Federalism and its discontents: a response to Owen Jones and his critics

Owen Jones recently broke his self-imposed silence on independence to make an argument for a “loose federation” of the various UK nations as a “fairer” alternative to Scottish nationalism. He identifies nationalism as an inadequate substitute for a progressive politics based on “shared economic interests”, and a “symptom” of the atomised, individualistic politics which have replaced the class solidarity of the past. But he realises that movements for national sovereignty aren’t going to vanish any time soon, and that a “loose federation” could grant each nation a degree of sovereignty or home rule without fragmenting the shared economic interests of the British working class. Nationalism to Jones is sad but inevitable, and should be taken into account rather than ignored by those who want to transform the British state.

Nationalism has been known to inspire a great deal of oppression, inequality and intolerance – this is partly why left-wingers dislike it so much. But our present situation also proves it capable of inspiring hope and creativity, hence the growing comfort with which Scottish centre-leftists describe themselves as “civic nationalists”. Several nationalist responses to Jones’ article have implied that he hasn’t grasped this second point – that he stubbornly remains aloof to the potential for an open, tolerant and left-wing nationalism, to the detriment of his argument.

Mike Small of Bella Caledonia blames this on Jones’ political ties to the Labour Party:

He and others remain convinced that the avowedly/explicitly right[-wing] Labour Party is going to miraculously metamorphise [sic] into something of their grandfathers’ dreams. It won’t. We’ve lived through this. It’s like expecting a dying dog to chase a stick. However high and far you throw the stick it’s not going to chase it any longer.

The limited evidence for such an emphatic claim comes later:

Labour abandoned Britain to the spivs and The City long ago in a sea of spin, PFI and broken promises. If people in Scotland don’t believe that story any more it’s because of Cash for Honours, fictional WMD and endemic propaganda from the mouths of a decade of Labour spin men.

And yet there’s something deeply suspect about this. Jones supports a sort of federalism, and sees the Labour Party as the only left-wing party with enough support across Britain to implement it fairly and evenly. Is our best argument against this seriously just the smug, barely substantiated assertion that Labour are shite, so it’s not going to happen? The most sensible opponents of independence, when proposing a federal option, are faced with angry outbursts about “jam tomorrow” and the suggestion that Labour have only ever sought to manipulate Scotland into sending votes south out of a supposedly deluded belief in class solidarity. But at the same time, supporters of independence fall head over heels to soothe the concerns of rest-of-UK (rUK) Labour supporters who worry about being condemned to Tory rule forever by our desertion. Arguments are made about Labour’s proven ability to win majorities in England and Wales as well as Scotland, and the power of Scottish independence to set a “positive example” to the rUK Left. The good folks at A Thousand Flowers have attacked Jones for rejecting independence as a solution to the failures of the British state, and express optimism about the ability of the rUK left to build a movement similar to Scotland’s.

So who do we think the rUK left is? It’s a mixed bag, of course, but who is actually able to win state power for socialists down south if not Labour? The Greens? With their single MP in a marginal seat and their single, unpopular council administration? If Scottish nationalism is really about international solidarity and left-wing values, how can we say that Labour is a totally lost cause and then march out of Westminster, enabling either a ‘lost’ Labour Party or the Tories to lord over our southern comrades for the foreseeable future?

Jones rightly recognises that the rest of the UK doesn’t, and shouldn’t, depend on Scottish votes to fight off the Tories. That’s because the rest of the UK has a party with members, councillors, MPs and MEPs who passionately care about social justice and with close links to the self-organised institutions of the working class, and it’s the Labour Party. It is a party with which a very large chunk of the British and Scottish left still identify. Yes, it has done some dreadful things, particularly in its recent history. That was during a time when Social Democratic parties across the world were swerving to the right. Does that really make a renewed Labour left – in either Scotland or the rest of the UK – impossible?

Too many nationalists seem to think so. And yet they, of all people, should understand that history is not simply about what “we’ve lived through”, or whatever made you particularly angry ten years ago. They should know that historic identities – be they held by Scots or the labour movement – don’t die easily. For long periods of the UK’s history, the constitutional issue lay in some very long grass, largely hidden from the popular consciousness. But some form of Scottish identity remained, preserved in an apolitical swamp of ‘cultural sub-nationalism’ and the endurance of Scottish kirk, education and law. Tom Nairn calls this historic hint of cultural and political difference the ‘raw material’ – often irrational and backwards-looking – of Scotland’s modern political nationalism, which seized on a crisis of the British state to look forward towards better governance, a fairer society and a more versatile economy built to navigate the rapids of global capitalism.

The point is this: given that the independence movement is built, ultimately, on a 300-year-old question that was for much of that time politically irrelevant, how can nationalists claim that just 30 years of ruling-class advance within the Labour Party makes such an advance irreversible? History is about the longue durée; the many levels and forces of society are forever rolling across one another, some in periodic stasis, others in permanent motion. If the ancient thing that we call ‘Scotland’ collided with the crises of the late 20th century to produce the debate we’re having now, why shouldn’t some event in the future collide with Labour’s enduring working-class base, suppressed as it might have been, to produce something equally positive?

Labour continues to toe too much of the Blairite line at both Westminster and Holyrood, with particularly reactionary policies on immigration and welfare causing understandable anger amongst both both Labour and non-Labour socialists. Owen Jones, following Ralph Miliband, recognises that Labour’s preoccupation with parliamentary politics as the be-all and end-all of political action weakens them, pulling any radical impulses rightwards in search of new majorities. But his solution to these problems is not to leave the Labour Party entirely, which would abandon generations of left-wing voters and trade union members to creeping irrelevance as several competing ‘real Left’ parties stumble into existence. His solution is to continue a fight within Labour, alongside fellow socialists in the party. This is the choice of a political pragmatist. He is equally pragmatic on nationalism: it can’t be ignored, or simply condemned, but it can be adapted into new, more complex forms of class politics, where solidarity and sovereignty is bottom-up, not imposed on restive peripheries by the London state or party.

His critique of the SNP hits the mark: they are too friendly to the rich, not because they have been conquered by the bourgeoisie but because they are organised around the bourgeois ideology of nationalism, which seeks to subordinate divergent class interests to the bizarre notion of ‘the national interest’. The SNP’s is no scary, fascist nationalism, but a calm, boring project of adaptation to an undemocratic global system they would never dream of destroying. Scotland is a rich country which, on a global scale, profits immensely from capitalism. The SNP plan to make Scotland even richer by typically capitalist means. Why end something that’s making you rich?

This is where we need to depart from Jones’ argument. If the SNP need to be defeated, federalism isn’t the way to do it. The SNP have done well out of devolution, not because of an insurgent nationalism but because they proved adept at managing the devolved apparatus to deliver material benefits to certain powerful sections of the Scottish electorate. They can pose as centre-left, while never facing the big, state-level questions that might force them rightwards – on taxation, defence and labour legislation, for example. Their proposed corporation tax cuts, their NATO volte-face, and their reluctance to take sides over Grangemouth all suggest that independence will indeed send them scurrying in that direction.

Who will be there to challenge them? Scottish Labour cannot outflank them on the right as long as they want to maintain a base of support among trade unions and the working class (which they undoubtedly do) – but they can outflank the ‘national party’ on the left, not just as the Labour Party but as a party of labour. Federalism risks entrenching the SNP in their comfortable role as the most efficient redistributors of London handouts. But with independence, the Scottish Labour Party can challenge the SNP on the terrain of real economic power.

This is an argument against federalism that doesn’t depend on dismissing it as ‘irrelevant’ or ‘impossible’. If, as the polls narrow and the leadership gets desperate, Labour do believably offer something approaching a federal arrangement (which is even more likely if they’re looking for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2015), we need a better response than that. This is also an argument against federalism that is based on an opposition to the SNP. On the continuing importance of the Labour party to Scotland, the pro-independence left and Owen Jones should be able to agree. But if we want to really take the fight to the SNP and start to build a state which empowers and provides for its people, federalism isn’t enough.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

image courtesy of ‘broken barnet’ 

28 thoughts on “Federalism and its discontents: a response to Owen Jones and his critics

  1. Interesting piece. Not that important but I wouldn’t and don’t describe myself as a nationalist.

    You seem to start from the premise that the Yes movement is a nationalist one. I’m not sure that’s quite correct.

    You ascribe to Jones the idea that ‘movements for national sovereignty aren’t going to vanish any time soon, and that a “loose federation” could grant each nation a degree of sovereignty or home rule without fragmenting the shared economic interests of the British working class.’

    That statement is loaded on several levels. First is the idea that popular movements for self-determination need to be ‘dealt with’ somehow – and that this lesser sovereignty will somehow fix it! The idea of what the ‘ shared economic interests of the British working class’ is isn’t outlined.

    You suggest that I have ‘limited evidence’ for ‘an emphatic claim’ that Labour won’t transform itself into a project worth supporting. I’d argue that there is absolutely no evidence of this, in fact there is in black and white a commitment by Labour to austerity measures.

    You say ‘Jones supports a sort of federalism [a good thing – we’re not told why], and sees the Labour Party as the only left-wing party with enough support across Britain to implement it fairly and evenly. Is our best argument against this seriously just the smug, barely substantiated assertion that Labour are shite, so it’s not going to happen?’ No the argument is more that federalism has its problems, few advocates and you dont explain how it deals with the structural centralising powers and forces of the British State. But even if you did – only this week we heard of Scottish Labour MPs threatening to boycott the Scottish Labour Party conference in Perth because they were so against the very limited Devo Max proposals being put forward. There is absolutely no sign of federalism, no urge and no prospect.

    But I remain confused. You seem to advocate federalism throughout then pull back from that at the end.


    1. Thanks for your response, Mike.

      The Yes movement is a predominantly nationalist one. Your conception of nationalism may be different from mine though. I think working-class Scots have more in common with working-class English or Welsh people than they do with rich Scots. That’s what I mean by “shared economic interests”. To talk of Scotland as “we” or “us” in the sense of common interests across Scotland as a *nation* is nationalist, and there is an implicit nationalism in blaming Scottish problems on ‘Westminster’ rather than international and national ruling classes. A large section of the Yes movement does these things often. A Scottish state will have its own ruling class – the Scottish ‘nation’ already does, and they’re Scottish – and to assert the common interest of all Scottish people against a malign Westminster leviathan is to ignore the degree to which a Scottish elite are as opposed to the interests of working-class Scots as a London elite.

      The fourth paragraph of your response confuses Jones’ argument with my own, but I do believe that movements for self-determination which are predominantly nationalist, as ours is, shouldn’t be ignored but must also not be uncritically welcomed. Mostly, I’m just trying to distil his argument so I can respond to it. Your own argument is deeply loaded towards your own priorities, which are opposed to Labour based on its very recent and present incarnation rather than its enduring potential as a party of the labour movement which has been damaged by late-20th century victories for international capital. You also seem to blame Labour’s failings on an innate moral failure rather than applying a class analysis. But my article seeks to show that even when loading the argument towards Jones’ own priorities – federalism, Labour and class – we can make a coherent case for independence.

      We (Mair Nor A Roch Wind) agree with two of his points: that the Labour party retains a degree of left-wing identity, working class support and links with the labour movement that mean we shouldn’t rule it out, despite recent developments; and that a politics based on shared economic interest – class politics – remains the best way to pursue socialism in the country and the world. We believe that Labour are currently the best party in which to practice class politics in both Scotland and the rUK, for the reasons stated above. But we think that federalism encourages the politics of consensus-based regionalism/nationalism, particularly given the SNP’s devolved successes, while independence is an opportunity to pursue an antagonistic class politics which rejects the consensus-based nationalism of the SNP and fights against both Scottish and international capital.


      1. Rory,

        I no longer know what the labour movement is. Perhaps you could clear that up for me? Perhaps you could also apply a class analysis to the rise of rich folk in the Labour Party? Y’know, relative to the rest of us. Tone is not exactly stuck for the rent.

        In Parliament, it seems to be less about the sort of socialism you seem to want than about accomodation of the state to bankers who are inviolate. It seems that it, at Westminster, is a state that provides excuses, lies even, about WMD. It seem to me that the Labour Party actually supports the things you would be rid of.

        You and I would be well shot of that.

        I think working class people have a better chance of dominating a Hollyrood Parliament than they ever would a Westminster one.

        Apparently most MP’s are very rich. Are they representative of you or I?

        I think not.

        To be clear, this is not class envy, I am pretty happy with what I have and haven’t got.


  2. It’s so disappointing that commentators keep telling us that despite the last Labour Government’s attacks on the poor; that despite the fact that as a government they oversaw an increasing gap between rich and poor, that saw them continue with the anti-trades union stance, not forgetting such horrendous policies such as the Benefits Integrity Project, the abandoning of the 10p tax rate, Iraq, Afghanistan etc, and despite the fact the Labour Party made the planned move to become a Social Democratic Party under Blair and his ilk that we continue to be told that they are still the vehicle for the left in the UK. As we are witnessing yet again, the Labour Party always remembers about the excluded and the disadvantaged when they are in opposition but very quickly forget about them when they get into power. This isn’t a new thing; this has been going on since the Wilson Government of the 1960s. How long are we supposed to wait for the Labour Party to address and redress the balance between the rich and poor; between the mainstream and the marginalised; between the haves and the have nots?

    In Scotland, we’ve waited long enough for this to happen and in September we will, hopefully, vote for independence. Then we can start to focus on re/building a Scottish party of the left which will focus on making real differences for all the people of Scotland and help us build a more equal and fairer society something the Labour Party in the UK has had the power to do when in government but chose not to do. We’re still here on the left but the Labour Party decided a long time ago the moving right was the correct direction for them and they now demand that we follow them. I’m a big admirer of Owen Jones, but like Tony Benn he appears to be able to ignore the Labour Party’s abandonment of inclusive social policies in its desperate attempts to get Ed Milliband crowned Prime Minister. Given that if Labour does get into power it will probably be in coalition with the Lib Dems what hope then for the left? It surely doesn’t need much analysis to understand why so many of the left in Scotland are so supportive of independence.


  3. Have you been listening to what Lamont has been saying and Labour have been doing whilst in power over the last 40 years? The SNP are not my party and cutting corporation tax is a terrible way to go, but they are protecting the NHS and free education, for example. Stop banging on about Nationalists, so many Yes voters reject nationalism, it’s a cheap shot, England/UK never misses a chance to wave the flag and paint the skies red white and blue. Something I’ve not seen Labour show any signs of rejecting. If there are so many ‘caring socialists’ in Labour they should leave together on mass and form a ‘Socialist’ party with Owen. Best to insist they live on an average workers wage, just to clarify their motives. P.S. I lived in England for all but the last few years, I am voting YES! and I will continue to show solidarity with all working class people of the World after Independence.


  4. As I make very clear here, I agree that the Labour party have done bad things over the last 40 years. That was a period of intense advance for both national and global capital, where social democratic parties across the world shifted to the right. There’s a clear flaw common to all of them, which is social democracy as you point out. But things aren’t as simple as “why don’t we all just leave then”. That’s a utopian goal, and would very likely lead to a generation of fractious irrelevance for socialists and the labour movement with *even less* access to state power than they have now in the Labour party. The party remains a site of class struggle rather than one of total class control, as demonstrated by ongoing internal disputes between leadership and unions, and we should engage in that struggle rather than abandon our comrades to defeat. Perhaps something may happen that will push the entire labour left out of the party together and into another one, but right now there is still a fight to be had.

    See my response to Mike above for my understanding of nationalism. I don’t mean flags and anthems – that’s only a small part of it – but a particular understanding of nation in relation to class. From most of what I’ve read from the ‘non-nationalist’ pro-indy side, there’s a lot of implicit nationalism still going on. Not an intolerant nationalism, but a sense that all Scots have a common economic interest rather than divergent class interests.


    1. “Perhaps something may happen that will push the entire labour left out of the party together and into another one, but right now there is still a fight to be had.”

      Just for the sake of clarity, what kind of thing do you think it would take to push the entire Labour left out of the party? What would the final straw be? If it wasn’t war, Blairism (pretty well embraced by “Red” Ed in his Hugo Young speech), and cutting the union links, what is it? Where is the final line? Or is that a rhetorical point, a horizon that will never be reached and a step that need never be taken no matter how bad they get?


      1. Saying Miliband “embraced” Blairism in his HY speech implies the most juvenile possible understanding of Blairism and the modern Labour Party. ‘One Nation’ Labour is, on several levels, a rupture with Blair – which is why Blairite MPs and Lords are often so keen to rock the boat with barely-veiled attacks on Miliband’s leadership. Just because the Scotsman headline (unlike most English papers I’ve seen) focused on the line about austerity (which Blairite columnist Dan Hodges called a “tick-box line” that he thinks Miliband doesn’t actually care about) doesn’t mean the Labour Party is still Blairite. One Nation Labour is different; better in some ways, worse in others. In fact, it’s remarkably similar to a great deal of Scottish nationalism, albeit in an English context: it, like the SNP and Common Weal projects, is ultimately about mobilising a majority with populist economic pledges and nationalism in order to pursue a post-crisis restructuring of a capitalist national economy. It’s a bourgeois project of reaction, and it needs to be fought.

        But that need to mobilise the masses behind a project of reform, however reactionary in its intent, does tend to produce certain concessions that can be built upon. So we get Labour pledging progressive interventions on tax, wages and prices, each of which are fundamentally un-Blairite. That rupture wouldn’t have happened, and those opportunities wouldn’t be available, if we had David Miliband rather than Ed Miliband as leader, and we wouldn’t have Ed Miliband as leader if it wasn’t for the labour movement’s involvement in the party. To say Labour are “cutting the union links” is also ridiculous. The party reforms are certainly a blow to the unions in some ways, but they’ve also got the (perhaps reluctant) support of the unions as far as I know. Not to mention the ties of identity I mention above – Did Union with England end the existence of Scotland? Trade unions and their members will remain an important part of the Labour Party – and if Miliband can use the political capital from it to pursue broader party funding reform, as he’s trying to do, it’ll weaken the Tories far more than the Labour Left.

        You ask me what it would take for the Labour Left to leave Labour. The question already implies that, regardless of everything I’ve said, you don’t believe there’s a justification for us remaining within the party *now*. So you’ll just wait on the sidelines for us to be forced out, like a child who, having decided they don’t like their house, stands outside in the rain waiting for the rest of their family – who understand the house, who know both its flaws and its uses – to move out. So you’re really asking: what would it take for this house to collapse, leaving my family homeless? My answer is: I don’t know the future, but I know that the collapse of the house would kill or greatly harm the family, just as the thing which would make the Left leave Labour would surely be only part of an historical shift that would also greatly harm the broader Left, and the working class, in general. So you carry on standing outside praying for your house to collapse, and we’ll stay inside working out how to refurbish it. You’re more than welcome to come inside.


  5. I understand your point about there being some left-wing potential in Labour, and that because of that, it is not yet lost. However, I feel that there was an element missing from your analysis – that is the fact that the UK government is, technically, not a democracy.

    No ruling party since the second world war has commanded a majority of the vote, despite getting a majority in parliament – that fact should be causing rioting in the streets. Additionally the First Past the Post system in Westminster allows 2 interconnected and distinctly antidemocratic things to occur. Firstly, it leaves no room for any more than 3 parties with any chance of any political power, as marginal parties almost never get over the threshold. And secondly, it means that those chasing the votes are necessarily going to try and find the voters’ “middle ground” at all times, by appearing, if not the best party, then the least horrible of the lot. The fact that many seats are as safe as Fort Knox means that the few marginal seats that decide elections are the only ones the parties need bother catering to. So we get our situation now, where we have 3 barely distinguishable parties constantly chasing what they believe to be the “middle ground” in what amounts to a very few areas of the country.

    You might now be asking where I’m going with this. Well since the issue of electoral reform hasn’t been on the cards since 2010 (and before then, not since the 30s), and that got made an absolute mockery of, it seems that the issue of chasing this mysterious middle ground in middle England won’t be ending any time soon. If the Labour party wants to win elections they have to pander to the Daily Mail-influenced marginals, they can’t afford to return to their roots because they might not win again, and they have no need to return to their roots because the left-wing socialist seats are as safe as houses. If a proportional electoral system actually happened in the UK, then you might start finding that some of the actual socialist parties start getting seats in what were once safe Labour ones. They’d face some good old fashioned competition on their left again. You spoke of there being a chance of Labour becoming a properly socialist party again, and I agree, this is possible, but only under a fair and democratic electoral system, where Labour feels like it *needs* to move away from it’s centre-right agenda because it’s electoral success depends on it. As it stands now, Labour has no desire to return to it’s roots, has no need to either, and the issue of electoral reform is currently toothless for the foreseeable future. That means that for the foreseeable future, Labour will not be a party rooted in class politics, and it makes sense for Scottish left-wingers to try their luck in a new national formation, one with an actual working democracy (which needs tweaking, I’ll admit). This isn’t necessarily nationalism, so much as self-preservation in the face of a brutal government and a mock democracy.


  6. My own priorities, aren’t opposed to Labour based on its very recent and present incarnation – its based on a historical view over a far longer period and lived experience. I was at Bilston Glen and saw the Labour Party abandon the miners. I was in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and saw the Labour Party abandon the ANC and SWAPO, I saw the Labour Party abandon principle after principal until it became the shell it is. This is a class analysis. If you read Bella over time we are consistently about exposing elite rule, not positing some sort of mythical pan-national unity. You seem to have a dewey eyed notion of Labour as a political force. I’m intrigued to know what that’s based on.

    As for blaming Westminster power, I’d direct you to Nicholas Shaxson on the power of The City and Labour’s role in augmenting it: http://www.newstatesman.com/economy/2011/02/london-corporation-city

    You say: ” I think working-class Scots have more in common with working-class English or Welsh people than they do with rich Scots.” Absolutely agreed and that’s why formal parliamentary sovereignty is only one aspect of building democratic structures in this country. Solidarity with people across the world – not just in England and Wales (!) is an essential part of a genuine alter-globalism,


    1. The argument is that there is only space for one left force (Labour), and that as the tactic is to take state power then the first task is to take power – or at least win the argument – within Labour. Much as ‘Scotland may not be the best nation for the workers, but its the only one on offer’, the argument goes ‘Labour may not be the best party for the workers, but its the only one on offer.’

      This, as Mike points out, misses the point that when push comes to shove (and I think it will come to more than shoving), Labour will not back any popular resistance to economic and state violence.

      I agree – the positions must be to go into Scottish independence, and out the other side, assisting an internationalist ‘alter-globalism’ (if we must call it that) to leave the husk of the nation state far behind. Currently the nation state is held together for convenience, and because of the fear the unravelling of its contradictions will be too destructive.


      1. The Labour Party leadership often fail to back “popular resistance to economic and state violence”, often due to electoral considerations, but there are almost always plenty of Labour members who are at the centre of those struggles. The SNP didn’t take the side of the workers at Grangemouth, nor do they oppose the behaviour of the police across Scotland. Even the Greens have made huge mistakes in Brighton. But state power continues to exist as a battleground for class power, and the Labour Party exists and is evidently a battleground for class power – which is why we see such open and bloody struggles between a (small-L) labour-led left and a capital-led right within the party. If you believe the party and state forms are now useless, despite their clear and enduring usefulness to the ruling class, that’s for another discussion. But for now, our choice is between ignoring the struggle within Labour because it looks too difficult and thus condemning those who remain within it to irrelevancy and further demoralisation, or continuing that fight – alongside others, of which one is ‘alter-globalisation’ – with the awareness that there’s no guarantee we’ll win.


  7. This is very well argued as ever from this blog, even if as ever we diverge sharply on the question of the Labour party (although when we say “The Labour Party”, I think we probably mean different things)

    It is odd however to argue for independence, not be a nationalist and assert others who share your broad position are nationalists. It’s been happening for decades on the left, with everyone talking about how pro-indy and not nationalistic they are, unlike everyone else who’s basically some sort of Braveheart. It’s a bit like denouncing each other for being “middle class” all the time..Saying someone is a nationalist is becoming the Godwin’s law of the indy left.

    Acknowledging that we are all aware of the limits of bourgeouis democracy and constitutionalism but might still be capable of reaching different conclusions without being nationalists is important. It’s not that others haven’t grasped the terms of reference just because our answer isn’t wearing a Labour rossette.

    Also, I challenged Owen to think about what a new left in England might look like, I didn’t “attack” him. A few questionable photoshops and calling someone a poster boy doesn’t mean I wouldn’t still have a poster.


    1. I genuinely don’t think of A Thousand Flowers as a nationalist blog (although sometimes a bit too soft on the SNP), so wasn’t referring to you there. One need not be a Labour member to be opposed to nationalism (and vice versa). I acknowledge that my writing could usually be clearer. Likewise, you shouldn’t take my use of “attack” as pejorative – all critique should be an attack!

      I do think that most of the pro-independence movement is nationalist – not in a braveheart-watching, flag-waving sense, but in the “civic nationalist” sense which is still deeply flawed, focused as it is on parliamentary reformist politics, supposedly common Scottish values and class compromise in the “national interest”. It’s Nairnite/Maxwellian left-nationalism rather than explicit patriotism that I’m usually talking about when I refer to nationalism, which sees the nationalist movement, party or even sentiment as the vanguard of change in Scotland. I suspect we can agree that this movement isn’t going to become a revolutionary part of Scottish politics, but it *might* help bring about the emergence of something better.


      1. Yes, it’s indefensible. Although not particularly interesting, because we’ve known the Labour leadership are planning more austerity for years now. The bourgeoisie are bad and their victories in the class war that continues within the labour movement’s parliamentary wing are to be lamented. Glad we can agree on something.


  8. Spot on. I share most of my basic outlook with pretty much everyone who writes here although obviously the presentation of that and the way we think about organisation is very different. I also appreciate the view vis-a-vis us and the SNP – although we do Nat bash quite a lot in my view. Also, a lot of what we do is far from the terrain of Holyrood so given the tone and the audience, I can’t deny the fact that a vaguely competent administration who get to say nice things without taking fundemental decisions just isn’t as ripe for satire as UKIP or Glasgow City Council.

    Think its vital to draw clear lines for everyone’s benefit, not provide left cover. One of the funniest things for me is the Yes idea that you can’t promote the idea of conflict in an independent Scotland, whereas that’s our bread and butter. So on balance, maybe “attack” is fine by me. I think the ground is there for us to win but it’s a battleground.

    In my book, it won’t be “all of us first” it’ll be “we’re not waiting for anyone anymore” or it’ll be too late for the likes of the Flowers. We’re certianly not cheerleaders for the great National project, even our name suggests we’re well aware that we may be being smoked out, like snakes from our caves, as we speak. But we just don’t have another choice but to take this chance in my book, uncomfortable but inescapble, in the words of our pal Owen.


  9. “But if we want to really take the fight to the SNP and start to build a state which empowers and provides for its people, federalism isn’t enough.”

    So the argument against federalism isn’t that it’s unworkable in a nation state where one of the constituent parts accounts for a massive 84% of the total population – dwarfing even all of the rest combined – and that the part in question has shown little desire for even basic political reform, never mind the major changes that would be required for federalism; nor that even the one party in the UK that purports to be in favour of federalism is already in power without so much as a hat-tip towards it, never mind a party that has shown absolutely no desire to implement it. No, the reason federalism isn’t the answer is that it isn’t an effective weapon against the SNP.

    Here’s a thought: maybe “how do we fight the SNP?” is the wrong question?

    I’m also interested as to how the SNP leadership making decisions about things like corporation tax and Nato means the entire party is written off as being a mere Yes-vote away from revealing their true, evil-capitalist-scum selves; whereas Labour’s identical decisions on these things (Labour lowered corporation tax numerous times while in power and had absolutely no problem joining in with controversial Nato missions) and more (Iraq, PFI, ATOS, ID cards, “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” and so on) can all be blamed on the current and recent leadership, who seem to exist in isolation from the “real” Labour party, who aren’t like that at all.

    Stick with Labour folks, because it’s just a phase they’re going through. If we just keep offering them our unwavering support, they’ll get back on the correct path eventually, because if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make Labour inexplicably make a complete volte-face from the current trajectory towards the right, it’s the left saying “no matter what you do, we will always stick by you.”

    Meanwhile, in the real world away from theoretical musings about working class struggle against the bourgeoisie, Ed Miliband is trying to cast himself as the next Thatcher. Still, pragmatism is only good if it leads to people remaining in Labour, rather than deserting them.


  10. You argue that federalism is “unworkable in a nation state where one of the constituent parts accounts for a massive 84% of the total population” – this already assumes that the English speak with one voice, whereas the north of England has been found to have more in common politically with Scots than with the south of England. So you’re already thinking of politics in terms of nations rather than classes. Why would England be a single federal state? And if you do have all the ‘nations’ as states, why not have equal representation for them, as the USA does for its differently-sized states in the Senate?

    “the one party in the UK that purports to be in favour of federalism is already in power without so much as a hat-tip towards it” The Liberal Democrats are working on detailed proposals for federalism as we speak, so I’m not sure what your point is there. The Tories don’t seem to want it, so we’re obviously not getting it from this government. Are you suggesting that because it’s not going to happen soon, it’s never possible? That’s not even an argument worth engaging with. Socialism’s not going to happen soon, so I guess let’s all just stop worrying and learn to love capitalism!

    As I say in the article, an argument against federalism that’s based on impossibilism (I didn’t think the “but it would be imbalanced!” argument is strong enough to merit a mention, given the fairly simple mechanisms with which numerous federal states ameliorate this) has very little intellectual substance. It suggests that you’re actually writing it off because you: 1) think federalism is nice in principle, but can’t be bothered fighting for a better political change than whatever’s on offer today, or; 2) are an existential nationalist who thinks Scotland has an innate right to exist as a non-federal state, which is idealist nonsense, or; 3) you think the rest of the UK is irreversibly right-wing and we shouldn’t have to share any power with them on anything, which is just weird and ahistorical and very nationalistic.

    The SNP, as I argue, are a nationalist party because they believe they can govern in the ‘national interest’, transcending class struggle in order to mediate it so that everybody wins. This is wrong and dangerous, and is a product of bourgeois ideology because it ultimately serves the ruling class. Their progressive policies spring from this ideology as much as their reactionary ones do. There seems to me to be little potential to win the party away from this ideology because it’s their most fundamental organising principle. The Labour party, on the other hand, is a party which remains at least partially organised around the labour movement and class politics, unlike the SNP, for whom class politics has only ever been a strategy for independence or Home Rule. Who do *you* blame for Labour’s rightwards shift? Given that almost every social democratic party in Europe did the same thing, it seems odd for you to blame it on the Labour Party alone. What if it’s to do with the structural flaws of social democracy itself?

    I don’t see anything particularly scary about Miliband “casting himself as the next Thatcher”. Having actually read beyond the headlines about that, he clearly just believes that politicians should govern with conviction, as Thatcher did. She said that “economics is the method, but the object is to change the soul”, and that’s a principle most socialists should be able get behind. There’s an element of triangulation there to win back working-class Thatcherites, sure, but it’s mostly uncontroversial.

    You say that class struggle is a “theoretical musing”, which is odd given the copious evidence, even in the bourgeois media, that it exists – what else do we call a government of the queen’s cousins, funded by bankers, pursuing policies that devastate the poor? Just to cement your view of me as some ivory-tower champagne socialist, I’ll paraphrase Trotsky: you may not be interested in class struggle, but class struggle is interested in you.


    1. You say that class struggle is a “theoretical musing”, which is odd given the copious evidence, even in the bourgeois media, that it exists

      Actually, I said “theoretical musings about working class struggle”, not “working class struggle is just theoretical musing”. Of course it exists, but whenever I see someone going on about “the bourgeoisie” etc, I’m reminded of all the politics students who think they’re the first person to read Das Kapital and want to make sure everyone else knows about it. I might as well paint a saltire on my face, scream “FREEEEDDOOOOOOOM!!!!” at the top of my voice, and then wonder why nobody’s taking me seriously about independence not being about hating English folk.

      Just to cement your view of me as some ivory-tower champagne socialist

      I didn’t say that, or even infer it actually – a shop steward’s just as capable of letting political theorising distract them from reality as an Oxford PPE graduate – but it’s interesting that you assume I did.


  11. Ah, well I suppose we just have different positions on the importance of theory. I don’t think it “distracts” people from “reality”, I think it’s an essential part of explaining and changing it. We probably also have different positions on the nature of reality. One of the most frustrating features in the independence debate is the unwillingness of those on both sides to engage with ideas outside of a basically liberal spectrum, and escaping any entrenched ideological position tends to require a decent engagement with “theoretical musings”. What problem do you actually have with the word “bourgeois”? I’ve found that the reaction we get to words like that from the people we don’t like (your ‘reverend’ buddy, for instance, got very worked up about it) is a pretty good justification for its use.

    Re: your second point, apologies for the misunderstanding. People attacking Marxists for a supposed over-reliance on “theoretical musings” tend to be taking the traditional “theory is elitist” approach, so I assumed you were.


    1. Theory is important in all aspects of life, but it can only take you so far. Eventually you have to draw a compromise between theory and practice. The independence campaign is all about compromise, which is why it gets particularly annoying when, for example, ex-SNP fundies go on about “it’s not real independence if we keep the pound” or whatever. Maybe they’re right in theory, but in practice this is about making the proposal being put to people as wide as possible, to catch as many potential Yes voters as we can. Anyway, I digress. The point is theory can very much distract people from practical issues. It depends where you draw the line, of course.

      As for “bourgeois”, well as I say, it makes me think of 1st year politics students who’ve just read a few books on political theory and want to try and show everyone how dreadfully well-read they are by parroting terms like “petit bourgeois” and “lumpenproletariat”. If I wanted to see that, I could just go onto a Manic Street Preachers forum, where there is indeed a constant supply of politics students wanting to let everyone know that they’re totally a communist (only to get a job, get married, have kids and start reading the Daily Mail). Nobody talks about “the bourgeoisie” in real-world politics – they talk about the middle class. So I see no good use for such terms, unless exclusivity is actually the intention.

      Now obviously I’m generalising there, and I’m not saying that’s actually true of you; but that’s the picture such language paints, which is why I would personally avoid using it. But to be honest, that last bit about using the word precisely because it pisses some people off just reinforces the idea that the point of the blog is more about showing off rather than trying to contribute ideas to a wider debate.

      (Who’s to say that isn’t an equally valid use of a blog, of course?)


  12. Rory,

    I apologise for replying to you twice, once upthread and here. But your latest post is garbled to say the least.

    Only PPE’s think about political ‘theory’. I would like you to explain to us exactly why anyone should want to think outside a ‘basically liberal spectrum’. Is there something abjectly wrong with a sharing, caring, un-xenophobic, un-hate idea?

    For, in my better moments, that is where I think most folk reside, politics apart.

    Absent the most horrible members of our society, most folk when propositioned by reality, get on with others. The Knightswood Flats story, or the similar case in Manchester. When confronted by evil, and that is what it is, people react in a very positive way. They see the state as, well, not really representing them….

    At the level of dealing with the crap that politicians / multi-millioinaires impose on us, we react, at a human level, somewhat differently from their expectations.

    Which is a good thing.

    I have a huge problem with anyone that thinks the liberal spectrum is dead or dying. It is people like them that keep my faith in humanity intact.


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