It’s been obvious for a good while now that the Labour Branch Office in Scotland is composed of an angry and embittered bunch of British nationalists who are united by only three things: their utter inability to comprehend that their British nationalism is in fact nationalism, their unshakeable conviction that they have an absolute entitlement to Scottish votes, and their pathological loathing of the SNP. The only thing that your average Labour politician hates more than the SNP is another average Labour politician.
Labour’s fall from grace with the Scottish electorate is therefore just a phase that the country is going through, and all that the Branch Office needs to do is to keep with the tried and trusted formula and eventually voters will come flocking back to their true home. All that is required is to find an SNPbad story that’s big enough and bad enough, and no one will ever think about Scottish independence ever again.
The rest of the party takes their cue on all matters Caledonian from the Branch Office. Hence the statement from Labour chair Ian Lavery at the party conference on Monday, “We need to kill off the nationalists in Scotland and regain that great country.” Are you feeling the love there? Here we are, four years down the road, and Labour is still spouting the same sentiments as the unlamented Ian Davidson who claimed that after a No vote in the referendum all that would be needed would be to bayonet the wounded. Almost 20 years ago, George Robertson claimed that the introduction of Labour’s specially pauchled devolution would succeed in killing Scottish nationalism “stone dead”. How’s that working out for you then?
Can you imagine the outrage, the headlines, the TV programmes dissecting the cancer lurking at the very soul of the Scottish independence movement if some SNP politician had said, “We need to kill off the Unionists and regain this great country?” There would be a special edition of Scotland Tonight with a panel of very sad and angry Labour, Tory and Lib Dem politicians clutching their pearls and bewailing the monster that nationalism creates. There would be anguished editorials in the Herald, the Scotsman, the Record, the Press and Journal and the Courier. It would be the lead story on Reporting Scotlandshire for three days running. There would be a clamour for apologies and resignations which would not cease even after some heads had rolled.
But it was a Labour politician who said it about the SNP, so that makes it all just fine. Scottish politics always comes with a heavy dose of British nationalist double standards. Anti-Scottish remark from an English commentator or politician, just a spot of banter, complaining about it make you dour and humourless. Anti-English remark from some random punter on social media, a deep dark evil lurking at the very heart of the Scottish psyche.
Ian Lavery’s tactless choice of words is precisely what we don’t need in politics. Coming as it does from a party which has just stated its intention to overrule the will of the Scottish people as expressed at the ballot box, it’s not just unwelcome and unhelpful, it’s also deeply worrying. If Labour is sincere in its desire to regain Scotland at the ballot box, it can only do so by engaging with the concerns of voters who seek Scottish independence, not by threatening to extirpate them. But Labour doesn’t want to engage, it just wants the whole issue to go away. It doesn’t understand it. It’s still hurting at the rejection. It hasn’t passed beyond denial in the stages of grief.
What is it with British nationalists and violent metaphors? It must be something to do with the cognitive dissonance involved in pretending that your nationalism isn’t nationalist at all. Or possibly it’s all that anti-Catholic banter. If you don’t actually sing about being up to your knees in Fenian blood it’s just a joke. Let’s be honest here Labour, if you are incapable of recognising your own British nationalism for what it is, you’re never going to be in any position to challenge a Scottish nationalism that at least has the virtue of knowing what it is and what it stands for. Truth always defeats self-delusion.
It is an abiding and deep rooted trope of British nationalism that it’s not nationalist at all. That’s why they call themselves Unionists. The British conceit is that the UK is a family of nations, and therefore it transcends narrow nationalism, but we all know that is a lie. In more recent years that conceit has extended to the multicultural population which has developed in the UK after WW2. The truth is that British nationalism is the respectable face of English nationalism. It’s union flegs in Tesco. It’s interminable telly programmes about the Royals. It’s Brexit, bloody Brexit. British nationalism is a nationalism which is incapable of seeing the truth about itself because fundamentally it’s a nationalism of denial. The Loyalist sectarianism of Northern Ireland and the West of Scotland is a disease of British nationalism, but British nationalists prefer to portray it as two warring tribes with the British state as some disinterested father figure holding their jaikets. Give me an honest Scottish civic nationalism any day of the week over this delusional dreamscape of Ukania.
Labour supports Brexit, a project which is nationalist to the very core of its conception, yet still tells itself and the rest of us that as an organisation it’s opposed to nationalism and stands for solidarity. It’s a peculiar concept of solidarity when it ends at the White Cliffs of Dover and depends upon being ruled by the Westminster Parliament. It’s an even more peculiar concept of solidarity to demand that the only proper role of socialism in Scotland is to sacrifice itself on the altar of the British state and to save England from itself when that country keeps persisting in voting for Conservative governments.
Labour sincerely believes that it has a right to Scottish votes. The fact that Scotland has turned its back on the party, especially that West of Scotland Catholic community which once voted for no one else, is a source of genuine hurt and confusion to Labour in Scotland. They really don’t know where they went wrong. There they were, doing the same thing for decades, parcelling out MPs seats and cooncils to their pals, and then those pesky nats came along and stole all their voters. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
So here’s a message for Labour, and I’m not even an SNP member. You can’t kill us off, because you can’t crush hope. The great victory of the Scottish independence movement in 2014 was to do something for working class people in Scotland that Labour forgot how to do decades ago, to give us hope. The best that Labour can offer is more of the same, a brief respite from Conservative rule, a respite that can only be achieved by a Labour party that apes the Tories in order to appeal to the Sun reading voters of Middle England. There is no hope, no poetry, no vision, no dream. That’s why Scotland will never come back to Labour, because Labour has no soul. We dream of something better. We’ve learned how to hope again. Labour can’t take that away from us.
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