2014 Referendum, Alex Salmond, Democracy, Edinburgh Agreement, Edinburgh Eye, Ewan Morrison, Flying Rodent, George Galloway, History, Imagined Communities, Ken MacLeod, Nationalism, New Labour, Opinion, Politics, Scottish Independence, Scottish National Party, Scottish Nationalism, SNP, Socialism
Is the independence referendum which is taking place today really so historically unique or significant?
One of the tasks which was assigned to me when I was an Edinburgh undergraduate, ten or so years ago, was to critique Benedict Anderson’s thesis on nationalism Imagined Communities (1983). I responded with a punchy essay and so it was inevitably recycled on Tychy in 2008. Once I had got into my polemical stride, I argued that the print-capitalism which had underpinned Anderson’s model of the nation was now in inexorable decline. Cyberspace, and the increased opportunities for immigration, had allowed modernity to move on from the nation.
I still believe this and I’m always very impatient with attempts to rescue nationalism from the early 1990s, where it has become stuck. So how can I reconcile my analysis with the apparent fact that nationalism is back, both intellectually rejuvenated and causing activists to flock out on to the streets? Why, I must be furious at the surprise endeavour, following the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, to impose the ideological banality of Latvia and Lithuania’s jingly nationalism on to the Enlightenment project of the United Kingdom. But I refuse to accept that Scottish nationalism, at least as it presently comports itself on the political stage, is genuinely authentic. In fact, it is not even the phantom of some earlier nationalism and if you listen carefully you can begin to make out the old, sad groans of the post-Thatcher Left. The Left which had lost.
This is the reason that our democracy is talking predominantly about nationalism in 2014, and not about driverless cars, or new nuclear power stations, or 3D printing, or industrialising stem cell therapy for the masses. The Left should be today campaigning to bring all of these technologies to ordinary people, but it is instead off in some senile 1980s daydream in which the Tories are still Thatcherites and socialists have some viable alternatives. Alas, ordinary people had largely abandoned the Labour party in Scotland after the second Iraq war and, with parasitical acuteness, the SNP was waiting to recruit them to its half-Left, soggy-right nationalistic enterprise. The defeated Left brought up the rear and they are now trying to convince themselves that they are in reality leading the nationalist movement. Moreover, they imply that they are exploiting Scottish nationalism for their own ends and that once we are living in a reinvented, left-orientated democracy, this nationalism can be shed. Henceforth, you often hear prominent nationalists such as Irvine Welsh and Alan Bissett making the extraordinary announcement that they are not actually nationalists.
There are all sorts of characters in the Scottish nationalist movement for all sorts of reasons, but I am particularly concerned with the Left, and activists such as Tommy Sheridan, Jim Sillars, Irvine Welsh, Colin Fox, and, the latest conscript, George Monbiot. They all regard Scottish nationalism as the means to a more just society. They are all grossly naïve.
It is not that history is repeating itself, but that it is repeating itself with a frequency which produces bewilderment and nausea. The Left rallied around Tony Blair in 1997, but following the privatisations and a pseudo-imperialist war, that didn’t work out too well for them. And so when Gordon Brown emerged as Blair’s successor in 2007, the Left rallied around him, ignoring that fact that he was the architect of Blair’s privatisation agenda. They rallied around Barack Obama in 2008, generally convinced that the anti-Bush consensus would lead to renewed progress. Again that didn’t work out so well for them, with more war and injustice. Of course, it would be unfair to bring up “Cleggmania” in 2010 – which climaxed with the leading leftist Guardian newspaper supporting the Liberal Democrats – because this was just a blip, in an otherwise sensible campaign of backing the ineffective, paternalistic liberal element which always ends up in charge of the Left. Happily, this policy was dramatically suspended with the Occupy Movement in 2011, when the Left literally went on a camping holiday. And returned.
Now exactly the same cluelessness has been pumped into Scottish nationalism, along with many of the same activists and a noisy idealism which counterbalances the lack of energy from amongst ordinary people. As with Blair, Brown, Obama, and Clegg, the Left have adopted Alex Salmond as their little helper, ignoring his illiberal and authoritarian track-record and instead seeing only a blank figure who they can recruit to fight their old battles for them. They are using him, you see, and not the other way around. Indeed, activists on the Left generally describe Salmond as being a useful inconvenience, who has the necessary popular appeal to attract the masses but who can be dispensed with after power has been seized. One Yes poster I saw this week put it this way: are you not going to buy a dream home because you will have to redecorate it afterwards? Unlike in 1997, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 everything will go like “a dream” this time.
But I would like to briefly cite some alternative voices from the Left to illustrate why I will be voting No today. I wish I could believe that these arguments will win the referendum with a resounding majority, or even win outright, but I am convinced that they are still ploughing ahead in the moral fisticuffs.
Let’s start with George Galloway, who perhaps expresses most vigorously the classic Left refusal to allow identity politics to detract from the class struggle:
I prefer to remember a rather more recent battle when this small island of English-speaking people stood alone and if we had not stood but capitulated like others had done before us we would be having this meeting in German if we were going to have it at all. And not one person asked in that summer and autumn of 1940 and into 1941 if the pilots who were spinning above us defending us from invasion from the barbaric horde were from Suffolk or Sutherland. We were people together on a small piece of rock with 300 years of common history. That’s what they want to break up and all the rest is balderdash. That’s the truth of it.
One of the best cases for No that I have read over the last year comes from the science-fiction writer Ken MacLeod, who basically sacks the SNP from the Left:
… the Yes campaign has to do two things. With its right hand it has to persuade better-paid workers, professionals and business people that not much will change: hence into the EU and NATO, keep the pound and the Bank of England as lender of last resort, keep the monarchy, and keep a high level of social provision without having to pay high taxes. At the same time, with its left hand as it were, it has to persuade lower-paid workers and poor people – those most likely to support independence, and least likely to vote – that much will change for the better. It has to persuade localists to vote for Brussels, pacifists to vote for NATO, greens to vote for oil dependency, socialists to vote for the City of London and republicans to vote for the Queen. Needless to say, the official Yes campaign can’t do both at once, and doesn’t even try. It keeps its left hand behind its back.
The same argument was recently fired up again by the novelist Ewan Morrison:
… there is no way that the groups under the banner of Yes could actually work together; they’re all fighting for fundamentally different things. How can the Greens reconcile themselves with the ‘let’s make Scotland a new Saudi Arabia’ oil barons? How can the radical left reconcile themselves with the pro-capitalist Business for Scotland group? Or the L.G.B.T Yes Youth community find common cause with elderly Calvinist nationalists or with the millionaire SNP donor who backed Clause 28. Instead converts chant the same mantra – YES – to cover all the cracks between their mutual hatred. Debate becomes reduced down to one word and the positivity of that one word erases all conflicts and questions beneath a fantasized unity. YES. Yes also erases history, politics and reality. Yes means too many things and ends up meaning nothing.
Edinburgh Eye, meanwhile, is alert to the conservatism of the Yes campaign:
I’m not refusing independence. This is not independence: it’s devomax. And the notion that the Scottish economy is “just one point” is – well, shortsighted to say the least. All the best and finest aspirations for an independent Scotland depend on our getting away from the London/Westminster control of our economy.
The Flying Rodent blogger is just as wary of the Yes establishment:
The Labour Party have spent years demanding my vote on the grounds that otherwise, the Tories will vandalise the place. This is called Blackmail and I was never much receptive to it from men and women in red rosettes. In fact, I really didn’t like this game when it was called Support our cause or you are helping Saddam Hussein to victory and I like it even less when it’s my own arse on the line… I’m voting No for the same reason I was against bombing the shit out of Iraq and Libya – because people who urge us to support massive moral masterworks but categorically refuse to clue anyone in on the detail, on the assumption that everything will work out wonderfully in the end because God is on their side, shouldn’t be trusted to fundamentally re-order a supermarket, let alone a nation.
None of these voices call for the revitalisation of the Union. The reason that they might be on the wrong side of history is that independence is probably the sanest and quickest way of managing the Union’s decline. But it is enough to declare that Yes is in itself simply not good enough. For this reason, I am sending the mite of my No into the masses.