imageThe decline of the Labour Party, in Scotland and the UK, has deeper roots than we usually imagine, says Michael Gardiner. And their misreading of “nationalism” is key. 

For years now, every new failure in the Labour Party in Scotland has been taken like a “warning” – a demand for soul-searching, yielding access to values that have been betrayed.

In London, this has taken the Party to its current ’70s retro turn, with the implied promise of remembering back before a turn to ‘New’ Labour when it is held to have lost its way.

But there are reasons to see a much longer decline of Labour behind this. Not based in any strategic mistake of emphasis, or seduction by an apparently alien neoliberalism. But much more to do with the failure of the UK “constitution” the Party is bound to defend and extend.

By now there is a noticeable gap between how this decline is perceived in Scotland and the rest of the UK. In part this arises from the way in 2013-14 the Labour Party was forced to identify as a defender of the unwritten British “constitution” (or the economic constitution, or the 1688 constitution, or the ‘Newtonian’ constitution).

By which I mean the constitution that is based on apparently universal laws that stand beyond any political interference, and of which the Westminster parliament is seen as merely a neutral and benevolent manager.

Now historically, the Labour Party might be seen as the most progressive outcome of the 1688 constitution, the “Glorious” and “Bloodless” Revolution. This understood citizenship as ultimately an association of economic actors. To be specific (and as the old Whigs understood it), it demanded the creation of property, by adding labour to nature to make it useful.

Capital-L Labour has never seriously questioned this ultimately economic vision of sovereignty – only flipped it around, so that more of the population can be absorbed into it.

Some of the limits of this idea of citizenship are immediately obvious. Environmental issues, for one – the assumption that there will always be more nature to convert to property.

Overall, there is a massive irony here. One of the great achievements of welfare state Labour, facing the decline of physical Empire, was to turn the property-creating process inward, using the lessons of wartime morale to turn to the cultivation of ‘human nature’. This cultivation – ensuring our healthy readiness for performance in the labour market – provided an emotional base for what we now call neoliberalism.

This points to another kind of limit – the exhausting demand that social belonging endlessly adjusts itself to the natural laws of the economy. However eternal its description, this suspension of the people from the economy would always become increasingly prone to criticism in the later career of the British state.

In the constitutional trigger area of Scotland, there has long been a shorthand for this kind of criticism – the bogey term “nationalism”. The Labour Party have long used this term to denote the social democrats sitting slightly to their left. Behind this, however, there is a wider sense of threats to the economy by a determining people.


Descriptions of nationalism’s threat to destroy the natural realm of the economy go deep into British life, all the way from the response to the French Revolution to the Battle of Britain, and easily connote threats to our way of life (‘Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr. Salmond?’, began one 2014 video by the ‘Save the Union’ group).

“Nationalism”, the scare-word, means a scandalous attempt to limit the universal reach of the economy by suggesting the determining power of any given population, and it must be contrasted with Britain’s own demands for allegiance.

2014 saw a return to the old formula of “patriotism, not nationalism”, taken ultimately from George Orwell’s 1945 ‘Notes on Nationalism’, an essay notorious for contrasting the general good of British “patriotism” with the fascistic menace of Scottish and Irish “nationalism”.

So when David Cameron’s March ’14 “lovebombing” speech from the London Olympic stadium reminded referendum voters of the dangers to the British brand, this was reported by the Herald as a desire to “fight Scottish nationalism with British patriotism”.

The apparently “popular” reach of Labour is crucial to this process of depicting British nationalism as not really nationalism at all.
This is legitimate, from one point of view, since Britain is indeed beyond any people – it is an economics based on the avoidance of a people. In which case, though, we should not be surprised if Labour’s “popular” reach melts away when the real possibility of popular sovereignty appears.

To reinforce the welfare consensus, all that had to be done about constitutional issues (in Labour thinking) was to drop in this bogey term: nationalism. Around 2014 though the strains on this term became unsupportable.

In one editorial just before the ’14 referendum, the Guardian admitted that “the independence referendum campaign in Scotland has been a reassertion of some of the things that matter most to this newspaper and its readers” – then segued into a call for a perpetual extension of the current economic realism, since independence meant nationalism, and “Nationalism is not the answer”.

So nationalism is also somehow against the British conception of the people – even when it means pointing out that the people have been eclipsed.

In 2013 Ed Balls claimed that Scottish self-determination would mean “perils” for public services, while arguing his Party’s line against free healthcare and university fees. The idea that public services’ slipping out of their economic rationale is “perilous” to the people this would benefit shows a particularly British faith in the ultimate sovereignty of the economy, as an abstraction. An abstraction in which the people themselves are lost.

Balls was also channelling a Hayekian and Thatcherite vision in which destructive market activity is a guarantee of political stability, and political uncertainty – popular determination – becomes an unthinkable disaster. This was the basis, of course, of Project Fear.

These strange disavowals, made daily by the debates of IndyRef1, are the everyday stuff of British economic realism in a neoliberal age. But they are also the swansong of Labour, and their absurdities say more about the Party’s 2010s meltdown than do any strategic mistakes of emphasis.

In this situation accusations of “nationalism” sound hollow. For one thing, however carefully independence visions are linked to actual benefits, there will always be an Ed Balls or a Guardian editorial writer around – ready to claim that political stability/ economic destruction is preferable to the “nationalist” scandal of specifying any particular people able to determine its own future.

As centuries of commentators have stressed, the secret to the British constitution is that it is “above politics”. For another thing, “nationalism” has for a while now been at odds with that restoration of the 1688 constitution we experience as neoliberalism.

As for the dark associations of nationalism with racism, we can understand them in this sense: The British state knows “society” as a collection of absolutely weightless unembodied individuals defined by rational market choices, not as people with bodies who affect their surroundings. Any physicality that detracts from the isolated individual is itself dangerous.

One of the legacies of the world Labour has helped make is the way a language of individual equal opportunities can be used to generate ever greater social inequalities – and this is accepted by any defence of the economic constitution in our current era, defined by what I call a “subjective economy”.

The familiar Blairite machinery of quangos, quota-filling, and “personal development”, represents not a misstep to be retraced, as the Corbynites might hope. It is the Labour Party’s only possible post-industrial destiny.

If the ‘New’ of New Labour meant anything, it was that personal property-creation should now be fixed to the longer moral claims of the industrial labour movement. Personal value in such a society is still defined by profit-making or property-creating work. So when we decide that we cannot be defined entirely by labour, nor can we be defined by Labour.

Nor does the challenge to this have to be from the SNP, but to make sense it can only come from some place sceptical of the “eternal” constitution. And whatever the name given to any such organisation, it will always be called “nationalist”, since “nationalism” means any interruption of the economy.

There is now a whole hinterland of political action that is called “nationalist” in these terms to which the Labour Party has no access, and which it cannot force onto the ground of British psephology.

The British constitution is not merely apolitical, but stands as a protection from any interruption by the political – but once this kind of interruption has happened it can’t be unhappened by Labour or any other British party. Such interruptions happen in a language these parties can’t speak.

So the description of self-determination movements as a kind of “warning” – a demand that Labour return to its legitimate mission, or remember its roots – look more and more thin. Independence movements are not a temporary vessel for the conscience of the Labour Party. And its current decline cannot be reduced to these terms.

Michael Gardiner is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature Studies at the University of Warwick. He is author of From Trocchi to Trainspotting: Scottish Critical Theory Since 1960, and other works.