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)

The Coup Against Reality

On the 30th of June, 1871, a 55-year old poet and communarde penned a song that would come to define the communist movement for at least the next century. ‘La raison tonne en son cratére’, wrote Eugéne Pottier, ‘C’est l’éruption de la fin’.

English translations rendered these lines increasingly confusing, in the name of rhyme, rhythm, and national ideological interests. ‘For justice thunders condemnation, A better world’s in birth!’, the IWW hazarded, while others proposed ‘Man’s reason thunders from its crater, ‘Tis th’ eruption naught can daunt.’ The first English translation, by Eleanor Marx, is not easy to locate, but regardless, the rather uninspiring rendition the English-speaking world has ended up with is ‘For reason in revolt now thunders, and at last ends the age of cant.’

Socialists’ unease as to how to treat this line about ‘reason’ is typical of a movement caught uncomfortably between science, dialectics and relativism-cum-postmodernism. The more literal translation, that ‘Reason thunders in its volcano, it’s the final eruption’ is fiendishly theoretically unclear, and anarchically, unreasonably, violent. Indeed, in Britain, the parliamentary character of our socialist movement has resulted in agreement across the spectrum of Left and Right that reason is calm, collected, objective truth. Reason does not thunder in volcanoes, it does not erupt; reason purrs the subheading structure of IFS reports and stills stormy debate with briefings from experts. The soft Right say that reason dictates privatisation and low taxes, in the interest of all; the soft Left say that reason, of a Spirit Level variety, tells us that good public services and progressive taxation benefit everyone, from the millions to the millionaires.

All conspire to present an objective, non-partial view of the world. This becomes most obvious in electoral events like referendums, where orthodox ‘expertise’ is offered to the public from both sides, about which route is objectively ‘best for the nation’. It must never be admitted that certain political decisions might benefit some people more than others, or lend legitimacy and drive to social movements of the left and right. And in an era of short-term market interest, it must never be admitted that the future is unpredictable – experts are prophets, and if the people believe them, the markets have certainty and will fulfil the prophecy.  But the technocratic understanding of politics-as-management has been pummelled by the elemental pyroclastics of popular discontent: against the reason of the expert, the journalist, and the professional politician is ranged the molten, destructive, volcanic reason of the mob – flowing underground while the experts fiddle with their seismographs, now bursting through the surface as they watch awestruck from afar.

Michael Gove, the former minister for stopped clocks, was obviously right when he said that ‘the British people have had enough of experts.’ Academics, economists, newspaper editorials and most of the political establishment warned of an apocalypse should Britain vote to leave the EU. These experts then had to face the humiliating prospect of a majority of the population showing how little they cared for such expertise. The fact that individuals held positions of power and influence in business, banking, government, and the world of celebrity, did not, in the public mindset, mean that they were the bearers of indisputable Right-Reason.

It is not only in the arena of the referendum that technocratic objectivity has perished; within the Labour Party the expertise of the PLP is being consistently undermined by a party membership that does not pay heed to their protestations that they are ordained by reason. Labour’s anti-Corbyn clique appeal to their own ‘expertise’ at their peril. To many partisans of the new movement, their shady shadow-cabinet experience and their ‘reasonable’ capitulations to the right by voting with Blair and Miliband’s whip simply make them feeble. Their insistence that there is one, objective and reasonable how-to-win-elections handbook that must be referred to by all sensible 21st century politicians, with guidance on how to be media-savvy and how to practice the dark arts of triangulation and message discipline, appears to them to be the ultimate form of common sense. Unfortunately for them, common sense belongs to the commons, and it is shifting under their feet.   

Rather than trying to understand and sympathise with the volcanic reason underpinning Corbyn’s support, the plotters have patronised and pathologised huge swathes of party members and supporters as childish, ignorant or just downright insane. There is little indication that self-styled moderates and Reasonable People on the left and right have any awareness of the lava-flows that are devouring the legitimacy of their supposed expertise, and their long-lost college-based internal electoral system. Instead, they’re loudly castigating the volcano for having the temerity to erupt.

The crisis of elite political reason has been a long time coming. Managerialism in the ‘national interest’ has been the dominant way of discussing governance in Britain since at least the 17th century, but this verbal game gained its left party credentials during the boom years after World War Two. With outright anti-capitalist politics largely written off thanks to the solidification of Cold War loyalties and capital’s recovery from the war, technocrats from the upper classes like Keynes and his infinite and insatiable band of followers tinkered sensibly with a general political-economic structure – capitalism – that was based on Principles of Pure Reason, mined from the Eternal Truths of human action and psychology. It was tacitly assumed that history (driven by ‘the markets’ or ‘the economy’) could only ever be something which happened to us, not something we collectively plan and create, and the purpose of government was to adapt to change as rationally as possible.

These experts were considered to be above class or sectional motivation, their elite reason granting them rare access to the national interest itself. When the end of the war led to booming population growth, a huge influx of American dollars through the Marshall Plan, and plenty of necessary infrastructure work to keep employment and demand high, ‘experts’ were credited for their impeccable management of the situation. But the expert construction of the social state was predicated on and enabled by a postwar economic expansion of unprecedented length, creating enough jobs, capital and tax revenue for wages, profits and public services to grow in tandem.

There was nothing eternal or necessary about the experts’ ability to appear to create ‘national prosperity’ from economic conditions, as would quickly become clear when those economic conditions took a turn for the worse, and those same experts had to rebrand with a new image of sensible state-steerers whose game was to avoid imminent and sure disaster. Rather than creating ‘national wealth’ their job became the making of ‘tough choices’. Unfortunately for them, and for the capitalist interests they smooth the ground for, this rebranding does not seem to have been wholly successful.

Elite expertise was also legitimised through the predominance of a mass party structure explicitly designed so that the party would service the experts, giving them the mass support necessary for parliamentary politics, and distributing their ideology in party activists’ communities. Both Labour and the Conservatives boasted a far higher proportion of the population as party members than today, at least in the mid-1950s. (Party membership data for the era is notoriously unreliable: Labour’s institution of ‘minimum’ membership thresholds as high as 1000 for Constituency Labour Parties led to widespread exaggeration of figures, but the sheer size of the ‘minimum’ is nevertheless testament to the levels of engagement which were generally expected). It was likely that of the people we all trust the most – friends and family – a decent handful would have been active in a political party. Those at the helm of the party and/or in government benefited from a sort of transferred trust-by-proxy, and relative to today party politics was seen as a normal, worthwhile activity.

Through these community, familial or friendship networks, millions beyond the membership were drawn into a sense of common political endeavour and direction; votes were cast in a strategic sense, for a set of distinct values and principles that would be translated into policy by the appropriate members of the elite once in power. Volcanic political reason is more appropriate to the chaotic world of the present – it is opportunistic, spontaneous and spurns convention, the kind of thing we describe as a ‘roch wind’ in our book Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland. If the ‘Yes’ campaign was Scotland’s roch wind, full of the newly politically engaged who were thrilled by rude and cathartic defiance of expert advice, then Corbynism is Labour’s. But whether it can be more than that – mair nor a roch wind, as Hamish Henderson put it – is still unclear.

Today, the postwar economic growth on which the elite’s legitimacy was constructed – and its farcical tribute act, the ‘privatised Keynesianism’ of the late-1990s and early 2000s – is clearly over and done with. Every effort to counteract the gravitational forces which pull profit rates downwards seems spent: military spending, fossil fuel exploitation and financial deregulation all ended in crises of sovereign debt, private debt, climate crisis and various other maladies. The mass party has suffered accordingly, with the array of experts on offer seeming increasingly dusty and inadequate, their reformist politics less and less able to deliver the goods for most people.

The recent growth of  Labour’s membership, which may approach mass levels again, has been little consolation to those yearning for a return to expert party management. New critiques of Corbynism have condemned the relative inactivity of new members, as the old moderate doorstep enthusiasts have been supplanted by left-wing touchscreen fondlers in both the public eye and on many CLP membership lists. But ‘the doorstep’ is only one particular form of activism, necessary in a party system reliant on the loyal distribution of top-down lines, literature and – increasingly, and particularly in Scotland – apologies-to-the-people. The mass party may have helped to give the electorate a sense of strategic direction, but the strategy and the victory was always disproportionately set by and delivered to the very technocrats in whom those masses placed so much trust. There is more than one way to mobilise huge numbers of party members; Corbyn and Momentum have a machine at their disposal with as yet unknown powers.

Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ is certainly not a rejuvenation of the old forms. But as Cailean Gallagher and Matt Bolton have written recently, the ‘new politics’ renounces established expertise (assembling a team of ‘experts’ only to ignore and eventually lose them after Brexit) only to replace it with a sort of spiritual certainty. It understands itself not as a movement with clear material and societal transformation in mind, but as something propelled by moral means, with a vaguely more moral world as its end. It is the product of a sort of dual nostalgia: on the one hand, it yearns for a more principled and mythologised ‘Old Labour’, defending what’s left of welfare and the NHS; and on the other, it renounces the rose-tinted image of Blair as master electioneer. In this way the fundamental continuity between Old and New Labour, each characterised by the predominance of elite, managerial reason applied to different material circumstances, is glossed over.

The result is still unclear, but Corbyn’s latest leadership launch was hardly promising. The central focus of his campaign seems to be a return to the founding principles of the welfare state, with Corbyn identifying “the five ills of 21st century Britain” in a dull attempt to update 1942’s Beveridge report. The image of the politician as a sort of social doctor is precisely the kind of top-down approach to combating social ‘sickness’ that left Labour so unprepared for recent political upheavals. It presents society as a unified body in need of disinterested care, rather than a set of conflicting and self-interested forces within which we must pick a side. Poverty’s not a sickness, it’s a symptom caused by the rich. The whole tenor of Corbynism is becoming increasingly and understandably defensive, but its early strength – demonstrated by the PLP’s total unpreparedness for his success last year – was its ability to draw on forces that elites both inside and outside the Labour Party simply cannot assimilate. Social democracy has collapsed and it’s not coming back. Now is not the time for the Labour left to mistake a sinkhole for a trench.

The focus need not be on putting together committees of academics to write better policy, or developing better branding that tricks people into voting for socialism. It should be on finding ways – predominantly outside parliament – of shaking the earth under the feet of the ruling class, rattling loose those parts of society whose loyalty to their bosses and lawmakers hangs by a thread. Corbyn and his supporters should be discovering and encouraging alternatives to the elite form of reason which is collapsing so violently in front of our eyes. The left should certainly not be afraid of the new popular scepticism towards expertise and traditional forms of legitimacy: the working class need appeal to no legitimacy but their own. We shouldn’t accept any old replacement either, and particularly not the impotent spiritual uplift of the ‘new politics’. Gilles Deleuze, observing the changes wrought by the end of the postwar consensus, wrote: ‘there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.’ Corbynism, for all of its limitations, represents the only part of the party sufficiently independent from the ruling class to understand and attempt that search.

What kind of weapon is Owen Smith? The collapse of trust in ‘reasonable’ politics which has led to both Brexit and the enduring popularity of Corbyn is part of a massive shift in social, economic and political tectonics, moved by molten underground forces that the Parliamentary Labour Party used to think they understood. Their response to that shift should leave no doubt about the ideological character of the coup against Corbyn. These people are conservatives in the classical mode, characterised by William F. Buckley as those who ‘stand athwart history, yelling Stop.’ They’ve chosen Owen Smith as their saviour, a man who thinks all that Labour is lacking is the expert salesmanship of a PR guy from the pharmaceuticals industry; who thinks Labour should respond to losing the EU referendum by simply Having Another One; and who thinks he gained crucial insights into the nature of social inequality by living in Surrey. This isn’t just a coup against Corbyn. It’s a coup against reality. Like volcanologists in denial, ‘moderates’ are still standing on the slopes fiddling with their instruments; socialists should be down in the crater, siding with the eruption.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)
Amy Westwell (@amywestwell)

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

After The Roch Wind

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.

Open Wide…

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.

What Next?

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.

Traitors For Yes

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With a Yes vote now more possible than ever, and its left-wing advocates in a particularly excitable mood, here are a few thoughts inspired by Euan McColm’s latest column discussing what he perceives to be scant evidence that the left would be strengthened in an independent Scotland. McColm is perceptive in his analysis of the risks posed to the left by any collaboration, however critical, with the SNP, who are adept at talking to the left while walking (and occasionally talking) to the right. He suggests that “Scottish independence is more likely to benefit the right than the left”, and that socialists will find “very little reward” for their efforts in winning independence, echoing a similarly sceptical argument made earlier in the campaign by the Record’s Torcuil Crichton, who wrote that socialism struggles to break through “in a country where all civic politics is about the nation”.

The crucial basis of the SNP’s pitch for independence is civic nationalism, a supposedly inclusive doctrine which seeks to benefit and draw support from business and the working class alike. The civic nationalist approach is often very explicit – Nicola Sturgeon said this week that independence could benefit “all sectors of society”. Socialism, by contrast, is necessarily exclusive, taking sides with the majority who must work to survive against those who own and control industry and capital. When the left adopts the language of nationalism, advocating the building of a “better nation”, and attacking those who “don’t have Scotland’s best interests at heart”, they make it far more difficult to advocate a politics of progressive exclusion further down the line.

While civic nationalists are enthusiastic about their own inclusivity, many on the left are reluctant to openly embrace a more exclusionary politics, particularly when they feel within touching distance of powerful forces. The Common Weal has fallen victim to this already, with one memorable line from Robin McAlpine’s manifesto proclaiming that “an effective system of industrial democracy begins from an awareness from both parties (employers and employees) that their interests are broadly shared”. What happens when a low-paying employer faces a strike in this context? The workers, pursuing their own narrow interest, can be condemned for endangering the “national interest” by not considering the needs of capital.

Most socialists rightly reject the idea that a nationalist coalition of interests can work together to build an “all of us first” economy where this kind of conflict isn’t necessary. The theory expounded in the Common Weal’s industrial policy documents suggests that businesses simply need to be persuaded that decent wages are in their interests, and workers simply need to be persuaded to restrain their demands so business can continue making a profit. Who will do the persuading here? Well, none other than the state, of course. But for the state to be able to mediate between competing interests, it must be governed by a party with a foot in both camps – a national party. One need only look at the priorities of Scotland’s current “national party” to see how pathetic an ambition this is for the left.

No politics, nationalist or socialist, is ever truly inclusive. Politics in a society which is structurally unequal (indeed, politics only exists because of structural inequality) is always exclusive, for it must either maintain the present structures of exclusion or militate against those with a vested interest in the present state of things. Scottish nationalists are able to pretend that there is a third option, where those with a vested interest in the present state of things exist only at Westminster, and therefore “all of us” within Scotland can benefit from leaving the union.

The Radical Independence Campaign has pursued a slightly more critical path, but appears prepared to give its support to a new Scottish state – its critique of the Common Weal is not that McAlpine et al will hand power to the nationalists and the state, but that the Common Weal simply isn’t as radical as it could be. RIC’s own proposals contain some good ideas – nationalisation of oil and infrastructure, the empowerment of the labour movement, an independent currency and more – but their primary focus remains parliamentary.

The new Scottish state towers above everything else in the ambitions of Scotland’s “new radicals”, and unless this is rectified we risk being cursed with a complacent, toothless left, happy to direct its appeals to the government rather than the people. Independence shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity to build a sustainable progressive state – such a thing is impossible under capitalism. The SNP will be forced, very quickly, to take sides in the various sectional conflicts of Scottish society that had previously been the business of Westminster, and it is the role of a critical, dynamic radical left to expose these conflicts and take the correct side, often against what is perceived to be the “national interest”.  The SNP’s neoliberal streak, combined with what will likely be a fairly rough transition to independence, will force them to make “tough choices,” providing opportunities to resist and challenge the Scottish state and the elite it will protect.

Notably absent from McColm’s analysis is the Labour Party. The Labour leadership is hardly composed of socialist firebrands, but they have plenty of experience opposing the SNP and a deep-seated desire to do so, and have remained largely excluded, partially by choice and partially by the hostility of the pro-independence coalition, from efforts to build a civic-nationalist consensus in Scotland. Their scepticism of nationalist social democracy will hopefully remain after a Yes vote, and as a result there is some potential for Labour, which retains a large electoral base and crucial ties to the labour movement, to be part of efforts to build a more realistic and conflict-ready Scottish radicalism. But Labour’s moderate leadership is already being tempted by the nationalist “Team Scotland” project, and the left within and outwith Labour must work to ensure the party is not dragged into a sterile consensus which it could be a powerful force in opposing – in negotiations and beyond.

Below are two scenarios, each ending on what might be a slightly exaggerated note, indicating how the pro-independence left’s actions now are of crucial long-term significance.

  1. The nightmare scenario

Independence is won, and the SNP form a minority or coalition government in 2016. They deliver on several of their “progressive” promises, and a small but not insignificant left bloc in parliament offer critical support. But the vicissitudes of currency union demand cuts in some areas, and global economic turbulence hits the Scottish economy just as it is regaining its balance. The left, widely viewed as a part of Scotland’s “cosy left-wing establishment”, has little chance against an invigorated anti-establishment right (the rebellious, intelligent young rightists of late-1970s USA are a good precedent here), who squeeze into power as the major party in coalition with a weakened SNP, or at the very least pull a desperate SNP rightwards. Suddenly, Scotland finds itself to the right of the UK, and the Scottish left is rudderless and discredited for a generation. Leftists across Europe, initially inspired by Scotland’s example to fuse civic nationalist with social democratic politics, find themselves in a similar situation, and the “radical” right sees its path to power unopposed.

  1. The alternative:

Independence is won, and the SNP form a minority or coalition government in 2016. They deliver on several of their “progressive” promises, but vocal criticism from a small but not insignificant left bloc, on the streets as well as in parliament, helps to foster widespread disappointment with the first years of independence. The vicissitudes of currency union demand cuts in some areas, and the left leads demands for an independent currency and opposition to cuts. When global economic turbulence hits the Scottish economy just as it is regaining its balance, a coalition of Labour and the radical left surges into power on the back of mass protests demanding that the promise of independence be fulfilled. This coalition hands immense power to the labour movement and encourages the ongoing formation of people’s assemblies across the country, while nationalising industry and infrastructure and withdrawing from NATO.

Continuing economic instability damages the Labour-led government’s credibility, but its mass extra-parliamentary base pulls politics further leftwards, much to the horror of right-wing commentators at home and around the globe. The Scotsman churns out red-baiting editorials about “the enemy within,” while The Times scoffs about the “failure” of independence as inequality plummets, capital controls come into force and top rates of tax soar. As continuing global turbulence thrusts the left into power across Europe and the US, Scotland’s socialists are ready and willing to join – even inspire – an international wave of strikes, nationalisations and occupations which mark a decisive step towards a profound transformation of the global system.

In the first of these scenarios, the left weds itself to the state too soon, risking complicity with the inevitable failure of the social democratic dream; in the second, the left remains a critical, sceptical force in Scottish society, seeking state power when nationalism and capital is at its weakest, and becomes the primary beneficiary of popular discontent when the contradictions of social-nationalism are exposed. We obviously favour the latter, and the opportunities it presents, and will be fighting for a Yes vote with that in mind. Let’s not be afraid of a bit of treason.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

If we share the currency, we cannot share the wealth

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Here is the present state of the argument for independence:

Salmond: We are appealing to the greatest authority of all, the sovereign will of the people of Scotland. It’s Scotland’s pound and we’re keeping it.
(
First Minister’s Questions, Thursday 7th August)

It has been a frustrating couple of weeks. Salmond has resurfaced, citing the ‘national will’ to defend his case on currency. For people worried about their mortgages and pensions, nationalist arguments on the pound make even less sense than economic ones. And where are all the socialists, to point out keeping the pound is not the best of various options in the long term?

To shift the focus back to our ground, Yes Scotland is describing a Yes vote as the one opportunity to ‘make Scotland’s wealth work better for all those who live here’. But is this credible enough? While chronic inequality of wealth and income is constantly emphasized, the SNP has no serious plans to make Scotland more equal. With monetary policy out of national control, economic power is limited. Money supply and interest rates are two crucial ways to control the money flow, wealth accumulation, and capital investment. To build the wealth of working families without monetary control is like building sandcastles below the high-tide line: they stand for a while, but when the tide comes in they crumble down.

To redistribute wealth in favour of the people you need monetary, wage, and fiscal powers. In effect, you need to destabilize and appropriate the private wealth and assets of the richest. But the SNP is busy pre-negotiating away authority over these areas, and insisting that the only threat to market stability is coming from the unionists (for we radicals have hardly caused a stir).

So the Scottish Government will not acknowledge that independence comes with any risk, and will propose no policies that may disturb the markets. The Radical Independence campaigners talk about a better future without any audit of the transition costs and without the slightest inclination to discuss who pays. Some radicals even despair that the currency issue has returned, as if the question of who controls our money is neither here nor there in the struggle for a more equal society! There is a better, honest case to be made, between the cautious commitments of the Scottish Government and the utopian claims of the left-wing independence groups, which will accord with what the public wants to hear.

It starts by admitting the SNP does not have what it takes to tackle inequality or end austerity in an independent Scotland – both No campaigners in Labour and socialists in the Yes campaign agree about that. Our alternative has to be clear: our party, in an independent Scotland, would support workers, put the burden onto the shoulders of the richest, and start to reduce inequality by force. It falls to a minority in the wider Yes movement to make the more challenging case for independence in spite of the SNP’s timidity, and also to be clear that a period of transformation, far from effortless, will depend on compromises and struggles.

We have to challenge the nationalist belief that life in an independent Scotland will improve at little or no cost to anyone. Advocates of the official, reassuring case fail to understand that claiming there is nothing to lose does not sound credible to many voters, especially Labour voters. Throughout this rest of the campaign the Yes case should be tempered by honest acceptance of challenges that will face a post-Yes Scotland. This will enable the campaign to both inspire the ambitions of the public, and address their doubts about what Yes could mean. How could we make Scotland’s economy work for the many within the first few years of independence? How can we be sure independence would not harm those with least to lose, like Scottish Labour has constantly asserted?

To be credible on inequality, parts of the Yes campaign must draw red lines: that currency powers and tax powers will have to be under our control; and that challenging privilege and wealth will cause necessary instability. So long as there are also guarantees – to protect the work, wages, pensions, savings and welfare of the many – then such an honest case will benefit the Yes campaign.

One solution is for the pro-Yes left to present a credible set of demands and goals: a programme of radical realism that looks to challenge the structural inequality of distribution, and to welcome the consequences. What would the starting principles be? We could argue that:

An independent currency is the eventual goal

To seriously tackle inequality in the long run, we need currency under the control of an independent Scotland. Even admitting this would have costs in the short-term. Although we would keep the pound for some time, this ambition may result in the leakage or flight of capital and investment, a higher rate of interest on the money that governments and individuals borrow, a smaller return on savings and investment like pensions. Building up reserves would require a bout of austerity. But this austerity, if it was fairly arranged, and if the burden was placed on capital not labour and if the wealth of the many was protected, would itself help to reduce inequality. The savings and investments that would suffer most would be those of the richest – the vast majority do not have substantial savings, and those savings and pensions we do have could be underwritten by a tax on those who can afford to pay. The prize is meaningful independence.

Taxing the rich is just

Taxation is for social good. There is a myth that placing higher taxes on the rich will be counterproductive because it will drive out rich people. If this happens, it will be a cost we have to pay, and one that will itself reduce inequality. But flight is unusual. They talk about an oil bonus, but the real short-term bonus for an independent Scotland is a tax on the wealth of the richest. Taxing the rich until the pips squeak may ruin the comforts of a few, but it will not ruin Scotland.

We need better wages

Wages have been frozen or falling for a long time. Capitalists passed the burden of austerity onto workers, and the UK government did nothing to strengthen wages or keep them higher. Intentions to raise the minimum wage are important but irrelevant to the majority of earners who still do not get a proper share in the wealth we all produce. People must have higher incomes, and wages are the starting point. Many companies can afford this, but it will put pressure on other companies, which will sometimes lead to job-losses in the short-term unless the wage rises are subsidized by the government. One short-term corrective is to create jobs where higher-wages are guaranteed; another, to support companies that invest in Scotland to use skills and pay a better wage. And for those parts of the economy where mandating higher wages would ruin the work and jobs, tax credits should be used to ensure the lowest paid have a decent income.

Arguments from these principles could capture and inspire the interest of voters who do not trust Alex Salmond or the SNP. But in the wake of spats and splits that have turned solidarity into disunity, the pro-independence left is looking deflated. Anything its individual members say will carry little weight.

We do need to recognize that in the minds of most people in Scotland there is only one credible party other than the SNP. That party is the Labour party. We need an independent Labour programme for an independent Scotland. There are areas on which Labour, in an independent Scotland, might credibly take a more socialist line than the SNP. Johann Lamont said at STUC Congress that an independent currency would be the only ‘logical’ option for an independent country. It is Scottish Labour policy to raise taxes on the richest. Scottish Labour has pushed hard to ensure that the living wage is paid as far as possible across the economy. Describing an Independent Labour programme for an independent Scotland is the strongest card we have to play.

The ideal scenario would be for the pro-independence left – all of it that believes in the importance of a party connected with the labour movement – to consider what a new Independent Labour party should do after the referendum. In private conversation, this suggestion is met with hoots of laughter or howls of anguish.

But offering a vision of an Independent Labour Scotland would capture the attention of the public – because the Labour case is still the missing link. Working out a plan for a socialist Labour party would not be an endorsement of the current Labour party – it would simply acknowledge the values that underpin the ambitions of the working people in Scotland who we need to persuade to vote Yes in September. Such unity, for the final weeks of this campaign, would make the kind of impact neither RIC nor Labour figures could alone – and it would lay the ground for the socialist revival the country needs to shake itself from nationalism and put socialism at the centre of our politics.

‘Reindustrialising Scotland’: no more than a balancing act?

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“It is perhaps the most searching criticism of the capitalist system that, notwithstanding 150 years of capitalist development, that system has not solved, nor indeed has it tried to solve, the problem of recurring large-scale unemployment… It is a problem created by the mal-organisation of industry, but perhaps not capable of solution by industry alone… If the predominant motive in industry is to be private gain we can say good bye to all hopes of ending large-scale unemployment.”

Arthur Greenwood, House of Commons, 1944

Political Context

That Scottish Labour’s parliamentarians have hardly engaged with the Scottish Government’s recent report on industrialisation sums up the party’s political dilemma. If there were an independent Scotland, Labour would have an industrial policy of its own. Indeed, the prospect of forging such policy with the unions is enough to make me optimistic about an independent Scotland boosting industry and ending unemployment. Until that point, Scottish Labour has no industrial or employment policy with which to outplay the SNP. Yet the Scottish government’s proposals do need to be challenged since they place clear limits on the scope for government purveyance over industry, work and the economy. The SNP can set limits as it pleases, because the other major parties hold no formal policy in Scotland on areas like industrial strategy or workplace relations.

Obviously Roch Wind has neither minds nor means to formulate an industrial policy for Scotland. But since we have been criticized for playing the nationalist clown and not its juggling balls, it seems timely to remark on the government’s new plans for reindustrialization. Regardless of the referendum result, the SNP’s groundwork set out in Reindustrialising Scotland will likely be influential long after 2014.

The Rebalancing Act

Much awaited, the government’s paper draws together a set of ambitions and policies for an industrial policy in an independent Scotland. At its heart is a plan to boost manufacturing. This is not an original idea – it is a few years since Osborne said the recovery would come from a march of the makers, and Miliband has since decided his economic plans consist in manufacturing our way to a recovery for the many. All the parties recognize that developing higher-skilled, higher-paid sectors in the economy (where manufacturing is the prime example) would give a hearty boost not only to jobs and wages but also to exports. Competing with Germany, Scandanavia, and other better-performing nations will help Britain to draw the economy out of London’s ‘black hole’, spreading benefits once more across the islands – what they all call ‘rebalancing’. This is the central prescription of Patrick Diamond in his pamphlet Transforming the Market, hailed as a trendsetter by Progress-leaning Labour colleagues. Diamond said the choice “is not between Keynes and austerity: what is required is a major programme of structural reform throughout our economy to create fairer, more sustainable and more balanced economic growth”.

Rebalancing is a favourite term of the SNP, appearing 10 times in their reindustrialisation report, used in the context of both a balanced British and independent Scottish economy. ‘Rebalancing’ is part of ‘responsible capitalism’, a term used by Miliband but oddly described as a ‘policy lever available with independence’ in a handy table on page 21 of the SNP’s document.

These ambitions for manufacturing are the substance of the Scottish Government’s plans for ‘re-industrialisation’ – a term presumably adopted to invoke memories of when a good proportion of Scotland’s workforce were working on that production line we call the central belt, and to remind these same workers how Thatcher stopped it moving. It was an apposite coincidence that the report was published last Friday 13th June, the week of the thirtieth anniversary of Thatcher’s final re-election as prime minister, the term that saw the closure of plants like Caterpillar in Uddingston. (The work-in that followed this closure was the subject of a recent seminar organised by the Scottish Labour History Society, where John Foster told the story of the Pink Panther featured in this article’s image.)

So much for the context – similar in principle to the British Labour plans, and typically better in style; but what of the substance? Should it give much satisfaction to those who are interested in a different kind of rebalancing from the geographical and sectoral balancing act the responsible capitalists have in mind – the rebalancing of power from capitalists to workers? What does it say about priorities and ambitions of the SNP? Is it a good enough kicking-off point for more radical demands that we should be happy to vote for it in September? And what would be better principles on which to advance industrial policy?

The Role of Government in Macro and Micro policy

The core of the paper is Chapter 3, A Framework for Reindustrialising Scotland. The key aspects of the proposed framework are regulation, tax changes, support for business, skills and workforce development and business enabling infrastructure. The latter three are essentially support-structures for business and for the workforce (which in turn help business). Tax and regulation are firmer means of controlling industry, but the proposals are too weak: the main regulatory suggestion is to protect businesses and consumers, while tax measures are proposed, “subject to EU state aid rules”, to encourage start-ups and to incentivise the hiring of workers by, e.g., increasing National Insurance employment allowance for small businesses, or tax allowances to encourage capital investment.

These are the components of a business-government partnership, and they build on past initiatives taken under devolution including setting “the most attractive business rates package in the UK”. They help capitalists to employ more workers in line with their private interests rather than giving any power to workers directly, and they stop far short of instating mandatory employment priorities or active redistribution of means of industry.

To crudely appropriate the economists’ terms, there are macro and micro aspects of the government’s industrial plans. The macro aspects concern employment, the balance of trade and the place of manufacturing in the wider economy. The micro aspects concern the structure of firms, the power held by private owners, the decisions subject to partnership agreements, and the result of this on industrial development. Both sets of plans look at what government can do to change the incentives and ideology of industry in Scotland.

Macro

Having looked at the limits of the government’s actual plans and policy proposals to intervene, it seems that on the macro aspect, the proposals are not robust enough to live up to the government’s ambition that industry should do what it can to increase employment. It assumes that employment is derived from industry, and that industry will be driven by business owners rather than by government or by corporate agreement to work to an industrial plan that is developed with the aim of full employment in view. Thus, while the Scottish Government elsewhere says full employment is its objective, this paper leaves us unsure how it means to get us there. Private gain is to remain the chief motive of industry.

From this we derive two suggestions. First, that whereas the SNP see industry as open to improvement by incentives, we should see this the opposite way round: industry is mismanaged by private firms, which thus are culpable for a high degree of unemployment that could otherwise be solved. And while government acting to sort out private owners’ perverse incentives would help boost employment, an industrial strategy that can solve unemployment must start by recognizing the limits of private industry in creating employment. Second, forecond, for industrial strategy to really address employment, it must be created with the public interest as its principle, and full employment as its end. This means it must have more public elements than we see today. Greater public ownership of industry will allow the principle of full employment to be embedded in industrial decisions, and will industry to deal better with effects of high employment (and higher wages) than privately-owned industry.

Micro

This discussion of forms of ownership takes us to the question of the firms themselves, and how they are structured and owned. We note that the SNP does mention that it might want to explore different forms of ownership. It does so not in a macro but in a micro context. But it does so not with the suggestion that public ownership will bring better results overall, but that it may be best in certain circumstances. This is a welcome comment, and goes further than Miliband’s policy papers which fail to mention public ownership.

Although the government intends to explore different forms of ownership, its commitments are ambiguous, because it comes to this question only after extensive discussion about the structure through which business and government might work together, as discussed above. While it advocates alternative forms of ownership, these are too limited to be part of a meaningful transition to a more publicly owned economy.

Our expectations on public ownership are low; the SNP are better known for advocating social partnership. A core part of the government’s framework for reindustrializing Scotland is to underpin all the aspects discussed above (business support, skills development etc) with partnership, “which encourages collaboration and cooperation across all sectors of the economy and society.”

Its recommendations here are ambiguous, as it is unclear whether it aspires to a corporate economic model, a diverse mixed economy with different forms of public or cooperative ownership, or simply a private-led economy with input from various partners when it happens to suit the capitalists. The range of social partners or “key players – public sector organisations, trade unions, business groups, employers and the third sector” make it seem like a traditional model of business and trade union partnership is not what the SNP has in mind. Rather they want all these partners to develop the country’s potential by working to “deliver a common vision” (carrying the assumption that business and workers can share a vision for the country), promote “greater diversity in business ownership models” (as if unions and cooperators have not been doing so for years), and “tackle labour market challenges” (e.g. by creating toothless forums to discuss the unemployment epidemic caused by mal-organisation of industry – starting with a grand National Convention on Employment and Labour relations, which is meant to satisfy the unions in the first stages of independence).

The social partnership model on offer seems more like a plan for policy development than power development. Nothing is said about the power of workers and unions to direct firms at a micro level, or to feed into shaping macro industrial policy. Nothing suggests that we should place workers’ own priorities, whether in the workplace or in the wider economy, at the heart of industrial policy in Scotland. (This criticism can also be made of Common Weal.)

In particular, at a micro level the scope of partnership seems to depend on it being in managers’ interests and to be accepted thanks to government incentives rather than through legislation; while at a macro level the absence of collective bargaining structures to negotiate general aims for the industry and set terms for workers will probably weaken both the conditions and pay of workers and the scope for expanding employment. Finally, the involvement of other partners than labour and business suggests that business is the senior partner and junior partners are involved because of interest rather than power. This is a clear flaw from the perspective of a labour movement that should look to use bargaining and leverage power across the whole economy to advance the interests of workers.

In short, the SNP wants non-legislating governments to use ideological power to structure social partnership, bolstered by resource power to structure incentives for certain kinds of industrial development. This benevolent social-partnerism, typical of the SNP, stops government short of diminishing power of capital and private owners, or of expanding power of workers and boosting collective bargaining, let alone helping a transition to collective or public ownership.

Suggestions

The variety of proposals in the report centre around government intervention to help business, and drawing up a social partnership model for Scotland. In terms of response, it is clearly difficult to speculate about the kind of policies Scottish Labour would adopt, so suggesting government interventions is not my main concern. On the other hand, because the SNP makes suggestions about the role of unions which fall short of what unions could demand, the options for the industrial wing of the labour movement are of more short-term interest if we are to draw up a challenge to the SNP that is consistent with a Yes vote. So while we do not seek to fetishize or depend entirely on the trade union movement in pursuit of social transformation, trade union power is undoubtedly critical at this time in challenging the SNP and shaping Labour policy. The suggestions below will therefore stress how socialists who are open to considering Scotland’s prospects after independence may hope to subvert nationalist plans for Scottish industry through building the power and ambitions of trade unions, and bringing pressure to bear on Scottish Labour to make proposals to that effect.

While the SNP’s paper is not exactly regressive, there is scope to demand much clearer power for workers to direct industrial decisions, for their unions to engage in sector-wide collective bargaining, and for the trade union movement to wield its economy-wide power and influence in industrial policy. This would enable trades unions to be committed not just to the interests of their members in the short term, but to increasing employment so that workers have a stronger position in general. By making this demand, unions can pre-empt their reticent political wing in parliament, and send a clear signal that the labour movement is not ready to become a junior partner in an independent Scottish economy. Because this demand can have Labour Party and trade union backing, it will help us restore the idea that industrial policy should be built on the back of a principle for full employment and for collective bargaining power. To lay down this kind of ideological pledge would be an important first step in the initial years of an independent Scotland, and would show that whatever social partnership arrangement is reached is only a basis on which the trade union and labour movement is determined to build its power.

Such an openly socialist effort to increase employment and boost the power of workers would not stop once employment has increased or unions have been accepted as social partners. On the contrary, trade union involvement in industry would become trade union direction of the effort to reindustrialise the economy in the interests of working people. Against the SNP’s suggestion that union involvement in industry would happen thanks to the good will of the government and of businesses who understand their long-term interests, trade unionists will find themselves strengthened by higher employment and higher wages, and will be more able to demand further power over industry. The labour movement will then be in a position to decide whether this leverage should be used to advance the interests of workers in the workplace, in industry, or in society through welfare.

And just as this kind of power would boost employment and wages across the economy as a whole, it would mean workers and trade unions in the micro-level organisation of firms would have more power to protect jobs, improve terms and conditions, and empower workers to have a stake in companies that will incline them to drive innovation and improve the quality of what they produce, leading to the higher productivity and expanding manufacturing sector we need. Meanwhile, because partnership involvement will not just take place at board-level or sector-level, union organisation will not be sector-specific but will cross between manufacturing and services, helping to minimise class fragmentation across the economy, so that gains for manufacturing workers will benefit service-workers too, and economy-wide leverage will become the norm. The class divide between capitalists and workers will then come into sharper focus, undistorted by working-class division, leading working people to understand their collective interest against private ownership and private gain remaining the motives of industry.

A strengthened labour presence in the economy would lay the ground for at least a more radical kind of corporatism, where business enters partnership with trade unions and government only once workers have made their own demands – formulated not just within trade unions but within socialist, political, and militant parts of the movement. That will mean business is no longer the only real power in the economy, and once this stage of corporatism is reached, the labour movement can start to shift control from private to public interests, and begin a transition to economic democracy and public ownership of industry, as well as being able to build industrial policy on the principle of full employment. This will give confidence to the political wing of the labour movement, so that a more openly socialist Labour party can reindustrialise Scotland in a way that works for working people.

This direction is Roch Wind’s first suggestion for a positive alternative to the SNP’s position, and for a more effective programme for an independent Scotland controlled by working people. We hope that soon our Labour party will begin to develop a strategy of its own, to explain in parliament the poverty of the SNP’s policy ambitions, and to set against their crude consensus some of the principled and comprehensive arguments our forebears made for ending unemployment and taking industry into the hands of working people.

Cailean Gallagher