Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Some thoughts on Nicola's speech.

Every so often, somebody makes a serious "State of the Nation" speech and Nicola Sturgeon did so yesterday.

There was  bit of "lucky white heather" about the timing but I suspect not even the rabidest of Cybernat attributed that to anything but unfortunate coincidence.

And even when such a speech is made by a political opponent it is important to note its worth and I readily do so here.

It is equally important not to do so in a carping way. I'm sure that, with a bit of minor internet research, I could find easy evidence that Nicola did not always espouse this civic, inclusive, nationalism but, to be honest, that doesn't really matter. It is, I am happy to accept, whether by reason of experience or political realism, where she stands today.

When I was at University, the Communist Party had a theory of "historical accident" whereby any of us in the different parts of the "Broad Left" had arrived there by different routes but that this was essentially unimportant since we were, for the moment at least, agreed on the way immediately forward. And that is broadly Nicola's message today.

Essentially she argues that it doesn't matter if you had started from a "pure" nationalist position that ethnic identity was the principal issue or, contrarily, started from a position that how to advance the class struggle was the main imperative, surely, in the face of a UK Tory Government, we could all agree that the next logical step forward was independence. And that this could, somehow serve both of these apparently contradictory objectives.

It's an attractive prospectus.

Except of course it has been tried and failed in a very near to hand example.

In the recent past I had a long and increasingly revealing conversation with a lefty nationalist stalwart. Drink having been taken, the discussion turned to song. As I recalled the various songs of my youth: Bandiera Rossa: Jarama Valley; Freedom Come all'ye, they insisted these had been sung as enthusiastically on the SNP left. And as they went on to recount various Irish Nationalist songs: The Town that I Loved so Well; Sean South, perhaps most telling, James Connolly, the Irish Rebel, then I readily conceded these had been sung as enthusiastically by us.

Except that the key man in this dialogue was the self same James Connolly. Nobody on the West of Scotland left is brought up to do anything but revere this man. But such is his aura that nobody stops to wonder whether, with the benefit of hindsight,  he made the right call in marching alongside Patrick Pearse and Eamon de Valera on that fateful Easter weekend.

For, for all the faults of Imperial Britain, who in the period 1920 to 1980 would not have preferred to live here than in "free" Ireland? It is a cheap shot to choose the experience of the struggle against Naziism when Ireland sat matters out on the principle that "England's enemy was Ireland's friend". Cheap but true, when one considers the fact that the Arthur Donaldson Memorial Lecture is still considered an acceptable part of the SNP conference agenda. But let's ignore that and just look at the 1960's, a decade that largely passed "free" Ireland by until about... 1985. And even consider where Ireland still is today on, for example, abortion rights.

I'm in no doubt that when Connolly made common cause with the Nationalists in 1916 he believed he would be advancing the cause of progress. That throwing off the "English Yoke" would in itself open up opportunities for the left.  And I am in no equal doubt that history proved him wrong. De Valera had a very different vision of Ireland than had Connolly. And on any view for 70 years that view won out while Ireland not only struggled economically but was isolated culturally and saw its brightest and best leave the Country at the earliest opportunity.

Why, in the aftermath of Independence, would we have any reason to think things would develop differently in Scotland? For, after all, Nicola's own existentialist Nationalists remain, on any view, the overwhelmingly dominant strand in our Governing Party and while there are certainly other pro-independence voices in the Greens and the Scottish Socialists, since very few vote for them in a devolved context, why would there be any reason for them to be more popular after Independence? And sure, Labour would still have support but is it really the case that the most conservative part of a Party she herself attacks in the same speech for being too conservative would suddenly be transformed into a socialist vanguard, all the while being lead (presumablyby Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander and all the while retaining its current level of support?

You can argue whether the SNP are a centre-right or centre-left party but nobody would argue about the centre bit. Why would this either magically change after Independence? Or does Nicola herself believe that in that improbable scenario, support for the SNP would suddenly collapse? Of course it might, but is it really the case that all these former Tory voters now voting Nationalist in the North-East would be transformed by the very experience of Independence into Left Social Democrats? Is it not altogether more likely that, if they changed allegiance at all, it would be back to being (Scottish) Tories? Indeed, to a different audience, isn't part of the SNP argument that greater fiscal responsibility would allow a revival of the democratic right, currently held back by their determined Unionism?

The only certainty of Independence is that as a small country, with our currency controlled elsewhere and dependent on the good will alone of our much larger neighbour (who, on the Nationalists own argument, would have been both outraged and impoverished by our departure) we would have much less freedom of action than that available to the British Government at the moment.

Indeed, if her object was truly a government "we" had voted for and which the possessed the maximum degree of economic freedom of action, then  the very logic of her argument would be that if there was a UK Election before Autumn 2014 which Labour won then the Referendum should be called off until the Tories were back in power. Indeed, to extend that logic, if post independence Scotland had, by a narrow margin, elected a right-wing government and England by a landslide a Party of the left, then the same "Utilitarians" should be arguing for the restoration of the Union!

Except that's not her conclusion. For her conclusion is that no matter who was in power at Westminster, and no matter what their political and economic programme, Scotland would do better on our own. That's a perfectly respectable view but it is difficult to see that it is anything other than existential Nationalism. Or truly got anything to do with advancing social justice except for the purpose of temporary electoral opportunism.


  1. I'm sure I won't be the only one to point out that you have missed the point of her speech. You say "oh, but what about if a left-wing party is elected in England!" as though that is supposed to placate nationalists up here. Nicola's point about the Union is that we've been told that very thing for thirty years, and it has never - never - in that period produced a government committed to social justice for Scotland.

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So let's do something different.

  2. "The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour." James Connolly

    As a Scot who works part of the week in Dublin I feel obliged to respond to your points on James Connolly and the current state of Ireland.

    Regarding Connolly you state that "history proved him wrong." The world certainly did not develop in the way he hoped in 1916, but then we could say the same about many socialists of that time from John Maxton to Rosa Luxemburg to any number of Russians. That is a very different thing than saying he and his comrades made the wrong choice.

    No doubt some Irish socialists have over the years looked longingly at the achievements of the Attlee Government, but there have been no significant voices lamenting Irish independence from the left (the few ardent West Brits have tended to be on the right of Fine Gael). Who is to say how the brutal repression and marginalisation of ordinary Irish people would have developed if Connolly had somehow been able to choose to sustain the union. It is not very credible to say they would have been "better together" up to 1980 because their social, economic and political situation in 1916 was not comparable to that of Scotland or Wales or any part of England. We can't know how London would have managed Ireland but history gives us few grounds for optimism

    Of course there is some truth in your depiction of the socially conservative and under-developed Ireland of De Valera, but do you really think that more enlightened British rule would have produced a more positive outcome? Or was it a struggle the Irish were always going to have to win for themselves?

    And then, as you say, "consider where Ireland still is today on, for example, abortion rights." A fair point given the recent tragic events, but not a fair overall reflection on where Ireland stands today. Whatever the current economic difficulties there can be no doubt that Ireland has done much better than Scotland since 1980 (and without the blessing of North Sea Oil).

    There has been huge economic growth in Ireland that has provided significant benefits to a large part of the population (though inequality and marginalisation has remained a scourge). At no point has Ireland been isolated culturally. Like Scotland, Ireland has produced widespread emigration, but unlike Scotland, it has seen significant numbers return in the last decade (even if that has been reversed in the last three years).

    The bigger question is whether we have more chance of building a better more socially just future for Scotland with independence in 2016. There is probably a legitimate argument for a British road to socialism (it would have to be a very long road), but I don't think Ireland or Connolly really support your thesis. The example of Ireland as an independent member of the EU is a better argument for the Yes campaign.