Increasingly the phrase “I’m not a nationalist but … “ has begun to jar as another well-meaning member of the “Scottish left”, whatever that exactly is these days,
tells me they will be voting Yes in the referendum.
What particularly irks is the reasoning for this is fundamentally flawed and rests on the La Grande Illusion of Scottish politics and its progressive chattering
The assumption is a separate Scotland will be a kinder, gentler, fairer, better and, let’s face it superior, country than a Britain dominated by Tory
England. Overnight Scotland will turn into a Scandic social democracy.
It reached its nadir during the Edinburgh Festival in two debates, one with ageing hipsters in Leith that had a more than a whiff of Shoreditch about it, and the other
at the Book Festival where it was difficult to differentiate the local literati from the North London lot until they opened their mouths.
A common theme at both was the bile and betrayal felt towards Labour – much of it, perhaps, understandable when one considers Iraq, the wholehearted embrace
of neo-liberalism and assault on civil liberties. This was backed up by the belief independence will be the panacea to all our ills.
But as Gerry Hassan was good enough to point out in his debate with Polly Toynbee of The Guardian at the Book Festival, in England the majority of the overall
electorate has only ever voted Tory once and that was in 1955, when Scotland did likewise. What was not said was Labour, unlike the Tories, has never achieved
over 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland. It may have been the biggest party since the Sixties but Scotland was never as deeply Labour as our electoral system
portrayed. Scotland, though, has become increasingly anti-Tory, but over the last decade it has also become less social democrat.
John Curtice and Rachel Ormston’s report on British Social Attitude survey last December Is Scotland more left wing than England ? concluded: “Although
Scotland is more social democrat in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best. Like England Scotland has become less – not more – social
democratic since the start of devolution”.
In recent years BSA surveys have also shown Scotland to be more conservative than England on social issues, while both the Kirk and Catholic Church
continue to have a disproportionate influence in Scottish politics and the media compared to churches down south.
But another fallacy of La Grande IIlusion is the belief after a successful Yes vote the SNP would not necessarily become the natural party of government. Scots
may be thrawn but it is difficult to imagine them replacing Salmond and the SNP, particularly as the unionists parties would be disarray.
Part of the “Non-Nats’ premise also rests on how much a party of the “left” the SNP really is? Much of the SNP’s success has been Alex Salmond’s ability to pitch
himself as all things to all people. As financier Peter de Vink said approvingly on the BBC recently: “He talks left, but acts right’.
A more accurate description would be broadly populist as while Salmond has courted the Mathewsons, Grossarts, Farmers and Murrays of the Scottish business
world he was also backslapping the late Jimmy Reid.
It should also be noted before the banking crisis Salmond was more neo-liberal than New Labour and even criticised Gordon Brown for not enough light- enough
regulation. Meanwhile the First Minister promises corporation tax cuts while the council tax freeze, a regressive policy of greater benefit to the wealthier, has
been their key policy.
Salmond also made great play on BBC Question Time during the 2011 election that he would protect the NHS unlike the UK government. A senior aide later
described it as a game-changer during the campaign, but with the latest figures on NHS cuts last week even its critics admit a Labour government at Holyrood
would have protected the NHS more vigourously .
However Salmond’s Teflon-like quality ensures he continues to be seen as an “outsider” exploiting the general disillusionment with Westminster and politics in
general. As a political chameleon his vision for Scotland is still ill-defined. While Gavin McCrone’s analysis of Norway last week in The Scotsman pointed out its
high-tax regime and wealth tax are key part of its economy, it is a subject Salmond runs a mile from.
One of the main failures of devolution has been it has benefited “civic scotland” – media, academics, civil servants, quangos, public and third sector executives –
while failing to address core problems of inequality and unemployment. Meanwhile “civic Scotland” is engrossed in constitutional navel gazing, encouraged by the
SNP, and many see an expansion of their role and no doubt greater opportunities in an independent Scotland but the future for manufacturing, research and
workforce at large is far more uncertain.
But underlying La Grande Illusion is ultimately a false sense of grievance, often from people who have very little to grieve about, and a warped view of Scotland’s
relationship with England. Brian Wilson’s bracing outburst in these pages last week about the media obsession with looking at everything through “ the prism of the
national question” and his clarion call for Scotland to fight back against the rewriting of its own history was a badly needed corrective.
James Kelman’s refers to our “colonised culture” in the latest edition of the Scottish Review of Books. Yes, as Kelman says, gaeldom did suffer, was oppressed
and brutalised like many other indigenous people but it was as much by lowland Scots as it was by England. No culture remains pure and pristine.
Kelman is right, though, to say it is pathetic how little is known of our history but when the education secretary Mike Russell stood up in Holyrood and ran through
a tea-towel version of it omitting inconvenient truths like the Darien scheme during the debate on introducing Scottish Studies one can but despair.
but Scotland’s culture does thrive as part of a multicultural Britain. People are trying to right past wrongs and while Kelman rails against the British Council that
other institution of the state the BBC has introduced BBC Alba.
Scotland benefited greatly from the union and as an equal partner and leading agent in the Empire at so many otehrs expense. It has gone on to do so culturally,
economically and politically but to refer to our “colonised culture” is insult to those truly colonised.
But even more galling is the general crude caricature of “Tory England”. Danny Boyle’s Olympic spectacle was not only a corrective to the Jubilee but a remidner
of our bestv traditions. The Scottish left would also do well to reflect on England’s great radical tradition and what it has given us and the common values we
share today. From the Magna Carta, the Lollards, Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and the Chartists to writers like Milton, Blake, Paine, Cobbet, Shelley, Morris and
Orwell and even the anti-Corn Law league inspired by the English middle classes.
The Tolpuddle martyrs, the Peterloo massacre, Thomas Spence’s call too nationalise land to the Jarrow marchers continue to resonate and inspire throughout
these isles while not just Scottish women can look to Mary Woolstencraft and Emily Pankhurst who fought for their rights. In more recent times oen need only look
to Orwell, Beveridge and Bevan and appreciate their impact on Scotland.
Toynbee in her response to Hassan made the heartfelt plea: “Don’t leave us. We need you to be there.” Tony Benn said the same days earlier. Progressives,
liberals, social democrats, socialist are misguided if their constitutional navel gazing embraces is limited what is effectively “bourgeois nationalism” instead of
looking to new horizons such as federalism, localism and stronger city regions.
But it would seem solidarity is fading from the lexicon of the Scottish left.
Sent from my iPad