Saturday, September 20, 2014

Union of fear and loathing

The Unionist side won, decisively, on a big turnout. 

However, it did not win because it prevailed in the 'battle of ideas', such as it was.  The utter cluelessness of the Unionists was apparent from day one.  It was evident in the futile insistence of Scottish Labourites that "we are as Scottish as anyone else", as if anyone had ever queried it or - frankly - given much of a shit.  It was evident in the little brainstorm Ed Miliband experienced toward the end of the campaign, whereupon he invited the English to wave the saltire, thus proving to the Scots that they are far better off in the company of UKIP-voting Clacton than living under the regime of that man off the television.  And is still clear today when Scottish Labourites such as Douglas Alexander murmur with faux innocence about how dangerous it is that politicians - the Westminster elite, let us call them - are obviously held in such contempt.  They have no ideas, and no idea.

The Unionist side won due to a combination of Project Fear and imperial nationalism.  Neoliberal subjectivity, most aptly summarised in Thatcher's phrase "there is no alternative", is predicated on a particular computation of risk.  If you try to buck the market, this calculus says, the market will punish you.  Interest rates, house prices, jobs, all will go loopily out of sync.  Stick with the unjust, perilous, insecure, savage and worsening regime you're stuck with, grin and bear austerity, hope for the best.  This was the subtext of the 'risk' talk coming from the Bank of England, the business press, EU austerians, and the Westminster elite.  Even the risible defence of the British welfare state, after decades of decimating it, contained the implicit codicil, "stick with the neoliberalised British version, because the Scandinavian welfare system you want is just a pipe dream".

The most interesting thing about nationalism in this debate is that the most belligerent nationalism of all was simply invisible to some.  Unionists could stand in front of a sea of red, white and blue, and decry 'narrow Scottish nationalism', with no apparent sense of irony.  They can drop the "two world wars" meme one minute, and deride national chauvinism the next.  This, of course, is itself a record of the peculiar power of British nationalism.  Whenever an ideology is so pervasive that it one inhabits it, lives in it, such that it is simply taken for granted - when it is, in a word, naturalised - that is when it has achieved the peak of its success.  But there's something else.  British nationalism is 'global', precisely because it is imperial.  To have a British identity is, for many, to have access to the world.  This is the sense in which Scottish nationalism is, by contrast, 'narrow'.

What is perhaps most contemptible and laughable in all of this is that a section of the Left is convinced that something precious and progressive was saved by the votes of Scotland's older and richer electorate.  That precious something, apparently inconceivable across borders, is class solidarity.  But in making this case, they have been compelled to play a remarkable game of forgetting.  George Galloway forgets that his job is to expose and oppose Tory austerity rather than to pretend it's over.  Gordon Brown forgets that he began the privatisation of the NHS, and poses as its stalwart defender.  They will do all they can to forget about the bigoted, authoritarian and reactionary forces that have been prepared over a decade of 'Britishness' pedagogy, unleashed in the course of this campaign, and victoriously rioting in George Square yesterday - though they have no right to deny the role of such anti-democratic nationalism in securing their victory.  And if they can, they will forget that the English chauvinism and ressentiment now vocalised by Farage and pandered to by Cameron, is the heart and soul of 'Britishness'.

It is fitting and appropriate, then, that in Gordon Brown, the 'No' lefties have found their ideal nemesis of narrow Scottish nationalism.  For here is the famous champion of 'British vawl-yews', of 'British jobs for British workers', of pride in the empire.  Here is a man who never shirked the bloody deeds necessary to Britain's continued global pertinence.  Here is the chancellor who did more than any other to unleash the City of London, as the apex of 21st Century Britannia.  Here, condensed in one man, is the central vice of Labourism: achieving everything one's apparent enemies would wish to achieve, only better.  How right that Labour Unionists are creaming themselves with adoration over this tragic figure.  

But to see him extolled as a champion of the welfare state, public services and social solidarity!  Even I, with my perverse predilection for the darkest ironies, find that a bit much.  He is capable and might well be able to win Scotland for Labour, particularly now that Salmond has stepped down.  But if he does so, it will be in the name of austerity, privatization and decades of social wreckage that will make Thatcherism seem like a dewy-eyed dream.

Still.  At least it can never be said of the British Left that it is inhibited by vulgar sentimentality.