With Trump, Farage and Le Pen on the rise, it’s worth revisiting the ideas of those who have experienced far-right insurgency before. Bertolt Brecht, who fled Hitler’s armies across Europe, wrote in 1937: “those who lead the country into the abyss/call ruling too difficult for ordinary men.” Brecht’s words came painfully to mind while reading Iain Macwhirter’s recent Sunday Herald column, where he argues that Scotland bucks the recent political trend because: “with enlightened political leadership, it is not inevitable that economic grievance should express itself as working-class revolt against social liberalism.” Macwhirter’s take downplays both our continuing drift towards Brecht’s abyss, and ordinary people’s role in avoiding it.
Is Scotland immune to Trumpism? The concerns of Trump-supporting media organisations like Breitbart and InfoWars are voiced by public figures and popular bloggers in Scotland – recent debates over feminism, LGBT+ issues, ‘political correctness’, ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ have caused considerable controversy online. A Scottish vlogger popular with the misogynistic ‘Men’s Rights’ movement recently spoke at a white supremacist conference in America, where activists chanted ‘Hail Trump!’. There has been a new rise in activity from the neo-Nazi Scottish Defence League, and UKIP’s Scottish MEP David Coburn is a constant reminder that the hard right gets elected here too. LGBT+ rights and feminism – along with causes like Black Lives Matter and solidarity with migrant, Muslim and Jewish communities – are key battlegrounds of an ongoing culture war in which Scotland is clearly entangled.
Macwhirter not only promotes a Scottish exceptionalism which risks complacency; he also uses this platform to warn that the Left’s fondness for “identity politics” may yet push many into the arms of the right. He writes that working-class Scots “have a healthy disrespect for narrow-minded political correctness,” and “the left needs to learn to speak in a language everyone can understand, be less censorious and avoid a discourse that suggests minority groups are morally superior.”
Put together Scotland’s working-class women, LGBT+ people and ethnic minorities, and you’ve got a majority of the working class. If there’s an “identity politics” that’s alien to the working class as a whole, it’s one obsessed with the identity of culturally conservative straight white men. Yet it is the latter who continue to define the predominant understanding of the Scottish working class – what could be more working class than the macho imagery of Clydeside shipbuilders?
But Clydeside also exemplifies a common experience – and suggests a common enemy – across all parts of the working class. As Macwhirter observes, the last forty years have seen people’s communities and livelihoods asset-stripped and broken up in the name of boosting private profit. Shared institutions of education and culture have been destroyed by another class which benefits from the resulting fragmentation. And nobody better represents the deep, existential connection between bigotry and wealth than Trump himself.
The President-elect’s bigotry is rightly opposed by Scottish political leaders. But his wealth posed no issue when Labour and the SNP were falling over themselves to help Trump build his golf course at Balmedie. It was people like Balmedie resident Michael Forbes with no institutional power of their own, not “enlightened leaders”, who resisted Trump and helped to create an enduring public antipathy towards the billionaire throughout Scotland.
Rather than celebrating leaders who once appeased Trump and now preach warnings from the Holyrood pulpit, it’s more crucial than ever to recognise that the everyday struggles of people outside of formal power structures – and often outside of liberal-democratic ideas of legitimacy – are the real foundation for social progress in Scotland.
From the hundreds who left Scotland for Spain to shoot fascists in the 1930s, to the Communist miners who found houses for their Chilean comrades fleeing a US-backed military coup in the 1970s, the Scottish labour movement has created an idea of Scots as natural internationalists. Grassroots organising to combat violence against women led to the establishment of rape crisis and women’s aid centres in Scotland. When Brian Soutar and the Daily Record campaigned to keep the homophobic Section 28 law, campaigns outwith the political establishment were crucial in shifting public attitudes. Such a list could go on for pages.
Such unparliamentary conduct still leads the fight against the far right in Scotland. Coalitions like ‘United Colours of Leith’ and the LGBT+ group ‘Glitter Against Fascism’ have humiliated neo-Nazis at recent counter-demonstrations, with their work documented on the invaluable blog ‘A Thousand Flowers’. A Glasgow chapter of Sisters Uncut, a London group fighting violence against women, was established this summer. Groups like the Migrants’ Solidarity Network and We Will Rise, and places like the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh and Glasgow’s Unity Centre are a few of many vital convening points for collective action.
If Scotland’s leaders appear enlightened today, it’s only because the way has been lit by generations of radicals. For a century, the most effective sections of the Scottish left have put their faith in grassroots struggle rather than elite benevolence. The latter will be found wanting when the SNP’s populist wave inevitably breaks, and the right-wing would like nothing better than for the values of tolerance and openness to be seen as part of an unpopular establishment. The left needs a powerful (even controversial) anti-establishment message of its own, channeling popular anger against the rich and their economic system in Scotland and beyond, instead of thanking our leaders for ensuring that scraps are fairly distributed from the table.