mark mclaughlinMark McLaughlin says Scottish Labour members picked Smith because those who would have backed Corbyn already have the SNP, and use the term “nationalist” because they refuse to acknowledge their own nationalism.


With the recent goings on in British politics, you could be forgiven for thinking that in our attempts to be open-minded we have opened rather too wide and allowed our collective brain to fall out.

Fortunately, it’s not just us. In the United States a racist demagogue may become the world’s most powerful man. In France they seek to liberate Muslim women by forcing them to take their clothes off. It’s all going terribly well. An interest in politics these days is less of a hobby and more of an affliction. Alas, there’s no getting rid of it.

On the subject of things of which there is no getting rid, St Jeremy the Principled, as history will surely remember him, has been re-elected leader of the Labour Party. Labour can finally be against racism and poverty again, thank heavens. The Blairites should obviously go and join the Tories now, and take their voters with them. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

On purely anecdotal evidence, I suspect I am in the minority in SNP-supporting circles in believing Corbyn to be a terrorist-sympathising incompetent, an extraordinarily dim waste of time and column inches, and a malignant narcissist. His elephantine bumbling through interviews calls to mind the words of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who once replied to unsolicited correspondence by calling the sender “a witless and meddlesome old ass, self-deluded and full of vapours”. There are few in British politics to whom the description is more apt.

Luckily, Labour centrists managed to out-vapour St Jeremy with their very own gaffe-basket, Owen Smith. The whole premise of his candidacy was that Corbyn couldn’t win an election because he was too left wing and inept and so, naturally, Smith then proceeded to agree with said left wing policies before advocating negotiation with Islamic State.

Corbyn was never asked if an interventionist industrial strategy would repel foreign investment; or if ambivalence to NATO would destabilise Eastern Europe; or if banning the private sector from the NHS would result in patients dying on waiting lists. These would, of course, be serious ideological objections to Corbynism – objections that have gone woefully unmade for far too long. It’s not just that Corbyn can’t win power, he’s also wrong on the issues. The centrists provided an alternative candidate absent an alternative vision.

When given the choice between someone who passionately believes in the wrong things and someone who believes in nothing, political activists were always likely to opt for the man with a cause. That is, except in Scotland. According to YouGov, Scottish Labour members chose Owen Smith by a 16% margin.

Now, schadenfreude is indeed the ugliest of emotions, but seeing Scottish Labour members lament getting stuck with a leader they didn’t vote for, and consequently argue for more independence, was really quite funny. There were few calls for complete separation, granted, but it was enough to give the old “Scottish Labour Party to be more autonomous” articles their 74th outing since the 2014 referendum.

I think the result is indicative of two things. First, in Scotland if you’re on the populist left and looking for a cause, you’re an SNP member, not a Labour one. Second, the remains of the Scottish Party are acutely aware that if they wander much farther into the wilderness it’s possible that they won’t find a way back. Taken together, it appears that Scotland’s political landscape, both in the Labour Party and more generally, looks very different to the rest of the United Kingdom.

For many, the nature of the United Kingdom appears to be immaterial; it is only important that we remain part of it. If Scotland is to be represented by an overtly xenophobic, little-England government that is forever led by a dog-whistling Conservative Party, then so be it. Businesses will have to list foreign workers, immigrant doctors may be deported (presumably to let yer auld da have a shot at doctoring) and that’s before we have a bonfire of all that ruddy red tape. With every government pronouncement, Brexit seems more likely to involve reshaping the United Kingdom in a Faragian image while the leader of the opposition is busy making jam. We might get blue passports though. So, y’know, every cloud.

It is at this point where, having voted Yes in 2014, I feel it necessary to point out that independence would allow Scotland to treat immigrants as citizens rather than an inconvenience. It’s not a cure for all ills, certainly, but on this specific issue, the leaders of the Scottish parties (including the Conservatives) are unarguably more internationalist in outlook than the UK Government. Does that observation make me a nationalist? Is it nationalist to recognise borders and think that one group of people can have a separate political culture from another? Is it nationalist to believe that this distinctiveness should be given proper weight in constitutional arrangements?

Most Scottish Labour members would say yes, which is par for the course. But in that case, it seems fair to request that when you pithily admonish the SNP by demanding they focus on the “real issues” and not borders, a period of self-reflection is in order. Do you really mean that your values aren’t dependent on borders? Or do you actually mean that you support the borders as they currently exist? Because it can’t be both. They are directly contradictory positions.

If it is the former, as is often claimed, then this would be in-keeping with the great leftist tradition of international socialism. In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in which they called for workers across the world to unite. They argued that a common class interest transcends nationality, and that a global revolution would eventually create stateless communism. However, if Kezia Dugdale is planning the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a borderless Utopia, she’s doing it very discreetly. Last I heard there was some difficulty pressing buttons, but perhaps we are in the midst of the long game. Only time will tell.

Even if you accept that Scottish Labour are the ideological descendants of Marx and Engels (in which case, I have a bridge to sell you) I am yet to hear a convincing justification as to why this pooling and sharing of resources stops at Dover. If it is merely geography, then surely this sharing would include the Republic of Ireland. If it is language, then it would include the United States, Australia, New Zealand and so on. I can find no unique denominator between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that would exclude all other countries from this pooling and sharing.

This is, of course, quite different from the argument that we shouldn’t obsess over the constitutional question, with which I have a great deal of sympathy. Personally, I think it would be preferable if Scotland could put the independence question on the back burner for a while. We did have a referendum only two years ago. But it is worth noting that the SNP didn’t choose the constitutional upheaval, the material change, of Brexit. It is the imminent consequences of being reminded in the starkest terms that we are not a union of equal nations that has brought it bubbling to the surface.

I suspect that most members of Scottish Labour just quite like the United Kingdom, and feel equally Scottish and British. You’re not against borders in general, just against one at Berwick. The nations of the United Kingdom share the BBC, the NHS and the pound sterling. Adam Smith, David Hume, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Keir Hardie and so many others who hailed from here have made generation-defining contributions to our collective history. Favouring the British state over a Scottish state for such historical and cultural reasons is a perfectly lovely and defensible position, which makes it all the more curious as to why you can’t just say it.

The fact that Scottish Labour has dismissed as nationalists those who voted Yes for similar reasons may be one explanation for the state of denial. I believe Scotland has a history and political culture that is distinct from France, but it doesn’t then follow that I think France to be inferior. It simply means that I recognise that they are different places. The same goes for the rest of the United Kingdom. It’s an odd psychological phenomenon that conflates acknowledging difference with expressing antipathy.

The crux of the problem is that “nationalist” is increasingly used to dismiss rather than to describe. It is chucking a connotation-laden rhetorical grenade and running up to the moral high ground. It’s an intellectually lazy and unsustainable position that produces far more heat than light. And given that with the distinct lack of opposition and the impending exit from the European Union, the constitutional question is likely to rear its head again, Labour would do well to not be dismissive of what will be, at least in part, legitimate grievances.

I do not know how narrowly or broadly it should be defined, but when the term “nationalism” is used it should, at the very least, be consistently applied. If the goal is really Marx’s stateless society, then fine, I will accept being labelled a nationalist by all twelve Marxists in the country. But you can’t argue that nationalism is accepting that countries exist and that borders are an acceptable reality, and not find a decent number of nationalists at Labour conference.