Jeremy Corbyn’s leading role in the Labour leadership campaign is to be welcomed. He’s showing a discredited and directionless party that it is possible for them to rediscover their soul and regain their purpose. But for Scotland his message is a lot more mixed. Jeremy Corbyn says he isn’t a Unionist, he’s a socialist. Like assorted other Labour politicians before him, Jeremy has an aversion to the U word because the official title of the Tories is the Conservative and Unionist party. So since he’s not a Tory, he can’t be a Unionist even though he prefers the continuation of the Union. Clear now?
It’s a bit like an Edinburgh lawyer claiming that because they’re not English they can’t be speaking English even though English speakers understand them perfectly. Although to be fair, what Edinburgh lawyers say often bears very little relationship to reality, and in this respect they are remarkably similar to Labour politicians. In fact, when you get an Edinburgh lawyer who is also a Labour politician you get unreality squared and they’re incapable of uttering any simple truths at all. Just look at Alistair Darling and everything he has ever said or done.
Jim Murphy is the previous high profile Labour politician who claimed not to be a Unionist. Jim did occasionally claim to be a socialist too, although Jim’s claim to be the political heir of Keir Hardie and James Maxton was met with giggles and not so muffled guffaws – and that was from other members of the Labour party. When Jezza claims he’s a socialist, you can at least believe that he’s being sincere, which wasn’t the case with Jim’s claims to socialism, or indeed Jim’s claims about anything at all. Jim’s problem then is the same problem that Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall all have now. It’s not just that we know they’re not socialists, but after 13 years of Blair and Brown their claims to social democracy are on a pretty shoogly peg too. All of them are so tainted with the misdeeds of Labour’s recent past that none of them have any credibility at all.
Unlike the other three leadership candidates, Jezza is at least a proper socialist. You know he’s a proper socialist because he’ll tell you that the reason the chicken crossed the road was because of the fundamental contradictions inherent in neoliberalism and the structural inequalities of capitalism leading to an unbalanced distribution of domestic fowl. The only time he’ll mention a Scotsman, an Englishman, and an Irishman entering a bar is when they’re all going to attend a meeting on Gramsci’s contribution to the development of optimism of the will. The other three, on the other hand, only ever attended meetings of focus groups and although there may have been some funny one liners, most were unintentional and the deliberate ones were written by a hired team of script writers on zero hours contracts.
However what you can’t do is to say, like Jeremy, that you’re a socialist who believes in the continuation of the Union, but you’re not a Unionist because, eh, reasons. Because what Jezza’s non-Unionism boils down to is a mere dislike of the label, and as we all know, a label is nothing more than an adjective to which the bearer takes exception. It’s a bit like closeted gay men who don’t like the “label” gay, so instead we have to call them men who have sex with other men while their wife doesn’t know. That makes Jeremy a British politician who has intercourse with Scotland. And while there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Jeremy’s socialist credentials, we’ve had a lot of British politicians screwing us over during the past three centuries.
You can’t have it both ways. If you’re a socialist and you believe in the continuation of the Union without being a Unionist, then you need to be able to explain precisely how the Union is a better vehicle for the delivery of socialism, or even social democracy, than Scottish independence. You need to be able to demonstrate how the structures of the British Union are more likely to lead to the introduction and implementation of socialist policies and social justice than an independent Scottish state. Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t done that.
Admittedly it’s a pretty hard task, since the Union’s record on the social justice front hasn’t exactly been glowing. It took a world war and the defeat of your actual Nazis as opposed to the metaphorical or name calling variety to drag anything approaching social democracy out of the British establishment. And ever since the post war high point of recognition of working class aspirations, that same establishment has been hell bent on demolishing all the advances that were made. While all of us on the left in Scotland wish Jeremy Corbyn well, we shouldn’t forget that this is the same establishment and the same state that Jezza plans to coerce into a new socialist dispensation. His chances of success are not great, all the more so since he doesn’t seem disposed to decentralise the state any more than it already is, which isn’t much.
The inescapable truth is that the Union guarantees that we will all be subject to periodic bouts of Conservative government. Any advances made by the Corbyn project are subject to being undone by a future Tory administration just like the post war settlement was trashed. And we shouldn’t forget that periods of Tory government are the norm, in the British state it’s the periods of social democratic government which are the exception. The normalcy of Tory rule is so entrenched in the British state that it co-opted the Labour party, which is why we are now having this discussion in the first place. It’s become so entrenched in the Labour party that Jezza is going to face implacable opposition from within his own ranks. The Labour hierarchy is predicting doom and failure if Jezza gets the leadership, and they’re going to do their utmost to ensure that he does fail. What’s left of their credibility depends on making sure of it, and they value their own route to power far more than they value the Labour party’s socialist traditions.
The only way to guarantee that the Conservative and Unionist party is consigned to the political fringes and the advances of social democracy – not the values of Conservatism – are entrenched, is Scottish independence. We should support Jezza and ally with him while we’re all subject to Tory predations, but we must not take our eye off the independence ball. It really is that simple.
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