Friday, 13 January 2012

And it Burns, Burns, Burns…

I see that unpleasant student politician Jim Murphy, now an unpleasant rightwing Labour MP, is calling on Labour to rally round the Union Flag in the referendum on Scottish independence.

Sorry Jim: it's a little more complicated than that. I'd have thought that a Scottish MP with an Irish background would have understood that. Scotland's a complex place: you've got urban v. rural, Catholic and Protestant sectarianism, huge economic inequalities, a separate legal system from England and Wales, a dying language, a very thorny relationship with Ireland, a very different class and social structure, and a long history of independence.

Labour's vote is drawn from urban communities in Scotland, but it's split between the quite distinct Protestant and Catholic (often Irish, poorer) groups, and rivalries between them have often been intense. The Irish - symbolised by Celtic football club - have often looked back to Ireland for cultural values and a degree of protection: one of my ancestors even ran the Irish Party in Scotland in the early years of the twentieth-century. So there's an Irish nationalist strand in the Labour Party, but also a pro-Union one which partly derives from Catholic distrust of the Tory Scottish aristocracy and Establishment, which can be viciously sectarian. The other strand of unionism derives from a traditional socialist distrust of all nationalism: it holds that ethnic division is an artificial imposition on human communities, whereas class solidarity should cross borders. In Ireland, for instance, nationalism hoovered up rebel energy, with the result that the British rulers were replaced with narrow-minded, reactionary leaders for 100 years after independence.

However, I think we should challenge the Labour leadership's assumption that Labour values must always be pro-Union. There's nothing socialist or democratic about insisting on Britishness above Scots, Welsh or Irish independence. After the 1968 New Left, it's perfectly possible to have a progressive, leftwing nationalist movement (indeed, Ireland almost got one in the 19th-century). Plaid Cymru and the SNP are inclusive movements, though it should be admitted that some of their voters would be Tories in England. As Labour moves further right, the nationalist parties have come to seem the repositories of liberationist, pro-state, progressive leftwing policy. Many of Labour's voters and activists are descendants of people forced to leave their conquered and denuded homelands to seek menial work in the Mother of Empire: affection for the Union Flag is much shallower than you might expect.

In the 1930s, Soviet Russia moved from a policy of World Revolution to Socialism In One Country. I wouldn't want to saddle any party with echoes of Stalin, but the phrase is one I think we can usefully recycle. Labour shouldn't take a stand on Scottish independence. Scottish voters should be asked whether they would prefer. The economic arguments should be left out of it - it's about which 'imagined community' the Scots feel is most important. Socialism can be built in Edinburgh or London, regardless of passport. Labour supported Irish independence as a matter of principle, rather than claiming that imperialism would be OK if the Irish voted for socialist London governments.

The pragmatic problem for Labour is this: Scotland is virtually a Tory-free zone. Labour needs those 40 MPs if it hopes ever to get into UK government again. But this is a selfish and self-serving argument. The Scots shouldn't be blackmailed by English politicians. Labour can fight and win elections in independent Wales and Scotland: why should the Scots be compelled to stay in a Union simply to help a party which has decided to support the UK for reasons of electoral strategy?

Unless, of course, Labour isn't being cynical. Perhaps the leadership does care passionately about the UK. If so, I'd suggest that it grows up. Just because the Mail waves the flag constantly, doesn't mean Labour has to. If Celtic nationalism is unsavoury, then so is UK nationalism. Cling to the glories of Empire (and they were only glorious if you were sitting in a bloody big mansion paid for by the proceeds of slave-grown sugar or whatever) is pathetic. Britain's (or England's, Wales's and Scotland's) future lies in Scandinavia: post-imperial small nations which have decided that they don't need to invade America's latest enemy, to wave nuclear weapons at anyone, to 'punch above their weight' on the world stage. It's time to relax, make some friends abroad, accept that this is a small country (or countries) and concentrate on diplomacy and domestic quality of life.

I do think that the socialist case for Union is perfectly honourable, as long as it's part of a discourse which leads to the abolition of all nation-states (difficult to imagine give the unresolved and bloody process by which the UK emerged and is gradually dissolving), but I also think there's a huge gap between socialist values and Labour policy (I know, it's hard to believe). Labour Unionism isn't principled socialism derived from proletarian solidarity: it's British exceptionalism which depends on some of the same chauvinism which dominates the Tory Party and the public sphere. It would take a brave party to move on from that - but perhaps now's the time.

Lots of British people have done wonderful things. Britain as an entity has done a few great things - but there's an awful lot of which to be ashamed. Why cling to a Union that's past its sell-by date? Time for Labour to leave the nostalgia to the Tories and accept the will of the people. An independent Scotland (Wales, England) might become a Danish-style powerhouse, a version of bankrupt Ireland, or an inward-looking, dour Puritan backwater. Fine: it's up to them. Just don't take Unionism as a political principle when it's actually a political calculation.

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