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The English left must fall out of love with the SNP

There is a distinction between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism.

After a kerfuffle on Twitter the other night, I am all too aware that writing something even mildly questioning of the SNP government is the British equivalent of approaching a lion pride on a kill. Nevertheless, seeing the almost hero-levels of mental gymnastics tweeted by Mhairi Black, in the week of the Hillsborough inquiry whereupon Nicola Sturgeon posed with a copy of The Sun endorsing her re-election, prompted me once more to consider just how spectacular the distance has become between the SNP that stood against Ed Miliband versus the SNP today and in government.

Mhairi tweeted: “So Kezia wants to put up the taxes of Scottish people to subsidise Tory cuts that her party supported in Westminster?”. Confused? So am I.

This follows in a series of SNP revisionism on what austerity is and the excuses the SNP has hidden, not quite so conspicuously, up its sleeve to not act on its new tax powers, so as not to break its bond with Middle Scotland. They insist that Labour’s plans for a penny tax are not progressive, and have framed it in such a way that an anti-austerity plan has now become a subsidy for cuts Labour actually haven’t supported for more than a year now. Just like that, the SNP is a low-tax mimicry of Toryism.

But it isn’t ‘just like that’. The SNP have governed from an economically cautious stance for seven years. For a brief period, they borrowed Ed Miliband’s clothes. But once the Red Wedding had been completed, they returned back to where they started: as successors to New Labour, though that is hardly fair: they are far, far less redistributive.

So why is it, in the 2015 election, and even today, many of us on the left in England still entrust our faith in SNP rhetoric? Still beat the drum for an electoral ‘progressive’ coalition with a party that doesn’t seem very happy to embrace even the concept of higher taxes?

My theory is that the SNP have successfully, indeed more successfully than any party in Britain, adopted the prime hobby of much of the Left: ‘againstism’.

‘Againstism’, clumsy I admit, is to be against everything. This can include a negative framing of being anti-austerity but not pro-anything in its place. But in this instance, it means to be anti-establishment. The latter, the establishment, is what Labour as a party of government always has aspired to be in competing to be the national government in Westminster - which is why elements of the Left will always hate it and will always vote against it. In a way, some of the left is suspicious of governance. This is occasionally healthy, until it prevents real progressivism from ever being elected.

While in government, Labour could be seen as sell-outs, rightly or wrongly, because they became the establishment and had no one but themselves to blame. The SNP are the establishment, in Scotland, but can nevertheless exercise ‘againstism’, even with new tax powers. They always will so long as Westminster exists, and so long as their main motivation is independence. This is why the bogeymans that sustain nationalism are not natural allies of social democracy; to achieve social democracy would be to remove the bogeyman. This means that the Lesser New Labour tradition within which they govern will continue to go unnoticed, nor be doomed to eventual death as New Labour itself suffered, nor be looked back on as an era of neoliberalism. The SNP can just avert attentions back to the Westminster establishment. ‘Againstism’. Paradoxically, the way the SNP have managed to come to exploit this is because of New Labour's devolution. Devolution has created, for the first time, the perfect environment for an establishment in one part of the country to blame the establishment in another. It has allowed for the rise of an incumbent insurgent. The SNP can campaign as insurgents while still being incumbents. It is a spectacular contradiction that they alone can manage.

Insurgency and anti-establishment politics are not, of themselves, a bad thing. We on the Left all dip our toes in it. It is a joy. It is even more fun for us to be successful. Which is why the celebratory mood that surrounded the SNP gains in Scotland, a paradigm shift against one incumbent for another, is, objectively, understandable. But these insurgents are not actually insurgents; they are the illusion of one, and they have had the reigns of power, greater now for the Scotland Bill, for seven years. And they have done little radical with it. The aim of an anti-establishment politics is to replace an establishment with something better. All the SNP have done is inherit an establishment. They are simply in the fortunate position of managing to rhetorically distance itself from it due to the unique nature of devolution.

This is why some of the Left still loves them, despite everything. They can remain ‘againstists’ regardless of their incumbency. They do not have the stench of government as a national Labour government did and inevitable would have. So the English Left still dream.

But now, with this mounting evidence and the SNP’s clumsy revisionism, it is up to the English Left to distinguish between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism, and to see the establishment -via governance- as something to define for itself, to reshape as something better, rather than something to be continuously against. This is, after all, what Attlee's government did. The SNP have not defined the establishment, they have continued someone else's. It's up to us to recognise that and fall out of love with the SNP. 

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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