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I never met (or cannot remember meeting) the late Stephen Maxwell. But I wish I had met him, or could remember him. The internet serves up no audio or video that I can find of his presence.

But the voice that comes through Arguing for Independence, and now this collection of essays The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism, conveys one of the most remarkable, penetrating and eloquent political thinkers that I have encountered in nearly 30 years in reading Scottish (or any) letters. High praise is due to his son, Jamie Maxwell, for bringing his father’s texts to the heart of the debate around independence.

Reading Left-Wing Nationalism is to be transported dizzyingly backward and forwards in Scottish history. Not just to the moment of Union, or the complex centuries thereafter, but to the last 40 years of Scottish nationalist advance. What some of us may have believed to be our most advanced formulations of Scottish progress turn out to have been quietly anticipated by Mr Maxwell.

Over these next few blogs, I want to use the new book, and to some degree the previous book, as a tool to measure our progress towards a Yes vote in the referendum. And also, to speculate a little about events after a Yes vote. (I’ve no time, or inclination, to tarry with the consequences of a No vote here.)

breakThe Discreet Blah of the Scottish Bourgeoisie

One of Maxwell’s most important lines of critique is towards the Scottish middle class – and specifically, their failure to occupy the progressive leadership role that other bourgeoisie have historically adopted when their nations faced either crisis or opportunity. From his early review of Tom Nairn’s “The Break-up Of Britain”, he accepts the sense that the Scottish bourgeoisie have always been just off the mark of their historical moment.

We had a Reformation, a “Protestant Ethic”, without the native mercantile class that it could motivate and regulate – so Reformation became an “abstract, millennial dream…an escape from history”, rather than a seizing of it. We had a 19th century Romanticism, in Burns and Scott, but no nationalist political movement to match it, as elsewhere. So our Romanticism avoided radicalism, and curdled into Kailyardery and tartan sentimentalism.

We finally get effective political Nationalism in Scotland from the 1960s onwards. But rather than being the ideology which mobilises industrial development, and sweeps away outdated political forms, as it was in the late 19th and 20th centuries, mature Scottish nationalism faces industrial decline and branch-plantery. 

Bad historical luck? Maxwell (via Nairn) goes deeper in his critique than that. The Scottish bourgeoisie were given a privileged, conserved but “provincial” status (a favourite term of Stephen’s) by the Union deal. Professions in law, religion and education were formally protected by distinct administrative bodies. The access to imperial markets made Scots joint partners in the industrial revolution. Inside this long period, Maxwell does identify some Scottish middle class chutzpah.

He is particularly fond of a Scottish bourgeois-managerial heyday in the 1930s to 1950s, citing figures like Lord Reith (founder of the BBC), the social scientist Boyd Orr, Walter Elliot (coiner of the phrase “democratic intellect”) documentarist John Grierson and the Labour Scottish Secretary of State Tom Johnson. The last, via his great infrastructural works, left a “legacy to the Scots middle class – a belief in state-sponsored consensus and the founding of the corporatist system of Scots government”.

(History reverberates. What was the Salmond-led rally-round on Grangemouth, mediating between Ineos, the unions and the UK government to re-open the Grangemouth refinery, other than a classic Scottish corporatist exercise? Though minus the kind of controlling stake of the past – and behaving more like Philip Bobbit’s “market state”, seducing and sweetening footloose capital.)

Yet given all his deep understanding about the half-hearted and compromised character of the Scottish bourgeoisie, Maxwell still remains “astonished at the weakness of the middle class’s gut response to the dramatic change in Scotland’s potential in 1970s”.

Where were the networks of business people and administrators that could see the promise of Scotland’s oil to lift the country out of its historical doldrums? As he puts it, “In the moment of blossoming opportunity…why did they evince so little ambition for the public welfare of Scotland, or even for their own and their children’s career prospects in Scotland?” And as it turned out, 35% of AB voters voted Yes in the Assembly referendum, against 65% of DE voters.

His frustration is tangible. Throughout the pages of Left-Wing Nationalism, Maxwell is often brutally clear about the necessity of bourgeois leadership for Scottish independence. For example:

It is improbable that any distinctively working class formation will be able to act as a determining force in the affairs of a Western democracy for the foreseeable future. The live issues in the politics of the 21st century are likely to reflect middle class not working class concerns. Of course the issues themselves – the environment, the centralisation of power, cultural autonomy in an age of mass communications, relations between developing and developed states – affect working class people as much as middle class people. But the ideological formulations of these problems, the terms in which they are debated, the organisational forms they inspire, are likely to reflect middle class values and skill. If Scotland is to define and negotiate her own interest in the “post-industrial” world, the Scottish middle class will have to find a new will for public leadership.

If Maxwell’s assessment of our current century’s political agenda is right, is the Scottish middle class finding a “new will” for leading it? In terms of business, there would seem to be a growing field of green (or pink) shoots. In the ‘70s, only a few unconventional young Edinburgh financiers (no less) could raise a voice for devolution. Now, after nearly 15 years of the Scottish Parliament, we have at the very least a proper debate among the Scottish managerial bourgeoisie in Scotland, with figures like the engineering tycoon Jim McColl with his head over the parapet for indy, and organisations like Business For Scotland amassing support among small-to-medium enterprises.

Yet those who benefitted from the “historic compromise” of the Union – lawyers, teachers, preachers – are as muffled in their public response as ever. Maxwell devotes a lot of space over the years to the way that Labour’s deployment of post-war corporatism has long secured the loyalty of Scotland’s public-sector middle class. The election of two SNP governments, promising (and largely succeeding) to doughtily defend public-sector gains at Holyrood, would seem to demonstrate that loyalty is at least fluid.

Yet institutions like the STUC continue to “ca’ canny”, as does the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations in which Maxwell was such a guiding light. And the fate of the Scottish Cooperative Party’s ex-vice-chair Mary Lockhart, declaring her support for independence and losing her position, never mind the opprobrium suffered by a small group of enthusiasts daring to call themselves Labour For Independence, shows how enduringly tight the grip is between Westminsterism and Labourism in Scotland. And by implication, how that will further blunt middle class advocacy for independence.

Grimly, one notes the most recent IpsosMori poll for STV: in the least deprived areas of Scotland, it’s 22% for Yes, 69% for No; in the most deprived areas, it’s 42% Yes, 46% No. The Yes line is moving upwards for the poor – but is actually decreasing among the affluent. On the surface, it seems like, yet again, the Scottish middle classes are slowly pulling down the Venetian blinds on self-determination.

Posthumously, Maxwell’s scorn is easy to apply anew: “The Scottish working class has developed a keener sense of identity from its long record of struggle against harsh odds than the Scottish middle class has learned from its complacent enjoyment of provincial privilege… In these middle class deadlands of the imagination, history happens in other places”.

“A critical mass of concern and ambition”

Yet it may only be acts of the imagination, or the political imagination at least, that could reignite these deadlands. There does seem to be one fraction of the classic nation-progressing middle class that IS turning up for September 2014 – and that’s the artists, writers, intellectuals and now “creatives” (the catch-all for those involved directly, or tangentially, in the “creative industiries”).

Those whom one could generally define as “creative Scotland” (small-c) are, in the main, fluent and ardent supporters of a Yes vote. The mix of culture, theory, reportage and politics coursing through the pages of the Scottish blogosphere (here in Bella, but in places like National Collective, Newsnet Scotland, Better Nation and Wings Over Scotland too) would seem to bear out Maxwell’s topic list of contemporary politics.

And before anyone gets sniffy about “middle class”, Maxwell provides a very useful definition of the term: “middle class is used only to describe those members of society who make their living through utilising significant accumulated assets, whether in the form of education, training or financial capital”.

Subtract “financial capital” from that list, and you reasonably describe the power and status of “artists and creatives”. But their “significant accumulated assets” – what Bourdieu might once have called their “cultural capital” – are being deployed with a new effectiveness, in the age of social media and networks. The educated pamphleteers and publishing houses and salon organisers of the 18th and 19th century are the even-more-educated bloggers, tweeters, meet-up organisers and event-curators of the 21st.

Maxwell knew the effectiveness (or not) of these mediators well, having been a public writer, a PR supremo for the SNP and a policy advocate for the voluntary sector. Who else can be the imagineers of the “imagined community” of the nation? (Maxwell makes a tart point that the “lack of vitality” in the Scottish middle class is evidenced by their absence from contemporary Scottish literature – and the looming presence there of the working class. But looking at this present catallaxy of multi-media types, I would say there’s more than enough bourgeois vitality there, diffused through all the forms of “creative practice” currently available.)

I imagine that Stephen would have looked in a kindly way at the initiatives of a character like Robin McAlpine. At one time publicity officer of Universities Scotland and a film-maker, and now director of Jimmy Reid’s think tank The Reid Foundation, McAlpine is now relentlessly promoting (and finding much traction for) his Common Weal project.

This is a research initiative aiming to thoroughly “Nordicize” and “Germanise” debates about social, economic and institutional policy in Scotland. (Stephen, of course, was already there, producing SNP policy papers on the Nordic model in the ‘70s). But Common Weal is also a brand, aiming to concentrate a lot of post-Crash analysis and thinking (global as well as local) about a productive and flourishing society, and sear it into the quivering haunches of the independence debate.

Stephen would be pleased to see Common Weal’s central focus on raising real incomes for the majority of the population. But he would also enjoy its wide and growing periphery of policies, exploring how Scotland still has so many “inspiring organisational forms” to invent, in order to address its needs and aspirations.

Common Weal has already come under critique. A Labour-identifying-but-indy-supporting group of young activists (writing in the blog Mair Nor A Roch Wind) have accused it of displaying some of those classic corporatist consensus-building tendencies that Maxwell (and recently Gerry Hassan) both warn can stifle necessary debate in Scotland, before it properly starts.

Yet one of Maxwell’s most judicious pieces in Left-Wing Nationalism is his assessment of 1988’s Claim of Right for Scotland. He says the SNP were wrong not to join at the time: if they had, it would have given them the chance to engage with this mildly-awakening middle class. Common Weal feels like the same kind of conversion-job upon the Scottish steering classes – and looks like it might have a chance of adding up to Maxwell’s desired “critical mass of concern and ambition… a revolution in the aspirations of the Scottish middle class”. But let’s not bet the bank on it…

What is always attractive about Maxwell’s thinking is that a genuine radical appetite thrums under all of his elegant critiques. For him, the Claim of Right fell short of what he called a true “social republic” – where political rights and economic empowerment marched in step. And as for social democracy, Maxwell often invokes beyond that a “radical democracy” – a frontier of daily and communal self-government in Scottish life which could be one of the new polarities in a post-indy political culture.

Yet there is a “missing million” in Scotland, too ground-down and disillusioned to even turn up for a vote that could give them a much stronger stake in their own country. Is Maxwell’s “radical democracy” or “social republic” the thing to get that Yes vote out?

Or is a promise of “high-wage, high-skill” jobs a more concrete offer, and more likely to appeal to the 60% of Scotland only on median wage? Or to that 20% of Scots who seem to permanently endure living on or below the poverty line in Scotland, from Stephen’s days in the late ‘70s to the present?

I will explore the strengths and limitations of Stephen Maxwell’s desired “Scottish model” in the next blog.

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