The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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

The Herald, May 2011

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

Goethe, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

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Kiruna’s Choice

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism) reflects on A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside The Swedish Model (Luath, 2016) by journalist and academic Dominic Hinde. This essay was first published in the Glasgow Review of Books

Utopias are hard to avoid. Look at the popular culture of rich western societies, for instance. TV series like Master of None show implausibly wealthy millennials spending implausible quantities of free time in Manhattan’s best bars and coffee shops. Advertisers tell us that kind of life can be ours at the tap of a credit card. From Facebook to LinkedIn, social media lets us swap finance for fiction, meticulously curating our personal Pravdas of social and professional achievement.

These utopias are generally considered to be safe. Sure, in reality it’s all pretty toxic: the implication of those monetised cultural utopias is that our own poor and boring lives aren’t good enough, that we should spend more money and time trying to attain the unattainable. But Facebook’s dark side pales into insignificance compared to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Now there’s a utopianism worth forgetting.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, political utopia has been shuffled quietly off the agenda. The Cold War’s binary utopias have been replaced by a messy convergence on pick ‘n’ mix politics, a middle-ground of “social” enterprise, “ethical” consumption, and their foreign policy equivalent: “pro-democracy” drone strikes on picturesque little villages in the Middle East. Find your nearest non-profit cooperative bakery and the menu will offer you the chance to have your cake and eat it too.

Anybody insisting on an alternative to this social order – not some free-range bunker untainted by the system, but worldwide transformation – is inevitably dismissed as utopian. Not in the harmless, profitable, cultural sense of the term, but as a political utopian. Utopia, as we learned from the gulags, has no place in politics.

No place. That’s what it means. Any understanding of utopia – as critique, as social phenomenon, as political project – has to start with Thomas More’s foundational pun. In Greek, οὐ means “not” and τόπος means “place”, but “utopia” is ambiguous enough to hint at the term εὖ as well, meaning “good”. “Good place” and/or “not place”: More’s intention when laying out the ideal, peaceful and property-less society in 1516’s Utopia is similarly ambiguous, but later uses of the term have been less so.

Marx and Engels sought to distinguish their variant of socialism – “scientific socialism” – from the “utopian” work of their predecessors, Sebastian Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. In its utopian form, socialism sought

to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda and, wherever it was possible, by the example of modern experiments. [italics my own][1]

For Marx and Engels, the trouble with this was that it wasn’t rooted in the realities of “time, space, and the historical development of man [sic].” Utopian socialists placed too much faith in the abstract truth of their model future, and in their ability to persuade the world of its rightness. The “scientific” alternative was to identify real, social forces in the world as it exists, which can lead towards something better. Chief among these forces was, of course, the working class, pressed by the fatal contradictions of the capitalist system into revolutionary agitation and the construction of socialist society.

For utopian socialists, the reason the world wasn’t socialist was simply that nobody had thought of socialism yet, or hadn’t been persuasive enough in advocating it. For Marx and Engels, the world wasn’t socialist yet because capitalism and the working class had not reached the necessary stage of historical development at which the next mode of production – socialism – could supersede the existing one.

But isn’t communism the utopia? For Marx and Engels, socialism develops into communism, class society is abolished, and the state withers away. All of that is quite unlikely, and I say that as a dedicated communist. Marx and Engels were certainly right to suggest that capitalism was, in the long term, unavoidably doomed (I give it 100 more years at most), and that the working class – the vast majority of people who depend on a wage to live – were the only social force able to replace it with something better. But there’s nothing certain, never mind “scientific”, about the idea that its replacement will be any more stable or humane than capitalism. It could even be worse.

Here’s a workably broad definition of utopianism: it’s the intransigent belief that, despite the lack of much evidence, things can – and should – be better. Not just briefly, but better for good. As the 19thcentury socialist Louise-Auguste Blanqui put it: “what exists is bad: something else must take its place.” But even here, there are distinctions within utopianism. Blanqui ended his aphorism with the unfortunate insistence that “…and gradually things will become what they ought to be.”[2] The Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin, an admirer of Blanqui, didn’t share the Frenchman’s optimism:

On this planet a great number of civilizations have perished in blood and horror. Naturally, one must wish for the planet that one day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am […] inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this. But it is terribly doubtful whether we can bring such a present to its hundred- or four-hundred-millionth birthday party. And if we don’t, the planet will finally punish us, its unthoughtful well-wishers, by presenting us with the last judgment.[3]

Benjamin’s utopianism, like Marx’s, had a fundamentally pessimistic premise: either the future is communist, or we’re all doomed. His pessimism fits our age too, where the prospect of ecological Armageddon meets its older economic and military equivalents. Benjamin’s pessimistic utopianism is far more realistic than the insistence that we compromise with the “reality” of capitalism because it’s here to stay. No social order has survived indefinitely thus far. There’s no reason to believe this one will break the trend, and plenty of evidence (CO2 emissions, for example) that suggests it won’t. There’s nothing more utopian than thinking we can avoid catastrophe without a fundamental transformation of society. Utopias are hard to avoid.

But is there not something else, that doesn’t require all the effort, uncertainty and upheaval of a worldwide socialist revolution, yet which can still avoid capitalism’s ecological and moral collapse? In the 1930s, as the world stood at an existential crossroads between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the American journalist Marquis Childs published a book called Sweden: The Middle Way. He travelled through Sweden as the country was constructing its now-famous welfare system, and the book describes a society that offered something very different to both the red peril in the East and the brown-shirted horrors driving Germany’s economic revival.

Capitalism in the north, it seems to be, has been modified and, in a sense, controlled; the profit motive in many fields drastically curbed and abolished – subjugated might be a better word. To a considerable degree it is true that the domestic economy has been made to serve the greatest good of the greatest number.[4]

Sweden, and the Scandinavian or “Nordic” world in general, has found itself associated with this kind of thought for a long time. A little brook of Scandi-utopianism has trickled away through one hundred years of wars, crises and atrocities, occasionally disappearing underground only to re-emerge deeper and wider than before. In the 1950s the Labour Party intellectual Anthony Crosland described Sweden as coming close to an “ideal of the ‘good’ society.” It had high welfare provision, low rates of economic inequality, and yet private property remained very much intact alongside the institutions of liberal democracy.[5]

Crosland’s fondness for Sweden was inextricable from his disagreements with Marxism. Chief amongst these was a belief that, after 5 years of transformative Labour government from 1945-51, British capitalism had been transformed into something that did not need to be overthrown. The Labour Party, he believed, had democratised capitalism to the extent that socialists could now focus on gradually reducing the power that markets and property had over people’s lives, without actually doing away with the market and property altogether.

Crosland wrote during an era known variously as the “post-war consensus,” the “golden age,” thetrente glorieuses and so on. The depression, the Second World War and the Communist threat had combined to give an enormous amount of political influence to the West European working class, while America’s newfound global power kept this influence contained within the basic parameters of capitalism (if not always democracy).[6] Runaway rates of capital accumulation provided sufficient room for an unprecedented rise in material wealth for workers. Back then, the Swedish model looked like a sort of destination for a journey already underway, a modern society relatively free from the class hierarchies and stuffy traditions that continued to infuriate the British left. However, by the end of the century the imaginative function of the Nordic Utopia had changed. In the late 1960s a wave of economic and political crises shook the world, provoking capital to begin the sustained assault on the working class that is now vaguely described as “neoliberalism.” Trade unions were crushed, wages, taxes on the rich and regulations were slashed, and democratic institutions were gradually hollowed out – often replaced by opaque, transnational bureaucracies ruling by financial diktat.

CoverNowhere in the world escaped these changes. But the Scandinavian welfare states approached the millennium with far more grace than their European neighbours. In 1990, a year after poll tax riots had broken out across Britain’s streets and Thatcher wobbled, the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen published The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, a comparative study of welfare systems in western world.[7] Even at the high point of neoliberal advance, Esping-Andersen described a Scandinavian welfare system that continued to reduce the subordination of people’s lives to market forces. The “liberal welfare states” of countries like Britain and the USA, on the other hand, offered paltry, means-tested payments and encouraged the stigmatisation of recipients. Trade unions and social democratic parties continued to fare much better in Scandinavia than elsewhere in the western world, and Sweden had been at the forefront of measures to combat gender inequality in politics and the workplace.

Resurfacing in the 21st century, the quiet little stream of Nordic utopianism has changed course. Far from being seen optimistically as “the future of socialism”, many on the centre-left cling to it as the last glimmer of hope during a worldwide collapse in social democratic fortunes. While Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in the USA has referenced Scandinavia as an example of “democratic socialism” in action, it is Scotland where the new Scandi-utopian logic has been applied the most consistently. The Scottish National Party point to Scandinavian countries to show that it’s possible to be a small, independent state with a big, generous welfare system. Common Weal, a pro-independence “think-and-do-tank,” has repeatedly drawn on Nordic examples to show how social democracy can be rescued from “neoliberal” Westminster. The “Nordic model” even has its own Scottish think-tank, called “Nordic Horizons.”

In the Lilliputian world of Scottish politics, the quiet little stream of Nordicism often looks and sounds like a river. The Nordic utopia is very nearly the only utopia in town, transplanted onto an imagined independent Scotland of the future. Dominic Hinde has gone wading into the middle of that river withA Utopia Like Any Other, a welcome critical exploration of what the “Swedish model” really means beyond the idolatry and mythmaking of faraway utopians.

Hinde follows in Childs’ footsteps, highlighting key aspects of Swedish society through a series of journalistic snapshots. A discussion with hotel workers (Hinde speaks fluent Swedish) in a wealthy Stockholm suburb frames an explanation of Sweden’s consensual labour relations model. The important thing about this system is that while it relies on the legal backing of the state, it requires little active government intervention. Once embedded in law, Sweden’s collective bargaining occurs between employers and workers at a national level, and trade unions have representation on various important legal, public and corporate boards. Thus we get a “delicate triangle of government, business and unions,” with no party able to dominate.

This theme of equilibrium – between classes, genders, and between humanity and nature – is crucial to the image of Swedish society at home and abroad, but one of Hinde’s crucial insights is to show the origins of equilibrium in struggle. Sweden’s system of labour relations was “the result of almost 40 years of destructive conflict,” thrashed out after the army massacred striking sawmill workers in 1931. The country’s renowned efforts to combat gender inequality, and indeed gender binaries themselves, have their roots in the bolshy activities of feminist organisations like Gruppe 8, who disrupted Trade Union rallies, established local feminist cells and terrified politicians with threats of direct political competition. If Nordic utopians are enamoured with Sweden’s seemingly peaceful, consensual social order, they may be turned off by Hinde’s exposition of the outright conflict that has been necessary in building it.

Hinde offers an even stronger rebuke to the Scandi-fetishists when his analysis enters the “neoliberal” era that Sweden so often appears to have escaped. In the 1980s, the Swedish working class sought to reassert their interests over those of Swedish capital with an approach calledlöntagarfonder. This diverted private profits into employee funds, allowing the employees to buy shares in their companies: gradually, workers would come to own the means of production. But this quiet revival of class conflict threatened to snap the supposedly benign equilibrium, and the equilibrium snapped back. A single-term right-wing government abolished löntagarfonder in the 1990s and it has never been restored. A more sustained right-wing insurgency in the late 2000s attacked trade union rights, along with public services and top tax rates. Trade union membership duly fell from eighty to sixty-eight per cent. On his travels around Sweden Hinde finds himself in Kiruna, a city in the arctic far north. Kiruna is entirely dependent on its vast iron ore mine: so dependent that it is being forced to move en masse down the road, “to last another hundred years or until the ore runs out.” The “green” state-owned mining company is paying for relocation. A local lake is now “a sealed off zone of scrub and unstable black spoil speckled with snow.” The relocated railway line runs between frozen ponds of dirty waste runoff.

Hinde writes that “Kiruna is in a Faustian pact with the industrialised world outside, selling its mineral wealth and culture in return for being allowed to exist.” Kiruna is a microcosm of Sweden: “the success of Swedish capitalism abroad was integral to the development of socialism at home,” and as capitalism abroad falters, Swedish “socialism” risks losing permission to exist. At the heart of the Swedish model is this idea of a profitable niche in the world where, so long as the dirty work is done elsewhere, Swedes can brand themselves as an attractive alternative while benefiting enormously from the established order. “Kiruna wants to carry on living. To do so it needs the dirty world around it to buy its environmentally-friendly Swedish ore.”

As the international basis of Sweden’s utopia – post-war capitalist growth – has worn away, its domestic foundations have begun, embarrassingly, to poke out from under the surface. Those foundations are inescapably nationalistic. In the 1930s, when the Social Democrats began constructing Sweden’s welfare state, they consciously rebranded themselves from a party of the blue-collar working class to become a party of the nation or “the people.” The welfare system was calledfolkshemmet, the “people’s home.” Much of Sweden’s universalist, egalitarian national identity is built not on the image of the worker, but on that of the small-town independent farmer. But as urbanisation and globalisation have continued, Hinde argues that this aspect of Swedish life has “played less and less of a role in the national picture.”

Key constituencies in Swedish politics feel forgotten – and as UKIP’s success in Britain’s decaying seaside towns has shown, forgotten people can be an important political force. While Sweden seeks to maintain its global reputation for tolerance by welcoming thousands of refugees, the far right has surged. The Sweden Democrats, with their roots in Sweden’s White Power movement, have made significant electoral gains by playing on a sense that the threatened “people’s home” can be best protected by excluding non-Swedes from it. Sweden’s Social Democrats and their international admirers believe that nationalist consensus can make capitalism work for everyone, but the inclusivity of nationalism can only be guaranteed so long as capitalism provides enough to go around. With the world-economy stumbling along at rock-bottom growth rates, there is little reason to believe that efforts at a “civic,” inclusive nationalism such as the SNP’s can remain plausible. Sweden offers a warning about where things might go next. The last stand of democratic capitalism, before it collapses into outright authoritarianism, will be the restriction of democratic rights to “nationals” and their denial to outsiders. As the welfare-and-wage pie shrinks, those less powerful groups inside or outside national borders will be denied a slice entirely, to ensure those with more power still get their fill.

The trouble with the Swedish utopia is that it’s not really worthy of the name. Rather than insisting that things could be better and taking the future as their model, Scandi-utopians look for something that already exists – what Erik Olin Wright calls a “real-utopia.”[8] But Sweden’s real-utopia is far too real, too dependent on a happy little “good-place” in a vicious worldwide economy. Now the niche is vanishing, and something deeply unpleasant is emerging instead. A decent, committed utopianism would envision a better world, not just a “better Scotland” following Sweden’s path. Hinde writes that “Sweden for the Swedes could be a positive rallying cry if everyone can indeed be Swedish,” but of course, the problem is that not everybody can be. The nature of Swedish exceptionalism is that not everyone can follow that path – and those who do, can’t do so for long. There is no safe “middle way”, as Childs hoped. Success might be hard to imagine without one, but the choice remains unavoidably binary: socialism or barbarism, on a world scale.

Dom will be launching A Utopia Like Any Other at The Glad Cafe in Glasgow this Sunday (the 29th) at 19:30. See you there!


Notes:

[1] Engels, F., ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org, 1880),https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/

[2] Blanqui, L., quoted in David Van Dusen, ‘Worlds Without End’, 3AM Magazine (September 2014),http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/worlds-without-end/

[3] Benjamin, W., quoted in Arendt, H., ‘Introduction: Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940’ in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (Pimlico, 1999), p.42

[4] Childs, M.W., Sweden: The Middle Way (Faber & Faber, 1936), p.18

[5] Crosland, A., The Future of Socialism (Jonathan Cape, 1956)

[6] US-backed dictatorships and military coups across southern Europe in particular were needed to keep the more militant sections of Europe’s working class in check.

[7] Esping-Andersen, G., The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 1990)

[8] Wright, E.O., Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010)

Editorial: Into The Abyss

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

Bertolt Brecht

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

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

whobenefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lamont Doctrine: On Organised Pessimism and the Abolition of Politics

johann

Let’s get this straight: Johann Lamont was right, and Aristotle was wrong. Indeed, Jim Murphy’s much-maligned predecessor is responsible for two of the finest rhetorical expressions of socialist principle in recent Scottish history, and she should be recognised for it. In the United States of America the great civic buildings are often adorned with the epochal one-liners of renowned statesmen, and it would be a scandal if one day – maybe years down the line, but someday – the vast marble slabs of some new shining monument to human emancipation are not engraved with the utterly, unavoidably correct words: “We’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions.”

In 1968, Albania’s enigmatic Communist leader Enver Hoxha – who covered almost every square mile of his small, mountainous nation in thousands of disgustingly ugly concrete bunkers in preparation for the Soviet or NATO invasion of which he was terrified – had his name painted in 100-metre high letters on the side of Mount Shpirag. The most advanced sections of the international proletariat live in eternal hope that one day Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags, or perhaps the side of Castle Rock, will become the rocky canvas for Lamont’s flawless four-word summation of an incontrovertible historical fact: “Nationalism is a virus.”

“We’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions”

Lamont’s disagreement with Aristotle is fundamental. In his Politics the great Macedonian wrote that Man is a zoon politikon: a political animal. The state emerges naturally as the highest form of association, for only it can enable citizens to live the noble, virtuous “good life”. It cannot just be an association: it must also be a community of virtue, held together by a profound sense of friendship which ensures that each citizen cares about their own virtue and the virtue of everyone else.

Of course, this is fascist garbage. Aristotle could only conceive of this state as “good” because the Athenian polis was the exclusive terrain of rich, slave-owning men. Woman in Aristotle’s ideal society was governed by the citizen-husband; the slave was the tool-that-speaks; the landless proletarii were little more than trash in the street. To include everybody in politics is ludicrous; it implies the kind of pure commonality of interest that would make politics unnecessary. Politics is the game of the oppressor and the friendly banter of the privileged; for everyone else it is simply warfare by other means. To suggest that humans are political animals is to suggest that the oppressed are not human.

In this context, to say that we’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions is just about the most radical statement that exists. It is an insistence on a “we” which stubbornly includes the oppressed, flipping over the cruel board on which the rulers play their games. It is, as a result, a demand for the abolition of politics entirely. Contra Aristotle’s fantasy, the state is a response to this demand, an effort to pre-empt and contain the brutal confrontation that will emerge when the oppressed insist on their humanity in the face of those who deny it. “The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that class antagonisms are irreconcilable.” Johann Lamont was right, and Aristotle was wrong.

The Anti-politics of “Partnership”

Astonishingly, improbably, the leaders of the two largest political parties in Scotland agree with Lamont that politics should be abolished. The trouble is that they believe this has already happened.

In separate speeches on the 26th of February, both Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy advocated “partnership” policy-making, bringing together the contending interests of society to decide on the issues of the day. Murphy wants “the state and voluntary sector working together to tackle disadvantage together,” and hopes to bring trade unions and business into this sphere of mutual interest. Sturgeon similarly argues that a “strong economy” and a “fairer society” are “mutually reinforcing” rather than “competing”. Her “Invest In Young People” group brings together local government, industry, further education and trade unions, and she argues that education policy must involve things like “a closer relationship between industry and education, enabling courses to reflect what companies need.”

To do this, Sturgeon and Murphy must presuppose a space free from particular interests, a level playing-field where no side enters or leaves with a disadvantage. A space, in short, where politics doesn’t exist. So Sturgeon argues that “education underpins all of our efforts to create a fairer, more productive, more prosperous society,” and that austerity has “been bad, not just for many individuals, but for the economy as a whole.” Murphy laments that inequality is “corrosive to our social fabric. It undermines the basic precepts of our society.”

The plausibility of the partnership model is dependent on that plural term: the possessive our, like subject we and object us, hovering mysteriously above the fray, finding bizarre rhetorical constructs like “the economy as a whole” on which it can perch and sing its enchanting song. “We” depoliticises, and this is why the nationalist politicians of Scottish social democracy are so determined to utilise it. Against the reality of class conflict, it posits a world where decisions can be smoothly made in the interests of “all of us”.

But this noble goal is never realised. Once they arrive at the national border, politics begins again. The nationalist hope of a depoliticised “us” is a false one, dependent on a false “them”: for Sturgeon, a crude caricature of “Westminster”; for Murphy, whichever party is keeping a supposedly classless “patriotic” Labour Party out of power.

The Government of “Us”

To trace this logic of depoliticisation we need to turn to history. In the 18th century the art of government was in danger. For early-modern government, the sovereign guaranteed the rights of homo juridicus, the subject of right. But the arrival and expansion of markets spawned a new subject: homo oeconomicus, the self-interested and utility-maximising “economic man”. This man, at home in his market, needed the sovereign to stay out of things. But government, increasingly dependent on markets, still needed to govern to ensure that things were stayed out of. The subject of right and economic man could not be governed in either the realm of rights or in the realm of the market. A new realm had to be conquered.

Foucault identifies this new realm as civil society, and its chief cartographer as a Scot, Adam Ferguson, whose Essay on the History of Civil Society was an influence on both Hegel and Marx. For Ferguson, civil society is like the market, governed by the interplay of individual interests. But these are “disinterested interests”: sympathy, instinct, solidarity, and so on, binding individuals together in civil society. The invisible force of civil society allows the atomistic world of the emerging market to hang together.

But other disinterested interests like jealousy, loathing, and other less amicable quirks of the human psyche, provoke the civil subject to enlist “on one side of a tribe or community”. Furthermore, the market relies on this community, but simultaneously threatens to tear it apart. Something stronger, broader and more cohesive must be found to ensure stability. We find ourselves back at “we”: the nation, anchored in the state.

“Nationalism is a virus”

Ferguson expresses the governing logic of the modern state: nationalism. Because the economy requires humans that are selfish and economic, government is impossible unless they are simultaneously conceived as civil and solidaristic. The management and justification of this contradiction is the central task of governments and their intelligentsia. The internal tensions of every society, forever threatening to send heads thudding into baskets, need to be harnessed and externalised onto whatever is not “we”.

Tom Nairn wrote that “nationalism is amongst other things a name for the general condition of the modern body politic”. He analysed how this art of government spread, not from the rich capitalist countries to the poorer, underdeveloped ones, but from the latter to the former. In the long back-and-forth battle of uneven development, the nationalist cure for internal maladies of the modern state became a contagion, leaping from the economic periphery to the core and back again until it spanned the globe, undergoing terrible mutations in the process. Nationalism is a virus. It infects the oppressed, disguised as palliative care for a crisis-ridden political malaise from which they cannot recover so long as oppression endures. It is the general condition of the modern body politic, and the modern body politic is sick because we’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions.

The ruling class and their hangers-on say it can never be truly cured. Aristotle says we are political animals. Ferguson believes that civil society is in our nature. Nationalism relies on this naturalism, made explicit by Nicola Sturgeon at the David Hume Institute on Thursday: “a commitment to education is ingrained in Scotland’s history; it’s part of our DNA.” Common talk of “Scottish values” serves the same function. The egalitarian Scottish political animal must be presupposed to make governing class society in Scotland possible. Something fundamentally civil must float above the fray.

The civil sphere is the nation itself. It is that thing “in our DNA” that is assumed to exist beyond class and sectional interests. Jim Murphy calls for “a permanent Civil Society Council. A permanent forum where civil society can openly and without reservation, consider, scrutinize and challenge the policies of the Government.” Trade unions, businesses, think tanks, campaigning organisations and so on, are all welcome to take their seats in the powerless, reconciled vacuum of civil society.

Organised Pessimism

If politics existed here, tainting this sacred forum with all the power relationships which politics implies, then civil government itself would be impossible – until it became unnecessary. Every facet of the world would be warlike, unavoidably full of conflict, exploitation and oppression. Politics, if it existed (and thank god it doesn’t!), would require what Walter Benjamin calls “organised pessimism” – “mistrust in all reconciliation: between classes, between nations, between individuals,” until classes, nations, and any residual bourgeois conception of the individual have been swept away by a far grander “we” than those who love the game of politics could ever imagine.

Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy believe the nation transcends politics, that it facilitates the recognition of mutual interests where none would conceivably exist if it weren’t for the old lie of the national interest itself. The entire construct of the national “we” implies that if politics exists, it should be abolished, but it only implies this by assuming that it has happened already.

The intention is surely virtuous. But if politics does exist, it exists everywhere, and requires Benjamin’s solution. We know that politics endures, and that Johann Lamont was doubly right: nationalism is a virus, and it threatens us all because we’re not genetically programmed to make the political decisions which are demanded of us. In recognition of these facts we believe that the only way to eradicate the virus for good is by destroying its source. Politics must be abolished. Let’s call it the Lamont Doctrine.

Our critics insist that we must offer concrete proposals – how else could the nation benefit from our work? We will humour them this time, but our basic proposal is a general principle for political action rather than a particular action itself. A politics which can abolish itself is not so much about the depoliticized “us” as it is about the political “them”. It is about identifying who really holds power, and excluding them to the point at which we have fully included ourselves.  Identify the enemy, and develop and pursue actions which exclude them and them alone. Oppose any action which includes them. This is what it means to organise pessimism.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

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

Britain Rebooted

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

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

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

On Nationalist Coat-tails

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

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

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

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

A Southern Problem or a British One?

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

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

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

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

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

Radical Federalism

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

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

Torrance’s “New Federalism”

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

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

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

Federal Possibilities

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

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

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

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

Rory Scothorne

The Scandamerican Dream

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‘We can afford to be a fairer nation’: a slogan aimed at those who feel the squeeze of post-crash living, who long for comfort instead of late-night shifts. But fairness is a bird’s eye not a cat’s eye view. Seen from below, wealth is like buildings that are grand on higher floors – the grandeur is not on your levels, but it doesn’t exactly seem unfair until you are told that you deserve to enjoy it too.

The nationalist vision of sharing the nation’s wealth resonates most with well off, moneyed folk who are familiar with the higher levels and think a fair society is one where everyone can reach their social heights. This class, the professional and public elite, lap up Richard Wilkinson’s argument that inequality is bad for the privileged as well as the poor. When they hear that it would be good for their own wellbeing if there were less inequality, they sit up and listen. They flatter themselves that so many people, poor or working class people, aspire to be part of their class, and they are happy enough to help people up to it.

Theirs is the SNP’s promised land full of progressive professionals and soft-left lawyers. This class is reassured that their level of living would not be damaged by upwards mobility: ‘prosperity and fairness are two sides of the same coin’. Fairness will not threaten prosperity for those who have already made it, because fairness according to this formula in fact means prosperity – lifting the poor up to the higher levels. And so the social standard of the prosperous class becomes the model for everyone else. Those who lack the means to rise up in society do not look to some ideal of equality, they look to the rich. And as the wealth expands, so the hope of people will grow too. Like the American Dream, being aware of national wealth does not result in anger but in aspiration.

This ideology, to universalise the conditions of the prosperous class, has its own slogan, ‘all of us first’. It wants to lift us all to those grand levels where the comfortable classes live, with their balconies, cheese-boards and sofas. Nordicism in a nutshell, the Scandamerican dream, is the promise of social nationalism that has been critiqued in recent Roch Wind articles.

Levelling up also requires that upwardly mobile citizens are able to reach the great glass elevator. Those on lower levels unfortunately suffer obstacles and barriers to progress. They are hungry, often bitten by breadline living, cold and without the kind of income to afford travelling of any kind, let alone between the classes. Scotland’s new philosophy preaches that we need to offer not some ideal of equality, but rather the help eradicate the ‘social bads’ they live with. To quote Therborn, a theorist of ‘inequality’: “While I am commited to equality as a value, I see no reason to spell out an ideal state of Equality… A focus on social bads, rather than on a social ideal, was… a crucial decision of the path-breaking, Swedish Social Democratic Level of Living Investigations from the late 1960s, later exported to several countries.”

Whilst effective programmes for eradicating ‘bads’ might lack an ideal, a material approach will alleviate social ills thanks to the richer classes’ compassion and willingness to share. This inclusive nationalism, if it works, will ferment solidarity between the upper and the lower classes. When this works its way into the public mindset, we will have almost achieved a final element of this ideology: all of us participating in one nation, aspiring to Michael Sandel’s definition of democracy where “democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life” (2013).

This kind of social-nationalism was the target of Torcuil Crichton’s perceptive article in last week’s Daily Record. We worry that independence will consolidate this social democratic nationalism. Inequality is the absence of shared prosperity.

Therborn says the middle class is the power to which egalitarians must appeal – egging on the people to cry ‘it’s not fair’. For reducing inequality relies on the desire of the middle classes to live in a fairer society (and the belief that we can afford to do so). It relies on their opposition to the wealth of oligarchs (or the ‘one per cent’), and on their aspiration for a rational and civilized society. Each is a feature of social nationalism, which says the problem is not the rich but the very rich. In summary, admiration of the middle class and conviction in its potential for changing society is a central impulse of what Stephen Maxwell called ‘left-wing nationalism’.

So what’s the problem? Why should such a society be enough to put off radicals from skipping blithely towards independence. Our middle classes can carry on their Scandi-navel gazing while working people will rightly see that life in Scandinavia is better than their own living standard. If that’s not class politics, what else is it?

Radical Independence firebrands like to say that a Yes vote will be a victory for the working class. But though they occasionally talk with Marxist rhetoric, they obfuscate the truth that the dominant class in this bid for independence is the middle class. One chief result will be that middle classes will set the pace of society after independence. This is not only harmful for those excluded from it (which is a crucial concern, but not the focus of these comments), but also holds back the whole society. Here is where levelling up and levelling down have very similar consequences, and where, in a society with a dominant middle class, today’s left can learn from ideas of the twentieth century, including from Hayek.

It was Hayek’s notion that the popular public must not be allowed to impose its ideology across society, otherwise society will begin to stagnate. Hayek builds on Tocqueville’s belief that the middle class holds back public thought. When the middle class has accumulated the kind of wealth on which it can settle down – say, because it believes that it is the middle class of one of the wealthiest countries in the world – then social progress begins to halt. It is an concern not so different from Adam Smith’s worry that society, when it has reached a certain level of wealth, begins to wallow in this wealth and become stationary, leading to the decline of innovation and of workers’ wages. Ordinary middle classes do not create real social change but, being content with the state of society, they begin to settle down, leaving workers to smaller wage-packets.

This is why we should not enjoy the ascendency of the middle class nationalism, but should critique it, point out ways it corrupts thought and manners, and work to challenge it. In the face of crude Nordicism, how can we ensure these theorists’ omens won’t apply to an independent Scotland? Whatever happens in September, there has to be the stirring of some new ideas that will challenge the dominance of the ideology of middle class progress that has ascended with this campaign. In the absence of a creative aristocracy that Tocqueville believed drove society forward, we need an alternative agent of social thought and progress, and we need to take care to preserve what we can of the mores and ideas of the class that is submerged as the middle class expands: those of the Scottish working class.

To name such a thing as a Scottish working class is not to claim that it, and only it, will bring about the kind of conflict Scotland needs; but to question whether its political, cultural and industrial power and identity is able to challenge social nationalism. It appears the class is weak, is being seduced into a social partnership system with hardly any bargaining power, and being offered a social wage that is determined by the government rather than set through their own industrial leverage. Nationalism will find workers a solid place in dull civic society, leaving them powerless and making Scottish society stagnant. This is not progressive.

The answer to this stationary, corporate society must come from socialism. Socialism means not just advancing the interests of working people, but taking society forward, not in line with mutual middle class interests, but with the demands of the organised working class, which are qualitatively different from middle class goals. Many advocates of independence who consider themselves to be on the left pay little attention to the interests and the demands of the organised working class. A few dismiss class politics as arcane, others hold trade unions in contempt, while others still say that socialism and business interests are not only compatible but are coherent. They are no socialists, but are charlatans we have to challenge.

We start by proving – as best we can without the power to realise it – that if workers held the power to innovate and direct industry, then as well as accumulating more power and wealth the working class could revitalise society. So who will be the agents? Some who are at odds with the middle class, including eccentrics and socialists, can emerge from the middle class and understand its limits and barriers. They can dream of a better kind of society, better forms of working class control, and a better kind of class struggle. But the ideas that come from the middle class are not enough, for progress must come through organised demands of ordinary working people, as they associate and are represented in society.

The prospects for the organised working class in an independent Scotland, and the space it has in the economy, is therefore a central concern for those discontent with a future spent staring into Nordic horizons. As a starting point, we should admit that class interests have been missing from the independence debate. Too little thought has gone into considering whether the working class in Scotland would benefit from what the SNP offers following independence. Too many Yes advocates deflect this debate, insisting that the vote is not about the SNP’s policy, and that after a Yes vote we can create a society where the interests of the working class have a place alongside those of the other classes (perhaps through forming a new party). ‘No’ advocates are wiser to say that the terms and structures of the initial stages of independence will do much to determine the direction of Scotland and the place of the organised working class within it.

This debate is what Roch Wind intends to explore over the coming weeks and months. Central to this exploration will be the terms and structures of the SNP’s plans for industrial and economic development, at the heart of which is a weak social partnership model. Given that independence will happen immediately after the next elections in 2016, then, supposing the SNP win, its agenda and objectives will be crucial in establishing the model for industrial and labour relations for an independent Scotland. For instance, the government has said it will establish a National Convention on Employment and Labour relations post-independence. What they say about it must come under far more scrutiny.

None of this is to say the government’s position will define or determine what follows from a Yes vote, but rather that it will be part of the scenario into which the working class movement will enter after a Yes vote. If it seems likely to leave the class weaker, with its power diluted, it would be folly to back Yes. But if the labour movement is confident this scenario is a better one in which to advance the interests and power of the Scottish working class without harming the interests of the working class elsewhere, then a Yes vote makes sense. Preparing to take the opportunities this scenario presents is therefore of utmost priority.

Inflating the Lifeboats: On The Rise of Emergency Nationalism

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Are we special in Scotland? There is a tendency, throughout the independence campaign but also popping up amongst some unionists and federalists, to see in Scotland a “unique opportunity” to do, well, something or other. It’s part of a general exceptionalism, be that historic (in the context of the referendum) or political (“we don’t get the governments we vote for!”). But deep political changes are occurring all over the world right now: in England, we may be seeing a shift towards a four or five-party system and a strong move towards populism; across Europe, right-wing euroscepticism is on the rise, but so is the radical left in many places. Too many commentators in Scotland obsess about Scotland’s “place in the world” while completely ignoring the world’s place in Scotland. Questions about broader global trends or the dependence of the Scottish economy on the world-economy tend to be obscured by a superficially “internationalist” parochialism. Below are a few thoughts on the nature and veracity of Scottish exceptionalism, and how it might fit into a more general British and global context.

Mr Coburn goes to Strasbourg

UKIP’s acquisition of a single MEP in Scotland has been hailed by some as vindication for the “we’re not so different after all” camp, who for some time have been grumpily challenging those who view Scotland’s electoral peculiarities as indicative of distinct “Scottish values” which go under-represented at Westminster.

UKIP’s small success discredits the differentiation narrative to a similarly small extent. But to point to the splodge of purple on Scotland’s european pallette as evidence against difference seems to rather miss the point. Scotland’s electoral behaviour is obviously different from the rest of the UK’s at a superficial level – a glance at the electoral map will suffice – and UKIP’s relatively poor performance here is arguably better evidence for a degree of Scottish distinctiveness than David Coburn’s new EU pay packet is against it.

A key pillar of the “not so different” argument is that this electoral distinctiveness doesn’t actually reflect much of a fundamental difference between Scotland and the rest of the country. People at the radical end of the left tend to agree that the important thing to consider when making political decisions is the extent of the power of the ruling class, the location of capital and the development of industry. At this level, Scotland is no more unique in the UK than, for example, North-West England.

That’s not a “British nationalist” position, it’s a recognition of material fact. The trade union movement is overwhelmingly pan-British, while there is no uniquely Scottish capitalist class to speak of, with most of the Scottish economy’s “commanding heights” owned either in south England or abroad.  But if our economic circumstances and interests are the same, why the electoral divergence?

Lifeboat Scotland

The existential-nationalist answer is that there is simply something innate to the Scottish psyche that is communitarian, egalitarian, perhaps even “radical”, but this is hard to justify. The SNP are fond of discussing “Scottish values,” but recent research has found little (and indeed declining) difference in social attitudes between Scotland and England, and even less of a distinction between Scotland and various similarly-sized English regions. Social attitudes surveys show that in 2013, 28% of Scots said they had “some level of racial prejudice,” just 2% less than the British average and the joint second highest rise (14%)in racism of any part of the UK since 2000. Inner London, on the other hand, saw a massive fall in self-defined racism, challenging the “dark star”/”northern light” polarity established by Alex Salmond.

Tom Nairn answered the question of electoral divergence to an extent, arguing that Scottish nationalism as a political force has emerged from the crisis of the British state or, more specifically, the inability of British political institutions – including its parties and its labour movement – to “deal with” a deepening global crisis of capitalism. While the working and “middle classes” (the latter being, essentially, a clumsy conflation of the relatively secure working-class, affluent “professionals” and small and medium business owners) across Britain found little comfort in an antiquated and unresponsive British political establishment, their Scottish contingent checked their pockets for change and heard the jangle of a hitherto fairly depoliticised alternate nationhood, and the potential of “Scotland’s oil”.

If we’re to accept Nairn’s analysis of a “crisis” of the British state, its declining power to meet the economic and political needs of the British people should be considered central. At the heart of the British welfare state was the supposedly classless ideal of what the sociologist T.H. Marshall called “social citizenship”, abstracted from a set of newly guaranteed benefits (full employment, public services, free healthcare, social security and so on) and supported by the prosperity of the postwar trente glorieuses and the lingering spoils of empire. But as the world economy plunged into a fresh crisis in the late 1960s, it began to drag those guaranteed benefits with it. British people felt the impact of this across the country, but in Scotland many found a particularly Scottish lightning rod for their discontent. Scottish identity had until then been quietly preserved in the country’s distinct institutions, themselves rescued from assimilation in 1707 by the willingness of an imperiled ruling class to accept English rescue in exchange for political union.

It’s no surprise then that supporters of independence repeatedly express their desire to reassert “social citizenship” with Scottish characteristics, for it is to a large extent the continued decline of social citizenship’s material basis across Britain which nudges Scots towards disunion. The SNP have long discussed a “social wage,” described by Salmond as “the contract between the people of Scotland and their government,” which “affords people the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families.” In James Foley and Pete Ramand’s Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence, the de facto manifesto of the Radical Independence Campaign, Marshall is referenced directly and with approval:

Social citizenship…endured during Britain’s most successful decades of growth; [it] continue[s], to varying degrees, in similar northern European economies, which have higher taxation, lower inequality and better living standards. We are not fated to walk Westminster’s path.

This appears to be the pragmatic icing on an existential nationalist cake; we can accept that this social-nationalism is an ideological response to decades of stagnant or falling wages, demeaning working conditions, a housing crisis, long-term unemployment and so on, but it is an ideological response which sees potential in Scotland, not Britain, despite the fundamental structural covariance of the two and the common nature of the crisis from which the response has emerged. “Another Scotland is possible,” goes the slogan, but not another Britain.

Lifeboat England

So what does England have? Well, England “has” UKIP. Peter Geoghegan has written perceptively elsewhere that both SNP and UKIP draw much of their success from “an inchoate reaction to a series of discrete but overlapping social, economic, political and cultural calumnies that many of us are experiencing but would struggle to name.” Without the promise (though it remains doubtful that the promise will be kept) of Scottish nationalism and a renewed social citizenship, which proclaims that we can grow the economy and spread the wealth, the same crisis in England, experienced in the same way, produces a profoundly different reaction; rather than reconstructing a ruined social citizenship, UKIP propose that we make what’s left of it even more exclusive – otherwise the immigrants will take your overpriced house, your low wage, your crumbling health service, your punitive benefit system and so on. They say: ignore that the British state offers its people a crap deal, let’s focus on making sure it’s our crap deal.

UKIP’s faux-compassionate obsession with immigration’s impact on the labour market is significant here. For many of UKIP’s voters – particularly older ones – the chortling, pint-sloshing, chain-smoking Farage is not reminiscent of Thatcherism, nor Enoch Powell, but of something much earlier: the blokey patriarchs of the old social state, with cigar or pipe in hand and a perpetual whiff of booze. That nostalgia manifests itself politically in a vague sense of who “deserves” the meagre benefits left intact, based on assumptions that jobs are widely available and that British social-citizens deserve priority, relics of a society which had lower immigration and far higher employment than today.

Difference and repetition

This is all rather odd. Scottish nationalism, emerging from the same general issues, produces an obviously different electoral result than British or English nationalism. The SNP certainly have their tartan tory side, and their voters and members don’t seem to have much of a problem with that; but support for the Tories in Scotland is lower than elsewhere amongst all social classes, and the risk of Tory government at Holyrood is clearly lower than at Westminster. Scottish nationalism contains a crucial performative element, where a strangely conservative but nonetheless vocal anti-Thatcherism tends to be perceived, presented and ultimately practiced in polling booths as a defence of the nation itself. This is perhaps a legacy of the poll tax, and the involvement of a cross-class (but elitist) “civic Scotland” in opposition to the Tories during the 1980s. This means that electoral competition usually takes place between parties of the centre and the centre-left, with the Conservatives accepted as the grouchy old uncle who says troubling things but can’t do anyone any harm.

But UKIP’s rise in Scotland has challenged that to an extent, and may have exposed the limits of Scottish nationalism’s capacity to soothe the Scottish contingent of a disenchanted British electorate. If it turns out – as is very possible – that some are voting UKIP who would otherwise vote SNP, the power of Scottish nationalism to divert Scottish votes down a distinctly Scottish and “progressive” electoral road is surely in doubt. And if UKIP begins to offer a visible electoral expression for anti-immigrant and right-eurosceptic sentiment in Scotland that has hitherto gone under-represented, the kernel of truth in the “more left-wing” narrative will grow smaller still.

Despite efforts to claim there’s an unbridgeable chasm between the successes of the SNP and UKIP, both are clearly symptoms of the same malaise, with varying strains developing in the distinct (but overlapping) institutional/cultural climes of Scottish and British nationalism. The widespread surprise at UKIP’s modest success in Scotland betrays a complacent and misguided understanding of our political makeup. Scotland’s “more left-wing” electoral tendencies are primarily a result of nationalism, not a justification for it. But, with a cynical audacity, it has become both at the same time, resulting in an absurdly tautological exceptionalism: we’re left wing because we’re nationalists, so we need to be nationalists to be left wing.

James Maxwell has argued that UKIP’s failure to win more support in Scotland is indicative of their English nationalism and Scotland’s understandable immunity to it. There is probably some truth to this. But Maxwell also thinks that UKIP and the SNP don’t really have anything in common. It could just as easily be the case that Scots don’t vote UKIP because they’ve got the SNP instead. Both parties certainly have different programmes, but they push similar buttons – faced with an apparently shrinking pie, nationalisms of all stripes offer the same thing: to divert more of the pie to you. In Scotland, it’s Scotland’s pie, but Scotland tends to be defined in civic rather than ethnic terms; in England, less immigrants and less Europe means, supposedly, more pie for the “indigenous Brits”.

The nexus of class conflict, institutional divergence and general crisis remains ultimately British. But the ideological response to British-wide crisis (which, it mustn’t be forgotten, is also a European and ultimately a global one) is refracted through distinct cultural-institutional lenses to illuminate two different aspects of Britishpolitics which slightly unsettle the established order of things: the first is the populist left-neoliberalism of the SNP, unveiled by a cocksure nationalism. The second is the populist right-conservatism of UKIP, unveiled in the same way.

One Nation Lifeboat

Where does this leave Labour? It is arguably the only party which could even try to nip both the SNP and UKIP’s appeal in the bud, by reducing the sense of generalised scarcity and competition which provides such fertile ground for nationalism of both the left and right varieties. Labour also remains the only party with a Britain-wide mass appeal, and with “One Nation,” Ed Miliband has identified the common ground across the country: populist nationalism, with an emphasis on distributional conflicts. This contains a clear degree of ideological room for manoeuvre, evidenced in polling showing high rates of support for nationalisation, price controls and redistribution across Britain but also anti-immigrant and anti-welfare sentiment.

But populism doesn’t always manoeuvre; sometimes it just ploughs through everything, so we find the Labour Party promising “use it or lose it” expropriation of land and tax rises alongside welfare caps and anti-immigration measures. Similar contradictions are also present in the SNP and UKIP, but unlike Labour those parties come across as relatively forceful and coherent largely thanks to the forceful and coherent personalities of their leaders. It is Farage and Salmond (although Sturgeon should also be included here) who provide the spark for their populist tinder, and Labour’s failure to fend off the UKIP and SNP challenges has a lot to do with Ed Miliband’s personal unpopularity with voters.

It also has something to do with the media, who treat Farage and (in the Scottish media at least) Salmond with a mixture of restrained hostility and perverse fascination. Miliband, in part due to his own personal awkwardness and an excessively “intellectual” image, tends to face a far more difficult mixture of outright hostility and cheap ridicule. The UK’s right-wing media, still sore from Leveson and historically hostile to anything left of Blair, also understandably see Miliband as far more of a threat than Salmond and Farage.

That is, implicitly, also a recognition of Miliband’s significance. His influence in pulling Labour to the left on economic policy (but bearing in mind his support for austerity) – something his brother would likely not have done, at least with similar vigour – can’t be ignored. There are no clear alternatives to Ed Miliband’s leadership who would be committed to a similar programme, and his replacement would likely be a disaster not only for the Labour left but for the whole party. Labour are on a vaguely electable course with One Nation, and a (further) rightwards shift on the economy would render them incapable of competing with a Tory appropriation of UKIP’s right-populism. Miliband remains Labour’s best bet.

Social-nationalism: the shape of things to come?

But all three – Labour, SNP and UKIP – remain incapable of actually overcoming the crisis at its root. Independence will not mend global capitalism, but nor will One Nation Labour. UKIP’s plan to leave Europe and restrict immigration certainly won’t. Trying to marshall nationalism for “progressive” ends in a rich state (either Scotland or the UK) will do more to protect the status quo than undo it; if there is a “national interest” that can plausibly transcend class divisions, it is the quasi-imperial economic foundation on which the UK and Scotland’s welfarist capitalism rests. Our ability to maintain a welfare state within a mode of production which tends to generate poverty and inequality demands that we take up a privileged position near the top of the global pecking order; only then can reformists guarantee a sufficient share of global wealth, redistributed upwards from poorer, weaker states, to grant massive profits to capital while simultaneously providing something to everyone else in the nation.

“Social citizenship” here shares more with its ancient predecessor than its advocates would like to admit: just as the citizens of the Athenian polis enjoyed immense freedom and security thanks to the labour of rural slaves, “social citizens” in a capitalist world-economy rely on the massive exploitation, without benefits, of a global proletariat situated out of sight and out of mind.

The growing demand for a renewed social citizenship also represents a general decline of the more market-centric and overtly inegalitarian approach to policy that has been ascendant for at least four decades; now the project is to “save capitalism from itself,” in Ed Miliband’s words – “responsible capitalism” is the implicit systemic demand of the Common Weal and the SNP as well. UKIP, while more openly Thatcherite, nonetheless drew success from a widespread hostility to the EU and the supposed “undercutting” of wages by immigrants. While the latter may be utterly misguided, a basic desire for higher wages is nonetheless at odds with the interests of monopoly capital, and the EU has been a crucial facilitator of austerity and market expansionism.

But undermining a declining paradigm does not necessarily promote the destruction of the class who benefit from it; oligarchs are chameleons, not in the evil lizard conspiracy sense, but in their ability to adapt to maintain their power and wealth by diverting the energies of crisis and change to their own ends. That adaptation usually requires a degree of concession, and to view those concessions as constitutive of an actual relocation of power is to completely misunderstand the nature of their power. Social-nationalism may well be the new order of things, and this should not be cause for celebration.

We’re going to need a bigger boat

It is only an unapologetic socialism, refusing to drape itself in any national flag and refusing to hide its intentions, which can hope to undo the crisis from which Britain’s competing new nationalisms have emerged. That’s why those on the Scottish left who celebrate Scotland’s “difference,” and who call for a resurrection of stale, social democratic capitalism are so dangerous; they seek to justify or combat nationalism with nationalism, ignoring the broad nature of the crisis and the necessity of a broad solution.

Social citizenship with Scottish characteristics will not “break up” the structures that facilitate this crisis. It will perhaps adopt or (in Pat Kane’s utopia) innovate new methods of (in the words of Wolfgang Streeck) “buying time” for a system en route to collapse. But it will certainly not help to facilitate socialism, for it relies on forces – the nationalism of “citizenship”, the defeatism of social democracy – which time and again throughout history have precluded and postponed the necessary and fundamental transformation of society.

If independence can be shown to counter these forces as well as the right, it can perhaps be justified. The UK’s “progressive” nationalists are certainly no less reliant on them than Scotland’s, and are arguably more influential, particularly in the Labour Party. But there are reasons for scepticism towards both sides, and the smug complacency of those who initially dismissed UKIP’s chances in Scotland before treating them as an aberration is cause for deep concern about the direction of travel of left-wing politics in Scotland.

Rory Scothorne