“Can the Scottish Labour Party listen and learn from its defeat on 7 May?” asked Katy Clark, former Labour MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, at last Saturday’s Campaign for Socialism (CfS) conference in Glasgow.
The 70-plus Scottish Labour members attending the event were clear about some of the things that Labour needed to do in response to that question. The same cannot be said of the Scottish Labour Executive Committee, meeting at the same time.
Speakers at the CfS conference emphasised the need for local Labour Party branches to turn outwards and campaign alongside of trade unionists and community groups, instead of just going door-knocking and asking for people’s votes.
As an appeal from one of the strikers in the Glasgow City Council homelessness caseworkers dispute highlighted, this includes campaigning against Labour-controlled local authorities which implement Westminster and Holyrood austerity dictates.
The need to expose the SNP’s record in power at Holyrood since 2007 was also emphasised: cuts in Further Education, growing inequalities in educational attainment in schools, real cuts in NHS spending, undemocratic centralisation, and not a single redistributive policy.
(Other than the council tax freeze, which serves as a tax cut for the better off.)
In fact, the SNP’s only real achievement over the past decade has been to replace class-based political affiliations and voting patterns by ones based on Scottish national identity, for which the enemy is not unaccountable wealth and power but “Westminster”.
In a conference session on trade unionism in Scotland a speaker from the Fire Brigades Union highlighted the reality of what the “left-wing” SNP and its policies mean for unions. Read the rest of this entry »
One story being told about the 7 May election is that Scotland has become left-wing, and England right-wing. Labour lost, so they say, because it was too left-wing for England and too right-wing for Scotland.
A likelier explanation is that the SNP was able to project itself as both a bit left-wing, and safe, whereas Labour’s combination of general talk against “predators” with extravagantly cautious and tiny policies left it looking neither really left-wing nor really safe.
The SNP was able to scoop up a swathe of middle-of-the-road, disaffected-leftish, or left-on-some-things-right-on-others voters who in England voted Green, Ukip, or even Tory, or didn’t vote. Turnout in Scotland, 71%, was significantly higher than overall, 66%.
The basis for this SNP success is the surge of nationalism in Scotland, which allows those who see an independent Scotland as a welfare oasis and those who see it as a low-corporate-tax destination for global capital to imagine a common cause.
The British and Scottish Social Attitudes surveys are the nearest we have to statistics. They show Scottish people to be a shade more leftish than England, but no more than we would expect from the fact that Scotland’s population is more concentrated in big cities than England’s.
Trade union density is a bit higher in Scotland than in England. Like Wales, whose union density is a shade higher again, it has a higher percentage of public-sector employment. Two-thirds of Scotland’s population is in its five biggest city areas, and only 33% of England’s. 35% of Wales’s population is in three city areas.
36% of voters in England and Wales wanted more tax and more social spending; 52% of voters wanted to stay the same; 7% wanted tax cuts and spending cuts. In Scotland it was 44%, 48%, 5%.
Although Scotland has no university tuition fees, 73% in Scotland said it should have; 78% in England and Wales supported fees.
40% in Scotland want the EU to have looser powers, but to stay in; 17% want out. In England and Wales it was 39% and 25%.
Such opinion surveys are always unreliable, because dependent on exactly how questions are phrased and in what context. But they fit with other evidence: Scotland does not necessarily have (proportionately) bigger demonstrations or anti-cuts campaigns or strikes than England.
The best guess from the evidence is that opinion in Scotland, as in England and Wales, edged to the right during the Blair years and has continued that way, but it is fluid and by no means hardened.
Two conclusions follow for the labour movement. A shift back to full-on Blairite politics by Labour in England would have damaging results as in Scotland, even if the impact is less immediately spectacular because no party in England has the SNP’s ability to scoop up a range of the disaffected.
Secondly, the idea that unions disaffiliating from Labour in Scotland (as some suggest) will allow a new left surge there is fantasy.
The Labour Party was formed in Britain thanks to long efforts by growing socialist organisations who pulled unions, at first a minority of unions, with them. In Scotland, the last decade has seen a spectacular decline of the socialist left, much greater than any damage we have suffered in England.
In the 2001 general election the Scottish Socialist Party – the activist core of which came from the former Scottish organisation of Militant, forerunner of the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal — got between 6% and 10% of the vote in every constituency in Glasgow, bar one where it got 4.5%.
This time the SSP, much weaker in activists than it was in 2001, ran in only four constituencies in Scotland, two in Glasgow, averaging 0.5%. Elsewhere it advised voters to back the bourgeois SNP. TUSC, the other attempt to run left-of-Labour candidates in Scotland, did worse in Glasgow (average 0.5%) than its poor average across Britain (0.6%).
If unions were about to disaffiliate because they had waged a real left-wing battle against Labour’s leaders had reached breaking point, things would be different.
In fact it’s more a matter of union leaders being bothered by their members swinging to the SNP, and disaffiliation would almost surely lead to unions’ politics in Scotland being reduced to client-relationship-type haggling for deals with SNP and the Labour rump.
When Jim Murphy announced last Saturday that he was standing down as Scottish Labour Party leader, he took it as an opportunity to lambast Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey for his supposedly “destructive behaviour” towards the Labour Party.
Murphy claimed that he had been “at the centre of a campaign by the London leadership of Unite the Union, (who) blame myself or the Scottish Labour Party for the defeat of the UK Labour Party in the general election.”
“Sometimes people see it as a badge of honour to have Mr. McCluskey’s support. I see it as a kiss of death to be supported by that type of politics. … We cannot have our leaders selected or deselected by the grudges and grievances of one prominent man.”
“The leader of the Scottish Labour Party doesn’t serve at the grace of Len McCluskey, and the next leader of the UK Labour Party should not be picked by Len McCluskey.”
Len McCluskey has twice been elected Unite’s General Secretary, in 2010 and again in 2013.
If McCluskey really is guilty of “destructive behaviour” and his politics the “kiss of death”, then the Unite members who have twice elected him their General Secretary must be either: really thick not to have seen through him; or willing accomplices of his destructive behaviour. Read the rest of this entry »
Yet the small upturn of an industrial fightback which has already begun as the economic slump eases off (for some, at least), and unemployment recedes a bit (from 8.3% in November 2011 to 5.5% today) will continue.
The Tories have only 36.9% of the votes cast, almost the same number as in 2010. Most people don’t like the Tories. Their parliamentary majority is small. So long as activists remain resolute, the new Tory government can be pushed back on many fronts, in the same way as the Tories were often on the back foot in 1992-7, despite winning re-election in 1992.
The Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, sought to capitalise on his party’s victory by claiming that Labour lost because it went too far left and abandoned the so-called “centre ground”. The claim is nonsense, but some people in the Labour Party will pick up on it.
Labour had about as right-wing a leader in Scotland – Jim Murphy – as can be imagined. Result: the SNP landslide in Scotland was even bigger than expected.
Murphy should go, and the left should make a solid challenge in the new Scottish leadership election. There will be a new contest for the Labour Party leadership across Britain. The left should challenge there too, and certainly not let the contest be a shoo-in for Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham or some such.
Ed Miliband’s combination of sporadic sallies against “predators” and in favour of “working people” with commitment to continued cuts; only microscopic, piecemeal additional taxes on the rich or restrictions on big-business profiteering; and no challenge to the banks – that combination didn’t work.
The bulk of the labour movement failed to challenge him. Although all the big unions have, on paper, more left-wing policies, none campaigned visibly on those policies during the election or, by way of loud clear demands on the Labour leadership, in the run-up.
The Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, which we supported, got a better, wider response than we expected. But it was starting from a low base in the labour movement left. Some labour-movement-left bodies which nominally backed the SCLV, such as the Labour Representation Committee, did not even summon up the energy to circulate and publicise the campaign.
With the onset of the great economic slump in 2008, political shifts of some sort became likely. The sober fact so far is that, with exceptions here and there, the left has not gained seriously from the shaking-up effect of the slump. Protests against the cuts in Britain were loud and lively in 2010-11, but have diminished since then even as the cuts have become more damaging. The Tories were able to make some headway with the idea that the cuts were after all “necessary”.
The strand in politics which has gained most from the slump, not just in Britain but worldwide, has been different sorts of “identity politics”. In Britain: the SNP and, fortunately to a smaller extent than once looked likely, UKIP. Elsewhere, very varied forms, in some cases very different indeed: the BJP, ISIS, the Front National, Catalan nationalism…
“Identity politics” comes in liberal or leftish variants as well as its more organic hard-right variants; but even the liberal or leftish variants are a hindrance in the fight against the ruling class. The SNP was able to present itself as leftish despite its record of cuts when governing Scotland. Its showing on 7 May makes another referendum for Scottish separation likely. This signifies, essentially, that anger against the Tories has been diverted into a nationalist blind alley instead of into class struggle.
The labour movement and the left can combat that diversion only by contesting the SNP from a position clearly to the left of it, not by adaptation to nationalism.
The left-of-Labour efforts, TUSC and Left Unity, did poorly, even when they had candidates quite well-known locally and a solid local group of campaign activists. What makes that worse was that both groups decided to run not on full socialist politics but on a trimmed-down “anti-cuts” platform, hoping that would bring them electoral success short-cutting the otherwise arduous process of winning people to socialist ideas. Getting a small-but-solid result for an explicit class-struggle socialist platform may be a real step forward; registering that 0.4% of an electorate have voted “against cuts” is not.
There is no way forward other than redoubled effort in workplaces and within the labour movement to win the arguments for socialism.
In 1992 there was a slightly similar election result. Most people expected Labour, under Neil Kinnock, to win narrowly; in fact the Tories won a fourth successive election victory.
The dismay on the left which followed that result was widespread and harmful, possibly even more harmful than the result itself. Within months of the election, in September 1992, the Tory government’s credibility was shattered by a financial crisis.
Realistically, it now looks difficult to stop the new Cameron administration triggering some developments which will take us backwards: the separation of Scotland (which Cameron doesn’t want, but which he is effectively promoting); the collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland into a rump, or maybe its formal winding-up; and the withdrawal of rump-Britain from the EU (which Cameron is also effectively promoting, and may or may not want). It will be harder to resist those developments because much of the left foolishly sees them as positive.
The point here, however, is that Cameron’s victory on 7 May does not at all guarantee that he can, for example, push through cuts and anti-union laws as drastic as he wants.
The Tory government elected in 1992 was unable to do anything decisive to take further Thatcher’s programme of crushing the labour movement and the welfare state. Then, the damage inside the labour movement from demobilisation after the election defeat was more long-lasting. By 1994 Tony Blair was able to win the Labour leadership by a large majority, on a clearly right-wing programme, and start to shut down the channels of democracy and accountability in the Labour Party. The main union leaders backed him.
Local Labour activists kicked up a stir when Blair dumped Labour’s public-ownership Clause Four in 1995, but the demobilisation of the activist left after 1992 left us much less able to grasp the opportunities created by the Tories’ disarray, and unable to stop Blair’s bandwagon.
The lesson for today is: don’t mourn, don’t mope, don’t mumble. Organise!
Winning just one seat in Scotland, the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) was annihilated as an electoral force, and possibly as any kind of political force, on May 7th.
On being elected SLP leader last December, Jim Murphy said: “I am confident we will hold all the Westminster seats we have.”
In January he criticised the SNP for being “sluggish, lethargic and off the pace.” He was “surprised by their lack of energy, by their lack of response, or belated response, to a lot of the things we’ve been doing. I’m just astonished by how quickly they’ve run out of ideas.”
By February of this year Murphy was predicting that the SLP would increase the number of seats it held in Scotland: “We plan to hold all that we have, and we are going after (Lib-Dem) East Dunbartonshire as well.”
But back in the real world, satisfaction rates with Murphy’s role as SLP leader had slumped to minus 19 by April, the lowest for any of the party leaders in Scotland
And on election day itself Labour won just 24% of the vote, amounting to one seat in the whole of Scotland. Murphy’s own seat saw a 32% swing to the SNP on an 81% turnout. The size of the turnout underlines how committed his own constituents were to kicking him out.
The “sluggish and lethargic” SNP, on the other hand, won 50% of the vote, and 56 out of 59 seats (compared with just six seats in 2010).
Speaking about the overall collapse in the SLP vote, Murphy blamed the SLP itself for its defeat: “It’s proven hard to turn round years of difficulty with the Scottish Labour Party in just five short months. … I will continue to lead Scottish Labour as we fight for our progressive policies.”
Murphy’s ‘analysis’ of the reasons for the SLP’s defeat is as far removed from reality as his predictions that the SLP would hold on to all its seats.
The SNP entered the election campaign knowing that 81% of ‘Yes’ voters in last September’s referendum were going to vote SNP. With those votes already in the bag, it focused on attacking the Lib-Dems for having been in coalition with the Tories, and on Labour for selling out on its principles.
As one of the SNP’s leaflets used throughout Scotland put it:
“Labour used to stand up to the Tories. Not any more. Labour and the Tories campaigned together in the referendum. And they voted together at Westminster for deeper spending cuts. The only way to lock out the Tories and force Labour back to its roots is to vote SNP.”
The claim that a vote for the SNP would force Labour ‘back to its roots’ was nonsense. (The SNP does not want Labour to go ‘back to its roots’. And if Labour were to go ‘back to its roots’, the SNP would still oppose it.)
There was also no logic to the claim that the only way to lock the Tories out of 10 Downing Street was to vote SNP. (Subsequent events confirmed this. Lots of people did vote SNP. But that did not lock the Tories out of office.)
And SNP criticism of Labour for not standing up to the Tories and backing spending cuts was deeply hypocritical.
The SNP’s own manifesto required cuts in public spending (albeit at the end of the parliamentary cycle). In Holyrood and in local authorities it has not stood up to Tory austerity but implemented it. And a raft of its Holyrood policies have disadvantaged the working class and benefited the better-off.
Even so, the attacks on Labour for not standing up to the Tories, for collaborating with the Tories in the referendum campaign, and for supporting more spending cuts struck a chord with broad swathes of the electorate. Because, however hypocritical they might be, they were true.
Labour has failed to be an effective opposition in Parliament over the past five years – too concerned with demonstrating that it would be a ‘responsible’ government, instead of using Parliament as a tribune from which to help mobilise a working-class fightback against the Tories.
Disastrously, and without any consultation with the SLP’s affiliates, the leadership of the SLP decided to set up a Labour-Tory-Lib-Dem alliance (‘Better Together’) as the vehicle for campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum, with politicians of the three parties appearing on the same platform.
And, even if they amounted to ‘austerity-lite’ rather than full-scale Tory austerity, the Labour election manifesto committed a Labour government to more cuts in public spending – again, in order to demonstrate that Labour would be a ‘responsible’ government.
But perhaps the biggest single factor accounting for Labour’s humiliation in Scotland was the fact that its leader was Jim Murphy. Read the rest of this entry »
“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.
I can’t say I’ve been keeping much of an eye on Scottish culture and if the outward looking artists she’s talking about are J K Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith she’s talking popularity rather than quality, but I found this article by Gillian Browditch interesting. The whole National Collective project, when a bunch of artists got together to call for independence so at the same time they could be against the establishment (Westminster) while doing the work of another establishment (SNP’s Holyrood) did strike me as a little bizarre.
I do note the writers that really did make their mark on the world stage – Boswell, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, John Buchan even, Spark – left Scotland and wrote about other places and for other places as well as their homeland. The exception is Walter Scott, who really invented Scotland for Europe, and as well as being a pioneer in Scottish folk studies was also a convinced Unionist from his home in the Borders.
Narrow cultural focus will tie us all in a tartan straitjacket
From Gillian Bowditch Published: 3 May 2015
“The kindest interpretation was of a small nation coming to terms with itself in the face of the relentless march of globalisation”, says Bowditch
It is just as well it is nearly over. The way things are going you’d be pushed to get odds of more than 10-9 on the Scottish National party taking 60 of Scotland’s 59 seats. It’s only a matter of time before the Sturgeon surge defies political gravity and Scottish politics enters a fourth dimension.
As it was, Ipsos Mori produced a poll last week which, if translated into seats, would give the SNP the whole of Scotland, wiping out Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories. In the past, such a result would have had pollsters overhauling their methodology or wondering whether someone had tampered with the water supply.
Polls are a snapshot not a forecast, but they can identify trends and the trend for a nationalist monopoly, six months after a resounding “no” vote in the independence referendum, appears to have reached its zenith. A similar pattern is to be expected at the Holyrood election next year.
Of course, the chances of the SNP turning the whole of Scotland yellow are slimmer than the likelihood of the royal baby being christened Nicola. Undecideds, the level of voter turnout and the extent of tactical voting will all play a role, but we are now looking at a scenario where if Labour lost three-quarters of its Scottish seats, it would be spun as a triumph.
The political consequences will be significant but the cultural consequences could be seismic. Scotland has been through many iterations over the past 60 years; from cultural cringe to Scottish exceptionalism, from a crisis of confidence to a surfeit. Each phase has been dissected, analysed, picked over and then, just when we thought its ghosts had been laid to rest, revisited, exhumed and revised. We have conjured up the past and bejewelled it with a retrospective conceit.
Returning home in the 1990s after a decade of living in London, the Scottish obsession with identity struck me as faintly unhinged. The kindest interpretation was of a small nation coming to terms with itself in the face of the relentless march of globalisation. At worst it seemed to represent a particularly corrupt form of nostalgia. Our writers and artists always seemed to have one eye on the rear view mirror.
In the days of Labour’s central belt hegemony, the kind of privation humanity has spent centuries struggling to escape seemed to be preserved, lauded and endlessly reproduced. From Ralph Glasser’s Gorbals memoirs to the work of Jeff Torrington, and James Kelman to Irvine Welsh, the view of Scotland that was promulgated was that it needed a good boil wash. In the work of Peter Mullan, Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsay, Glaswegian grot was exported around the globe.
In the early years of the 21st century, something rather wonderful happened: there was a cultural renaissance in which Scottish artists no longer felt the need to examine and re-examine the Scottish condition. Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin and JK Rowling were wowing global audiences. Janice Galloway won international acclaim for her book on Clara Schumann. Artists such as David Mach, Alison Watt, Douglas Gordon, Martin Creed and Jenny Saville were finding their way into international collections. Composers and musicians as diverse as James McMillan, Craig Armstrong and Nicola Benedetti were hailed abroad. Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Gerard Butler and John Hannah were the hot stars in Hollywood. They were, as in the words of Auden: “Like some valley cheese, local but prized elsewhere.” After decades of cultural dreichness, it was no longer quite so grim up north.
These talents still exist, but their influence has begun to diminish. The generation following in their wake does not shine as brightly. Patriotism has replaced miserablism as the key to our identity. Culturally, we have started to look inwards again.
If I were a young artist, musician or writer starting out in Scotland, I would feel quite depressed about the situation. There is now so much focus, not to mention grant aid, on such a narrow tradition that, unless you fit the cultural stereotype, it’s hard to see where the acknowledgement or encouragement is going to come from. It’s difficult to imagine the Scotland of today throwing up a writer with the breadth and depth of Dame Muriel Spark.
Perhaps at a time of great political change, when nationalism is the predominant force, that is to be expected, but cultural separatism inevitably leads to parochialism. Our heritage and icons are co-opted to the cause. The focus in education in recent years has not been the pursuit of excellence but the pursuit of Scottishness.
While more Scottish literature and history in the curriculum may be overdue, the tartan straitjacket is concerning. Teachers have been urged to find a Scottish perspective from which to approach topics. One told me that under the Curriculum for Excellence, she had to find a Scottish element to the Holocaust — solipsism taken to a whole new level.
It is no coincidence that the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy 2014, published last week, has found the ability of Scottish school children to be in decline. The percentage of S2 boys doing well or very well in writing is now below 50% at 47%, down from 58% in 2012. There is a similar fall in standards for S2 girls, from 70% to 63%. It’s not as though we were at the top of the international league tables in 2012.
We keep hearing from the Scottish government that, with more powers, more jobs will be created and an economic boom will ensue of such magnitude that it will render irrelevant the pesky oil price fall and the deepening deficit that independence or full fiscal autonomy would bring.
But these children are the employees of the future and if less than 50% can string a written sentence together after nine years in the Scottish education system, we have a problem. Economic growth requires a highly literate, educated and productive workforce.
The education minister Angela Constance has now pledged to redouble efforts but this is to miss the point. If excellence is not at the heart of the education system, then no amount of effort will improve attainment. What is happening in universities is just as worrying. Because of the disparity in tuition fees, a whole generation no longer even explores the possibility of leaving Scotland for its tertiary education.
One of the most depressing things about the referendum was the number of Scottish writers and artists cravenly hitching their wagons to the SNP. Last week, National Collective — a pro-independence cultural movement which engaged thousands of people, organised petitions and campaigned — shut up shop. Its key founder has been absorbed into the SNP as “an engagement strategist”.
The nationalists’ programme for government is called One Scotland, but for a truly confident nation we need to let a thousand Scotlands bloom.
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.