Why ‘anyone but Labour’ sets back the Home Rule cause

er11 postbox

An old destructive impulse of Scottish nationalism spurred kilt-clad die-hards to blow up red pillar-boxes in the 1950s. Our radical independence generation has a new kind of pillar-box in its sights: between four and six foot tall, clad in Red, bearing the letters Rt Hon MP, with large operating costs and imperial designs, offering working people a declining service.

Since the Yes campaign’s defeat last week, lots of people have channelled their wrath with Westminster and the No campaign towards Labour and its Scottish MPs. A Facebook group aiming to ‘get Labour out of Scotland’ in the General Election has accrued 19,000 likes in a matter of days. There’s growing determination to eject long-standing Labour members from Yes-voting Glasgow. Tens of thousands of former Labour members and supporters have joined the SNP. The spinners at SNP HQ are quietly fuelling the flames with press releases about Labour’s hypocrisy.

In its response, Labour’s conduct at its conference has hardly been deserving of acclaim or new respect. Margaret Curran’s idea to hold surgeries for Yes-voting Labour supporters gave the impression she thinks voting Yes is a nasty problem she can cure, a symptom of the nationalist virus Johann Lamont described a year ago. The tone of Johann Lamont’s speech was ridiculous; she insisted that Labour is the party to ‘change the world’. Meanwhile, having said the NHS is safe with a No vote, Labour are now claiming the NHS is still in peril.  These notes all strike a dissonant chord with thousands who believed a Yes vote would have brought real change, and they do nothing to suggest the Labour party will learn much from the referendum.

Only Len McCluskey’s speech sought to draw lessons from the vote. “Let the Scottish referendum be the tombstone on twenty years of our party’s indifference to the interest of the working class”, he said. “For a generation there have been pundits including people in our own party saying we can forget about class. they’ve said the working class aren’t interested in politics. Well go up to Scotland and see.” Alas, Len is not in charge of Labour and is unlikely to sway many Scottish people to return to the Labour party.

But whatever you think of Labour, the left should stem the tide of hate towards the party, not fuel it as some activists have done. For while Labour-bashing is compulsive, this narrow-minded, juvenile reaction breeds the wrong kind of sentiment – it is part of the ‘45’ craze which is concerned with building a bitter identity among frustrated Yes-voters, and it only bolsters a wave of anti-establishment fury which is not a helpful feeling for a wounded left to nurture.

Last night I attended a meeting called by Glasgow West Radical Independence to discuss where the organisation should go. Many of the speeches focussed on opposing Labour, instead of talking about renewed demands for power or policies that would bring us closer to the aspirations we had for independence. Some are reluctant to work with trade unions and trades unionists which are affiliated to Labour, whereas they should be looking to the likes of Unite and Unison, as well as the STUC, to lead a demand for meaningful economic power. They are gleeful about the SNP’s surging membership, when they should be making plans to unseat its members in 2016.

When it comes to the General Election, the campaign against Labour is not progressive. Its priority rejects the realities of a No-vote: the Yes campaign lost, so crucial powers remain controlled by Westminster. The campaign for further powers in Scotland is going to have to stretch beyond bitterness towards Labour to be decisive and effective. The desire for more powers may be fierce, but the actual power to determine further devolution lies at Westminster – where there’s a choice of a Tory and a Labour government. Only the latter could conceivably deliver deep economic power to Scotland.

A Labour majority at Westminster will be the best result for Scotland because it is the only feasible way for Scottish working class interests to be reflected in a Westminster government. A cross-society Home Rule campaign can work with MSPs and trade unions, building pressure on Scottish Labour MPs to transfer powers to Scotland and to those areas like Glasgow, Lanarkshire and other urban areas which have voted to take economic and social power into the people’s control. If the left is right that working class votes are crucial for Labour MPs to hold their seats, then Labour will have to address their demands. On the other hand, if you replace Scottish Labour MPs with SNP members, what route do you see for the delivery of Home Rule?

The ‘radical’ alternative for 2015 is to replace Labour MPs with SNP MPs and hope they hold the balance of power – making the transfer of significant powers to Scotland one of their central demands. A Parliament with no overall majority, where the SNP holds some of the balance of power, seems attractive to the people that believe Westminster does not function and cannot be made to work for the people of Scotland. But given last week’s vote, this tactic really is old-style nationalism: defy Westminster, play no part in its affairs except when they bear directly on Scotland and the Scottish people, and stand up for the interests of Scotland whatever it takes. So much for solidarity or the interests of workers in England. So much for rebalancing Britain’s economy. Power will be jealously guarded by the Tories, and our movement will be effectively ignored.

There is another peril in working for a hung parliament. The last time it happened, SNP votes were decisive in bringing down Labour in 1979 and ushering in a long, long term of Tory government. The same could happen again: Scottish votes could help Cameron to form the government or leave Labour short of a majority. So if you’re tempted to join this bandwagon, ask yourself the question this way: if you thought that more SNP MPs would make a Tory government more likely, would you still vote SNP? Some nationalists would, no doubt, on the grounds that the SNP could represent Scotland’s interests, that Labour and the Tories are pretty much the same, and even because bringing about another ‘Tory government we didn’t vote for’ would accelerate a new call for independence – and another referendum in 5 years.

But here’s the thing: it’s the height of hypocrisy to be content with a Tory government in the next election. If you campaigned with Yes Scotland this was one of your key arguments – we must end Tory rule, so we should vote Yes. If now you say that is anything other than your priority, it betrays your real politics: you want revenge on the No-backing traitors, and you will say anything to get people to back independence, including burdening them with more Tory rule.

The biggest losers are those who can’t accept defeat. Going in a huff will turn off thousands of people who are not yet sure about the left’s maturity and who doubt its credibility in mainstream politics, let alone government. The reaction smacks of myopia and obsession. If you are intent on smashing Labour because they betrayed the working class by backing No, your destructive impulse is the sign of your great weakness – which you share with nationalists. You say you want social justice, but when it comes to action, you fight your former opponents above all else. Your ends are determined more by your reaction and emotion than by concrete aims. Your ambitions are unclear and you seek votes on the basis of a vague promise of a better nation. The demand for Anyone but Labour comes from a motivation to sustain a losing independence campaign, and the refocused socialist programme that should follow defeat is blurred, because radical activists can see nothing but red.

Cailean Gallagher

Review: David Torrance – Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal Union

Britain Rebooted

There are two main themes of David Torrance’s short book on UK federalism, one negative, one positive. The first, the negative, is a critique – sometimes implicit, often explicit – of the common argument that federalism should not be taken seriously because it’s not going to happen any time soon. Let’s call this argument, for the sake of brevity, “impossibilism”. The impossibilist dogma is pervasive in the Yes campaign, inspiring sneers and eye-rolls whenever the federalist option is suggested. The SNP are actively complicit in perpetuating impossibilism, with Salmond reminding Scots at every opportunity that the UK government refused to allow a third “devo max” option on the referendum ballot paper. This, goes the typical argument, is evidence of unionist dishonesty over “more powers”. If they really wanted further devolution, they’d let us vote on it.

It’s an argument that requires more than a few intellectual contortions, and Torrance dismisses it with relative ease. It is, he writes, an “inherently conservative argument”, for it assumes that a state which has permitted universal suffrage, devolution and even a binding independence referendum is incapable of codifying, expanding and consolidating what is already a vaguely federal constitutional setup. But these common-sense rebuttals form the limits of Torrance’s persuasiveness, for his proposals detailing precisely how federalism might triumph fall far short of what would be required for a federal programme to command the popular support necessary to make it work, and, crucially, to outpace its nationalist counterpart on questions of economic and social change.

The second, “positive” theme of the book is a coherent, if somewhat veiled, statement of Torrance’s own political philosophy, in which he outlines how federalism could empower federated nations and regions of the UK to innovate new ways of promoting social mobility and reducing inequality across a “rebooted” union. Here he strikes a notably similar political pose to that of one Richard M. Nixon, whose “New Federalism” sought to fuse a classically liberal emphasis on meritocracy and personal freedom with a nuanced subsidiarity. Under Nixon, welfare was centralised, but distributed in cash payments to be freely spent rather than through specific services (a basic minimum income was even proposed) and local authority block grants were generally freed of conditionality, while affirmative action was advocated for African Americans in the construction industry and small business, and segregated schools were forcibly integrated. Torrance retreads many of the ideological principles underpinning these reforms in his own proposals, and for those who, like me, have been intrigued by his hitherto inscrutable ideological prerogatives, the result makes for an interesting and often surprising read.

On Nationalist Coat-tails

The opening chapter of the book is devoted to a potted history of British federalism, an idea “as old as Britain”, in which he seeks to demonstrate that the terrain of British constitutional politics has been far from inhospitable to federalist ambitions. However, this history does suggest that most serious high-level proposals for UK federalism have come from politicians and intellectuals with their backs against the wall: late-19th and early-20th century supporters saw it as a possible answer to the Irish Question, but it was only taken “much more seriously” when the question had become “louder and therefore more urgent,” both immediately before the first world war and immediately after it. These proposals were undermined by what had quickly become a critical mass of Irish nationalist sentiment, and the focus of federalist attention shifted to Stormont. In the postwar era, even Tories were comfortable describing Northern Ireland in federal terms, but fearful of extending the arrangement to Scotland or Wales. It fell to the Liberals to advocate “Home Rule All Round,” but – again – only in reaction to breakthroughs for the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the 1960s. The Liberals and their successors in the Liberal Democrats remained the most committed and proactive supporters of federalism throughout the rest of the century, but persistent minority status meant that their constitutional ambitions made little headway with a political class all too happy to drag its feet.

The Royal Commission on the Constitution, appointed by Harold Wilson in 1969 in response to Nationalist successes, argued that federalism was “foreign to our own tradition of unitary government”, reasserting the old orthodoxy of constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey. Dicey’s preoccupation with the overriding sovereignty of the British (or, for the anglocentric Dicey, essentially English) parliament is subject to plenty of critique by Torrance, who rightly notes its growing irrelevance in light of the various constitutional transformations of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Wilson and many others in the Labour Party shared Dicey’s conservative views on the constitution, caricaturing federalism as over-complex and “artificial” and glorying in the supposed perfection of the existing system. That said, Labour’s position here should not be over-simplified; the party’s half-hearted support for Scottish and Welsh assemblies in 1976 was not only a response to nationalist advances, but also grew from a long-standing Home Rule tradition in the Labour Party, particularly on its left (the crucial relationship between socialism and federalism will be discussed further below).

The failure of devolution in the 1970s didn’t mean the demand had dried up entirely, however, and Labour’s devolutionary current resurfaced again with New Labour, this time taking English regions into account as well as the nations. The resounding No vote in the 2004 referendum on a North East Assembly may have “stymied…any prospect of a federal UK” under that government, but the vote itself still represented – alongside devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London – some degree of progress towards UK federalism throughout the post-68 era. The eagerness with which impossibilists seize on 2004’s result as evidence against federalism misses the point; a federalism including the nations and regions of the UK is more imaginable today than it has been for most of the country’s history. Labour’s latest proposal – under consideration for their 2015 manifesto – to transform the House of Lords into an “indirectly elected” senate giving equal representation to the nations and regions is the continuation of this trend.

But if federalists have made progress, they haven’t done it under their own steam. Federalism has remained largely reactive, not because its advocates are unwilling – the Liberals and Liberal Democrats, and elements of Labour and the labour movement, have advocated federalism or home rule on its own merits for decades – but because UK-wide federalism has been incapable of marshalling popular will in the way that nationalism has. Where federalism by itself appears to many as an expensive sideshow of constitutional tinkering (particularly obvious in 2004’s “white elephant” campaign against the North East Assembly), nationalism mobilises people – often from a strong working-class base – behind a relatively holistic programme of promised economic, social and political change. Nationalism has offered a cure, however illusory, for the various maladies of capitalist development and crisis which federalists have been unable or – due in large part to vested class and political interests – unwilling to match. Torrance makes little effort to grapple with this problem, particularly given that his vision for a transition to federalism is driven not by the collective efforts of working people but by well-intentioned politicians and civil servants, a point we will come back to later.

A Southern Problem or a British One?

Torrance does make some effort to deal with the argument that English people “don’t want” a federal England, but this is limited to observations about English unhappiness with the present constitutional setup. There remains no groundswell of federalist politics in England, or indeed in Scotland. Polls may show a Scottish preference for “devo max”-style federalism and an English discontent with the status quo, but that doesn’t mean people will get out and knock doors to that end. But when nationalists (or “not-nationalists-but…”) criticise federalism for its lack of popular support, they rarely try to explain why such support is absent or, indeed, why this matters. Occasionally they fall back on the New Left arguments of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, themselves a kind of haunted-mirror inversion of Dicey’s, about the innate conservatism of the British state. But if the British state is so conservative that it cannot reform itself, how have devolution and a legally-binding independence referendum been tolerated?

Idealism is a funny thing. Not “idealism” in the vague, optimistic sense, defined as a politics of hope and change and “making the world a better place”, but idealism as the philosophical tradition which posits ideas rather than real, material forces as possessing a determining agency in human history. The prevalence of both in the Yes campaign is not coincidental. One of vulgar idealism’s most peculiar attributes is that, while idealists condemn materialists for downplaying the role of human agency and free will in history, they have a tendency to place an inordinate amount of faith in the agency of institutions. In this crude, popular form, little nuance is permitted; just as “Scotland” means “us”, so too must “Westminster” be “them”, and there can be no internally contradictory tendencies in either of these things. The logic is, supposedly, that because institutions set the parameters of what is (at least legally) possible in politics, institutions determine the ideas with which law-abiding humans, and therefore citizens, shape the world.

Dicey’s fetishisation of English parliamentary sovereignty as the basis of British political life is a fine example of this. In impossibilism, Dicey’s fragile and aging parliamentary ideal is kept alive only thanks to the daily sacrifice of every idea which falls outside its miniscule parameters: yesterday the union, tomorrow federalism; and its high priests are the impossibilists. Anthropomorphised by the black magic of neo-Diceyan idealism, the palace of Westminster and huge swathes of Whitehall lift themselves up onto hitherto unseen legs and, sending chunks of masonry and scaffolding splashing into the Thames and crashing through shopfronts, these institutional titans make obscene demands of British politicians: You, puny humans, must deny Scotland the governments “it” votes for. You must lie about your desire for “more powers”. You must remain forever preoccupied with “neoliberal dogma”. You may never change, for we are The Institutions, we are immortal, and we are in charge!

For example, Iain Macwhirter’s recent critique of federalism asserted that there is “no scintilla of a chance of federalism being introduced by Westminster of its own volition.” Later in the same article, “Westminster has not the slightest intention…” and so on, and so on. “England” and “Scotland” are spoken of in a similarly clumsy, simplistic way; when you make up the units of analysis as you go along, it’s easy to meet a print deadline. Throughout impossibilist rhetoric there is a persistent desire to obscure what is really meant by “Westminster,” but Macwhirter lets the cat out of the bag: the problem with “Westminster” is, in the final instance, that “Scotland really isn’t on England’s radar…English people really don’t care [about the Barnett formula and the West Lothian Question]”. The trouble, in short, is with the way English people vote. There is no room here for differences or shifts of opinion within England, not to mention the continuing direction of Labour (via Adonis) and even the Conservatives (via Heseltine) towards English regional devolution.

The idealism that pervades a great deal of Scottish constitutional thinking, even in its more radical forms and particularly amongst supporters of independence, tends to close down any serious questions about the possibilities of popular constitutional change. A fetishisation of British institutions is used to obscure a blanket pessimism about English people and British parties, while a simplistic homogenisation of “Scotland” threatens to contain demands for a transfer of powers in the hands of those who claim to speak for the nation, halting whatever progress devolution or independence might entail before it can reach the majority.

Radical Federalism

Furthermore, there’s no clear effort by Macwhirter and his ilk to actually consider how federalism might be implemented. It might seem obvious during a constitutional referendum that all major constitutional changes come from referenda, or at least from popular support, but that’s not necessarily the case. If a party was interested enough in federalism – as Labour increasingly are, for all nations and regions of the UK – and offered a programme of economic and social reform alongside it in a manifesto which could gather popular support, a majority government could win an election on non-constitutional issues before simply imposing a federal system, regardless of the enthusiasm or lack thereof amongst certain sections of the electorate. Most English voters at least aren’t hostile to federalism, and there’s growing evidence that many are unhappy with their present constitutional status.

This unhappiness doesn’t translate into English constitutional demands because constitutional change in itself is boring. The appeal and ferment of the independence debate lies in the economic, social and political opportunities it presents, not the prospect of constitutional change alone. Things are no different for federalism, and that’s why constitutional change holds relatively little power in England. For English voters there is no alternate state, dressed up in promises of social citizenship and national renewal, which they can grab onto as many Scots do. The impossibilists – those who profess a mild interest in federalism but believe that it could not happen – believe that a federalist programme, if possible, would deliver much the same agenda as a nationalist programme. But this conflation is the reason that federalism seems impossible – the impossibilists think that the only thing that could deliver constitutional change is national sentiment, whereas what could actually deliver federalism is a far-reaching programme of social, economic and political change. A successful federalism must be a radical, federal socialism.

Torrance’s “New Federalism”

This is where Torrance’s argument is weakest, which is strange, because he does in fact smuggle several chapters of fairly far-reaching policy proposals – ranging from tax rises on the rich to affirmative action for state-educated people in higher education and beyond – into a book which is ostensibly about constitutional change. But these proposals all exist within a fairly technocratic framework. The goal of progressive policy for Torrance is not the radical transformation of society, or even greater equality per se, but the old-fashioned liberal dream of meritocracy. Private education is bad, not because it reproduces ruling class unity, but because it inhibits social mobility. The distinction between social mobility and social justice is not discussed, but a preoccupation with the former suggests a degree of comfort with the existence of class society just so long as everyone has the opportunity to be in a higher class.

Particularly revealing is his uncritical acceptance of Will Hutton’s assertion that “socialism and neo-liberalism have demonstrably failed,” and that we are now faced with the Quixotic mission of “making capitalism work”. Change is to be made by moderate but “bold” politicians and experts – he draws extensively on the policy recommendations and research of both – rather than popular movements or, perish the thought, an empowered and self-serving class. Tories and Liberal Democrats are oddly over-represented in his discussions of traditionally left-wing issues like challenging private school dominance and reducing income inequality, and it is tempting to suspect that for all his progressive suggestions, Torrance still struggles to escape his past entanglements with the Scottish right.

When it comes to the implementation of federalism itself, his policy proposals are justifications for constitutional change rather than, as suggested above, vehicles for it. This federalism will come about through “baby steps,” as he believes it has throughout British history. More significantly, it will require “cross-party agreement,” essentially guaranteeing that any radical potential is sucked out by the vicissitudes of compromise. Torrance here succumbs to the temptation of gradualism: just as the SNP, facing public scepticism over independence, sought to moderate and minimise the impact of what should have been a profound societal transformation, so too does Torrance hope to convince the haters with a relatively smooth, simple transition to a constitutional arrangement that will subsequently do little to help resolve the overlapping economic, social and political crises of modern Britain.

Federal Possibilities

The most important question for advocates of a federal union is not whether federalism can be achieved, but by whom and for whom; a possible Tory or liberal federalism may promote a race to the bottom between constituent states on wages, taxation and working standards; a possible Labour federalism, as hinted at by Powers for a Purpose, might create a nationwide “base” below which tax, welfare and wages may not be lowered, but with the ability to raise them, as well as flexibility over other aspects of industrial policy; but it could also be a technocratic, regressive federalism, hinted at in the Adonis review, which focuses on handing local powers and wealth to business rather than workers.

The overriding problem with all of these is that they remain federalisms-from-above, not from below. If Miliband’s Labour was able to command the same degree of popular enthusiasm as the Yes campaign, it would at least find itself in power under a substantial weight of progressive expectation. But as things stand, One Nation Labour may win a small majority simply because it’s less awful than the Tories. Thus the only force in the UK which seems ready to implement something approaching federalism will most likely do so in a managerial and broadly conservative fashion, just as it did with devolution.

The second most important question for Scottish federalists is whether this, or the hope of overturning it in favour of a more radical federal system of the possible future, is worth supporting over another “constitutional” change which already has a rough wind of economic, social and political demands in its sails.

Torrance has secured himself a prominent position in the referendum debate, partly through the strategic use of nice jumpers and expertly crafted hair, but largely on merit. His much-maligned scepticism about Scotland’s “progressive” consensus is welcome, and places him in a broad but often silent (or silenced) third camp of cynics, sceptics and grumblers of which we are also a part. Britain Rebooted is a thoughtful, nuanced (and generously short) work which deserves far better than the lazy impossibilist critiques to which the author’s proposals have been subjected, but it falls short where it could be at its most innovative; a couple of pages dedicated to the actual forces which might produce a federal UK is simply not enough for such an important topic, particularly given the nature of the critiques ranged against it. What is particularly evident is that there remains a pressing need for sharp, radical thinking in Scotland about the nature and direction of not only Scottish but also British politics that evades the reductionism of “Westminster vs Scotland”, but which can also break free of a dependence on expert-led and top-down tinkering to move towards an informed, intelligent popular radicalism.

Rory Scothorne

Federalism and its discontents: a response to Owen Jones and his critics

Owen Jones recently broke his self-imposed silence on independence to make an argument for a “loose federation” of the various UK nations as a “fairer” alternative to Scottish nationalism. He identifies nationalism as an inadequate substitute for a progressive politics based on “shared economic interests”, and a “symptom” of the atomised, individualistic politics which have replaced the class solidarity of the past. But he realises that movements for national sovereignty aren’t going to vanish any time soon, and that a “loose federation” could grant each nation a degree of sovereignty or home rule without fragmenting the shared economic interests of the British working class. Nationalism to Jones is sad but inevitable, and should be taken into account rather than ignored by those who want to transform the British state.

Nationalism has been known to inspire a great deal of oppression, inequality and intolerance – this is partly why left-wingers dislike it so much. But our present situation also proves it capable of inspiring hope and creativity, hence the growing comfort with which Scottish centre-leftists describe themselves as “civic nationalists”. Several nationalist responses to Jones’ article have implied that he hasn’t grasped this second point – that he stubbornly remains aloof to the potential for an open, tolerant and left-wing nationalism, to the detriment of his argument.

Mike Small of Bella Caledonia blames this on Jones’ political ties to the Labour Party:

He and others remain convinced that the avowedly/explicitly right[-wing] Labour Party is going to miraculously metamorphise [sic] into something of their grandfathers’ dreams. It won’t. We’ve lived through this. It’s like expecting a dying dog to chase a stick. However high and far you throw the stick it’s not going to chase it any longer.

The limited evidence for such an emphatic claim comes later:

Labour abandoned Britain to the spivs and The City long ago in a sea of spin, PFI and broken promises. If people in Scotland don’t believe that story any more it’s because of Cash for Honours, fictional WMD and endemic propaganda from the mouths of a decade of Labour spin men.

And yet there’s something deeply suspect about this. Jones supports a sort of federalism, and sees the Labour Party as the only left-wing party with enough support across Britain to implement it fairly and evenly. Is our best argument against this seriously just the smug, barely substantiated assertion that Labour are shite, so it’s not going to happen? The most sensible opponents of independence, when proposing a federal option, are faced with angry outbursts about “jam tomorrow” and the suggestion that Labour have only ever sought to manipulate Scotland into sending votes south out of a supposedly deluded belief in class solidarity. But at the same time, supporters of independence fall head over heels to soothe the concerns of rest-of-UK (rUK) Labour supporters who worry about being condemned to Tory rule forever by our desertion. Arguments are made about Labour’s proven ability to win majorities in England and Wales as well as Scotland, and the power of Scottish independence to set a “positive example” to the rUK Left. The good folks at A Thousand Flowers have attacked Jones for rejecting independence as a solution to the failures of the British state, and express optimism about the ability of the rUK left to build a movement similar to Scotland’s.

So who do we think the rUK left is? It’s a mixed bag, of course, but who is actually able to win state power for socialists down south if not Labour? The Greens? With their single MP in a marginal seat and their single, unpopular council administration? If Scottish nationalism is really about international solidarity and left-wing values, how can we say that Labour is a totally lost cause and then march out of Westminster, enabling either a ‘lost’ Labour Party or the Tories to lord over our southern comrades for the foreseeable future?

Jones rightly recognises that the rest of the UK doesn’t, and shouldn’t, depend on Scottish votes to fight off the Tories. That’s because the rest of the UK has a party with members, councillors, MPs and MEPs who passionately care about social justice and with close links to the self-organised institutions of the working class, and it’s the Labour Party. It is a party with which a very large chunk of the British and Scottish left still identify. Yes, it has done some dreadful things, particularly in its recent history. That was during a time when Social Democratic parties across the world were swerving to the right. Does that really make a renewed Labour left – in either Scotland or the rest of the UK – impossible?

Too many nationalists seem to think so. And yet they, of all people, should understand that history is not simply about what “we’ve lived through”, or whatever made you particularly angry ten years ago. They should know that historic identities – be they held by Scots or the labour movement – don’t die easily. For long periods of the UK’s history, the constitutional issue lay in some very long grass, largely hidden from the popular consciousness. But some form of Scottish identity remained, preserved in an apolitical swamp of ‘cultural sub-nationalism’ and the endurance of Scottish kirk, education and law. Tom Nairn calls this historic hint of cultural and political difference the ‘raw material’ – often irrational and backwards-looking – of Scotland’s modern political nationalism, which seized on a crisis of the British state to look forward towards better governance, a fairer society and a more versatile economy built to navigate the rapids of global capitalism.

The point is this: given that the independence movement is built, ultimately, on a 300-year-old question that was for much of that time politically irrelevant, how can nationalists claim that just 30 years of ruling-class advance within the Labour Party makes such an advance irreversible? History is about the longue durée; the many levels and forces of society are forever rolling across one another, some in periodic stasis, others in permanent motion. If the ancient thing that we call ‘Scotland’ collided with the crises of the late 20th century to produce the debate we’re having now, why shouldn’t some event in the future collide with Labour’s enduring working-class base, suppressed as it might have been, to produce something equally positive?

Labour continues to toe too much of the Blairite line at both Westminster and Holyrood, with particularly reactionary policies on immigration and welfare causing understandable anger amongst both both Labour and non-Labour socialists. Owen Jones, following Ralph Miliband, recognises that Labour’s preoccupation with parliamentary politics as the be-all and end-all of political action weakens them, pulling any radical impulses rightwards in search of new majorities. But his solution to these problems is not to leave the Labour Party entirely, which would abandon generations of left-wing voters and trade union members to creeping irrelevance as several competing ‘real Left’ parties stumble into existence. His solution is to continue a fight within Labour, alongside fellow socialists in the party. This is the choice of a political pragmatist. He is equally pragmatic on nationalism: it can’t be ignored, or simply condemned, but it can be adapted into new, more complex forms of class politics, where solidarity and sovereignty is bottom-up, not imposed on restive peripheries by the London state or party.

His critique of the SNP hits the mark: they are too friendly to the rich, not because they have been conquered by the bourgeoisie but because they are organised around the bourgeois ideology of nationalism, which seeks to subordinate divergent class interests to the bizarre notion of ‘the national interest’. The SNP’s is no scary, fascist nationalism, but a calm, boring project of adaptation to an undemocratic global system they would never dream of destroying. Scotland is a rich country which, on a global scale, profits immensely from capitalism. The SNP plan to make Scotland even richer by typically capitalist means. Why end something that’s making you rich?

This is where we need to depart from Jones’ argument. If the SNP need to be defeated, federalism isn’t the way to do it. The SNP have done well out of devolution, not because of an insurgent nationalism but because they proved adept at managing the devolved apparatus to deliver material benefits to certain powerful sections of the Scottish electorate. They can pose as centre-left, while never facing the big, state-level questions that might force them rightwards – on taxation, defence and labour legislation, for example. Their proposed corporation tax cuts, their NATO volte-face, and their reluctance to take sides over Grangemouth all suggest that independence will indeed send them scurrying in that direction.

Who will be there to challenge them? Scottish Labour cannot outflank them on the right as long as they want to maintain a base of support among trade unions and the working class (which they undoubtedly do) – but they can outflank the ‘national party’ on the left, not just as the Labour Party but as a party of labour. Federalism risks entrenching the SNP in their comfortable role as the most efficient redistributors of London handouts. But with independence, the Scottish Labour Party can challenge the SNP on the terrain of real economic power.

This is an argument against federalism that doesn’t depend on dismissing it as ‘irrelevant’ or ‘impossible’. If, as the polls narrow and the leadership gets desperate, Labour do believably offer something approaching a federal arrangement (which is even more likely if they’re looking for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2015), we need a better response than that. This is also an argument against federalism that is based on an opposition to the SNP. On the continuing importance of the Labour party to Scotland, the pro-independence left and Owen Jones should be able to agree. But if we want to really take the fight to the SNP and start to build a state which empowers and provides for its people, federalism isn’t enough.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

image courtesy of ‘broken barnet’