The tenor of the SNP leadership election proves Scottish liberalism is incapable of addressing the great questions of our time, argues David Jamieson.
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As voting opens in the SNP leadership election, we can only reflect on the poverty of the campaign. Stale and boring, the contest has been bound-in with the familiar sub-democratic harness of Peter Murrell’s opaque party. It’s so lacking in intellect, vision, debate, even realism about the predicaments the SNP and Scotland faces, that it resists more practical or grounded observations.
This is, I think, part of the reason why Kate Forbes’ socially conservative religious views have drawn so much attention. Her wee free catechism has taken up more discussion than any other single issue, and perhaps all other issues put together. I suppose that’s what happens when you have a single feature on an otherwise featureless landscape.
In a similar vein, Forbes’ views create excitement because they are rarely expressed at her station in public life. Scotland is one of the most socially liberal, secular, and atheistic countries on earth. Indeed, we are one of those western and northern European countries that could be described as truly hegemonically liberal.
This appearance of isolated social conservatives amid liberal hegemony has a paradoxical effect. Rather than lead to the relaxed observation of the weakness of social conservatism, this very weakness sparks a paranoid frenzy. We weren’t debating equal marriage a few weeks ago, we are now – giving the muted expression of a moralistic eccentricity the appearance of an emergent and growing threat to liberal values.
Some now charge complacency over Scottish liberalism: we’ve become too assured in its reach and permanence. And, certainly, Scotland is not as represented at Holyrood or on TV dramas like the BBC’s Vigil. But let’s be clear about what we mean by liberal hegemony. We don’t mean that there is only social liberalism – that conservatism doesn’t exist, can’t emerge in new forms, or find new constituencies.
Nor does hegemony define the kinds of liberalism which predominate in society. Major splits are possible within the broad tradition and have opened in the past decade. Perhaps the most obvious is the heated conflict between outré-liberals, with their identarian fascinations with race, gender and sexuality, and paleo-liberals, attached to older creeds like racial integration, second wave feminism and suburban cosmopolitanism. JK Rowling is a global ambassador for Scottish liberalism, just the wrong kind from the perspective of half of Scotland’s divided liberal house.
Another clarification is needed – there is no easy moral distinction for liberalism in its conflict with conservatism. Many of the most destructive, venal, authoritarian features of modern social order proceed under the banner of liberalism. War, corporate profiteering, and the denigrations of democratic life through transnational institutions like the EU and NAFTA are the greatest stains on civilisation now, yet fail to trigger the gag response of outmoded views on the role of women or enthusiasm for capital punishment.
It remains a mystery why pro-war attitudes in particular land in the good-to-neutral column of contemporary debate. Nothing sends humanity tumbling backward into primordial squalor like war. Yet the racism, paranoia, collapse of law and rights, democratic repression and sheer slaughter that are its usual consequences are viewed with ambivalence. Something like the entire media and professional political corps of British liberalism are pro-Nato , an organisation with a foul history of degenerate violence. Various liberal factions, and many conservatives, all sit down to the feast of human flesh together and complain about each other’s table manners.
Why have you never heard this JK Rowling quote before? It’s our moral ambassador addressing the youth of the US elite, a graduation ceremony at Harvard: “The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.”
Your burden? Bit of a Kipling ring to that. And well received it must have been by the future imperial administrators at this world training school of liberal empire. Rowling is an outspoken supporter of US power in general and, in particular, the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party.
You’ve never heard of this incident because it’s uncontroversial. It’s uncontroversial because it’s part of the hegemony. But hundreds of years from now, when this empire has gone the way of the others, and is read about in history books, how will that utterance sound? Do we imagine her opinions on much else will be remembered?
Back in Scotland, a favoured province of US power, all three of our potential First Ministers concur on very much more than they differ. If anything, the presence of a religious conservative gives us an opportunity to see how powerful the hegemony is. There’s so much agreement that the great questions of our time go unmentioned.
Here is the final paradox of liberal hegemony. For all that everyone in politics likes to imagine themselves some kind of campaigning civil rights hero (even Forbes, with her protestations for the minority rights of the religious), there’s very little evidence of liberal progress.
The great victories of social liberalisation: the rights to divorce, abortion, the legalisation of homosexuality and much besides, are half a century old. Most of those who contributed to those victories are dead. And most of those who contributed most decisively did not belong to the modern liberal hegemony, but to other political, moral and philosophical traditions (and this is even more true of their forebears who conquered the rights to speech, assembly, and the vote).
Modern elites preach a good game, but what have they actually done? The greatest controversy of the leadership contest so far is over a (by the standards of the victories listed above) minor legislative reform passed nine years ago, which none of the candidates actually voted for. Meanwhile, a major war is raging in continental Europe, and its economic consequences have reduced tens of thousands of Scots to penury.
The heroic era of civil rights movements is long over. What remains is an echo at best. More commonly, the modern facsimile is a manipulation by uncommitted politicians, designed to cover for those disastrous policies on which the entire establishment is broadly united. In this sense, in the land of liberal hegemony, there are few liberals worth even this soiled badge.