Amid the peeling of bells and peasants dancing in the streets, gorging themselves on idylls of Labour Party wipe-outs in six months time, it’s been hard to discern just what thinking No people make of it all (I’m excluding Jackie Baillie).
So I was pleased to have sent to me this piece by Jean Barr, emeritus professor of Glasgow University and a confirmed Unionist, published in the Left Review.
I recommend it, not just to support the team at Review, but to benefit from a glimpse into a mindset that is blinded by revulsion at belief in country and allows her entire political outlook to be defined by it – in a way only a fundamentalist nationalist would recognise. How ironic is that?
I think it is insightful by revealing the convoluted emotions that cloud the judgement and steer the mind towards rejecting the very ideals the author espouses but is, through her prejudices, obliged to reject because of their nationalist branding. Progressive ideals are dismissed because they are labelled with the Scottish flag – her own country’s flag.
This is, to be blunt, a form of narrow-mindedness which Unionism has made its own by trumpeting British national interest from immigration to defence to euro-scepticism while simultaneously scoffing at Scottish pride as something lesser and faintly sinister. British nationalism is the NHS and the Olympics but Scottish nationalism is border guards and Anglophobia.
Left-minded Unionists are trapped in aspic, seeing the changed world outside but unable to join in, wallowing in their memories of the Cold War, communism and anti-Vietnam marches. ‘It was the real thing in my day, you know. None of this pandering to identity.’
Jean Barr lards her case against the new Scottish Left with what I can only call mis-readings of events. One wonders which campaign she was following when she is able to write… ‘In the run-up to the referendum and in its aftermath, the leftist case for Scottish independence reveals a dogged reluctance – even refusal – to engage in robust democratic dialogue with critics, especially those who also identify with the left. Dialogue means people together examining their thoughts and assumptions. It demands effort as well as empathy and imagination.’
A reluctance to engage…? Is that what the Yes movement was about…hundreds of them springing up from Shetland to the Border…staging public events, hustings, stalls, publishing papers, opening blogs, forming new media, knocking doors…and inviting Unionist speakers of any and all stripe to come along and join in and yet were either turned down or promised speakers who never turned up, cancelling meetings all over the country. Every Yes activist has a similar tale to tell. Did Better Together stage a single, open public meeting in the land? I know they didn’t have a single one in Glasgow. Where was the non-nationalist Left…hiding from the people, it would seem, or lost in space while their case was made by George Galloway.
Come to it…where was Jean Barr? ‘Challenging thoughts and assumptions’ is exactly what was happening under her very nose with trade unionists, food bank volunteers and lapsed Labour voters standing up in public to tell their stories of enlightenment and transformation. It was wonderful to behold. This was the greatest dialogue Scotland has ever had on any area of public policy and here is an intelligent citizen blind to it. Staggering.
She clearly feels that the sense of community and belonging we felt at reshaping – or trying to – our country was nothing more than a form of exclusion, which demonstrates our limited outlook and lack of universalism. She quotes Adam Smith. ‘For Smith, sympathy, the ability to put oneself in the other’s shoes rather than standing in judgement of them, requires continuously challenging one’s own assumptions: too much emphasis on belonging and on being the same limits and stultifies, leaving those outside the clan ‘in a limbo of coldness and indifference’.
Is that what Asian for Independence was about? Is that why the SNP declared that everybody living in Scotland was a Scot – no exclusions – and colour, country and religion made no difference at the same time a Unionist British government had vans touring London telling immigrants to go home?
I suspect the author felt cold and indifferent because she couldn’t come to terms with events and has projected it on to the movement which was precisely the opposite. This is what I mean by a prejudice that stains every thought. I defy anyone who joined in a Yes event, perhaps the Calton Hill rally, to say it was judgmental of anyone who disagreed or that it excluded anyone. The international media agreed.
There is much worrying analysis which describes Yes as sectarian – yes, the biggest single movement in modern history which has harnessed public mood into an array of parties and organisations and which commands groups of hundreds for political branch meetings and this week 3000 prepare for the RIC conference. It is almost unbelievable that an idea which has gripped public imagination and galvanised all sections of our society including our youth could be dismissed as sectarian and exclusive. Indeed, one is forced to conclude that that if anyone is judgemental, it is the author herself whose assessment flies in the face of the facts.
The total lack of critique of the British state and its systematic abuse of low paid workers and families, its militarism and campaign against civil rights shows where Jean Barr’s heart lies.
‘And a labour movement united at British level is better able to challenge the concentration of power and wealth at that level and bring the economy under more democratic control. Dealing with the limitations of nationalism will challenge the new left formation that is emerging in the wake of the referendum, in light of its apparent abandonment of class-based politics.’
So we are better able to cut the ruling class down to size and re-order society in favour of the poorest by maintaining the state which bankrupted the country, bailed out the bankers and cut living standards. Is Jean Barr living in the belief that there will be a Labour government with a radical agenda along any time soon?
Well…. ‘The Labour Party in Scotland and at UK level must speak of inequality and poverty as obscene; advocate redistribution and progressive taxation, including council tax reform; pursue public ownership, social housing and employment rights; and reverse the creeping privatisation of the NHS.’ (I think you’ll find the NHS privatization isn’t true, if you check with Labour).
To me those are exactly the policy ideas discussed at Yes meetings that Jean Barr couldn’t attend because she was scared of their sectarianism. I suspect she is whistling if she expects Miliband to deliver that lot.
This article ends with a cri de cour repeating the old canard that voting SNP will prevent a Labour government – no stats provided because they don’t stack up.
If this is a glimpse into No progressive thinking, we should begin to worry. Or Labour should, for this is another portrayal of Labour’s denial of SNP success, of refusal to accept that within Scotland we have created a new platform demanding social change and it doesn’t need the Labour Party or the United Kingdom to achieve it. The people are doing it for themselves…the people of Scotland.
Yes and the SNP need critics and need robust challenge but the British Left will have to do a lot better than this if it is to resonate.