A Revolution of Rising Expectations

1510490790_e48a9ccbfbAlthough 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.


Comments (11)

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  1. bellacaledonia says:

    Another good summary, Pat. There’s much worth commenting on, but here’s just the one:

    There are many on the pro-Indy left who may recoil at explicit mention of an alliance of the “business bourgeousie” and Scottish workers, yet if this is re-defined – as it should be, since the world is changing, capitalism has entered an age of neoliberalism, and political language has to adapt accordingly – as an alliance of SMEs ( including co-operatives, social enterprises, community businesses, community banks, mutuals, credit unions, etc) with Scottish workers and these find themselves pitted for survival against the destructive self-interest of large globalised finance, privatised monopolies, and multinational corporations then there is a natural alliance there that can help energise and transform Scotland from the bottom up.

    Looking forward to reading, and being challenged by, Stephen’s collection of essays over the Xmas period.


    1. pat kane says:

      Nicely done, Kevin. In my first column I tried to pick up on Stephen’s typically precise and functional definition of middle-class (my original citation in asterisks). As I have the text, it’s worth quoting the passage in full:

      “The Scottish middle class is not being treated here in some sub-Marxist way as a cohesive economic interest with a predetermined role in Scotland’s history. ***The term middle-class is used only to describe those members of society who make their living through utilising significant accumulated assets, whether in the form of education or training or financial capital***. The only assumptions made – and then as elements of a working hypothesis – are that members of these middle-class groups, such as doctors, teachers, businessmen, administrators and managers, have an interest in maximising the career opportunities available to themselves and to their children within their own community and that they recognise that their prospects depend crucially on the fortunes of the national community as a whole. No further assumption is made about a common middle-class interest.”

      Your “makers” alliance would sit easily within this definition. Common Weal, as I say throughout, is trying to build that progressive national hegemony, in a way that I think Stephen would like and admire.

  2. Nelson says:

    I used to live on Proletariat Street in an area called ‘Chemical Engineering’. That is what happens when people obsess about striving to create a mono-class working together for the advancement of the economy, etc, by means of committees of the people (and the rhetoric involved is beyond tedious to most people, btw).

  3. Liam Murray says:

    My issue with framing the independence debate in this way is that it’s very narrow and prescriptive. At the policy-level it might seem that our choices and options would be broad but at the macro-level it’s always defined in a pretty rigid and straightforward way – in independent Scotland would be firmly left-of-centre, rejecting even the New Labour brand of Social Democracy and looking primarily (only?) to a rather romanticised notion of Scandinavian politics.

    And for many people that’s enough. When I make this point to friends and family the most common response is “exactly / just what we want / what’s wrong with that” and there’s little you can do to counter that line of thought.

    But to any student of nationalist movements it’s a ridiculously narrow argument to make – particularly now, 5 years after a crash that’s led even the political right to question tenets of faith they’d held dear for many years. This progressive thrust of thought is everywhere are the moment (see Bill De Blasio in NY last night!) so the idea that these ideas are somehow suppressed or devoid of hope is just silly. I can’t see any credible argument that says the UK’s political centre of gravity is further to the right now than it was in 1983, quite the opposite in fact (Michael Foot wasn’t promising to freeze energy prices). Whatsmore the more typical arguments that accompany nationalist movements – cultural freedom, represenation etc. – all have zero weight in this debate.

    Regardless I don’t come to this with the intellectual background or strength of Pat (let alone Stephen) and the point here isn’t to thrash out the merits of those left/right arguments. I’m just pointing out that a nationalism aimed primarily at shifting the political centre of gravity – rather than addressing cultural or ethnic suppression, under representation etc. – is a thin, reedy nationalism and that’s perhaps why it’s struggling to breakthrough even when the majority of Scots would welcome the political realignment it might bring.


    1. Hi Liam – Not quite sure what you are advocating. Are you saying there is no political point to independence and that the independence argument should be based on ethnic lines, or that the independence argument should base itself on a more powerful and radical political critique?

      I would disagree with the former, and also have to disagree with you when you say that the political centre of gravity is not way to the right of what it was in 1983. Miliband promising to freeze energy prices for a few years is absolutely nothing compared to what the Labour Party stood for in 1983. Have a look at Neil Clarke’s 2008 Guardian article (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/jun/10/labour.margaretthatcher) on Labour’s 1983 manifesto:

      For example, it involved “bringing the North Sea oil industry into public ownership. The Tories’ programme of privatisation would be halted – and a new programme of public ownership initiated. In addition to re-nationalising the industries already sold off, “significant public stakes would be taken in electronics, pharmaceuticals, health equipment and building materials; and also in other important sectors, as required in the national interest”.

      I think what you may be referring to is the public mood – which I agree has swung strongly against the lie that there is no alternative to corporate provision (for profit) taking over public provision (for society) at a very cheap price and then ratchetting up the costs for the rest of us; but it is precisely the sharp contrast between where the public are and where the mainstream political parties are – the mainstream parties are all still way to the right of where any of them were in 1983 (even Thatcher retreated from trying to sell of Royal Mail) – that means that independence embodies such a strong hope that it can involve independence from such a nasty form of politics and economics.

      The need is to raise the Yes vote by advocating for real political change. Pat and Common weal are doing just that. Folk like me would want a far more radical offering, but then that’s up to us to do that and hopefully bring in those totally disillusioned that Russel Brand was speaking of and for – his one key mistake being he didn’t say Vote Green where you can because their policies, even south of the border include this:
      “We will protect the NHS and Post Office from privatisation and return our energy, water and rail networks to public ownership.”

      Remind you of anything?!

      1. Liam Murray says:

        Thanks Justin.

        Before I clarify the point I was trying to make it’s probably helpful to be more frank about my own politics (if that’s not already clear) – I sit considerably to the right of the presumed ‘centre of gravity’ in Scotland, even though I still consider this to be the progressive centre. I voted Labour most of my adult life and was a big supporter of the direction Tony Blair took the Labour party in. I too like Scandinavian social democracy but for me that means I’m happy with profit making schools (a la Sweden); I too prefer European to US style healthcare but for me that means considerably more private provision (see France, Germany etc.) The positions outlined by Neil Clark – significant public ownership across multiple sectors – terrify me and I don’t believe there’s any precedent for their success in a modern, democratic nation. The less said about Neil’s apologia for brutal dictators the better!

        But as before I don’t think the debate here is about those left/right issues. Clearly – to answer Bella’s question – Miliband isn’t to the left of Foot and the general centre of gravity in the UK is obviously further to the right than in 1983 (my implications otherwise were poorly conceived rhetorical quips!) My point was about the direction of travel – is it continued rightward drift or is it a mood to check that drift and rethink some of the more damaging neoliberal articles of faith? Clearly it’s the latter and I think that undermines the case for independence somewhat. Doesn’t destroy it entirely but it does have an impact.

        The reference to ethnicity wasn’t arguing for an ethnic nationalism – again Mr Clark would no doubt welcome it but god forbid! What I meant was Scottish Nationalism doesn’t exist as a response to any kind of cultural or ethnic suppression because thankfully it doesn’t need to; I don’t need to hide the fact that I’m Scottish, our last PM was Scottish to the core, nobody is denied a job because they’re Scottish or speak Gaelic. In fact you could argue that our cultural impact or ‘ethnic footprint’ globally is already hugely disproportionate to our size so we’re not in any meaningful sense a suppressed or abused nation (I once heard this characterised as the ‘Billy Connolly is Scottish’ argument). Consequently the entire ‘Yes’ campaign seems to be built on this one dull pedestrian premise – ‘vote yes and our politics will get a bit more left-wing’.

        I don’t object because I don’t share the politics (in many cases I do) but because it’s a p***-poor reason to upend our constitutional settlement, that’s all.

        Thanks for the chat though & opportunity to add my thoughts.


  4. bellacaledonia says:

    Liam I’m confused, are you arguing that Milband is to the left of Michael Foot?

    1. Liam Murray says:

      Clearly not Kevin but see my response to Justin for a fuller explanation!

      Ta, L

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        It’s Mike, thanks for the really thoughtful input. I’m working with people across the political spectrum on the Yes campaign, many coming from a similar place as you describe.

  5. florian albert says:

    Pat Kane writes approvingly of a Scottish economy ‘with a larger number of enterprises with much greater workers’ control’. He does not explain where these will come from. Since he writes later that ‘we can just about give up on’ the middle class, it is hardly from there. The chronic weakness of ‘enterprises’ in Scotland can be seen by visiting any post-industrial town. It is difficult to think of a single such town that has recovered fully from the 1980s. Some, such as Kilmarnock, appear to have got much worse recently.
    Yet, the whole of the left’s vision depends on somebody, somewhere creating the wealth which would allow
    it to create a better society. Until the Scottish left deals with the problem of wealth creation, it will remain on the political margins.
    ‘Artists and creatives’ descending on the working classes in their ‘playspaces’ seems unlikely to turn the referendum vote around. The new working class of call centre workers, care assistants, cleaners and checkout operators is largely detached from politics and likely to respond to such approaches with disdain.
    Paddy Power is giving odds of 8 – 1 on that the No vote prevails. That looks a good bet, even at those odds.

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