Friday, 1 May 2015

Echoes of War

Reaction to last night's Question Time has revolved around two issues: Ed Miliband's failure to apologise for the last Labour government's profligacy, and the threat of a new Labour government being held hostage by the SNP. Both are based on false premises (the mediamacro mythos and the idea that the SNP would vote with the Tories), which means that the event did little to advance the BBC's mission to inform, educate and entertain, unless you consider the clash of cultivated ignorance and platitudinous managerialism to be entertaining. The BBC's structural bias (a tiresome deference to the views of small business owners) was so obvious on this occasion that even haters like Toby Young gave Auntie "top marx" for ideological soundness.

But it would be wrong to dismiss these two concerns simply because they are ill-informed and irrational. The myth of Labour profligacy, like the shift in blame from bankers to benefit claimants, is evidence that we want to take the blue pill. One of the QT audience even went so far as to insist that far from triggering and amplifying the 2008 crisis, financial services had been our nation's saving grace and that Gordon Brown had sold-off our gold cheaply. The guy may well have been a Tory stooge, but more striking is the evidence of self-delusion and an appetite for consoling myths. The reason why the "nation's credit card" trope resonates is because so many of us are (or have been) subject to the anxiety of debt. We want the state to take over that psychic burden. The reason why we have a housing crisis is because few of us can bear the thought of falling house prices, which would be the inevitable result of any effective solution. We want the state to relieve us of our ambivalence.

There had been some advance criticism of David Cameron over his refusal to participate in a genuine debate: an extraordinary insult to democracy that most of the media just shrugged off. The post-event coverage elided this by emphasising the ferocity of the audience, as if this were an old-style hustings and democracy was alive and kicking. But the depressing truth is that this was a curated crowd, with partisan statements and myth-peddling masquerading as questions. There was no debate: not between the party leaders; and not between the leaders and the public. Instead we had the neoliberal paradigm: quantification (alloted questions and time), simplification (policy as bullet-points), and the impossibility of autonomy (the audience failed to heckle or argue with each other). As I indulged my inner Nigel Farage while watching this unedifying display, my thoughts turned to the Putney Debates of 1647 (no, really). Not because that was a finer example of democratic practice or an "informed" public, but because the contemporary anxiety about the Scots started to trigger parallels in my mind.

It's hardly novel to think of the Greens as a middle-class recuperation of the Diggers, or even to think of UKIP as the true inheritors of the not-quite-democratic Levellers (proto-libertarians rather than proto-socialists, with the "Norman Yoke" as a forerunner of the EU). The clearest parallel, however, is the SNP as latterday Covenanters. Though there seems to be little likelihood of a formal Labour-SNP coalition, the prospect of any kind of influence seems to worry the political establishment, presumably because it jeopardises existing power networks, while thrilling those who despise that establishment. Phil Burton-Cartledge thinks there is revolution afoot in Scotland, arising from the salutary effect of the referendum defeat: "The realignment of British politics from the emergence of Labour to supplanting the Liberals as one of the two main contenders took a generation. ... In Scotland however, time has sped up. What takes decades to accomplish has flipped in the course of a single Parliament. Such tends to happen when masses of politicised people enter the stage and find existing modes of political expression wanting".

Taking a longer view, Paul Cotterill, quoting Henry Drucker from 1979, thinks this was long-predicted and reflects the growth of national identity as the class identity of political parties weakens: "If Labour comes to be seen as an increasingly middle-class organisation, it could lose its support even if its supporters remained class-conscious. ... Class consciousness, as a historical fact, is obviously endangered by changes external to it. Gaitskell saw prosperity as one such threat. Nationalism is another - one whose power is more real in the 1970s than would have been foreseen in the late 1950s. As Scottish and Welsh working people have come to identify themselves as Scots or Welshmen first and workers second, Labour loses their support to nationalist parties".

In contrast, Robert Tombs sees party affiliation reflecting older, religious roots, which suggests that the SNP's "civic nationalism" is a cultural continuation of traditional Presbyterianism - i.e. an insistence on a qualitative Scottish difference based on moral superiority: "Scotland’s dynamic nationalism draws not only on modern discontents but also on ancient and deep-seated ideas of identity, rights and differences. This gives the SNP a protean quality that is able to appeal across conventional socio-economic and ideological divisions. Hence, it first absorbed much of the Scottish Conservative vote and most of its seats as an opponent of Labour during the 1990s and now is doing the same to Labour as an opponent of the Tories."

There is some truth in this. Scotland's much-vaunted "social democracy" is little more than "my ain folk" sentimentality in practice (SNP policies in government have been echt neoliberal), and there remains a strong cultural respect for probity, rectitude and prudence (famously channelled by Gordon Brown), as if such characteristics were rarely found elsewhere. What most English people fail to get is just how irritated many Scots are about a UK-level identity reduced over the last 50 years from Dr Findlay and John Knox to Rab C Nesbitt and Francis Begbie. It is this conservative temper that defeated the referendum (prudence won out), and it is the same temper that now feeds support for the SNP among the "solid majority" of Scotland.

As Rafael Behr notes, "The genius of nationalism lies in its mobilisation for political ends of emotions that people feel as more authentic, less negotiable than ordinary politics." This in turn suggests that the dominance of Labour in Scotland over the last 25 years was driven by the "negotiability" of centrists, tactically voting in Westminster elections, rather than a more progressive polity. Those centrists are now opting for nationalism of a particular kind: reluctant to embrace full independence (much as the Covenanters were reluctant to embrace republicanism), but keen to bring their moral superiority to bear for the benefit of the wider UK (an end to austerity being the equivalent of an end to bishops).

If the SNP supplant Labour as the largest party in Scotland, this will not be because of national consciousness-raising around the referendum, or a revived pride in a common identity (Scottish culture remains as fissiparous and internecine as ever), but because Labour is no longer perceived to be the champion of the working class. Or to put it another way, the Labour party is no longer managing labour in Scotland, which explains much of the anxiety in England as working class concerns have suddenly escaped from the party corral. The irony is that English small business owners have far less to fear from the nationalists (neoliberals in practice and Tartan Tories at root) than Cromwell ever had to fear from the Scots. There will be no Solemn League and Covenant between Labour and the SNP, because Labour has no need of such an arrangement, and the SNP will endorse austerity-lite at Westminster because it will be implementing the same policies at Holyrood.


  1. I think you're underestimating the fact that from the point of view of Westminster, Fleet Street and Salford Quays such moderate policies as getting rid of university tuition fees, free care for the elderly and axing Trident are considered positively revolutionary. The conservatism of England explains this ridiculous panic.

  2. gastro george3 May 2015 at 11:27

    Igor, it's interesting that you include tuition fees because this, of course, is a recent policy, so might be evidence of a lack of conservatism, at least in terms of policy rather than politics.

  3. IIRC, tuition fees were first introduced by Labour back in 1997 or 1998. The recent change is that they were potentially raised to £9000.