The left and Scottish nationalism: the origins and implications of the left's dalliance with Scottish independence.

Author:Jackson, Ben
Position:THE BREAK-UP OF BRITAIN?

Disappointments, defeats and disillusion have been the left's constant companions for many a year now. The electric shock therapy of Thatcherism followed by the various bitter pills administered by New Labour have led many principled socialists and social democrats to despair about what they see as a secular rightward drift in British politics. Faced with this seemingly gloomy outlook, the thoughts of the left naturally turn to escape routes: how to regain the initiative and recapture the idealism that was once the left's home territory? An influential section of the left intelligentsia in Scotland, and a significant group of sympathisers elsewhere in the UK, argue that they have found an answer to this dilemma in the shape of Scottish independence. In the face of the wider retreat of the left in Europe and North America, and the local manifestations of this phenomenon in British public life, these advocates of a 'radical independence' propose a tactical retreat into the socialist bastion of Scotland in order to keep alive the values threatened by the global march of neo-liberalism.

A number of left-wing individuals, organisations, websites, and publications have embraced this position. This rainbow coalition comprises such elements as the contributors to vibrant organs of online opinion such as OpenDemocracy, National Collective and Bella Caledonia; the capable organisers of the Radical Independence Campaign; the thinkers and strategists behind the Common Weal project fostered by the Jimmy Reid Foundation; transatlantic celebrity endorsers of Scottish independence such as Brian Cox and Alan Cumming; a substantial section (although not all) of the SNP; the Scottish Greens and assorted alumni of the Scottish Socialist Party in its pomp; various left-leaning Scottish broadsheet columnists; radical English commentators such as John Harris of The Guardian; and even those traditional leftist warhorses, Billy Bragg and Tariq Ali (I). The common thread that can be traced across these diverse supporters of Scottish independence is a certain reluctance to declare that this case is founded on nationalism. Rather, they aver, it rests on a positive and inclusive decision to create the more egalitarian Scotland that will surely emerge once it is severed from the decrepit hulk that is the British state.

But while this proposition has been advanced with great fervour and certainty by its advocates, there have been surprisingly few voices on either the Scottish or British left willing to raise sceptical questions about it (for one honourable exception, see Morton, 2014). Instead, the proponents of independence have faced the more congenial task of railing against the criticisms of Labour politicians who, when measured by the left's unforgiving ideological litmus test, are invariably found to be lacking in the requisite radical credentials. This article therefore seeks to dispense with the uncritical stance that the left has generally adopted towards Scottish independence and to examine the left-wing arguments for it with a more sceptical eye.

The case for left-wing nationalism

How did Scottish independence emerge as a plausible vehicle for the left's aspirations? The shrewdest SNP strategists have long recognised that a more conventional form of nationalism, founded on a nineteenth-century model of cultural or even linguistic revival, did not suit the Scottish case. A powerful early statement of this argument was made by Stephen Maxwell, one of the intellectual architects of modern Scottish nationalism. His 1981 pamphlet, The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism, was unflinching in its recognition that 'the historic sense of Scottish political and cultural nationality is too weak to serve as the basis for modern political nationalism.' Scottish history, Maxwell pointed out, lacked the grievances necessary to generate a potent form of cultural nationalism: Scotland's political union with the rest of Britain had largely been the result of bargaining between two national elites rather than coercion, while the subsequent economic benefits of, and relatively free cultural assimilation into, the British imperial project provided few clear-cut examples of anti-Scottish oppression. This absence of despotism in the relations between England and Scotland, argued Maxwell, meant that a different sort of nationalism would need to be constructed, one that sought to channel the late twentieth-century social and economic grievances felt by the Scottish working class into a critique of the British state and a faith in the possibilities opened up by a Scottish state committed to socialism (Maxwell, 2013 [1981], 76-81, 99).

It is one thing to make programmatic announcements and another for them to gain any purchase on political reality. For a long time analyses...

To continue reading

Request your trial