What’s Left of the Union?

banksy_2219565bWhat’s Left of the Union? Part 1

Last week the Labour Conference came and went with some carefully choreographed nationalist populism. It was made clear that, however the party may have felt, its leadership would leave neo-liberal Britain untouched if they came into power. Milliband also used a recovered cancer patient in a truly sickening demonstration of uninformed fear mongering.

This event hammered home to me the most beguiling question in Scottish politics today – why are the Labour Party faithful so reluctant to accept Scottish Egalitarianism? As a very intelligent tweeter pointed out to me recently: egalitarianism is a far more accurate description of the forces behind the Yes Campaign than nationalism. Those looking for evidence of this need simply have a look at the speeches at last month’s rally.

I do not direct this article to the relatively solid minority of right wing unionists, who have an obvious and fundamental conviction that the UK must remain intact.

I’m concerned instead with those who position themselves on the left in Scotland and maintain a pro-UK stance. I must confess this group fascinates me far more than their allies on the Scottish right. I am convinced that many within Labour are well aware that prospect of Milliband as Prime Minister and Lamont as First Minister is not the alternative vision for the union Scottish voters seek. Britain needs far more than a Reagan inspired cost of living campaign to create an economy that ‘works for all’. It needs massive structural change.

Though Lamont often describes support for Scottish self-determination as both evil disease and arcane hobby: I’m sure that she has many colleagues who have a more nuanced and less contradictory views. In the same vein I am confident that many Labour supporters do not subscribe to the something for nothing narrative, or indeed the party leadership’s privatising tendency.

We must therefore assume that many in Labour are genuinely committed to left wing politics and are far more radical than any of their leaders would like to admit. Many are also committed trade unionists. Yet whatever future plans they may harbour for a global dictatorship of the proletariat, in the present they need to stop standing the way of progress.

Insistently I am told that, in seeking a better society north of the border I am betraying the working classes of Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and every other great industrial city in England.

Leaving aside Labour’s consistent betrayal of its roots when in power, I don’t see why solidarity cannot function across borders: when it can and frequently does. By the same token if I thought for a moment that any of the cities, or regions of England could benefit their citizens through local democratic action of their own, I would not see this as a betrayal of Scotland. I would see it as an example.

In a perverse dance with a chimerical middle England, the working class majority has been scorned, derided and othered for short term political gain by Labour and Tory alike. The process of building social cohesion in England will be far more convoluted, to put it mildly, than it is in Scotland, precisely because they have yet to appreciate the particular solidarity that realised north of the border.

To stay in the union is to acknowledge the need for a race to the bottom in equality terms. Unlike nationalism, egalitarianism is not an arcane concept; for equality is what defines the shape of our daily lives, our hopes, our possibilities.

Bizarrely, by describing Scottish self-government in these terms, I provoke far more ire from those who support Westminster than the tartan clad fanatics of Labour’s imagination.

Class Warriors

All too often the unionist left reveal the bleak core of their defence of a state which, uniquely in Western Europe, has never experienced a full scale popular revolution. Take for example Neil Findlay and Tommy Kane in the Scottish Left Review’s Time to Choose.

The view that independence will provide the platform for socialist advance is based on naive hope rather than grounded in reality. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that the current economic and political reality within the UK is regressive, with little sign that things are going to fundamentally change soon. However, even with that knowledge we believe the debate has to be framed around what offers the best potential for change in the future.

This sounds like a remarkably defeatist approach from such firebrands of the left. The real ‘narrowness’ in Scottish politics today is this: that sections of the left insist on unionism, when as the above quote demonstrates the positive, progressive case for sticking with Westminster is conspicuous only by its absence. As it happens the best critique that I have read of a post-indyref Scotland comes from a Jacobin (who happens to support Yes) Rory Scothorne.

As Rory points out, Thatcherism remains the ghost at the feast of all conversations on Scotland’s future. However what is often omitted from this dialogue is that the Iron Lady’s real significance is twofold – her inability to understand Scotland and the fact that she relished the role of class warrior. This combination wrecked all vestiges of class-consciousness at a UK level. Hence the demise of socialism in England and the ongoing divorce of the trade union movement and the Labour Party.

Given the state of the UK today, expressions of Scottish egalitarianism: such as meaty projects like the Common Weal, are wished out of existence in the hope that a caricature of the SNP can suffice for opposition. In their delusion Labour think that they can replicate their anti-BNP/UKIP set piece battles in England. As so often happens in Scotland, the political reality has a peripheral role in the conversation.

What independence evidently offers is change. In seeking to borrow good practice from other governments in northern Europe, the point is not simply to copy what they’re doing, but to build a new consensus around the idea of equality. In a nation as conservative and welded to neo-liberalism as the UK radicalism consists of fairly mainstream tenets – the acceptance of a role for a state, the ideals of public good and equality – words that are absent from the Westminster discourse. The potential of Scotland to become the first society to escape from the cold grip of neo-liberalism should fill all of the Scottish left with a Maclean or Maxton like zeal. Scotland has its own left-wing traditions and these should have the opportunity to find fruition, through whatever constitutional means available. A bloody minded approach defined by a cognitive dissonance that pretends nation states don’t exist and that the SNP are fascists is nothing short of the betrayal of a Scotland desperately in need of change.

Whether unionist or not, the radical left needs to make their demands, not just their criticisms, vocal. If that is done with enough panache over the coming years, the results for Scotland could be transformative. Whatever political landscape in a new Scotland, we need to escape the highly conservative and centralised political structures of the UK if we want to build an alternative.

In fact, in the absence of the imminent global overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, this goal seems entirely laudable. In a world in which capitalism and democracy no longer go together we have to make workers understand their significance at a local level. Why Scottish Labour’s left would seek to exclude themselves from this process is baffling. Especially given their own government’s record on inequality.

We must remember where we are. We live in a state governed by a two party system in the pay of global high finance with a tax haven at the crucible of power. In British terms, the Danish model of renewable community ownership or the Norwegian oil fund would be derided instantly as far left policy. As Marx says we have to understand the circumstances in which we operate: in British politics this is a cross party right wing consensus. In Scotland we have precious opportunity to forge a new one.

In Britain there is no tradition of building up social cohesion and solidarity at a national level. Remember it took two world wars to get the UK on the road to socialism. What terrible catalyst would be required to make her follow that path again?

There are many on the left who clearly prefer the enormous injustice of the current status quo to a socialist Scotland. Like a religious cult they expect the day of judgement to be just around the corner: a situation in which their virtues will shine all the clearer.

I would argue that the real crime is not the creation of new states, this is an inevitable historical fact. The real crime is exploitation and its denial. The vision of a new Scotland reclaiming lost ideals of social cohesion and public good fills me with optimism. This isn’t about the denial of history – it’s about an understanding of solidarity.

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  1. muttley79 says:

    I think the main problem with the remaining left wing faction within Scottish Labour is that they have become blinded with hatred towards the SNP. Some former prominent SLAB activists and elected representatives from Scottish Labour, such as Dennis Canavan and John McAllion, support independence as a means to advance left wing ideals and principles. Other socialists were purged from SLAB during the 1980s and 1990s in the Militant disputes. These departures effectively left SLAB without many socialists in its ranks (certainly as elected representatives). The ones that remain, such as Neil Findlay, seem to be unable to make the psychological break with the British state, despite its abysmal social and political record in the last thirty years or so. The rise of UKIP also is significant, as it will push the Tories and Labour further and further to the right. I can see no way that the British state will become in any way progressive in the short and medium term. Independence would allow Scottish Labour to stop having to take orders from London, and return to their core values.

  2. Juteman says:

    Great article.
    Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any significant ‘Labour Left’ in Scotland.
    The ‘grassroots’ Labour Party in Scotland is simply a gathering of self servers and nepotism. Look at some Labour Party members, and you’ll find every family member holds a position in the Party. They have become the establishment, and will fight tooth and nail against change.
    Ordinary Labour voters are blind to what has happened.

  3. Dougie says:

    Good piece and all too true. A Scottish coalition government committed to the ideal of egalitarianism would be a very fine thing indeed. As a non-member of and non-voter for Labour, I would still welcome it’s reinvention – or reconstitution – in Scotland in the aftermath of a Yes.

    1. Sometimes I think that, but then I think of the likes of Sarwar and Murphy being able to use Scottish Labour to continue their poisonous brand of politics, and I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for all concerned if Labour in Scotland didn’t just die with the union.

      Mind you, the likes of those two would probably be more concerned with getting parachuted into safe seats south of the border than bothering with Scottish politics.

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