2007 - 2022

If this crisis is a war, we have to start asking what we’re fighting for

What does nationalism look like?

Images of flags and people marching around them, collective weeping for the fallen, the seals and offices of state, the celebration of victories — lots of strapping young men marching, all strong and virile, to the same tune.

The stock standard is all very well, but if you want a definitive example of nationalism in action, simply lean out your tiny council flat window, or stand in your immense driveway, on a Thursday night.

The ritual of clapping for the NHS is nationalism incarnate — all classes, from paupers to princes, participate. It is exactly the kind of ‘mass ceremony’ that allows us to feel part of an ‘imagined community’ — linking us up for a momentary communion with millions we will never know, but with whom we share certain, often vague, bonds.

To be willed on by so many, simultaneously, even with a mere applause, is surely profound and must be seen as a positive: a ritual for remembering those people whose jobs we’d rather not do, but who we depend upon.

Nationalism has its uses, but its rituals can serve many functions. The Bourbon Kings of France continued to touch for scrofula into the nineteenth century: a practice that didn’t seem to improve their capacity for empathy with millions of diseased and malnourished subjects.

So the Thursday din is also the sound of people drowning out contradictions. Scottish politics has for years been animated by notions of the competing traditions and tendencies within Scottish and British nationalism. The challenge for the former is to come to terms with a new reality: a reality in which radical choices can no longer be deferred until after independence.

Compared to its sovereign counterpart, the Scottish Government has shown itself to be a more competent communicator, better at triangulation, continuity and control. The trade-off, perhaps inevitably, is a loss of the capacity to persuasively articulate what needs to change.


As on Thursday nights, nationalisms often provide messiness rather than clarity. There are children’s rainbows, there are neighbours convening on streets for the first time in decades, there is genuine solidarity and the expression of authentic commitment to the values that founded the NHS. But there is also plenty of self-aware middle-class guilt, awkward glances back up the driveway at all that amassed wealth, better guarded from the taxman than ever before. There is surely a fair bit of entirely oblivious noblesse oblige too.

The gratitude is plentiful but achingly apolitical. This is remarkable given that around half of the UK’s workforce did not have the option of working from home – cleaning offices and ailing bodies, stacking shelves and delivering parcels, or simply yielding to exploitative bosses and precarious contracts. Meanwhile society’s winners stay at home. Your lockdown experience is shaped above all by what you own.

The average nurse’s salary sits just under £25,000— many struggle to rent, let alone buy, near their place of work. We are a society that brands these people heroes, but that doesn’t see fit to make sure they have an affordable home.

This is a reminder that the current trajectory of post-crisis government policy — in Scotland and the UK — is not a revival of the spirit of 1945, but rather the appalling disappointment and waste of interwar austerity.

Playing our parts and doing our bit, it seems churlish, distasteful even, to reflect that wealth locked away in property is simply the other side of a crisis in which the poorest pay the most. Everything has changed, nothing has changed.

In moments of crisis you cast around for coherence with frantic desperation, building up existential stockpiles of the familiar. For British collective memory that means, as many have noted, the language of conflict, and war.

The metaphor is not simply a matter of convenient shorthand. War, the ultimate ‘state of exception’ is premised on the idea of a return to normality. As Walter Benjamin persuasively argued, “only war makes it possible to mobilise all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.”

If they hadn’t been chronically under-funded, would hospitals still be cast as frontlines or warzones? Would we be worshipping nurses like the unknown soldier, if their lives had not been placed on the line because we were incapable of sustaining a basic PPE supply chain?

Perhaps the great thing about heroes, as opposed to workers, is that they’re too self-sacrificing to ask for a pay rise. Perhaps if we cared about the chronic conditions of poverty still endemic in countries like our own (and alongside which COVID-19 seems to thrive): the language of redistribution would follow. We’d have to consider whether the amassing of private wealth, was really the great heroic and socially useful pursuit that we so breathlessly extol and incentivise.

The morality of collective struggle against an existential threat functions only in so far as it is temporary. Thus, evictions for rent arrears during the crisis are an abomination. With the return of normality, paying and collecting rent will once again be seen as a moral duty. We are, after all, still basically Calvinists: predestined to play the role of righteous creditor or fallen debtor.

But even modest forms of redistribution, as demonstrated by the vitriolic response of Scottish Government ministers to Andy Wightman’s amendments to assist tenants, must fall. A tax break for private providers of student housing blocks, however, sailed through — buildings which happen to symbolise, for many, a rigged Scottish economy. Not homes for heroes, but homes for the children of a global elite, whose luxury rents float immediately offshore the moment they’re paid.


But as such buildings stand empty, there is a reckoning coming. There are mass evictions on the horizon, combined with mass unemployment not seen since the start of the eighties. In that decade, the SNP wasted years in the political wilderness as it struggled to contain contradictory visions of socialism and conservatism.

Then, as now, the demands of property will come into direct conflict with the bodies of the people. But the SNP today is primarily a party of government, bound up in complex ways with the mechanisms and logics of the British state.

The architects of devolution, deploying pleasing notions of a new ‘deliberative’ politics, equipped Scotland’s new democracy with vast acres of long grass. The story of a consensus driven, post-class Scotland, chimed with the broader cusp-of-a-new-millennium rhetoric: wherein reform and modernisation could heal the more divisive past.

Two decades on, devolution confronts a test not simply unparalleled in its own brief life — a global crisis whose parallels take us to the edge of living memory. The practice of Scottish democracy, under both Labour/Lib-Dem and the SNP, has been to paper over the inadequacies of the devolution settlement in the face of systemic issues. This mode of governance involves buying time by creating numerous commissions of the great and the good, medicalising the symptoms of poverty, passing the buck to councils — rather than enacting risky, radical, legislation or engaging in hard political wrangling with London.

In the devolution era, any social ill was conceived of as something that the right sort of people, with the right sort of know-how, can solve like a puzzle if everyone in the nation is represented. Deferring to lobbyists and institutions can all too easily be cast as part of sensible ‘representation’.

In short, after 13 years in government, Scottish nationalism is less interested in articulating what it is for, than in promoting the idea that everything in Scotland works well, offering competence and continuity, while raising a suggestive eyebrow at the shit show down the road.

But this crisis affords no time for the Scottish Government to kick awkward policy choices down the road. The aim of not startling middle Scotland, who remain the de-facto shapers of Scottish politics, is no longer feasible. Even placing the magnitude of the current crisis to one side: a decade of these awkward manoeuvres has made the purpose of Scottish nationalism ever-more vague and opaque.

The horses have bolted, the stable door swings freely on its hinges. The great immovable fact of the devolution era has been the relative comfort and increasing wealth of middle Scotland. It would have survived populist political challenges in the form of Scottish Independence or Brexit, and still had enough reserves of economic and cultural capital to prop-up the declining economic prospects presented to its offspring. But the virus threatens to extinguish all certainties — those of property owning democracy are no exception.

Soon, middle Scotland will have to break, either towards a new social settlement with redistribution at its heart, or towards a final concession that Thatcherism won in Scotland as thoroughly as it did elsewhere. Maybe the recalcitrant and fussy Scots just took longer to admit this.


Finally, there is one side to the conflict metaphor that is worth dwelling on. Quite apart from the decisions taken at Holyrood, people are already organising as the hardship bites. Out of that effort will emerge one question: what are we fighting for?

Contrary to popular narratives, Churchill’s wartime government was extremely reluctant to talk of ‘War Aims’ — fearing that the debate might undermine national unity. Pressure from below reversed this.

As John Hartley has argued, the 45 settlement was in large part initiated by the immensely popular Picture Post’s ’Plan for Britain’ campaign. As early as 1941, over a year before the Beveridge Report was published, many of the principles of what would become the post-war settlement were laid out in the magazine, which drew in an immense correspondence on the plan from millions of readers.

The Picture Post’s editor Tom Hopkinson summed up the salience of the campaign:

“What is the good of the courage and adventurous spirit of our young people — if after the war we are going to set them to selling one another vacuum cleaners? What is the good of the spirit of self-sacrifice so easily aroused in all of us — if we live in a society that pays respect above all things to successful greed? … I say that we cannot possibly afford this waste.“

Hopkinson’s was a nationalism with a clear sense of purpose.

Comments (19)

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  1. Ian McCubbin says:

    Cannot argue with any of the assertions.
    But where is hope, friendship community.
    The Scot Gov suggestion of a basic income for all opens up a rebalancing of future.
    More social housing being built in Scotland does the same.
    We have to take the risk and go for Independence, there is no other choice now.
    UK is finished it is obviously an elite led for elite oligarth with Cummings the puppet master, sick is too easy a word.

  2. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

    You are absolutely right about the ‘break’, Christopher. We have the opportunity in 2021 to make such a break, but preparation for this should be underway as we speak.

    Scotland led the way in the articulation of ‘demo-cracy’ 700 years ago. Scotland led the world in philosophy and political economy via the Scottish Enlightenment. The world now ‘expects’ wee Scotland to lead by example, seeking a self-determination that will change its relationship with its larger neighbouring nation, England, once and for all.

    Let’s see an explicit, nay, ‘popular’ campaign, bigger than the SNP, but based on the higher moral standards that Scotland has come to expect of its leaders. Let’s see a call for a more thorough-going democracy than was all that was considered necessary in a technocratic age. We citizens are called upon to be more engaged, more demanding of power to be shared; more responsibility, with the corresponding resources, given to local government; more scope for accountability and transparency in policy development and the allocation of resources; more local wealth-building in communities.

    Our campaign should explicitly espouse the well-being agenda in the way that we have learned in our experience of this pandemic, where ‘care’ in all its aspects should take precedence over ‘the economy’: the false dichotomy that was austerity has been demonstrated; we understand now that governments can ‘print’ money when they so choose.

    And finally, let us not forget the bigger challenge that has brought about this Great Disruption, the virus that is the symptom of the breakdown of the balance between humanity and our environment: the climate emergency demands the urgent and fundamental pivot that must change our whole world-view, from exploitation and destruction of our living earth to respect and collaboration with the forces and co-habitees of our small, lonely, blue/green home.

  3. Roger GOUGH says:

    Clap for a system that has just had it’s £13.4 billion debt wiped out? Oh yeah.

    1. Chris Connolly says:

      The clapping, as I’m sure you know, is not for the system but for the workers inside it who are risking their lives daily. Not that the NHS “system” is anything to carp about; it’s not even the end of May yet and I have had 4 lots of hospital treatment, provided free and with kindness and professionalism, already this year. If I want to clap I’ll clap because the NHS’s doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners, receptionists, midwives, ambulance workers etc deserve our thanks. And I don’t do so out of middle class guilt because I’m no more middle class than the cleaners, nurses etc.

      I’m actually becoming tired of the middle class telling the working class that by clapping for the working class we are being middle class. Most people in Scotland have more important things to do with our time than search for fluff in our navels so we can then drone on about what we’ve found.

      Here’s a brief outline of what I, personally, want the Scottish government to do, just now, in rough order of importance. If anyone doesn’t agree, feel free to say so:

      1 Protect the people from the effects of Covid-19
      2 Protect the environment in order to try to prevent the Armageddon that’s only half a century down the road
      3 Provide a fair society with no-one left out
      4 Prepare for independence
      5 Everything else

      The fact that independence is at number 4 at this particular moment doesn’t mean it’s no longer important.

  4. Robbie says:

    Tells it like it is, one of the best reads in along time thanks, hope the powers that be are on to it.

  5. Josef Ó Luain says:

    The Scottish body-politic is itself in a somewhat “scrofulous” condition, evidenced by the fact that the Independence Movement will, next year, vote for a political party, which, in its actions not only belies its very founding principles but much more importantly the Movement’s core interests. For how much longer that blinding contradiction can be “communicated” and “triangulated” away is anybody’s guess. Particularly so, when many have been forced to acknowledge that a return to business-as-normal is neither possible nor desirable.

  6. Daniel Raphael says:

    All workers are essential, as work itself is essential. Scotland independent and free, must also be socialist–as this article does not say but clearly understands. Thus, it is essential that the overwhelming majority of society–those who work–should shape and rule society. If the alluded to “middle” is included in 99% ranks, well and good; if this is coded language for those who rely on inheritance, land, and rents to support their lifestyle, they will have to accept the democratic will of those who work. That is socialism.

    1. Chris Connolly says:

      True, Daniel. I’m a socialist too but we must also accept that the voters in an independent Scotland are likely, at some point in the future, to vote in a Conservative coalition. We can’t take it for granted that our Free Scotland will be forever socialist; the government will still be answerable and if folk think they are doing a bad job they will be cowped.

      As things are now we have a social-democratic alliance between the left of centre SNP and the much more radical Greens. The people out there seem very satisfied with this arrangement and my personal opinion is that continually criticising the government is more likely to benefit the right than the left. By “right” here I mean the Labour, Liberal and Tory parties but obviously Labour & Liberal voters won’t agree; I’m lumping them in there because they tend to be to the right of the government. They will be the ones enjoying the National, Herald and, aye, Bella, hoying bricks in the direction of Bute House.

      Independence supporters criticising the Government is like Celtic supporters complaining because they don’t win every single game. We are top of the league at the moment by a distance and I see nothing to be gained by continual shite-stirring which won’t help but can only hinder our progress towards the goal we all desire. I also believe that said shite-stirring is itself a predominantly middle class activity and that most working class are not going to be persuaded to support all-out redistribution of wealth just at the moment. After independence has been gained there’s no reason why a new Party should not shout the socialist message from the rooftops but for now it’s an unhelpful distraction that we can do without.

      1. Chris Connolly says:

        Sorry. In that last paragraph “working class” should read “working class people.”

      2. Josef Ó Luain says:

        As Clausewitz might have observed: Continually shooting the “messengers” must, at some point, result in the depletion of your ammunition.

        1. Chris Connolly says:

          Afternoon, Josef. I hadnae realised we were at war! I’m hoping it’s not going to come to that.

          “Vorsprung Dierch Technich” as they say in Germany!

    2. Paul McMillan says:

      Define ‘socialism’ please.
      If you can’t then without definition ‘socialism’ is meaningless.

  7. florian albert says:

    Christopher Silver asks what – if we assume we are at war in the present pandemic – we are fighting for. He reminds us that the radical Attlee government did not simply appear in 1945, it was the product of planning, not least by Keynes and Beveridge.

    This approach bring up the question, what was achieved in the period around the 2014 referendum, which can act as a guide for the future ? In the run up to the vote, there was a vast amount of discussion. Books were written, meetings held and a huge online contribution. Nearly all came from a left wing perspective.

    If that period of ferment failed to produce much which remains relevant in 2020, is there any realistic hope that the same people will – in the present crisis – achieve more ?

    1. Dear Florian, there’s a whole heap of ideas that have come from that period and come as you say – overwhelmingly from the left. The idea of a National Savings Bank, of a publicly owned Scottish Energy Company, the ideas discussed here in these pages in routes for changes to education economy and urban design – and indeed much of the programme of the Commonweal think tank would not have arisen if it had not been for that energy from that time.

      1. florian albert says:

        The Beveridge Report, the ‘gold standard’, sold 600,000 copies in wartime. Within a month 95% of voters had heard of it. There is nothing comparable in Scotland.
        (Interestingly, a month after the 2014 referendum, Gerry Hassan wrote that ‘for all the energy and engagement… not one detailed policy or proposal came out of the thousands of discussions, events and activities.’)

        How many people know of the ones mentioned above, such as a National Savings Bank ?

        With regard to Commonweal, which is often cited in such discussions; it produced a 131 page manifesto in 2014 and another 150 page manifesto in 2015. Neither made much of an impact with voters. Neither was remotely reader friendly.
        Last November, it produced a ‘Green New Deal’, again without making much of a splash.
        The left is Scotland has become a little too willing to see success where it simply is not there.

        Having made these criticisms, can I put on record that I appreciate what Mike Small has achieved in keeping BC going and allowing somebody like me, who tends to be among the unconvinced, to throw in my tuppence worth.

        1. Hi Florian

          in defence of Commonweal (and in the interests of transparency I used to be on the board, so I am biased):

          Commomweal have published 100 policy papers and two major books filled with visionary and detailed plans for the future. They produced the world’s one and only comprehensive, costed Green New Deal and detailed and radical proposals right across the policy spectrum. They got the SNP to pass:

          Scottish National Investment Bank
          Scottish National Infrastructure Company
          National Statistics Agency
          National Energy Company
          Scottish Energy Development Agency

          They have also had a substantial impact on policies in childcare, local democracy, housing, university governance, lobbying transparency and open government.

          1. florian albert says:

            The length of time it has taken to get a National Investment Bank up and running suggests that the SNP does not see it as very important. (George Kerevan has written critically about this on a number of occasions.)
            As for the other things mentioned, I do not view any as close to a ‘game changer’.

            Producing over a hundred policy statements is not, in itself a sign of success. I am fairly sure that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could point to the production of such documents. I read one of Common Weal’s first, on schools. It was a defence of the status quo, claiming that Scottish primary schools were among the best in the world.

  8. Josef Ó Luain says:

    A brilliant read. Thank you, Mr Silver.

  9. Craig P says:

    >>The architects of devolution equipped Scotland’s new democracy with vast acres of long grass.

    Oh, this leaves a mark. We are a nation of talkers, not doers.

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