The promise of old jam

Superficially, at least, Alex Rowley has said something meaningful about transforming British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). Certainly, the Sunday Herald’s sensationalist prose would have us believe that something of great significance has happened. Andrew Whitaker declares Rowley’s intervention to be “seismic”. It will, we are assured, “send shockwaves through the party [sic] ”. Maybe so. But should the rest of us take it seriously? Has Scotland’s political landscape just suffered some tectonic shift, as Whitaker implies? Or are these just localised tremors affecting only the little village of BLiS and its immediately environs where the larger part of the ‘Scottish’ media has established a comfortable residence.

That a senior figure in BLiS should even attempt to get away from the British nationalist agenda, set by the Ruth Davidson and obediently embraced by Kezia Dugdale, is undoubtedly something to be welcomed. It’s good that anybody in the British parties should seek to distance themselves from the vacuously jingoistic rhetoric by which Davidson sought – with evident success – to lure hard-line unionists away from their robotic Labour-voting habits. But how far has Rowley really travelled? Get past the distracting sensationalism, and it becomes clear that he has travelled only that very short distance from the vacuous jingoism of Ruth Davidson to the empty rhetoric of Gordon Brown.

Alex Rowley’s talk of “home rule within a confederal United Kingdom” serves only to remind us of the false prospectus by which British Labour and their Tory allies secured Scotland for the Union in 2014. It is no more than yet another rehashing of the infamous ‘Vow’ cobbled together by the Daily Record as the anti-independence effort panicked in the final days of the first independence referendum campaign. It is the old ‘jam tomorrow’ promise; with the twist that the jam we’re being promised tomorrow is the same jam as the jam we’ve been assured was delivered yesterday.

For all the fine talk about socialist principles, Rowley’s first loyalty remains to the very British state which he acknowledges as an insurmountable obstacle to the realisation of those principles. He seeks to create the impression of a break with British nationalist ideology. But, ultimately, he is still bound to the dogma of ‘The Union At Any Cost’. Preservation of the Union remains his first priority.

If you were misled by the headline and the colourful language into imagining this was a senior figure in BLiS contemplating the ditching of the Union for the sake of “reducing inequality, developing our economy and fighting for social justice”, then you will be disappointed to find that Rowley is actually just peddling the same old line. That better, fairer, more prosperous society is fine, he tells us. But only if it can be achieved within the context of the UK.

“We cannot accept that the status quo in the form of Westminster and Whitehall can deliver the kind of society that we want to achieve for our country…”, he declares. Only to then insist that “our country” must remain mired in that very system.

Rowley is no more able to question the primacy of the British state than he is able to free himself of the caricature of Scotland’s independence movement conjured in the imaginations of British nationalists. All he offers is a false equivalence between Scotland’s civic nationalism and British nationalism that manages to be both woefully simplistic and grotesquely contrived.

As attempts at triangulation go, it’s pretty dire. Finding that ‘middle position’ requires both a clear understanding of and a profound ambivalence about the positions being triangulated. Rowley fails on both counts. He neither understands the SNP nor, as has been pointed out, is he able to overcome his ideological commitment to the British state.

The stubborn failure to understand the SNP and its role as the de facto political arm of Scotland’s independence movement is evidenced by Rowley’s resort to the kind of resentful rhetoric that has come to be BLiS’s sole contribution to political discourse in Scotland. Thus, when Nicola Sturgeon says that the constitutional issue “transcends Brexit, oil and the economy”, Rowley reaches immediately and instinctively for a distorted and distorting definition of ‘transcends’ which has Sturgeon saying that independence is ‘more important’ than these other things. Less blindly prejudiced individuals, meanwhile, wonder what all the hysteria is about as they settle for the customary definition of the terms which has Sturgeon saying only that the constitutional question is ‘greater in scope’ than matters of policy or developments which, however large they may loom in our lives, are mere corks bobbing on the oceans of history.

Finding a ‘middle ground’ also supposes that it exists. And that it is politically fertile. Rowley isn’t discovering new ground. He is just laying claim to ground that is already well-worn and sterile. He is talking about devolution – nothing more. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. And all we got was a flimsy, ill-fitting and distinctly uncomfortable T-shirt emblazoned with the legend, ‘POWER DEVOLVED IS POWER RETAINED’.

We already know that any devolution measure which succeeds in terms of the aims and objectives of the British state necessarily fails in terms of the aspirations and priorities of Scotland’s people.

Alex Rowley may have attempted to ditch the Unionist label. But he still clings to the ideology. Where we are supposed to see a bold break with BLiS’s catastrophic recent past, I see only the latest in a tedious succession of hapless presentational exercises. More smoke and mirrors. Another attempt to polish the turd of British nationalism.

I’m not fooled. Independence! Nothing less!

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