The SNP’s model of independence is broken beyond repair. The party should either build a new one or stop offering it as an alternative to Tory cuts …
There is a strange moment in the TV coverage of the 2015 UK general election. Nicola Sturgeon is in a debate and a member of the audience admits to liking the new SNP leader but not supporting independence. She asks if she should join the party. Sturgeon listens and answers in what seems like perfect modern politicalese – you are welcome, she says. The audience in the studio and at home are comforted by the generosity, the non-tribalism of Nicola. It seems like a perfect example of our political leaders mending fences after a divisive campaign.
Consider what actually happened in that exchange. The leader of a party whose first tenet is independence is asking a person who openly admits she doesn’t want independence not just to vote for her, but to join the party. She is saying, implying at least, that the SNP is for people who are for Scotland – and that alone. There is no prescription to sign up for independence – just sign up for the SNP and its success. (Watch from 0930 onwards)
This shift in the party’s purpose from independence to being ‘Scotland’s party’ is often read as a simple tactic. The leadership are disguising their main aim, sovereignty, until a referendum victory looks likely. In fact something else is at work. The SNP is shifting its emphasis because the leadership can find no way of achieving the core aim safely.
Cut Nicola and no doubt she still bleeds independence, but what she means by that is far less clear than before the referendum. The doubt arises because the campaign towards the 2014 vote, and the economic information since, has kicked the old model to death. The idea that you could have a Scotland with high public spending, low taxes, a stable economy and reasonable government debt was wishful a year ago – now it is deluded.
A lesson of the referendum is that many arguments around independence are simply redundant. We can all agree you can have a nation of any size, governed in any way, seeking to do whatever it wants within the tolerance of the international community. Tranches of what occupied both sides up to September 2014 are simply distractions.
The only thing that matters in Scotland’s argument is this – what will be the likely economic health in the short to medium term, and what will that mean for government spending and borrowing? Dull, but it determines everything else.
2014 was an economic sweetspot for two reasons. It was a good year for oil, and it came after thirty good years. Thus the Scottish economy looked healthy and was able to boast that it had chipped in more to the UK treasury than it had got back over recent times.
That is not the same as being able to say the Scottish economy could afford British levels of spending, which was a significant plank of the Yes promise. That debatable point could be obscured by lots of noise, and the SNP is accomplished at shouting.
But Nicola Sturgeon knows the SNP is good at misdirection. The party’s success has been built on hard work and spin. Behind the scenes she isn’t gullible. It may work in public to rubbish claims by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that there is a gap between what Scots pay into government and what they get out in services, but only fools believe their own propaganda. The fact is a gap exists – Scotland does not earn enough to pay for its current level of spending.
Once you accept that, you acknowledge that the SNP’s model is broken. That model, as expressed in the White Paper and numerous speeches, is that it was possible to move from the UK to an independent Scotland and keep services at the same level, without either borrowing a lot more or raising taxes. It isn’t.
As sure as death and taxes, there will be an economic jolt in the road to independence. Scotland will have to pay to either increase borrowing, raise taxes or cut services to bridge the gap between revenue and spending. And that’s not the only bump.
The second shock to the system will be the cost of borrowing. A new state will inevitably attract higher borrowing costs. Thus the price of the debt we inherit from the UK will go up on independence day. There’s more.
The appeal of the SNP is that it resists austerity. It promised to reduce budgets by (fractionally) less during the 2015 election. In other words, it would borrow more. So on top of the higher cost of borrowing, you would have more borrowing to pay for. It doesn’t end there.
SNP fine print makes it crystal clear that it will not reverse the dastardly Tory cuts on independence. It will not reverse the privatisations or the anti-union legislation of Thatcher and nor will it repair the cuts of Cameron and Osborne. However, it does give the impression that, come sovereignty, it will restore things to what they were. Its central message in Westminster is that the state need not be dismantled. It is therefore reasonable to expect, voters certainly will, that spending goes up on independence. Which will add even further to borrowing.
However, Scotland may not be allowed to borrow that much. A currency Union, either Sterling or the Euro, would come with limits. A brand new currency may not be trusted by lenders. So taxes would have to go up to meet the spending gap and the extra money it takes to ‘repair’ the state.
But there is of course one more bump to overcome – the cost of transferring to an independent state in the first place. Recall all the problems associated with merging eight police forces into one and multiply this by a hundred. What price the transfer to sovereignty? £1 billion, maybe £2 billion.
Thus an economy which couldn’t afford existing spending will be hit by several significant new demands on the Treasury. Without a thorough, independent understanding of those additional charges, you can make no promises on what independence will be like. It is reasonable to assume that all these obstacles can be overcome, but it is stupid to deny they exist. Read the rest of this entry »
Sheppard and Lyon of Vote Leave protest at the the CBI conference
On Monday of this week David Cameron addressed the CBI conference in London, and was mildly heckled by two posh young men from the Vote Leave campaign.
For those who don’t follow the intricacies of anti-European factionalism in the UK, Vote Leave is an outgrowth of Business for Britain and Conservatives for Britain, both set up by long-standing Tory anti-Europeans Matthew Elliott (founder of the Taxpayer’s Alliance) and Dominic Cummings (former special adviser to Michael Gove), which for years have been pressurising Cameron and the Tory leadership for a harder line against the EU, and have now come out for withdrawal. Vote Leave claims to be a “cross party” campaign, but is overwhelmingly made up of right wing Tories with just Douglas Carswell of Ukip, Kate Hoey and a handful of Labour right-wingers, mavericks and millionaire donors, plus the Green’s eccentric Baroness Jenny Jones, giving the outfit the excuse to call itself “cross party.”
What was interesting about Monday’s protest was that while the two posh boys were protesting inside the hall, outside a small gaggle of aging Stalinist little-Englanders calling themselves Trade Unionists Against The EU, held a simultaneous protest. The two protests were quite obviously co-ordinated, and indeed, the Morning Star(Nov 10) quoted one Robert Oxley (who turns out to be Vote Leave’s Head of Media) as saying: “we will be working together closely during the campaign to do more of these protests – particularly at the AGMs of big companies who try to scare the British people into voting to remain.”
The Morning Star seems to have interviewed the two posh boys as it named them as Phil Sheppard and Peter Lyon, and quoted Mr Lyon as describing their experience as “terrifying” but “worthwhile.”
This is all a bit odd, because back in June of this year, the Morning Star carried an editorial (“Left reasons to ditch the EU“) denouncing Conservatives for Britain and Business for Britain (ie the two main constituent parts of Vote Leave) as “neoliberal and nationalist extremists” and called on trade unions, the Labour Party and the left to “develop an independent position of their own, one which represents the real interests of workers and the mass of the people across Scotland, England and Wales.”
Yet now we have the Morning Star giving sympathetic coverage to Vote Leave, and frequent Star contributor (and CPB member) Brian Denny co-ordinating the activities of Trade Unions Against the EU (of which he is, apparently, an Organiser) with Vote Leave.
But even stranger is the position of the Campaign Against Euro-Federalism, which is to all intents and purposes, Mr Denny and a few of his friends like the ultra-nationalist little Englander (and fellow Morning Star contributor) John Boyd, just wearing different hats: the website of the other main anti-EU campaign, Leave.EU (presently battling it out with Vote Leave, for recognition as the official anti-EU campaign), set up by wealthy Ukip backer Arron Banks and virtually a front organisation for Nigel Farage and Ukip, carries the following endorsement:
“As a well-established Eurosceptic Labour movement organisation operating for nearly 30 years, CAEF is pleased to join an organisation that seeks to represent people from all walks of life and defend national democracy, which is clearly under threat from a corporate-dominated European Union that is accruing evermore powers at the expensive of member states. No country can truly decide its own future democratically without the sovereign power to make its own laws and run its own economy in the interests of its citizens free from outside interference”, Brian Denny
By John Cunningham (also published by Workers Libertyand Solidarity newspaper):
The sham of Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’
It is alarming and deeply disturbing to see that some people, many of whom should know better, have swallowed George “high-vis” Osborne’s fantasy-speak about building a “Northern Powerhouse”.
This is more amazing when you consider that ever since the Industrial Revolution there has always been a “Northern Powerhouse”, and it was the Conservative Party and Thatcher that destroyed it.
Without the coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding, engineering and textiles of northern cities like Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Newcastle (to which Scotland and South Wales must also be added), Britain would have remained, as in early Tudor times and before, a rather unimportant European offshore island. Take away the north, and the industrial revolution would have happened somewhere else, with British capitalism ending up a mere shell, reduced to making cuckoo clocks or stuck in an agrarian-based economy.
Instead Britain for a time was the most powerful nation on earth, with a huge empire backed up by the largest navy the world had yet seen. It was no idle boast that Britain was the workshop of the world. Manchester, for a time, became its second wealthiest city. Britain produced over half the world’s cotton, coal and iron and totally dominated manufacturing. Most of this came from the north.
According to an 1835 survey Britain had 1113 cotton mills. Of those 943 were in Manchester and the surrounding region. If today it has become a cliché to say that you can’t buy anything that isn’t made in China, think what the situation must have been like in 1870 when Britain produced 46% of the world’s manufactured goods. In 2007 Chinese products accounted for 17% of the world’s exports. When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels penned the Communist Manifesto they wrote eloquently and with admiration for the dynamic thrust of capitalism and the way it had transformed the world (as right wing historians are always telling us, as if they are the only ones to have ever read the Manifesto!).
Yet, it is the north of England, probably more than any other part of the world, that inspired and informed the famous lines “All that is solid melts in the air, all that is holy is profaned”. While Marx wrote Das Kapital in the scholarly seclusion of the British Library Reading Room in London, its analysis, observations and rich detail are rooted in the Manchester of Friedrich Engels.
Clearly Osborne has latched on to the north at least 150 years too late. In a sense Osborne is talking about a phenomenon that has been around for a long time — regional disparities in development.
It’s hard to know where to start with Theresa May’s awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible speech to the Conservative Party conference today.
If you haven’t seen reports of it, allow me to summarise: “Immigrants are stealing your job, making you poorer and ruining your country. Never mind the facts, just feel angry at foreigners. And make me Conservative leader.”
The author has given us permission to republish this article, which first appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of World Affairs. Alan welcomes comment, criticism and discussion on the issues raised in the article. As always, when we publish a discussion piece like this, it should not be assumed that everyone associated with Shiraz agrees with it:
“I’m frankly a bit fucked off about all this. Like practically everyone else on the Left, I expected to be able to meet the worst crisis of capitalism in generations with more aplomb.” — Richard Seymour, Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, 2014
Why has the right, including the populist right, rather than the left, been the main political beneficiary of the anger and bitterness that has roiled Europe since the 2008 financial crash, the eurozone crisis, and the resulting deep recession and brutal austerity? After all, these events surely proved the relevance of the left’s critique of capitalism. The crisis has been so deep and prolonged that a kind of social disintegration has been taking place, at least in the Southern cone, without precedent in postwar Europe. (In Spain, youth unemployment is more than 55 percent.) More: the crisis has been managed largely to the benefit of the already well-off, in a spectacularly brazen fashion. The trillions that were handed over to banks too big to fail are now being gouged out of citizens too weak to resist. (This intensely political class strategy is called “austerity.”) The recovery, such as it is, is benefitting almost exclusively the already affluent, as catalogued in Danny Dorling’s cry of moral outrage, Inequality and the 1%. It is a recovery of McJobs, zero-hour contracts, and food banks. One UK charity alone, the Trussell Trust, has handed out 913,000 food parcels in the last year, up from 347,000 the year before.
The left is increasingly marginal to political life in Europe despite the fact that, in the words of Owen Jones, an important voice of the British left, “Living standards are falling, public assets are being flogged to private interests, a tiny minority are being enriched at the expense of society and the hard-won gains of working people—social security, rights in the workplace and so on—are being stripped away.” And the radical parties and movements to the left of the social democratic parties have been faring no better. In the brutally honest assessment of the British Marxist Alex Callinicos, “Nearly seven years after the financial crash began, the radical left has not been weaker for decades.”
But the European left’s inability to forcefully meet the crisis is not due to a failure of individual political leaders, but the fact that it has not developed, in theory or practice, a response to the three great waves of change—economic, socio-cultural, and politico-intellectual—that have crashed over it since the late 1970s.
Social democrats, as Sheri Berman showed in The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century, used to be able to do something that no one else could: bring capitalism, democracy, and social stability into a more or less harmonious relationship. They knew from bitter experience that if markets really were “free” and left to “self-regulate” then society would be devastated; that in addition to degrading the environment, what Marx called the cash-nexus, the reduction of human relations to naked self-interest, would erode communal life and the common good, installing greed and possessive individualism in their place; that merely contractual relations between spectacularly unequal, anxious, and deeply untrusting individuals, acquisitive, philistine, and competitive, would triumph.
But in the 1980s European social democrats lost their nerve, and fell into a suffocating consensus that says there is no alternative to neoliberalism: marketization, deregulation, privatization, financialization, an assault on the bargaining power of labor, regressive tax regimes, cuts to welfare. As “New Labor” architect Peter Mandelson famously put it, social democrats should now be “intensely relaxed” about people getting “filthy rich,” while sneering at the trade union movement, and often their own alarmed working-class supporters, as “dinosaurs” (or “bigots”) for harboring the idea that it was possible to stop the neoliberal globalization and “get off.”
The fruits of this radical transformation of European social democracy into a political force pursuing a slightly kinder and a slightly gentler neoliberalism—which some dub “social neoliberalism”—have been bitter. At the top of any list would have to be the erosion of the links between the social democratic parties and their working-class base and the “hollowing out” of social democratic parties until they became little more than coteries of leaders, staffers, and wannabe MPs, relating mostly to each other and to media and lobbyists. In a brilliant essay in the London Review of Books last spring, Perry Anderson made a start at a taxonomy of the whole shocking malavita. “In France,” he noted, “the Socialist minister for the budget, plastic surgeon Jérôme Cahuzac, whose brief was to uphold fiscal probity and equity, was discovered to have somewhere between 600,000 and 15 million euros in hidden deposits in Switzerland and Singapore.” The result? When the financial crash occurred, European social democratic parties, in thrall to neoliberalism, were seen as just as guilty as the executants of the neoliberal solution to the crisis (bank bailouts and popular austerity), leading to the overnight electoral meltdown of those parties. In Greece, Pasok plunged to a barely threshold-clearing four percent of the vote, despite having been the country’s dominant party for many decades. Read the rest of this entry »
Despite your relative youth, you are (to judge by your piece in today’s Guardian) representative of an old UK left — and the left in a few other European countries, such as Denmark — who have for decades been anti-EU but in recent years have kept fairly quite about it for fear of seeming to ally with Ukip and the Tory right. They have suggested, though rarely said openly, that the left should welcome and promote every pulling-apart of the EU, up to and including the full re-erection of barriers between nation-states.
The EU leaders’ appalling treatment of Greece, and Tsipras’s capitulation has given a new lease of life to the anti-EU left despite the fact that while in Greece and Southern Europe the EU is a force for neoliberal austerity, in the UK no-one can point to a single attack on the working class that has originated with the EU against the will of a British government: indeed the EU has forced reluctant UK governments to enact limited but real pro-worker legislation.
You seem to think the left can have its cake and eat it: to chime in with populist-nationalist “anti-Europe” feeling, which is stronger in Britain than in any other EU country, but also cover ourselves by suggesting that we are not really anti-European, but only dislike the present neoliberal, capitalist character of the EU.
As if a confederation of capitalist states could be anything other than capitalist! As if the cross-Europe policy of a collection of neoliberal governments could be anything other than neoliberal!
In Britain more than any other country we have seen successive national governments, both Tory and New Labour, repeatedly objecting to EU policy as too soft, too “social”, too likely to entrench too many workers’ rights.
Even the threat of withdrawal that you propose is a soft-soap, “tactical” gambit. In principle Britain could quit the EU without disrupting much. It could be like Norway, Iceland, Switzerland: pledged to obey all the EU’s “Single Market” rules (ie: all the neoliberal stuff) though opting out of a say in deciding the rules; exempt from contributing to the EU budget but also opting out from receiving EU structural and regional funds.
That (as I presume you’re aware) is not what the serious anti-EU-ers of left and right really want. They want Britain completely out. They want all the other member-states out too.
What would then happen?
The freedom for workers to move across Europe would be lost. “Foreign” workers in each country from other ex-EU states would face increased hostility and racism.
Governments and employers in each state would be weaker in world-market competition, and thus would be pushed towards crude cost-cutting, in the same way that small capitalist businesses, more fragile in competition, use cruder cost-cutting than the bigger employers.
Despite your fantasy of a “populist”, independent left anti-EU movement, in reality nationalist and far-right forces, already the leaders of anti-EU political discourse everywhere, would be vindicated while the left – if not completely ignored – would be seen as complicit
The left should fight, not to go backwards from the current bureaucratic, neoliberal European Union, but forward, to a democratic United States of Europe, and a socialist United States of Europe.
“I didn’t come to Scotland to criticise the SNP,” said Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey at a public meeting in Saltcoats a fortnight ago, organised by North Ayrshire and Arran Labour Party as part of its campaign to retain the seat for Katy Clark.
McCluskey was as good as his word.
He called for a vote for Labour. He called for a Labour government. He called for, if need be, a minority Labour government rather than one which entered pacts or a coalition with other parties. But he was not prepared to attack the SNP.
Unite’s Scottish edition of the “Unite Works” general election broadsheet is equally uncritical of the SNP.
Its eight pages have much to say about how bad the Lib-Dem coalition has been for working people. And a personal message from Len McCluskey warns Unite members not to be taken in by the “frauds and charlatans” of UKIP.
But the only criticism of the frauds and charlatans of the SNP in the broadsheet consists of eleven words contained in a statement from a Labour candidate: “The SNP would leave Scotland with a £4bn shortfall in public services.”
This is amazing stuff by any standards.
Unite has a policy of boycotting Israel, which it defines as “an apartheid state”. This is despite opposition to a boycott and the description of the country as “an apartheid state” from the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union movement.
So, Unite can boycott a country on the other side of the world, despite the opposition of that country’s trade union movement. But when the Unite General Secretary travels 400 miles north from union’s headquarters in London, he cannot bring himself to criticise the SNP!
And when the same union produces a Scottish edition of its general election broadsheet, it likewise omits – eleven words apart – any criticism of the SNP.
(But Len McCluskey is not alone. A fortnight before McCluskey’s meeting Owen Jones spoke at another election meeting organised by North Ayrshire and Arran Labour Party. He too has no qualms about holding forth on Israel and Palestine, and many other things as well.
Even though Jones is of Scottish descent – as he explained at some length in an introductory genealogical treatise – he too felt it “inappropriate” to make any comment about Scottish politics. Because, you see, he lives in London.
Where does this kind of nonsense end? Should an indigenous Scot exercise political self-censorship when in England? And how about the Welsh? Should they too keep quiet when in Scotland? Or, as inhabitants of the Celtic fringe, are they allowed to have a pop at the SNP?)
The failure of the Scottish election broadsheet and the union’s General Secretary to criticise the SNP is all the more amazing in that it is at odds with Unite’s own Political Strategy and its stated goal in this general election.
The Political Strategy, adopted in 2011, commits the union to “growing Unite membership in the Labour Party”, ending discrimination against working-class candidates by “securing the adoption of trade union candidates by Labour”, and “mobilising our members to vote, and then to vote Labour.”
The Political Strategy also commits Unite to “do everything in our power to organise and mobilise our membership, working people in general and the broadest possible forces to the cause of victory for a transformed Labour Party (in the general election).”
For reasons so obvious that they do not need to be spelt out, in Scotland such goals require challenging the SNP, and forcefully so.
And it’s not as if that’s a difficult thing to do.
The SNP government in Holyrood spends a lower proportion of its budget on health than even the Lib-Dem coalition. Its attacks on Further Education mean that working-class youth in Scotland are less likely to attend university than their counterparts in England. Its council-tax freeze has proved to be a massive tax cut for the rich.
The SNP has opposed re-regulation of bus services, continued with privatisation of the railways, and privatised half of Scotland’s ferry services. In power in Holyrood, where its MSPs have crossed PCS picket lines, it has not implemented a single redistributive policy.
In the referendum campaign it promised a cut in corporation tax for big business and no tax rises for the rich (all financed by infinite amounts of North Sea oil at a price of $113 a barrel). And in this general election campaign its fiscal policies amount to more austerity over a longer period of time.
When Blair carried out similar right-wing policies, Unite (or its predecessors) was rightly critical of him. When Jim Murphy, a consistent Blairite, stood for election as Scottish Labour Party leader, Unite rightly backed his opponent. When Miliband and Balls propose ‘austerity-lite’, Unite is rightly critical of them.
And all of those criticisms by Unite in general and by Len McCluskey in particular were public criticisms.
Surely it’s not too much to expect Unite’s General Secretary – in the run-up to what Unite itself describes as the “the most important general election in a generation” – to show the same willingness to publicly attack and expose the SNP’s right-wing charlatanism?
At the Campaign for Socialism AGM last February Neil Findlay MSP – backed by Unite in last year’s Scottish leadership contest – pointed out that the goal of the SNP is to destroy Labour in Scotland.
Not because the Murdoch-backed SNP does not find Labour left-wing enough, or because of Miliband’s disgraceful role in Falkirk. But because it needs to destroy Labour in order to implement its sole goal in life: its nationalist project of independence.
McCluskey’s failure to criticise the SNP and to campaign to persuade Unite members thinking of voting SNP to vote Labour instead gives the SNP free rein to carry out its own agenda of attacking the very principle of working-class political representation.
And the rise in support for the SNP is also a threat to bread-and-butter trade unionism.
Politics in parts of Scotland are already beginning to resemble Northern Ireland, where voting based on national identities and conflicting attitudes to a border squeezes out voting based on class identities and conflicting attitudes to ideologies of left and right.
But wherever the working class is divided and weakened by questions of national identity and a border, then trade unionism is divided and weakened as well. As the biggest union in Scotland, Unite is the union which can least afford to allow such divisions to become entrenched.
(And when the supposed ‘intellectual’ wing of the nationalist movement – the Bella Caledonia website – carries article likening the position of Scots in Britain to that of Elisabeth Fritzl (imprisoned and raped by her father over a period of 24 years) and to that of Jews in early Nazi Germany, the descent into absolute political irrationality has already commenced.)
Len McCluskey spoke at the meeting in Saltcoats to underline Unite’s support for Katy Clark. But local SNPers denounce her as a ‘Red Tory’.
Michael Connarty was given space in the Unite general election broadsheet to underline the union’s support for him. But on his way into last Friday’s rally in Glasgow with Ed Miliband, he was denounced by SNPers as a ‘Red Tory’ as well.
On the streets and on the doorsteps that’s the tenor of the SNP’s election campaign. Again, it’s surely not too much to expect Unite’s General Secretary to denounce full-throat the SNP’s ‘Red Tory’ campaign – especially given that ‘Red Tory’ Katy Clark was the Unite-backed candidate for Scottish Labour Party deputy leader?
The SNP is a party concerned about a flag. Trade unions are not concerned about the flag but the people who live under it. That’s the difference between separatism and solidarity, between nationalist division and workers’ unity, between the politics of nation and the politics of class.
Unite should be tough on nationalism, and tough on the causes of nationalism. And that means that in the few days left before Thursday’s general election its General Secretary should combine calls for a vote for Labour and demands on a future Labour government with explicit attacks on the SNP.
A Scottish comrade drew my attention to this article, commenting “It’s probably a bit difficult to fully savour if you’re not aware that McAlpine is: a) prized as some kind of intellectual guru by sections of the ‘Yes’ campaign; b) a complete idiot, albeit a pretentious one.”
The article comes from a Scottish blog called Uncivil Society, that describes itself as “reject[ing] the civic nationalist consensus that now pervades Scottish politics.” You (like me) may not have heard of McAlpine before, but it’s a piece that tells us a lot about the politics of Scottish nationalism today – and it’s also rather well written:
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.