Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The admirable George Galloway, mistaken, alas, on independence

I once recall a kindly acquaintance telling me during the course of a discussion, "you're not wrong, just mistaken."

It wasn't intended as a patronising rebuke, just an encouragement to think more closely, or perhaps honestly, about how faulty claims can make for unsupportable arguments.

Sometimes it's not the case for something that can seem wrong, but the mistaken notions used to advance it.

Semantics? Perhaps, but still a useful thought process. 

Whatever the possible distinction, this little adage has been occurring to me, lately, in reading George Galloway's case for rejecting Scottish independence - or as the vernacularly-gifted George more directly urges: Just Say Naw.

Of course, the default tendency of our service politicians and media is to malign Galloway whatever he says. Few other prominent leftists have been so readily smeared and vilified.

How routinely we hear those standard barbs - 'controversial' and 'firebrand' - see him 'ambushed' by coy presenters, and trivialised by smug journalists - usually to their own detriment.

So, a small, appreciative caveat: George Galloway is not just a talisman for the left, he's a political treasure, a person whose moral defence of human beings has been as relentless as the imperialist wars and warmongers he's opposed. 

Being part of the same movements, I've supported him consistently, in discussion and blog, from his inspiring anti-war positions to his heroic defence of Palestinians.

I also uphold his complete and unobstructed right to campaign for a No vote in the referendum - wherever he's politically domiciled, wherever he wants to stage it and however he wants to state it.

But I'd also like to suggest, with all-due respect, that George is basically mistaken in three key ways over the formulation of that case.

The first concerns his depiction of Scottish independence as essentially 'nationalist' in motive, character and aspiration.

This may seem an odd qualifier. Isn't the desire for independence simply nationalism by any normal definition? 

Well, not if the aim of independence is based on factors which put progressive social advancement before territorial or national identity. And it's socio-economic concerns which appear to be the basic determinant of how most within the Yes camp will vote.  

Even where people might assert their 'Scottishness', who, even amongst most declared Yes supporters, view themselves as 'pure nationalists' or 'separatists', as in the possibility of 'full independence' from higher political and corporate forces?

If this is 'nationalism', it's of a very abbreviated kind, based on a common understanding that we're all, willingly or unwillingly, tied into much bigger political-economic networks, most of it oppressive.    

What's reassuring here is the strong relative absence of crude nationalism - flag-waving and jingoistic proclamations of 'freedom'. For many in Scotland, this is matched by a basic ambivalence towards the Union itself.  Indeed, it's a deep paradox that, while abhorring the sins of Unionism, George is arguing to maintain that very political entity - a Union that's committed so many imperialist crimes in the name of Britain and Empire.

George has also, I believe mistakenly, followed the mainstream's false presentation of independence as support or otherwise for the SNP. Hence, his concentrated attack on Alex Salmond, rather than an urge to depersonalise the issue and engage more particularly on what more socialistic opportunities may or may not lie with a Yes outcome.

Galloway is on firmer ground in citing the compromised version of independence pitched by the SNP leadership - retention of currency links, Nato membership and monarchy.  

Yet, none of this legitimate criticism invalidates the core case for independence. This is a referendum on creating a new political system, one that's open to ongoing pressure and radical change, not a vote for any party, policy or leader.

Nor should we be persuaded by George's dark warnings that removing a vital share of Labour MPs at Westminster will ensure continued Tory rule. Should voters, either in Scotland or the rest of the UK, be held forever hostage to Labour's own gross failures, and the stranglehold of this neoliberal party cabal?  

I also suspect that much of George's animus towards the SNP at large, even its mainly leftist core, is symptomatic of an emotional link to Old Labour.

But even this can't explain his negation of a growing Labour for Independence movement, and the expanding argument within those ranks that Labour Scotland could be a newly-invigorated left force within an independent parliament. Why is George so seemingy estranged even from that position?

It should be noted here that some Yes voices have themselves mistakenly charged Galloway with 'double standards' in supporting liberation for Palestine, but not independence for Scotland.

It should hardly need saying that there's no comparable case: one concerns a brutal occupation, and its difficult overcoming, the other an issue of how to pursue major political-economic improvement.

What does qualify for similar consideration, though, is people's universal right to remove elite-constructed institutions and barriers to the better society - in this case, a Westminster system historically underwritten by elite financial and City interests - English and Scottish - and a Unionist ideology which holds all those hegemonic fictions of a British 'national interest' together.

This ties-in, secondly, to George's questionable claim that independence is an abrogation of class politics and solidarity. 

In reality, class factors are driving the question of independence.

The latest polls and qualitative information show that the greatest rise in support for independence is amongst the low-paid, poorest and most marginalised of society, reflecting a growing mood for more leftist, independent control:
It seems that independence is a movement of Scotland's societal left, the part that used to profess undying fealty to Labour. It's not a socialist programme, but it reflects revulsion at Westminster's equation of "realism" with free markets.
Thus, a growing class body is realising that's there's nothing to be gained from traditional, sellout Labourism, or the neoliberal/austerity politics both Labour and the ConDems rigidly uphold.

Against this, John Wight, a close associate of Galloway, makes the worthy class-based case for a No vote. But, like Galloway, his argument is still based on the mistaken view of Scottish workers 'abandoning' their UK counterparts.

Why stay with a political system that locks all into neoliberal servitude? Why would a shift of direction negate solidarity with others - English, Welsh or anyone else - beyond any new border? Wouldn't the effort to forge a new left economic model inspire greater class politics, encouraging others to follow real alternatives? And isn't that set of radical prospects precisely why an alarmed establishment, corporate elite and media-serving network is trying so hard to kill the independence case?

Galloway and Wight certainly aren't wrong in questioning what class gains may derive from a Yes vote - it's by far their strongest line of argument - but they are, I believe, deeply mistaken in believing that independence will actually undermine class politics and the drive for socialist alternatives.      

Honourable socialists such as Ken Loach support a class-rooted argument for independence, just as John Maclean once did in considering the revolutionary case for breaking the Union.

Almost every leftist grouping in Scotland, including the Greens, supports independence, believing it can strategically advance radical change - including vital climate engagement and the best-ever chance of removing Trident. Mistakenly, it appears, that's the kind of leftist, humanitarian company George has decided to shun.

The third, and perhaps most, mistaken strand of Just Say Naw is its supposed concerns over 'sectarian instability'.  

Here, alas, George has indulged in his own disappointing variant of Project Fear, allowing irrational alarm to cloud rational engagement of a still relatively marginal issue.

In a recent Twitter exchange over an alleged 'sectarian' attack on Celtic manager Neil Lennon, George claimed this was further proof of Protestant-establishment power, and that the problem would only multiply with a Yes vote:
"but this element will be 12x more significant in Indy Scotland. Media and pol class scared of them"
If this really is the case, wouldn't Scotland benefit from independence, and a purge of those very forces most identified with virulent Unionism? Not, it seems, for Galloway.

George seems to be saying that the Union offers 'protection' from this lurking 'threat'; some guarantee of 'political security'.

But against what, precisely? Is it really credible that an independent state would start enacting anti-Catholic legislation? Would standard legal and civil protections no longer apply to Catholics?

Even with such sectarianism, would a 'Catholic community' really be threatened in an independent Scotland? Would they suffer political discrimination? Would we see a curtailment of, or end to, Catholic schools? Is there any serious evidence of such 'threats' just now? Why would that change?

While under no illusions about the spectre of sectarianism, the very notion of any post-independence threat to Catholics is not just mistaken, it's plain wrong.

I say this as someone raised in a Glasgow east-end Catholic-Marxist household, who knows all about the past oppression of my Irish family ancestry, who has witnessed all the ugly nuances of religious politics in the West of Scotland, but who also recognises the much greater extent of social integration, political-cultural complexity and, indeed, 'class ascendancy' of Catholics across many institutions.

Nasty, sectarian strands are still evident, for sure. Much of the media has been disgracefully mute on the issue. But the very idea that Scotland is anywhere near that kind of dark ethnic-religious fault line is simply untenable. The questions that absorb people here, Catholic, or otherwise, are basic day-to-day issues of economic existence.

Reactionary Protestant-rooted Unionism is still apparent, and no one can say that independence would eradicate it - all societies harbour such ugliness.  But, as a modern polity, independence would almost certainly be a healthier option than the status quo in helping to expunge it.

And even if the issue of sectarianism is as crucial as George suggests, should a society be hostage to an archaic Union through fear of atavistic prejudice and a bigoted minority?

In short, there is no decisive religious politics to speak of here. Beyond such peripheral 'religious identity', people of all religions and none generally think, act and vote on broad economic lines, many, across all social and religious backgrounds, now deserting a Labour establishment for the better, practical possibilities of smaller, independent governance. 

Whatever his campaigning approach, whatever the referendum outcome, my regard and support for George Galloway endures. Yet, Yes or No, George will likely be judged by many fellow leftists and progressives to have been on the wrong, or at least mistaken, side of history. 

Ever the shining politico, George says he might like to be prime minister in an independent Scotland.  A fascinating scenario, indeed - I might even support that. But, in contemplation of such office, real or imaginary, it would be great to see him acknowledge, at least, the case for independence as the legitimate pursuit of a real compassionate, socialist society.


Unknown said...

I utterly agree John..His stance doesn't make sense from any angle other than his own scarcely buried atavism, be it his outmoded early 20th Century Marxism or, crucially, his insane view On the level of sectarianism. How many bullets have been fired?

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, particularly your point about how Galloway turns upside down where the true nationalism lies, in the whole concept of the UK, forged by repression of others national right. I'd add that Galloway has joined the tri-party alliance to which UK politics has been converging for years, now made explicit. This is an alliance in thrall to the city of London, who do not on any account want to lose Scotland. That alone persuades me, as a socialist to support independence. Second, and less in agreement with you, Galloway is imo a spent force as leading figure for an sort of socialist alternative. Like you I was a supporter, giving him the benefit of the doubt for long time, because he serious appeared to break with New Labour, but he's heading back. The turning point for me was his notorious anti-feminist response to the Assange affair. No accident that he's has now become a useful ally of the right wing establishment. I think he may be around for a while though, a useful distraction for the left, and for the main stream media to present as the available socialists alternative

John Hilley said...

John Hilley‏@johnwhilley·Feb 5
The admirable George Galloway, mistaken, alas, on independence … @georgegalloway #indyref

George Galloway‏@georgegalloway·Feb 5
excellent piece, and generous. But "mistaken". I will explain on tour in Scotland between now and Sept. Al Fresco if need be
John Hilley‏@johnwhilley·Feb 5
Many thanks. We disagree on this one, but I appreciate your open engagement and challenging arguments.