Monday, June 09, 2014

Nationalism: means versus ends

One of the disfiguring features of the referendum debate is that it is dominated by arguments about economics by people who aren't, in the final analysis, particularly interested in economics.  What is not well understood - particularly by London-based commentators who enter the fray - is that there is in Scotland roughly about 25% to 30% of the electorate who are nationalists that would support independence no matter what the consequences.  They may believe all this stuff about Scotland being like Norway or Sweden and becoming a beacon of social democracy for the rest of the UK but at base relative poverty is for them preferable to maintaining a relationship that they liken to the occupation of Poland circa 1940.

The softer, and for me more congenial, support for independence comes from means-ends nationalists who view separation as a mechanism to get the sort of policies they want to see.  This I've said this already but most of these are socialists and greens.  The overwhelming majority of Yes voters in my acquaintance belong to this category. If there is a Yes vote in September, it'll be because the Yes campaign have persuaded enough Scots to be nationalists like this, at least for a day.  I understand this but it is desperately naive, which is why I was grateful to Torquil Crichton for reminding us of a lesson from the Irish experience: when socialists hitch their wagon to nationalism, the former invariably lose:
"There have been 29 general elections to the Dàil, Ireland’s parliament, since independence. Ireland’s Labour Party have won precisely none. When socialism goes up against nationalism in a country where all civic politics is about the nation, then Labour doesn’t stand a chance."
This is one in the long list of reasons I have to answer the Nationalists' rhetorical question: what are you afraid of?  Politics that is 'about the nation' creates forever a cross-cutting axis over the normal politics of class, which smothers the latter.  As Alex Massie and others have already suggested, a post-referendum battle between the SNP and Labour is going to be essentially one to see which becomes the Fianna Fail of Scottish politics.  In this I have no doubt the Nationalists would win.  Understood like this, Labour for Independence - along with the other Labourists prepared to throw their lot in with the separatists - are signing their own death warrant.



George S said...

Sometimes I wonder how far Scottish identity requires the projection of an oppositional, much despised English identity in order to define itself. Fancy talk on identity, I know, but it makes sense to me.

As for nationalism in general it can weave together threads of left and right politics (it does so in Hungary now) but its core programme is always about defining a tight majority group in opposition to the rest who can be blamed for almost anything that goes wrong or threatens to go wrong. It's about solidarity at the cost of almost everything else, and whether individual policies are socialist or favour big business (or indeed a native mafia) is a secondary matter.

I can't help but feel that the nationalist instinct is a form of fascism - fascism for 'nice' people if you like - which is why I dislike it.

Al said...

Isn't it also desperately naive for socialists to vote No in the hope that the Labour party, at some point in our lifetimes, moves more than a hairsbreadth from the consvervatives and genuinly advance socialist principles?

Scotland is not Norway, nor will it become Norway. But it is clearly to the left of England on several issues,and independence will realistically lead more socially just policies and greater redistribution.

Scotland also isn't Ireland. After independence there will likely not be unresolved territorial conflicts (i.e northern Ireland). The SNP contains both the left and right, including those who view independence as a means for greater social justice(e.g Jimmy Reid). It's entirely plausible the SNP could splinter in the medium/ long term.

Shuggy said...

Al - Don't get me wrong, I don't hold up much hope for the Labour party and I don't think they'll win the next election anyway. But what I'm concerned about is that the notion that Scotland is so much more leftwing than England is assuming the function of a mobilising myth for the nationalists. I think one of the shocks that will hit the Scottish body politic in the event of a Yes vote is how like the rest of the UK we actually are. But over and above that, what I was trying to suggest is that there's a dynamic where leftists think they can harness the power of nationalism only to discover they are overwhelmed by it. Obviously the circumstances surrounding the case of Irish independence are different but I don't agree that you would need a territorial dispute for this kind of dynamic to take hold.

Laban said...

How important is is that "Labour" is in a party's name ? I'm no expert on post-WW2 Irish history, but it doesn't seem that the political trajectory of Ireland over the last 50 years has been greatly different to that in the UK.

"Politics that is 'about the nation' creates forever a cross-cutting axis over the normal politics of class, which smothers the latter"

The United Kingdom managed 'the normal politics of class' pretty successfully until around 1997. France still seems to have it. Why should Scotland be different?

(while temperamentally a Unionist, the constant drumbeat/dripfeed of "sky will fall" media stories has turned me into a yes voter, albeit one without a vote. If the Scots can overcome the chorus of the entire "great and good", maybe there's hope for the rest of the British. But I'm not optimistic)

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