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 The Cold War’s binary utopias have been replaced by a messy convergence on pick ‘n’ mix politics, a middle-ground of “social” enterprise, “ethical” consumption, and their foreign policy equivalent: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.

After The Roch Wind

I’m not sure where it’s from, but I vaguely remember a moment in an old cartoon when a large, burly character yawns widely and a fly buzzes determinedly into their mouth. The burly character, having closed their mouth and discovered what’s inside it, starts to choke, all wide eyes and flailing hands. It’s a funny moment, and a triumphant one – what was once an arrogant, lazy beast is transformed into a spectacle of panicked indignity by the coincidence of their yawning mouth with an inquisitive insect’s flight path.

But it’s also, ultimately, a moment of tragedy. The beast finally succeeds in swallowing the noble fly and, we presume, digesting it. They might be humbled and quiescent for a while, or maybe angry, but eventually the old swagger returns, and they remember to yawn with caution from then on.

Open Wide…

Nationalism yawns. The mouth opens: Nairn argues that 19th-century European nationalist politics, formulated by a narrow, educated elite, granted the masses a large but fleeting sense of power – or, if not power per se, it ensured that “the whole people becomes part of society, really, for the first time”. Reacting against the chaos and dislocation of a ballooning industrial capitalism which replaced local powers with foreign financiers and industrialists, peripheral elites rallied their people – many of whom had never been engaged in politics at such a level before – to defend a new, romantic notion of the Volk.

But the mouth, having opened almost as wide as it can go, has to shut. Mass politics is forced back into an institutional and ideological framework designed by and for the nationalist elite, and a fire kindled to ward off a foreign ruling class is stamped out before it consumes the indigenous equivalent. After yawning, nationalism grits its teeth. Either in defeat or in victory, every sin of the leadership is justified and every complaint suppressed by the overriding priority of the nation and its elite architects.

Despite Nairn’s efforts to distinguish between them, his formulation of Scottish “neo-nationalism” resembles his functionalist analysis of its 19th-century ancestor rather too closely, and it’s tempting to suspect that he has projected his own (sympathetic) impression of modern nationalism backwards. Scottish nationalism is about to finish yawning. It is clearly a reaction against the profound uncertainties of a globalised economy. It offers a reassertion of community and locality, but also the hope of a resurrected social democratic settlement for people struggling in low-pay, precarious and undignified work, those out of work, or for small businesses and consumers who feel helpless against multinational corporations.

For many of its most enthusiastic supporters, most visibly students and young people, it offers intellectual and practical stimuli that are hard to find in the increasingly unrewarding worlds of work and education – a chance to meet new and interesting people, think new and interesting things, and gain the attention and respect of one’s peers. It promises democracy in a world we are told is controlled by the market. In this way it has generated a substantial amount of support and activity amongst people with little political or economic power who were and remain willing to fight for a more humane, open and democratic society.

The Roch Wind

Somewhere in this tumult we identified a rough wind; something elemental and raw that could upset the delicate balance on which modern Scottish nationalism was constructed. Nationalism’s elite architects – primarily the SNP, but also figures in think tanks, business and whatever passes for a Scottish intelligentsia – were forced by the limits of their own position to encourage the development of a mass, spontaneous movement, full of contradiction and crudity, but nevertheless with the potential to incubate something beyond the kind of defensive civic-nationalism on which it was built.

The “Roch Wind” argument for independence was rooted in this specific set of circumstances. The referendum itself was a strange fluke, a result of the SNP’s unexpected majority in 2011, and this flash of lightning just happened to strike a fireworks factory. Neither Scotland’s nor Britain’s elites were properly prepared for the terrifying opportunities of a Yes vote – the management of fundamental conflicts of interest between classes and interest groups which had hitherto been sunken into a stagnant political binary at Westminster, the enormous pressure to keep at least some of their impossible promises, and so on. This, combined with the raw energy of the Yes campaign and the experience of a post-independence labour movement, could have opened the door to genuinely radical possibilities for dissent and disobedience in an independent Scotland.

We also identified something sinister in the “Team Scotland” or “all of us first” attitudes of the SNP and the Common Weal, which emerged not only from the nationalist and cross-class basis of those organisations but also the nature of devolution itself – devolution in Scotland has always been innately defensive, concerned with mediating between competing interests rather than taking sides, with key economic powers and conflicts obscured by the bogeyman of “Westminster”. The SNP are experts at this, sublimating their own sectional divisions, and Scotland’s, into the overriding goal of independence. This allows them to achieve both internal unity and a consistent, competent and compromising approach to government.

We foresaw an initial strengthening of the social-nationalist project after independence followed by a long, drawn-out weakening as its contradictions unravelled. The civic basis of this nationalism, necessitated by the politically weak cultural basis of Scottish national identity, means it cannot marshal sufficient popular support with the national question alone – it must consistently offer material benefits to its supporters. We expected this material base to become unsustainable after independence, buckling under the pressures of separation, the competing interests in the social-nationalist coalition, and the state-level influence those interests would be competing for.

We believe that this unravelling would have created significant opportunities for socialists and the labour movement in Scotland, who could be bolstered by the more general popular energy unleashed by the possibilities of independence. There could, in short, have finally been more than a rough wind. The yawning nationalist beast could have choked on the fly as it closed its mouth, and its grip on Scottish politics could have been loosened for good.

It might also have swallowed us, of course, and this is what our No-voting comrades predicted. But we felt that Scottish nationalism was weaker than they believed, ultimately incapable of overcoming its internal contradictions should independence be won.

The expected closeness of the vote was crucial, for an easy Yes win would have implied an unstoppable nationalism and an easy, unproblematic transition for the nation’s elites. But there were, as Gordon Brown identified, real risks – to jobs, pensions, currency and more, problems to which we believed only socialists and the labour movement had workable and popular solutions. The weakness of the nationalist case for independence was, for us, inextricable from the opportunity for a truly radical “Yes”.

Our main efforts, then, were threefold: first, we sought to persuade the pro-independence left to maintain a critical distance from nationalists in the SNP and the Common Weal. Second, we hoped to encourage the sceptical or No-supporting members of the labour movement to consider the possibilities of independence. Finally, we pressed both of those vague groupings – pro-indy left and sceptical labour left – to develop a more thorough critique of social democracy in both its nationalist and unionist forms.

Jaws of Defeat

Alas, we’ll never find out if we would have been swallowed or not. Mainstream nationalism could offer no sufficiently convincing rebuttal to those real risks, and so the Scottish people placed their electoral hand over the nation’s yawning mouth before the fly could even begin to taste the celebratory buckfast on the beast’s breath. Now, Scottish nationalism is gritting its teeth.

One side of the nationalist jaws is the doctrine of “One Scotland”. This is the civic nationalism of an elite that must re-engage with the majority who voted No in order to restore some degree of nationwide legitimacy. Nationalist leaders have retreated to the safer ground of “further powers”, but they will be perfectly comfortable under the present devolution settlement too.

The other, accompanying side of Scottish nationalism is summed up by the social media slogan of “we are the 45%”, which takes the earlier, exclusive message of Salmond’s clumsy “Team Scotland” to logic-defying extremes. Scotland’s new ‘45ers hold up the nation – “all of us,” as the Common Weal put it – as the basis of their politics, but they openly exclude a majority of the nation’s people by mistaking the minority who voted Yes for the nation’s entire stock of progressives.

This is the hidden exclusivity of Scotland’s supposedly “inclusive” nationalism laid bare. In the final instance, its acolytes view Scottish statehood as the primary condition for all possible progress, and refuse to subordinate this to any politics rooted in class, gender, sexuality or any other nexus of oppression and exclusion. Jim McColl, Brian Soutar, Bill Walker and Stuart Campbell are welcome participants (they must be, for they are part of the 45%, whether you like it or not), but socialist No-voters like Neil Findlay are emphatically not, despite their obvious commitment to radical politics.

Having been rejected by the majority of Scottish people, the “45%” – united, ultimately, by nothing other than Scottish independence – is still seen by nationalists as the only plausible basis of “progressive” change. Anybody who seeks the same kind of changes without independence must either retrospectively “join” the 45% (and thus, by implication, apologise for the treacherous way they voted), or simply wait until the next referendum.

“The 45%” is an explicit example – a regressive beacon, even – of narrow nationalism. “We” lost, and Scottish nationalism is stronger and far more sinister today than it was on the 18th of September. The circumstances which justified our support for independence – particularly its immediate possibility at a time when nationalists seemed incapable of fully controlling it – are no longer present. Critical participation in a nationalist movement or nationalist discourse is no longer a useful priority and is now, more than ever, a danger for the Scottish radical left.

What Next?

Roch Wind will carry on, in some form or another and with the same personnel, but through the post-referendum fallout we hope to reconnect with any comrades, regardless of how they voted, who want to work together for socialism and the labour movement in Scotland, the United Kingdom and beyond. We’re also happy to work with people from all left-leaning parties. But just as we fought for a Yes while criticising the movement’s nationalism and reformism, we will be fighting for Labour governments in 2015 and 2016 while condemning the nationalism and reformism of the Labour party, with a renewed focus on the limits of “One Nation” ideology.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

If you’re interested in getting involved, please send an email to roryscothorne AT gmail DOT com, tweet us at @Roch_Wind, or send us a message on Facebook. We genuinely don’t care which way you voted.

Traitors For Yes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The nightmare scenario

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

  1. The alternative:

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

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

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

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

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

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

Arthur Greenwood, House of Commons, 1944

Political Context

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

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

The Rebalancing Act

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

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

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

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

The Role of Government in Macro and Micro policy

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

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

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

Macro

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

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

Micro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggestions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cailean Gallagher

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

 

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’