Opinion

2007 - 2021

Die Stamp Patriots and the English Left

YES March & Rally for Scottish Independence.  Image by Ivon BartOne of the most disappointing things about the independence referendum was the response of large parts of the English left to the Yes campaign.

Although pockets of sympathy existed on the radical fringes of the English commentariat – Tariq Ali, George Monbiot and Anthony Barnett all came out for Yes – the broad consensus, encompassing Observer liberals, Fabian academics and Old Labour social democrats, was deeply hostile.

On the eve of the poll, the Guardian’s Martin Kettle warned against the “dark side” of Scottish nationalism, as though Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon were secret Balkan fascists. A few months before that, in a long, rambling, shallow essay for the Financial Times, Simon Schama bracketed the SNP in with UKIP and Vladimir Putin as “die-stamp patriots … for whom similarity is identity.”

These remarks stung – or at least niggled – because many of us in the Yes camp had expected progressive English opinion to support what we believed to be a fundamentally progressive project. If you had the chance to dissolve a state as constitutionally backward, as militaristic and as socially dysfunctional as the United Kingdom, why wouldn’t you take it?

But we underestimated the loyalty of liberal England both to the Labour Party, particularly in its Blairite form, and to the institutions of British parliamentary democracy. England’s soft-left actually likes the way modern Britain is run, and there’s very little those of us who don’t can do about it.

However, twelve months – and one Labour leadership contest – later, the battle lines are much more clearly drawn. We now know who stands where and why.

The response of progressive England to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn has been every bit as hostile, every bit as snobbishly condescending, as it was to the Yes campaign.

For English liberals, Corbyn and his backers are, like Scottish nationalists, fantasists, extremists, weirdos and cyber-bullies. Never mind that Corbyn was savvy enough to rout their preferred Blairite candidates, nor that independence is fast becoming the majority view among mainstream Scottish voters: if a movement or a party deviates too far from the liberal centre-ground, you crush it – and if you can’t crush it, you use your substantial media resources to ridicule and discredit it.

On a range of key issues, Corbyn and the SNP deviate from the liberal centre-ground.

They will vote together in the House of Commons against Britain going to war in Syria and against the renewal of Trident. They will vote together against further spending cuts and welfare reforms. They will champion more humane immigration and asylum policies. They will oppose Tory attacks on the unions.

The ideological overlap between Corbyn and the SNP provides strong grounds for parliamentary cooperation, but it offers something more than that, too: for the first time in my adult life, Britain has a mass, popular left.

Corbyn’s victory on Saturday wouldn’t have been possible without the tens of thousands of people who joined the Labour Party in order to vote for him, nor the 16,000 volunteers who campaigned on his behalf. These people are England’s Yes voters, motivated by many of the same concerns as Scotland’s Yes voters (which is why, as the prospect of a Corbyn victory grew over the summer, England got its very own Project Fear to combat the Corbyn surge).

Clearly, the sticking point between England’s Corbynista left and Scotland’s nationalist left is independence. Corbyn is a unionist, and that is not going to change any time soon. But his unionism is, at best, lukewarm: the Islington North MP a) recognises the right of the Scottish Parliament to determine Scotland’s constitutional future and b) did almost nothing, as far as I can tell, to help preserve the Union last year.

Moreover, I know that there are supporters of independence in and around Corbyn’s top team; activists, journalists and fellow-travellers who view the events of 2014 as a part of a wider European revolt against a failing economic model.

So it is odd that some nationalists – including, apparently, the First Minister – have chosen to dismiss Corbyn as too weak, and Labour under Corbyn as too divided, to drag English politics onto a more hopeful trajectory. During the referendum, unionists were similarly dismissive of the Yes campaign’s capacity to alter the terms of debate in Scotland. But it did, and nine months later the SNP destroyed the unionist parties at the general election.

Corbyn is not, of course, going repeat that achievement on a British scale in 2020. He may even lose (badly) to the Tories. But as every Yes activist counter-intuitively knows, the long-term foundations of victory can be found in the rubble of defeat.

The goal for the left over the next five years should be to apply the combined weight of Corbyn’s Labour Party and Sturgeon’s SNP to British public opinion, with the aim of breaking the centre’s stranglehold.

In order to do that, leftists on both sides of the border need to identify their enemies and recognise their allies.

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  1. arthur thomson says:

    The two movements can co-operate in taking on the Tories but they need to develop in parallel. The Labour Party has sold out Scotland before and given a chance they will do it again. The Yes movement must do everything possible to ensure that they never get that chance.

    Has Corbyn been elected because of his socialist ideology? I think not. I think people have turned to him to redress the lack of common decency and democracy that characterise British politics.

    But ideological socialism and democracy are not good bedfellows and that will rapidly become apparent. How long before I see the ideological socialists whipping the innocents into shape? How long before the good better together socialists who have got behind Corbyn turn on the Scottish independence movement?

    To the extent that Corbyn pursues a pro-democracy agenda he should have our support. To the extent that he pursues an ideological socialist agenda we should reject him. NEVER again should we allow the lives of generations of Scottish children to be sacrificed on the alter of a malevolent form of socialism that despises and seeks to deny the democratic right of the Scots to choose full autonomy.

    1. Frank says:

      Arthur, it might be useful if you could elaborate on the statement that ‘ideological socialism’ and democracy are not good bedfellows? I’m genuinely intrigued on what you mean by ‘ideological socialism’?

      1. Jams O'Donnell says:

        Whatever he means by it, it doesn’t sound very rational. Corbyn’s socialism (and he isn’t exactly HARD left) must also be encouraged. What must be highlighted and condemned is Kezia’s right-wing and frankly, pretty feeble, attempts to talk down Scotland.

        1. Frank says:

          Agreed. The real enemy facing democracy is not ideological socialism, but ideological neoliberalism.

        2. Mark Rowantree says:

          Exactly, this is the fundamental contradiction in Labours’ position. The U.K. Labour Party have to realise the extent of popular estrangement with the right wing Labour apparatchiks in Scotland.

  2. bringiton says:

    Politics in England is considerably right of that in Scotland and what is considered “extreme” left wing is much nearer the centre ground north of the border.
    Cirbyn has just been reiterating much of what we said during our referendum except,it appears,for our desire to stand on our own feet.
    The British Labour party,at it’s roots,is a unionist party who view Scotland as being expendable for the benefit of the greater good,which unfortunately for us means England.
    If the polls are correct then after next May,he will not have a British Labour party in Scotland and will have to accept that the SNP represent the majority progressive voice of us Scots.
    He is going to have to have serious discussions with the SNP on matters of mutual concern and a certain amount of horse trading will be done.

  3. muttley79 says:

    Firstly, Simon Schama and Martin Kettle are both British establishment guys. Nowhere in the article is there mention of British nationalism, I believe that had a lot to do with the treatment the Yes campaign received from the said establishment.

    In addition, Nicola Sturgeon has not dismissed Corbyn. If the FM gets too close to Corbyn politically, and he is either ousted internally by the British Labour Party, or Labour gets tanked in elections and Corbyn is forced to quit, then Sturgeon would be damaged as a result of being to closely associated with him. The FM is quite right to mention Labour’s internal unrest, as it makes it much more difficult for Corbyn to succeed. The interpretation that you have made about Sturgeon dismissing Corbyn as too weak is wrong in my opinion Jamie. It is just good politics.

    1. tickle says:

      Good politics for the SNP rather than for people.

      1. Mike Slessor says:

        When they have over 50% electoral support, aren’t the two synonymous?

        1. Paul Codd says:

          Now there’s a dangerous line of thinking. We elect MPs with one single vote, once every 5 years. We think we vote for a set of policies, embodied by a political party. In fact we just vote for a person, who can change parties. If they don’t change parties, the party may change it’s policies, or the individual may not support those policies. We get no say on how to react to new situations no matter how material they are to our thrivability. They can send us to war, tax us to hell, cut our entitlements to zero, apparently even nullify our human rights, all without asking so much as a “by your leave”. Furthermore our initial vote may have been strategic, or simply the lesser evil on offer.

          So I don’t put any faith in the current system to “represent” anybody, and I would argue, neither should you.

          1. Paul Codd says:

            Apparently there is no “edit” function in these comments. I should also add that we may not have even agreed with 100% of the policies we thought we were voting for in the first place. Or even like the chosen representative of the party machine. In fact they chosen representative may not agree 100% with all of the policies their party espouses.

            The game’s a bogie.

  4. Don bradley says:

    Apropos of nowt, google “the authoritarians.com” and download altermeyers treatise on the psychopathy of authoritarianism, free. I picked up on it a week ago, and its been firing off in my head since.
    It gives insight into how people will take positions often antithetical to the principles they espouse.
    Viz the English left to Scottish self determination.
    It was another ” shock doctrine” moment for me, when things fall into place.

  5. Monty says:

    SNP and Corbyn are miles apart. The SNP are a populist centralist party who self-identify themselves as progressive. Corbyn is the real deal an old style socialist. Sturgeon attitude to Corbyn is much the same as it would be to a similar figure in the SNP to marginalise and dismiss them. Certainly that is what happened to the closest equivalent in the SNP Jim Sillars. The SNPs only interest in Corbyn is does he make a 2nd referendum more or less likely. I suspect he is very aware of this. I suspect he is not so much against independence as he does not comprehend the zeal that many have for it.

    1. Robin Kinross says:

      Right that Corbyn is the real deal, if you want old-style socialism – and he certainly is close to Jim Sillars in style. But what the Corbyn group hasn’t grasped – which Jim Sillars did, already 30 years ago – is that the only way for a just social future in Scotland and in England is to break the old imperial UK state. The Labour left seems to think still that it can win power in the UK, with one last heave …

      Maybe, just maybe, the Labour left in England will at some point wake up and see that if the Union was broken, a lot of what it wants could follow. England could get a new anthem to sing and the English Left could find its voice.

      1. Lawrence Anderson Burley says:

        Very well put!
        (Bella: how about a ‘like’ or ‘recommend’ button ?!)

  6. Jim Bennett says:

    There are divergences of opinion though: take that old right wing dinosaur, Fergus Ewing, today. Ewing castigated Corbyn for calling for the nationalisation of the major energy companies.
    There is a old fashioned right wing in the SNP which will become more evident as Corbyn shifts Labour to the left. Labour in Scotland would probably (apart from the independence thing!) be happier with Ewing in their camp than Corbyn though.
    Interesting times indeed!

  7. dennis mclaughlin says:

    Labour in Scotland burnt their boats in support of the BT Gangsters against us here…
    I wish JC well,but we are on different journeys.

  8. al says:

    I think there’s a good chance that Corbyn sees the top priorities of ‘great britain’ not in a ‘constitutional question’ but as wresting control of the cruel and violent political infestation of peoples’ lives by a highly mobilised and organised ruling elite. Insofar as he does that he will have my support, but not my vote, I will support him vocally, and enthusiastically(bearing in mind he was carried to victory on a wave that could have put any suitably intelligent and morally outraged person at its front) but I will not vote for him. I will vote for Independence only, and socialism when it seems achievable, in that order( because I don’t expect westminster to change regardless of which party’s in charge, 5 yr terms aren’t that long, civil service is forever). Let’s hope the people of england have learned enough of our own struggle to sort the wheat from the chaff, media-wise, and they get behind the best vehicle they’ve had since the 80s, to make improvements to the lives of the impoverished, the number one priority.

  9. willie says:

    Corbyn may indeed have left leaning sentiments but he is a Unionist who stands foursquare against anymore devolution.

    He’s also against Europe and having recently appointed an unelected Lord into his shadow cabinet it’s not difficult to get a measure.

    But aside, the reality is that Corbyn and Labour will not get elected in England.

    England is a Tory country and Scotland has been ruled by many many Tory Governments because of the inbuilt right wing English bias.

    Remember the Feeble Fifty and you can’t help to realise how voting Labour delivers Tory rule.

    And so, recognising that the Feeble Fifty was powerless the question is how many Scots would want to vote for a thoroughly rotten party who even if they had a road to Damascus conversion , could not form a government in England.

    Independence is the way to ensure we get the government we want.

    1. Gordon Adam says:

      @Willie

      I’ve seen this functional argument against backing Corbyn elsewhere (Corbyn can’t win, we’re wasting our time) but it’s difficult to see why Labour winning the next election is less plausible than us winning the next independence referendum. An awful lot more has to happen to become independent: we need another referendum in the first place, which doesn’t seem likely in the next parliament. We then need to win it, which is going to be extremely difficult, though not impossible.

      My gut is that Sturgeon isn’t going to even think about calling for another referendum until the polling is showing sizeable majorities for Yes on a consistent basis as the risk is too great (you lose a second referendum and the movement is likely finished for good). So the SNP will likely have to maintain their dominant position for several years, maybe even a decade, to ensure a referendum can be held at the opportune moment. Then even if we do win it there’s no actual guarantee the new Scottish government would be a progressive one.

      Why is that an easier path to a progressive country than Corbyn winning one election? I fully expect people to continue to campaign for it, but if we’re talking purely about which has more chance of happening (independence or a Corbyn win) then it’s the latter by a mile. It’s at least worth backing in 2020 as I can’t see us having a referendum before then – if he fails then fine, independence becomes the only option again, but the idea we shouldn’t even try just seems like rampant defeatism to me.

  10. Brian Fleming says:

    I think the article would easier to read if you didn’t stint so much on the use of quote marks, such as ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal centre-ground’. The absence of the quotes suggests the terms are uncontrovesial. I, for one, am at a loss as to what’s liberal or centrist about the Blairite right.

  11. Brian Fleming says:

    ….would be easier…..

  12. Gordon Adam says:

    The problem here is that while independence has been justified in progressive terms (we can cut ourselves off from the British establishment and pursue a more progressive course) in principle the concept doesn’t actually have anything to do with progressive politics. The independence movement led by the SNP supported independence first, for its own sake, with the progressive agenda simply being adopted as the best means to win support for it. Now I fully believe people like Sturgeon are actually progressive, but we have to acknowledge that it’s the push for independence that started and continues to drive that movement, not a thirst for progressive politics.

    For those of us who came late to the party (i.e. the many progressive Scottish voters who didn’t care much about independence pre-referendum, but backed it in the vote itself for pragmatic reasons) the concept now sits somewhat awkwardly against that backdrop. It’s a sticking point in that it drives a wedge between people who should be natural allies – those of us on the progressive left in Scotland and the progressive left in England are arguing for precisely the same things (a fair society, ending inequality, pacifism) yet we’re expected to disagree over independence, which isn’t actually necessary to achieve the things we’re arguing for in the first place. We needed independence because there wasn’t a coherent UK-wide movement with a progressive agenda that could challenge for power at the UK level (i.e. because we didn’t have someone like Corbyn at the head of the Labour Party).

    And to clarify, I haven’t had a complete about turn concerning independence since last September. My views are still much the same, particularly given my doubts about how long Corbyn will last. But if Corbyn does manage to bring this movement together then independence is only an obstacle if you supported it for its own sake originally – if you simply supported it in the referendum for pragmatic reasons then it’s difficult to see why you should stand by that belief if it actively becomes an obstacle to the kind of united front for progressive politics that we want to achieve.

  13. Clive P L Young says:

    Personally, I found the stance of most of the English left on independence utterly loathsome. They were happy to repeat ad nauseam the rightwing propaganda of the very papers they now complain of as biased against them. They couldn’t see through the cynical manipulation either by the Scottish Blairites to crush any cross border solidarity. Accusations of SNP organised intimidation, cultism, crypto-nazism etc. all chimed uncomfortably well with longstanding racist perceptions of Scots as under-educated, easily-led and violent. Quite a lot to forgive and forget, there, IMO.

  14. arthur thomson says:

    I admit to being staggered that there are apparently intelligent people who would vote yes or no in a referendum on Scottish independence based on what seems likely to happen in the short term.

    There is not the remotest chance of a socialist revolution in Scotland whether it stays in the union or leaves it. If it leaves there is a real chance of it developing as a more equitable and caring country but it won’t conform to any notion of a socialist utopia. What independence offers is the opportunity for Scotland to be reformed as a modern state – freed from the deluded imperialist and predatory principles on which the British state is predicated. Of course, that has no real appeal for either the hard right or the hard left because both like to think of themselves as being destined to be actors on a much bigger stage. That’s why Brown, Darling, Robertson, Galloway etc and Corbyn are against Scottish independence.

    So my response to those superior socialists who prefer to team up with their fellow actors south of the border is pretty obvious. We who want to see Scotland become a reformed, independent state will pursue it without you and if necessary in opposition to you.

    I do wonder how many of you, given the opportunity, are destined to make the transformation from activist to member of the HOL that Darling and others have achieved. Being proper pragmatists like.

  15. Frank says:

    Arthur, you seem to confuse the Labour Party with socialism.

    Many socialists had genuine reasons for voting no. There a number of factors at play here: firstly a traditional left wing dislike for nationalism which goes back to the Second World War, second: the belief that independence would divide people on the grounds of nationality and not class, three: the belief that ‘independence’ is not possible in a world of globalisation, four – a preference for large unitary states as the best means for winning concessions from global capitalism, which leads onto my fifth point – the belief that Labour can be reclaimed for the left, and that the British state can be reformed.

    For information, I voted yes, and each of the points I outlined are problematic, but surely we can acknowledge the rational arguments of socialists who voted no, even if we disagree with them?

  16. Brian Powell says:

    There is a problem about the mutual recognition issue; the English left and Scot Labour Left don’t want mutual recognition.
    They want just Scottish Labour Left and everybody else to join that, as does ScotLabour right.

  17. arthur thomson says:

    Frank,

    You begin by referring to ‘a traditional left wing dislike for nationalism that goes back to the second world war’. And you conclude your comments by arguing that ‘surely we can acknowledge the rational arguments of socialists who voted no’.

    Equating the Scottish independence movement with the violent, imperialist nationalism of the combatant states in the second world war is a favourite of unionists. For my part, I don’t think it has been met with sufficient indignation by those who support yes. It is a breathtaking attack that seeks to exploit the truly tragic deaths of millions of people.

    There are several catagories of people who put forward this argument – imbeciles, the ignorant, the disingenuous, the brainwashed and the truly evil. I won’t waste my time writing a history of the second world war to prove my point.

    With regard to your final point that ‘the British state can be reformed’, please provide some evidence to back up that statement.

    I am genuinely sorry that I read nothing in your comment that persuades me to change my view that those on the left who oppose Scottish independence do so because they reckon that they have bigger fish to fry. Scotland is just not that important.

    Who does that remind me of? Oh yes – all the rest of the sharing, caring British unionists.

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