The captivating car crash at the top of the SNP is indicative of a wider crisis of nationalism — for every nation in Britain, writes NICK WRIGHT in the Morning Star
NOW that the Scots have a Glasgow-born First Minister of Pakistani heritage, London has a Tooting-born mayor of Pakistani heritage and Britain has as Prime Minister a man whose Punjabi family came to Southampton via “British” East Africa, the contradictory nature of a British national sensibility is up for negotiation.
On one hand, we have the effort to construct a notion of British identity that synthesises Welsh, Scottish and English sensibilities with a generally well-meaning effort to gather into this elastic category people whose migrant journeys are shaped by Britain’s imperial presence and the industrialisation that imperial tribute funded.
Where this effort attends to the oppressive and exploitative essence of Britain’s bloody imperial rule it plays a progressive role. Where it doesn’t, it fits into the bourgeois mystification of nationhood. In this sense, Black Lives Matter has proved an essential measure in shaping a more progressive national culture: black lives matter today because, for the time of the British empire, black lives didn’t.
If we take as our starting point the definition devised by the first Soviet Commissar for Nationalities that “a nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture,” we are one step forward.
Far from settling the question in a mechanical manner that would allow an atavistic sense of nationhood, Stalin directs us to consider the nation dialectically, as something constructed in time, situated in place, shaped by shared language, conditioned by collective economic activity and, on this material basis, manifesting a common culture.
The provisional nature of national consciousness has been sharply illustrated this past week by the crisis gripping the SNP. The crisis is a long time brewing but it has come to a head with startling speed. The chief executive of the SNP, Peter Murrell, the husband of former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, has been arrested, held for 12 hours and now released while police enquiries continue.
TV shots of cops equipped with spades and plastic police tents erected in the couple’s garden have spawned ghoulish jokes about what might be buried under the patio. Brookside in Lanarkshire.
Humza Yousaf, Sturgeon’s successful continuity candidate for the SNP leadership, protests that he had no prior knowledge of the police raid. But the scent of scandal has swirled around the party ever since questions were first raised — but studiously ignored — about the resting place of a substantial independence campaign fund.
He also knows that allegations about a startling symmetry between party initiatives and police operations have run alongside the two-year Operation Branchform investigation into the party’s finances. The police are investigating whether the £666,953 cash pile raised specifically for a Scottish independence campaign was in part improperly spent by the SNP on other activities.
The former SNP leadership denied any wrongdoing. The Scottish police have also been directed to investigate a 2021 loan of £107,620 made to the party by Murrell, of which according to the Electoral Commission two repayments were made, leaving £60,000 outstanding.
Murrell’s resignation swiftly followed that of his wife. While the proximate cause of Murrell’s departure was the rather more prosaic question of a failed bid to obscure the calamitous decline in party membership, the fallout from the unravelling of the power couple’s grip on the SNP is a reduction in popular support for the party’s independence objective.
In the 2014 referendum, people in Scotland voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in Britain. A YouGov poll for Sky News carried out between March 9-13 — before the SNP crisis reached its head — showed support for independence already down to 39 per cent with pro-union sentiment at 47 per cent.
When the Rishi Sunak government blocked the Scottish Parliament’s Gender Recognition Bill, support for independence went up to 50 per cent with an 8 per cent lead over Scots favouring the union.
This poll lead quickly collapsed and a more recent poll provided dispiriting news for First Minister Yousaf whose approval rating as he took office was precisely minus 7 per cent.
If there was a Britain-wide general election, 36 per cent said they would vote SNP and 31 per cent for Labour with the Tories at 19 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats at 10 per cent.
The significance of these figures is not lost on the SNP whose wafer-thin Westminster constituency lead in many places is imperilled. And Labour seemed to have grasped the significance of the desire of many people in Scotland to see the back of the Tories.
In SNP rhetoric this is expressed as a Scotland free of a Tory government imposed by English votes — but this goal can only be reached with an all-Britain Labour vote. For this demographic at least, Keir Starmer appears as the lesser of evils.
Where once such a Labour upturn would have encouraged in class-conscious workers and socialists a springtime of optimism, today it arouses mixed feelings. Whatever Labour is today, the parliamentary representation of labour’s interests it is not.
Westminster Labour under the present leadership makes a fetish out of a unionist and British identity closer to traditional Tory atavism even than the version that One Nation Tories profess.
The symbols of British identity so self-consciously adopted by Starmer — the ubiquitous Union Jack flags and the celebration of the “national” anthem — are more the signifiers of a reshaped imperial role as Deputy Dawg to Joe Biden’s global sheriff. No political formation in Britain is more ostentatiously loyal to Nato’s US leadership.
Queen Elizabeth II’s token concession to Scottish national sentiment lay in making her German Greek consort the Duke of Edinburgh and maintaining the purging of God save the Queen of its final verse:
“Oh! grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy gracious aid
May he sedition hush,
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush,
And the French King!”
Although celebrated in chauvinistic song Field Marshal George Wade proved unsuccessful in repelling the southward march of Jacobite Scots and was replaced as military commander of north Britain by the royally connected Anglo-German Duke of Cumberland who brutally crushed the insurrection at the Battle of Culloden.
Two centuries later Labour lost its grip on the Scottish electorate through the elementary marketing mistake of making itself difficult to distinguish from the Tories. It is worth remembering that this was not restricted to its campaign stance on the independence question but in the broader scheme of things — around privatisation, anti-union laws and imperial wars — and now expresses itself in the dog-whistle language copied from the Tories themselves.
With his dozen homes scattered throughout the globe, it is unlikely that cosmopolitan billionaire Rishi Sunak will find his sense of nationhood much wounded by Labour’s latest online poster. While Starmer doubles down on his tin-ear imitation of Suella Braverman’s racism — less dog-whistle more siren — the SNP’s appeal appears as much to a vanishing social democratic consensus as to notions of nationhood.
Is it this that allowed its intellectually incoherent concept of “independence” to gain traction?
In its SNP incarnation, Scottish nationalism combines loyalty to a dynastic monarch only marginally less German than English, a currency tied to the Bank of England (or possibly the European Central Bank), and as the site of Nato’s eminently sinkable missile base for Britain’s US-controlled nuclear strike force.
We have a Tory front bench whose personal family histories personify Britain’s imperial past and present. The lives of this enriched elite have little in common with the millions of people who are here because the imperial “we” was where their families came from.
The picket lines that have enlivened politics over the past months show that our working class is the more truthful expression of a nation in the making than any narrowly nationalist conception that celebrates empire over the emancipatory power of working-class solidarity and socialism.
When Nicola Sturgeon tried to weaponise the gender recognition issue to get some leverage over Westminster she discovered that Scottish national sentiment doesn’t negate contradictory views over sex-based rights and that protagonists on all sides of that universally divisive debate are uncomfortable with it being weaponised.
Her successor is discovering that much of the SNP’s electoral following is open to the idea that removing the Tories as the governing party of the British state has a more immediate utility than plumping up the SNP contingent at Westminster.
The political problem for the left is to find a way to assert the working-class interest in a situation where conventional electoral politics offers too few avenues for advancement.
British capitalism is in a crisis so acute that it cannot be resolved in the interest of working people without a thoroughgoing assault on the wealth and power of the ruling class. But this ruling class exercises its decisive extra-parliamentary power at the level of a British state that is not very vulnerable at the local level.
Our population of 5.5 million Scots, 3.136 million Welsh and 56 million people in England is overwhelmingly working class. It includes 12 million people whose national origins lie outside Britain.
What unites the great majority of these people is the need to work in order to live. United they are a powerful force for change.