Risk and the Union
By Mike Small
As the institutional violence promised before the referendum now sets in, and as Labour acolytes get jumpy nearer the General Election, it’s necessary to respond to the clipped chippy wee voices on the (theoretical) left such as Seán Duffy (‘Mortal Ash’) ‘Heroes of a Deferred Nation’ and James Stafford (see his catchily titled ‘The ‘radical’ proponents of Scottish independence dramatically overstated its potential to transform Britain’s broken political economy‘)
Stafford is Commissioning Editor of ‘Renewal: a Journal of Social Democracy’ and a PhD candidate in History at the university of Cambridge, while Seán Duffy is studying for a Phd in Glasgow. Taken together they represent an incredible intellectual confusion that can be seen as a crisis of the English left.
The independence movement has to take stock, face serious questions about political and strategic failure (s) and create a new way forward. But few lessons if any will be learnt here.
Seán’s analysis is par for the course: set a radical critique of the independence movement and adjourn to the Labour Party as default lounge of historical choice; declare nationalism a corrupt and useless vehicle; finally, declare all of Scottish politics redundant and file ALL of the indy movement as being about the ‘Yesnp’. As he boldly declares: “If independence is a ‘movement’ then it’s only functioning and influential facet are the SNP and their business cohort.”
It’s a lazy analysis being spouted from the desert that is Labour’s now (and long ago) emptied reservoir of political thinking. What’s going on? Why are we seeing this empty / aggressive backlash against Scottish politics? Gone are the days when, however cheekily, unionist political commentators would try and steal some of the credit for the ‘democratic revival’. That late, blatant distortion has been abandoned.
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Two things are happening. The Labour new guard intelligentsia is feeling emboldened by the cute distance between the embarrassment of actually campaigning alongside the right and far right of Britain, and second they are scrabbling about to make some sense of their own politics as the clock ticks down to the days when they actually have to stand up in front of people and say something like: “See us, we believe in something and this is is what it is!” – with straight, not red faces. So, it’s a tricky time, because they must know, in their heart of hearts that few people will be buying that this time round. As Channel 4 News has it tonight: “Peter Kellner prediction now: Con 285 Lab 275 LibDem 30 SNP 30 UKIP 6”.
Commonweal, Lesley Riddoch, Bella Caledonia, National Collective, Jim Sillars – and, strangely, Better Together are bundled together to get it in the neck.
Seán Duffy writes: ‘All of us first’: the fallow minds of New Labour’s most intellectually vacant meeting rooms could never have come up with something so meaningless, yet phrases such as this have come to litter the popular discourse in Scottish politics since 18 September, 2014. ‘We are the 45’; ‘Better Together’ and perhaps strangest of all ‘One Scotland’ used in almost cultish equanimity by both sides, claiming the progressive agenda for their own.’
We are accused of ‘uncorrelated assumptions such as Scotland being friendlier to immigrants than its neighbours’ whilst Riddoch get’s a doing for incorrect use of ‘Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus’. There’s an intellectual snobbery at work in this writer who decries ‘pseudo-intellectuals and pop academics’ who have appeared. The implicit message is: How dare we?
So much for a democratic intellect.
But Duffy is struggling in the here and now. He suggests that to argue that Scottish society has a more open set of polices on immigration is somehow making some grand nationalist claim and that ‘This historical analysis stops somewhere around 1997 for it would not be advantageous to categorise the history of Irish migration to Scotland prior to this time.’
This is true. But it’s as true as David Torrance’s rather desperate repeat recall of 1950s Tory Scotland. We’re in 2015. We’re in post-Thatcher, post-Blair, post-devolution Britain.
So actually such a claim is not setting a very high bar when swathes of England’s political and media elite are backing UKIP, where Britain First is in the ascendancy or where the Home Office sets vans around the country urging people in Hounslow, Barking and Dagenham to ‘Go Home’. In fact driving National Front-style slogans around ethnically-diverse areas was celebrated and defended by the Tories. It’s not a bold claim to observe that Scotland hasn’t, thankfully, yet, degenerated to the style of Bernard Manning politics exhibited at Westminster.
Where have we all gone wrong? Language is the clue and the phrase that ‘Aside from the usual suspects confined to a strict political analysis, or historians hawking their old wares to new audiences there was little in the way of a rigorous dialectic to be found’ gives the game away. Yes, Glasgow’s finest intellectual urges ‘dialectic’ and no doubt has spent some time with furrowed brow deep in Marx. No bad thing but incompressible when merged with backing the People’s Party and their new leader, the extraordinary Jim Murphy.
In truly heroic terms Duffy explains that ‘There is nothing wrong with articulating hope of course’, for which we all may be mightily relieved, but, sadly, ‘when that hope is dressed in the clothes of intellectual legitimacy and hard scholarship there must be calls to reveal its true face.’ You guessed it, Seán’s the man for the job.
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Over at the LSE blog James Stafford offers a more restrained assault on the failings of the radical indy movement:
“Yes campaign’s claim to the soul of social democracy was tenuous at best. Rather than seeking to overcome the challenges that have led to social democratic retreat, it largely ignored them. In the first instance, it evaded or denied the constraining influence of international political economy on the progressive ambitions of individual states. The Yes campaign, suffused with images and metaphors of national self-confidence and determination, seemed to suggest at times that the ‘sovereign will’ of radical Scotland’s imagined community could conquer all. The concrete mechanisms through which Scotland might actually break free from austerity were conspicuous by their absence.”
Stafford points out that the economic policies of the Scottish National Party leadership were at odds with those of the Scottish Greens, the Radical Independence Campaign and Common Weal, but seems to have made a category error confusing these distinct organisations and bodies with a claim of right.
Sovereignty does not depend on solvency, it depends on democracy.
The fact that a broad and varied political movement with different economic analysis agreed on the need for massive constitutional change tell us something.
Setting aside the fact that some Scottish Green party members are about as radical as an RSPB coffee morning, or that the SNP is not, as defined, a perfect Blairite simulacrum he asserts wrongly: “The concrete mechanisms through which Scotland might actually break free from austerity were conspicuous by their absence.” Actually one of the breakthrough themes of the movement has been how we have seen ideas emerge and be formulated into credible policy platforms by the Commonweal think-tank and others. Efforts to caricature the movement as some form of headless, thoughtless nationalist flag-waving brood will fail because they are ridiculous.
Perhaps Stafford hasn’t read any of the books, papers, documents, essays, speeches that spiralled out of the country over the last five years? Presumably he hasn’t read any of this?
Cuddling up to Mr Duffy with Das Capital Stafford explains: “One of the key factors that historically distinguished revisionist social democracy from revolutionary socialism was its respect for the economic security of the peoples it sought to enlist and govern.” Now, enlisting Miliband, Stafford writes: “For all the Yes campaign’s accusations of Labour betrayal and decline, Labour’s aversion to economic risk is, therefore, a clear point of continuity between the Wilson-Callaghan and Blair-Brown eras, as well as with the deep history of the European social-democratic tradition that Salmond routinely claimed as his own.”
So when you see Ed Balls and George Osborne converge on austerity measures, when you visit your PFI hospital or when you think on Trident 2, remember, there is no alternative and there never will be. You have not witnessed thirty years of Labour betrayal, what you have witnessed is caution and responsible risk aversion. As Chilcott is buried and Miliband takes up the language of the far-right, taking on from where Brown left off with ‘British jobs for British workers’, remember this is the only course. There is no alternative.
As Duffy writes ‘the multiplication of food banks and increase in general deprivation since 2010’ just gave us an excuse for our bitter and narrow nationalist project, now thankfully averted.
In a line that rises to the surface, Stafford writes, apparently seriously: “Ordinary people, not capitalists or financiers, ultimately bear the costs of periods of economic crisis and instability, such as those engendered by currency crises.” As a people actually living through such a crisis right now – where social apartheid marks Britain – I can think of no more offensive a remark. Except perhaps his last: “The rejection of Scottish independence preserves the Union as a common political space for economic regulation and redistribution, while creating strong pressure for democratic renewal and institutional reform across the whole UK.”
Pooling and sharing presumably. Bring on 2015, bring on 2016, this disastrous union must be finished with.