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

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

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

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

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

The limited evidence for such an emphatic claim comes later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

image courtesy of ‘broken barnet’