the other hand it is the recognition that this communal life must be rooted in something, must be delimited by some arbitrary boundary (a hard border, as it were). For nationalists of all stripes that boundary is the nation, a state-imposed container in which the raw material of human identity can be informed of its limits and find some comfort in them, perhaps attempting to explore them. For us the boundary is instead the struggle against everything, the desire to reject and resist any limits that cannot be created and re-created as easily as we create and re-create ourselves. Perhaps independence holds some residual appeal for us because it still hints – however superstitiously – at such a choice.

After the referendum we watched in glum resignation as the wildest hopes of a mass movement were gradually subsumed into a cautious, conservative project of political consolidation.  Weird and wonderful projects were forced into a wandering mass which could be easily dispersed into a future state – or, as it turned out, a party. There is no imagination, no sorcery, in radical attempts to resurrect a movement that was and will be subsumed into mainstream campaigning. Beneath the carapace of that homogenous and biddable mass, we want to see rogue networks of cells sprouting up, errant bands of political brigands and vagrants cutting loose from the spectacle of two tightly-fought campaigns. True radicals on both sides should seek ways to create, preserve and defend that sense of friendship which exists for a brief moment before a project is absorbed into the grim mechanisms of state-oriented politics. In the tumultuous final years of the 18th century, the radicals of the London Corresponding Society struck terror into the establishment: their structure was cellular, splitting into small groups whenever one group got too large. Look around you and find your friends. If the group is too large to encompass cellular imagination and attempts at treason, then split. Build up numbers for the purpose of splitting. What really frightens the establishment is the solidarity of armed friendship, the imagination, originality, and resilience of a set of comrades in life.

Elites also fear history. E.P. Thompson claimed that ‘we are historians because the past is not dead’, and this year of all years the reality of revolution is impressed upon us as the events of the Russian Revolution are rehearsed in the historic imagination. One hundred years later we still catch spectral glimpses of the barricades, the dance of the bombs, and the rush to the surface of groups that had been dispersed, underground, across Europe – often destructive, often treacherous. What does that have to do with you? Won’t the confrontations of the future be postponed until they present themselves? Constant delay makes this reheated stew of nationalism so nauseating. In Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Grey Granite (1934), one character  has a moment of nausea in a stiflingly bourgeois museum. Instead of clipped Scottish landscape and portrait, he imagines pictures of struggle,

picture on picture limned in dried blood, never painted or hung in any gallery… the Spartacists, the blacks of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Parker’s sailors who were hanged at the Nore, the Broo men man-handled in Royal Mile. Pictures unceasing of the men of your kin… and their ghastly lives through six thousand years – oh hell, what had it to do with you?

The question is answered later, when the same character is organising a strike at Gowans and Gloag’s factory because of its production of weapons that the trade unionists believe will be used against Chinese workers. The sub-editor of the Daily Runner, attempting to lambast the industrial action, attempts to turn to an account of the ‘absolute and unswathing loyalty of our Army and Navy throughout the hundreds of years of their history’. But the past is uncontrollable. The Nore mutiny of 1797, the Étaples mutiny of 1917, and the Invergordon mutiny of 1931 are stark examples of challenges to the authority of the state, all led by Scots: the sub-editor gives up. Things that have once been imagined are not so easily swept away.  Mutiny becomes the present.

Each note of treacherous history can be transposed from its moment in the past into a setting far more familiar and real. There were no trials for sedition in Scotland for almost a century before the events of 1789, but when the French revolution entered the imagination, Scottish minds stopped languishing in banal terror and started threatening their sovereigns in the streets. Likewise, we might do well to swap sedation for sedition, and practice treason in graffiti, articles, and plans.

The partisans had made a poor job of the Leith Walk barricades. The highest on the hill had originally stretched from the scrap-metal giraffe statues at the cinema across the South and West exits to the roundabout, but this had proved to be overambitious. The remnants of this great monument to strategic stupidity were still visible, but more in the lack of paving stones behind it than in its own height. Most of the paving and road surface had been broken up – using demolition hammers and the few excavators that had not been requisitioned for work on the utopian schemes of the early days of the June Revolution – and piled up haphazardly, favouring the south front (the partisans had been acutely aware of their painful strategic position, lying downhill of the Pale parts of the city.) But the main attacks had come from Queen St, from the swathes of soldiers who had been stationed in the portrait gallery, and the partisans had made a slow retreat, so that the length of Leith Walk was littered with temporary barricades, from painfully neat walls of carefully stacked paving slabs, to tetering piles of antique-shop furniture. The whole progress of that revolution could be read from a wander down the street, until at the foot the spectator could find the more symbolic barricades, constructed when the heat of the fighting was over and the great stalemate had begun. These barricades had a kind of rough beauty. Everybody had known that they could serve as no physical frontier, indeed that they did not need to, and so joiners had come together in the evenings to construct spidery wooden frames that spanned the street and pointed up at bizarre angles towards the sky…

Amy Westwell
Rory Scothorne
Cailean Gallagher

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)

Roch Winds Christmas Special: On the Good Life, of all things

In the SNP party political broadcast issued at their conference, we heard a familiar list of the many different types of Scot. It’s always difficult to find an SNP citizen-category to identify with – as soon as one of the pastel-coloured kitchen-and-bathroom-paint-slathered storage units is approached one is overcome with a great nausea, a sense that this is a high-radiation or asbestos zone.

“The carers and do-ers” droned the orator, (no, we’re certainly not those, we thought), “innovators and dreamers” (bleaugh), “and yes, the occasional stumblers” (wait, what?), “they are the people of Scotland, who move Scotland forward, who –” Hang on. It’s not perfect, but stumblers, yes. Only not just the occasional stumbler, as the SNP would have it. What about people for whom life is just one colossal stumble? ‘Maybe this is the term we’ve been looking for’, posited one of us, on our group chat, ‘forget the working class or the people or the multitude: The Stumblers. The people for whom reality itself as presently constituted is a perennial obstacle.’ We have been known to very slightly over-analyse SNP PPBs, so we left the concept by the wayside and settled back into our usual existence. We stumbled between reading groups, stumbled over our words at panel discussions, stumbled over fences into private gardens, stumbled through 16th century ideas about assassination. The SNP’s legitimising and kind words had allowed us not to arise from our stumbles, but to relax into them.

As we stumble towards 2017 there is not so much little time for reflection, as little to reflect on. This year we published a book (an ideal last-minute Christmas present for your enemies and lovers, it’s very versatile), and in the much-maligned fourth chapter, we discussed the question of how to live. This section of writing has been very reasonably described by Justin Reynolds as ‘curiously stale’, ‘frustratingly abstract’ and ‘romantic and sentimental’. We three stale sentimental stumblers of Orient are undoubtedly not up to the task of talking about how to live, or perhaps indeed of living, but we can’t help grasping desperately towards the answer; our final, fatal, stumble will be an uncontrolled recalcitrant attempt to clutch at something resembling The Good.

We can write our sneering sentences and adopt a Machiavellian exterior at the appropriate moment, we can chair meetings wholly concerned with pretended democracy – these quotidian radical tasks are not difficult, but they also swing wildly between the poles of being relative and being instrumental, while never coming close to anything that appears valuable. In our book, we described our communism as negative, as arising from criticism of the existing order. We implied that the committed radical should be committed to absurdist critique of the quotidian, all day, every day. The radical we described was a wild-eyed creature, snooping around looking for weak points in the system, cackling as it blew up switch boards and smashed traffic lights. It’s an interesting animal to consider, but can only be a small part of the stumbler, who has to spend a great deal of time picking itself back up, and helping the other stumblers to avoid the boxing gloves on sticks that are wildly swinging towards them. The pessimistic communist we described was only part of a person, and can’t help but to back away from the full force of it. Our Edinburgh book launch, on the eve of Brexit, was titled “Expecting The Worst”, but already at the Glasgow launch in the STUC we felt the gloom had cleared, as we stepped down from our shuddering wagon to find the ground beneath our feet, and to discover people around us who, armed for the worst, are the keepers of a spirit of friendship worth fighting for.

Just as we abandon the purely negative identity, the unadulterated pessimism of our early-20s that we so unfalteringly evangelised for years, everyone else has arrived at it. We find ourselves in the increasingly familiar position of seeing the people around us turn to a doctrine we espoused mere months before its popularity, and which we are now in the process of deserting. It’s not so much that we’re ahead of everyone else, as that our reaction to events seems curiously and sometimes sickeningly off-kilter. As the liberals and radicals have turned to hopelessness in the face of Brexit and Trump, as the Labour Party has become somewhat naturalised to having a mediocre socialist leader, at Roch Winds we have turned to a comforting ideal of armed friendship, and it’s a vision we hope to present to a disgusted public in the near-future.

Merry Christmas.

Editorial: Corbyn’s Cortical Homunculus

– The politician should resemble the man, who, as we have often seen in Africa, seated on a huge and unsightly elephant, can guide and rule the monster, and turn him whichever way he likes by a mere sign, without any violence.
– I recollect, when I was your lieutenant, I often saw one of these drivers.
– Thus an Indian or Carthaginian regulates one of these huge animals, and renders him docile and familiar with human manners. But the genius which resides in the mind of man, by whatever name it may be called, is required to rein and tame a monster far more multiform and intractable, whenever it can accomplish it, which indeed is seldom. It is necessary to hold in with a strong hand that ferocious beast denominated the mob, which thirsts after blood, and exults in all kinds of cruelty, and rages insatiably after the most hideous massacres of men.

De Re Publica, Cicero

In the Scottish borders story of Tam Lin, a man who has been captured by the Queen of Faeries fears he will be offered up as a tithe to Lucifer. His lover must save him, but can only do so by keeping hold of him as he undergoes shape shifting, into a wolf, a bear, and a lion, before he will become a man again. She succeeds, and they escape the faeries to live in happiness.

This is the fabulous image of the Labour party that underpins much of the Labour left’s current approach to Corbyn. In their adoring eyes, the party has metamorphosed from a ‘Blairite’ election machine into a mass party. Under pressure from members and supporters on the left, and right-wing MPs, donors and advisors, the party is being pushed into increasingly fantastic shapes. But as long as Corbyn’s activists can dig their fingernails in hard enough to their lover (for whom they feel great passion though only recently acquainted), the story goes, they will ride the party through its shape-shifting ordeal, and away from the mouth of hell towards a green and pleasant land.

But we have only undergone one supposed transformation and already the Labour Party is looking awfy strange. Rather than changing into some vicious beast, it has taken the weird and warped form of the Cortical Homunculus – a human body reproportioned according to where the brain’s attention is focused so that its hands and head become bizarrely oversized. With the leader’s office and its bulging membership thrashing wildly about in defiance of convention and elite advice, the Labour Party now appears both comical and conflicted – a far cry from the muscular electoral beast all sides hope it can become.

The Left has control of the party’s head and a set of limbs in the form of the membership. Meanwhile its stomach, the Parliamentary Labour Party, is churning. In Capital Marx refers to the legend of Menenius Agrippa (d. 493  BC), a Roman patrician who persuaded the plebeians to refrain from overthrowing patrician rule by using an analogy with the human body. The patricians represented the stomach, he said, the plebeians the limbs: the limbs were required to feed the stomach, and, conversely, if the stomach were not fed, the limbs themselves would soon wither. Labour’s spoilt cohort of MPs now wail about an upset tummy, demanding remedial attention from anyone who’ll listen – but their influence has shrunk, and the party’s new rulers are no longer paying attention.

The party doesn’t look healthy. It looks monstrous – and wonderfully unattractive to the public. The mere weight of supporters, however fervently they paid their £25, confers little public legitimacy on Corbyn. The voters, like most of the PLP, don’t see why members would have the judgment to direct a party of government  – especially when those members contain rogue elements mounting abuse. A good politician takes control of a wild animal and guides it to her ends. Corbyn has been given ample time to take the reins of the nervous creature, but the elephant he mounted rather reluctantly last summer is finally getting out of control. He is losing his grip altogether.

It is not just those on the right of the party that are reaching for the tranquiliser gun. With parts of the new membership starting to rampage, activists on the left flank are growing uneasy. Veteran Labour socialists like Anne Black, one of the candidates for re-election to the NEC on the left-wing slate sponsored by Momentum, have played a part in freezing CLPs out of Labour and reducing the potential for the kind of wildcat party-joining tactics which are increasingly favoured by the Left. The latest suspension was of Brighton and Hove CLP, where former TUSC candidates and Trotskyists entered the local structures and won positions of dominance. Inter-left factions are clashing – the Labour Representation Committee wrote a statement calling for a revocation of the left’s support for Black, before ‘clarifying’ the position after members of the Committee complained that they had not been consulted. Meanwhile Momentum continues to back her. The strange and uncontrollable impact of members that grow apart from the body is becoming evident as parts of the Labour left realise brute force without guile is the hand they have been dealt.

The party seems incapable of effective organisation. What are the hundreds and thousands of members to do? In Scotland we have a prime example of a party that now has incredible density of membership – 1 in 37 people of voting age in Scotland are SNP members – and yet very little has been done to engage or activate this membership. The SNP realise that distended membership can act as a drag on the party, and that numerical strength comes with its own problems. When one of us volunteered in a phonebank to encourage members to vote for the left-wing NEC slate, many were crying out for instructions – other than to vote in more elections. Labour has been labelled a social movement, but it is yet to become at all clear what that label means. Much of the energy Momentum has mustered is spent on the very electioneering which not so long ago the left of Labour were attacking. Paul Mason wants us to believe the movement is formidable, though Corbynism has been perhaps fairly described as a simulation of a social movement: the organisational joints and sinews that should connect the leadership and members to the bulk of the working class remain dangerously weak.

Some are confident any problems of leadership will be solved if Corbyn sticks to his principles – by repeating throughout the new campaign that Labour is a party determined to eradicate the five social ills and institute a more caring politics and society. But preaching principle to a political monster will not make it any prettier, and demanding people cease from internal conflict because there is ‘no place for it’ in the movement will not inaugurate harmony.

About a year ago at the celebratory drinks in Whitehall there was great jubilation when Corbyn arrived – a mass of members and organisers were ready to greet him. There were murmurs: had people been down to the Labour offices to take control of the machinery? Where were the trade union leaders? While most activists anticipated the road ahead, and even expected coups at that early stage, they were on the whole blithely confident that the membership and leadership could take care of the whole party corpus. This never materialised: the party HQ, regional and national infrastructures (particularly in Scotland, Wales and London), and of course the NEC have not yet demonstrated any kind of coherence of purpose or identity, while the fate of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet of ‘all the talents’ was predictably disastrous. The aftermath of Corbyn’s initial election suggested that little preparation had gone into actually taking power, having ostensibly won it. The continuous homages to the membership as the sole source of legitimacy only serves to distract attention from the fact that there are multiple power bases within the party, and each of them must be won if Corbynism is to grow beyond its current limits.

All this is not reason for despair but for careful consideration as to what a mass membership socialist party can do, and what the point of it may be. It raises a very exciting question that is at the heart of a debate that has raged for a century: what is the point of a parliamentary socialist party in general, and the Labour Party in particular? And can it be taken over by an influx of thousands of people committed to bringing about a socialist society?

The media flock like gulls to parliamentary stories, as the attention around Sarah Champion’s ‘de-resignation’ demonstrated. Clever shadow cabinet manoeuvres, effective use of the conference, and a well-pitched policy agenda could act as leverage for the political campaign Corbyn is mounting – but they provide no role for the membership. Internal wrangling is necessary but totally insufficient. If the central end is a socialist government, this would require the deselection of all MPs who would make a habit of not following the whip, a complete re-thinking of Corbyn’s messaging strategy, and the co-option of the massive membership into a controlled electoral machine. It is not a project for the faint-hearted. But the greatest fear for socialists must be that having somehow ridden the monster into Westminster, Labour will be in a ‘Syriza situation’, confronted by other States as well as banks, finance and industry that will not let it have its way. Quite clearly, having a socialist party in government is not enough for anything. Socialism needs strength outside government, and against government, and a mass membership can be used to these ends. In Roch Winds we call this ‘Unparliamentary Politics’, something distinct from the so-called ‘extra-parliamentary’ politics which exists outside parliament only to make demands upon it.

One way to burst politics’ parliamentary bubble is to encourage action outside of parliament in resistance either to the government or to capital. Corbyn has expressed outrage about poor housing, high rents, and social cleansing from council houses in London – so why not call for members to rush against property itself – with rent-strikes, and solidaristic activity exposing bad landlords, and the setting up of tenants’ unions like the Living Rent Campaign in Scotland? What happened to the pledge we heard John McDonnell make to a group of trade unionists in Parliament Square the night of the second reading of the Trade Union Bill, when he said we needed to fight on the streets? What about Len McCluskey’s pledge to break the law in opposition to the Bill? This used to be par for the course, not just in industrial but in social and public spending issues – as McDonnell well knows. When he spoke a couple of weeks ago at an event in Lambeth to commemorate the 1985 Council’s refusal to implement Thatcher’s cuts,increase the rates of council tax or shutting services, he described how it was the decision by councillors to break the law that mobilised hundreds of locals into supporting the rebellious councillors with a fighting fund – and sparked life into the communities that had stood with the Labour rebels Momentum has the capability to suggest and support activism, from migrant solidarity and housing activism to interrupting precarious workplaces. It could train, prepare and equip activists to take the fight to the owners of property, and could provide solidarity and support for those who choose to overstep the law.

These are the means around which Corbyn could reconstitute the Labour party, so that the members and the leadership had a task it was able to handle, and so that this is not one great anticlimactic climb towards a weak patchwork Labour government in 2020 or 2025. This Labour party is ill-suited to a slow and weary road to a victory at Westminster when there are battles that a united movement of people, signed up to socialism, could fight in the coming weeks. For socialism is not the belief in obtaining a Labour government at Westminster with a Left-wing leader, nor is it the business of sincerely regretting the ill effects of private property on people’s lives. It is the real movement to overturn and replace property and the power of its owners. There are many battles to be fought.  They may end in defeat. But it is better to be defeated in a battle worth fighting than brought down by your own side. If the moderates find this monstrous – good. It’s time to embrace the monster.

Corbyn’s ‘New Politics’ Is No Politics at All

When one Westminster pundit said the Parliamentary Labour Party’s choice between Smith and Eagle was like choosing whether to bring a fork or a spoon to a gunfight, they had it slightly wrong. It’s more accurate to say the PLP are debating whether to bring a sabre or a broadsword to a family get-together.

The PLP have tried various confrontational methods of bringing Corbyn down from his post. First Angela Eagle attempted a public duel, attacking his abilities and demanding he forfeit power. Next, Tom Watson held private negotiations to strong-arm him to a lowlier position, while Owen Smith extended a hand as if to wrench him down from where he’d climbed too high. Then Watson led the effort to coax the NEC into stopping Corbyn being automatically on the ballot for the next leadership contest.Fortunately for Corbyn, the plotters were ‘fucking useless’.

The PLP’s next moves will be a series of even more violent efforts to topple, by force or fraud, a party leader whose reputation rests on moral commitment and disdain for the ‘old politics’ of secretive manoeuvres and sly back-stabbing. These hapless foes will continue to miss their mark, because Corbyn will continue refusing to engage in the fight or the game. The politicking undertaken by the PLP is despised by those who favour Corbyn’s soft sincerity. Jeremy ‘doesn’t do personal’. His strange immunity comes from what his enemies call ‘dogmatism’ and what his followers applaud as idealism, morality, and total refusal to take part in political connivery and confrontations. His enemies feign admiration for his principles, then reject them as impediments to political leadership. Eagle insisted that although ‘not a bad man’, he was certainly ‘not a leader’, while Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said:

He’s deeply driven by his principles and wanting to do the right thing. He won’t compromise them in order to be in government and he doesn’t think that he needs to. I don’t seek actively to speak ill of him… You can achieve some things from opposition, but nothing like the possibility of power.

From the outset, the secret of Jeremy Corbyn’s success was his earnest, compelling commitment to stand for what is good, in solidarity with all those downtrodden or despised. This morality defined his initial appeal to the membership last summer when night after night he delivered speeches founded on moral imperatives: we as a society must provide for the hungry and the homeless, cherish our children, learn to protect the planet, and save our services from irreversible ruin. He carried this into PMQs, where he sought a more ‘adult’ approach, shorn of rhetorical and personal berating in favour of quotidian perspectives and letter-to-the-editor pleas from the public. His appeal to the conscience of pundits, parliament and prime minister was meant to bypass the jibing that makes Westminster politically famous, or infamous.

Corbyn won’t join the melee, and the people gathered round him will raise him above the maelstrom. In one of his most effective speeches during the height of the coup, at the Durham Miners’ Gala, Corbyn said that he had been asked over and over about the political pressure he was under but that an understanding of the pressure of poverty put the whole situation into perspective. For his most fervent followers this is what makes Corbyn so special. A fortnight ago I stood outside SOAS watching a tired Corbyn give a speech that was a list of social wrongs that must be righted: poor mental health, crumbling communities, crime, poverty. It was a young crowd that couldn’t fail to be carried with him – but when one heckler demanded he explain what is to be done about Brexit, the leader had no words. Then last week I was at a meeting in Lambeth of about a hundred Corbynistas – mostly over-50, part of a generation that is intent on saving the public services which younger generations have stopped expecting will be available to them. Every other floor-speech praised Corbyn’s integrity and commitment to making a better world. They bore badges proclaiming ‘JC – Our Saviour’ with pride. And the comparison with Jesus is only part-irony: they seem convinced a better world can be attained through the strength of their common spiritual endeavour. They believe in JC.

Given Corbyn’s camaraderie with Cameron on the day of his resignation it is difficult not to wonder whether sometimes his good-heartedness gets the better of him. Which brings me to the point: good politics and good morals are not one and the same. The good politician is not the good person, but one who can enact, by generating and using power, those ideals to which they are committed. This is something like what Eagle was getting at when she called herself a ‘practical socialist’ – her practice of being a socialist is the effort to implement her kind of socially just conception of the world. She offers a kind of realism which adjusts ideals to what is seen to be the scope of possibility, and seeks to attain them as far as possible using the practices of politics.

Now, this kind of politics – which is attacked by a moralist left – is not foreign to the radical socialist tradition. William Morris, an artist who founded the influential Socialist League, which would later merge into the Labour party, became a convert to socialism because he believed it was the only way to bring about the violent revolution that would overthrow the rule of the rich and oppression of the poor.  Morris, like Eagle, called himself a ‘practical socialist’, and looked to fit his ideals into the frame of politics. He explained:

I might never have been drawn into the practical side of the question [of how to bring about socialism] if an ideal had not forced me to seek towards it. For politics as politics, i.e., not regarded as a necessary if cumbersome and disgustful means to an end, would never have attracted me…

Yet Morris had come to believe that ‘socialism was a necessary change, and that it was possible to bring it about in our own days’. However ugly, political methods were essential.

This idea of politics as a necessary evil was described by Machiavelli in The Prince, where he demonstrated that the ruler who is too morally upstanding – whether honest, liberal, peaceful or clement – will tend not to achieve the good ends they seek, while those who achieve the most for their state or people will treat politics as a craft and only maintain the appearance of morality. Unfortunately Corbyn and his team seem disinclined to the Machiavellian approach, and have staked much of Corbyn’s reputation on a very public rejection of this kind of political chicanery.

So it turns out Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ is a kind of anti-politics. Corbyn may think this is good and right, and that it aligns him with the popular disillusionment with politicians. It might even shelter him from the internal politicking of the PLP. But it is at the core of Corbyn’s growing problem. Some of Corbyn’s own backers are starting to doubt whether he has a competent strategy to attain the policies he describes: taking more tax from the banks for public services, injecting cash from the bottom up through people’s quantitative easing, or retrieving schools and hospitals from the clutches of petty capitalists; these will never be attained simply by describing the harms they would relieve. Corbyn’s stated objective is to be prime minister and lead a government, but even in government his aims will come up against untold resistance from opposition within the Labour party, across the Commons floor, and above all from boardrooms. Left or right, politics is the craft of gaining and using power.

George Buchanan, an adviser to politicians in sixteenth-century Scotland who resented the power of the rich but harboured doubts about the worth of prophet-types, wrote a play about the life of John the Baptist. At the beginning, two Pharisees discuss how their power and interests are undermined by John the Baptist who by his delusions

draws the lookes of all men towards him, the common sort being possest with ignorant beliefe, that a new Prophet to the world is sent; And now unto himselfe he hath reduced an Army of the vulgar following him.

They debate whether the prophet presents any genuine threat to their interests, and the sager of the two concludes it best to hold back from attacking him with reason or with arms, for he represents little threat to their own power, since he does not engage in power-play himself. Just as the Tories and the CEOs are content to let Corbyn promulgate his morals in peace, the Pharisees realised that they would be safe as long as they stayed clear of the moral fray.

Speaking the truth about misery will not confound the powerful interests that maintain that misery. A good player of politics can provoke that power to show itself and its tyranny; and in this case it may allow for power of another popular kind to be deployed. Those who maintain that morals trump politics tend to leave the question of action for later. In much the same way, those who obsess about constitutional legitimacy are in the business of constant delay and political procrastination. They are less inclined to think politics entails conflict or confrontation, let alone class struggle, both against the Tory government and capital itself.

The conflation of politics with morality is, as we argue in Roch Winds, one of the flaws that has kept the Left from power and success in recent years.

There is a moral drive which stifles radical action and reacts against the impulse to come into conflict with the powers that be. This impulse is one of the most compelling motives in soft-left politics… But it is not politically effective. The basic lesson of political realism is that right is not mighty. A moral politics is impotent; amoral politics has immense potential for good.

Corbyn, for all he has done for the left, risks further embedding morality into the political practice of socialists. At its high-points, socialism and the left has used the rhetoric of toppling tyrants and fighting for freedom, rather than the softer language of entreating the rich to change their ways and yearning for social justice. The moral turn is a pacifist plea, a process of self-disarmament. There have always been radicals who argue for moral consistency, turning the other cheek, and holding to the principles no matter what is the way forward. For centuries they had in mind an image of Jesus urging the people to live a better life so that we may all have a better world. It never came to pass.

The poor were sick with hunger
And the rich were clothed in splendour
And the rebels, whipped and crucified
Hung rotting as a warning

And Jesus knew the answer –
“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”
Said, “Love your enemies”

But Judas was a Zealot
And he wanted to be free
Resist, he said, the Romans’ tyranny

(Stand up for Judas, Leon Rosselson)

Cailean Gallagher

In Which Corbyn is Caesar

To celebrate the birthday of Julius Caesar, born 2116 years ago, here are some thoughts on Corbyn’s  claim to democratic legitimacy.

Diane Abbott yesterday morning recited the now familiar refrain: Corbyn is the party leader by the will of the Labour Party membership. The unwieldy baggage of party membership has been joyfully cast off by the Tory Party, who yesterday revealed that the long-awaited last stage of the leader selection process would not in fact occur, it turning out that the members’ input in the final stage was not required. Similarly, SNP parliamentarians anointed Nicola Sturgeon as leader rather than allowing her appointment to go to a membership election.

But in Labour, Momentum activists, ‘£3 trots’, long-standing Militants, and syndicalists find themselves in a position of unprecedented importance. Their gleeful cries about rightfully owning the party have a tone of panicked surprise, but nothing that can match the abject terror of the parliamentary labour party, the PLP, whose party structure seems to them to have entered a period of crisis and decline, inaugurated not by Corbyn but by Miliband.

The Labour Party’s constitutional structure appears as a parody of the British constitutional system – there is a tripartite balance of PLP, Trade Unions and other affiliates such as socialist societies, and Labour Party members. To be crude, we might say that the PLP represents the experienced aristocracy, the trade unions the experience of the people. But the members are a difficult part to conceptualise. They represent no one but themselves.

When party members scream of their importance, the question on the lips of the labour coup strategisers is an indignant ‘Why should the members have any say?’ As Chuka Umunna said on the Daily Politics, ‘I’m not walking off from my party at the instruction from the people who have joined in the last two minutes.’ Members used to know their place – they were to disseminate the message of the party in order to win elections. They were to hold the offices required for running the party locally, to allow MPs to get along with more important work (note the embarrassing situation of David Coburn MEP, who through lack of interest in the role was forced to become the treasurer of his local UKIP branch). As a reward for their labour they were to be given some representation on policy forums that have a largely depleted role, and on the National Executive Committee. The labour movement – the trade unions, co-operative organisations, socialist societies – had a clearer right to representation, since it could claim to represent working people, the people the party was founded to represent. The PLP are the experts: representing continuity-in-parliament, they nobly strive to uphold a reassuring constancy. And of course they are also representatives of the electorate. But members – what are they for, beyond grunt work? This is the undoubtedly reasonable question being asked this week, as thousands more people join the ranks of Labour membership, and the party nears overthrowal by a plebeian crowd.

The Tories, who have just disposed of their membership’s mandate like a used tissue, must be enjoying the spectacle of Labour being commandeered by the agents of democratic tyranny. Culpability seems to lie with the rather unlikely figure of Ed Miliband. His solution to the demand for weakening the trade union link in the labour party was to correspondingly weaken the PLP. American advisers encouraged him to develop a primaries system entirely unsuited to the British representative structure of the Labour Party, and a system as it turned out that would create a tyranny of the crowd, the mob, the plebs. Not only did Miliband increase the power of the members in electing a leader, he also increased the power of said leader by ending the elections of shadow cabinets by the PLP, allowing shadow cabinets to be appointed by the leader. Rather amusingly, this was justified at the time by a senior labour source who said “It is important that we no longer have the distraction of internal elections whilst we have a job to do of holding the government to account and preparing ourselves for the next election… It is important that we are talking to the public and not ourselves.”

Democratic tyranny had never been the tactic of the trade union part of the party. The strategy of the most powerful trade union force in Labour, Unite the Union, was a bunker tactic, adopted in 2011: Unite trained up candidates for selection and election in the 2015 General Election. Several of those candidates were duly elected. They were to lie low, staying out of trouble, waiting for the next wave of labour movement MPs. The whole plan was thwarted by an over-enthusiastic and expanding socialist membership, who forced the bunkered MPs to come out of hiding in Corbyn’s second desperate attempt to form a shadow cabinet. Having lost the sympathy of the PLP, these MPs now reluctantly represent the labour movement’s divergence from the existing Labour MPs.

In the middle of the spectacle stands one man. Tom Watson, the only link in the dissolving Labour Family, was elected by the membership, has long-standing (and entirely cynical) links with the Left and the trade unions, and is able to work with the MPs. Thus, as the party moved into deeper crisis, Watson was the one to broker talks between the trade unions and the PLP, the nature of which we may never be privy to. They broke down, intentionally or unintentionally. All we can know is that for some time there was actual or feigned collaboration between the two more obviously legitimate parts of the Labour triumvirate – the trade unions and the PLP. Watson is the keystone of the whole structure, the one charged with saving the party from constitutional crisis and electoral ruin, the one who has for whatever reason shoved Angela Eagle in front of the tank driven by newly enfranchised labour members.

In the notorious meeting in which MPs expressed their lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as leader, Helen Goodman MP cried, ‘What’s John McDonnell doing there, lurking and skulking like Marc Antony?’ While these senators fear McDonnell, he seems to have no intention of making a move just now. But Goodman is correct that McDonnell is a general of Corbyn, who is the Caesar figure in his own party, brought to power through the support of a part of the population that has only a questionable right to representation. This support has made him sterner and more ambitious than his backbenchers reckoned. And if Corbyn is Caesar, Watson is Cicero – the constitutionalist trying to hold it all together.

When constitutions start to fall apart their demise can only be hindered, not reversed. The membership will not relinquish power, and the PLP will not stand for being controlled. But the fatal flaw of the pro-Corbyn Labour members is to repeatedly hold up the Labour constitution as the grounds for their legitimacy. Corbyn has a constitutional right to remain leader, they cry. Constitutional legitimacy is such a poor basis for power from a socialist perspective that it is somewhat surprising to see this line being parroted by anarchists and militants. They bemoan the ‘undemocratic’ actions of Corbyn’s opponents, as if they were not engaged in small-scale coups five years ago in the context of a Labour constitution that they perceived to be unfair.

The fact that thousands of people have signed up to an organisation that Miliband haphazardly reformed into a membership organisation does not give Corbyn or their movement legitimacy. Members do not deserve power in the party of labour by dint of their paying membership fees, or even by virtue of their activism in the party. Why should votes be bought with either time or money? These arguments for constitutional legitimacy are inward-looking and not compelling for the electorate. As Jeremy Corbyn said at the Durham Miner’s Gala last week, constitutional pressure is no pressure at all. Of course certain tactics are required to prevent a right-wing seizure of the party, involving the mobilisation of membership in votes. But the role of members should be to earn the party’s popular legitimacy, not crow about constitutional right. In this, Owen Jones was right when he wrote two weeks ago that ‘A clear coherent message that would resonate with people who aren’t signed-up left-wing activists, that addressed people’s every day problems and aspirations, has yet to be created — and that’s a collective failure of the left.’

The complaint of socialists in the Labour Party for the last ten years has always been that the party is too geared towards parliamentarism and too tied up in constitutional coils. The desire of members to become politicians, the desire of Unite to have its own group of MPs, led to the PLP becoming unduly powerful. But now the socialists have seized power the cloak they have inherited from the old controllers has become an iron cage. As we wrote in Roch Winds, when socialists get stuck in cages, or lobster pots, they become an easy target. They need to break out while they can or else they will lose momentum. We all know the members have constitutional advantage. They need to turn that advantage into power and control, and to do that they need to stop talking about the constitutional legitimacy of Corbyn. They need to give other reasons as to why they should commandeer the party, why Corbyn should be the leader of the opposition, why they have any place in history at all.

When he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

If they really mean to take control, socialists need to make Labour the party of the class, not the party of a damaged constitution.

Amy Westwell