14 July 2012

Labour for Independence?

Beyond the pale, disreputable, thoroughly discreditable, incredible, unthinkable. At some point in our lives, most of us should have encountered a moment when we were surrounded by people for whom some cherished conviction of our own was absolutely anathema. Whether representative of the wider population or not, this "common sense in the room" can be intoxicating. For an extreme instance, watch Scottish Questions at Westminster, which is now devoted to pouring vial after vial of scorn over SNP heads. In the great baying mob of MPs, the isolated Nationalist delegation's voices are thin, reedy and invariably drowned out in a haughty chorus of gleeful insolence.

I blogged a wee while back about my experiences at the high table of an Oxford college (which will remain nameless), at which Scottish nationalism wasn’t exactly held in high regard. Indeed, it was dismissed summarily, out of hand, as if the proposition was a transparent absurdity, and any soul who conceived otherwise was surely a silly sausage, and certainly not to be taken seriously. It matters who and what we feel able to write off out of hand, in a casual, argument-slaying shrug. In that piece, I suggested that Scottish Tories are likely to find themselves victim to this sort of chortling scorn, scorned to be taken seriously, the possibilities for reasoned argument foreclosed by your interlocutor's contempt.

Few Holyrood watchers could have failed to notice that hitherto a similar spirit has ruled much of the independence referendum debate. At First Minster’s questions, Ruth Davidson and Johann Lamont habitually inveigh against nationalism, full of fulmination, damning Salmond’s eyes for a daffy, Quixotic fellow on a fool’s errand. Despite occasions in the past where both women have explicitly recognised that Scotland is fit for self-government, rhetorically at least, both have done their weather best to characterise nationalism as outlandish, pathological, and unthinkable. The other day, it struck me that this discourse is dependent on the logic of partisanship, assuming that all of the SNP align behind YesScotland, and all of Labour and the Tories form up with BetterTogether. As the name implies, it may be surprising for your average supporter of the Conservative and Unionist party to support independence – but what about Labour? 

As some of the party’s supporters never tire of telling us, they are not nationalists, nor unionists, but understand their politics to be animated by rather different gods. Some, undoubtedly, still identify as democratic socialists, or at the very least as social democrats, and see their primary purpose – their project – in those terms, whatever intersecting national borders their political struggles may cross. All well and good, and for the moment, let’s take them at their word and accept their political self-diagnosis. If their attitude to the referendum is essentially about means rather than ends – and their question, what means best secure our ends, Union or Scottish independence? – wouldn’t it be a little strange if there was no disagreement whatsoever about which constitutional strategy the party ought to pursue? 

Which got me wondering, where's "Labour for independence?", and is such a movement even thinkable in the contemporary Scottish Labour party? You have Dennis Canavan, of course, but he's been out of Labour politics for yonks now.  I don’t know enough about the ins and the outs of the outfit to tell. One thing is obvious: Johann obviously feels no need to be circumspect about the views of the membership of her party, or for that matter, her fellow parliamentarians in Westminster or in Holyrood.  All are assumed to share her sovereign contempt for the motives and missions of Scottish nationalists.

It may well be that, in the atmosphere which has governed Scottish politics these last years, premised on daggers-drawn between Labour and the SNP, you couldn’t get elected an MSP or MP without being committed to an uncharacteristic, reflexive Unionism of the sort espoused – albeit rather limply these days – by the Tories. I doubt very much, however, that this unwavering phalanx of pro-Union opinion can be representative of the whole Labour movement.  After all, in their own terms, they are neither unionists nor nationalists, and there is at least an argument that realising democratic socialist goals in an independent Scotland would be more straightforwardly accomplished than in Westminster. 

Many folk have been protesting that they're keen for a civilised, intelligent, substantive debate on independence.  It may well be that the first step to doing so is the emergence of a Labour pro-independence group of any significance - or at the very least, a shift in unionist discourse from the idea that nationalism is discreditable, unserious folly, but is instead a viable perspective on politics and the constitution with which they respectfully disagree.  We all know that the atmosphere around the SNP has changed in a number of respects these last years.  In 2006, Mike Russell published a co-authored tract, calling for a "new Union" in these islands.  Various other figures in the party have been taking another look at Britishness, and instead of casually rejecting it, are finding interesting new articulations of the idea. For myself, I tried to contribute in a small way towards obliterating the gridiron binaries and recrimination which has characterised the debate by outlining my own ambivalences about the nationalist project.

These aren't concessions to a opposed worldview, nor I think signs of Nationalist weakness.  Quite the opposite.  Occam's razor a clumsy instrument. Things are complicated, and compromised, and owning up to that's no vice.  We may despatch such ambivalences to a gloomy gulag in the back of our minds, but the niggling little thoughts cannot so easily be exorcised. Folk like Gerry Hassan have been arguing for a long while that the crude Manichean spirit which dominates Scottish politics is pernicious. These past months, we've arguably seen movement on the nationalist side of the argument, but little or no evidence of  Unionist attempts to understand the compelling dimensions of the nationalist case, not as a declaratory ethnic project, but one based on ideas of responsibility, self-government, of a better politics afloat on something other than endlessly repatched, creaky, leaky British ship of state.

I enjoy a good flyting. I'm no wilting bloom, opposed to a dry line, the cruel laugh, the mirthful, malicious put down neatly deployed to disarm an opponent.  Don't let's be prissy. But a precondition of meaningful debate is understanding your opponents ideas, their language and ambitions. We'll never achieve that, without nationalists occasionally borrowing unionist wellies, taking them out for a traipse, and vice versa.  As Johann Lamont's recent performances at FMQs has shown, imperious scorn can be the stuff of effective stand-up comedy but not, I fancy, of illuminating dialectic. 

26 comments :

  1. There is a school of thought, represented by Ian Smart among others, that suggests there are no pro-independence voices in the Labour Party. I personally know some Labour activists and elected members who will vote Yes, but would not be daft enough to mention this at a branch or CLP level. It has to be a private opinion in the current environment - until a credible pro-indy leader emerges.

    There are also Labour activists who are agnostic on the national question, perhaps they are good internationalists by nature, but since the withering away of the nation state prophesied by Marx has never happened, and frankly looks unlikely in 2012 - why Labour's leadership assumes these good people should instinctively vote No doesn't quite add up. Perhaps there's more room for a 'Labour for neutrality on the national question' campaign.

    Is there a pro-indy Labour leader about to emerge? It would be a critical point for Labour voters if the campaign were to become non-partisan.

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  2. Coincidentally I noticed this group on Facebook the other day:

    https://www.facebook.com/labourforindependence

    Maybe there is a shift happening. In recent months I've met Labour supporters who have told me they'd have no problems voting yes, so who knows?

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  3. An Duine Gruamach14 July 2012 20:33

    Last year, the Labour club at my university (which will remain nameless) turned down an invitation to a debate on independence with the nationalists because, they said, some of their members were pro-independence.

    Make of that what you will

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  4. I think the biggest barrier for many Labour members to voting Yes is not the idea of independence, it is the SNP. Which is why it behoves us in the SNP not to be too prescriptive about what independence is or could be.

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  5. Charles O'Brien14 July 2012 22:07

    On facebook there are Lib-Dems advocating independence and much to the surprise of many some Conservatives are also on board the YES campaign,and it has been said the number of Labour people seeking independence is much higher that was previously thought,just what I've picked up of FB.There are also rumours of Labour supporters infiltrating the SNP seeking to disrupt the YES campaign and the party.How true I do not know just a couple of rumours I heard.

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  6. Occam, not Occum! I'm surprised at you!!!

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  7. From the above comments it seems the ridicule is having the desired effect of stifling debate.
    My experience of labourites is that at all costs they avoid discussion of economic matters and the buildig of a new economy. Which is where the independence arguments usually centre.
    An aggressive "You'd never make it on your own, period (sic)" is typically the one sentence total of their contribution to that topic here in London.

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  8. Fourfolksache,

    You're a tough audience! *hastily amends*

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  9. Groundskeeper Willie15 July 2012 12:46

    Perhaps it would facilitate a higher level of debate if we had some substance to deal with rather than assumption and fantasy.

    How about releasing the legal advice on EU membership? That would be a good start.

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  10. Groundskeeper Willie helpfully providing an example of the problem, there.

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  11. It's hard not to see the obsession with process and endless nitpicking as a tactic to prevent discussion of independence and other constitutional options. So it's reasonable to assume that is what the tactic is.

    It's actually working quite well for them so the Yes camp need to find a better way to avoid getting dragged into dreary minutae and responding to endless, pointless demands for detail. Basically it's time to sideline the unionist parties. They have nothing constructive to contribute.

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  12. Groundskeeper Willie15 July 2012 15:53

    'pointless demands for detail'


    That,in a nutshell, is why you are going to lose the referendum.

    The Scottish people aren't daft. They won't buy a pig in a poke.

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  13. AIUI the "Labour voters for independence" page is mostly SNP members who "will educate Labour people" about independence - so talking Labour folk into becoming pro-indy, rather than Labour folk who are already pro-indy.

    More generally, there really aren't a great number of pro-indy Labour party members. There's some who are genuinely undecided but most members stop at FFA because, well, that's the huge majority of the gain without most of the pain and your average Labour party member is quite used to compromising to achieve goals (that's usually why they're in the Labour party and not, say, the Greens or the SSP).

    On a related note, given the pro-union section of the Green is much larger than the pro-indy section of Labour (I'm given to believe it's about 1/3rd of the membership) why no "Greens Better Together" organisation?

    - Aidan

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  14. Reading this I'm wondering if it's possible to disentangle the issue from partisan allegiances. Of course there are Labour supporters who support independence - my own father was one - but experience would suggest that there's not that many and those that are would be unlikely to set out their stall at a time like this. Why would they? If one assumes a flexible but in the fundaments unchanged constitutional arrangement for the UK, all this would do is provide bi-partisan cover for a project that will fail in 2014 anyway.

    The position of the Conservatives isn't quite the same. The 'Unionist' tag, although implying a solid rejection of Scottish independence, actually comes from the amalgamation of the Tories with the Liberal Unionists, which as you know had to do with the Irish question. The Scottish question is something they can afford to be more relaxed about than Labour, since they have so little to lose up here anyway.

    Then there's the SNP themselves. I'm afraid I take a rather cynical view of Nationalists getting all nuanced about what independence actually means. Nats who do this sound to me like former leftists who have shifted right but can't quite bring themselves to say so. Instead they go on about how the categories of left and right are so, like, 20th century man. It's the same with independence. Everyone knows what it has meant historically - and everyone knows it isn't going to happen in 2014. Can't we just say so instead of pretending that the concept of independence is something that has all of a sudden become difficult to define?

    I don't expect any of you to agree with what I've just said but hopefully you can be persuaded a wee bit of a more general point, which is this conflation and collapsing of partisan loyalties into questions is an intrinsic problem with referenda, which is why some of us are suspicious of them as a constitutional device. My own view - supported by currently absolutely no-one - is that there is no need for a referendum at all. Independence as understood by the European nationalists of the 18th and 19th century isn't something that is even going to be offered as an option in the referendum - but the logic of devolution is that this business of a parliament simply moving around a block grant and claiming success when things are going well and blaming the arrangement that gives it to you when times are hard isn't sustainable. Why not just allow the situation to evolve, which it surely will? Better than the present situation, surely? In the interests of non-partisanship, is there any nationalist here that can be honest enough to call this referendum business out for the dog's breakfast it is?

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  15. Additional Sorry, no sooner had I clicked away, I came across this example of the demagogic simplification inherent in plebiscites. http://bit.ly/NVSYX1

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  16. We need to distinguish between ordinary Labour members and voters and elected members. Labour supporters and even party members may well support full fiscal autonomy but the elected members cannot. They cannot discuss it, they aren't allowed to.

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  17. Christian Allard16 July 2012 10:45

    The Yes campaign has just started, many activists and members of Scottish Labour will join us with activists and members of many other political parties , we just need to give them time.

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  18. I agree with Shuggy.

    “Independence as understood by the European nationalists of the 18th and 19th century isn't something that is even going to be offered as an option in the referendum”

    Whilst the Independent Scotland on offer in the referendum could, in theory, take the sort of the independent decisions that an 18th or 19th century nationalist might recognise as demonstrating full sovereignty I think in practise our options are much more limited. Much as they are for almost all (if not actually all,) nation-states in the 21st century.

    In practise a newly independent Scotland will be so embedded in international and supra-national bodies, both formal and informal, that our practical ability to translate theoretical sovereignty into independent action will be much less than a Young Scot of 1848 would recognise or even one of 1978.

    It’s difficult to imagine a Scotland that is not associated with a range of international bodies. Whether we could prosper outside of the EU is a moot point. I think very unlikely that we’ll be asked to try. We’ll sign up for things like GATT and the WTO, the IMF, World Bank. We’ll join the UN. We’ll probably end up in a currency union with either most of Europe or the rest of the UK, at least for a while.

    This doesn’t strike me as necessarily a bad thing. We don’t live in the 19th century, we shouldn’t expect a 19th century solution to be useful or even on offer.

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  19. To resolve a problem you must first establish it exists, then map out its effects and create the critical path towards its solution.

    Citing the bedevilment of detail is nothing more nor less than advocating the fudge of woeful experience over opportunity and hope.

    While it's pretty damned obvious Scotland gaining its independence is not going to cause a seismic shift in the global political and corporate plates of this world it is utterly disingenuous to argue it should have neither the power or the steerage to set its own course and democratic standards.

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  20. As some of the party’s supporters never tire of telling us, they are not nationalists, nor unionists, but understand their politics to be animated by rather different gods. Some, undoubtedly, still identify as democratic socialists, or at the very least as social democrats, and see their primary purpose - their project - in those terms, whatever intersecting national borders their political struggles may cross...If their attitude to the referendum is essentially about means rather than ends - and their question, what means best secure our ends, Union or Scottish independence? - wouldn’t it be a little strange if there was no disagreement whatsoever about which constitutional strategy the party ought to pursue?

    The essential problem with this analysis is that the political debate about Scottish independence started decades ago. Since the rise of the SNP in the 70's as a political force there has been a filtering process going on in Scottish politics. Those who are Scottish nationalist and who want to dissolve the British State and to break apart the British establishment have joined the SNP while those who are British nationalist and who want to preserve the British State and keep the British establishment intact have either stayed with or joined the Labour party.

    Over the decades the Labour party has become the repository for British nationalists in Scotland just as the SNP has become the repository for Scottish nationalists in Scotland.

    There is no internal debate in the Labour party about whether independence would be better for Scotland in comparison to staying in the Union because the Labour party's prime purpose is now to preserve the British state and establishment and not to search for the best way to institute a social democratic Scotland.

    That's the simple reason that there is no disagreement in the Labour party about Scottish independence even though the founding principles of the party were not based on British nationalism. It is simply a consequence of the polarisation which has occurred over the last decades. The "internationalism" of the Labour party is simply an internal euphemism for British nationalism.

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  21. LPW:
    ' Folk like Gerry Hassan have been arguing for a long while that the crude Manichean spirit which dominates Scottish politics is pernicious.'

    Gerry is right and it is our one big issue beside which all others pale.


    LPW:

    'For an extreme instance, watch Scottish Questions at Westminster, which is now devoted to pouring vial after vial of scorn over SNP heads.'

    Well, a friend of mine with experience of watching both Westeminster and Holyrood says that the Westmnister rhetoric is all air - you meet for a pint afterwards, whereas the vitriol at Holyrood is real - our MSPs genuinely dislike each other.

    Theorizing about exceptionalism among nations is rarely helpful but anyone with a passing knowledge of Scottish history will know that we do not have a history of being very tolerant of dissent. Even as late as 1736, the Kirk was whining about Westminster taking away our right to burn witches.



    Dan:

    'In practise a newly independent Scotland will be so embedded in international and supra-national bodies, both formal and informal, that our practical ability to translate theoretical sovereignty into independent action will be much less than a Young Scot of 1848 would recognise or even one of 1978. '

    Am with Dan and Shuggy. Sometimes I wonder wtf everyone is arguing so vehemently about.

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  22. Groundskeeper Willie17 July 2012 09:02

    News today that the SNP leadership want to reverse the party's policy on NATO.

    I presume this is because they think the existing policy will frighten the horses and stop people voting yes in the referendum.

    The problem for the leadership is that they are cranking up still further the tensions within the party which will make the implosion following a no vote all the more spectacular.

    I have to say, I'm quite looking forward to it.

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  23. The problem is that people like Johann Lamont have not weighed up the pros and cons of independence and come to the conclusion that remaining in the union is the best way - it's a completely reactionary position. That's why we've yet to see a proper argument for keeping the union, because in truth their only argument is "we should keep the union because... well, we just should."

    The weakness of the pro-union argument (and by "weakness", I of course mean "non-existence") means that to even entertain the idea that we could be independent risks demolishing the fragile foundations their unionism is founded upon. It's similar to how many (most? All?) religious people cannot even question the existence of their god, because as soon as doubt enters the equation, you're on the fast-track to losing your faith.

    This is perhaps why the idea of being a "devolutionist" has come about, because it allows unionists to dodge various bullets without actually questioning the unionist dogma at the centre. A bit like someone finding themselves at odds with a particular piece of Christian dogma, but rather than questioning the infallibility of God, they set up a new church that is like their old one in every way except this one.

    There is no intellectual argument for the union. That's not to say that everyone who believes in independence arrived at that position through stringent questioning of the two sides and arriving at a reasoned position - clearly there is an element of the independence support which is every bit as unthinking and reactionary as those of the opposing view - but there's a very good reason why the movement between the two sides of the debate only ever goes one way.

    You can question independence and still come to the conclusion that it is the correct route of action. But it is impossible to truly question unionism and remain convinced of the case. That's what I think, anyway.

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  24. The fundamental problem for Labour is that there is no logic to supporting, indeed celebrating, the degree of independence which allows us to protect the NHS, comprehensive education etc while at the same time insisting that we are better allowing Westminster to decide on matters such as pensions and welfare. We are patently NOT better leaving these things in Westminster's hands.

    At the end of the day the distinctions between what are devolved areas and what are reserved are in most cases pretty arbitrary. There is a kind of logic in keeping foreign affairs, monetary policy and defence reserved in the UK context and perhaps those are the areas that this debate really revolves around.

    But there is absolutely no logic in saying that the Scottish Government should control social care/health/housing but not the benefits system. There is no logic to saying that the Scottish Government should control renewable energy but not any other kind of energy policy. There is no logic to saying that the Scottish Government should control "enterprise" but not trade and industry or, generally, economic policy.

    Most Labour voters would agree on that I am sure. If we take the recent Future of Scotland poll it showed that most Scots want the Scottish Government to control tax, economic policy, welfare (67pc wanted the SG to control welfare - very strong support for that) energy policy, environmental policy, culture policy, housing and employment law.

    The areas which a majority of people thought Westminster should retain control were defence, foreign affairs and international development.

    That's just one poll - but it is consistent with many others showing majority support for what is termed Devo Max i.e. the devolution of everything save defence, foreign policy and monetary policy. Whether this model is possible or sustainable is of course another matter - but it is what the public, at present, appears to want.

    And - at the risk of attracting the wrath of the cyberunionists - the refusal of the unionist parties to engage with this debate is actually pretty undemocratic. And their insistence that it can all be discussed after, and only after, the referendum is laughable.

    So where does that leave Labour? It leaves them in the position where they must know, from private polling as well as publicly available opinion polls, that their own supporters want the Scottish Parliament to take on responsibility for things like welfare, employmemt, the economy. And I am quite sure that Labour councillors and MSPs and MPs feel just as frustrated at Tory reforms being imposed on Scotland as SNP people do.

    So is it really sustainable for them to maintain this self-denying ordinance which prohibits them from actually saying that?

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  25. GrassyKnollington17 July 2012 11:28

    Lallands PW wrote,

    "Folk like Gerry Hassan have been arguing for a long while that the crude Manichean spirit which dominates Scottish politics is pernicious."

    I know this is a favourite theme of Gerrys but it really needs to be challenged. Gerry has been looking at Scottish politics through gently (Labour) rose tinted specs for so many years that he doesn't even realise he's doing it.

    There is no equivalence between the attitudes of Labour and the SNP to each other because one side is railing against the stuff of their own fantasies and one side is seeking to deal with the unpleasant practical realities of having decisions made for Scotland in London.

    Labour are the party of the union and their visceral hatred of the SNP is based on the fantasy party and supporters they've created in their own minds.

    Woad painted anti-English racists backed up by leagues of hateful "cybernats" is what they think they're dealing with.

    Hardline British nationalists devoted to preserving Westminster at all costs who've given up on anything we would once have recognised as socialism in order to make Labour electable are what the SNP really are dealing with.

    Both sides are angry with each other but to suggest as Gerry Hassan does that there is an equivalence is an insult.

    Labour is angry about the career chances and privileges and titles it might lose and the SNP are angry that the chance to make life better for every person in Scotland is thwarted by that Labour self interest.

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  26. Patiently Waiting18 July 2012 21:05

    I thought you made some very interesting comments. The Tories mostly support the Union whilst the nationalists mostly support independence. It is indeed odd that Labour seems to be so anti-independence for the reasons you point out.

    I am Labour and pro-independence. The question is, do I speak out, break the mould and allow others to come out or do I stay quiet and wait for someone else to come out first then see what type of reaction there is?

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