Tough on Labourism, Tough on the Causes of Labourism
I want to tell you what the next election is about for Labour…we’re Britain and we should never settle for second best…Britain should be doing a lot better…We’re Britain and we can do better than this…Britain can do better than this…A One Nation industrial policy serving every region of Britain…helping Britain succeed…optimistic about Britain and its future…I say Britain can do better than this… excerpts from Ed Miliband’s economy speech, 2014
England is unlikely to capitulate before a Marxism which cannot at least engage in a dialogue in the English idiom. E.P. Thompson
In their reply to our Nordic model article, Gibbs and Gallagher depict us as washed-out left nationalists (‘The Emperors’ New Clothes‘). Now, without wishing to offend this crucial constituency – some of our best friends are Volvo-driving, Borgen-watching rainbow alliance builders – we don’t recognise ourselves in their picture, and we can’t help wondering if this is a case of mistaken identity.
We would be astonished if anyone familiar with our work, e.g. in Yes: The Radical Case for Independence, confirmed their main allegation, that we ignore political struggle. Our book explores social antagonisms in painstaking, some may say tedious, detail, dedicating whole chapters to class forces and resistance.
Even our short Nordic article, the target of their ire, mentions neoliberal engineering, war industries, and riots. These are hardly the ingredients of consensus building. Are we soft on the SNP? Anyone familiar with our views on anti-Irish racism and Yes Scotland’s tactics must wonder if they’ve confused us with Stephen Noon. As for the perils of alliances with Scottish capitalism, we’re crashing bores on that subject, too. In these respects, we’re not so different from our critics.
But there’s a crucial difference. Unlike Gibbs and Gallagher, we take equal care to dissect Labour’s British nationalism, austerity economics, and draconian morality. And while we’ve explored conflict, while we’ve unmasked illusions in capitalist coalitions, we’re also careful to avoid another conformist temptation, the prevailing dogma of “there is no alternative”. Because let’s be in no doubt, Scotland’s Left is equally vulnerable to this ideology. As we will explain, Gibbs and Gallagher’s co-thinkers defend Thatcher’s thesis on Marxist grounds. The premises might be latent, but their argument needs this fatalism: without it, they could not reconcile Labour’s reactionary record with their equation Labour = proletarian struggle. Whether explicit or not, their argument always depends on “ideal type” dichotomies (SNP-citizen versus Labour-worker) which never coincide with historical reality.
If we copied Gibbs and Gallagher’s tactics, we would simplify their argument to this: proposing the abolition of private education is conservative, Lamont is egalitarian. But that’s not our intention. A constructive debate must engage with real stakes, not wild distortions. And despite everything, we enjoyed their intervention, and congratulate them, because we agree on one thing: consensus isn’t always a virtue. Although they are boxing phantoms, their polemic can help clarify the radical Yes movement’s perspectives on historical change. We share their unease about the standard of debate. Too often, the referendum is trivialised, or conducted with anti-intellectual overtones. Memes about Lamont gaffes and Salmond’s weight issues are many, disagreements about ideas are few. 2014 is exciting because it’s encouraged popular participation, but this is no substitute for rigorous arguments about historical (r)evolution. We hope this will start a longer, deeper, more constructive dialogue.
So let us outline our approach. We agree with Gibbs and Gallagher that the Nordic model has potential conservative implications, which we’ve never denied. We disagree with them on three significant levels, which we draw from their response and their website. Firstly, they believe that Labour a priori represents working class interests, and rule out any empirical disproof of this thesis. We believe Labour is managerialist and nationalist, with a few reforming hangovers. Secondly, they misrepresent the degree of contradictory, reformist ideas in the Yes movement. They believe, again on a priori grounds, that the Yes movement is reducible to a “nationalist wave.” This is at least partially false; but also, it relies on false comparisons with “real Labour”, and, by encouraging passivity, its implications are dangerous. Thirdly, they underestimate the importance of confronting neoliberalism and “capitalist realism”. In this context, we deny the conciliatory effect of pointing to Nordic successes, and their suggestion that Nordicism is Scotland’s dominant ideology. A fuller appreciation of Scottish ideas shows why even the softest Nordic fantasies are far more subversive than their Labour Left pessimism.
Where we agree
Gibbs and Gallagher admit we’re not reticent on the Nordic model’s problems. It’s worth noting that we spend a quarter of the disputed article criticising recent trends in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. None of this is disputed.
But we also agree with the deeper point, that Nordic ideals, unless subjected to critical scrutiny, promote conservative theories of social change. For instance, one view says Scandinavia succeeds because workers compromise their interests for mutual benefits. Some interpreters think this means leaving political struggle to trade union managers and “experts” lobbying their counterparts in parliament, the civil service, and business. We reject these technocratic theses because they disarm the grassroots struggle that always, in every historical society, precedes serious reform.
Some, it is true, envisage a Nordic technocracy, where Scotland will settle in for a glacial, epochal shift towards Scandinavia, allowing room for institutions to embed markets. If adopted, such views encourage complacency. As Gibbs and Gallagher observe, the “varieties of capitalism” literature, with its conception of “path dependence”, often promotes this conservative view of social evolution.
Nevertheless, we hope our critics accept that some reforms have a progressive role in history. In their article, they seem to slight examples like the Finnish educational model as mere “good things”, echoing Lamont’s “wee issues”. We insist that, for socialists, these policies are vital on two fronts. Firstly, they challenge the reproduction of educational elites in our society, from the 20 percent of Edinburgh in private schools to the “modernisers” imposing targets and testing. Secondly, if one wants to exceed social democracy, then one must fight for reforms that make working people capable of ruling society. Education is both the means to this end, and a barrier, insofar as it propagates prevailing ideas. For socialists, contesting schools policy level is not an afterthought.
We must assume, for sanity’s sake, that all progressives accept our logic. Sometimes the Left lives in terror of the obvious. In recent decades, this doctrine has nothing to do with the needs of working people, let alone the requirements of socialist power or critical insight. Instead, it derives from inter-personal competition on the Left, where fear of branding with the “reformist” stigma encourages stale defeatism and conformism. This habit, needless to say, debases our critical culture.
The New Labourism
Gibbs and Gallagher open their critique with a quote from Johann Lamont:
“We will not wear nationalist clothes – but we will rip from the nationalists the threadbare garments they dress in to appear to believe in equality.”
This left us bewildered. Quite apart from Lamont’s inelegant visual metaphor, we were puzzled by the authors’ intentions. Were they suggesting that our disavowal of nationalism rivalled the Labour leader’s hypocrisy? Or were they seriously setting-up Lamont, that unapologetic Iraq-invader and Trident-deployer, as an authority on internationalism? No, surely not.
But yes. In later exchanges with the authors, we discovered it was the latter. Indeed, in conversation, Gallagher argued, with only slight irony, that Lamont was a “radical egalitarian”. How should we respond to such a peculiar idea? On the one hand, the scientist in us welcomes a radical, counter-intuitive notion. On the other hand, such a controversial, consensus-denying view would require firm evidence and logical defence. If we were Labour members, attacking inequality and nationalism, we’d play safe and quote Tony Benn, Nye Bevan, or well, anyone, before we quoted Lamont.
Why opt for this eccentric position? From our understanding, it derives from abstract logic. For Gibbs and Gallagher, Labour’s working class identity is known a priori, by definition, and historical experience cannot alter its substance. Proletarian struggle is intrinsic to Lamont, just like a triangle has three sides and all chickens are birds. Having grasped Labour’s nature, facts are mere inconveniences. And knowing that Labour services the class struggle, it follows that nationalist themes (“British jobs for British workers” etc) in its rhetoric must be accidental. Logical categories dictate Labour will never flirt with nationalism, so any inconvenient evidence can be placed in parentheses. By definition, the SNP differ from Labour: one addresses the worker, who has no country, the other address the citizen, who does. Case closed.
Of course, no historical cases fit these abstract categories. Even at its radical height, Labour always addressed the citizen, not the worker. Even in this respect, their approach citizenship never went much beyond what Ralph Miliband called “tinkering empiricism”. This applies most of all to Attlee’s era, a period of unparalleled British national optimism, a conjuncture of imperial glory and welfare reforms. Indeed, many serious thinkers note that Old Labour’s reformism was far more conservative than continental social democrats. Crosland, who they disparage, was not the exception, but the rule in Old Labour, and often stood on its left-wing. Gregory Elliott observes:
The specificity of the British Labour Party up to the Thatcherite reaction was three fold. It was not, with the dubious exception of a fleeting phase in the 1930s, a socialist party in the pre-Second World War sense, presenting a programme of structural reforms for a gradual transition to socialism. It was not a consistent social democratic party in the post-war sense, offering a set of social reforms for the egalitarian transformation of capitalism. Nor was it a “bourgeois-democratic” party in the classical Marxist sense, supplying an agenda for the “unfinished business” of 1640 and 1832 as regards liquidation of the ancient regime. Even when, as in the 1960s, it purported to be economically modernizing, it was not a force for political modernization of the United Kingdom.
One might excuse their ignorance of Old Labour, but what about New Labour? How do Gibbs, Gallagher and their colleagues explain the Blair era? They formulate their position in these terms: “It goes without saying the British labour movement suffered a greater setback and the societal effects have been deeper and more negative than in Scandanavia [sic]”. This exemplifies their position. In essence, Labour hammered British workers in government because 1980s defeats created a sour mood. But since it remains a workers’ party, Labour governments will be socialist again as soon as workers recover their confidence. Labour, they urge, at any given time always expresses the severity of working class needs. Hence, if Blair privatised beyond Thatcher’s swivel-eyed dreams, it doesn’t prove that Labour is capitalist, only that the workers were docile and Alan Milburn mirrored their lethargy.
Gibbs and Gallagher disagree on whether independence will provide Labour cause to recover its left-wing, class struggle identity. But they must believe, since it follows from their logic, that its socialist tendencies exist in a state of suspended animation. Hence, they exaggerate the sentimental, pub-sing-song romanticism of figures like Lamont, while rationalising their authoritarian rhetoric as political accidents, off-the-cuff remarks in the heat of the moment. Under the right conditions, one must assume, such figures will cast aside their “something for nothing” rants, and recover their dormant Communism.
In our book, we present an alternative hypothesis. From this view, Labour is British nationalist to the same extent as the SNP is Scottish nationalist. The major difference is that Labour is happier to flirt with exclusivist, racial rhetoric, in particular on immigration. This isn’t an endorsement of the SNP; the differences are structural, not moral, since English politics brings immigration into direct electoral competition, unlike Scotland. But Labour’s response to the daily slanders of British tabloids has not been challenging myths, but endorsing them, from “British jobs for British workers” to “home-grown terrorists”. And that’s nothing new in Labour’s history.
We deny, also, Labour’s attachment to the working class and vice versa. If recent Scottish elections are anything to go by, professionals vote Labour, while working class people vote SNP. A similar proportion of Labour members (59%) and SNP members (61%) are in the top class bracket, and the average incomes of party members are indistinguishable. Moreover, issue-by-issue, Salmond stands to Lamont’s Left, the only exception being corporation tax (hence Labour unionists seize this issue with the glee of BNP members sighting three Muslims jeering a soldier’s funeral). And we need not recite the story of Blair, Brown, McConnell, et al’s record in office. In historical terms, Labour began as a liberal co-optation of the working class movement; today, it is a capitalist party without qualification. We are happy to defend these views at greater length.
Labour’s record in office, to our mind, cannot be read-off from the class consciousness of working people. This is a major category error. Instead, once we recognise that Labour’s substance is as a manager’s party, our analytical position is far stronger. Its recent permutations under Blair reflect the neoliberalisation of managers and professionals in the public and private sectors, their strident self-confidence and their absence of fear of working class people. This factor explains the vast difference that separates our intellectual universe from Crosland’s. The manager, in his period, gained authority from controlling capital, hence the self-belief that says, wholesale nationalisation is unnecessary, society will evolve towards socialism. “Aggressive individualism”, he maintained, “is giving way to suave and sophisticated sociability.” Neoliberalism, which allies (public and private) management with global capital against workers’ wages, transforms this equation. Crosland is thus irrelevant to both left and right today, and the comparison in relation to Sweden is meaningless. Gibbs, to our knowledge, is a fan of Alan Woods’ position on Venezuela. How would he reply to the position that Chavez looked like just another post-War Third World despot? He’d have to say, it is both true and vacuous. And Gibbs would be right.
All of this matters because, when Gibbs and Gallagher say “political struggle” and “social antagonism”, they mean Labour. If one disproves the abstract opposition between Labour-worker and SNP-citizen, the rest of their edifice falls. Of course, conclusive proof is difficult. Since these dichotomies are logical, not historical, categories, no evidence ever suffices to demonstrate Labour’s capitalist nature. Not even the Collins Review. So we leave it to others to decide whether their dichotomies are true or false. But in our view, the relation between Labour and workers in any sense, never mind class struggle, has always been arbitrary and contingent, not logical and necessary. It is possible for reformist instincts to find expression in other forms, one of which is SNP-style nationalism. A small glance at the synergy of unions and Quebecois nationalism makes this plain.
Gibbs and Gallagher maintain there is an unbridgeable intellectual chasm between class struggle (Labour) and the mutual benefit of citizens (nationalism). They admit few grounds for negotiation on this rigid opposition. Indeed, they often come close to praising Labour’s more reactionary moves as incendiary acts of proletarian warfare against mutualist tyranny. So, lest we think the Lamont quote was a one-off joke gone wrong, here’s some more from their website:
Labour’s vote against free school meals leaves a bad taste, [but] some people do see honour in Lamont’s priority of policies that help the poor over those that benefit the whole population.
If we wanted to vituperate, after their fashion, we would respond as follows: eh, mate, stigma! But let’s look at their views in more depth. What do they find laudable in Labour? Chiefly, it involves three principles:
- Labour thinkers “start from everyday questions of work and life”
- They reject consensus politics in favour of struggle
- They reject the view that society’s interest can be taken as a whole
Naturally, they must bludgeon reality with a spoon to make this fit the everyday world of Labour politics, at any historical juncture. And their worldview is desiccated by omissions. Their website contains a solitary reference to the word “imperialism”. And who is the imperialist? Why, the Nordic countries of course. Iraq gets a single mention. In what context? You guessed it: the difficulties of implementing a Nordic model. We are told that implementing any “off-the-shelf” blueprint risks post-Saddam-style chaos…In similar terms, they downplay all discussions of Trident. And elsewhere, their website insists, the Left should stop getting its knickers in a twist over the Thatcher-Blair reversion to Victorian individualism and imperial aggression, lest we leave a Nordic skidmark.
These omissions are peculiar, to say the least, for a website purportedly aiming to win Labour leftists to independence. Surely, these Perry Anderson fans don’t deny that the strongest explanation for Labourism’s decadence is the state’s imperial function?
These oddities don’t just reflect their aims, i.e. convincing lefties to reject Nordic nationalist illusions and join Labour. It’s also the peculiar “Marxism” that refuses to examine society’s overall structure; instead, they use philosophical abstraction to justify meat and potatoes moralism. This elevates Scottish Labour’s means-testing and draconian obsessions with knife crime and dangerous dogs into the stratosphere of proletarian struggle. They combine this with a fatalistic account of societal change at the top, which relegates any institutional factor (imperial competition, financial markets…) to mere footnotes to capitalism. Of course, in reality, their ideal type Labour values bear no relation to reality. At best, they idealise the practices of the British Communist Party at its anti-intellectual, dogmatic, and moralistic worst.
Gibbs and Gallagher assail us with offering “good things”, and criticise the “democratic egalitarianism” of Common Weal elsewhere on their website. Of course, it’s easy to mock this sixth form posturing. Silly Common Weal, with their democracy! But what’s our position? There are dangers in Common Weal-style holism, if depicted uncharitably and out of context. But even at this, the Common Weal is, according to the meanest possible interpretation, a reversion to the ethic of Old Labour managerialism, stuck somewhere between the Fabians, Wilson and Kinnock. Only those with blinkers about Labour history could fail to recognise this.
Their major criticism, that Common Weal assesses society’s needs as a whole, is true of every Labour leader, every Labour manifesto, at every period of history. They address the citizen, not the worker. Of course, one could look back into Labour’s annals, and find, alongside volumes of evidence for this position, some morsels of counter-evidence. But here, for instance, is the opening of Labour’s 1945 manifesto:
The gallant men and women in the Fighting Services, in the Merchant Navy, Home Guard and Civil Defence, in the factories and in the bombed areas – they deserve and must be assured a happier future than faced so many of them after the last war. Labour regards their welfare as a sacred trust. So far as Britain’s contribution is concerned, this war will have been won by its people, not by any one man or set of men, though strong and greatly valued leadership has been given to the high resolve of the people in the present struggle. And in this leadership the Labour Ministers have taken their full share of burdens and responsibilities.
The manifesto, moreover, mentions the word “struggle” only in relation to opposing Nazis. It mentions “class” once, conjoining “middle and working class”. It mentions socialism once, in these terms: “socialism cannot come overnight”. It refers to “the health of the nation”, to “an efficient and prosperous nation”, the “use of the economic assets of the nation for the public good”…Managerialism or class struggle, we ask?
The 1950 manifesto opens with this stirring declaration of proletarian autonomy: “The choice for the electors is between the Labour Party – the party of positive action, of constructive progress, the true party of the nation – and the Conservative Party – the party of outdated ideas, of unemployment, of privilege.”
Was this a temporary aberration of War? Labour’s 1929 manifesto is full of language that makes Common Weal look like Dave Spart. It speaks of class struggle in these terms: “wage-earners, shop keepers and lower middle classes”, which sounds more like the spiritual Volk than the Communist Manifesto. It concludes “on this Programme Labour asks for the support of men and women of good will of all classes…we pledge ourselves to give unsparingly the best we can of our energy, experience and knowledge, to the great of making Britain a happier and more contented land”.
What of the ultra-left aberrations in Labour history? Michael Foot’s infamous suicide note, interestingly, mentions “class” once, in relation to “class sizes”. The note contains a single reference to “struggle”: the Ghandi-ist struggle for global peace. In more radical terms, it calls for “harness[ing] the goodwill and co-operation of working people and to work together to create a better life for all”. At its most controversial, recalling Clause IV, it says, “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.” None of this, we may add, would look out of place in the Common Weal.
Gibbs and Gallagher’s beloved Labour Left, in all their publications, make similar references to planning, the national interest, alliances with small business, the common good, and the citizen. The discourse of class struggle only ever appears when they have to distinguish their views from the SNP. It’s a hypocritical convenience at best. But these difficulties can be swept away with reference to “defeats”, which, naturally, had no impact on the Common Weal.
A theme, throughout their website, is that nationalist spirit always burns out like rocket fuel. Only the bread and butter business of class antagonism can ground meaningful social change. That’s a nice sentiment, but as a historical generalisation, it’s false, at best one-sided. As we’ve shown, Labour’s best moments are a million times messier than this ideal type allows. They’ve always mingled citizenship discourse with class struggle, with the former towering over the latter. But even in countries of higher radicalism, outside Britain, national and proletarian themes have always coalesced in the most successful campaigns. The Communist Parties, for instance, only grew into mass bodies when they were able to articulate the needs of national struggle and citizenship, in response to fascism or imperialism. That’s not a value judgement: we’re not saying national content makes parties or policies better, and we may find these truths unpalatable. But let’s face reality.
Marxism has, for better or worse, designed a host of theories to articulate these problems. For instance, Gramsci’s concepts of contradictory consciousness, war of position, and hegemony might furnish a starting point. Their website makes a solitary reference to the great Italian:
Gramsci was interested in the extent of the role of radical groups within reformist movements, and was ultimately pessimistic. He believed that the traditional, long-standing parties won the reformist battles, and also the revolutionary war in the aftermath.
As an interpretation of his work’s subtleties, this is weak. Quite apart from the misleading dichotomy of reformists and revolutionaries (in which, we must presume, Labour is a Marxist party), it misses his crucial views on united fronts.
A more sinister implication of their position is that raising policy demands, any at all, in the referendum is bad and misleading, because “objective conditions” don’t exist. Again, responding to this suggestion is difficult, because Gibbs and Gallagher disagree about the aftermath of the referendum. But they do hold certain ideas in common. The first is the denial of any autonomy to politics. The second continuous theme is that “making promises” that can’t be fulfilled under capitalist conditions will lead to regression.
Confronting Capitalist Realism
Why do Gibbs and Gallagher, and their co-thinkers, rage against Nordicism, without making a single analytical point about the Anglo-American capitalist norm, their implicit point of comparison? Their only references to the latter are sneers and snarks at anyone daring to review its relevance. One defence says they confront the dominant ideology as they find it. Nordic fantasies, they might insist, are the real illusions that could co-opt the Left and Labour into the capitalist mainstream. Everyone dislikes Anglo-America anyway, so why bother with it?
The sly premise here, and it runs throughout their work, is as follows: Anglo-American capitalism has not an atom of ideological content. It constitutes capitalism as such, case closed. Thus, anyone who wishes to consider Westminster ideas as ideology, or imperialism and the arms trade as causal factors, or neoliberalism as a thought system and psychology, is soft on the capitalist system. It follows, from this, that Labour’s recent trajectory is a mere reflection of objective world conditions, and not problematical in its own terms. The same applies with British nationalism. Our conjecture, which they fail to consider, is that the latter and neoliberal ideology are connected and that Britain’s institutional peculiarities reflect and impact on this.
We maintain, moreover, that Scotland’s dominant ideology is British nationalist and US-UK neoliberal. And we insist that most of Labour, and parts of its left-wing, are fully incorporated into this consensus. Only six Labour MSPs voted against Iraq, their position on Trident is well-known, and as for privatisation, let’s not go there. Our deep hermeneutical analysts have no wish to wallow in these “obvious” problems. But how else are we to explain Scottish Labour’s historical pessimism, its intellectual dearth, its hopeless capitulation to the SNP? By the Left’s illusions in the Nordic model? Frankly, we wish socialists had enough influence to mess up Labour.
If one views Nordicism and Scottish nationalism as Scotland’s dominant ideologies, then of course, their conservative implications follow as tautologies. But that’s a shallow view of ideas in Scottish society. Scottish managerial elites, Labour Party-affiliates most of all, view these projections with the same disdain as Gibbs and Gallagher, with eye-rolling contempt for the bumpkins. The prevailing ideological consensus we’ve described, the world e.g. of Wendy Alexander, Brian Ashcroft and Diane Coyle’s New Wealth for Old Nations, is far more likely to cause complacency amongst Scotland’s broad left. Most of all, neoliberal habits, as opposed to illusions in Nordic policies, will almost certainly present the biggest barriers to “taking Labour back”. Yet, there’s not a word on this. Not a word.
So let’s set the record straight. In British society, inequality rose by 32 percent between 1960 and 2005. In Sweden, the worst Nordic offender for privatisation etc, it fell by 12 percent. That’s important for two reasons. First, it says trajectories are not fixed, that institutional change and social struggle can reverse “inevitable” courses, if only temporarily. In our current climate, that’s subversive. Denying its relevance as simply accidental is, in the current context, regressive. Second, it shows that high taxation, fair holiday time, etc, does not lead to inevitable societal collapse, “talent” does not drain away, the sky does not fall. Labour’s Ayn Rand hypothesis looks ropy in this context.
But examples from the Nordic countries are more broadly important, to tackling reactionary ideas about social policy. We’ve lived, for decades, with a cross-party consensus that glorifies winners and chastises “losers”. At best, we have “social inclusion”, but the latter always has an authoritarian tone: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. These disciplinarian policies found fertile soil in Scottish Labour, even among former leftists like Cathy Jamieson, and Holyrood in their era equalled English Labour’s authoritarianism, with the sole exception of asylum and immigration issues. Under McConnell, Holyrood embraced ASBOs without a solitary word of criticism.
Challenged over these issues, Labourists will respond, with managerial propriety, what’s your alternative? Do you want NEDs running riot, scroungers degrading the welfare system, truants flouting school discipline, dangerous dogs rendering our parks unsafe for children?
We have two options here. One is to insist that NEDs, scroungers, truants, and dangerous dogs must be understood within the world historical context of capitalism, and we must wait for conditions to improve so societal change can emancipate them and bring them into Labour. The other is to call out Labour’s demonization of “underclasses” and suggest alternatives, which work better and are often cheaper.
In this context, yes, the Finnish educational system, the Norwegian prison system, Copenhagen’s planning system, etc, become important reference points. To deny this is to vacate the territory of social policy to authoritarian neoliberals, allowing them to set the agenda on welfare, education, gender, criminal justice, and, well, everything of substance to public policy. We support Common Weal when they challenge this true Scottish ideological consensus. And yes, sometimes we say, for all his flaws, thank God there’s Robin McAlpine to challenge the aggressive conformity of today’s Labourism.
In Britain, the link between a father’s background and a son’s future is three times greater than in Sweden or Denmark. Half a father’s economic advantage is passed onto his offspring, while in Nordic countries it’s about 20 percent. Are we Colonel Blimps for pointing out that UK-style authoritarian social policy does not meet minimal objectives of fairness?
Uncritical attacks on Nordic policies are reactionary stock-in-trades, made clear from a recent Newsnight Scotland broadcast on childcare. Susan Deacon, that proletarian icon, endorsed the view that higher taxation would remove “parental choice” from the system, a view reminiscent of Ann Coulter. Gordon Brewer, the presenter, agreed, and refused to brook Sweden’s advantages.
That’s the mind-numbing consensus Gibbs and Gallagher should attack, if they wish to “retake Labour”. Without reforming our education system, criminal justice, and the economics of gender inequality, the preconditions for social change will not exist. In our real context, not the imaginary projection of society fifty years ago, references to Nordicism can be subversive and important. We’ve yet to hear a single measure from Gibbs et al to redress the inequalities we’ve spoken of; all we’ve heard is snarky pessimism and utopian fantasy.
In practice, it leads to terrifying complacency. Independence is a distinct possibility, and the result will be chaotic, as long-standing certainties collapse. Let’s be clear: in this scenario, the right-wing has a pre-prepared program. They know how to exploit societal shocks: look at the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Iraq, South Africa, and so on. Gibbs and Gallagher maintain any dabbling with a Common Weal-style framework (or any “blueprint”) will be disastrous for the working class. Our hypothesis is the opposite. Without some framework for unity, whether it’s Common Weal or something more radical, we vacate policy to organised neoliberals, with off-the-shelf free market proposals. Labour, habituated to “capitalist realism”, will accept it passively; under Lamont’s watch, they might even encourage it, harking on about hard-working families as they go. To confront these problems requires discipline, imagination, and unity. Lazy co-optation into the Common Weal could disarm the movement. But Gibbs and Gallagher’s ahistorical moralism has scarier implications, unless they table some real alternatives.
For our critics, a few favourable references to Nordic policies prove we’ve joined Common Weal in a dangerous fantasy. Our view, on the contrary, is that we’ve been modest in explaining Nordicism’s utilities, and our small suggestions are plausible and constructive to socialist projects. By contrast, their views are grounded in deep illusions about Labour’s historic purpose, and they elide the neoliberal conjuncture. Of course, to defend Scottish Labour’s working class identity when they’ve savaged their core voters presents a huge challenge, and we don’t envy them.
But failing to explore the link between British Labour, nationalism, and US imperialism has grave repercussions. We have Lamont, an unapologetic British nationalist who voted to invade Iraq, cited as an authority on international proletarian solidarity. Our intention is not to moralise. Anyone can lapse by giving intellectual form to their current alliances. But these oversights damage Labour’s cause, and undermine their own purpose (“retaking Our Party”). They’ve been sucked into the game of attacking McAlpine, in the hope of securing internal influence. We think this strategy is misguided: without internal critics, Labour’s neoliberal conformity is assured. Any suggestion that Labour’s vices result from Nordic dabbling, as opposed e.g. to uncritical alliance with the Pentagon and Wall Street, is absurd.
We hope these points are taken in a comradely spirit. Winning Labour’s Left away from imperialism is a vital historical task, and those further Left have been in no position to judge in recent decades. Our disagreement is with the residue of Labourism, that philosophy of empiricist tinkering that disguises itself as working class principle. We’ll end with follow-up questions. Is Labour British nationalist and managerialist, or internationalist and working class? Can Nordic policies play a role in reversing Labour’s regressive, authoritarian social policies? And what agenda will Gibbs and Gallagher put forward if we get independence?