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 The Cold War’s binary utopias have been replaced by a messy convergence on pick ‘n’ mix politics, a middle-ground of “social” enterprise, “ethical” consumption, and their foreign policy equivalent: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


[1] Engels, F., ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (, 1880),

[2] Blanqui, L., quoted in David Van Dusen, ‘Worlds Without End’, 3AM Magazine (September 2014),

[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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Anti-politics of “Partnership”

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

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

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

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

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

The Government of “Us”

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

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

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

“Nationalism is a virus”

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

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

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

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

Organised Pessimism

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

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

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

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

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

Inflating the Lifeboats: On The Rise of Emergency Nationalism


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


Burke & Fair: Grave-Robbing With The Common Weal


The Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project has gathered quite a lot of support from the Scottish left (and, via Business For Scotland and Jim Mather, the Scottish right as well) during the referendum campaign. We recently enjoyed a piece on their website called “Principles of the Common Weal”, written by one of their growing army of academics, which lays out their ideas in children’s storybook form, cheerily patronising the reader from the first sentence. The article is typical of the Common Weal’s output: its platitudinous liberalism makes for a neatly-fitting lid on the coffin of social democracy, hiding the decomposing cadaver from view while its stubborn apostles insist it has already been resurrected in Scandinavia, that strange land where time stands still and Margaret Thatcher delivers milk to nurseries. We’ve tried to pry open the coffin lid to see what these “principles” really mean…


1. Society

We live together in society

People do not live in isolation from each other; we live in families and communities.  Most of us belong to a wide range of groups and networks – joined together by, for example, culture, education, religion, mutual responsibility and our shared experiences. A society is a group of all those groups.  A society may seem distant to some, and there are parts of the world where it is, but Scotland is not one of those places.  Many of the things that make life in Scotland work, happen at the level of society as a whole: education, health care, pensions, roads, parks and many other services are organised socially, and they make us all better off than we would be without them.

Translation: “Like Aristotle said, we’re rather like bees. A society is a group of sub-groups. We are joined to others by things like our common interest in spoken word poetry, our common membership of university rowing clubs, our commitment to the Orange Order, the fact that we give other people directions, and that we all like Hogmanay. Some parts of the world are uncivilised and things are organised by religious groups, or by trade unions. Here, everything happens at the TOP level – the group of sub-groups – society – and that is good. By society it turns out we actually mean the State. The State organises education, health care, pensions, roads, parks, and other services, and if we squint at the word “State” it looks a bit like “society” which is a bit like “social”, and we know social things are good, because… Anyway, we know if we didn’t have these state-based things then everything would be worse, because we’d probably be serfs.”

2. The common good

The welfare of every person depends on the welfare of each of us.

The idea of the common weal begins with the idea that the welfare of each and every person matters for the welfare of all of us.  Every member of a family shares, to some extent, the pleasure and pain of others;  it is hardly possible for a family to be content and satisfied with their circumstances when one of their number is deprived or dangerously ill. In the same way, it is difficult for the members of a society to be content if the most vulnerable people in that society are suffering.  There are differences, of course, between families and societies; the relationship we have to members of our family is closer and stronger than it is to others.  But wherever other people lack welfare, it affects us, too.  Poverty makes life worse, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

Translation: Like Hobbes said, the State is sort of like a body. This is useful, because we think that, like a body, when a part of society is sick, the other parts are too. Now, the other parts – that’s people with nice lives who aren’t in poverty- aren’t THAT affected by the hard lives of other people in society, but it does make them feel worried, and sometimes really really concerned. When middle class people are concerned, they are not as happy as they could be. And this is a sure sign that things need to change.

“We hope no one reading this is thinking about certain twentieth-century invocations of the state as a family. Of course, our national socialism is very different to that. We will draw your attention instead to another instance – in 14th century Florence, the elites used an idea laid down in Roman history, the idea of the state as a family, to quell the wool-workers and their mistaken sense of associational politics. See – the state isn’t something nasty, and everyone should learn to love it, just like family.”

3. Solidarity

We have obligations to each other.

The idea of ‘solidarity’ is widely used in Europe to mean that people are held together by bonds of mutual obligation – the ties of family, community and society.  People are included in society when they are part of those networks, excluded when they are not.  The common weal is an idea that includes people, and binds them together.  It means that we are all of us responsible for each other.  This does not mean that people are not also responsible for themselves; but it does mean that looking out for oneself is not enough, and never can be. “All the members of human society”, Adam Smith wrote, “stand in need of each other’s assistance.”  Every one of us depends on the help and support of others.

Translation: “We will just define the idea of solidarity in case you have any misconceptions about the politics behind that word. You might associate the idea with a song containing the line “Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?”, or another song that says “We’ll boot your fuckin’ cockney skulls right back to Bethnal Green” but we don’t want you to worry about those violent and divisive anthems – we’re talking about something much better. What we mean by solidarity is that all the sub-groups, and the main group (society/the State) hold people together in “bonds of mutual obligation”. We have mutual obligation because we depend on others – this is what Adam Smith thought in 1759, and the Enlightenment is the epitome of human thought.”

4. Stewardship

We have a duty to future generations.

Edmund Burke, the great conservative philosopher, argued that society is a partnership, not just of those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.  Part of the responsibility we have is to each other.  Part is to those who have come before us – to preserve our common heritage.  Part is to those who will come after us.  Each generation has a duty of stewardship for the generations to come – a duty that goes beyond the narrower idea of ‘sustainability’, because it is a commitment to make things better, not just to keep things going.  The common weal calls for us to build for the future.

Translation: “Edmund Burke didn’t like the French Revolution. He thought the Ancien Regime was pretty fab, and he thought we’d better preserve the monarchical and political systems we had and let them change organically, even if it did mean people were pissed off. We think the same (sort of). We think we have to preserve our common heritage – the Queen! The empire! nice arty things, like Gaelic. We have a commitment to the future! Here, we’d better depart from Burke. We’re in a muddle now. We must build.”

5. Rights

A society has to protect the rights of every person in it.       

The common weal cannot be achieved by sacrificing the welfare of some people for the good of others. A society where some people are poor, homeless or excluded, is a worse place to live for everyone else.  Most people in Scotland look at exclusive societies – like the gated communities of South East England – with some disquiet. As The Spirit Level shows, societies that are more unequal are less healthy, more prone to crime and poorer than others.

 Translation: “Mutual responsibility means egalitarianism. If some are more equal than others, the middle class get sad. Most people in Scotland think “God I wish I was as rich as people in South East England” “It is wrong that those people are rich and ignore that others are so poor – I am glad I live in a place where the rich love the poor with all their hearts”. As an old sociology study shows, it is better for rich people to live in societies with a smaller gap between rich and poor. We want to live in the “right” society, which is why this section is about “Rights”…”

6. Equality

Everyone needs access to the conditions of civilisation.

There are many differences between people – for example, differences of gender, of religion, of physical capacity.  Equality means that wherever there are such differences, people should not have to suffer from disadvantages because of them.  The most basic type of equality is about respect for persons: people of any kind should not be treated as inferior.  Then there is equality of opportunity; people should not be denied opportunities because of who they are.  Our common weal calls for equality, however,  in a deeper sense.  The real argument for equality, Tawney argued, was that every person in a society should have ‘access to the conditions of civilisation’ – including, amongst other issues, education, housing, sanitation, health care and a basic income.

Translation: “There are differences in society, and people should not be discriminated against for being “different”. Nobody should be treated as inferior. There should be equality of opportunity. But most of all, everyone should have access to a good life. If you are “different” and this is interpreted to mean you are inferior (for instance, you might be a woman!), don’t get angry at those misguided people, but trust in us to deliver a society where you have access to all the conditions of civilisation, due to our good Christian morals. See – we avoided all that nasty liberation politics!”

A common enterprise

To build more we must share more.  

The common weal depends on common action. We are part of a joint enterprise, which every person contributes to, so that every person can benefit.  By working together, every one of us can achieve more than we can do alone. And acting together has another, less immediate advantage: when people co-operate, they have the opportunity to build a community, and identity, and a sense of purpose.  Together, we can make Scotland a better place to live.

Translation: “We all must contribute to the enterprise of the common weal (which means mutual responsibility) so that we all benefit. Working together is known to be efficient, as Adam Smith showed us so wonderfully. But there is value in cooperation itself – it gives us a community (Common Weal Scotland) an identity (Common Weal Scotland) and a sense of purpose (creating a Common Weal Scotland). Now that, my friends, is an ideology!”


The Common Weal hope to utilise a common civic/social-nationalist impulse, which they believe they have found in Scotland, to overcome class and sectional antagonisms in Scottish society and pinpoint policies which are in the interests of all. It is an ideology of class compromise, idealist complacency and national-political consensus, pre-empting any possibility for a truly emancipatory and internationalist politics of class struggle, historical materialism and political revolution.

The Common Weal claim the Left as their terrain, and yet their intellectual roots – reactionaries like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, fused with the technocratic paternalism of The Spirit Level – betray a fundamental conservatism. They are disturbed by the growing inequality and instability of modern society, particularly its implications for “social cohesion” (whatever that means), and hope that the right reforms, made by the right people, will fix this. Trying to prove conclusively that their social-democratic messiah evaded death in the 1970s, they rip its skeleton from the ground and rattle it in our faces, proclaiming its vitality as the last slivers of flesh slide off and the skull tumbles comically to the ground. Despite the childish language, it’s a frightening display of hyper-defensive leftism that should come with an age rating.

Our intellectual roots are rather different. When we see instability and inequality throughout the capitalist world, we recognise that Marx was right to argue that antagonism between classes, also identified by Adam Smith, can only be ended by the destruction of the ruling class by the exploited masses. When we see a so-called “left” programme drawing on Burke to argue for a society that is somehow both capitalist and communist, we remember the words of Burke’s great contemporary Maximilen Robespierre: “Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution?

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

Those who draw maps


“[T]hose who draw maps place themselves on low ground, in order to understand the character of the mountains and other high points, and climb higher in order to understand the character of the plains. Likewise, one needs to be a ruler to understand properly the character of the people, and to be a man of the people to understand properly the character of rulers.”

– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

We enter 2014 with two predominant maps of an independent Scotland in circulation: first, the bold but abstract outline of the Common Weal, toying with scale and distance to bring us notably closer to the hastily scribbled coasts of Scandinavia; second, the Scottish Government’s White Paper, a large and detailed effort that, save a few interesting addendums, looks remarkably like the Scotland we’re trying so hard to redraw. There are others too, of varying scale and skill, from Stephen Maxwell’s republished sketch of a “radical democracy” to the libertarian contours of the right-wing blog Wealthy Nation. “Our multiform, our infinite Scotland” indeed.

Scotland is full of those who draw maps, so it seems. But as prefigurative charts of a political geology yet to emerge, their real usefulness remains uncertain and untested. They certainly have their respective partisans and detractors already. Few socialists can be satisfied with the White Paper, and all should view Wealthy Nation with hostility, but a great deal of enthusiasm exists amongst the various orienteering teams of the Scottish left for the trails marked out by the Common Weal and Stephen Maxwell.

This enthusiasm can obscure the clear tension between the two latter visions, pointed out by Pat Kane in a thoughtful review of Maxwell’s ‘The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism’: Maxwell’s passionate localism, forged in the white heat of the 1960s’ and 70s’ big-state social democracy, clashes awkwardly with the Common Weal’s more sanguine (though by no means unqualified) attitude to centralised power. Tensions aside, both are nonetheless marked indelibly – stained, perhaps – by their Nordic inspiration, limited in the final instance by a politics of moderate, consensus-based reform.

Beyond Social Democracy

Reading Maxwell’s 1976 essay ‘Beyond Social Democracy’ is an odd experience.(1) He writes, for example, that social democracy “has allowed a concept of politics as a manipulative exercise undertaken to create and maintain a compliant consensus to smother the radical ideal of politics as a central activity in a socially responsible and vigorously self-critical culture.” Though written almost thirty years ago, the critique clings to its subject like mud to a boot; Maxwell can almost be heard stomping through the final puddles of an evaporating postwar consensus as he outlines a decentralized alternative of workers’ cooperatives and empowered local government that remains relevant today.

The oddness of that work comes from its proximity to a Maxwell essay from 2011 in which Scottish nationalists ought to be “heartened and inspired” by the historian Tony Judt’s argument that social democracy “is better than anything else to hand”.(2) It is understandable, after three horrible decades of full-frontal attacks on working class organisations and the near-eradication of the public belief that there are alternatives to capitalism, that social democracy might seem like a modest improvement. It is. But the advocacy of social democratic politics in Scotland in 2011 is not an example of a “vigorously self-critical culture”.

In the end, Maxwell’s “radical” social democracy fits all too snugly into the hegemonic ideology of nationalist Scotland. While he hints, at times, at extra-parliamentary politics and industrial democracy, the SNP’s Holyrood bubble has grown far too large to be burst by such quaint sentiments, with their paucity of mass support. The infrequent left-wing twinges that continue within the SNP are absorbed and de-fanged, funnelled into tokenistic offerings like “community empowerment” to take the edge off an agenda that is otherwise centralising, tax-cutting and reluctant to act decisively in favour of the labour force when industrial disputes emerge.

Nordic Borders

The absorption and moderation of transformative ideas after independence is one of the single biggest risks facing the pro-independence left, and the prevalence of this risk is a symptom of our obsession with building “consensus”. It is no surprise that a Nordic-inspired nationalist movement should be so occupied with consensual politics; the uniquely peaceful development of Nordic capitalist democracy was in large part thanks to its basis in tripartite class compromise, with a large independent peasant class, emergent urban working class and relatively weak middle class pulled together in the ‘national interest’ by a vanguard of labour movement leaders and middle class progressive reformers.

The 1930s saw the development of Folkshemmet, the ‘People’s Home’ of Swedish universalism, and Finland’s growing preoccupation with its Nordic identity, which Finnish labour historian Pauli Kettunen argues became “a code for the future that was inherent in Finnish society.”(3) Like the 19th-century expansion of the USA, the Nordic ideology was that of manifest destiny, inscribed in the very DNA of the people. With this the citizens could be rallied behind their state, tempering divergent class interests in the name of becoming-Nordic.

Is this kind of self-justifying “progressive” nationalism not precisely what the SNP mean when they talk of “Scottish values”? It implies something fundamental to us as Scots that can, given free reign with independence, allow us all to realise its egalitarian implications.

But there’s little political realism in these comforting illusions. Unlike Scotland, Nordic society was already relatively equal before the Nordic welfare state emerged, and the working class were remarkably well-represented in its democratic institutions. They could, to an extent, adapt comfortably to the coming of capitalist modernity. Scotland, on the other hand, has one of the worst levels of economic inequality in the developed world – the top 30% possess over 50% of the wealth, while the bottom 30% have just over 10%. The Jimmy Reid Foundation has found that among Scotland’s political “influencers” only 3% have an income below the national average. As rhetoric, “Scottish values” can perhaps persuade the Scottish poor that their interests are tied to the interests of the rich, but this is utopian. With disparities of wealth and power as great as ours, the idea of a consensus-based ‘national interest’ is meaningless. The rectification of inequality demands the creation of winners and losers. It’s not “all of us first”.

“The Character of the Rulers”

A politics of antagonism – not nationalist, but socialist – is the only way to ensure that we have the right winners. For if our political class is so skewed towards the interests of the wealthy, how can we expect them to suddenly adopt redistributive programmes like the Common Weal, or give up power to local government, as Maxwell proposes? The Common Weal argues that a programme of reducing wage differentials can be in the interests of Scottish business as well. Something similar was suggested by the Swedish ‘Rehn-Meidner strategy’ for trade union bargaining: pushing low wages above market-friendly levels and pursuing wage restraint among the better-paid would force out inefficient capital and allow some breathing space for the kind of long-term, productive investment that grows the economy in everyone’s interest.(4)

But what do you do if inefficient capital is the chief “influencer”, as the financial services sector has been in Britain for decades? A genuinely productive, relatively egalitarian society is only in the interests of the ruling class if the ruling class want the economy to work well as a whole, rather than in their particular interests. But the capitalist is interested in their profit above all else, and inefficient, low-wage business still makes a profit for somebody. We need look no further for a domestic example than the wealth of Fred Goodwin, who Alex Salmond was so enthusiastic to help out with the disastrous purchase of ABN-AMRO, presumably in the so-called “national interest”. Goodwin remains rich. His victims remain poor.

The Common Weal and the SNP accept, to various degrees, Machiavelli’s point that “one needs to be a ruler to understand properly the character of the people”. To grasp the singular character of the people as a whole, a ruling party must both lead the people and depend on them for one’s authority. The SNP seek to be this party, while Common Weal director Robin McAlpine has spoken of the need to have a major party accept the Common Weal as its political programme. But this is dangerously elitist without equal emphasis on the second principle, that one must be “of the people to understand properly the character of rulers.”

Maxwell, with his mistrust of parliamentary absolutism, understood some of this danger but nonetheless focused primarily on winning over the SNP. That party’s most recent conference featured a lecture by Andrew Wilson on their need to become a “National Party”. This way, they could “unify the wonderful rich diversity of our country behind the progress and reform we desperately require. We must let other parties continue to define themselves by us and be confident and clear in our purpose, direction and goals beyond independence.” This is undoubtedly what the SNP want to happen. And yet it suggests precisely the “compliant consensus” that Maxwell warned against in “Beyond Social Democracy”, and it should be fought at all costs.

“The Character of the People”

With Machiavelli we make two assumptions: first, that there must be a party (or, for Machiavelli, a prince) and a state with which to change society; second, that it is ultimately the people who know the best role for their representatives, for they understand “the character of rulers” better than the rulers themselves. So the people must be dually empowered: firstly, in the politics of the parliament and the constitution, where they cannot avoid being ruled but where their particular representatives can come to understand and fight for them. But they must also be empowered beyond the political system, skewed as it is towards the simple interests of the rulers themselves. What might political action along these principles – of interdependent popular empowerment inside and outside the state – look like?

The Haitian Lavalas (‘flood’) movement, led until 2004 by the radical priest-turned-politician Jean Bertrand Aristide, has been described by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek as “a unique combination: a political agent which won state power through free elections, but which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy, of people’s direct self-organisation.” Haiti, where former slaves rebelled against their masters in 1791 to form an independent Republic, has been one of the most tragic victims of global capitalism. Forced at gunpoint to pay compensation to France for their own liberation until 1947, the economy and society has been devastated by international blockades, American invasion and economic pressure, IMF restructuring and a long string of murderous coups and dictatorships supported by the USA.

In 1991 Aristide was elected president with an enormous majority by Lavalas, a coalition of working-class, religious and peasant organisations – in short, the exploited and oppressed of Haiti. Having been forced out of power by Haitian and foreign elites several times, Aristide was finally deposed by an invasion of American, French and Canadian forces in 2004. But during that time, Lavalas were consistently mobilised in huge numbers to resist the assaults of counter-revolutionary paramilitaries, enabling Aristide to pursue what reforms he could: improving literacy and public health, doubling the minimum wage, raising taxes on the rich. Aristide’s maintenance of what little power he could get – the USA repeatedly forced him to share power with the Haitian elites that despised him – was dependent on Lavalas, as was his occasional defiance of foreign demands. Peter Hallward writes that the movement used “a mixture of prevarication and evasive non-cooperation” to deflect IMF pressure for the privatisation of services, mobilising outside the institutions of the state to support party policy within it.

This is a far cry from the desire of our social democratic left to find a ‘niche’ in the global economy where Scotland can prosper through the expert application of reforms. Under that defeatist consensus, our demands for real democracy and independence remain subordinated to those of an authoritarian world economy which can chew us up at any moment. Better to build an enduring movement that can react to global shifts with renewed opposition to our own elites, using crises to create fresh opportunities for genuine transformation. Lavalas was, for all its relative powerlessness, as close as we can find to a democratic movement of this kind, refusing to accept the limits placed on it by both a skewed political system and a cruel international order. It built and maintained a radical base of support with which to seize, defend and extend the power of the masses, which it used in defiance of those limits.

When we stand in the plains and climb the mountains, as Machiavelli suggests we do when mapmaking, we obviously don’t observe a Scottish political topology resembling that of Haiti. But nor do we find a Nordic one. The ‘Nordic model’ for us is not a realistic goal, but it is a method of marshalling ‘consensus’ behind a project of national adaptation to global changes. This project must be criticised and resisted, or the radical edge of the independence movement will be blunted against the brick wall of Scotland’s nationalist establishment.

The masses of Scotland will begin under independence in the same condition as we will leave the union; exploited, robbed of much of the wealth we produce by a ruling class with its claws already gripping the levers of power. Our written constitution will grant us certain rights and our representatives certain powers, which can and must protect us from the predations of the economic élite as much as possible, but constitutions only get you so far when the entire edifice of the world economy is tilted against your interests. Power won through constitutional means – the formal sovereignty of the state – must be pursued with a willingness to use it (or indeed actively not use it), when necessary, in support of extra-constitutional and extra-legal methods – reflecting the real sovereignty of the people.

What the pro-independence left must remember is that the maps they choose are not there to equip an elite, but to guide the mass of people in the nation. The power of the masses need not always be channeled through the floodgates of a conservative parliamentary system, floodgates ready to slam shut at the first sign of a fundamental shift in power and wealth. The utopians of the Scottish left have thus far sought only to win control of the political and economic system and manipulate it in what they deem to be the “national interest”; the point, to paraphrase Marx, is to change it fundamentally, exercising popular sovereignty within, outside and ultimately against its institutions. Only in this way, standing on the mountain as rulers and simultaneously on the plain with the people, can we draw a map of a nation that we recognise as our own.

Rory Scothorne

Picture courtesy of Andrew Barr

(1) Stephen Maxwell, ‘Beyond Social Democracy’, The Case For Left-Wing Nationalism and other essays (2013, Luath Press)

(2) Maxwell, ‘Scotland’s Economic Options in the Global Crisis’

(3) Pauli Kettunen, ‘The Power of International Comparison: A Perspective on the Making and Challenging of the Nordic Welfare State’, in Niels Finn Christiansen et al, eds., The Nordic Model of Welfare: A Historical Reappraisal (2006, Museum Tusculanum Press)

(4) Jonas Pontusson, ‘Once Again a Model: Nordic Social Democracy in a Globalized World’, in James Cronin, George Ross, James Shoch eds., What’s Left of the Left: Democrats and Social Democrats in Challenging Times (2011, Duke University Press)

Curse of the Unicorn

No Land in Sight

In a recent article about the Common Weal and its Nordic inspiration, I compared the social democracy of the mainstream Scottish left with a unicorn – a nice thing, but also a fantasy. Dan Paris responded, with an eloquent piece claiming that I had invented the Nordic aspirations of the Common Weal (although Pat Kane, one of its most vocal supporters, has called the Common Weal “Nordic-style” several times).

Dan’s central argument is that the Common Weal has no intention to simply reapply the Nordic model in Scotland. Moreover, he suggests that the model is not even real. After quoting a Danish academic who calls it a “myth”, he says that:

“Rather than a model to be imposed, Nordicism, as far as we understand it, offers a very convincing argument against the inevitability or superiority of the Anglo-American model of deregulated capitalism.”

The response of many to “Riding the Unicorn” has been similarly insistent that, whatever the theoretical or practical flaws of the model, Nordicism is a good ‘strategy’ for the pro-independence left, as it denies the hegemony of the Anglo-American model. In the face of the neoliberal doctrine of TINA (There Is No Alternative), the left can say “but look! It’s at least possible to be not-neoliberal!”

This is why we have the simplistic conception of the various Nordic systems as a singular ‘model’. The approach is a centre-left mirror image of the disastrous off-the-shelf ‘liberalisation’ programmes imposed in former Soviet states, in Pinochet’s Chile, or indeed in Iraq, by American expert ‘consultants’. Nordicism adopts the same kind of method of ‘nation-building’, but with a social democratic rather than a free-market outcome.

So the Common Weal tell us that they have evidence of a model that disproves TINA. This gives us hope for an alternative to neoliberalism, but Dan agrees that this particular one can’t be replicated here. So the Nordic example is no concrete alternative, only a clearing of the table. But then something funny happens – like a nightmare, the reader of Dan’s article escapes the cage of the neoliberal-nordic binary only to find the  very same cage on the other side of the door!

“Scandinavia offers, if nothing else, a compelling argument: that quality of life and levels of equality are strictly related and are best delivered through a committed social democratic state operating in a small nation.”

My initial article described Nordicism as a ghost, an empty resurrection of the British social democratic consensus that was (in nationalist myth) savagely murdered by the zombie-demon of Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps, in light of the above quote from Dan, I ought to revise the metaphor. Nordicism is no mere ghost, but a terrifying poltergeist, repeatedly flinging the Scottish centre-left against a brick wall. It is in its mythical status that it becomes real – regardless of whether or not it is adopted en masse, its example sets the parameters of what the social democrats deem possible, even desirable. This is clear from Dan’s aspiration for a “committed social democratic state operating in a small nation.” The phrase begs for deconstruction, but resists it at every turn. Every one of the conditions must be met for the Common Weal case to survive: it requires a kind of One Nation commitment from various interest groups, and this kind of solidarity can only be found in a small nation. And, we on the left are to assume, without social democracy (and therefore without commitment to Common Weal), There Is No Alternative!

But it is with the odd assertion that Nordic-style success will be “best delivered” that we come to the crux of the matter. Against what is “best” measured? The Common Weal is, quite explicitly, a movement against something – neoliberalism. The Nordic model, Dan argues, has emerged as some of the most useful evidence against the TINA neoliberalism of the past 30 years. But that 30 years has been one of the most devastating periods in the history of the political left. Therefore, “best” is measured against essentially nothing – under the onslaught of global capital, social democratic parties across the world have bowed to the cold logic that says they must efficiently and benevolently ‘manage’ the market and no more. The notional power of politics over economics is reversed, and the market becomes first provider of wellbeing, the state a backup for those who fall through the cracks. So, five small nations from one geographical area, with their own peculiar history and culture, become a desperate benchmark for the world. In those nations, the state operates in a way far removed from the punitive welfare reform, market deregulation and pervasive surveillance of its neighbours.

The idea that their success has been “delivered” by the state is one that understands the “quality of life and levels of equality” in Scandinavia within a neoliberal logic. The assumption is that they were handed down to a grateful public by the benevolent administrators of the market and its welfare-state constraints, and the Common Weal need only repeat this method in Scotland for us to enjoy similar prosperity and fairness. In this there is no place for, as I said in my original article, “the decades of class struggle that produced Sweden’s Folkshemmet as a compromise between workers and capital”. Nor, indeed, is there a place for labour movement victories like the NHS, the 8-hour day, the weekend, and so on.

And who is to deliver this social democracy? Here we come to Dan’s admirable devotion – and who could miss it? – to his own political party, the SNP. Dan’s argument is that an independent Scotland will have the means, at last, to “extend” its social democratic instincts to all areas of society. He quotes selectively from Cailean Gallagher’s article on the SNP’s careful evasion of class politics, picking a section that appears to reflect positively on the SNP’s social democratic credibility:

“It was not the SNP who displaced class from Scottish politics but the architects of devolution who allowed no issues of economic contracts to pass the Castle’s firmly closed door, behind which the Court sits in social democratic consensus. The SNP hold Court having played social democracy better than the other parties, in a system where class was already excluded.”

This is an impressive bit of misrepresentation, for it allows us to focus on how the SNP “played social democracy better than the other parties,” and places the real blame with Labour, the “architects of devolution.” Cailean’s argument – which is not so simple – is better summed up here:

“The SNP are bourgeois in the old sense that they are concerned with people as they operate freely outside work. They deal with the public as a body of burghers, not workers. Through this lens they come to believe that all a government can ever do for the working class is to implement measures to improve people’s ability to enter the labour market, through skilling-up individuals, informing people of jobs available, attracting business to Scotland and creating ‘shovel-ready’ projects. But they ignore one of the central features of class politics: that we can, through political action, change the conditions of the labour contract itself.”

Dan ignores the final sentence entirely. The SNP is not a party of class politics. At its best, it is a party of social democratic nationalist politics, and as such aims for a state in which workers and capital can happily coexist, the inherent tension between the two carefully mediated by a supposedly classless party acting in the national interest.

This is also the position that the Common Weal hopes to assume – a model to be offered to the ‘natural’ social democratic majority in Holyrood in the hope that it will be reproduced as policy. Indeed, it is easy for the Common Weal to attempt this, because they aren’t in power – and a lack of power is the first condition for this kind of social democratic nationalism. This is the essence of Cailean’s argument. The SNP are able to play the game of social democracy so well because they don’t have the powers that most closely relate to the ongoing struggle between workers and capital in Scotland. Any top-down attempt to improve working conditions, pay, hours and so on will come up against the unflinching obstacle of the ruling economic elite. The SNP – or any other governing party – will quickly realise that you can’t do top-down when you’re not at the top.

This is why, before any programmatic solution to our woes is offered, Scotland needs to develop the material basis to challenge capital, in the shape of a powerful labour movement. Cailean and Amy Westwell have argued that this is where the potential of independence lies, and it is here that the independence movement has to focus its attention.

Rory Scothorne