Owen Jones is a funny and perceptive writer. His book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class is a contemporary classic: “In modern Britain, the working class has become an object of fear and ridicule. From Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard to the demonization of Jade Goody, media and politicians alike dismiss as feckless, criminalized and ignorant a vast, underprivileged swathe of society whose members have become stereotyped by one, hate-filled word: chavs.”
His bitter-sweet analysis of Broken Britain hits the mark every time and he’s been lauded north and south of the border for his input. He’s required reading about social inequality and the culture that applauds it. He’s the diarist of austerity Britain.
But Jones commentary on the independence question gets it badly wrong staggering from straw man to pitfall in a litany of Classic Old Left Cliche (‘Owen Jones: What a fairer Scotland would look like’.)
In one swoop he analyses the Tory downfall in Scotland since the 1950s: “as the grip of religious sectarianism weakened, and de-industrialisation hammered entire communities, Toryism imploded.” And we hear: “The disappointments of the New Labour era only compounded a sense of alienation”, with little detail on what the crushing shifts and changes of that era might actually have been? Then we sidle away on a jaunty digression musing: “If northern England had a national identity, it too would undoubtedly have a thriving movement in support of independence.”
That’s quite a big ‘If’ and kind of a meaningless one. We’re debating democracy now, this year, not some future shenanigans invented by some last-minute Westminster committee with the fear of god in them.
Jones problem is he has no wider analysis than the political outlook he has re-inherited. It hangs about him like a folk-memory. He and others remain convinced that the avowedly / explicitly right Labour Party is going to miraculously metamorphise into something of their grandfathers dreams. It won’t. We’ve lived through this. It’s like expecting a dying dog to chase a stick. However high and far you throw the stick it’s not going to chase it any longer.
This political myopia doesn’t stop him asking: “The question is, what would a new Scotland look like? Despite its progressive rhetoric, the SNP would hand big business a mighty cheque in the form of cuts to corporation tax that would out-Osborne the current Tory Chancellor. That could well provoke a Dutch auction on corporation tax with the rump of Britain.” This shard of policy insight is used to obscure all others, including the legitimate progressive claims of the SNP (past and future), the narrative of political dogma spewing forth from Scottish Labour (of which not a word is, probably rightly, spoken), the geopolitical shifts inherent in independence (guaranteeing a non nuclear, Trident free Scotland), nor the agenda being staked out by the broader mainstream Yes campaign.
Of the Commonweal? Nothing.
Jones ends with a plaintive plea: “An alternative, of course, would be a loose federation, with the English regions granted substantial autonomy, too, breaking the hegemony of Westminster across the islands.” Indeed it would Owen, but it’s not on the ballot and we’ve waited 100 years for such to emerge. Like ‘Reform of the House of Lords’ it’s a sort of fable muttered by the political classes to help restless children to sleep.
Labour abandoned Britain to the spivs and The City long ago in a sea of spin, PFI and broken promises. If people in Scotland don’t believe that story any more it’s because of Cash for Honours, fictional WMD and endemic propaganda from the mouths of a decade of Labour spin men. It’s because we came in singing to D:ream and left with a cabinet that was held in contempt by many. One that became, in its dog days ‘sleazy, humiliated, despised’.
The plea Jones and his branch of the English Left makes: “Movements for a living wage, decent housing, publicly run and accountable services and workers’ rights would unite shopworkers in Glasgow with call centre workers in Manchester and Cardiff” would have some traction if there was the remotest hint of such ideas – or indeed any ideas – being floated by his party. Instead we are asked to sacrifice a basic notion of sovereignty for the fantasy of a Labour past that, on closer inspection itself lacks credibility.
Yes, there is something inescapably sad about this situation.