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)


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.


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.

Editorial: Their thoughts fly up, our work remains below


When Henry McLeish preaches that we should ask “big questions like what kind of Scotland do we want to live in”, he sets himself apart from a Labour tradition that starts from everyday questions of work and life. When Patrick Harvie laments the discord between parties at Holyrood, his interludes drift through political divides leaving partisans unruffled. When Pat Kane insists Green-Left social planners will reform Scotland by creating high-skilled engineering work to solve global energy problems, many will be curious how the planners intend to access the economy’s commanding heights and guide this high-level reform, even once a Yes vote brings certain powers to Scotland’s government.

Are we surprised that demands find no echo when they are made outside the material world of people and parties and movements? Is it any wonder that ideas fail to grip the masses when our language is of justice and nations, consensus and neoliberalism?

Odes to prosperity and fairness, and theories of conflict resolution based on reaching common ground, are the political pastimes of a class with nice lives and accumulated resources, people who use their education or creativity to teach or plan or develop the prospects of others, people once interested in left ideas who found a place to settle and a public-serving job to satisfy their conscience. Members of this elite are not oppressed but like the gentry of old Scotland they skip around the world and delve inside the their own minds and others’ to try and cure their boredom and frustration. Fuelled by mindfulness and trips to the country, they believe in consensual solutions to everything. When they come together in their Hegelian huddle to proclaim a Common Weal, the masses just see an incredible muddle.

The point of these remarks is to suggest that the pro-independent Scottish Left is too idealistic, too set on consensus, determined that employers and employees can work in harmony. It’s an unrealistic vision for ordinary people who see an economy ruled by a rich elite that shirks taxes and places blame on the backs of the poor. Leftist mapmakers need to remember that workers see how much power the employer holds – enough to ignore the interests of employees, enough to sack you or reduce your hours at the drop of a hands-free telephone device. The bosses will not give up power without a fight, which is precisely what the merry bands of social consensualists are so determined to avoid.

Consensual politics are the preserve of a certain class, alien to those who struggle through work and everyday life, and they are an ineffective politics for the oppressed, who may nevertheless assume them to be acceptable and settle for passive consent. Meanwhile those who see through this Left, chiefly in the labour movement, and who understand that consensus is not a route to workers’ betterment, find themselves ignored because they lack the connections, eloquence, and other accumulated resources this class has in abundance.

Sometimes confidence in Left intellectuals on the part of the masses can lead to a kind of passive reform, but only if the Left is both seriously equipped and willing to challenge the enemies it is bound to face. This Left is neither, and even with power it could not help working people attain what they need. Its insistent consensualism is tantamount to deception – or, worse, it’s a sub-conscious method of bringing about the kind of harmony that would allow a privileged class to enjoy the moral contentment and stature of a progressive liberal elite. Like our political class, this elite would ask nothing of those it is meant to fight for, but will assure people that things will improve, with blithe and sickly optimism that is ultimately counterproductive; for the optimism of a political elite that delivers nothing will inspire in the masses more pessimism than hope, and perhaps even a kind of learned helplessness. Unless something is done, this risks being the legacy of the pro-independent Left.

So what is the alternative? The kind of dogged pessimism characteristic of parts of the labour movement does at least start from the attitudes of those it seeks to represent. Miliband is ready to admit his policy to equalise the wages of agency and regular workers is just a method to prevent the race to the bottom. Likewise Brown’s warnings about the instability of the minimum wage after independence strikes a sober chord for those who rely on New Labour’s main achievement. And while the Record is right that Labour’s vote against free school meals leaves a bad taste, some people do see honour in Lamont’s priority of policies that help the poor over those that benefit the whole population.

The Labour Party in Scotland has been battered by a flood of nationalistic optimism, and may remain submerged by the waves we expect this year. Lacking tough defences, our Party has also seemed too pessimistic about the prospects of effective social or economic change in Scotland, which is no way to stir support from those who seek a better life. But it may be that Labour’s stasis, its realistic pessimism, could pay off when the nationalist beacon starts to die, and people look around at the state they’re in.

When they do, Labour has the advantage that it starts from the work people do, the wages they earn, the decisions they make about their lives and their children’s lives, the condition of public services, access to jobs, level of education, ability to travel, and so on. Where the SNP starts with the wealth of Scotland and looks downwards – aspiring that all of our wealth trickles down and out and through the hands of Scotland’s people – Labour starts with the worth of the people and their challenges, and looks up to see what government can do. It fights against homelessness, hunger and hardship, knowing that in the face of all these, the dreams of the nationalists are no solution. It believes social justice means a better life for the mass of ordinary people in a world where work doesn’t pay, being female is a burden, and those in illness or want are neglected.

It should be no wonder that Labour, which has lost favour among the political class, retains a solid and growing support-base among ordinary working people. These supporters may be frustrated by the party’s pessimism but stick to Labour because of their realism and determination. As long as Scottish Labour is passive, they will wait; but they will be the activists if Labour grasps the full powers that a Yes vote could bring in the years to come. It is why we, who support independence from within the party, believe Labour not only has within it the instincts and politics to stir a people to change, but that, after we have won, our Party will be the one to achieve social justice in an independent Scotland.


Towards a Democratic Feminism


A few months ago, Zero Tolerance’s new initiative, Just like a child, was discussed on Radio Scotland’s call-in discussion show Call Kaye. Part of Zero Tolerance’s preventative work around domestic abuse, the initiative aims to discourage gender stereotyping by parents and in nurseries, in order to promote equality and thereby reduce rates of violence against women. It’s incredibly important work that past feminists would have only dreamed of.

It is part of a wider movement amongst feminist organisations in Scotland to concertedly build preventative work into their overall strategy. Rape Crisis centres throughout Scotland are drawing together the funding to hire prevention workers, and Rape Crisis Scotland has run several high-profile advertising campaigns, most notably the television advertisements, Not Ever, challenging attitudes around rape. But the early-years work of Zero Tolerance tackles gender head-on, in an inevitably controversial way.

The radio show Call Kaye brings out the best and worst of Scottish public engagement where callers’ comments can often be extreme, nasty, and conservative. Listening to the radio conversations, it was clear that Zero Tolerance as a public organisation has an ideology somewhat at odds with the ideology of the public. Most see the psychological and social development of boys and girls up to the age of five as biologically different, revealing that they also consider the nature of men and women as different. When Zero Tolerance says that we teach men to be strong and women to be weak, it often falls on deaf ears. Public education is nowhere near as advanced as feminist organisations would like it to be, and though each initiative will create better-educated generations, the fact still remains that there is a disjoint between the organisations and the public.

That the initiatives are going forward at all is therefore testimony to the type of power held by feminists in Scotland. It’s not a lot of power, by any standards, but in comparison to other countries many are pleased with the relationship between women’s organisations and the Scottish Government. This can be diagnosed as a by-product of devolution, whereby the Scottish Government in some ways has a closer relationship with civil society organisations in the devolved sphere than with the public in Scotland. The Scottish government has sovereignty only over particular public realms, the realms of civil and social institutions, not over the public itself. Thus, a disjoint has developed between public democracy and the running of the devolved parts of state, so that in the most extreme cases the public are seen to be represented in the governance of Scotland through civil society organisations, as service users, rather than through the state, as citizens.

The steps forward being taken by women’s organisations in Scotland capitalising on this disjoint, reveal why devolution is a favoured constitutional form for many people in civil society organisations and charities. The prospects for radical feminist initiatives under independence, where the government must appear more directly publicly accountable, are slimmer. In short, the divide between public and institutions works very well for some feminist organisations, who can try to make radical change without being held publicly accountable by the misogynist parts of society, and enlisting the support of many public sector workers, such as the nursery workers in this particular initiative, who find the proposals exciting.

The other major preventative rather than reactive feminist movement in Scotland recently has been towards major economic change, as presented by Ailsa Mackay in an article on openDemocracy. Here the key measure is to challenge the pay, benefits and work of women, to resolve the high levels of poverty and the income gap through new models of economic thought and practice. Challenging the place of women in terms of work and income can of course only go so far in a devolved Scotland. Real change would require greater fiscal powers.

Both social change, such as the Zero Tolerance initiative, and economic change, such as the feminist economic models being discussed at the moment, are interrelated and important. But the constitutional arrangement and potential in Scotland mean these two objectives contradict each other.  Many who wish to radically change society in Scotland, not just feminists, are unsure whether to persist with feminist demands under devolution while they have a strong voice, or sacrifice some influence to a public unshaped by the experience of social and public responsibility, in order to attempt even bigger successes through economic and democratic change.

The question boils down to whether it is better to implement feminist change through a less democratic quasi-state, or whether change should come from a public will and a public consciousness. An argument for the former runs as follows: our democratic system does not include women as much as it should, women are still not full citizens of either Scotland or Britain, as evidenced by the poor record of the Scottish Parliament and local government on women’s representation. Why should we tease out of a democratic system, designed for men, the seeds of women’s liberation? We have found in Scotland a system that seems to work better for women that the system in Westminster, where gender equality institutions of parliament are being dismantled without a second thought, by a cabinet with only 3/22 women.

But there is good reason to be wary of the nature of the Scottish Parliament as it now stands. The point of the democratic citizen is that they act and speak, not that they are spoken for, or accounted for in a calculation by a civil servant. This is especially important for women, who should look to move on from representation by individuals and organisations to political representation by parties and committees in government. The Scottish Women’s Convention, for instance, is a body which has not been particularly successful under a devolved administration, but with full state powers in Scotland, this body could be a direct political voice for women speaking as empowered individuals. In the light of the independence referendum, there is much empty talk of democracy which ignores that our democratic system in Scotland is flailing, and failing to deliver a platform for citizens, especially women.

There is also a widening gap between the actions of the Scottish parliament and the will of the public in Scotland, evidenced in unpopular laws such as anti-sectarian law, or laborious long-winded processes such as that around same-sex marriage. A parliament can drag its people along with it only so far, until there is a democratic deficit, and the institutions of religion and privilege step into the political sphere, in place of the democratic channels. While the Scottish government cannot easily harness a public political spirit in its current form, apart from at the rare points where it harnesses an impotent nationalism, we in Scotland should look to where this relationship might emerge.

Given that an independent Scottish state would result in the development of a more directly critical and vocal public, feminists in Scotland may need to move away from policy and political strategies to think about how to influence public perception and public support. This happens already in terms of social attitudes, but not specifically in a political sphere. A public political voice would be a good thing for the movement. If, for instance, the new laws on sexual violence had been subject to greater public and popular scrutiny, the journey to achieve them may have been harder, but we would have come out of this process with a public with a greater understanding of violence against women, consent, and the need for a feminist movement.

Riding the Unicorn

Unicorn Photo

The mainstream left in Scotland stands petrified by the ghost of social democracy and its companion, the zombie-demon of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s symbolic role in the transformation of 20th century capitalism is essential to what we can call the ‘containment’ argument, which features prominently in both nationalist and ‘devolutionist’ ideology. According to this position, independence or some degree of autonomy is necessary to protect Scotland from the unholy trinity of free markets, ‘Victorian values’ and xenophobic jingoism that characterised Thatcherism. Thatcher’s main political legacy – New Labour – is a part of this narrative, and the Thatcher-Blair consensus is taken as proof that ‘Scottish values’ have no hope at Westminster.

The demonization of Thatcher is a literal one – she is perceived as a creature of quite astonishing malign power. Her importance in the global shift from the mixed capitalist economies of the USA-led Golden Age to the state-shrinking and multi-centric neoliberal era is not trivial, but we have effectively beatified the iron lady on behalf of the Tory party faithful (a Tory saint being equivalent, of course, to a leftist demon). The implication is that the descent into our current predicament was caused not by the contradictions of welfare capitalism , but by the miraculous will of one British prime minister, whose gains were consolidated by Blairite apostles.

This misdirection plays an essential and dangerous role in the liberal-left ideology of containment. If the manifest ideology of Thatcher and Thatcherism caused rampant inequality, corporate excess, pervasive commodification and so on, then the manifest ideology of Scottish social democracy can contain or even reverse the effects of global capitalism (effects to which the rest of Britain must apparently be abandoned). Such an attitude allows an escape from the truly horrifying realisation that our New Jerusalem of 1945 was an impossible dream: the vast growth of a capitalist consumer economy that demanded cheaply produced goods could not peacefully coexist with the rising wage demands of an empowered working class, so the trade unions and their members were duly cast aside.

Some argue that if we only flip that story on its head and replace our consumption habit with a low-growth and low-consumption (but still essentially capitalist) market economy, we could remake that utopia afresh. This is ignorant of two things: firstly, that capital requires its own expansion in order to function properly, demanding the constant creation of new markets and cheaper production; and secondly, that well-intentioned regimes which deny their citizens consumer goods rapidly lose legitimacy. The European Communist parties of ‘really-existing socialism’, for instance, suffered enormously from their inability to meet the demands of people hungry for the riches of modernity. People expect nice things, and to deny that in the name of an abstract ideology is politically unsustainable.

But can we not see the “spirit of ‘45” made real again with just one glance north? What of Scandinavia, which seems to hit all the right progressive notes on the environment, foreign policy, social and economic equality and beyond? The Scottish utopians’ latest production, the “Common Weal” project, is the most popular Nordic aspirational paper among the Scottish middle classes and many of the pro-independence left. These projects have a firm basis in anti-Thatcherite nostalgia, alongside a passionate fidelity to the Nordic model. Anti-Thatcherism and Nordicism cannot exist independently of each other in Scotland. The myth of Scots-Nordic social democracy, far from its vaunted image as the Brave New World of capitalism with a human face, is an anachronism, an agonising reminder of that abandoned future that expelled its last desperate breath for us in 1979.

The Common Weal’s idea of the Nordic model confronts us as the end (or containment) of history, an indefinite time-out from historical struggle and transformation, precisely because it exists in their rhetoric as if history has ended. It offers no significant analysis of the historical conditions for the emergence of their chosen utopia, nor does it place Nordic success within any kind of historical trajectory. If it were to do so, two things would immediately become clear:

1. The top-down imposition of a Nordic model of welfare capitalism in Scotland is as impossible as the time travel that would be necessary to produce it authentically. The sheer political will of thinkers like Robin McAlpine and Pat Kane will not suffice as a placeholder for the decades of class struggle that created Sweden’s Folkshemmet as a compromise between workers and capital, nor will a ‘Yes’ in 2014 approximate the conditions of relative prosperity in which that compromise was able to occur.  There is no significant link between the development of the British and Nordic economies other than that which binds us more generally to western capitalism, which has spawned a range of different models.

2. The Nordic model, like every other model of capitalism ever, will not last, even in its parent countries. Our attempt at social democracy lasted as long as the Golden Age of British capitalism, which ended in the late 1960s to be replaced with terminal decline. The same trajectory, albeit delayed, applies to the Nordic states, whose increasingly globalized economies are already making significant concessions to neoliberalism. Sweden has been cutting taxes and benefits over the last seven years, with the right-wing rhetoric of “individual choice” being used to justify an increasingly market-centric agenda. In Denmark, corporation tax cuts are being funded by cuts in student grants and unemployment benefits. Norway looks set to go the same way, with the centre-right opposition on course to win elections later this year.

We should therefore question the very desirability of Nordicism itself: with our planet approaching a terrifying ecological crisis and capitalism mutating into new and more insidious forms, dare we rely on something which is eroding in front of our eyes? Far from Scandinavia’s quiet success becoming a model for the rest of the world, it is China’s aggressive, state-driven capitalism that looks most likely to dominate the next stages of global history.

There is in fact something distasteful about the Nordic model, even at its most attractive – a comfortable exclusivity in the face of upheaval, a model that profits from global capitalism but keeps a visible distance from the accompanying dirty work of imperialism, environmental degradation and exploitation of the poorest countries. This is the essence of nationalistic moral containment, a satisfying illusion of redemption for our volk from the horrors of the economic system that brings us riches. This pick and mix of the nicer parts of Nordic culture ignores recent evidence of social degeneration. What about the rage that burned over a hundred police cars and shocked neighbourhoods in Sweden this year?

If we peer through the smoke of these vague ideals, a more concrete but equally fantastic symbol from our own history emerges: the unicorn. Present on Scottish royal heraldry from the 12th century, the unicorn still features on our coat of arms as a Scottish companion for England’s lion (some nationalists will undoubtedly take masochistic pleasure in noting what appears to be a chain securing the unicorn to the British coat of arms, while the lion stands free). Is this beautifully impossible creature not an appropriate metaphor for the predominant ideology of the nationalist left? Positioning itself against Mike Russell’s infamous programme for an independent utopia of free markets, low taxes and low wages, the Common Weal and its supporters are pursuing an equally absurd fantasy – the Nordic ghost of ‘45, rendered transparent by our knowledge that it has died already, in front of our eyes… But in a moment of desperate escape from that grief, Scotland’s social democrats believe their lost love to have returned. The cheap joke of this paragraph is that  the alternative to “Grasping The Thistle” must not be the ambitious but hollow “Riding The Unicorn”, embodied by the Common Weal. Overcoming that impotent binary requires the exorcism of a few ghosts and the slaying of a few demons, of which social democracy ought to be first and the überThatcher second.

It is not the mere combination of an ideology and an election – in this case, independence as the Nordic Thatcher – that will alter the direction of history, but a conjuncture of historical factors. Or, as Marx put it more eloquently:

“Men make their own history, but they do not do it as they please. They do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

An analysis of Scottish, British and global historical conditions, including the development of capitalism and the struggle of economic classes, is necessary for any particular vision to be a realistic and effective alternative to the status quo, either within or outwith the union. The likelihood of this analysis producing a Nordic solution is akin to that of driving up the A9 and ending up in Stockholm.

Rory Scothorne

Smout Leading the People

liberty leading the people

Alasdair Darling hits on an important point in his speech on the “positive” case for the union. The idea of an independent Scotland realising a Scottish statehood already contained within it is bizarre, as Scotland never was a state or a nation in the way we understand those entities today. This is a problem for those in favour of independence who wish to realise essential democratic values through the creation of a Scottish state.

As Darling points out, institutions that remained independent in Scotland following the Union of the parliaments were those of religion and privilege: Kirk, education, and law. The qualities we associate with modern nationhood, liberty and equality before the law and the state, were missing from pre-union Scotland, quite understandably. Following the union, all of Scotland’s meaningful development as a liberal state developed through the British Parliament, and thus in the context of the British state. Thus, since the union, Scotland’s history of thought and philosophy, its industrial revolution, the extensions of democracy, the fights of the working class, the fights for women’s liberation are movements within or against the British state, expressed through British institutions.

This presents a considerable problem for Scottish nationalists of a neo-18th century disposition. As T.C. Smout pointed out in an interview in Perspectives magazine, a historical understanding of nationalism invokes the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It is a fight for the rights of the people of a nation through the state. He points out that our current nationalism is somewhat disappointing, because it involves a utilitarian weighing up of each side of the argument (“bean counting”). Liberty, equality and fraternity are understood to have been achieved through the British nation already, so our current nationalism cannot be based upon it:

“From Victorian times onwards many who were passionately Scottish were also convinced that the union was a guarantor of their liberties. They saw the United Kingdom as having constructed democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law”

In the same vein, Darling says that in Britain we all believe in rights, and “the point is to put rights into practice: that is what the UK does, and in a culture that we all recognise and are comfortable with”. Scotland’s historic relationship to “rights” cannot be disentangled from the development of this ideology and practice in the British state.

But if Hobsbawm is correct, and the principles of the 18th century Enlightenment are still the most important to us today, Scottish nationalists should be constructing an argument for political independence based on these revolutionary principles.

There is probably no point looking to the history or aspirations of Scotland for these state-based values, as there has never been a Scottish state for them to develop in. But one possibility, for the pro-independence lobby, is to claim the values of liberty, democracy and welfare which have already developed through the institutions of the British state. If these institutions were still developing in line with people’s aspirations for them in Britain, then there would be no nationalist impulse which could legitimately claim to realise a better state in Scotland based on liberty or equality. However, many of these British institutions and aspirations are being undermined by an austerity consensus. This is why Scottish nationalists aspire to develop state institutions in accordance with values associated with the British state.

But there is another approach to invoking liberty as the basis of Scottish nationalist sentiment. It starts with the claim that Britain has a conservative history in comparison to nations in Europe or America. A mixed, unwritten constitution and conservative political and public sphere allowed Britain to slowly rumble through the ages of Enlightenment and bourgeois revolutions, implementing slow parliamentary reforms, and developing a hearty trade union movement that never quite had a revolution. We can’t claim Scotland was any different – we played the British Whig game better than anyone else. But a modern acknowledgement of British conservatism gives rise to the more radical alternative:  if Britain never did realise some aspects of liberty in full, Scotland could, through the creation of a state, have the basic tenets of 18th and 19th century nationalism restored – such as a democratic understanding of a written constitution and a national citizenship presented in terms of common liberty.

This is the beginning of an answer to Smout’s request, “I would like to know from each side how they would like to further these ideals, because you don’t hear very much about that at the moment. In what senses will Scotland be more free? Will it be more equal? Will it be more fraternal? These are very important questions. That’s what true liberty is about and I don’t see it being debated.” These questions are especially important now as values such as liberty have a new relevance, women and working class people being formally accepted as citizens.

That we don’t hear this type of nationalism at the moment in Scotland is unsurprising. Neither institutions create through devolution, nor institutions that have always been Scottish, have been able to realise the kind of public values that can be created by a coherent state.  Institutions like church, law, education, the NHS and welfare need to be held together in a state for citizens to achieve democracy and freedom through them.

While in the 1700s the state did not require all institutions to be held in common in order to be a coherent entity, by the end of the 18th century this was a necessity, and Britain became increasingly centralised. Today, to maintain its coherence, Britain needs to sterilise every internal demand for freedom and democracy, and present them as valueless, functional, or utilitarian demands. This was true of devolution, and we see the same phenomenon with independence today. This is what gives the rhetoric of independence as self-determination (and the extension of devolution) such a hollow ring, echoing in claims that the demand for independence comes from our culture of self-determination. A demand for the liberty of a people goes deeper than any of that.


Labour’s Parliamentary Malfunction


At the Durham Miners’ Rally Len McLusky said the Labour leadership has ‘become adrift from ordinary people and has failed to offer an alternative to austerity’. Bob Crow echoed this, characterising Miliband’s reforms as an attempt to ‘hack away at the last remaining shreds of influence held by those who created the party’.

The union leaders say Labour is constrained because, in order to achieve middle class votes, its leadership are willing to erode its commitment and connections to working people. The price is labour solidarity, the key to an effective social and political movement.

Bob Crow’s solution is a new party; but Labour is, in spite of everything, the party of working people, with the people, history, infrastructure and above all loyalty to win power and use it successfully. The problems of Labour, and some solutions to the drift of the party, are related to its focus on winning at Westminster.

First, the Westminster obsession is contrary to the extra-parliamentary traditions and potential of the party. Winning at Westminster is a primary function, but it should not stifle the party’s other aims – to fight in whatever way is most opportune to win power for working people and improve their lives. Parliamentarism’s defendants glorify the history of Labour at Westminster, often ignoring the significant progress of the labour movement through non-parliamentary channels. Ralph Miliband wrote in Parliamentary Socialism: “Leaders of the Labour Party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as industrial action for political purposes) which fell, or which appeared to them to fall, outside the framework and conventions of the parliamentary system.”

Second, UK General Elections force parties to appeal to middle class voters, at odds with the Labour Party’s role of speaking for the working class. If there is an exclusive focus on Westminster then there is no part of the Party that is uncorrupted by the need to play to the middle classes. Westminster casts a charm over the political aims of the Labour Party, and leads the party away from its principles and from those it represents.

Third, the institutions of Westminster have never developed as a wieldy instrument of the working classes. The radical aim of Labour is to make government and parliament into instruments of the commons, but the conservative parliamentary and government system at Westminster are subsuming the Labour Party.

To make Labour the party of working people we should change our relationship with Westminster and reassess our political opportunities. We might investigate how we can use councils or regional democracy more effectively; we might look to industrial or institutional democracy. We should also be looking, at this time, to the political circumstances of Scotland, and the potential future of Scottish Labour. The Labour Party in Scotland has long been a party of home rule or subsidiarity, taking power away from Westminster to whatever level is most suitable, especially within nations. Independence is the opportunity to bring a fuller set of powers from Westminster to Scotland, and many in Scottish Labour are compelled to support it.

Some argue for independence on the basis of achieving social justice in Scotland. There is quiet discussion of how the powers of independence could be used to bring democracy into workplaces, to weave employment rights into the Scottish economic system, to strengthen the welfare and social insurance system, to extend access to childcare and to incorporate trades unions and other representative groups into Scottish government.

Labour members also realise the opportunity of independence in taking a better course for the Party in Scotland, partly because they despair at the London leadership’s direction, partly because successive governments in Westminster seem to take one step forward then two steps back. They also object to the distancing of Labour from the trade unions, and would prefer to control their own trade union structures.

Yet while many in Scottish Labour believe that labour values, and the Labour Party in Scotland, can flourish after independence, they rightly worry that solidarity and attachment to the wider movement make these insufficient reasons to back independence. In light of these worries, we should consider Scottish independence in terms of solidarity and the labour movement as a whole.

Labour members who back independence are accused of being content to ‘walk away from our English comrades’. This argument arises from the same sentiment that makes us stick by a leadership that acts solely in the interests of the Party at Westminster rather than in the interests of the labour movement. It is the type of Labourism, focussed on winning parliamentary power, that has dogged the British Labour movement for decades. And this type of solidarity is corrupt, reliant on a system of politics that has for so long failed to work for our movement, and halts our ability to use power at different levels to achieve justice for working people and society. To say that labour solidarity will wilt with independence is almost to claim that the movement rests on Westminster for unity – which is what the leadership would like us to believe.

Labour should fight to forward its aims and objectives at whatever level or in whatever system it thinks it will be most effective. It is tied to a movement, and a Party, not to any one political system. Scottish Labour has links with separate Scottish trades unions as well as the independent Scottish Trades Union Congress, it has its own particular history and institutions, and a set of principles that suit the political and social context of Scotland. So if the Scottish Party reckons it can achieve more with full powers of independence, and can build on its different priorities and stronger union links to work for a socially just Scotland, then it should take the opportunity to do so.

And even forgetting how labour values can flourish in an independent Scotland, Scottish constitutional change will enable the Labour Party as a whole to develop its political objectives and methods. An altered parliamentary and political system in the rest of the UK might just be the key to revitalising the party in England, and reconnecting the labour movement to the Party at the most effective levels.

Our unity will not be based on one shared goal of winning at Westminster; it will be based on shared principles and solidarity that will persist through collective cross-border organisation, rather than an unhelpful apparatus that happens to be Britain’s structure of central governance. The unity of the labour movement should be a common endeavour to fight as a party and movement wherever we can for working people.

Cailean Gallagher
Amy Westwell