A nation's blueprint? Introduction to "The case for left wing nationalism"

A posthumous collection of the writings by one of Scotland’s most distinguished advocates of independence, Stephen Maxwell, has just been published: ‘The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism’. It has been edited by Jamie Maxwell and is published by Luath Press and has been introduced by Tom Nairn.

Tom Nairn
19 November 2013

Stephen Maxwell/

OurKingdom is grateful for permission to publish this introduction.You can order the book from Luath Press here.

Nothing will make up for Stephen Maxwell's disappearance. However, there remain some consolations, very important both to those who knew him and to those who will learn more about him from this book. He lived to perceive the political dawn coming, and in his final collection of texts this quiet man summed up much of what that should stand for. With good luck, his nation will come to embody it in due time, as a more distinct identity in the wider political world. I can't think of any other country ― new or renewed ― whose formation has benefited so much in this way, or in such a timely fashion.

I also have the strongest personal reasons for welcoming this posthumous contribution. For it was Stephen who put me right about both the cases and the likely character of Scottish nationalism, in a period when I remained over-attached to the fossilized remains of 'Internationalism'. Like many others I had imagined direct transitions from a personal level of faith on to the over-arching sky of totality, whether represented by capital-letter Socialism or Communism (philosophically hallowed by Marxism). And in this imagined passage, nationality was somehow by-passed, or treated as a hereditary accident — more likely to impede than assist individual progress towards humanity's capital-letter plane. In that sense, secular internationalists had simply taken over the deeper framework of so many religions: Hegel's 'Absolute' in two hundred or so assorted tongues and disguises. Readers will find the episode referred to below, in typically forgiving style.

Nationality can't be glossed over or occluded, was the Maxwell message. It has to be incorporated into the contemporary, forward-looking mode of sociality. I think this is the sense of 'Left Wing' in his unceasing struggle to redefine Scotland's identity and its place in the post-Cold War world. He wasn't hoping to reanimate Soviet or other fantasies, or to re-invent Socialism. The struggle for Social Democracy in Scotland has been 'belated', inevitably. However, such a situation has advantages, too: the belated may be intertwined with the novel, the onset of a different age. The circumstances of 'globality' grow daily more distinct from those of 18th to 20th century industrialization. The latter was a competitive and militarized transformation which had demanded everywhere what one might call 'high-pressure' identification. This demanded an over-intense devotion to the peculiar features and needs of each competitor: 'ethnicity', as it came to be labelled. Life-or-death turned into part of a deal from which escape was impossible, leading to incessant warfare — of which the 'Cold War' was the protracted but (one hopes) concluding episode.

Personally, Stephen would have laughed at the notion of being a 'prophet'. Nor was this just a matter of temperament. The prophetic period of Scottish nationalism came earlier, between the two World Wars, most famously in the work of C.M. Grieve ('Hugh Macdiarmid'), whose Drunk Man contemplated a Thistle persisting against all odds, and needing a violent revolution to evolve more freely. The Maxwell equivalent is non-violent, and democratic: a kind of 'Yes' to our collective being, and a restoration of the latter's self-confidence — what Carol Craig has called The Scots' Crisis of Self-Confidence (2003) in one notable survey of the terrain. However, there is surely something more deeply prophetic about the Maxwell oeuvre — expressed in works like Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risks and the Wicked Issues (Luath Press 2012). The wicked issue is of course straightforward resumption of national statehood: a 'Union' originally opposed by so many, who are now given their chance to affirm a different course.

Such affirmation will be peaceful, and uncontaminated by inherited hatred or resentment. What was wrong wasn't 'the English', but the 'Great Britain' which an early 18th-century elite had signed up for, in pursuit of both industrial development and natural resources to be derived from more successful colonization. The contrary of that union might of course be a differently articulated association, some kind of 'confederation' along Swiss lines. But any such reform would itself demand that 'sovereignty' be first re-located and diversified, among Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and a restored 'Little England'. This return of statehood would not be an impossible backward plunge into the epoch of extinct '-isms'. We can't help inheriting ideologies from the past; but 'nationalism' in that time-bound sense will itself alter and adapt, to confront the novel circumstances of 'globalization'. Sovereignty means having the final word; but also, seeking more freely for the new words urgently needed, in such rapidly shifting times.

The prospective alteration has been under way for long enough. As well as Stephen's own Arguing for Independence, the academic W. Elliot Bulmer has produced A Model Constitution for Scotland: Making Democracy Work (2011). A little later, Scotland's Choices: the Referendum and What Happens Afterwards, by Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge (Edinburgh University Press) appeared, as did A Nation Again: Why Independence will be good for Scotland (and England too), edited by Paul Henderson Scott (Luath Press 2008). There are already many forerunners of what will be a year's debate on the resumption of our country's up-dated statehood, considering the process in much detail. However, vision matters even more than the realism imposed by an oncoming age. And I doubt if anything more telling on the spirit of this coming moment will be published than the essays here, from the great thinker (and activist) who worked so long and determinedly towards his country's re-established independence.

 The most recent addition to new nationalism's title-list has been Lesley Riddoch's Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish (Luath Press, 2013). All classical theories of nationalism, like those of Ernest Gellner (Nations and Nationalism, Blackwell's second edition 2006) and Liah Greenfeld's Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Harvard 1993), indicate nation-state formation as always arising from an alliance between popular restlessness and an evolving intelligentsia, inclining towards separate and independent development. “Among ordinary Scots...the process has already begun”, observes Riddoch, and “the task is to let that flower blossom — to weed out the negativity and self-doubt” deposited by the half-history of an anachronistic Union. At the end of his Scotland the Brief: Short History of a Nation (2010) Christopher Harvie noted that “a confederal covenant within the islands would be valuable”, and the most obvious next step, if only the negativity could be got rid of. Stephen Maxwell's positivity is surely the answer, for dismissing “the last enchantments of imperialism”, and convincing the English majority of their own need to “blossom” independently.

 “Yes” is about the conditions required for such advance, which can't be 'cultural' or emerge from civil society alone. Scots invented 'civil society' in the 19th century as an alternative to the loss of statehood, but in the 21st century it's no longer sufficient. The prolonged recession between 2008 and the present has underlined the need for more political diversity, for new ways to tackle a 'cosmopolitan' capitalism no longer able to guarantee reasonable development and prosperity. Of course independence 'by itself' won't generate miracles; but the point is, surely, that no society is any longer 'on its own', and will only be able to contribute to a broader 'Common Weal' with the means to act, experiment, and be different. Independence was never a sufficient condition of societal success; but does it not remain a necessary condition of tolerable change and bearable identity?


OurKingdom is grateful for permission to publish this introduction.You can order the book from Luath Press here.

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