I’m not sure where it’s from, but I vaguely remember a moment in an old cartoon when a large, burly character yawns widely and a fly buzzes determinedly into their mouth. The burly character, having closed their mouth and discovered what’s inside it, starts to choke, all wide eyes and flailing hands. It’s a funny moment, and a triumphant one – what was once an arrogant, lazy beast is transformed into a spectacle of panicked indignity by the coincidence of their yawning mouth with an inquisitive insect’s flight path.
But it’s also, ultimately, a moment of tragedy. The beast finally succeeds in swallowing the noble fly and, we presume, digesting it. They might be humbled and quiescent for a while, or maybe angry, but eventually the old swagger returns, and they remember to yawn with caution from then on.
Nationalism yawns. The mouth opens: Nairn argues that 19th-century European nationalist politics, formulated by a narrow, educated elite, granted the masses a large but fleeting sense of power – or, if not power per se, it ensured that “the whole people becomes part of society, really, for the first time”. Reacting against the chaos and dislocation of a ballooning industrial capitalism which replaced local powers with foreign financiers and industrialists, peripheral elites rallied their people – many of whom had never been engaged in politics at such a level before – to defend a new, romantic notion of the Volk.
But the mouth, having opened almost as wide as it can go, has to shut. Mass politics is forced back into an institutional and ideological framework designed by and for the nationalist elite, and a fire kindled to ward off a foreign ruling class is stamped out before it consumes the indigenous equivalent. After yawning, nationalism grits its teeth. Either in defeat or in victory, every sin of the leadership is justified and every complaint suppressed by the overriding priority of the nation and its elite architects.
Despite Nairn’s efforts to distinguish between them, his formulation of Scottish “neo-nationalism” resembles his functionalist analysis of its 19th-century ancestor rather too closely, and it’s tempting to suspect that he has projected his own (sympathetic) impression of modern nationalism backwards. Scottish nationalism is about to finish yawning. It is clearly a reaction against the profound uncertainties of a globalised economy. It offers a reassertion of community and locality, but also the hope of a resurrected social democratic settlement for people struggling in low-pay, precarious and undignified work, those out of work, or for small businesses and consumers who feel helpless against multinational corporations.
For many of its most enthusiastic supporters, most visibly students and young people, it offers intellectual and practical stimuli that are hard to find in the increasingly unrewarding worlds of work and education – a chance to meet new and interesting people, think new and interesting things, and gain the attention and respect of one’s peers. It promises democracy in a world we are told is controlled by the market. In this way it has generated a substantial amount of support and activity amongst people with little political or economic power who were and remain willing to fight for a more humane, open and democratic society.
The Roch Wind
Somewhere in this tumult we identified a rough wind; something elemental and raw that could upset the delicate balance on which modern Scottish nationalism was constructed. Nationalism’s elite architects – primarily the SNP, but also figures in think tanks, business and whatever passes for a Scottish intelligentsia – were forced by the limits of their own position to encourage the development of a mass, spontaneous movement, full of contradiction and crudity, but nevertheless with the potential to incubate something beyond the kind of defensive civic-nationalism on which it was built.
The “Roch Wind” argument for independence was rooted in this specific set of circumstances. The referendum itself was a strange fluke, a result of the SNP’s unexpected majority in 2011, and this flash of lightning just happened to strike a fireworks factory. Neither Scotland’s nor Britain’s elites were properly prepared for the terrifying opportunities of a Yes vote – the management of fundamental conflicts of interest between classes and interest groups which had hitherto been sunken into a stagnant political binary at Westminster, the enormous pressure to keep at least some of their impossible promises, and so on. This, combined with the raw energy of the Yes campaign and the experience of a post-independence labour movement, could have opened the door to genuinely radical possibilities for dissent and disobedience in an independent Scotland.
We also identified something sinister in the “Team Scotland” or “all of us first” attitudes of the SNP and the Common Weal, which emerged not only from the nationalist and cross-class basis of those organisations but also the nature of devolution itself – devolution in Scotland has always been innately defensive, concerned with mediating between competing interests rather than taking sides, with key economic powers and conflicts obscured by the bogeyman of “Westminster”. The SNP are experts at this, sublimating their own sectional divisions, and Scotland’s, into the overriding goal of independence. This allows them to achieve both internal unity and a consistent, competent and compromising approach to government.
We foresaw an initial strengthening of the social-nationalist project after independence followed by a long, drawn-out weakening as its contradictions unravelled. The civic basis of this nationalism, necessitated by the politically weak cultural basis of Scottish national identity, means it cannot marshal sufficient popular support with the national question alone – it must consistently offer material benefits to its supporters. We expected this material base to become unsustainable after independence, buckling under the pressures of separation, the competing interests in the social-nationalist coalition, and the state-level influence those interests would be competing for.
We believe that this unravelling would have created significant opportunities for socialists and the labour movement in Scotland, who could be bolstered by the more general popular energy unleashed by the possibilities of independence. There could, in short, have finally been more than a rough wind. The yawning nationalist beast could have choked on the fly as it closed its mouth, and its grip on Scottish politics could have been loosened for good.
It might also have swallowed us, of course, and this is what our No-voting comrades predicted. But we felt that Scottish nationalism was weaker than they believed, ultimately incapable of overcoming its internal contradictions should independence be won.
The expected closeness of the vote was crucial, for an easy Yes win would have implied an unstoppable nationalism and an easy, unproblematic transition for the nation’s elites. But there were, as Gordon Brown identified, real risks – to jobs, pensions, currency and more, problems to which we believed only socialists and the labour movement had workable and popular solutions. The weakness of the nationalist case for independence was, for us, inextricable from the opportunity for a truly radical “Yes”.
Our main efforts, then, were threefold: first, we sought to persuade the pro-independence left to maintain a critical distance from nationalists in the SNP and the Common Weal. Second, we hoped to encourage the sceptical or No-supporting members of the labour movement to consider the possibilities of independence. Finally, we pressed both of those vague groupings – pro-indy left and sceptical labour left – to develop a more thorough critique of social democracy in both its nationalist and unionist forms.
Jaws of Defeat
Alas, we’ll never find out if we would have been swallowed or not. Mainstream nationalism could offer no sufficiently convincing rebuttal to those real risks, and so the Scottish people placed their electoral hand over the nation’s yawning mouth before the fly could even begin to taste the celebratory buckfast on the beast’s breath. Now, Scottish nationalism is gritting its teeth.
One side of the nationalist jaws is the doctrine of “One Scotland”. This is the civic nationalism of an elite that must re-engage with the majority who voted No in order to restore some degree of nationwide legitimacy. Nationalist leaders have retreated to the safer ground of “further powers”, but they will be perfectly comfortable under the present devolution settlement too.
The other, accompanying side of Scottish nationalism is summed up by the social media slogan of “we are the 45%”, which takes the earlier, exclusive message of Salmond’s clumsy “Team Scotland” to logic-defying extremes. Scotland’s new ‘45ers hold up the nation – “all of us,” as the Common Weal put it – as the basis of their politics, but they openly exclude a majority of the nation’s people by mistaking the minority who voted Yes for the nation’s entire stock of progressives.
This is the hidden exclusivity of Scotland’s supposedly “inclusive” nationalism laid bare. In the final instance, its acolytes view Scottish statehood as the primary condition for all possible progress, and refuse to subordinate this to any politics rooted in class, gender, sexuality or any other nexus of oppression and exclusion. Jim McColl, Brian Soutar, Bill Walker and Stuart Campbell are welcome participants (they must be, for they are part of the 45%, whether you like it or not), but socialist No-voters like Neil Findlay are emphatically not, despite their obvious commitment to radical politics.
Having been rejected by the majority of Scottish people, the “45%” – united, ultimately, by nothing other than Scottish independence – is still seen by nationalists as the only plausible basis of “progressive” change. Anybody who seeks the same kind of changes without independence must either retrospectively “join” the 45% (and thus, by implication, apologise for the treacherous way they voted), or simply wait until the next referendum.
“The 45%” is an explicit example – a regressive beacon, even – of narrow nationalism. “We” lost, and Scottish nationalism is stronger and far more sinister today than it was on the 18th of September. The circumstances which justified our support for independence – particularly its immediate possibility at a time when nationalists seemed incapable of fully controlling it – are no longer present. Critical participation in a nationalist movement or nationalist discourse is no longer a useful priority and is now, more than ever, a danger for the Scottish radical left.
Roch Wind will carry on, in some form or another and with the same personnel, but through the post-referendum fallout we hope to reconnect with any comrades, regardless of how they voted, who want to work together for socialism and the labour movement in Scotland, the United Kingdom and beyond. We’re also happy to work with people from all left-leaning parties. But just as we fought for a Yes while criticising the movement’s nationalism and reformism, we will be fighting for Labour governments in 2015 and 2016 while condemning the nationalism and reformism of the Labour party, with a renewed focus on the limits of “One Nation” ideology.
Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)
If you’re interested in getting involved, please send an email to roryscothorne AT gmail DOT com, tweet us at @Roch_Wind, or send us a message on Facebook. We genuinely don’t care which way you voted.