On the train the only person who said much was the writer, who would sometimes stare out of the window and make a cryptic remark for no apparent reason, though it was always aimed at me.
“Wee hard men!” he muttered as the train pulled out of Falkirk. “The curse of Scotland is these wee hard men. I used to blame the English for our mediocrity. I thought they had colonised us by sheer cunning. They aren’t very cunning. They’ve got more confidence and money than we have, so they can afford to lean back and smile while our own wee hard men hammer Scotland down to the same dull level as themselves.”
Brian said wearily, “Leave Jock alone will you? He was one of us before the journalists and the police put their boots in.”
– Alasdair Gray, 1982 Janine
If you’re thinking about Scotland at the moment, politically speaking, you have to be thinking about what happened at this year’s election – which is to say, what happened in the 2011 election, happened again at last year’s referendum and happened even more emphatically at this year’s election. Back in March – before the most dramatic confirmation his thesis could have had – Ken MacLeod put forward a startling analogy:
Scotland was never socialist, and Labour never ran a one-party state. But — all proportions guarded, all caveats made — the cliches to the contrary contain more than a grain of truth. … It’s belatedly struck me that many features of the Yes campaign, and its post-referendum continuation in the SNP surge, come sharply into focus if you see what’s going on as a colour revolution against Labour Scotland.
On one side, a generation of entitled hacks whose imaginations have grown to fit their office chairs; they have nothing to offer these young people demanding hope and change, except the bland assurance that this generation will eventually settle down and vote for them, just like the one before and the one before that. On the other, a turbulent, disorganised movement, the vehicle for diverse and contradictory hopes and dreams, united by nothing except the feeling that things have got to change – and the conviction that that’s all the unity they need. We know how this one plays out.
And Scotland was – with the wisdom of hindsight – peculiarly ripe for this kind of upheaval. Thinking about the kind of people likely to have voted Yes last year – and the even larger range of people who voted SNP this year – I found myself thinking of 1982 Janine, the quoted passage (for some reason) in particular. Who, in that amazing novel’s dramatis personae, wouldn’t vote SNP? The young Jock – the narrator’s 1950s younger self – is a working-class Scot who has learnt by experience that society is an unjust, exploitative racket and that Scottish society has the additional burden of the English squatting on top of the pile. The older Jock is a disillusioned Conservative voter – if society’s a racket, best get in with the people who are doing well out of it – who makes it a rule never to think about politics, the then-recent devolution referendum included, because if he does he’s liable to fly into a helpless rage. Consciously at least, he has no illusions about nationalism – in one beautiful scene he finds tears welling up when he’s watching football on TV and hears the crowd singing “Flower of Scotland”; despising his own weakness, he carefully tilts his head back so that the tears will not be shed, and holds the position until they have evaporated. (“Since the age of thirteen I have not shed a single tear,” he says elsewhere.)
It’s not just Jock. The young Jock’s lover Denny is working-class and poorly-educated; she wishes she knew geography so that she could tell whether it was better to donate to Korea or to give the money to her cousin who lives in a slum down the road. The middle-aged Jock’s lover Sontag is a socialist, feminist and “sexual missionary”: “I was Scotland, something frozen and dumb which she was going to liberate.” Jock’s wife Helen is the lower middle-class daughter of a tightly-wound small businessman: very respectable, very Scottish. ‘The writer’ of the quote at the top is a working-class Scot whose hatred for the English and belief in the potential of Scotland is undercut by resentment of the Scottish talent for self-destruction. Jock’s friend and hero Alan is a charming and witty mechanical genius who seems to have no interest in politics; we’ll come back to him. And then there’s that crowd at the football match, and everyone who’s sentimental enough to listen to “Flower of Scotland” and let the tears fall. Even the wee hard men themselves – well, I remember George Galloway advocating what he was pleased to call a “Naw” vote, but I think there are wee hard men enough on the Yes side.
The point isn’t that Alasdair Gray is a nationalist who was writing in the long, bitter aftermath of the devolution referendum, although this is true (“If we ran that race again we would win by a head and neck so we won’t be allowed to run it again,” thinks Jock). It’s certainly not to criticise Gray for writing variations on a single character – on the contrary, these characters have next to nothing in common, except that every one of them would have been a Scottish nationalist in 2014 and 2015. Socialist nationalist? Conservative nationalist? Sentimental nationalist? Embittered, misanthropic former nationalist? Disillusioned, self-hating former socialist nationalist? Welcome, welcome! Never mind all the qualifications now – just hop on board. Next stop, the bright unwritten national future!
As for the Leonardo-like Alan, he dies young in an accident. Jock muses that if he had lived “Scotland would now have an independent government … Alan would have worked on Scotland like a few ounces of yeast on many tons of malt, he would have fermented these arselickers and instruments, these stoical and hysterical losers into a sensible coherent people”. It turns out that Alan isn’t a Scottish nationalist: he is Scottish nationalism. It’s presented as a school of character: to be a nationalist is to stand on your own two feet, solve your own problems and face the future with confidence. Not to be a nationalist is to be servile or cowed – given the chance to stand up, why wouldn’t you? Again, I don’t think this is just about Alasdair Gray’s politics; I think this is how nationalism, or a political movement borne on nationalism (like the colour revolutions), can present itself to a lot of people at certain moments – and how Scottish nationalism presents itself to an awful lot of people right now.
What does all this have to do with the Corbyn campaign? Two things: arithmetic and an early warning. Firstly and most obviously, there are those forty seats that Labour lost last time; if we simply kissed Scotland goodbye we’d be left with the challenge of securing an overall majority, over the other English and Welsh parties and the SNP, on the basis of English and Welsh seats alone. John Curtice – he of the unbelievable exit poll – estimates that to do this Labour would need to have a lead of 12.5% over the Conservatives. I’m not saying that’s unachievable by definition – a lot can change in five years – but it would be nice to have a Plan B in case Labour’s recovery doesn’t quite scale those heights. The question then is, what approach is going to be best suited to winning support back from the SNP, given the tsunami-like wave of sentimentality, resentment, creativity and hope that they’re currently riding. Is it, for example, the approach exemplified by Jim Murphy? You’ll remember that Murphy insisted throughout the campaign that he would throw the election to the Tories sooner than co-operate with the SNP; not only that, he maintained that this was the right approach, and that even trying to form a Labour/SNP coalition would be unsportsmanlike and improper. It’s hard to imagine a better example of the bankruptcy of late Blairism – the hectoring insistence that only one route was correct, and that Labour and its supporters must rule out all others, was still there, but it was linked to no positive content at all.
Labour was particularly ill-advised in selecting Jim Murphy – beside him, Gordon Brown sounded like Tony Benn – but Murphy’s proprietary attitude to the Labour voters of Scotland, and his obdurate incomprehension of the nationalist wave, wasn’t untypical. But if Labour is to win back more than a couple of those 40 seats, the wagging finger of sensible, moderate Unionism isn’t going to cut it. I see no sign from any of the other three candidates that they have either the inclination or the ability to tap into a mood of transformative optimism North of the border – but, unless the nationalist wave subsides a lot quicker than currently seems likely, that is what Labour is going to have to do. The arithmetic is unforgiving: Labour’s path back to Downing St is going to have to pass through those 40 seats. Which means that, for anyone who genuinely cares about the electability of the Labour party, the next leader must be a sincere, no-nonsense Left candidate untainted by Blairism. What luck that there’s one standing!
There’s also the possibility – an interesting possibility, to say the least – that the SNP surge, together with the UKIP surge and the Green surge, was symptomatic of something larger: a new volatility in British politics, a new level of disenchantment with the old parties and the old political assumptions. Again, all of this may have drained quietly away by 2020, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Just as in Scotland, there’s an odd mixture of resentment, impatience and genuine hope abroad. A lot of people are starting to think that the old ways of doing politics are broken; that they don’t want to wait any longer to vote for something and someone they actually believe in; and that it might just work. Running a campaign like this within the Labour Party is perhaps asking for trouble – or it may just end up creating trouble for the party. I do wonder whether, in 2020, the SNP surge will seem less like a freak storm and more like the way politics normally works. Needless to say, if we are heading into choppy political waters, the very last people we want in charge of the Labour Party are veterans of a period when political loyalties were unchanging and political participation was in steady decline. Again, the case for Corbyn turns out to be practical – tactical, even – as well as ideological; he could be the best candidate for these times.
If you haven’t registered to vote by now, you’ve missed out. Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this series with some thoughts about the Corbyn campaign, now that the serious business is starting.