Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Greg Philo's false casting of Yes 'nationalism'

Greg Philo's article Socialism and Nationalism is a welcome contribution to the debate on Scottish independence.  

But although an earnest socialist rejection of the Yes position, it's a disappointing recourse to the same fear narrative being waged by the No establishment.

Philo's case relies on a similarly hyped assertion of dark nationalism as the driving force of the Yes movement, which, he warns, is a disastrous impediment to working class unity and any hope of a socialist UK.

Rather than the reality of a broad civil desire for self-determination, rooted in mainly economic and class-based concerns, Philo claims to see an "intensely divisive nationalism".

As 'proof', he lists an array of fear-factor warnings, from examples of anti-English abuse and other 'common' racism to anecdotal recollections of Braveheart hubris.

There are also, he asserts:
very strong currents of right wing opinion here [in Scotland...] Social attitudes here are very conservative on many issues[...] There is also terrible racism directed at Black and Asian people[...] Then of course there is the vicious sectarianism, the religious divisions, the Orange marches, plus the other opiates of the masses and our less than brilliant record on the beating of children and domestic violence.
Would any serious observer of Scotland's social landscape deny the existence of such problems? Philo is, no doubt, sincere in his concerns about the 'social dislocation' effects of independence. But are we really to believe that such prejudice is either large or powerful enough to merit suggestions of a dangerously racist or reactionary politics?

And just how "strong" are these "currents of right wing opinion"? Strong enough to register credible support for UKIP? Strong even enough to see the return of a serious Tory presence in Scotland? I think not. And nor, it appears, does Philo. Yet he still suggests that electoral support for the Conservatives, Lib Dems and even SNP, combined with 'moral conservatism' over issues like immigration and gay marriage, indicates 'strong right wing opinion'.         

Such base hostilities exist at large, deeply encouraged, as Philo should know, by a generically conservative, hate-encouraging media. While charting many instances of racist abuse (across the UK) in Bad News For Refugees, Philo's article does acknowledge the admirable presence of refugee-supporting bodies in Scotland.

But whatever the prevalence of racism or any other such problem, none of this invalidates the actual case for independence.

Indeed, isn't the very debate we're having over independence encouraging greater and more mature recognition of such issues?

Questioning Yes claims that an independent Scotland could be one of the world's wealthiest countries, Philo also asks:
Even if this was true, how are so many people on the left lined up with such an appeal? The plan is that we take the resources, then leave the de-industrialised areas and dispossessed classes of the rest of the UK to cope with the uneven development of capitalism as best they can.  How did we get into this state where an appeal which is so obviously divisive in terms of working class unity, is presented as progressive independence?
Not only is this claim of 'class abandonment' utterly unfounded, it reveals a more caged-like thinking: that left advancement must somehow depend upon the preservation of already power-serving institutions.

One only need look at the determined line-up of establishment forces against a Yes vote - Westminster and its neoliberal parties, the City of London, top CEOs, the CBI, Big Oil, Nato, the MoD, the BBC - to see exactly why they want the status quo. 

In contrast, as supported by socialists like Tariq Ali, leftists for Yes are thinking imaginatively and tactically about how to break the Union and challenge such institutions for the greater good. To reverse the question: how did parts of the left get into this state of seeing that task as 'class divisive'?       

Philo's associated argument that independence amounts to little more than an 'oil-grab' is barely new. But it's dispiriting to see it posed here (as elsewhere) in such reductionist terms. 

Whatever 'selfish' resource "plan" Philo thinks is afoot, is it likely that Scotland or any other de-industrialised area of the UK would ever realise anything under the present system?

Should we thus reject independence in the hope that a state elite which for decades syphoned-off the oil wealth and conspired to avoid creating an oil fund from those vast revenues will suddenly start acting like Norway?

With the emergency of climate change, the real 'oil issue' is not, in any event, about who gets what, but how we find ways of limiting its production in search of carbon-free solutions and a rapid transition to sustainable energy. As with much of the wider left, Philo has nothing to say on this issue. Beyond the Greens, it's been lamentably absent from the independence discussion.    

Philo knows, of course, that there are more enlightened motives behind the Yes argument:
Some on the left tell us that this is the opportunity to oppose neo-liberalism, to defend social democracy and help the poor and dispossessed of Scotland. Once Scotland is independent and we are free of the Westminster parliament, all this is apparently possible.
Or, for Philo, apparently impossible. Rejecting the potentialities of independence, he points to the sovereign forces of neoliberalism and corporate power. And who on the serious left for Yes will diverge on that point?

Yet, his own solution for challenging such power comes back to the same old wish-list for greater left representation and policy influence at Westminster:
How for example can we combat the uneven development of capitalism in this island and its disastrous impacts on the people of the north and west if we do not have representation in the Westminster parliament?
In effect, tacit approval of liberal-defined 'democracy', cabal-parties and a loaded political system.

The attack on corporate power and state warmongering, it seems, is still to be waged primarily within the very place that gives those corporate powers its most essential cover: 
If we believe that the UK Ltd is a particularly appalling concentration of corporate interests and financial capital which launches illegal wars, then that is all the more reason to be in there fighting for better policies.
Yet, in apparent contrast to Westminster with its resident ConDemLab pack, Philo sees no hope for an independent parliament with much greater potential for radical left involvement:
The radical left, as we understand it, is not represented in the Scottish Parliament, even with proportional representation.
Yet, past calamities aside, it surely could, and would very likely be as a realigned left - assisted by the very PR so vitally missing at Westminster - responded to the expected progressive demands of a new electorate. It would also give a vital lift to progressive Green voices.  

Yet, for Philo, there's nothing to be gained from this more realisable participation. 

Nor, he insists, is there anything unique about Scotland's political mindset:
The truth is we are like a lot of other places, and we would do well to remember that when people speak of Scotland or the Scots as having a “will to socialism” or write that “social democracy is hard- wired into Scotland’s soul”.
True, indeed, even if Philo still understates the deep resilience of Scotland's social democratic culture. Whatever the regional and class complexities across the UK, Scotland has still shown a more intensive resistance to Thatcherite policies and defence of the welfare state.   

But, even beyond such claims of 'radical exceptionalism', the key question remains: which of these parliaments, political representations and civil engagements presents the best viable chance for real left advancement and the building of a progressive politics?

Note again that almost none of this assertion of political rights and economic desires involves aggressive flag-avowing nationalism. If it did, I, for one, could have no part in it. The debate may be fevered, passionate, even polarising. But, with respectful exchange, that's no bad thing in serving to concentrate minds on the essential questions of elite power and radical reform.  

Indeed, one can feel reassured by the kind of notable humanitarian figures asserting the Yes case: from imaginative artists around National Collective and inclusive-minded performers like Eddi Reader to political-literary sages like William McIlvanney, James Kelman and Alasdair Gray - despite Philo's misrepresentation of his words.

The Yes movement is coloured by many good 'street' figures, from Denis Canavan and Jim Sillars to Elaine C. Smith and Billy Bragg. Noam Chomsky is now even in support. None of this has the remotest tinge of nationalist politics, making it an accommodating place to be.

Online sites like Bella Caledonia, Newsnet Scotland, Wings Over Scotland and multiple other social media pages are also driving constructive and invigorating debate. Local public meetings across the country, notably for Yes, are packed out. With an anticipated poll turnout of around 80 per cent, it seems that, to the establishment's alarm, people are contemplating, in prudent, measured ways, the very real possibilities of meaningful change.    

None of this uplifting spirit and qualitative debate seems to resonate with Philo. Instead:
the idea of a new socialist politics being born with a yes vote seems to me very unlikely, as a major consequence would be a surge in the worst elements of nationalism...
Again, all intensified by the 'dark threat' of ethnic exclusion:
Nationalism can very quickly divide people into who are Real Scots and those who are not[...] The view that English people should not be in senior positions or there are “too many” of them can surface quite openly.
And a personal observation:
After many years here, for some I am still the guest...
One should never dismiss such concerns and insecurities. So I do trust that Greg and anyone else would feel safe, happy and politically involved living their days out in an independent land.

But just how worrying is this picture of present or potential racial hostility? Not enough, it seems, to frighten a large Asian community, which takes comfort in the strong rejection of far-right politics and welcomes the broad language of inclusive independence.

Beyond Greg Philo's problematic impressions here, readers will find much greater illumination in Alan Bissett's excellent dismissal of the 'ethnic nationalism' card.

Philo seems on more reasoned ground in discussing the practical implications of state adjustment. For example:    
it is quite obvious that independent states do not typically keep their government departments in another country (as for example DFID, now in East Kilbride).
But such argument is still delivered in the same old fearmongering script: the 'job losses', 'economic disruption' and 'talent-draining' effects of independence.

Nor is there a single mention here of Trident, the overwhelming demand in Scotland for its removal, and what a gift the constitutional pledge to close Faslane would be to the wider disarmament cause.

Instead, the same resort to blaming a perceived nationalism for 'economic tension' and 'anti-Englishness':
I am not mainly concerned with economic arguments as such but rather how such changes will impact on the potential for class unity and collective action. Nationalism divides and different perceptions form on each side.
It is easy to see how a split would become bitter if perceived to be motivated by greed and racism. As the political and economic negotiations became tougher, there would be a lot of blaming here of ‘the English’.
I need hardly say that it is not a good idea for a small group of five million people to have an economic fight with sixty million who live next door.
This really is crass fear-fare from Philo, the kind of planted suspicion so desperately played-out by Better Together. Where's the more prosaic reality of deeply-interacting populations and long social bonds? Why would tough negotiations give rise to specifically anti-English feeling, rather than, as we're seeing, anti-ConDem/Westminster resentment?   

It's also remarkable that an essay rightly professing the vast inequalities of a capitalist system and need for an austerity-reversing wealth tax can resort to this claim:
As it is, with the existing arrangements, the poorest groups have some protection. Spending on welfare and health has been relatively well sustained and we were able to protect people from the worst effects of policies such as the bedroom tax.
Really? That will be news to the millions suffering savage ConDem cuts, the very poorest now looking to independence for some sort of economic rescue.

Again, no anti-English brooding or Mel Gibson sloganising here. Just, as recorded by many Radical Independence campaigns in the most austerity-afflicted areas, a gathering objection to decades of Tory-Labour abandonment and a desire for basic economic justice.   

And as the NHS in England and Wales spirals into privatised crisis, a timely warning that only a Yes vote will help secure real levels of public health care in Scotland.  

Philo believes that the true problem concerns the uneven relationship between the rest of the UK and London/South-East:
Such a relentless process of uneven development can only be altered by very strong regional planning. It requires physically moving jobs and investment, including transferring government departments or media conglomerates such as the BBC, plus the development of new infrastructure, broadband, cross rail links to join northern cities laterally and the focussing of research, training and development in targeted areas. The problem with independence is that it removes any representation which we have in that planning.
But why opt or hope for illusory regional 'powers' when actual independence could offer much closer scope for planning real alternative, sustainable models of development and greater representation of citizen demands?

Philo correctly identifies the problem of a corporate-sucking City of London without accepting that the case for independence is a logical and gathering response to that concentration of power. And any self-realising rejection of such power and its financial domain can only be of inspirational benefit to other regions and people at large in the decentralisation and break-up of a vastly unequal country.

Moreover, the problem with the BBC, as Philo should know, is its establishment role and propaganda output, suggesting an urgent need for its termination rather than relocation.

It's also worth noting here the work of Professor John Robertson in documenting the BBC's biased referendum coverage. Why hasn't Philo been doing likewise, or openly supporting Robertson's research?

I don't wish in any way to detract from Philo's and the Glasgow Media Group's own fine body of work, notably on Palestine/Israel. But where is its major critical analysis of establishment media performance over the independence issue?

Philo concludes by stating:
For us, socialism should come first and last and should not be used as a cover for a nationalism which would reduce our ability to take part in the wider changes that are so desperately needed.
Alas, much like a mistaken George Galloway, Philo has used the exaggerated threat of nationalism as cover for proclaiming a 'socialist first' message. It's a false and misleading one.  

Moreover, as Radical Independence and others assert, no serious leftist for independence is under any illusion about the ensuing task of building a true socialist and humanitarian society. Just as Philo and Galloway rightly castigate neoliberal and Nato-upholding elements within the SNP, so do leftists for Yes (including, of course, a substantive core of the SNP) understand the greater task beyond 18 September, viewing any Yes result as a move in a more promising, alternative direction.   

Nor, as a widening electorate comprehend, is it about Salmond and the SNP - though, the constant political/media smearing of Salmond shows precisely how the No establishment want the issue portrayed. 

Progressive minds, including Labour for Independence, and an expanding public simply recognise that any potential for a radical, just society rests much more realistically on the conditions and opportunities of independence than the dead-end politics of Westminster.

As for nationalism, the only intense version on display is that of British Nationalism, playing on archaic notions of 'common heritage', a 'better together Empire', continued warmongering and the same false promises of political and economic deliverance.

What, in rejection of that useless nationalism and oppressive authority, do we have to lose in pursuit of a fairer, socialist society?


ajohnstone said...

John , i have encountered many left nationalists argue that independence will advance the case for socialism but i struggle to find any historical precedents for that claim. On the contrary, it has been the nationalist ideology that has prevailed and the socialist case subsumed.

Perhaps you can help me with some examples where nationalism has led to a step forward to socialism and not its retardation.

John Hilley said...

Hi, thanks for your comment.

While one can always invoke national liberation movements, or point to examples where leftist forces were undermined, I don't see it as a particularly helpful exercise in trying to understand this situation.

My essential point here is that the case for Scottish independence is not actually being driven by nationalist feeling at all, but by more rooted socio-economic and political concerns about the prevailing arrangement. Much of the Yes movement is identifiably socialist or more widely social democratic in substance, articulating, in essence, a largely left-leaning belief that the breaking of an archaic Union, the creation of a more participatory parliament and greater control over finances/spending can help steer Scotland on a decisively different course to the disastrous neoliberal consensus.

The problem with Philo's piece is that it sets up this false 'choice' between nationalism or socialism. Not only is this a deeply reductionist argument, it also plays upon all manner of stereotypical references, equating 'common' racism with a 'dark nationalist' politics.

It's a striking paradox that leftists like Philo appear so locked into the same kind of fear narrative as the establishment No. My appeal here is to see the much more nuanced nature of Yes feeling and its socialistic potential beyond claims of a crude nationalism.


John Hilley said...

Chris Bambery making the case for Independence: