Analysing the pro-indy left. Photo: Getty
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Gerry Hassan is wrong – radical Scotland has left its ghetto

Hassan’s account of Scotland’s “new radicals” – the generation of activists who have emerged over the last two years, as a result of the referendum – is guilty of the very thing Hassan warns against: over-simplification.

Gerry Hassan has a piece in the Scottish Review this week – A Letter to Scotland’s New Radicals – which calls on the pro-independence left to abandon its “unrealistic” and “impossibilist” (whatever that means) approach to politics. Parts of the Scottish left, Hassan says, have a habit of trading on “a series of simplifications and inaccuracies”, including the belief that Scotland is inherently egalitarian, that the Yes campaign is fighting an anti-colonial battle against English oppression and that Britain is “broken, unreformable and undemocratic”. It’s difficult to know precisely who Hassan is talking about, because he doesn’t target any one group in particular. But he does make a few scattered references to the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), Common Weal, Lesley Riddoch’s Nordic Horizons and National Collective.

Some of Hassan’s criticisms are legitimate. For years, there has been huge complacency on the left about Scotland’s susceptibility to anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populism, and – clearly – Scottish society sits well outside the mainstream of European social democracy. But the rest of his critique falls hopelessly wide of the mark. For instance, these days, most people who subscribe to the idea that Scotland is an English colony live on the SNP’s ever-shrinking traditionalist fringes. Likewise, anyone who has read James Foley and Pete Ramand’s book, Yes: the Radical Case for Scottish Independence, would struggle to claim Scottish leftists “caricature” the British state. Foley and Ramand (two of RIC’s c0-founders) acknowledge Britain’s capacity to change and adapt, but argue that centrally-guided constitutional reform represents a kind of decline management. They have a point: does anyone really believe Gordon Brown would be talking so enthusiastically about federalism if it wasn’t for the independence referendum?

Hassan’s claim that the left presents neo-liberalism as a sequence of “external”, Westminster-imposed reforms at odds with Scotland’s “organic” centre-left consensus is equally unconvincing. I’ve heard RIC activists say repeatedly that, on its own, shifting Scotland’s constitutional goalposts will achieve little. In fact, there is widespread acceptance on the left that a determined, post-Yes effort will be needed to ensure constitutional change lays the groundwork for subsequent social and economic change, however modest. That is why RIC and other groups have spent months building support for independence in working class areas, and it’s why they are now exploring the idea of setting up a new left party after September.

But the most frustrating feature of Hassan’s analysis is its insistence that the left is oblivious to or naïve about the “myths” that shroud Scottish politics. “Scotland’s new radicals have to realise that the myths of our country have reinforced a faux social democracy and progressive politics of our elites and professional classes”, Hassan writes. “For too long, left-wingers and radicals have happily validated the limited politics, democracy and supposedly enlightened authority which have defined public life.” This is just demonstrably untrue. From the nationalist left of the 1970s, which had a sophisticated understanding of the limits of British social democracy (as well as of its own shortcomings), through to Radical Scotland in Eighties and RIC today, Scottish socialists have consistently positioned themselves at an angle to the political mainstream, challenging the centrist polices of the dominant parties, including Labour and the SNP. In so far as they have promoted the myth of Scottish social democracy, it has been for strategic reasons, to protect what remains in Scotland of the post-war settlement from the liberalising influence of successive Westminster and Holyrood administrations. (Incidentally, it’s not at all clear whether Hassan thinks the post war settlement is actually worth preserving, but that’s a different issue.)

So Hassan’s account of Scotland’s “new radicals” – the generation of activists who have emerged over the last two years, as a result of the referendum – is guilty of the very thing Hassan warns against: over-simplification. Of course political change is “complex”. No one is seriously suggesting it isn’t. Of course the left needs to challenge the “narrow bandwidth” of Scottish politics. That’s precisely what RIC, Robin McAlpine and the “Nordicists” are doing and have been doing for the last few years. There is nothing “comfy” or “couthy” about McAlpine’s (difficult and often unsuccessful) efforts to persuade people at the top of Yes Scotland and the SNP to adopt bolder policies, nor the way RIC has been organising in Scotland’s poorest neighbourhoods. The danger here is that, soon or later, Hassan’s narrative, if repeated often enough, will create a myth of its own – the myth of Scotland as a reactionary backwater, without the slightest bit of progressive or socialist potential. I can’t see how Scotland could thrive in that sort of political climate, let alone the Scottish left.

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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution