Mike Cowley

Mike Cowley

Can Conter be saved from Nationalism?

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In a piece for the Red Paper Collective, Mike Cowley argues that Conter should abandon independence and support radical devolution. We reproduce the article here in edited form. Political critique in good faith, from any corner, is welcome and published. We will respond to the article soon.

There is a model of politics, identifiable across the spectrum of belief, which relegates all immediate concerns, however pressing, to a distant, imagined future where every injustice is resolved on the basis of a single catalysing event. Activists committed to such causes are expected to refer every campaign, question or strategy to this one over-riding expedient. Such myopia has often been a defining characteristic of ultra-left sects. However, the disorder now afflicts most clearly the single-issue perspective of Scottish nationalism.

As the cracks in the British state stretch into chasms – leveraged ever wider by a Tory government recklessly oblivious to the warning signals – we are asked to believe that the axiomatic resolution to the crisis is independence. No injustice is to be understood as anything other than a symptom of a flailing British state. A political determinism has become so deeply rooted in the collective psyche of the majority of the Yes movement that to contest it is to invite allegations of heresy, and at worst, betrayal of the Scottish people’s pre-written destiny.

But what of those seeking to differentiate themselves from prevailing Nationalist orthodoxy?

Conter, Bella Caledonia and Yes Alba have emerged as the principal left voices in the contemporary Yes camp. For them, Scottish independence is a circuit breaking opportunity, a means of disrupting an ossified British state, thereby establishing ground on which class politics can once again take root in Scotland, and by extension, across what would remain of the UK. Needless to say, in response to criticism that such an approach threatens to fracture rather than re-build class solidarity across the Isles, proponents argue that Scotland’s transformative example would, at some undefined point and on the basis of events left to the imagination, inspire the English working class to throw off the shackles of a conservatism implicitly framed as innate to their political psyche. On this reading, a praetorian Scottish vanguard would take up the responsibility of breaking the magic spell of a less ‘civic’ English nationalism. Such arguments are seen as articles of faith, shibboleths upon which socialist critiques are swatted away.

In Gramsci and the Scottish Question Chris Bambery enlists the great Italian theorist of ideology to argue that a widespread fraying of allegiance to the British state prefigures more fundamental challenges. If only the Scottish working class can break with a state to which habits of deference and patriotism remain soldered, a blow can be struck that will reverberate around the UK in ways which will, presumably, alchemise nationalist sentiment and the politics of identities defined by borders into a revolutionary class-consciousness. At no point does Bambery consider that fostering nationalist illusions amongst the Scottish working class, however unwittingly, might actually serve to strengthen rather than weaken the hegemony of the 1% over the shared imaginations of the Scottish 99%. As the revolutionary left triangulate ever closer to the nationalist camp, so they make their own contribution to an ideological confusion which has in recent decades served to loosen the traction Socialism as an idea once had in the public mind.

Bambery is of course right. The British state has historically stood in the way of class-based resistance to injustices wrought daily on communities by a rapacious capitalist class increasingly impatient with the checks imposed on it by democracy. Its hierarchies, antiquated traditions, its politicised Bishops and in-built expectations of reverence and nostalgia are anathema to progressives, never mind socialists. But time and again, the Yes left’s case returns, like a drunk man on auto-pilot, to a pre-determined roadmap, that of independence as a non-negotiable catalyst in the rebirth of class-based politics.

In The Week the Gloves Came Off George Kerevan identifies an evolving Yes left frustrated at the conservatism of the SNP and its record of austerity, suppression of Party democracy, “vacuous political messaging” and unwillingness to entertain anything but the most modest vision for an independent Scotland, lest Sturgeon and her nomenklatura “frighten the Scottish middle classes”. Kerevan nails the SNP’s record effectively, calling out their “endorsement of the so-called Growth Commission Report in 2019, which advocated keeping Sterling without monetary control, and generally embraced a pro-market economic strategy.”

In Scotland: Independent or a Vassal State Jonathon Shafi acknowledges the dilemma: “The GC (Growth Commission) is written as if the economic crises of 2008 and 2020 didn’t happen…(it) would lead to cuts and much else detrimental to … working class people across the country. Nicola Sturgeon is fully supportive of this prospectus, which should have been well and truly buried given the context of the pandemic and all that entails economically and socially.”

The trouble is, no meaningful challenge to this prospectus exists within the SNP. Rumblings there may be, but such tensions have for the most part been articulated via the factional lightning rods of the Salmond/Sturgeon camps.

Kerevan speaks for a minority in the Yes/SNP camp only. More numerous, and far more vocal, are those voices for whom the SNP’s actual record in government should under no circumstances be seen as relevant to the constitutional discussion. Scotland may have the lowest average life expectancy in Europe and the highest rates of drug-related deaths. The SNP may preside over escalating educational and health inequalities (bleakly signified by Sturgeon’s early shadowing of Johnson’s ‘herd immunity’ approach to a pandemic both nations had plenty of time to see coming).

But the Scottish Government’s performance is time and again decoupled from a campaign for independence whose benefits are taken as read.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room goes unaddressed. The SNP are the dominant vehicle for independence. No serious challenge has been or is likely to be mounted within a party where active trade unionists, never mind socialists, remain a small minority. Conter fails to acknowledge that the official version of independence on offer is rooted firmly in the politics of a party and a movement only too happy to exchange one form of subjugation for another.

In the case of Bi-Fab, Conter addresses the role of transnational organisations beholden to capital in providing a legal pretext for non-intervention. Implicitly, it is acknowledged that a newly independent Scotland vying for inward investment would be an easy mark for predatory global capital, particularly if governed by an SNP well-rehearsed in “full and grovelling supplicancy”. But those ringing the alarm bells are few and far between, and often to be found amongst supporters of independence within the Green and Labour parties or on the fringes of the Scottish far left. Clearly, the prevailing narrative of a Yes movement dominated by a body of opinion indifferent and at times hostile to class politics renders any claim on its behalf by the Socialist left fanciful.

From 1999, a Scottish Labour establishment bereft of the political imagination which might have seen devolution as something more than a holding exercise have provided the nationalists with open goal after open goal. Labour MP John Pitcairn Mackintosh MP was no doubt right to say, in 1968, that the “people of Scotland want a degree of government for themselves.” But he had more in mind than what Holyrood has thus far been willing to offer. A re-imagining of the British state and its fragile constitutional protections is indeed long overdue.

Keir Starmer’s recent speech on a proposed Constitutional Commission was in places a rhetorical step up from the ‘kamikaze Unionism’ of the Better Together debacle. In rejecting both the ‘status quo’ and independence, Starmer made a cautious appeal to those who have fled the Party for an SNP erroneously associated with a commitment to social justice. But as Rory Scothorne points out, his real pitch was “laser-targeted at the sizeable cohort of Scots who voted ‘no’ to independence in 2014, ‘remain’ in 2016 and are now shifting towards independence.”

Limited in policy detail, Starmer’s was a speech carefully tailored to appeal to centrist SNP and Tory voters, with a sideward glance towards UK-wide solidarity leavened in to appease Scottish Labour activists. There was little to nothing on the linking of a redistribution of power to a redistribution of wealth. Most damagingly, the Claim of Right was outsourced to a Tory administration whose Prime Minister recently described devolution as a “disaster.” Starmer’s extension of veto-rights to a government as mercenary as this one will have come as an early Christmas gift to the SNP’s Charlotte Street lobbyists.

Cat Boyd’s recent article The Unreality of Labour’s Devolution Politics is predicated on multiple assumptions; that the Labour Party’s attempts to steer a middle path between devolution and independence is in fact a “technocratic fix” designed instead to recover the party’s electoral fortunes; that devolution has indeed been a “disaster” for the British state, as the ultra-Unionists claim, and nationalists have been the “main beneficiaries” of capital’s recent crimes – from the Iraq war to austerity. But ultimately, with socialist forces so thinly represented within the wider Yes movement, it is to these self-same nationalists that Boyd inevitably returns. Ultimately, for the independence-supporting left, an SNP bereft of class character or politics presents a better option to socialists than a British labour movement populated still by millions of rank and file trade unionists. It is at least arguable that Boyd’s analysis is accurate in as far as Starmer’s intervention goes. Once again, a British political leader has failed to clearly describe a vision of the good society before laying out the constitutional means of arriving there. But what of a Scottish Labour left now largely supportive of Scotland’s right to a second referendum should next May’s Holyrood elections result in a majority for pro-Yes parties?

Katy Clark’s invaluable recent Labour List article makes clear that a third option on any future ballot paper “beg(s) the question of whether such an outcome would resolve the issue. Perhaps it could – if the proposal were radical enough.” This is the challenge for the Scottish Labour left as polling grows ever more settled in favour of a second referendum (despite data pointing to a majority of Scots prioritising Covid-suppression measures over a second referendum in the immediate term). If we are to prise open a binary debate almost calculated to squeeze nuance never mind class politics out of the equation, what would that question actually offer as an alternative to the reductive choices favoured by the SNP and Tory Party nationalists? Amongst other measures, Clark suggests:

  • Full tax raising powers for the Scottish Parliament.

  • Westminster raising taxes for reserved matters.

  • Transparency in funding transfers between nations and regions.

  • Representation of nations and regions in a reformed second chamber.

“Could such a constitutional settlement have prevented Iraq, austerity and privatisation? Well, potentially yes. For example, there could be a requirement for an affirmative vote for military action in the Scottish Parliament where war is being proposed. Similarly, there could be a requirement for Trident to be agreed by Holyrood as well as Westminster.”

From the start of the pandemic, a centralised Westminster model addicted to diktat and the outsourcing not of power but of public funds to City-benefactors has been effectively exposed by regional voices such as Andy Burnham’s. A public debate around a third option could serve to amalgamate those voices with a Scottish left who up until now have shared only a critique of an overly-centralised British state, but are a long way from agreeing an alternative model of democracy, never mind a path towards achieving it. A third option could open up a space in which those committed to a socialist alternative, and who grasp the urgency of the times, could find a common path out of the crisis. The intervention of class politics into the constitutional debate could provide a jolt of electricity to a discussion long mired in a polarising stasis.

Conter, and those other voices on the Yes left, some of them long-serving members of Scottish Labour, should not be seen as lost to a false consciousness of nationalist delusion. The forging of alliances committed to dialogue around a question which has divided us for too long should not be beyond the wit of socialists of good spirit and intent. It might seem an improbable task, but whether on the basis of our own resources or alongside others, the Scottish Labour left must find a way to mobilise support for a debate on our constitutional future which places a reckoning with class power at the centre of its priorities.

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