Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The New Statesman and Hegemony

As I've said on this blog before, I'm not sure about Scottish independence, and many of my reasons for it are based on post-colonial revenge. That said, every time a No supporter puts pen to paper I can understand why the Yes vote increases.

I subscribe to the New Statesman, the weekly magazine of the metropolitan left. I once had a cheap student subscription which I ended early because it was so massively boring, but now it's a lively and thoughtful read (when it manages to steer clear of religion).

So I was a bit shocked to read its editor's essay this week, 'Is This The End of Great Britain?'. The simple and pedantic answer, of course, is 'no': 'Great Britain' is the major island of the archipelago, named to differentiate it from Brittany which of course has a population which speaks a language closely related to Welsh.

Cowley's piece shocked me, however, because it's far more imperialist and reactionary than the current government. The Tories and Lib Dems acceded – grudgingly – to a referendum because they recognised that legitimacy needs to be conferred by democratic means. The SNP have won several elections, which indicates that the question of Scottish statehood needed to be put to the people. Yes or No, the state that exists on Friday will have had its legitimacy asserted through the ballot box.

This isn't good enough for Mr Cowley. He speaks for a 'we' that seems to mean an English ruling class that possesses the rest of the country. Here's his conclusion:
For now, as we enter the last days of the referendum campaign – perhaps the last days of Great Britain – those of us who do not have a vote, who loathe neoliberalism but who feel culturally British and believe in the multinational ideal of the United Kingdom, for all its flaws and incongruities, can only watch and hope that pragmatism will hold sway so that Scotland is not lost as Ireland was before it.
The English have of course asserted multicultural values as long as those other values are muted under a blanket of supposed Englishness. But what really annoyed me was this casual use of 'lost', as though first Ireland and then Scotland (as usual Wales is invisible) are simply holiday homes for the English, rightful possessions that they accidentally let slip. Things are lost by their owners or keepers, and I really don't think countries come under this category. Cowley assumes that British domination of Ireland was somehow natural, and that Irish independence wasn't a matter of the Irish asserting themselves, but of the English 'losing' that country, and that Scotland might be carelessly 'lost' in the same way.

He goes on:
 If Britain cannot work out how to stay together when so much unites us – language, culture, shared sacrifice, blood – the portents for the 21st century are dark indeed. 
Language? Welsh was for long periods banned in its own country. Scots Gaelic was marginalised, Irish suppressed: none of these languages have recovered. Culture? Again, the cultural expressions of the Celtic nations are marginalised, silenced or diluted. Shared sacrifice? You have to be pretty damned selective to exclude the multiple occasions on which the English murdered each other in a series of civil wars, let alone the Irish campaigns, Glyndŵr, the Clearances, the Troubles and many, many more conflicts. No nation in the British Isles is innocent of spilling the blood of others across the world but they've spilled each others' on enough occasions to render Cowley's fantasy of a family under the paternal hand of an English father ludicrous.

Democratic states exist for the convenience of their citizens, and their legitimacy needs to be tested now and then. Cowley's 'we' is a permanent ruling class which reveals a worryingly anti-democratic undercurrent to his apparently progressive internationalism.

The limits of Cowley's political imagination are delimited by his portentous closing phrase:
…the British state will have been broken and we will be plunged into a constitutional crisis with devastating consequences for David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
Really? Whatever the result of the referendum, there will be consequences – good and bad – for the 60 million people who live on these islands. What a shame that Jason Cowley's idea of 'devastation' extends only to the careers of the current leaders of two political parties.


Historian on the Edge said...

'The English have always...' What me? What all of us? And no Scottish, Welsh, Irish people have ever done anything like that?
Come on Voley. You know I agree with you almost all of the time, but this is nationalist nonsense. More to the point, that is what nationalism is there for: to divide. To create a sense of 'the English' or 'the Scots' or 'the Irish'. Whether as in or out-group matters not a jot, because they are just the flip sides of the same coin.

Having fought and died fighting English, Scottish, Welsh and other Irish working men in the cause of independence, what did the Irish working man get out of it beyond decades of catholic theocracy, Dev's catholic dictatorship and being ground down by the church and the Irish social elite? Women denied control over their own bodies, etc.?

I really disagree with your distortion of the Empire as the English Empire. My family, working in the mills in Manchester, were not living some comfortable life off the exploitation of the Scots, Irish or Welsh. The Scots (especially) and the other inhabitants of the different regions of these islands (or at least the prosperous classes thereof) were all implicated in the Empire.

Who were Robert the Bruce and William Wallace? Scottish nationalists? No, the first was essentially an Anglo-Norman baron, a relative of the de Braose nobles of England, and the latter, 'William [a Norman name] le Wallais', William the Welshman' a border squire, not some woad-stained pict a la Mel Gibson. They were fighting so their families and friends could control Scotland not for some sort of national independence from the English (by which we mean the English nobility). Don't forget that Robert the Bruce's brother Edward invaded Ireland with a Scottish army to set himself up as King of Ireland, not as some sort of pan-Celtic liberation movement.

The highland clearances were carried out in the interests the Scottish aristocracy (highland and lowland) not by 'the English'. 'The English' weren't to blame for the famine, the rich were - and the rich, it is worth remembering, included Irish catholic landowners as well as absentee protestant 'English' (how English?) ones. It won't do to write out the Irish nobility as 'English', let alone as 'the English'.

This sort of thing is precisely what nationalism wants us to forget, to forge some spurious 'nation', to make us think we have more in common with the rich and powerful than with the oppressed overseas. That is what happens when the insidious discourse of nationalism - 'the' Scots, 'the' English, 'the Welsh' - intrudes into discussions, as though all those groups are monoliths with some fundamental shared 'core' - the sort of thing you normally decry.

The only way out of all this is by a radical breaking free from the chains of 'history' that people use to make all 'English' people think they have something in common that unites them against all 'French' or 'Germans' or that all 'Irish' have to unite them against 'all English'. The past is gone. We are not them and they were never us. We must not define ourselves through created national histories.

There is no merging of nationalism and socialism. The proletariat has no fatherland. You know this.

Historian on the Edge said...

P.s. English (in its 'Scots' dialect) is the historical language of much of Scotland, being spoken there for at least as long as Gaelic. The language of the Picts and co, a presumably P-Celtic variant, was submerged long ago, and not by 'the English', or even the English aristocracy.

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi Historian.
You know I respect you very much and take on board a lot of the point you make.

Yes, Ireland made a lot of awful mistakes post-independence. The Catholic Church opposed Home Rule and independence in the late 19th-century, which not enough people know. But I think the opposition you make between Catholic domination and continuing in the UK is a false one.

Another Ireland was possible: that of Larkin, Connolly et al. How I wish it had been taken. I also think that your point misses THE point: self-government includes the right to screw it up. Should Zimbabwe have remained under British control? After all, it's a basket case now?

Are you really saying that the Irish were better off under British rule? A few millions with no political weight in the UK and multiple political and economic discriminations against them?

You make the very fair point that there isn't 'the English' (Welsh, Scots etc.). OK: but in practice, there is. They elected governments which did harm. They fought for governments and did harm themselves. They didn't revolt or refuse or resist in sufficient numbers. I know the glorious history of English dissidents (such as the textile workers who chose destitution over processing Confederate cotton) – and I know that they failed over and over again, which is utterly sad. There may be multiple ways of being English/Welsh/Scots/Irish, but when it comes to tangibles, there's a dominant practice.

On the language - yes, Gaelic was only the language of a portion of the Scots, and yes, the Scottish aristocracy was Norman/Anglo-Norman. But notice that I didn't make any statement in support of that kind of rubbish.

And you have to admit: the British state outlawed the use of Irish and Welsh.

Back in my days as a teenage Trot, we had a word for the optimistic confidence in the proletariat: workerism. I wish it was true, but the working class keeps voting Tory, or UKIP, or Sinn Féin or DUP or New Labour. It signed up for World War One with enthusiasm. It wasn't the government which settled Ulster or Iraq: it was their working class forces.

You can't just assume that the proletariat will make the right choices given the weight of hegemonic oppression, as Gramsci tells us.

That's why despite the deeply atavistic strands in nationalism, I'm relaxed about Scottish independence: I'd rather see a small nation conduct its political affairs close to home where its government has to be up close and personal.

You say 'against': I don't think that's the only way to view civic nationalism. I also think that even though Celtic (sorry, we need a better word given that 'Celtic' is a problematic concept) nationalisms are of course 'imagined', the language of internationalism has been hijacked (not by you) in the service of a British (and possibly English) nationalism based on some kind of unexamined exceptionalism.

I agree that in an ideal world we should trust the proletariat to act in its interests regardless of borders. Now show me where it's happened.