2015 General Election, Austerity, Democracy, Effie Deans, Lallands Peat Worrier, Lesley Riddoch, Nationalism, Nicola Sturgeon, North Sea Oil, Opinion, Politics, Scottish National Party, Scottish Nationalism, SNP, Stephen Low
Over its long and demoralising history, the Left has been required to trade in a lot. It has had to accept the mixed economy, with ever-increasing dollops of private ownership stirred in. It has had to see trades unions being largely replaced with corporate “human resources” departments and the Citizens Advice Bureau. At times, it has even had to trade in elementary liberal values such as freedom of speech, particularly when the speech is deemed to be offensive under the logic of that most individualistic and right-wing of ideologies, identity-politics. But a capitulation to nationalism seems to be the ultimate humiliation. We surely do not have to go quite this far or quite this low.
Nationalism: so banal, so empty, so backwards, and, somewhat ironically, so provincial.
A consciousness of this humiliation pervades the entire modern Scottish nationalist movement, to the extent that many prominent Scottish nationalists could be found prior to the referendum denying that they were even nationalists. The Scottish nationalist writers Irvine Welsh, Alan Bissett, and James Kelman could not have been any clearer that they were not nationalists. Stephen Low summed up the mood well in Left Foot Forward last month:
That the prevailing political trend in Scotland is nationalism is seldom acknowledged. Had anyone managed to copyright the phrase ‘I’m not a nationalist but…’ they could long since have retired on the royalties. Instead, the flag waving and transformation of the SNP into a mass party is attributed to ‘anti austerity politics’, or ‘an embrace of democratic potential’ or other such warm words – anything but nationalism.
Scottish nationalism likes to pretend that it is only nominally a nationalist movement and that, steeped in the sentimental allure of the Bonnie Prince across the water, it really keeps older, more decent values aflame. So why cannot these values be communicated to somebody from, say, Newcastle or Manchester or even Sussex? With this question, Scottish nationalism is forced mercilessly into more of a shape, but one common answer is that Scotland simply functions better as a democratic unit all on its own. Native Scottish democracy is supposedly neater and more sophisticated than the UK bunfight, and henceforth Scottish nationalism can be cast as a movement for a purer democracy. Unfortunately, however, Scottish nationalism invariably comes accompanied with an almost comical awe of the European Union, along with a bizarre inability to recognise that the EU is in fact a Union and that its enthusiasts are by definition Unionists. As Tychy has previously argued:
The whole point of the EU is that you have to chuck away your democratic sovereignty but you get to keep the nation. This is rather like keeping your penis but being unable to get an erection any more.
Trying to conceal Scottish nationalism behind the colours of a democratic revival also conveys the regrettable message that the Left in Scotland simply cannot cope with democracy on a large scale. Citing a joke by Ludovic Kennedy, the journalist Lesley Riddoch has compared Scotland’s place in the Union to that of somebody who is “in bed with an elephant.” She insists that, “we have tried to wake the elephant, electorally-speaking, for decades but no-one’s noticed.” So, in an unhappy metaphor for Scotland’s future, she would rather be alone on the sofa. This is typical of Scottish nationalism’s view of mass democracy: a big, dumb elephant. Scottish nationalists such as Riddoch are thus itching to retreat to their own wee state where there are fewer pesky people to be convinced.
What is so objectionable about the Scottish National Party’s current electioneering is the smug fantasy that they will somehow serve as ambassadors to the UK parliament from the land of “progressive” values. Like the Unionist blogger and damsel-in-distress Effie Deans, I want to “attack the SNP at its roots,” but I do not agree that the SNP’s “initial assumption “Scotland is a country” must not be allowed.” Deans asserts that:
This is our biggest mistake. We ignore the strengths of the UK. Instead of fighting on ground that is strong for us, we fight on ground which is strong for our opponent. The debate always is framed in terms of Scotland. Every sentence involves Scotland, and Britain is never mentioned. We end up in a ‘who cares most about Scotland’ contest.
After writing this, Effie Deans seems to have found that she is named after the wrong character from Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian. She was pursued by such a mob that Captain Porteous might have provided an apter nom de plume. An idealised Unionism, one in which people aspire to think beyond their own narrow national identities, was undoubtedly the engine of everything progressive in British history. But the blogger Lallands Peat Worrier wisely warns that “Better Together” had previously “looked deep into the eyes of the Scottish people, and found dealer’s eyes peering back at them, unsentimental, commercial, counting the pennies, weighing the odds.”
The Peat Worrier is an extremely dangerous man, in subverting dependable Unionist prose – the beautifully lawyerly and reasoned discourse of the Scottish Enlightenment – to say Scottish nationalist things. It is frightening how much he almost manages to smuggle past you. Yet he here provides some good ammunition to blow up the SNP. However many faces Nicola Sturgeon pulls at austerity during this election, we are living through a historical period in which the Scottish nation is shrinking into an austerity straightjacket. If you believe in generous welfare and glowing hospitals – the SNP’s “progressive” values in other words – then you seriously do not want to be cooped up in Scotland in the future.
For a start, there are the months of panic which Edinburgh would have lived through had Scotland voted Yes and its public finances been handcuffed to plummeting oil prices. There would have been a nationwide hunt for Something Else to keep the nation commercially viable. The golden age of oil over $100 a barrel is, or so the International Monetary Fund assumes, suspended until the end of the decade. Folk history seems to remember Better Together as waging a hysterical “Project Fear” against the true-hearted Scottish nationalists. Alas, it turned out to be not so much Project Fear as Project Bang On or even Project Putting Things Rather Mildly.
Then there is the shade which is applied to make the SNP appear more wearily realistic and three-dimensional: the “longer period of austerity” which the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims to have found in the SNP’s manifesto; the suspiciously Tory-sounding implied cuts to everything other than healthcare and overseas aid; and the refusal in government to unfreeze council tax and prioritise saving the jobs of nearly fifty thousand public sector workers.
Oh but we have not even mentioned nuclear power yet. The SNP has not built any new nuclear power stations and the population is instead required to reduce its energy consumption, until the output from spluttering renewables has crept up to meet the drooping demand. The bloodcurdling headline target is for a 12% reduction in consumption by 2020. A formal government target for everybody to use over ten per cent less energy is, even within the context of British politics, quite a monument to austerity. Of course, rich and middle class people will not be using less energy, as they strive to bake away within their draughty granite Morningside mansions. If the Scottish nationalists still have not clocked it yet, a lack of serious investment in supply means rising prices and soaring fuel bills. These are the circumstances in which people turn to food banks and die of cold.
Labour should be attacking Scottish nationalism from the Left and isolating those on the Left who have been so stupid as to trade in their values for nationalism. Theirs is the nation which austerity will build – austerity is the very flower of Scotland. Nonetheless, Labour had better be quick and exploit this probably-temporary historical window whilst Scotland remains in such a mess. These gifts are not given twice!