Sunshine of socialism clouded by nationalism in Scotland

Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches are getting better.

There is more structure, a line of thought; an editor has crashed the speechwriting staff.

The Labour leader retains the unorthodox habit of speaking in complete sentences, with verbs and everything. Most politicians gave up on verbs some time ago. Troublesome little buggers, they are. They’re all about doing things and once you say you’re going to do things you have to do them. Much safer to make declarative statements.

A stronger economy. Opportunity for all. Safer communities. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.

Declarative statements are the junk food of speechmaking: Filling but never satisfying.

When Corbyn spoke to delegates at Scottish Labour’s conference in Perth on Friday, he was all about the verbs. What Labour will do, who it will do it for, and who it will stand up to along the way. It was a heartfelt speech motored by Corbyn’s sincere egalitarianism.

It was also wrong.

And it was wrong because its basic premise was wrong. The speech was directed at Scottish Labour voters who decamped to the SNP in May but it showed no signs of understanding why they abandoned ship.

Corbyn pitched his party as the most left-wing platform on offer. The words “socialist” or “socialism” appeared 12 times in his remarks and Corbyn echoed Keir Hardie’s mission statement to struggle “until the sunshine of socialism and human freedom break forth upon our land”.

(Corbyn’s own description of socialism was pure mush: “It’s about everyone caring for everyone else.” No it’s not. Socialism is capable of many definitions, from dry talk of common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange to a more emotional rendering on the iniquities of inequality. It is not group therapy. There are plunderers and there are the plundered and the former have to be stopped in the interests of the latter. Social justice is retributivist as well as restorative.)

This built on the theme of solidarity, set up by Ian Murray in a well-received address ahead of Corbyn’s appearance. The last Labour MP north of the Tweed contrasted Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetoric about working across the UK for progressive ends and her government’s attempt to have Scotland exempted from the Trade Union Bill.

He railed: “While Labour have been fighting for the rights of workers and unions across the United Kingdom what have the SNP been doing? They have gone through the Trade Union Bill, opting Scotland out. Just Scotland. How’s that for solidarity? Live in England? Tough. Live in Wales? Tough. Live in Northern Ireland? Tough.”

But if this prosecution of SNP parochialism was satisfying for delegates, it’s unlikely to make an impression beyond the walls of the auditorium. There aren’t many votes in international solidarity. (Corbyn seems to think otherwise, dedicating part of his speech to denouncing the US-backed overthrow of Marxist strongman Salvador Allende. I have dread visions of a thousand activists’ tweets: “Great response on #labourdoorstep. Voters in Possilpark enthusiastic about our opposition to Latin American coups of the 1970s.”)

The root of Corbyn’s confusion, and he is by no means alone in this, is the mistaken assumption that Scotland has switched to the SNP for more left-wing policies. The SNP are populists, not socialists. They understand that, when Hardie mused on “the forces and powers which yet lie concealed in human nature”, those forces are just as likely to be reactionary. That is why nationalism is an enduring creed: It makes a virtue of self-interest and elevates the ego to an agent of national welfare. I’m all right, Jock.

Nicola Sturgeon’s party has prospered by the grace of the prosperous, the loyalty of Middle Scotland bought with headline-grabbing freebies such as universal higher education, bus travel, and prescriptions free at the point of use. There is a great deal of rhetoric about poverty and inequality, and with Sturgeon a sincere yearning to tackle them, but in eight years of government the SNP has not championed a single redistributive policy, save for an eleventh-hour me-too on Labour’s 50% tax rate during the general election.

Scotland has not become more left-wing; it has become more nationalist. For Labour to spruik its lefty street cred in response to the most successful centrist party since New Labour is a strange choice indeed. It also cedes a key thread of the Nationalist narrative by accepting their claims to social democracy at face value.

Unless and until Labour at the national level comes to a better understanding of Scottish politics, the party has no chance of restoring its fortunes north of the border. Its entreaties to solidarity will echo only faintly in a country where the nation, not class, is the primary organising principle. Socialist sunshine is not the best disinfectant for nationalism; if anything, it registers as aloofness and becomes yet another grievance to be stirred by the party of eternal Scottish resentment. Corbynism is as far from the concerns of working- and middle-class Scots as La Moneda Palace is from Perth.

The Labour leader is still hugely popular amongst party members but even Corbynistas must recognise his limits and Scotland is one of them. For Scottish Labour, no saviour from on high delivers. The party has to fight its own battles and claw its own way back to relevance. It will be many years before they glimpse any sunshine, socialist or otherwise.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Garry Knight.

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