When the anthropologist Mary Douglas was asked what she thought was the first sign of human civilisation, she answered without hesitation; the oldest fossil of a healed human femur. Here was evidence that while one of their number lay injured, the other humans offered shelter and protection; a wild animal under these circumstances would quickly succumb to predators. Here is the fundamental distinction upon which all society is based, that society is in some sense superior, or different from, more powerful than the brute forces of nature that would compel an individual with a broken femur to lie down and die. Society is something much greater than the individuals who happen at any moment to inhabit it; a civilised society is one which does not allow its members to die just because they have a broken femur.
Politics tends to take this same principle for granted. The point of politics is to organise daily life, business and trade according to some notion of the general good; if the structures and traditions of a civilised society are maintained, then all of its members will be cared for. Even the trickle down theory of wealth is based on an idea that the wealth of the value creators of capitalism will eventually find its way into the pockets of the less fortunate. Socialist and social democratic ideas are more obviously focused on ensuring that the wealth of societies is distributed according to some notion of need, rather than privilege. More revolutionary political theories recognise that the unequally distributed wealth of society is already a function of economic systems that will have to be overturned if there is ever to be any kind of equitable distribution of social value. Despite their many and profound differences, all of these perspectives share a similar understanding; an individual is a product of society, formed, created and influenced by the social arrangements into which it is born, a being who learns to enjoy the protections society affords all its members.
Within recent decades two political movements have arisen that have turned this on its head. Instead of society being the place where individuals are formed, it becomes an effect simply of the gathering together of large numbers of individuals in one place. The forms that social organisation takes are a result of the choices made by individuals.
The first individualistic tendency is the direct consequence of the neoliberal economics that emerged from the final collapse of post war Keynesian models during the 1970s. According to Thatcher’s infamous assertion; there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families. The responsibility for the production of fully socialised individuals rests entirely within the moral framework built up by responsible parents as they bring up children. Society is an anachronism, a throwback to socialist times when the wealth of the value creators, the highly motivated risk takers who generate value, was taken away from them and squandered by the state, by society, without regard to economic reality. Individuals must learn to work for themselves, not to become reliant on handouts from the state, and if they are successful they will be able to generate value by employing other individuals, thereby spreading around their wealth.
The second individualistic tendency is the politics of identity. Identity politics makes an impossible demand on political systems and social arrangements, and it introduces a great deal of unnecessary confusion into the mental environments of young people growing up. Identity politics expects society as a whole to be able to recognise how each and every individual identifies and must be prepared to respect whatever this means for each. At the same time, individuals are assumed to be whoever they are because this is how they have identified. Young people growing up are encouraged to choose an identity in much the same way they are encouraged to choose a style of clothes, or to listen to music for the genre most appropriate to their taste. Even adults are discovering that they can identify and that in doing so their lives become more fulfilled.
Identification is a complicated business, cut through with contradiction and fundamentally flawed, ultimately incapable of doing what it says on the tin. An individual cannot seriously identify and expect this identity to persist. The most basic fact of our stream of consciousness, all feelings we have about who we are and what our lives mean, is that these change. Persistently and throughout life. The most obvious contradiction of seeking an identity is that it is supposed to be the expression of some deep, personal and individual principle, unique to the one seeking it; and yet more often than not it is expressed in membership of some group of others who share the same identity. The politics of identity demands that each identifying group be protected from prejudice and abuse; it expects every identifying group to respect the sensibilities of every other identifying group, to learn how not to offend, how not to hurt any other’s feelings.
Nobody has any problem with respecting the desires and sensibilities of individuals. This comes along with the basic principle of society, that being together is better than being left to the nasty brutish life offered by nature alone, that in caring for another with a broken femur we listen to the story of how it came to be broken, get to know the other as a unique individual worthy of respect. The same principle applies throughout any society; the diversity of individual identity and experience is guarantied and protected by social conventions and habitual behaviour.
It is however obvious that in reality, people are subjected to all kinds of abuse, prejudice and violence purely on the basis of some superficial characteristic, because they are in some subordinate social class or because they identify in a particular way. On the whole, the societies of western democracy have specifically introduced legislation outlawing such behaviour, making it illegal to discriminate on the basic of ethnicity, sexual orientation, skin tone, gender identity, religious conviction, sex and so forth. Discrimination nevertheless persists; minority groups continue to be subject to abuse, prejudice and violence, motivated purely by ignorance or hate. Under these circumstances, it is easy to see how the politics of identity would flourish. But this does not make it any more coherent, nor any more likely that legislation will eradicate discrimination and prejudice.
When I returned to live in Scotland in 2013, the country was in a state of great excitement. A referendum on Independence was going to happen in the autumn of the next year and as the date approached a greater degree of interest in the cause than expected had turned into significant momentum. Immediately I became involved persuading others to vote for independence, learning as much as I could about the current government and political system, but recognising that because I had been away for such a long time, I was jumping into history afresh, unaffected by the grubby details of Scottish politics of the previous twenty years. My overriding political commitment was only to Scottish Independence, to autonomy from the systems of patronage and power of the British state that dominate society and determine political events, and to see an end to the British Empire. The minor details of what currency we should use or whether to be a republic were all subsidiary to the cause. It was easy for me perhaps, having lived in The Netherlands for more than two decades to remain disconnected from the incipient bitter strife that suffuses Scottish society – the shiteness of being Scottish – and to stand by the principle, without regard for party allegiance, personal animosity nor historical divisions. Living with 17 million others on the shifting deltas of Rhein and IJssel induces a necessary pragmatism, a willingness to compromise and to forget about differences for the sake of social cohesion, not to mention preventing the rising tides of the North Sea from inundating the land.
The disappointing result of the referendum of 2014 was nevertheless garnished with hope when the independence movement put its faith in the SNP and large numbers joined the party on the momentum of the Yes campaign. Everybody understood that despite his resignation as leader of the party, Mr Salmond would remain committed to the cause and would now pursue a seat at Westminster where he would continue to be a thorn in the side of the British State. Everybody understood that Ms Sturgeon was his protege and that she would establish the independence of the Scottish Parliament from Westminster while continuing to press for constitutional means of achieving independence. The party was handed an historical opportunity on a plate, asked to become the vanguard, to be the political wing of the independence movement.
Seven years later, and independence has still never been so close. Everyday in the patriotic press, in the enthusiasm of Facebook groups and the slogans coming from SNP central office, always it is deferred, just around the corner. There is however no clear strategic initiative anywhere visible, only promises, aspirations and predictions; only appeals to trust the SNP government to go about the process properly, constitutionally and legally, aware that the rest of world will only recognise a new independent country if it were to come into existence according to legitimate democratic processes, under the watchful eye of international law. For seven years, the SNP has indeed consolidated its power at Hollyrood, but it has taken advantage of no opportunities whatever to press forward with independence. The huge numbers of people who joined in 2014 trickled away as the party became mired in scandal, with accusations that it is more interested in the politics of identity than pursuing independence, that the National Executive Committee (NEC) has shut down all policy debate at local branches leaving ordinary members with nothing to do but deliver leaflets and push party memes through their newsfeeds.
The SNP seems to have convinced itself that it and only it is the sole force in the independence movement. It has forgotten that it is the vanguard party of a much wider historical movement, failed to recognise that it is not in control of events, refused to acknowledge that there are many independence supporters who detest the SNP and failed to recognise that its adoption of identity politics is putting off many more. The suspicion easily arises that the SNP is simply taking independence voters for granted, relying on the complexities of the voting system and/or the limited intellectual capacities of the average voter while repeating the same old mantra that only voting SNP on both ballots will bring about independence.
Alba’s challenge to the SNP is to remind it of its limitations. It is an invitation to come back into the historical process, to see that here again is a rare opportunity to advance the cause of independence by collaborating and working together. This is where the independence movement and the wider Yes campaign ask the SNP for the favour to be returned, to dissolve the vanguard while the ballot papers drop into boxes and publicly to advocate voting Alba on the regional list. It seems unlikely though that the SNP is going to do anything more than perpetuate the smears and regurgitate party mantras. As usual the shiteness of being Scottish will prevail, we will miss the open goal and trundle along with more of the same, oblivious to the powers of the British state as it dismantles and or makes irrelevant the parliament at Hollyrood.
Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming election, the direction that politics in Scotland is about to take is becoming more obvious. The Scottish government’s adoption of policies stemming from identity politics will have effects on society that will not be to the liking of everybody. The SNP’s neglect of its ordinary members and the refusal of the central hierarchy to allow any kind of discussion of policy at branch meetings or at conference has already lost it many members. Accusations of creative accounting and the apparent disappearance of monies earmarked for a new independence campaign do not contribute positively to the reputation of either government or party. There is still a bitter residue after the acquittal of Alex Salmond on all charges laid against him and the exposure of the way the Scottish government handled the whole affair. Continuing prevarication about independence simply reinforces the cynical view that the SNP has been corrupted by the system as much as all the others and that any hope for independence now rests not with the SNP, but elsewhere.
At the time of writing, polls suggest a continuing coalition of Greens and SNP in government at the Scottish parliament, with a reduced unionist presence and a small ALBA contingent. Whether this will be sufficient to hold at bay the great betrayal remains to be seen.
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