In the first of a weekly editor’s column, David Jamieson argues socialists need to remember what they are fighting against.
Scottish political debate is back, and it has brought the old rancour with it.
Of course, the editor of this site would like to claim credit for this relaunch with George Kerevan’s intervention into the state of the independence movement, and the contradictions of the SNP leadership, which met with considerable attention in recent days.
It was the best basis on which to scrutinise the dilemmas facing the independence cause. Kerevan did that most unfashionable thing in the present intellectual climate; he exchanged personality politics and moral brinkmanship for class and materialist analysis. He demonstrates the real foundations of division in the independence movement – class, power, status, social reproduction. His inquiries led him away from an examination of the ethics of the population, the focus of so much contemporary chatter, particularly on the centre left.
Without attempts to understand class relationships, little about our society makes sense. We are left with the most debased forms of culture war to explain mass phenomena. Political activity is reduced to a function of identity, or to the toxic effect of technological change or foreign manipulation. Worse, it has become common to supply no explanation at all – Leave voters, Corbyn supporters and pro-independence activists are respectively ‘gammons’, ‘cranks’, and ‘zoomers’. Their maliciousness needs no understanding. Its source is internal, drawn from spiritual or mental weakness. The irrational, threatening mobs form and then spread like a virus online, destabilising flawed but still sane political life.
This demonology makes less sense even than conspiracy theories, which at least, as the phrase implies, assert both agency and coherence of process. The fear of the mob is, as Orwell famously said, “a superstitious fear”.
It witnessed yet another revival with the announcement of a flurry of pro-independence ‘list parties’ emerging from the SNP and parts of the wider independence movement. With so much competition at the forthcoming Scottish elections, these outfits seem unlikely to meet much success, at least as presently constituted. They are more interesting for what they indicate, and the reaction they have stimulated. They imply that the adhesive joining the independence movement and the SNP leadership has been damaged after years of abuse and complacency by Sturgeon and her clique.
And they have prompted a diverse element of Scottish commentary to gather around that leadership with sabres drawn. This went far beyond Scotland’s small and rapidly asphyxiating print media, into parts of what considers itself the Scottish left (pro-independence and pro-union), and even the columnist Kevin McKenna, an outrider for anti-Sturgeon sentiment.
Many who couldn’t bring themselves to peep about the Scottish Government commissioned Economic Recovery Group report, composed by a pantomime-villain assembly of elite Scots and auguring dire consequences for huge numbers of workers, were scandalised by the appearance of tiny nationalist parties, drawn together by groups of people with little to no institutional power or wealth. Meanwhile, the SNP leadership’s attitude is that independence cannot even be spoken of so long as the Scottish people are suffering this social catastrophe. The constitution, at a time like this? How impolitic.
You’d think, by this display, that Scotland wasn’t home to a mass independence movement, the outcome of which is vital for the future of the country. You’d think it didn’t coincide with events of global and historic consequence. Shades of the ‘end of history’ where the people have lost all agency except to do something regressive and mendacious.
In such a grim world, what remains for the left to do? For many on the western left, the outstanding work is to ward-off the evil winds that carry the fickle mob to new atrocities. This partly explains the hysterical quest for a new fascism (both Trump and Brexit were supposed to deliver it – neither did), and the moral panic around social conservatism which, as Kenan Malik has observed, has all but dissipated as a political force on these islands. This left is in constant stampede from news headline and celebrity gossip.
In the blur, the only constant image is the grimace of the devil in the crowd. In ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ E.P Thompson described this relationship as manifested in Methodism:
“So long as Satan remained undefined and of no fixed class abode, Methodism condemned working people to a kind of moral civil war-between the chapel and the pub, the wicked and the redeemed, the lost and the saved.”
Does Scotland’s ‘devil’ have a fixed class abode? I believe it does. And it is not beyond the resources of socialists to find it. It resides where power is found; in the office of the CEO, in the bank vault, in the corridors of power – short and slim though they may be in Scotland. At the black altar – where the lives of many thousands of Scots are currently on the slab, the dagger of mass unemployment, lost hours, loss pay, raised above.
A cycle has firmly developed, whereby otherwise progressive opinion is driven by fear of the mob towards technocratic liberals who promise illusory stability, and nothing else. The consequences are foul.
In Scotland we need to change course. The scientific approach to social phenomena deployed in Kerevan’s article, combined with a commitment to engage in mass movements as they presently exist, not as we’d like them. Much may depend on our ability to marry these practices.