Scotland, Class and Nation
Too often, debates about class and Scottish nationhood are polarised. Either Scottish independence is a pan-class end-in-itself, a view that was associated with the old SNP centre and particularly traditionalists such as Winnie Ewing, or nationalism of any kind is a distraction from the task of fighting for social justice, a view common on the Labour left and amongst Yes voting but anti-nationalist leftists and liberals. This left-wing take on nationalism originates in World War 1, when the Socialist movement was split and overpowered as the working class of each country rallied to its own national banner, instead of going on strike to end the war as had been hoped.
But from Thomas Muir through Keir Hardie to the Scottish Socialist Party, there has always been a current on the Scottish left that supports nationalist aims. In the 1980s the ‘79 Group, a Socialist pressure group in the SNP whose members included Alex Salmond and Margo MacDonald, did sterling work convincing the SNP that furthering the aspirations of the Scottish people and especially the Scottish working class for a more progressive politics should be at the core of the case for independence.
The ‘79 Group was inspired by a split of voters along class line the 1979 referendum that mirrored that of the 2014 referendum: the working class voted Yes, a divided middle class voted No, and the upper class voted No as a block. The reasons for the split are simple, but rarely spelt out in plain language. The interests of Scotland’s wealthy are tightly bound to the edifice of the British state, to British institutions, to Britain’s empire (such as it is), to Britain’s patterns of land ownership. The social networks and private member’s clubs that offer access to power are centred on London.
The further down the social hierarchy you look, the weaker this interest is, and as a result it is Scotland’s poorest people who have the strongest attachment to Scotland as a nation. The working and middle classes are the most likely to speak Scots or broad Scots English, rather than “talking properly” like the upper-middle and upper class. Since the days of David Hume, Scots have taken elocution lessons in order to participate in the British imperial project.
Anglicisation is vital to climbing the class ladder in Scotland. We have surely all known someone with a “restaurant voice”. This worsens Scotland’s already sharp class divides. I was stunned, but sadly not surprised, when one businessman I canvassed told me that he feared the country being “Run by people from Coatbridge” – a deeply classist and probably anti-Catholic sentiment. Again and again, upper middle class Scots would tell us that they wanted the country to be run by “intelligent” or “educated” people.
No individual can or should be judged solely on their background, and indeed Scotland can be proud of its tradition of middle-class radicalism, but there remains a pattern: a large part of of the Scottish middle class fears the schemes. It fears paying for their dole, and sometimes it regards social renters as less than human. One teacher at my school in leafy Dunblane told me that “When you drive through Easterhouse, the people there, they’re like animals.” These views and disguised versions of these views are socially acceptable, though thankfully not universal, across the middle class professions.
Classism is hardly unique to Scotland, but it has a particular national character, where rejection of Scottish culture and language is often an elite trait. To Scotland’s reactionaries, the very Scottishness of the working class is one of the things that marks it as uneducated and unfit to rule, which only makes the recent upsurge all the more terrifying to them. Of late, Kenneth Roy is railing against “mobs” one week and complaining about the SNP “populism” of allowing anti-social behaviour on trains the next.
David Leask of the Herald described the BBC Bias demonstrations as “fascistic”, on account of all the flags being waved. One widely-shared article worried that the SNP is “Jacobin”, and that RIC’s People’s Vow risks a rerun of the National Covenant. Journalists on Twitter regularly speculate that Nicola Sturgeon’s biggest challenge is reigning in the 65,000 new SNP members, the 45ers, who are assumed to be impatient fundamentalists.
The fear that mass participation will inevitably end in events akin to the Terror of the French Revolution, perpetrated by the Jacobins, is the foundation stone of modern conservatism. It was most famously articulated by Edmund Burke: “some popular general … shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself … The moment in which that event shall happen, the person who commands the army is master of your whole republic.” In one sense Burke was right, in that Napoleon rose to become Emperor – but he was also wrong, in that the French Republic remains radically more democratic and decentralised than Britain to this day.
It is this Burkean impulse that explains why even as Scottish democracy engages people on a massive scale, some activists are panicking about the danger of one-party rule. It is the curious relationship between nation and class in Scotland that explains why waving a Saltire creeping fascism to one person and a clear expression of popular sovereignty to another.
An alternative to Burke’s view is offered by famed American community organiser Saul Alinsky. In opposition to both conservatives and leftists who “lay claim to the precious quality of impartiality, of cold objectivity” he argued that a true radical is someone who is a “partisan of the people”, who will “identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.”
Surely, this is the progressive position to take in the new Scotland. I have watched in amazement as the majority of the community campaign leaders I have met down the years, often working class mothers who became involved in politics through local anti-cuts fights, have flocked to first the Yes campaign and now the SNP. These are intelligent people and often experienced campaigners. On Facebook, every day, I see people of all backgrounds engaging in policy, economic and strategy debates, sharing analysis articles and petitions and encouraging each other to take action. The democracy movement is no-one’s fool.
The much-derided 45 are not “zoomers” as some journalists would have it, rather they understand something much supposedly informed comment misses – that nation and class are intertwined, that the nationalist struggle is about much more than flags, that the Scottish working class will always be held as inferior and excluded in the British system. They can see that their nation and their centre-left government are now locked in an existential fight with the British State.
Mass politics has become such a rarity that it is unnerving for the elite, who are used to politics as a polite gentleman’s club. In Scotland, mass politics waves the Saltire, because repression of Scottish identity and language is a central feature of class rule in Scotland. Mass politics is raucous, noisy, and angry. It plays by different rules to elite politics. These features allow it to reach beyond the ideological limits of neoliberalism. The return of mass politics warts and all should be welcomed by all progressives, as there is no real democracy without it.