If we replied to every liberal diatribe against Scotland’s Left and its tartan atavism, we’d have no time left to hunt our haggis. But Robert Lamb’s recent openDemocracy piece, which dismisses decades of socialist debate with a few cursory stereotypes, typifies a mood of complacent condescension. We’re not offended; we’re just alarmed that an otherwise excellent website publishes uncritical schlock.
Lamb, who sneers at “blood and shortbread” and “parochial tartan visions”, never quotes or references anyone from the Yes side, glossing over subtleties and shades of opinion. The result falls somewhere between tasteless humour and mere ignorance. His caricatures show no awareness with recent discourses of Scottish nationalism, far less socialism. Even so, in recounting his views, we’ll allow him a courtesy he never extended to thousands of Scottish leftists campaigning for independence: we’ll present his views in charitable terms.
According to his first premise, Scottish socialists argue for independene because they believe “that a dismantling of the Union will improve or enable real democracy in Scotland”. By building a border to carve out right-wing English voters, Scots can pursue a left-wing consensus, getting on with building social democracy in peace.
But, says Lamb, this whole edifice is built on mythology. Scotland’s lefties have deluded themselves into thinking everyone shares their values, when many Scots vote Tory. So when we fantasise that independence will unify the country with a socialist identity, eradicating opposing views, we’re wrong. And indeed, for Lamb, even if we could scour every trace of reaction from our borders, we’re wrong anyway. Democracy, you see, doesn’t mean removing people you don’t like; it’s about including everyone, even if they disagree with you. Failing to appreciate this, Scotland’s Left have “betrayed democratic values”, and thus “the leftist argument for Scottish independent is not democratic at all.”
Having demolished our sole argument, Lamb performs the coup de grace. If we’re trading on a “democratic” case that’s not democratic, it follows that our real arguments for independence must be nationalist identity politics. “All they have to fall back on,” Lamb laments, “are ideals that are both tenuous and alien to their worldview: a parochial, tartan vision of national identity”. And so, beneath our bluster, we’re just flogging kailyards, kelpies and kilts.
Again, we hope none of the above distorts his views. Although he patronised a whole nation, we’re wary of returning the favour; we’ve tried to remain true to Lamb’s logic.
Let’s start with national identity, which, for Lamb, is the core of our phoney concern for democracy. How plausible is his position? Anyone familiar with the debate knows that all Scotland’s socialist leaders – e.g. Dennis Canavan, Cat Boyd, Colin Fox – stress their distance from nationalism. In our book, one of the leading publications on 2014, we’ve justified this in theoretical terms. Patrick Harvie MSP and Alison Johnstone MSP, two Greens who take leading roles in the Yes side, are vocally hostile to ideological Scottishness. The Scottish Left might make the case for independence, but they’ve spent decades carefully distinguishing this from the case for nationalism. Whether he regards these attempts as successful or not, Lamb should at least acknowledge them. Even the most boorish pundits know this distinction.
Perhaps his lapse is defensible, since socialist politics makes little impression on UK public life; but Lamb’s brusque dismissal of Scottish nationalism is far more alarming. Whatever its flaws, the movement can’t be reduced to blood and shortbread, and even identity issues are marginal to its recent evolution. It attracts cosmopolitan intellectuals, including Tom Nairn, Neal Ascherson, and Alasdair Gray, along with many exasperated Labour leftists and former socialists. For decades, the SNP has detoxified its brand of tartanry in favour of pragmatism, following worldwide trends in what sociologists call neo-nationalism. A quick glance at debates on websites like Bella Caledonia and National Collective will prove that Lamb is about fifty years behind Scotland’s political evolution.
That’s confirmed by his reduction of everything to the “democracy argument”. Having attended hundreds of independence events, we’ve never heard a single speaker make his argument, i.e. without the right-wing English we could have a “real democracy” (whatever that means). Even the most blinkered Scottish nationalists know that’s a travesty. Perhaps Lamb has confused this nonsense with a more subtle argument about Westminster’s (unique) first-past-the-post electoral system. The latter privileges a small layer of reactionary voters who are the most likely to switch allegiances between Tory and Labour, so-called Middle England. Yes, many Scots find their electoral irrelevance exasperating, and so they should. Britain’s election system unquestionably produces a democratic deficit. It debases and distorts opinions UK-wide, electing governments that never correspond to public opinion in any true sense.
“Democracy,” Lamb lectures, “is, by definition, an inclusive concept, one that seeks to invite the voices of all the citizenry into the realm of political discourse.” Here, he confuses ought and is. One can argue that democracy should invite “all citizens” into political discourse, although in truth Western systems idealise representation over participation. But Scotland isn’t choosing between Holyrood and abstract democracy; it’s our own future or leaving decisions to Westminster. Compared to European rivals, the latter does a miserable job of representing or including citizens. That’s why faith in UK politicians is lower than most European democracies, even crisis-wracked Greece, Spain, and Italy.
Scottish nationalists, for their faults, never make the arguments Lamb imputes to them. They know the problems are systemic, rather than English character flaws.
“At its heart, democracy thrives on conflict of opinion and is fundamentally opposed to blandness, unity and homogeneity,” he reminds us. But to those familiar with Scotland’s political scene, this statement is bizarre. Nobody on either side of the referendum expects post-independence Scotland to break out into consensus. Anyone abreast of Holyrood affairs knows, for instance, that the SNP is divided between near-socialists and outright neoliberals. These differences will find greater expression after a Yes vote, as serious Scottish commentators admit. Most predict, and we agree, that after independence there will be a crisis of alliances, and new political formations will emerge, on right and left.
In sum, on one side lies Lamb's portrayal, on the other lies reality. When socialists express their reasons for voting Yes, they talk about getting rid of Trident, they talk about breaking democracy free from outdated electoral systems and hereditary rulers, and they talk about reversing decades of neoliberal economics. They never talk about carving out the reactionary English. On the contrary, they’re exasperated with Westminster marginalising progressive voices across these isles. Nor do they imagine a uniform, conformist politics. Instead, they’re exasperated with the uniformity of UK politics, where a docile neoliberalism prevails. The Scottish Left is wracked with disputes, but the above is true of just about every socialist, and most nationalists.
Lamb’s platitudes don’t just distort Scottish politics; his position on 2014 reveals lazy assumptions about the world in general. Take, for example, his reference to the “traditional hostility between the labour movement and nationalisms of all stripes”. A comforting thought. But wait a minute...All stripes? Were all labour movements, everywhere on the planet, hostile to Irish nationalism, Palestinian nationalism, Black nationalism, Latin American nationalism, Quebecois nationalism...? And hasn’t the British “labour movement” (an Orwellian term) been prone to bouts of, dare we say it, British nationalism? It depends, of course, whether you include the Webbs, Gaitskell, and Blair alongside imagined communities of common decency and folk memories of Willie Gallacher. The lower-case L “labour movement” conflates the lot.
Further mockery would be uncharitable. Perhaps Lamb never intended his analysis to bear close scrutiny, and we don’t wish to isolate him, because his views simply characterise the imagination of British liberalism. If nothing else, 2014 has exposed glaring gaps in our critical culture. Apparently, for Labour-inclined intellectuals, nationalism is something other people do: bumpkins, no doubt.
Recalling British jobs for British workers, Iraq, and “One Nation Labour”, we should remind ourselves of that old Marx brothers joke. “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you: he really is an idiot”. Critical thinkers should place Labour’s many 2014 converts to internationalism in the context of decades of “patriotic” triumphalism. They look like nationalists, they talk like nationalists, but please, don’t be fooled: they really are nationalists.
“One can never be internationalist enough for a true British nationalist,” as Tom Nairn once observed. When liberal intellectuals open their laptops to patronise Scotland, be aware that “othering” the yokels debases the metropolis. The official nationalism of the British state, as James Kellas called it, is all the more dangerous because it’s hidden in plain sight. With UKIP rising, an EU referendum looming, and the Collins Review passed without a fight, complacency is not an option, and Britain’s liberals and leftists must be vigilant about their own assumptions.
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