Although he used language with the lapidary ease of a don, Stephen Maxwell could also coin some very useful one-liners. Take this one on nationalism’s Janus-faced approach to history: “It puts the past to work for the future”. Or, as he predictably glosses, “It translated a passive sense of ‘organic community’ into an urgent populist nationalism which mobilised popular energies in readiness for the ordeal of industrialisation under local leadership.”
One could easily take that last sentence, replace “industrialisation” with “globalisation” and “environmental crisis”, and it would neatly encapsulate the SNP’s basic (and successful) political strategy for the last decade or so. In both of Stephen Maxwell’s posthumous books, the last thing one can detect in his head or heart is an “urgent populist nationalism”.
But what other ideology than an “urgent populist nationalism” (our current version could be “Team Scotland for a prosperous, fairer nation”) is going to “mobilise popular energies” enough for a Yes vote? And bring about an independence which represents local “readiness” for the global “ordeal” of the 21st century?
Stephen’s answer to both these questions was clear, as represented in the title of his latest posthumous book: a “left-wing nationalism”. Yet that’s a clear challenge to a Scottish left which still remains fastidious about any political appeal to nationality.
Tom Nairn – as credible a figure as could be imagined, in terms of left credentials – contributes an introduction to Maxwell’s new book, which restates as neatly as possible his global take on the effectiveness of nationalism. Old-style nationalism was a creation of 18th-to-20th century industrialisation, which involved a “competitive and militarised transformation” of societies. This forced nations to over-intensify their sense of difference – to the point of “ethnicity” – as a means of shoring up their collective resources, faced with the juggernaut of modernity.
But post-Cold-War, we are facing a ramifying globalisation – a matrix of trade and communication which welcomes cultural difference, as both market opportunity and engagement strategy. Scotland’s “belated” nationalism, suggests Nairn, “may be intertwined with the novel, the onset of a new age.” What Nairn says Maxwell taught him was that “nationality can’t be glossed over or occluded. It has to be incorporated into the contemporary, forward-looking mode of sociality.”
In short: as a national community on a planet of networks, perhaps we can relax about being motivated by patriotism. Nationality becomes high-level “content” for the communication channels – which determine our prosperity as much as our manufactures or services. And the more attractive and interesting the national content, the greater the prospects.
Do we on the Scottish left – building our post-Crash model of “Common Weal” socio-economics, more productive and more participatory – think we have a “contemporary, forward-looking mode of sociality”? I’m sure we do. So are we prepared both to forge it in the context of a new Scottish nation-state, and also to proclaim it as an element of our attractive modernity, in a world of soft power and cultural diplomacy?
Should left, indy-friendly progressives be as prepared for global success – being praised for our efforts, even emulated – as much as we feel we are defensively building an ark, to weather the storms of globalisation?
Beyond Social Democracy
We need to tap into the quiet, deep-running confidence about the innovative potential of Scottish independence that Stephen Maxwell displays throughout his work. This is nowhere more evident than where he talks about what lies “beyond” social democracy, which he defines in Left-Wing Nationalism as “political liberalism, the mixed economy, the welfare state, Keynesian economics and a belief in equality”.
Of course, it would be difficult to expect such a vision to remain consistent, over nearly four decades of socio-economic development. Maxwell’s 1976 (and pre-Thatcherite) essay “Beyond Social Democracy” is to some degree a fascinating museum piece.
What a lost world – where workers’ mutuals and cooperatives, backed by state banks, operating above the level of a guaranteed income, supported by a vigorous people’s media, is the desired alternative to the “looming corporatist state”, run by a compact of trade-unions/business/government!
Yet Maxwell’s antennae quiver with great sensitivity to coming changes. That neo-liberalism was taking hold in the dying days of the Labour regime is proven by Denis Healey’s belief, reported by Stephen in the late ‘70s, that “the present range of inequalities of income, and the even greater differences in standards of living, gives an inadequate incentive to the middle class”.
We may currently fret about our insufficient safeguards on loose finance and money supply, even after a mighty systemic crash. We might also advocate for a change in Scottish company regulation that, post-Grangemouth, gives workers a strong voice in company policy.
Yet from the ‘70s, Maxwell has been making the case for an “economic decentralisation” which would make Scottish society resilient in the face of both challenges. An economy with a larger number of enterprises with much greater workers’ control might not only be good for the soul, suggests Stephen, but also increase the worker’s sense of responsibility for overall economic performance. He is worth quoting at length:
The case for employee sovereignty has recently been advocated as part of a strategy to restore to the market the central role in the allocation of resources denied it by social democratic economic management. In this strategy, democratically organised units of production would compete for markets and investment in an economy in which the expansion of the money supply would be as large as – and no larger than – the growth in productive capacity warranted. Increases in money wages would not automatically be covered by inflationary increases in the money supply as the politically expedient short-term alternative to unemployment, and workers’ control and ownership would impose a new sense of economic responsibility on the labour force.
As an alternative to the looming corporate state this picture of employee and consumer sovereignty has its attractions. But it assumes that the centralised bargaining power of the trade unions would be broken up by the spread of dispersed centres of employee control and that elected government would withstand the inevitable electoral pressures to accommodate their economic policies to premature or excessive demands for sectional increases in living standards. Both these assumptions are problematic. Whatever new economic policy options decentralisation of industrial control might uncover, it should be pursued in an independent Scotland in the first instance with the aim of limiting the growth of state power.
There’s some fulsome irony here, in a column written a few years before 1979. The words “employee and consumer sovereignty” would have a different resonance after Thatcher – meaning an assault on unions, a “share-holding democracy”, the mall-ification and credit-indebtedness of Britain. It’s also not difficult to sense Stephen’s disdain for union barons as themselves a “sectional interest” (he elsewhere makes an acute distinction between “socialism” and “Labourism”).
Yet after the meltdown of our elites, of all kinds, since 2008, it feels independence could mean returning to Maxwell’s not-travelled, or perhaps blocked-off, fork in the policy road. That is, a civil empowerment, or “social republic”, which locates real power much further down the line than the “complacent” (another favourite word) traditions of Scottish governance.
His sense of the necessary balancing-act of a future-ready politics is extremely consistent through the years. In the Donaldson Lecture at the SNP’s 2007 party conference, he sets out a thumbnail of the policy ambitions of independence. “The development of a bespoke version of social democracy, balancing a strong national framework for economic development and social welfare, with civil empowerment and the decentralisation of the management of public services is Scotland’s best hope for the future.”
The second element of the balance is as important as the first. In 1976, we read Maxwell’s warning about two of the limitations of the social democracy of his time. It has “failed to seek new forms of democratic community to moderate the rivalries of competing sectional interests”. And it has allowed “a concept of politics as a manipulative exercise, undertaken to create and maintain a compliant consensus, to smother the radical ideal of politics as a central activity in a socially responsible arid vigorously self-critical culture.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that Maxwell, who proved too unbiddable to even make it past the SNP candidates’ selection panels for the Scottish parliament, instead immersed himself in policy and advocacy for Scotland’s voluntary sector – staying with those who freely acted for others with care and engagement, not waiting for permission from “the managers of public services”. Nor is it surprising that he expresses a very early admiration (1991) for the Scottish Green Party, exerting an “influence on Scottish debate out of all proportion to its numbers.”
Getting to Yes (via Stephen Maxwell)
I presume Stephen would have agreed with the essentially community-based strategy adopted by YesScotland to ensure a Yes vote. Engage clearly and regularly with the third of those who would consistently vote for independence under whatever economic or political weather. Invite and prepare them to become active evangelists for a Yes vote in their families, communities, playspaces and workplace. And if they can each only convert one other person, the independence majority will be solidly achieved.
Yet many questions are begged here. How many of that third could we reasonably expect to be evangelists and converters? How many of them, indeed, might regard politics in this way – as their “central activity in a socially responsible and vigorously self-critical culture”? As I have commented elsewhere the Yes campaign(s) should see themselves as involved in the revitalisation of citizenship itself. And as many recent polls have noted, the more that people engage with the arguments, the more likely they are to vote Yes.
Yet is this citizenship drive too little, too late, and headed in the right direction? Other than their creative and artistic fraction, and a decent handful of maverick entrepreneurs, we can just about give up on the Scottish middle-classes. (Hugh Pennington’s dreadful inferiorism about the science-research funding ambitions of an independent Scotland is only the latest proof of that.) So it would seem that working-class voters – or that 70% of Scots on or below median wage – hold the key to a Yes vote.
Maxwell is ambivalent about the working-class’s potential to drive Scotland to independence. On the one hand, he criticises Tom Nairn for rendering the working class “in the role of Cinderella waiting for the kiss of a bourgeois intellectual Prince Charming to arouse its populist nationalist energies…The possibility that the Scottish working class as a component of an advanced “historic nation” might have possessed a concept of political nationalism along with sentimental nationalism seems not to have been considered.”
Yet reviewing a biography of Keir Hardie, he agrees with Hardie’s belief that “socialism was more likely to be built by an economically confident working class than by a crushed and demoralised proletariat”. And Maxwell is very alive to what he calls the “most persistent theme” of a “psychology of defensiveness” in the Scottish working-class – deeply scarred by the convulsions of war and industry since the late 19th century, and which thus came to “identify the Labour Party as its natural vehicle”.
Yet Maxwell’s injunction from his 1981 essay “Left-wing Nationalism” – the one that got him thrown out of the SNP, along with Alex Salmond – rings hugely true today. A case for independence that “concentrates on the promise of economic growth, while ignoring the divisive issue of how the fruits of growth are to be distributed, will never win the trust of the largest block of Scottish voters, the urban working class.”
So, from diving into Stephen’s forty years of writing on independence, the component parts of a winning Yes coalition would seem to be obvious.
For the SNP, who have brought us to this pass by means of their performance in government, there should be a core commitment: a relentless focus on gaining “trust” among the urban working-class in Scotland. A trust that independence implies both the defence of universal public services, and also a clear vista of economic opportunities, with some kind of targets or datelines involved.
Combined together, this will send the message that a Yes vote is a constructive, not a destructive act – an important message to send to a Scottish working-class that (as Maxwell’s work shows) have had quite enough destruction inflicted upon them.
Those previously mentioned fractions of the business and managerial class who have shaken off the coils of Scottish bourgeois turpitude should harness themselves to this purpose – that is, the shoring-up of working-class confidence in the future prosperity of an independent Scotland.
The face they should turn towards a future Scottish state is one of friendliness and constructiveness – able to cope with its social-democratic possibilities for stronger regulation between capital and labour (Jim Mather’s endorsement of Common Weal is a clear precedent – and Common Weal, as my last column suggested, could do some useful bridge-building here). The business bourgeoisie must be partners with Scottish workers, and the Scottish government, and help foment that “revolution of rising expectations” that Maxwell had so long anticipated.
For all independence supporters, but particularly non-SNP-aligned ones, whether members of other political parties or none, the focus of activity should be on community advocacy – passionate, creative, sustained, persistent advocacy. We have to be friendly, indefatigable, loving pests to those around us. Our energy and enthusiasm for independence, if it taps into the same kind of steady confidence demonstrated by Maxwell, will be contagious and inspirational.
The fluency and imagination of the “artists and creatives” that have peeled off from the Scottish bourgeoisie (mixing prole-bohemians and bourgeois-bohemians together, no doubt) should be deployed in community halls and spaces the length and breadth of Scotland. Time is short – but we surely have enough tools in the inspirational tool-box to amplify and energise the solid mobilising work that has been going on among YesScotland, National Collective, RIC, Say So Scotland, and others.
Maxwell knew how radical his own ideas were – but, as usual, he was very well armed for his critics. We should not, he counselled, “underestimate the extent to which nationalism – by publicising old ideals and proclaiming new standards, by accelerating the rate of social and economic change and by uniting different sectional groups behind a common aim – can open up new political perspectives”.
Indeed we should not. This referendum is there to be won for independence – and for that steady burn of democratic excitement which it will bring to our lives. Stephen Maxwell did not live to see it. But we will, and soon.