James Foley

James Foley

Santa, Sturgeon and Hygge Neoliberalism

Reading Time: 3 minutes

James Foley compares modern Christmas to the Scottish political scene. In both, a cuddly image obscures a commercialised and alienated reality.

If readers can forgive a bit of seasonal whimsy (and unseasonal pessimism), I would like to begin from the man who dominates December’s cultural calendar: not Jesus Christ, if we’re honest, but Santa Claus. Santa’s core ideological appeal is as a wealthy Nordic philanthropist, selflessly delivering gifts for the world’s children according to their good behaviour. But the modern, red-suited Santa is really a marketing ploy by Coca Cola, thus a figure of ruthless Americanised capitalism; in truth, he delivers the best presents for the wealthiest children, regardless of whether they behave like Charlie Bucket, Augustus Gloop or Veruca Salt (out of politeness, nobody raises this literally unspeakable injustice).

In all these respects, Santa is rather like Scottish politics. The political ideology is cosy, virtuous Nordicism; the unspeakable truth is Americanised capitalism.

In the Holyrood village, everything is contrived to produce that untranslatably Danish sense of hygge, defined in CountryLiving magazine as “a feeling of cozy contentment and well-being through enjoying the simple things in life”. As explained in the Little Book of Hygge, “what freedom is to Americans. . . hygge is to Danes.” Projecting those warming, beige, Danish hues matters in Holyrood circles: the First Minister counts Borgen as her favourite TV show, rather as Boris Johnson lists Churchill as his favourite historical personality.

If anyone doubts the political importance of Nordic appearances, they might consider the boke-inducing case of Scotland is Now. This is a nation-branding partnership between various Quangos, which sells Scotland as an “open” European destination for tourism and investment, mainly via YouTube. “Europe, we’re leaving you they say,” says a young woman, pretty in a fiercely non-threatening way, coddled in wool, standing atop a lighthouse (in case anyone misses the symbolism – “leave a light on!”). “But we won’t be leaving what we have together…” Cut to windswept beaches in the half-light. “Because old friends don’t forget,” she twinkles, beacon in the background, bokeh against black skies. Dare I say it, but this is the new Scottish cringe: not campy panto, not Rab C Nesbitt and the Krankies cringe, but sombrely, virtuously and prosperously North European cringe.

But appearances are one thing, reality another. Denmark is the world’s third most equal society, a legacy of generations of embedded class compromise. That legacy has no parallel in Scotland, meaning that anyone wishing to actually achieve Danish norms would first need to reckon with distributional conflict. Their status quo is not ours, meaning “becoming Danish” requires a different type of leadership, geared to disruption rather than preservation. And naturally, our understanding of “Danishness” reflects self-serving ideological preoccupations. In truth, Denmark is one of the EU’s most aloof members; their best decisions, such as retaining currency sovereignty, are Eurosceptic ones; their social democratic legacies exist despite the EU, not because of it.

Denmark is not a socialist (far less a flawless) society, by any means. But if we take off the Grinch mask, and accept some truth in the ideology, Nordicism seeks to protect minimal decencies in a world economy of harsh competitive pressures. To borrow a cliche, it concerns the virtues of “economic independence” in a world of “interdependence” (like “open”, a euphemism for ruthlessly capitalistic). By contrast, having already started a generation behind, with none of their “Nordic” institutional foundations, we have allowed libertarians and the rump remains of corporate Scotland to design our “economic independence”.

That all assumes we achieve any type of sovereignty. For now, our governing non-coalition follow the script at Westminster, perhaps allowing themselves to be one notch more progressive, loudly congratulating each other on their naughtiness when they do. (Of course, while effectively imitating Westminster policy, that will not stop them loudly proclaiming that all Westminster policy is dangerous, bordering on quasi-fascist.)

Returning to Santa, if appearances are Nordic, the true spirit of modern Scotland is Americanised. Which is to say, unprotected from the elements of competition; already prised open to external ownership; marked by decades of passive acceptance of rising inequality.

Nonetheless, I will end with a semi-positive Christmas message. For 2022, it is possible to imagine a different case for independence, one that doesn’t rest on nation-branding, mythmaking or cheering on the faux-radical pretences of governing elites. Independence should be about the opposite: it has been before and can be again. It should be about stripping governing elites in London and Edinburgh of their excuses that shield them from accountability. But that starts with stripping away all the self-deluding vanities that keep us tied to political parties that only intend to reproduce a status quo where, naughty or nice, poor kids stay poor and rich kids get the best gear.

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