The following article by James Foley was first posted on the Conter newsletter. It displays elements of a greater understanding of the nature of the UK state than was shown in Foley’s Left social democratic Britain must break, written for IndyRef1. This new thinking reflects the views expressed in Foley’s forthcoming book, Scotland after Britain, written in collaboration with Ben Wray and the late Neil Davidson. EL&SD will review this book.
SCOTTISH NATIONALISM AND CLASS POLITICS:
A LONGER TERM VIEW
Sturgeonism and Labourism are the twin poles of leftist attraction in Scottish politics. But a longer-term view of 2014 and its aftermath reveals the inadequacy of both positions, argues James Foley
If this analysis holds, the question remains of how socialists might respond. As of today, many are drawn to two polarised camps, each formed of faulty analysis. On the one hand, there are those who, regardless of experience and of the obvious barriers, rush headlong towards Sturgeon’s plans. This camp is formidable: it includes not just the obvious party loyalists, but also coalition partners the Scottish Greens and even, in some scenarios, the Alba Party, who are trapped by Sturgeon’s unexpected willingness to embrace their proposals. But obedience imposes a stark dilemma: the reproduction of Scotland’s political-economic status quo depends on the appearance of constitutional conflict, due to the disciplining effect of polarisation. With class conflict in the offing, false constitutional wrangling may become an actively conservative force.
On the other hand, there are those who have defaulted to a Labourist position. “Labourism” here is less about the actual viewpoints and positions of Scottish Labour, which, in practice, boil down to crude unionism (“Sturgeon hell-bent on independence”). The more persuasive Labourism, by contrast, is less about unionism than about seeing questions of democracy as distractions from the true struggle in workplaces or (to use their preferred rhetorical appeal) “in the communities”. Labourists have long hankered for a class struggle to rain down and wash all the constitutional scum off the streets. However, just as their hopes were raised by the RMT strike, Sturgeon’s announcement has been the rudest of awakenings. The next phase of British politics may look very like the last, with nationalisms trading blows from Edinburgh and London, while Labour looks on redundant.
Where events continually defy expectations, often there is a deeper flaw in the analysis. Labourists are correct to observe that the SNP’s formula of anti-Tory demonology, faux-progressive playacting and false referendum promises distracts from a host of Scottish-specific policy failures and endemic social miseries. But two points are missing here. In believing that class struggle can only follow the trammels of communities to workplaces to Labour Party governance, they fail to consider that 2014 and 2016 were class-based revolts precisely against Labour-voting which offered no agency to “the communities” when the debt-based neoliberal good times came to an end. Perverse and populist they may have been. But these revolts had a class-based foundation that was not merely founded in “nationalist delusion”.
More importantly, these provincial “heartland” revolts were founded in more than just understandable grievances. They contained an inarticulate core of analytical truth. There can be no surpassing the post-neoliberal malaise without some properly “constitutional” disruption of the state’s current form. Conversely, Labourists believe they have all the policy answers within the current boundaries. Their problem, as they understand it, is that they lack the communitarian supplement to gain mass consent.
They are thus restlessly in search of this communitarian dynamic to support their policy plans. But, again, this is founded on a faulty diagnosis. The problem is not simply that the “communities” routinely reject Labourist policies or struggles in favour of constitutional ones. The deeper problem is that those instincts are not ill-founded: policy progress (even just in the old fashioned, limited sense of “progressive taxation”) will require disruption to the state form and the settled order, especially its “globalised” aspects. Labour’s unwillingness to reckon with this imaginatively is symptomatic of wider failures, of the intellectual carnage of the Third Way.
There is a compounding problem with those Labourists who do attempt to solve the constitutional problem with proposals for progressive federalism or devolution max. Undoubtedly, Labour needs a distinctive constitutional proposal. However, these proposals are arguably moves in the wrong direction, for two reasons. Firstly, there is a confusion between popular sovereignty and “more powers”. Providing the latter without addressing the former could make Holyrood governance less, not more, accountable. Secondly, there is an underlying sense of trying to demobilise the energies of independence so that “normal” class politics can shunt back into gear. This still starts from uncorrected assumptions that the recent mobilisations are delusions or distractions, without any corresponding effort to address the crisis of post-neoliberal parties of social democracy.
14th July 2022