A pro-independence Scot at a rally in Edinburgh. Photo: David Moir/Reuters
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The rise of Borgen nationalism

The conundrum of Britishness and the condition of Scotland.

Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination (1314-2014) 
Robert Crawford
Edinburgh University Press, 288pp, £19.99

Acts of Union and Disunion 
Linda Colley
Profile Books, 192pp, £8.99

The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum 
David Torrance
Biteback, 384pp, £14.99

The battle has been joined and it is growing more bloody by the moment. It took the unionist establishment in London quite a long time to notice how real the prospect of Scottish independence was becoming. Now, after a fusillade of speeches, comes the heavy attack: George Osborne and Ed Balls are united in telling the Scots that they will stop them keeping the pound if Scotland goes its own way.

This is clearly a long-prepared response to so many Scots being undecided and to the rate at which, recently, those undecideds have begun to fall more into Alex Salmond’s Yes camp than the Better Together, pro-Union one. It is brutal and will feel like bullying. The Scots don’t react well to bullying, as the polls show; nevertheless, there are few things more unsettling than not knowing what currency your pensions and wages will be paid in.

Some of us have been arguing for several years that Salmond is one of the most formidable politicians in the UK and that London has been remarkably slow to wake up to the mood in Scotland in the 21st century. Things are changing but there are many “what ifs” still unresolved. If Scotland votes for independence in September what, exactly, will happen to the 2015 general election? There are no contingency plans for what to do about Trident. And suddenly a common currency across the main island of Britain is under threat.

Plenty to think about and not much time. For those willing to educate themselves quickly, however, there is now a wonderful range of books on the subject.

The most straightforwardly political and carefully researched of these is The Battle for Britain by David Torrance. The writer, a meticulous political journalist, picks his way through the echoing labyrinth of recent developments in Scotland. He devotes generous space to the questions of currency, economic performance, pensions, defence and foreign affairs. Like Iain Macwhirter’s Road to Referendum, it’s an essential primer.

Torrance is best on the detailed politics. For most of the book, he manages to do something that has become almost impossible – he maintains an impartial tone. Only at the end, when he offers two rival versions of the future, can I detect any kind of bias: he suggests that if Scotland votes to stay in the Union it will not be the end of the matter, and at the same time his vision of an independent Scotland is, by and large, a benign one. Although Torrance is Alex Salmond’s biographer, unionists can trust this book as much as nationalists can.

He is least convincing when explaining the underlying, passionate urge that has driven the rise of nationalism – the poetry, if you like, behind the policies. This is an important deficit, particularly when addressing southern Britons. On the whole, the modern English disdain nationalism. It isn’t much talked about and is largely looked down on as a dangerous perversion, fit only for foreigners and the unbalanced extreme fringes. Patriotism, in the sense of a generalised love of the land, or broad approval of the political dispensation, is still an acceptable watery substitute, though even this is draining away.

But the nationalist phenomenon is beginning to look almost as normal in the contemporary world as modern English secularism. Scotland is not unusual. From Russia and Ukraine to Egypt, China, Japan and Argentina, nationalism remains a powerful force. Even inside the EU, a project designed to send nationalism quietly to sleep, it is stirring: in the Nordic countries, and in Hungary and Bulgaria.

What are the most important aspects of nationalism that the English could do with being re-educated about? First, it is a mighty force. Its emotional power to mobilise and upend should never be underestimated. Second, it is a force that is hard to control, a political impulse notoriously unaware of its proper limitations – which is why it became unrespectable in the first place.

Even inside the SNP, there is an uneasiness about the word “nationalism”. It is not the Scottish Nationalist Party, remember; it’s the Scottish National Party. I long ago lost count of the times I’ve heard friends intending to vote Yes to independence insist, “I’m not a nationalist: I’m in favour of an independent Scotland.”

Part of Salmond’s achievement – the key, I’d say, to all he has achieved – is to have distanced the SNP from the dark nationalism of the 20th century. He has wrenched it away from its bigoted history as part of Scotland’s old anti-Catholic mindset. He has muted its rhetorical Anglophobia and loses no opportunity to laud the English as good friends and neighbours.

Salmond’s SNP makes much of its Sikh Indian, Pakistani and Polish supporters; it would be hard to imagine anything further removed from the “blood and soil” views of some of the old Nats I knew in Scotland 30 years ago. Radovan Karadzic would feel profoundly uncomfortable in the SNP.

This has allowed support for independence to move well beyond its old heartland. Some of the most vocal groups in the debate backing the Yes campaign are from what we might call civic politics: mostly left-leaning but politically uncommitted. And this has helped extend the appeal of the case for independence deep into the arts and literature. Most of Scotland’s leading writers and many of its major performers are lined up on Salmond’s side of the argument.

As the poet and academic Robert Craw­ford’s excellent Bannockburns, a survey of nationalist thinking across Scottish literature, makes clear, this is not an insignificant point. Poets may no longer be the world’s “unacknowledged legislators” but the cumulative impact of the literary (and cine­matic) imagination on our sense of identity remains central. Scots can turn to their formidable national poet Liz Lochhead, or the novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. In Kathleen Jamie, they have one of the sharpest poets and essayists writing in Britain; in James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still, they have a novel of ideas about the struggle for independence.

If you want to understand, in a single volume, the emotional energy behind this year’s drama, go first to Robertson. He has the cadences of Scotland’s greatest 20th-century novelist, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, welded to a panoramic understanding of British politics and history. Among contemporary Scottish writers, his is the most ambitious intervention.

Most of the leading names of the past century were on the pro-independence side: Gibbon; Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s first modern national poet; the Highland novelist Neil Gunn; and, towering over all, Hugh MacDiarmid – communist, fascist and Anglophobe but also one of the most formidable geniuses of modernism.

Of the SNP’s founders, MacDiarmid is the one about whom the party feels least comfortable talking. Yet his power is that he never lost sight of the proposition that nationalism must be “for” something. The answers MacDiarmid gives may seem profoundly out of date in the 21st century but the questions he poses are not. The SNP, however much it emphasises equality, neighbourliness and moderation, poses classic nationalist questions. There seems little point in asserting an independent national community if it is going to mimic all the other national communities clustered around it. The point of independence is surely to do something different.

In the collection of essays Acts of Union and Disunion, Linda Colley gives us many historical and geographical reasons to question the present British status quo. We talk about Britain being “the island nation”; but did you know that our archipelago is made up of more than 6,000 islands? You knew that England accounts for the lion’s share of the UK population; did you know that its numbers had grown hugely over the past few centuries? In 1801, 54 per cent of the UK’s population lived in England; now, it contains over 53 million people, more than five times the total number of inhabitants of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. “This growing demographic disparity,” Colley explains, “is one reason why support for Welsh and Scottish devolution or independence has increased.”

Her most powerful writing is about the distinctions and divisions inside England: “England is bottom-heavy. In wealth, status, power, population, and in key cultural terms, it is heavily weighted towards the south. The prime archbishopric of the Church of England is in Canterbury in Kent. Traditionally, the most prestigious English universities have been Oxford and Cambridge. British army officers are trained at Sandhurst in Surrey, while their naval counterparts train at Dartmouth in Devon. Then, of course, there is London . . . a pathological swelling on the face of the nation.”

Whereas, seen from Scotland, England can appear an enormous undifferentiated mass, the great cities of the north of England (and, indeed, their landscape) are much closer in terms of experience to the cities of Scotland than they are to London or to the tellingly titled “Home Counties”. This has a direct relevance to the earlier question: what is independence for?

The people of Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle – never mind Birmingham and Manchester – in general have voted for the post-1945 Labour welfare settlement more consistently than the Scots have done. The fundamental challenge Salmond throws down to the London establishment is to ask whether, by voting through Westminster, social-democratic Scots can ever get a government of which they approve. It’s a good question, as Labour struggles in the polls. Yet the same question faces swaths of England. There is no great gulf of values sep­arating Liverpool from Dundee, or Leeds from Lanarkshire.

My only criticism of Crawford’s book is that by defining the Scottish question from medieval times onwards as overwhelmingly one of “freedom”, he risks underestimating the importance of more conventional politics – the “for what?” – in all of this. Is national freedom for peasants in the Middle Ages, tied to their feudal superiors, in any way relevant to the modern condition? Freedom is clearly a good thing; but it is only a starting point. It is the lever for change, the entrance gate to a different society.

Crawford shows how, again and again, two medieval epics – John Barbour’s Brus and Blind Harry’s Wallace – were reprinted and subtly diluted until Wallace became a bland representative of British liberties, celebrated by the Victorian boys’ novelist G A Henty. Yet in the earlier accounts when the commoner Wallace confronts the aristocrat Bruce and berates him for betraying Scotland because, in essence, he prefers his own Anglo-Normans to his fellow Scots, there is already a class element to the story, even a proto-republican one.

So questions of class (or “fairness”, as we now call it) cannot be avoided. Crawford’s great scoop is the influence of James H Whyte – the American enthusiast for Scottish nationalism who edited the magazine The Modern Scot in the 1930s – in creating a more modern, pluralist version of nationalism opposed to his friend MacDiarmid’s national Marxism, and thus indirectly influencing Alex Salmond and today’s SNP. Alasdair Gray, misunderstood over his “settlers and colonists” remarks (distinguishing between the positive and negative contributions of English people living in Scotland), follows in the pluralist Whyte tradition; so do websites such as Bella Caledonia.

And so we have this new nationalism: well behaved, impeccably monarchist, politically correct and eager, always, to please. It’s a social-democratic, Borgen nationalism of a kind that would have had MacDiarmid spitting tacks.

What Scots are going to have to decide in September is whether this milky alternative is worth the risk of legal separation from the rest of the UK. It’s a big question that just now seems to be collapsing into a welter of competing scare stories. Whose national indebtedness is the scarier? Which is more likely to be controlled by monster-sized banks, Edinburgh or London?

And yet, in fact, everything is driven by national consciousness. It can’t be dodged. Not this year. I named some of the writers who have thrown themselves into celebrating Scottishness. But where are the alternative celebrants for Britishness? Who are the great poets, novelists and thinkers reviving the Union? All I see is a yawning gap. There are postmodern metropolitan writers des­cribing the multi-ethnic experience you get in London. And the beginnings, perhaps, of a Northern Renaissance – Simon Armitage, Philip Hensher.

But Britishness itself? Where would it even start, geographically or imaginatively? Linda Colley, like others, proposes an English parliament and a written constitution, but we are talking of a deeper and livelier sense of identity than that. Are the British generations left with nothing more than yet another celebratory programme about the First World War? Institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy and even the BBC have already been reimagined for Scottish circumstances, so they won’t do. Like many others, I was much moved by the opening ceremony for the London Olympics but it was, in its 1945-welfarist way, as nostalgic as any kilted Bannockburn gathering.

In 19th-century Britain the urge to explain and define Britishness (and, to an extent, Englishness) was almost uncontainable, from Tennyson and Kipling to H G Wells and the libertarian suffragettes. The 20th-century wars produced an upsurge in what we might call emergency nationalism, in which writers, artists and film-makers co-operated. The English patriotic consciousness of J B Priestley, Low, Ealing Studios and John Piper seems, from this distance, the last chorus of that “auld sang”. South of the Tweed, people have been insouciant about the power of nationalism for too long; they may be running out of time.

Scots who have the vote this September will be thinking about economics, individual leaders, welfare payments and security – but they will be thinking also, inevitably, about what nationalism means at the start of this new century. Around Europe, there are once again plenty of bad answers being given to that conundrum. The Scots, however they vote, have been looking for better solutions. Kathleen Jamie was chosen as the winning poet in a competition to celebrate the Battle of Bannockburn. Her poem, which Crawford refers to but does not quote, is the most inclusive and least threatening answer to the challenges of identity politics I have ever come across.

It begins by celebrating “our land”, which belongs “to none but itself” and in which the Scots “are mere transients . . . Small folk playing our part”. It ends:

“Come all ye”, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.

It’s hard to imagine anything more opposed to the “wha’s like us?” jingoism of an earlier Scottish nationalism. Those English who see what’s happening north of the border as nothing but greedy, welfare-state-driven chippiness need to look further.

 

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times