By Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)
What is Robin McAlpine? It’s all the more difficult when you’ve never met the man. I saw him once, at a pro-independence rally on Calton Hill. I was helping out at the National Collective stall, the sort of thing one does when one is 21 years old and the sun’s out. I became aware of a sort of blur, somewhere in my field of vision. The perplexing thing about this blur was that it wasn’t peripheral, or fleeting, as blurs tend to be; it was directly in front of me, and Michael Gray – now a columnist for The National, of course – appeared to be interacting with it.
Focusing more carefully on what was going on in front of my eyes – a rare effort for somebody in the independence campaign – it transpired that this blur was in fact a man, gesticulating feverishly, and the man was dressed like a teenage boy. Scuffed converse and jeans, short-sleeved t-shirt over long-sleeved t-shirt, thick-rimmed spectacles; he was there, in front of me, half-man half-blur, and I didn’t particularly want to talk to him.
In those sunny, optimistic days, McAlpine was like a myth: you know it’s wrong – I had written several critical things about the Common Weal by this point – but at no point do you really bother to grasp it, to work out where this wrongness actually came from. He was a thing you took for granted, and like the many unspoken peculiarities of the Yes Campaign he blended unquestioned into a vast herd of elephants in the room.
But now he is more significant. Today, McAlpine enthusiastically represents all that is left of the Yes Campaign in all its absurd, contradictory unity. The SNP has reasserted itself as the cautious, moderate party of “Scotland’s interest” which infuriated radicals during the referendum; much of the pro-independence left has moved on to campaigns like Scottish Left Project, Better Than Zero and the Living Rent Campaign; the Greens are back to poking around in their allotments, and those honourable captains of industry at Business for Scotland are presumably back to making lots of money. Independence remains on the horizon, but for most it is a horizon deferred.
Only McAlpine is still plugging away at keeping everything together. His most recent article for Bella Caledonia is a spirited defence of his decision to speak at the “Seize The Day” rally organised by a strange organisation called “Hope Over Fear”, best described as a group of people being waved around by saltires. The involvement of Tommy Sheridan in the organisation’s leadership and as a speaker caused some concern. McAlpine insists that this is what movement-building is all about – building bridges in spite of disagreements – and that the real problem is middle-class nationalists on “social media” getting uncomfortable about how working-class nationalists express themselves. His closing remarks are an elegy for the fading unity of Yes:
Imagine what it would be like if we could fix this. Imagine there wasn’t this problem. Imagine we added to the riot of colour on Saturday the green, the red, the yellow. Imagine if Women for Indy could have joined the carnival. Imagine if RIC could have been there in strength. Imagine if we could have been hugging each other rather than tweeting about each other.
His commitment to the cause doesn’t explain him, though; it simply makes the need to explain him clear. Below are 3 working hypotheses, offered as a starting point for further research.
Hypothesis 1: Robin McAlpine is really clever
Confucius believed that one of the central causes of disorder was misunderstanding, and he proposed dealing with this through the “rectification of names”. Things with the wrong name would be perceived and dealt with wrongly, and social problems would arise. Giving them names which better accorded with their essence would help lead to better understanding and action.
Is Robin McAlpine our very own Confucius? Two old articles suggest as much. In The Scotsman in 2012, Robin attacked the “endless name-calling” of Scottish politics, and the caricature of Salmond as a “populist despot”:
In reality, if people properly understood the meanings of the terms populism and small-n nationalism they would realise that Scotland’s long-running constitutional debate has helped to protect us from the rise of the far-right.
McAlpine went on to suggest that all the problems emerging from this name-calling are the result of “confusion”. People think “populism” is about what is “popular”, whereas really “the linguistic root” of the term is “populace”, or “the people”. With this explained, McAlpine goes on to rectify all sorts of misnomenclature throughout history. The Nazis, you see, were populists, not nationalists: “the idea of the German “Reich” was not an idea of a nation but of the more accurate translation of “a Germanic realm”, he says – Germanic being an ethnic and thus populist signifier, not a national one, because the implied “other” was within the nation, not outside it.
But then McAlpine, grasping meanings and nuances beyond the reach of the laity, complicated matters with a very short blog in 2014 called “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Nationalism”. No longer was the “nation” simply a territorial bloc with an external “other”; now it could be an “ethnic” nation too, or a “cultural” nation. The “nation” need not have a pre-given landmass: it could be based on ethnic groups or cultural characteristics coexisting with others on the same territory. This makes the definition of the nation sound largely subjective, of course, but he went on to argue that anybody who didn’t accept his precise definitions of these terms “should simply refrain from writing about them.”
Tom Nairn and Anthony Smith, both giants of nationalism studies, have found much to disagree on, but both have suggested that almost all nationalism – including the civic variety – depends to some degree on an ethnic basis. They have each made distinctions between ethnicity and genetics (although Nairn has speculated that the two are in fact connected), a distinction McAlpine apparently rejects: ethnic nationalism “defines citizenship in genetic (or very occasionally religious) terms”. But for Smith, the ethnie (ethnic community) has very little to do with genetics and their unscientific perversion into “race”, and everything to do with shared histories and cultural practices, and not necessarily “religious” ones. But perhaps Nairn and Smith should just stop writing about nationalism.
The safe, “small-n”, purely territorial nationalism McAlpine had been referring to in 2012 was specifically civic, “inclusive” nationalism, but he was still keen to explain that any mild “othering” of foreigners is understandable: “some curiosity or suspicion of people who are in some way not like us is an inherent trait of humans, as it is in all animals.”
This might explain McAlpine’s comments on the English, made to Janet Street-Porter in 2014: “it’s not that we don’t like [the English], it’s that you’re not part of our lives.” But it’s still puzzling. How does such a profound separation come about? It can’t simply be through “civic” nationalism, because the Scots and the English have shared political institutions and territory for centuries. Surely a fundamental, insurmountable difference like this, which makes the English “in some way not like us”, has to come about through something deeper: different traditions, histories, cultural practices, perhaps? Is Robin McAlpine an ethnic nationalist? And definitions, as he has made clear, are very important. Things must have the correct names.
Unless, of course, giving some things the correct names poses a problem to McAlpine’s own political project. Suddenly, he says we must reserve judgement or hold our tongues about Tommy Sheridan and Wings Over Scotland, despite the fact that the inclusion of these men in the “movement” will undoubtedly exclude others. We should also reserve judgement on Robin McAlpine himself, who recently compared the relationship between England and Scotland to that between Joseph Fritzl and his victims. How convenient.
The existing power structures of class, sexuality, gender and race don’t just go away simply because we’ve given things different names. You can say “all of us first” all you like, but a nationalist politics that keeps all these structures in place won’t make it any more true. McAlpine’s paltry strategy for human emancipation seems to be summed up in that sad paragraph towards the end of his “Hope Over Fear” article: “Imagine there wasn’t this problem”. John Lennon eat your heart out.
So is McAlpine actually a populist? The dividing lines are drawn as much within his chosen nation as they are outwith it: his “Scotland” isn’t part of a compound Scottish-British identity because the English “aren’t part of our lives”. Everyone who considers themselves Scottish and British (or, god forbid, Scottish and English) isn’t really part of his country, particularly if they don’t support independence (and particularly if they support the Labour Party!). Ultimately we’re back to the ridiculous logic of “the 45%”: to put “all of us first”, we should put less than half of us first. McAlpine’s Scottish nationalism has its own conception of “the people”, and it’s one that excludes plenty of Scots.
So what really distinguishes populism from nationalism? As McAlpine acknowledges, the two are often inextricable, but there is one rather obvious way around this. Let’s try “othering” people according to something other than the nation, be it ethnic or civic. What if we did it according to class? “Throw all the rich people into the sea” is undoubtedly a populist slogan by McAlpine’s definition, but it’s definitely not nationalist. Brian Soutar, George Osborne and Donald Trump, a shining example of ethnic harmony – at the bottom of the sea.
But McAlpine doesn’t like the politics of class; the national interest comes first, at least as long as it’s the right national interest. The British national interest is reactionary and backwards, of course; Scotland is “a better nation”, where the interests of the rich and poor can be united under the saltire. And this is where we come to one of the weirdest parts of McAlpine’s recent article, where the flags, the facepaint, the anthems, the references to William Wallace, are all justified thus:
Hope Over Fear is the only really truly working class part of our wider movement. They are exuberantly, unashamedly gallus. They dress up, dress up their kids (often in kilts nearly dragging along the ground so outsized are they), bring flags and banners, paint their faces…Yes, in history painting your face has occasionally led to division and violence. But in my experience pulling on a suit almost always leads to selling out at least some of your principles. No-one is perfect.
If these are his principles, maybe we could all benefit from McAlpine pulling on a suit. Only when people raise concerns about the overtly ethnic tone of the rally does McAlpine resort at last to class politics. And it is the most patronising, elitist, reactionary model of class politics imaginable: one which says that waving around the Lion Rampant – a symbol of feudal monarchy – is a fundamentally “working class” form of political expression.
But underlying that is something even more concerning: the implication that Tommy Sheridan’s participation is as much a part of the “working class” character of the event as the flags and facepaint. We, the enlightened middle classes, must not sneer at the knuckle-dragging proles, for they know not what they do. There is no possibility here for intelligent, genuinely creative and “gallus” class politics free from the kind of ethnic and masculine backwardness that has infected sections of the labour movement for generations, because a form of politics which could be properly defined as such would be populist in the best possible sense: an immense threat to the “national interest” which possesses every fibre of McAlpine’s being.
Our first hypothesis seems to have fallen apart. Is there another, kinder way of looking at things?
Hypothesis 2: Robin McAlpine is actually 1000 years old
Maybe he does know the true meanings of all these words. Maybe he’s gathered a great encyclopedia together during a millennium of raw human experience; he’s heard your calls for class war, for revolution, for internationalism, and he’s seen it all before. None of it will work. We are insurmountably divided and particularist “animals”, after all, from Rome to the dark ages to the present day.
This explains the blur, and the teenage boy clothes; he can’t stay still, can’t dress his age, because we’d notice the wizened face, the ancient flowing robes. We’d fall down at his feet and worship him like a god, demanding that he teach us his ways. Finally, all those names could be rectified, we would understand the world for what it is, and act accordingly.
On second thoughts this also seems dubious.
Hypothesis 3: Only Robin McAlpine can explain Robin McAlpine
Robin’s articles for Bella Caledonia are full of little titbits of personal reflection: a cute story about wee lambs crying out in the night around his house in the countryside, or an insistence that “I never really wanted any front-line political or public role and avoided it for most of my career.”
Having dismissed the previous two hypotheses I think we need to seriously consider the only obvious one left. These little personal quirks must be absolutely crucial to getting to grips with what Robin McAlpine, that strange blur, actually means. It all makes so little sense otherwise – there must be some secret buried in his personality that only he can explain to us. If you want a complete idiot’s guide to Robin McAlpine, maybe it’s best to consult a complete idiot.
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