Politics, Opinion, Nationalism, Scotland, Democracy, Scottish Nationalism, Alex Salmond, SNP, Unionism, Scottish Independence, Scottish National Party, 2014 Referendum, National Collective, Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Sillars, Devolution
Scotland voted No last week, but I suppose that it could have been worse. The 19th September was a terrible day for everybody in Scotland: the postman did not say “good morning” when I met him in the stairwell; the till girl in Starbucks gave me a stony look as I ordered my cappuccino; there was lots of grumpy jumping ahead at the Holy Corner traffic lights. By now, however, the country is back to normal. Men are jokily blaming their wives for voting No and holding everybody back. For me, the disappointment has predominantly resembled that which recurs whenever Scotland fucks up a football match of minor importance. It is a shock and then it is bitterly unfair and then it is only the sort of thing that you can expect and then it is all a bit of a laugh.
Perhaps “90 minute patriots,” as Jim Sillars had called them in 1992, are the best kind. As an eternal critic of nationalism, it is very satisfying for me to see the nation’s banality, with its sheer lack of purchase, so perfectly confirmed. Several days on, however, the relief is still stunning. Since the Edinburgh Agreement the Scottish nation has spread across the Left like a stain and it has sunk in deep. Last week, in a single act, it was lifted and the Left is now ostensibly as good as new. Or will the Yes campaign remain like that bloody footstep which always magically reappears after each scrubbing?
Unfortunately, Yes is currently dying as it had lived, with the same insolent contempt for democracy:
Do not go gracious into that good night…
Whine, whine against the dying of the light.
And so in a post-referendum interview Alex Salmond insinuated that the dopey voters had been “gulled” by the No side and that he was waiting for those over “the age of 55” to die off and remove a temporary obstacle to independence. These tributes to Scottish democracy were delivered by a man who had just handed Scotland over to his deputy like a gift. The lack of any other big-hitters in the whole of Scottish politics and the depleted state of the opposition so far makes Sturgeon’s victory just as much a “coronation” as Gordon Brown’s appointment in 2007. With their short-term leftish glamour and commitment to authoritarianism, they are not so unalike the SNP and New Labour.
If the Yes campaign had tried to insist that leaving a democracy of 64 million people would be “more democratic,” it is now confronted with the inconvenience that the 64 million are still here. The Union will have to be renegotiated, with any greater devolution for Holyrood being inevitably matched, as night follows day, by a reduction of Scottish power at Westminster. What better theatre for these issues to be debated democratically than a UK general election, in which all of the parties lay out their plans and the UK electorate decides which one to endorse. After all, only 8.4% of the UK’s population have contributed to the Scottish referendum and provided any mandate for political change, and so devolution without an election would be, in democratic terms, a nonstarter.
Salmond, however, cannot understand how pledges for further devolution “can be kept between David Cameron who says they must go in tandem with changes in England, and Ed Miliband who says they can’t go in tandem with changes in England.” Although Salmond apparently doesn’t realise it, this is a description of a UK general election battleground. But such a thing is not dreamt of in the Yes philosophy. For Yes activists, the UK is merely “the Establishment,” or the “Westminster elite” or, in National Collective’s words, “the British state, corporate and media power.” It is not a multiparty democracy which represents the interests of millions of voters.
Salmond’s incomprehension also expresses the same old brainless attitude to power which an independent Scotland would have shown towards the Bank of England, the EU, and NATO. Salmond gave an impression that these powers-that-be would simply have to do his bidding, because they are reasonable, apolitical authorities which obey the law. He and his successors are now petitioning Westminster for devolution from the same position of weakness that they would have begged for a currency union or privileged EU membership.
The independence campaign has been never ready to acknowledge that Yes voters would be abandoning millions of people who spoke the same language as them, worked for the same employers, and shared many of the same daily injustices. Henceforth, when Scottish politics is dragged back into the UK arena, and enmeshed in the conjoined question of “English votes,” the nationalists generally remain silent because they have spent years denying that this arena should even exist. One of the few voices which I have heard arguing for Scottish nationalism to be promoted at a UK level comes from Ian Blackford, the former SNP treasurer, who wants advocates of “Home Rule” to be elected to Westminster. The SNP veteran Jim Sillars, on the other hand, calls for the SNP to overrun Holyrood and make Scotland a one-party state, so that independence becomes an incontrovertible fact.
Ironically, in pursuing greater devolution the SNP are naturally allied with the right of the Tory party who want the same for England. But the SNP’s need to hold its tribe together and avoid alienating the Left renders this the love that dare not speak its name. We thus find the blogger James Kelly in the ludicrous position of demanding “a temporary pan-UK alliance of progressive parties that are seeking radical constitutional change – namely the SNP, the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Green Party, Plaid Cymru and perhaps Mebyon Kernow.” Altering the size of the state is in fact neither reactionary nor progressive; but the Tories are apparently excluded from Kelly’s bloc only because they are unfashionable.
In other words, devolution is consigned to the long grass, amongst the buzzing of constitutional cranks and lobbyists, because most Scottish nationalists are loath to get stuck into Union politics. They will not combine with the Tories and challenge Labour’s power at Westminster because, even though this might produce material change, there is too much existential trauma involved. The ways in which the Yes side are haunted by this trauma have culminated in Peter Arnott’s bizarre contribution to National Collective, in which English devolution is portrayed as a cynical Tory election ploy while Scottish devolution remains as good as gold. To admit that both are exactly the same would be to make the Scottish nationalists the same as the Tory nationalists, and so, in one garbled note, Arnott dismisses “devo max for England” as “the sloughing off of any responsibility for anyone on these islands who isn’t already rich.”
The constant refrain of last week, as exemplified in National Collective’s question of “how to… encapsulate and maintain the momentum of this progressive, diverse, grassroots movement,” is so forlorn because it recalls the death of the Occupy movement two years ago. By the bye, I have read NC’s victorious admission of defeat several times and it is a truly beautiful souvenir of the whole referendum campaign, from the Gordon Brown title “How We Won and How We Will Win” down to the complaint that “a Guardian journalist sent us sarcastic e-mails refusing to publish details of a list of 1,300 prominent artists and creatives [just imagine them!] who had signed a letter backing a Yes vote.” But from a lobbying organisation which has largely recycled Occupy’s tactics and clichés, albeit strategically transferred from a global protest movement to a nationalist resurgence, you have to wonder what is coming next. No doubt, to piss me off, NC will reinvent themselves as Trotskyites; they will publish bland articles which hope to action Trotsky’s dreams for the future into realisable change; whilst maintaining that, just as they were supposedly never nationalists, it’s not scary or revolutionary because they’re just posing.
Despite putting on a brave face with hashtag 45 and Yes rallies, the Yes side were never a coherent political movement to begin with. The left-wing activists may have been noisy, but when you subtract the various manifestations of the right, the Calvinists, the romantics, and the paternalistic middle class, they are no doubt as numerous as they have always been. If Westminster has any political competence, the detail of devolution will divide the Yes side even further. With oil on the wane and healthcare costs projected to rise sharply in Scotland, Scottish nationalism seems to have blown its one historical chance. The Left might do more good if it consigns Scottish nationalism to rest with the Mensheviks, the Stalinists, the Maoists, the Church of England, the temperance movement, Enoch Powell, Occupy, the 9/11 Truthers, those people who hunt for ley lines, and countless other pitiful, isolated individuals whose role is played out. It’s getting awfully full, that dustbin.