Counterfire’s Alex Snowdon replies to two recent articles by Mark Perryman discussing the implications of the Scottish independence referendum for socialists in England

Mark Perryman’s 2 recent articles, published as opinion pieces by Counterfire, offer an interesting perspective on some of the issues arising from the Scottish independence debate. I have some disagreements, but I certainly welcome the focus he puts on rediscovering some key left-wing thinkers and writers on issues of nationalism, democracy and the British state, and more importantly the recognition that such issues are integral to contemporary left-wing politics and require some fresh analysis.

The break-up of Britain is something that both Mark and I advocate and see as a progressive blow against British nationalism and a highly centralised, conservative and unaccountable British state. There are some on the left who see this question as simply irrelevant – underestimating the importance of the British state both ideologically and as a facilitator of capital – or who broadly defend the British state on spurious grounds of ‘class solidarity’. In truth, solidarity is not defined by national boundaries and the ‘socialist internationalism’ which many left-ish advocates of a ‘No’ vote advocated is a weak cover for making concessions to British nationalism.

Mark also grasps, as some on the left sadly do not, that democracy is a major battleground in contemporary politics. This is bound up with a set of social and economic grievances. The struggles over democracy do not necessarily take a straightforward ‘class’ form, which has confused elements of the left. In Scotland what’s happened is that struggles over austerity, inequality, etc, have increasingly become refracted through ‘the national question’.

This is not, as some suggest, a betrayal of class politics, but a version of it. The movement for independence became an expression of working class hostility to the neoliberal consensus and a means of fighting for an alternative to it. And that won’t go away: the aspiration to independence will continue to figure in Scottish struggles over a range of issues.

The ‘break up of Britain’ is therefore about democracy as something inextricably tied up with a cluster of issues affecting people’s lives. It is shaped by the experience of neoliberalism and by disaffection with its effects. The struggle for Scottish independence is a particular, distinctive, version of something broader – the campaign became a chance to break free from a neoliberal model that affects all of us. It is not primarily, or indeed to any real extent, about ‘national identity’ or ‘nationalism’.

The growth of working class support for independence, especially among traditional Labour supporters and most striking in places like Glasgow and Dundee, reveals something about the severe weakening of Labour hegemony over working class politics in Scotland. The same process is at work in England and Wales, but at a slower pace and in not quite such an acute form. This process is shaped by Labour’s ‘social neoliberalism’, its embrace of a set of orthodoxies pioneered by Thatcher but with some modifications which make it more palatable to working class voters.

The increasingly distinctive nature of Scottish politics post-devolution, with Holyrood as a significant dimension of Scottish politics and the SNP positioning itself as a social democratic party, has affected Labour’s place in the political landscape. Its alliance with Tories and Lib Dems in Better Together has further eroded it. It is now likely that the SNP will play a dominant role in Holyrood for some years to come, with potential for any new left-wing formation (emerging from radical independence campaigning) to eat into Labour’s vote.

Mark acknowledges that the ‘national question’ cannot be the same in English politics as in Scottish politics, but he underestimates just how different it is – and how significant this difference is. We have, frankly, no experience of a distinctively English politics that is progressive and beneficial to the left. Billy Bragg has, like Mark, often championed a ‘progressive Englishness’, yet Bragg recently acknowledged that while Scottish nationalism is ‘civic’, the English variety is ‘ethnic’; where the former (in its contemporary form) is welcoming to migrants and is multi-cultural, the latter defines itself according to xenophobia, parochialism and anti-European paranoia.

And, of course, many supporters of independence in Scotland don’t identify with any kind of nationalism – the two things are far from synonymous, and the big story of the referendum results is how ‘Yes’ won majorities in important traditionally Labour, working class territory, while failing to do so in ‘SNP strongholds’. It was in many ways a class vote, motivated by a set of class-based issues.

I use the term ‘English left’ because I have for some time recognised that a distinctive dynamic to Scottish politics – with a major focus on fighting for an independent Scotland – means there is no longer a ‘British left’ in the traditional sense. I think Mark is right to say that such a view has been rather unfashionable on the left: Labour (including its left wing) remains staunchly Unionist, while much of the radical left has been slow to register these developments, shaped as it is by an earlier era.

But – and this is important – such a designation does not mean advocating a focus on English identity or emphasising any sort of distinctively English politics. This simply isn’t feasible in anything like the way it’s been possible for the Scottish radical left, through things like Radical Independence Campaign, to locate itself in a distinctively Scottish context, as a result of there being a referendum campaign to fight.

English nationalism, like the British nationalism to which it is closely related, is generally a reactionary force. In the current climate there is a strong trend on the right – among Tories and Ukip – to exploit people’s grievances in a way that encourages anti-Scottish hostility and deploys a degree of English nationalism. Calls for an English parliament will of course do nothing for the left – we already have a largely English parliament at Westminster and it would be no kind of democratic advance. It is an issue beloved of a parochial, xenophobic section of the Right which feels nostalgic, socially conservative and embittered.

We need to be putting forward a series of demands for regional devolution (with real teeth), the strengthening and better funding of local government, an end to the cult-of-personality directly elected mayors, an elected second chamber, and so on. The new wave of discussion and debate about the future of democracy and the political geography of the UK can potentially be shaped by various different political forces. It will take considerable effort, and striving for co-operation across a fairly broad spectrum, to move the debate emphatically in a positive direction for the left.

We want to weaken the power of a highly centralised state and make advances for democracy. Celebrating any version (however seemingly progressive) of Englishness won’t help us here. What does need further investigation and debate is a whole cluster of issues around the economic and political geography of the UK: regional imbalances economically, the distinctive place of London in our economy, and so on.

In current circumstances, we are right to take constitutional politics seriously to an extent the left has rarely done so before. It isn’t some distraction from ‘the class struggle’, but rather a site of contestation. The big issues around democracy, devolution and the constitution are a mediating of deeper conflicts to do with wealth and power in our society. They are, bluntly, class issues.

Finally, it should be stressed that we do indeed have things to learn from the Radical Independence Campaign – a remarkable success story for the best elements of the left – but we need to clear they’re not lessons to do with distinctive national identity. In England we should strive to emulate their ambition, commitment to broad unity and dedication to reaching layers of society not normally involved in politics. We also need to grasp, as they have done, the centrality of democracy to contemporary struggles for social change, the importance of advocating alternatives as well as fiercely critiquing the status quo, and their tactical inventiveness. Just as a new Scottish left has developed in the last two or three years, so there are indications of what is possible in England. We need to take the process much further in the months and years ahead.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).