David Jamieson warns Scotland has fallen far behind global developments, and that the promotion of myths about the country will only hurt the left in England.
It’s the season of ‘nationalism’ angst again. No not a war, or an escalation in economic competition, nor a flare-up of violent xenophobia. It’s an international football tournament. Exemplifying all that’s wrong with debate at these times was one left-wing editorial chiding the English for enthusiasm over their country’s winning streak in the Euro football tournament, and inviting us to remember a time “when the left was against nationalism and flags”. Posturing of this kind doesn’t match the complexities of the English national question, or what a socialist orientation on it might be.
This article doesn’t intend to address this matter either, except to note that any radical left challenge in England really ought to take that nation as its immediate political context. A fixation on entities like Britain and the UK, access to which have been greatly complicated in the devolution era, can lead to confusion. So can bearing Scotland aloft like Bobby Moore.
According to Jeremy Gilbert on the Politics Theory Other podcast “…not radical socialism, but at least a cosmopolitan social democracy is so much the normative common sense” in Scotland. The nation is “a case study on our own doorstep of an entire political culture being shifted to the left” by a “full frontal Gramscian war of position”. So virulent is this shift, that “you can accuse your opponents of being anti-Scottish…because they’re neoliberal”.
The danger here is the replacement of one comforting myth (politics in the non-national or merely quasi-national context of the UK or Britain) with another – the Scottish social democracy achieved by a ‘war of position’, whatever this might mean. The danger of this second myth becomes worse if it is used to inform the debate about ‘progressive Englishness’. Versions of this idea have already been advanced by, for example, Billy Bragg. In his writings a liberal, centre-left nationalism resembling that in Scotland can be exported into an English context (in his football commentary: “This is the England that Southgate has created, a diverse yet inclusive nation that looks forward with confidence rather than seeking comfort in the past”).
Even if we thought this possible (and to think so we’d need to omit the entire Scottish national context) we’d still have to ask if it were desirable. Contrary to Gilbert’s assertions, Scotland has probably remained closer to the dogmas (and especially the Clintonite/Blairite variety) of neoliberalism than any other part of the UK.
In fact the greatest contrast is between Edinburgh and London. Since the onset of the pandemic (but also before) the UK Government has proven more willing to drive breaches into economic orthodoxy. It may be too early to say that ‘neoliberalism is dead’ – some of its ideas and approaches will presumably march on for some time. But furlough schemes which brought millions of workers temporarily into the public sector, and which were paid for by massive money printing, pushing up wages and stoking (mild) inflation, is not the model of neoliberalism.
In Scotland, no official notice has been made of global trends towards increased state intervention, the rethinking of supply chains and the desire for national economic strategy. Instead, the Scottish Government has continued to acclaim low tax ports (called Green Ports to mask their real purpose), the attraction of foreign direct investment through a business-friendly environment, and a sell-off of natural assets for which planning and environmental rules will be sacrificed.
Characteristic of particularly the late neoliberal period, these policies are augmented with talk of inclusion, greening, fairness, measures of wealth besides GDP, and permanent rehearsals for four day weeks and universal incomes. This isn’t the future talking, but the past.
This doctrinaire approach cannot be explained simply by London’s greater access to sovereign powers. The limitations of the devolution settlement are not being tested, and the Scottish Government’s official plan for independence is radically anti-sovereignty and would forbid measures like the furlough. The SNP leadership’s adherence to the status quo ante is ideological, and is closely related to it’s representation of Scotland as in-tune with global power centres like the EU Commission.
Even Keir Starmer’s anti-socialist leadership of the Labour party has broached more serious policy than the SNP. His exhortations to “make, sell and buy more in Britain” with a national procurement strategy partly reflect the ways in which Brexit has altered the course of public policy.
Throughout much of the western world, centre-left and liberal political forces remain attached to neoliberal and cosmopolitan nostrums. The new wave of selective state intervention is largely passing them by. The supposed major global exception to this trend, Joe Biden’s stimulus plan in the US, failed to materialise and now represents a fraction of the tax and spending commitments originally advertised.
This disparity is not essentially conjunctural, in the sense that the Tories happened to be in office when these policies were called for. It is unlikely that, for example, Keir Starmer’s Labour would have been more aggressive in deploying the furlough and related schemes. The Conservative party has an organic relationship with big business and the major institutions of state that allows it to turn course rapidly. Throughout the history of British economic policy the Tories have generally led, Labour have generally followed.
Surprised by these global shifts in capitalism, centre-leftism has been reduced to offering technical criticisms of new policy, and protests on behalf of excluded groups. Necessary though this may be it is not a vision for a different society. The centre right, meanwhile, is happy for the left to work itself into this marginal groove. The argument that Scotland is an exemplar of left strategy is, therefore, particularly self-defeating.
What does this mean for us in Scotland? First, we have to acknowledge that parties like the SNP and Labour are fighting for defeated orthodoxies, rather than simply being timid. This means a different orientation than ‘loyal opposition’ or ginger group. It requires a socialist politics that is truly independent.
Second, liberal nationalism (civic nationalism, as it is sometimes called in Scotland) does not answer the national question from the left. It is a ruling class paradigm, just not an openly reactionary one. As one example, in Scotland European immigration is celebrated for providing cheap and ‘flexible’ workers into the service economy. It is directly linked to flows of foreign investment and European trade – providing the same essential functions as more ‘conservative’ forms of nationalism.
In both England and Scotland the debate about an orientation on the nation-state needs to move past these models. The global changes in political economy provide an opportunity for just that.