Friday, 4 May 2007

Through the Looking Glass?

The intricacies of Proportional Representation mean it's still far from clear whether the Scottish National Party have won their historic victory – but Alex Salmond's spectacular win in Gordon sent me looking for a book I read a few months ago.

Tom Nairn's 'After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland' is the kind of outlandish political writing which catches at themes dismissed by the sophisticated insider. Published in 2000, it offered a very early judgement on the Blair era, and reading it today is a bit like digging up a time capsule. The fetishization of youth, about which Nairn was so scathing, feels rather distant now. On the other hand, his preliminary verdict on the Kosovo conflict might offer a clue to Blair's behaviour following 9/11. For a British leader, whose country has never fully accepted its reduced circumstances following the loss of Empire, Nairn identified “the glamour of appearing to bestride the world once more”.

And as I read it last winter, the book's central prediction – that Blair's ultimate legacy would be the break-up of the United Kingdom – seemed a surprisingly plausible prophecy. In London, the prospect of Scottish independence is still treated as Alice in Wonderland stuff. The figures don't add up, it's not value for money. Yet the inadequacies of this kind of politics-as-economic-calculation set me thinking of Nairn's attack on 'corporate populism':

'Corporate populism' is absolute philistinism. Another reason for the business class to support New Labour, of course, but one which seems inseperable from a frightful risk. Its apparatus of consumers and 'stakeholders' mimics democracy, substituting brand-loyalty and ordinariness for hope and glory. This can seem possible, even attractive, while things go well in the narrowly economic terms to which the creed awards priority...

When the growth-momentum ceases... people will then have to fall back on the non-corporate, less than cost-effective nation – on a national community and state... That is, on communal faith and justice, the extended family of egalitarian dreams. Everyone knows that a corporation will not 'support' customers in any comparable sense, beyond the limits of profitability; but everyone feels that is exactly what a nation should do. Brand-loyalty is precisely not 'belonging' in the more visceral sense associated with national identity. Indeed it easily becomes the opposite of belonging: sell-out, Devil take the hindmost, moving on (or out) to maintain profitability. Since the national factor cannot really be costed, it is easily caricatured as a question of soulful romanticism or delusion. However, such common sense is itself philistine. It fails to recognize something crucial. When Marks & Spencer betrays its customers the result is an annoyance; for a nation-state to let its citizens down can be a question of life or death, and not in wartime alone.

There is a hollowed-out rhetoric of progress which is one of the most infuriating traits of 'on message' New Labour politicians. I don't mean the litanies of practical improvements for which this government can rightly claim credit, but the abstract invocation of 'progress' which assumes that the past is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, and labels as 'reactionary' anyone who talks seriously about 'belonging'.

Let's imagine that Alex Salmond is Scotland's new First Minister. Two or three years down the line, having proved themselves in office, and with a newly-installed Tory government at Westminster, it is not unimaginable that the SNP win an independence referendum. In such a scenario, it may be worth heeding Nairn's warning for England:

Blair's Project makes it likely that England will return on the street corner, rather than via a maternity room with appropriate care and facilities. Croaking tabloids, saloon-bar resentment and back-bench populism are likely to attend the birth and to have their say. Democracy is constitutional or nothing. Without a systematic form, its ugly cousins will be tempted to move in and demand their rights - their nation, the one always sat upon and then at last betrayed by an élite of faint-hearts, half-breeds and alien interests.

And whatever happens in Scotland, with bad economic news on the horizon, the Brown era is likely to see 'corporate populism' put to the test – while questions of 'belonging' rise on the agenda, in more or less attractive forms.


Dan said...

This Nairn writes some nifty prose!

Anyhoo, that line "In London, the prospect of Scottish independence is still treated as Alice in Wonderland stuff. The figures don't add up, it's not value for money"...

Reminded me of something I read in the Indy a while back; a story I'm surprised we didn't hear a lot more about:

"It was a document that could have changed the course of Scottish history. Nineteen pages long, Written in an elegant, understated academic hand by the leading Scottish economist Gavin McCrone, presented to the Cabinet office in April 1975 and subsequently buried in a Westminster vault for thirty years. It revealed how North Sea oil could have made an independent Scotland as prosperous as Switzerland."

"Earlier this week, the Chancellor Gordon Brown underlined the vital revenue stream that North Sea oil still is in the context of British politics. In his pre-budget report, Mr Brown extracted an extra £6.5b in tax from North Sea oil and gas producers, to be taken over the next three years. Economists like the Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman Vince Cable say that high oil prices have already bailed out the Treasury to the tune of £1 billion this year. Imagine then, what the oil could have done for a Scotland which chose independence in the mid 1970s and claimed ownership of the reserves."

Quite. If I were Scottish, I'd be a bit peeved....!

Dan said...

Which is to say: no, independence definitely not value for money for England...

Steve Hayes said...

If Kosovo can be independent, why no Wales, or Monmouth, come to that -- with all the English ethnically cleansed from it, of course.

The belligernet Mr Blair's legacy is, well, belligerence.

Dougald Hine said...

There's certainly a double standard at work there, Steve.

In fairness, there's nothing particularly belligerent about Scots or Welsh nationalism in its present form. In some ways, the most troubling question is what Scottish independence might do for English politics - not least since the English heartlands have always been to the right of the Celtic fringe in their voting habits. In my optimistic moods, though, I'm sympathetic to Nairn's argument that the break-up of the UK could force England to finally come to terms with the end of Empire and achieve a more realistic sense of itself. (Blair's remark about Britain being 'the greatest nation on earth' was one of the most jarring moments in his resignation speech, I thought.)

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