By Robin McAlpine
“All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
Taken completely out of its context, this quote from Karl Marx seems to capture some of what is happening in Scotland’s constitutional debate. Certainty looks confused, facts have become illusory, knowledge and belief mixed up and bled into each other.
There is a general acceptance among those who comment that all things in the independence debate are polarising. This is a bit of a misunderstanding. What is true is that there is increased personal animosity on some parts of the constitutional divide but the lazy habit of conflating what people say with reality is hiding a range of developments.
The most striking is the emergence of some open discussion in the Scottish Labour Party about whether or not there is space for a ‘Labour for Independence’ movement. How can there be? If one thing is solid it is Scottish Labour’s eternal opposition to the break up of Britain. And yet this solidity looks more melting when considered carefully. The Labour Party is a UK organisations, organised and structured on a UK basis. For the Party (capitalised to make clear this means the people who get paid and not the wider activist or supporter communities) the pact is straightforward; London sends money and instruction, Scotland sends back votes. Labour in England struggles without Scotland and Scotland has that duty in return.
This tells us nothing of the wider movement, though. Because the Party is there to pursue a political philosophy, a socialist vision of a better society. Nowhere in this philosophy does it state that the exact size of socialism is 94,525 square miles, the land area of the United Kingdom. Is socialism more or less possible in 93,252 square miles? That is the size of the UK if you take out the South East of England. Or is it more possible in 1,669,807 square miles, the land area of the European Union? Or in 64,256 square miles? That number is just random. Or are we to understand that the core purpose of the Labour Movement cannot be achieved in 30,414 square miles? Is Scotland the precise definition of ‘just too small for socialism’?
Half of the independence supporters in Scotland would support the Labour Party in an alternative universe. It therefore surely follows that many in the Labour Party ought to support independence – on the basis of the assumption of affinity if nothing else. Most Labour people owe little or nothing to London. The staff (up to and including Johann Lamont) have a duty. None beyond that.
The first sign of any melting in Labour’s glacier of opposition to an independent Scotland is unsurprising – I know of many members and trade unionists at a number of levels of seniority still basically loyal to Labour who want to lose the referendum and pick up again in an independent Scotland where they would be ‘reunited’ with all those who left them over the last 20 years.
This is not the beginning of uncertainty among the unionists but the first signs were somewhat missed. When Ed Milliband steps forward to define British identity he recreated Britain as a place where you can take on any one of a bunch of national identities to suit. In fact, in his version you barely need to feel British at all. With more devolution of power you don’t need to share aspirations with the rest of Britain. You can feel different, be different and act different just as long as you, with the last hyphen in your rambling identity, tag on ‘British’. This is Britain redrawing itself around the places where we have all arrived by our own volition. This is ‘Unionism Lite’, a recreation of Britain as a foreign policy, a defence establishment and the BBC with everything else optional.
This is just a reflection of the development of ‘independence lite’, currently the most facile concept in world politics. Of course unionists have actively encouraged this confusion; they would happily have it so that of the world’s seven billion inhabitants only the five million living in Scotland don’t know what a country is. It’s binary – you are or you aren’t. That the SNP has enabled this obfuscation is simply more melting of reality.
Likewise identity. I am barely a month past an extended exchange with a left-leaning anti-independence correspondent. The whole of that exchange revolved around the question of whether supporting Britain as a political entity was nationalist or not. I was told it wasn’t, it was something different. But post-opening ceremony suddenly British nationalism believes it can again hold up its head in Scotland. Because if Britain can be dancing nurses and noble downtrodden workers then Scotland can sign up.
Of course, while those nurses worked their socks off to learn the routines (unpaid) the millions spent are reflected back in the billions being transferred from the NHS to the private sector. And those soot-faced workers marching across Danny Boyle’s mini-Britain would have had tickets sold by, burgers bought from and corporate-branded mess cleaned up by masses every bit as downtrodden.
Irony is a key part of British identity, but you can’t just substitute all the other parts for irony alone. Boyle’s vision is of what Britain (or parts of it) think it is, not what it really is. It was panto, not documentary. The pop music is now Simon Cowell, the NHS now Serco, the workers now on compulsory work placements in Poundland, the bosses do not appear on the shop floor in top hats and nor do they build anything, the sheep do not graze freely. Only the nightmares of children are an unequivocal vision of modern Britain and its rising poverty.
Nationalists are trying to redefine their way out of this. One writes that all the theories of nation are wrong because this week it doesn’t suit. Suddenly Tom Nairn is not the father of understanding the nature of contemporary nation, only the ballot box is because that shows definite intent. Now the supporters of independence are drawing lines around what they consider the ‘facts on the ground’ and saying ‘look, all the facts are inside our vision!’. It is the clear differential in voting patters which ‘proves’ everything this week. That is Scotland.
Elsewhere a think tank concludes that poverty is being made worse by the Westminster Government. No kidding? It goes on to suggest Scotland would do things differently. We know. But for a reason unknown to every other nation in the world it finally concludes that a change of regime at Westminster is the best possible response. This offers a wonderful road map for the future of socialism – all any nation state aspiring to social justice need do is abolish its sovereign parliament, form a political union with London. And wait.
Why wait for a socialist government in London? Why not simply hold out for Jesus Christ once again to walk the face of the earth and for the promised paradise to follow? Or we could bank on aliens, scientology style. Or for a serious reforming Labour Party at a UK level. These delusions are all millenarianism – the belief that massive social transformation is simply a matter of waiting.
What exactly does the UK offer us? What we have? Nothing more? Is that the vision? Stronger together in what way? Who exactly is together with whom, and who is strong? The military will be stronger if we remain together. So will the City of London. The unemployed kids, the nurses, the farmers, the local shops, the village pub, what will be stronger as corporate London eats them up and spits them out? The sharp corners of this argument become softer, rounder and smoother every day.
The independence debate has been based on partial information passing for knowledge. Britain is stronger than an imagined alternative – can’t be proved, can’t be debated. An independent Scotland won’t really be much different – impossible to know. Identity ‘is’ this or that? Really? How come I have gone my whole life without once, not once, hearing someone describe themselves as ‘Scottish-British’? And yet ‘science’ tells us that is who we are because polls prove it. So Scots have become something unsaid, unspoken, unthought. We are a non-existent construct, an identity which exists only in opinion polls and never in reality.
Finding the ‘meaning’ of an entire nation goes beyond anything that has been attempted in UK politics. The constitutional debate is like watching flies flap their wings to escape honey, doing what they always did and wondering why its not working this time. The question at stake is simply too fundamental and too complex to fit into the practices of 21st century politics. Both sides put out two-sentence comments along the lines of “this proves that at no time in all history have we ever been wrong” and “now there can be no question of the fundamental justice of everything we say and do”. Just as Mad King Blair returns from the riches of exile we are seeing just how limited is his sole political technique – saying something over and over until people believe it to be true.
This battle for the meaning of Scotland and the meaning of Britain (though Britain itself doesn’t know it) is a chaotic mess with party politicians and their sidekicks making a mockery of truth and meaning. And yet the increasing weight of their failing – all of them – is a bonus to the Yes campaign. If the solid melts and the sacred is profaned then we must look again at what is in front of us. That is crucial to the Yes campaign. It is a simple transformation. The No campaign needs the debate to be about What Must Be and What Will Be. Stupidly, some independence supporters have followed suit. The really fertile ground is a much more simple and less abstract; What Is and What Could Be.
Waking up to this is key to everything. None of this is abstract; everything we need to make a decision is in front of us. We have to look at were we are now. We have to consider what could be, risks included. We need then to ask whether the chance of what could be is a better unknown than the known of what is. One simple question – is the chance of a future Scotland better than the reality of the current Britain? Only that, no liteness needed, no battle with truth necessary. And, encouragingly, the melting of political certainties leaves this space available if independence supporters have a mind to occupy it.
The other half of the Marx quotation: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”. When the Olympics end, when nurses stop dancing, when Labour is shown to be wider and deeper than its spokespeople, then once again we will be left with the real conditions of our life and the relations with our kind. Press releases contain only statements about the imaginary world being invented by their writers. It is in our conditions and in our relations that we will find the answers. Once again we will be left with our reality. That is the only place from which our future can be glimpsed.