The second in a two-part series on the British Left and its relationship with Scotland
In the first part of my journey examining the British left, I looked at how the far-left in Scotland has been working to free itself from London rule for the past few decades. Today I’m going to examine why the rest of the British left can’t seem to understand Scotland either. The vanguards are mostly gone, but sadly the Guardianists are still very much to the fore within the British labour movement.
The fact that the referendum campaign is developing into a right/left battle hasn’t stopped some of our friends from down South from popping up to give us a nice pat on the head and assure us we’ll be back being “Better Together” with them soon.
We’ve oft rejoiced in the visitations of Tories (or UKIP) to our midst. A string of discredited overlords heading to Scotland to beg us to stay in their broken state makes us smile. There have been more than a few unwelcome interjections from people who claim to be on our side.
I’m going to leave the obvious choice, George Galloway, because he’s had quite enough attention already and we know he loves it. Who knows, maybe he’ll use the Daily Record to remind us all that he hates socialism and women’s rights, like he did on a previous occasion when we pointed out how much he… hated socialism and women’s rights. What a comeback that was!
The new darling of the British left, Owen Jones, also seems to have made it his job to interject in the debate about Scotland’s future. His main justification for doing so is that he used to live in Falkirk and his family are from all over the shop. Owen tells a story which is common to many about the contradictory relationship his family have had throughout history with the British state: fighting against it, dying for it, moving around it. There are the other familiar contradictions. He lists good things that happened on these Isles (the Chartists, the revolution of the 17th Century, the Welfare state) as proof that we all have a shared history worth defending.
The array of complimentary and contradictory views about class, nation and religion has a particular resonance in Scotland given our recent history with the Empire, Ireland etc. etc.. Owen also pins down three of the key themes about Britain: industry, war and welfare; and correctly shows how the changing nature of all these things has reduced the historic social bonds which kept Scots feeling British.
This is a far better analysis and understanding than we usually get from the English left. The problem is that it still doesn’t lead anywhere. We used to feel British, we no longer do, let’s be British again and it will all probably be fine. How we get there is even less clear. Ok, re-industrialisation is one suggestion, but is that it? Back down the mines for us? Recolonise the world? Fight more wars so we all feel more British? Restore the bitter, sectarian ties which have kept many loyal to a state which doesn’t serve them?
Ultimately it all comes down to one thing for Owen: if only people in Scotland would just vote Labour. Then we’d be back to the Britain of industry and welfare and dying to defend our Isles. The fact that the period in which Scotland consistently voted Labour most saw our industries destroyed, our welfare state dismantled and savage Labour led wars in Iraq & Afghanistan is forgotten.
It’s very odd that those who claim to fight for progress seem to think some things are incapable of changing. In an online exchange I witnessed, someone suggesting independence would be “far from perfect but ..a much better chance” of defending the welfare state. Owen Jones replied,
Why do you think the current centre of political gravity in Scotland is permanent or innate?
What was actually said was that there was “a much better chance” of good things happening.
While we’re discussing the practical things we can do better in Scotland based on analysis of the current situation, Owen is liking comments from Labour “Marxists” about how the Scottish working class are“organisationally and idealogically indivisible from the british labour movement.” It wasn’t our side who were saying anything about innate, permanent or INDIVISIBLE states of affairs. Owen reminds us our gains were “won by the British labour movement as a whole.“ This ignores the fact they failed to adequatedly defend them from the attacks of both the British state and Owen’s own party. The SNP are now the left-of-centre social democratic party defending the gains made by the “British labour movement as a whole”; in the face of his own, centre-right, unionist, Scottish Labour Party who are firmly pro-austerity.
This derision of the actual fact that the political centre of gravity is at the moment to the left in Scotland is strange. Rather than seek to understand why or – dare I suggest – acknowledge the progress we’ve made, we’re instead seen as deluded nationalists who think changing our flag will lead to a communist utopia by 2015. The reason things are the way they are is because people made them be that way. The political winds are a direct result of all the stuff we’ve done in Scotland to challenge the right-wing consensus at Westminster. We know none of this is innate or permanent because we actually made it happen.
This leads us neatly to the next straw mannerism of the British left. Stating facts about the current political climate means we obviously just hate the English and think they’re all beer swilling EDL supporters. Or as Owen frames it,
Is this because you think the English working class are insufficiently progressive?
This neatly highlights the biggest issue with the British left’s own analysis. We are making the point that it’s possible to build a better future, free from Westminster rule, for everyone in Britain. We’ve developed an idea of a civic nation with social, economic and political values – these may be disputed but the left has played a key role in shaping what people think Scotland is for. Owen asserts that the same cannot be said for English nationalism. He notes in one Guardian piece,
unlike its Welsh and Scottish counterparts, there is a disturbing, racially exclusive element to English nationalism. At its most strident, it is on the march in the form of the anti-immigrant, Islam-hating English Defence League.
So why is this? England is far more ethnically diverse than Scotland and Wales yet the narrative about England is nowhere near as inclusive. Is it because socialists in England aren’t demanding some independence from the old structures of Britain? What’s stopping the English left demanding a better democracy, a new parliament, a state freed from its Empire? Why can’t they show some solidarity with their Scottish & Welsh counterparts and begin to paint a picture of a new, independent England? Is it because they think the English working class are insufficiently progressive? It seems like it. Again the allegations being made seem to better fit those making them.
The implication in all of this is that by leaving the British state we have abandonned our English counterparts to never-ending Tory rule. While that’s been factually debunked many times - a great recent example can be found here - it also assumes that a future English state would be incapable of any kind of change. Their England exists in a permanent, innate, inidivisible state of racism and backwardness. Speaking of racism and backwardness, the Labour Party is on hand with their antidote of… much the same again thanks.
There is another strange case of values being turned on their heads. The idea that it is selfish or divisive to take advantage of the gains we’ve made in Scotland is nonsense. Obviously, the idea that we are in no way connected to people in England is also nonsense. If we win things – it makes things easier for them and not harder. The English left seems to be suggesting that a victory for Scotland is an injury to England. I don’t think it is. Our internationalism and solidarity extends far beyond the borders of the Union state. An independent Scotland could not only be a beacon for England but for our neighbours like Ireland, who’ve been shafted by the neo-liberal agenda; or to smaller states in Eastern Europe with a similar history of conflicting national and class identities. As well as mainland Europe there is also Scandanivia, Russia, China, emerging markets like Latin America and, dare I mention, the US. There are a lot more prospects for Scotland other than remaining subservient to the Labour Party, who are in turn subservient to the interests of the super rich and the a small and powerful group of “swing voters” in the South-East of England who control our polity.
At first, I thought maybe it was a tad harsh to focus on one individual like Owen Jones – he has after all been a voice for many people opposing austerity and the general direction this country is headed. But then I thought: actually, the man’s the same age as me; there is just no excuse for him being in the Labour Party. Rather than looking back at the generations of my family who built that Party, I look forward to a future without it. For his entire adult life, his party has been a right-wing, backward, racist, war machine; destroying not just what’s left of Britain like industry and welfare but anything else they can get their grubby hands on. There are no democratic means to change that situation inside that party. The Labour Party isn’t even the most left-wing of Scotland’s mainstream political parties these days – will it be agan? Is it trying? Probably neither. What real progressives in England need to do is learn the lessons we’ve learned in Scotland and argue for a clean break from the British establishment. There is no excuse for socialists to support the maintenance of the British state anymore. There is a real opportunity to build a new country and new political movements which are independent from Britain and the Labour Party.
If this doesn’t occur in 2014, they assert that everyone will just coming running back to Labour again. I’ve dealt with this before so I’ll be brief. The decline in support for Labour in Scotland is not at all as connected to support for indepedence as it suits either side in the referendum debate to suggest. People in Scotland are capable of realising what each vote is about, no matter how often Labour try to confuse the matter. The idea that just because many SNP voters may oppose independence, they’ll suddenly go running to Labour if Scotland votes No in 2014, has no basis in fact. With UKIP looming large in England, there is a possibility that voters down South may be familiarising themselves with what it’s like to not vote Labour. They may also not coming running back.
The British left need to switch sides now and stop lining up to defend Britain. For too long now, those both from a far left and more liberal/soppy backgrounds have worked together to slow the pace of real progress in Scotland. The fact that we are better off for our efforts, however slightly, isn’t nearly as important to any of them as defending membership of their clubs or their defunct ideologies. Whether they claim to take inspiration from 17th Century revolutionaries in England or 20th Century revolutions in Russia, it’s always about the past.
The position of Owen Jones in 2013 was pretty much the position of the old Trotskyists in the CWI way back in the 1980s. They both believed that staying in Labour and staying in Britain were the only alternative to a descent into racism, nationalism, division and disharmony. The CWI got kicked out of the Labour Party as soon as they were any kind of threat. The same fate does not befall the Labour left today because they are no threat whatsoever. The “new left” in England is about 20 years behind the old, sectarian Trotskyists on the question of the Labour Party and Scotland. So not very new and not very left.
What we all need is a bit of independence. Owen (and socialists in general) would be better off without Labour; England would be better off without Britain; we would all be better off without annoying wee “left wing” sects. Scotland’s new politics became real in 1999 with the creation of the Parliament and we will be making our first major decision about our future some 15 years on.
When I was 15, my parents didn’t like me going out and getting steaming and falling over. They also realised there wasn’t much they could do to stop me. They knew allowing me the independence to make choices and even mistakes would benefit all of us in the long run. Our English lefty parents never see it like this. We are INDIVISIBLE from the British Labour movement and must not leave. We’re not allowed to go out because we might get steaming and fall over. And if we are selfish enough to go out and do our own thing then, who will pull dad up for making racist jokes?
It’s time for the left in England to start thinking about a future for their nation, without an unhappy political union with Scotland which doesn’t work for anyone anymore. Many seem to be trying to guilt us into believing this can only be a hellhole run by a UKIP/EDL coalition dropping nukes on Holyrood. They need to start talking about other possibilities or they may be writing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether they do this may well depend on just how progressive they actually believe the English working class to be – tied to Britain and Labour forever? – or capable of existing independently?
This could be just the kick up the arse our English friends and allies need. Without an empire to defend or a mystical history (which they’re far too young to remember) to hark back to, they will be forced to outline the progressive possibilities for England. And they must.
But sooner or later, Scotland will be leaving Britain with or without the approval of our parents/the Guardian.