Notes from the new world of Scottish politics

May 18, 2015

Neil Davidson analyzes the outcome of the May 7 general election in Scotland and what it means for the left, in an article written for the Scottish Left Project website.

1. Faced with a situation that is unmistakably a historic turning point, commentators can be tempted into an interpretative bidding war in which the significance of the events is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of the 2015 General Election results in Scotland; but merely yielding to the heady excitement of the new situation carries its own risks. For the left, the danger lies in forgetting those genuine insights which it has gained through decades of painful experience, not least about the limits of reformism and the contradictions of nationalism. To abandon this knowledge is to leave ourselves blindsided as we attempt to navigate a way through unmapped new terrain.

2. The main landmarks are, however, clear enough. The Liberal Democrats, justly rewarded for their role in the Coalition, have been reduced, like the Tories before them, to a solitary outpost at the geographical periphery of the country. Their fate, however, pales before the electoral annihilation of the Scottish Labour Party, and the revelation of how utterly fragile the links between it and the people it claims to represent have become. In the end, Labour too could only muster one seat--not in the former heartlands of the West, but in South Edinburgh, where at any rate there are fewer working-class voters to turn against it.

Scottish National Party supporters rally in Glasgow
Scottish National Party supporters rally in Glasgow

Labour's long-term decline is not, of course, a purely Scottish or even British phenomenon. Reformism, as type of consciousness, will exist as long as capitalism itself does; Social Democracy, as the organizational expression and reinforcement of that consciousness, seems unlikely to do so, for reasons which are too complex to discuss here. The point, however, is that reformist politics, while still generated by the contradictory consciousness of the working class under capitalism, are becoming increasingly detached from the institutions and organizations in which they were originally embedded, opening up the possibility of reformism finding a focus in parties with quite different political trajectories, such the Scottish National Party (SNP). But before turning to the real challenges which this poses for the left, however, we must first dispense with the false three claims about election result, which, despite their nonsensical nature, have already achieved widespread currency, particularly in England and among the liberal left media.

Three Myths of the 2015 General Election

3. The first is that Scots who voted for the SNP are to blame for the Tory victory. As several commentators with differing political perspectives, but a common ability to do basic arithmetic, have noted, even if Labour had won every seat in Scotland, it would still have been 41 seats short of equaling the Tory score. A secondary line of attack has been that the real fault of the SNP was that by simply existing, advocating moderately social democratic policies and gaining support for them, it fiendishly allowed the Tories and their supporters in the media to raise the specter of Ed Miliband having to rely on it in a hung parliament, thus scaring potential English Labour voters into the arms of Cameron. In fact, anyone ignorant or feeble-minded enough to be terrified by Nicola Sturgeon was unlikely to vote for Labour in the first place: For them, the prospect of a Labour-SNP alliance may have provided an excuse for voting Tory, but not a reason. So rather than blaming the Scots for having the temerity to vote for their party of choice, perhaps the Labour Party members and supporters making this accusation should reflect on their own miserable failure to inspire a journey to the polling place by that third of the eligible population who declined to vote at all, most of whom belong to the working class.

4. Which brings us to the second claim: Labour lost because it was too left wing and failed to pay sufficient attention to the aspirational middle-classes--groups whose interests are, of course, entirely neglected by the British political class. This explanation is one which contenders for the party leadership are offering with increased stridency as they position themselves for the role of the New Blair.

Now, it is true that Labour was too left wing for the majority of people who habitually vote Tory; but anything Labour did or said would have been too left wing for the denizens of Hampshire and Maidenhead, no matter how many concessions it made on austerity or migration. Only far-right parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP) or actual fascists like the British National Party can credibly outbid the Tories from the right. The real question is whether Labour was "too far left" for the millions, to whom I have already referred, who did not vote. And in this respect, Scotland provides the answer.

From a socialist perspective, it is perfectly correct to draw attention to the limitations of the SNP's own behavior in office, just as it is to point out the difficulties the party will encounter in attempting to carry out even its relatively limited anti-austerity program; in the context of this discussion, however, the relevant fact is what the Scottish electorate thought it was voting for. Unless the partisans of the "center ground" are seriously arguing that there is some fundamental difference between the populations of Scotland and England--a position which in most other circumstances they are anxious to deny--then they have to explain why, when the former were offered a left alternative they embraced it, and why they think that the latter would not have done the same. The problem in England was that no party, or at least large and credible enough to attract support, was articulating basic social democratic positions (let alone anything further to the left) for which the unrepresented masses could vote.

5. The third and final claim is that the Scots have become possessed by a divisive and sinister nationalism, which has led them to abandon their English brothers and sisters for a politics of ethnic grievance. It is not clear to me how Sturgeon's offer to ally with left parties at Westminster in order to, for example, prevent the further privatization of the National Health Service (NHS), can be interpreted in this way; but the level of sheer ignorance and incomprehension involved in this particular fantasy suggest that the people who hold it are impervious to anything so tedious as actual evidence.

There is a sense in which the current upsurge of support for both independence as a goal and the SNP as a party has nothing to do with "nationalism" at all: They are simply the streams into which the desire for social justice has flowed when others have become blocked. Neil MacCormick's famous distinction between "existential" and "utilitarian" nationalism, cited by Sturgeon in a speech during 2012, is in fact less compelling than is often supposed. Nationalism is a form of identity, allied to a political project for the establishment or defense of a state based on that identity; but it is quite possible to see strategic reasons for establishing a state which are not identity-based at all: James Connolly was not a "utilitarian" Irish nationalist, nor was John Maclean a "utilitarian" Scottish nationalist.

The test is whether the putative interests of "the Scots" or "Scotland" take precedence over the greater solidarities required in the struggle for socialism. Seeking to establish an independent Scottish state is not in itself a breach of solidarity with our English brothers and sisters (indeed, we can legitimately ask for their support in this); lining up with an emergent Scottish ruling class would be. But even if we accept, as I think we must, that some support for independence is inspired by actual nationalism, the point is of limited significance, since nationalisms are never pure expressions of identity, but always involve some social content.

A favorite, if thoroughly preposterous trope of the Guardian–New Statesman liberal left commentariat is to equate support for Scottish independence (which is not the same as support for the SNP) with support for UKIP, with Labour caught in the crossfire of equivalently deranged Scottish and English nationalisms. Leaving aside the actual political differences involved (in relation to Trident, migration, the EU, austerity...) the sleight-of-hand involved here is the invocation of English nationalism. This certainly exists, but in the case of Labour there is, of course, another nationalism involved, but it is British, not English.

Like the Devil, British nationalism has a great trick, which is to convince everyone that it does not exist. For most of the period since 1707, and certainly since 1746, most Scots had been British nationalists; perhaps a majority still are. This should not surprise anyone. Nationalism is normal, it is the everyday form of consciousness under capitalism, the commonplace assumption that social life can only be lived within the structures of a nation-state. But even if we accept that supporters of independence and the SNP (groups who overlap but who are by no means identical) are nationalists--an issue to which I will return--this does not mean that these Scots were previously untouched by national feeling, it means instead that they have switched their national allegiance from one nationalism to another, from Britain to Scotland.

The Decline of Britishness in Scotland

6. It might be worth considering at this point why so many Scots have lost faith in the idea of Britain. Britishness in Scotland originally emerged from the field of tension between two opposing sets of values, both embedded in their own institutional structures: the imperialist racism of the British state and the social solidarity of the British labor movement. The conflict between these worldviews was expressed, not only in the programs of rival political parties, but in contradictions within the consciousness of the working-class majority of the population.

The end of Empire, post-1945, saw the removal of one of the two main pillars of British identity in Scotland. Nevertheless, the identity survived and became, if anything, even more entrenched during the same period, largely because of the two great achievements of the British labor movement, British imperialism's main internal opponent. One was the institutional embodiment, however imperfectly and inadequately, of labor movement values in the welfare state--above all, in the NHS. The other was through the ability of the trade unions, organized at a UK level, to defend working-class living standards and workplace conditions. Trade union membership reached a peak of over 13 million in 1979 following the insurgencies of that decade. This peak was followed by the neoliberal onslaught which has succeeded in reducing it to around 6.5 million--by no means a negligible figure, but one which is, in terms of density, heavily concentrated in the public sector and among older workers. The implications for the continued existence of British identity in Scotland are significant.

7. Younger workers are the least likely to be unionized, which does not mean that they would not join if given the opportunity, or that they are not engaged in other campaigns for social justice, simply that "the British labor movement" means little or nothing to them as a reality. But equally, those areas which are most likely to be unionized, in the public sector, have also seen a diminution of UK-wide connections, as the trade unions concerned--Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) in the Scottish government, Unison in the NHS--already have devolved structures and Scottish-level bargaining units. These are tendencies within the trade union movement, but the direction of travel is unmistakable, and it is away from a sense of Britishness.

That leaves the welfare state. And it is in this context that Britishness is being most actively, if unintentionally, undermined. Ironically, the people most responsible are not Scottish nationalists; quite the contrary, the people most responsible are those committed to maintaining the British state: the adherents of that peculiarly Anglo-Saxon mix of neoconservatism and neoliberalism which has characterized, in different ways, all British governments, including Labour governments, since 1979. There is a sense therefore in which both the independence referendum and the general election were about the outcomes most likely to retain in Scotland those institutions which have protected working-class people from capitalism's otherwise unconstrained destructiveness. Ironically, most of those who voted for independence in 2014 and for the SNP in 2015 were asserting a belief that, under current conditions, these were the only ways in which the remaining positive aspects of Britishness could be preserved. But Labour has been the most vociferous party in defending the unity of neoliberal Britain--far more so than the Tories, whose right-wing would are equally happy for Scotland and the rest of the EU to be, as they see it, cut adrift from the glory that is England. And this clinging to the decaying corpse of Britain is the immediate cause of Labour's electoral disaster.

Labour's Suicide and the Rise of the SNP

8. Twelve years ago, perhaps even 12 months ago, even the most optimistic of the SNP's tacticians would not have predicted capturing so much of Labour's former support, even though this has been their goal for several decades now. The transformative element was the referendum campaign and the emergence in its latter stages of what was effectively a mass social movement comparable to those of Greece or Spain. In previous eras, a massive left-wing and overwhelmingly working-class movement would, potentially at least, have been a vast recruiting ground for Labour Party members and voters. On this occasion such an outcome was impossible--not only because of Labour's enthusiastic embrace of neoliberalism at home and imperialist war abroad, not only because the SNP had carefully positioned itself as the defender of the social democratic tradition, but also because Labour activists were simply incapable of speaking to the tens of thousands mobilized by the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and the Yes campaign more generally.

For Labour, anyone who supported independence was, by definition, a "nationalist" and therefore worthy only of the unhinged sectarianism which it has always shown toward the SNP. This uncomprehending blindness to the real nature of the Yes campaign has affected even the standard-bearers of the Labour left in Scotland: Neil Finlay, a serious working-class figure and former candidate for the leadership in Scotland, describes politics in Scotland as now being "post-rational," because of the failure of the working-class to vote for Labour. The sense of thwarted entitlement here is tragic: one wonders just how you begin to appeal to erstwhile supporters whom you regard as having gone collectively insane. The day after the election, Herald columnist Ian Bell wrote about the "strange death" of Scottish Labour. On this occasion his appropriation of George Dangerfield's useful phrase was misplaced, for there was nothing remotely strange about the fate which has befallen Scottish Labour. On the contrary, to borrow the title of a book by a very different writer, Gabriel García Márquez, this was the chronicle of a death foretold.

9. There are precedents for the extent of the SNP's subsequent hegemony. The Tories also achieved over 50 percent of the vote in 1955, although this only delivered them 36 out of what were then 71 Scottish seats. And although Labour took over from the Tories as the party with the largest share of the vote by 1959, it took until 1987 to attain absolute electoral dominance, and even them with six fewer seats than the SNP has now. What is unprecedented is the speed with which the SNP has achieved its position and the fact that it has been accompanied by a vast increase in membership, now numbering around 110,000--something like 2 percent of the Scottish population. In the face of this enormous upheaval and the hope it awakens in the Scottish left--not unreasonably given the nightmare vista of untrammelled Tory rule across the UK as a whole--the temptation to stand to one side and gaze admiringly at the SNP juggernaut, or even to join it, can be overwhelming; it should, however, be resisted.

In any case, simply establishing a separate state will not resolve our problems, although it will allow the possibility of achieving reforms currently blocked at the UK level. But everything then depends on what the left and the movement actually do. There is a naïve nationalist view which ascribes all our woes to the cartoon villain, "Westmonster," as if it was simply geographical location and the weight of its nefarious traditions from which we had to escape. In republican socialist versions of this argument it is the "crown powers" which are fetishized as the source of all evil. The effect is to reinforce the disabling myth of British exceptionalism. Alas, all capitalist states have their own ways of curtailing democracy--because curtailing democracy is one of the key functions of the capitalist state and, unfortunately, this would also be the case in Scotland. Even if the SNP had the will to resist all the internal and external pressures pushing against the achievement of even quite modest reforms, are we really expecting it to succeed where previous social democratic governments--with far stronger social bases in working-class communities and institutions--have failed?


10. I wrote earlier that the temptation to go with flow of the SNP surge is very strong. What is the point of trying to establish a political alternative when it exercises such dominance? There would certainly be none if it simply involved another attempt to iteration of the pure, elected few. But we have been part of one the greatest mass movements in Scottish history, its energies have not all been absorbed by the SNP and its new membership and support are still on a highly conditional basis. The responsibility of socialists is therefore very great. If the SNP is to face an opposition from the left, rather the racist, xenophobic right, then unity of both purpose and organization will be required. But if we can actually do this then the possibilities are as thrilling as they have been in my lifetime. "Run forward, comrade, the old world is behind you," went the French student slogan of 1968. On May 7, we entered the new world: Can we rise to the challenge it presents?

First published at the Scottish Left Project website.

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