The Fragility of Nationalist Ideas

“Active bourgeois public opinion is composed of two parts: first, of inherited views, actions, and prejudices which represent the fossilized experience of the past, a thick layer of irrational banality and useful stupidity; and second, of the intricate machinery and clever management necessary for the mobilization of patriotic feeling and moral indignation, of national enthusiasm, altruist sentiment, and other kinds of lies and deceptions.”

Trotsky, Between Red and White, 1922

Over 90 years later this quote is still very relevant. Unlike in 1922, Britain no longer has its empire and is now a third rate world power. What they retain are their skilled methods of indoctrination accumulated over centuries,  which still have a powerful effect on mass consciousness. Without it, the ruling class could not rule.

In school history we’re taught that the battle of Dunkirk was a Great British victory, whilst events like The Russia Revolution, The German Revolution or even the 1926 general strike are often reduced to a bullet point, if that. Last year, Michael Gove, Tory cabinet MP (of varying posts), talking about the “Great” War, said that “Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”.

This statement reflects Gove’s stupidity. It is a normal function of our bourgeois politicians to try to perpetuate nationalism, chauvinism and all ideologies which work in favour of the ruling class. Gove’s proud jingoism is very stupid, but such stupidity is a useful and inevitable part of bourgeois politics’ game of illusions.

The problem for the ruling class is that the establishment, not least its mass media outlets, does not quite have the clout it used to as the following quote from the Financial Times shows,
“The public seems to think there is something rotten in the establishment. In 2010, a Policy Exchange poll found that 81% of Britons agreed with the statement: ‘Politicians don’t understand the real world at all’. The British Social Attitude Survey reported that only 18% trusted governments to put the nation’s needs above a party’s, down from 38% in 1986. Banks fare worse.

In 1983, 90% thought they were ‘well run’, compared with 19% today, perhaps the most dramatic attitudinal shift in the report’s 30-year history. Britain’s views of its institutions wax and wane—ask Her Majesty. But the successive scandals hitting banking, parliament and the media have the feel of an almost operatic collapse of faith in those who exert power in the country… There is a profound ignorance among the powerful as to the depth of anti-elite sentiment, in Britain and beyond.”

This also extends to the traditional workers’ parties. The Labour Party have played a treacherous role, summed up by their slogans borrowed from the Tories such as “One Nation Britain”, and mugs saying “Controls on immigration, I’m voting labour”, slogans that for the record also found very little resonance in England. In the recent election, leadership candidate Liz Kendal vowed to back “white working class youth” in a disgusting attempt to appeal to UKIP voters. The reality is that such people do not represent any part of the working class, including the “white working class youth”, but only represent themselves and their big business masters. The Blairite pro free-marketeers were quite rightly seen for what they were with Corbyn’s overwhelming victory.

The previous Labour leader, Ed Milliband, was according to polls more unpopular than David Cameron before the General Election in Scotland! The Scottish conservatives, unlike their counterparts in the rest of the UK, are generally seen to be harmless idiots who have very little influence. Their chauvinistic role in the NO campaign was nothing unexpected. However the Labour Party had influence in Scotland and formerly was looked to and trusted by the working class, a trust which it betrayed, debatably the final kick being the British Nationalist “Better Together Campaign” which they led.

When the capitalist system is in deep crisis, a crisis felt most acutely by the working class and the most poor and vulnerable part of society, it can only be a matter of time before such people en mass start to question things. Massive political shifts like we’ve seen in Scotland with the referendum, and now throughout the UK with Corbyn, become common. The stunning successes of the SNP represent not just a rejection of austerity politics but also a rejection of the rotten British as a whole. Whilst socialists in Scotland have a duty to expose and fight against Scottish nationalism, we nevertheless unashamedly welcome the mass rejection of the politics and ideology of our most reactionary establishment.

However, we are living in turbulent times. Less than half a year after the Labour Party was rejected en mass we saw the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Days later saw his seemingly small but significant gesture in declining to sing the national anthem during Battle of Britain commemoration. For this he was met with a predictable barrage of vile slander.

Whilst inciting disgust amongst the British establishment and its Daily Mail reading reserves, he also, deliberately or not, incited a small spark of delight in the brains amongst millions of people throughout the British Isles.

A poll on The Mirror’s website currently shows that 81% of over a thousand readers support Corbyn’s refusal to sing the national anthem. The Metro, a paper owned by “The Daily Mail and General Trust”, asked its million plus daily readers to send in their views of the queen after her reign became the longest. Two thirds of the responding letters expressed negative views. Such facts in and of themselves do not tell the full picture, but when coupled with recent signs of anti-establishment and anti-jingoistic feeling including the impressively big “Refugees Welcome” demonstrations they suggest rapidly declining support in the ideology of British nationalism not just in Scotland but in England and Wales also.

Alex Salmond made an uncharacteristic error in criticising Corbyn for not singing the National Anthem. The SNP’s  recent peak of success came on the back of the mass YES campaign, a campaign fuelled by an indignation to Westminster’s austerity and British jingoism. In criticising Corbyn he aligned himself and the SNP with the British establishment, so hated by the SNP’s base of support.

Last week a TNS poll showed the SNP 35 points ahead of labour. It’s clear that it would take much more than a Corbyn victory to spark any kind of significant return to the Labour Party in Scotland. However that is not to say that his victory has had no effect.  According to The Guardian a third of SNP voters would vote labour in a General Election under Corbyn. This is a very contradictory, complex and dynamic situation. However it is fair to assume that although many sympathise with Corbyn and the movement behind him, they have thrown their eggs into the SNP’s basket and will not abandon it within a matter of months.

The SNP is a very contradictory party. It undoubtedly has a left wing layer of support who see beyond narrow nationalist lines and want to be part of a serious challenge to poverty, inequality and British imperialism. It is no surprise that the Corbyn victory was greeted by a significant layer of the left leaning SNP supporters. To the left of the SNP in the SSP/ RISE/RIC it has been very warmly welcomed with some even registering to vote for him.

On the other side of the coin the party also contains a very strong current of Scottish nationalism. On the right of the SNP, Corbyn is seen simply as a unionist and criticised vehemently for his stance on independence. This amongst other things has exposed the contradictions of the YES campaign. Corbyn’s approach to the national question in Scotland is clumsy and self-destructive. The left of the YES campaign are obviously aware of this and on this point are critical of Corbyn, but at the same time are able to look past it enough to be welcoming to Corbyn’s leadership overall, and are hence antagonised by the attitude of the old school SNP “nats” who see nothing but a unionist enemy in Corbyn.

This is classical in movements for national self-determination. Unity can only be temporary and eventually, in one form or another, a split along class lines will occur. Differences that can be glossed over or at least discussed friendlily during a peak of mass political activity become unbearable in a movement’s ebb and the cracks begin to show. But mainly this is the music of the future. Despite the weakening unity of the YES movement and despite the powerful developments in the Labour Party, desire for independence amongst the population has not gone down but in fact reached 54% last month.

As German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht said, “The main enemy of every people is in their own country”. In Scotland we have two main enemies, that of British imperialist ruling class and its close cousins, the Scottish capitalists and landlords. Socialists in the YES camp must patiently explain to those awakening to political life that to really defeat British imperialism and its rotten establishment it is not enough to turn to Scottish nationalism. The British ruling elite cannot be overthrown without the working classes throughout the British Isles, especially England.

​Even when it is awkward, even when we’re laughed at or shouted at or worse, socialists have a duty to be very clear that the fight is not simply for independence but for a Scottish Workers Republic as part of an international socialist federation. Marxists take a long view of history. The class struggle is back on the agenda everywhere, and our programme of socialist revolution will grow into a mass one.

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