Ken MacLeod is a Scottish science fiction writer, blogger and ‘habitual Labour voter’. He has set a number of his novels in a future, independent Scotland, but campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in the recent independence referendum. I am delighted that he has written an essay for Pandaemonium, based on a recent talk for BBC Radio 4’s World This Weekend, about the strangeness of the post-referendum political landscape in Scotland.
The strange new landscape of Scotland
Scotland is in a strange place after the referendum. It’s already a cliché that the losers and the winners seem to have changed places. The main party on the Yes side, the SNP, is enjoying a surge of membership and support and a smooth handover of leadership. The main party of No, Labour, is having the opposite experience in almost every respect.
But beyond the flags and labels, headlines and soundbites, two new political realities have come out of the referendum campaign. The first and most obvious is that anger and disillusion with the status quo and with the politicians who represent it has found a political expression to the left of Labour – and not, as in England, to the right of the Tories. And unlike elsewhere in Europe where new left parties have arisen, this popular and populist left has for the most part flowed into a mainstream party, a party capable of forming a government in Scotland and of influencing, perhaps even deciding, the next government of the UK. Given that over large areas of Scotland the SNP is the party of natural conservatives – a party many of whose voters, as the referendum results map showed, don’t even support independence – the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon has its own interesting times to look forward to.
The second is much less obvious, so much so that it’s in danger of passing under the political radar entirely. It has no political expression at all. It’s almost a conspiracy, almost a freemasonry of coded phrases and sudden handshakes. This is the emergence of what might be called civic unionism. It crosses the deepest political divides because it isn’t about which side we fight on, but the arena in which we prefer to fight. There must be thousands, hundreds of thousands, who are baffled and offended by the claim that they only voted No because of ‘the Vow’, the promise of ‘more powers’ to the parliament at Holyrood, or because they were servile or afraid. They voted No because for them the Union makes sense as a rational solution for the nations of this large island. It would be a good idea for all parties seeking votes in Scotland to stop acting and talking as if No voters were in any significant number potential Yes voters who can be appealed to to change their minds, or who must be appeased lest they do.
Those on the left who argued for a No vote have to recognise that a raw but radical mass current now exists to the left of – and hostile to – Labour. The Scottish Labour Party has been pitched into a leadership contest by the sudden resignation of former leader Johann Lamont, who tossed the damning accusation that the UK party treated the Scottish party as a ‘branch office’ over her shoulder on her way out. Collapsing poll ratings, a decisive choice, and a short electoral timetable confront the party’s membership as they ponder the contenders’ pitches. Whoever wins, whether from the party’s left, right or centre, will have to find a way to address and win over people from both new undercurrents – the ‘left populist’ and the ‘civic unionist’. Fail in that and Labour is finished in Scotland for a long time, or perhaps forever.
Check out Ken MacLeod’s books, and his blog The Early Days of a Better Nation. For my essays on the Scottish independent debate, see Scottish Independence: From What, For What? and United Kingdom, Divided People.
The photo is of the Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye, taken in 2009.
It is, alas, all too easy to take a position to the left of what Labour has become. Indeed, much of the transient popularity of the Liberal Democrats arose from the belief that they were about to do just that.
I’d be interested to hear the reconciliation between the observation that Scotland “has found a political expression to the left of Labour – and not, as in England, to the right of the Tories.” and the conclusion that “the Union makes sense as a rational solution” . The politics are different in Scotland, profoundly different, and far more comfortable with a european democratic socialist agenda, than the transatlantic neo-liberalism embraced with such enthusiasm by Westminster. Thatcher may have started the separation, but it became irreconcilable under Blair. We may regret or even one day forgive that history, but unlike the future we can’t change it.
“Civic Unionist” – is an interesting identifier too, borrowed from Ulster, where it differentiates from “tribal” or “habitual” ones. There are undoubtedly both kinds in Scotland too, even if the tribal allegiances have become more subtle and less predictable. Bear in mind too that he “significant number” being looked for by the yes campaign is not a very large one, only a 5% swing. Whilst converts may not be easily found amongst the “baffled and offended” right of (Scottish) centre, middle-classes who still habitually identify with Labour as ‘the left”; they are still appearing amongst a more tribal Labour support still working it’s way through the Kubler-Ross curve. The party may have lived on in name, but the UK movement effectively died in 1994 and whilst they may have clung to it’s corpse with all their might, working class Scots couldn’t even begin to grieve for it until they found a new hope. They have found that hope, and much as it seems to baffle and offend those who look at this through the prism of protecting the “wee union” of 1707, rather than re-establishing the greater more internationalist union that the Labour movement was founded on, it’s not being represented by Miliband or Murphy.
To my shame, I’m so ignorant of Irish politics that I didn’t know that ‘civic unionist’ was a term used in the North, where it might have very different connotations.