This is just a brief comment on the first moves by the newly elected leader of “Scottish Labour” as reported by the BBC. Jim Murphy is quoted as saying:
“We are a socialist party yes, but we recognise that our political faith grew out of something deeper which is ingrained in our Scottish character.
“It was there before our party in the ethics of Burns’ poetry, the economic vision of New Lanark, the actions of the Highlanders who took on brutal landlords. A belief that we stand together, look after those who need our help, and make sure that everyone gets a fair shout.”
Now, I don’t know anyone who thinks the current “Labour” party is ‘a socialist party’ (and certainly not with Murphy involved!), but leaving that aside for now, this appeal to something ‘ingrained in our Scottish character’ and referencing it as an intrinsic ‘belief’ is clearly an explicit move towards ethnic nationalism. I could write much more on this (I research and write on identity questions, so will struggle to keep this brief!), but I thought sharing a first reaction might be of interest. If we presume that Murphy is not just being a chance opportunist and resorting to Samuel Johnson’s cheap patriotism (‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’ etc.), then I think Murphy’s move is both worrying and fascinating.
It is worrying because one of the key problems with ethnic nationalism is that it is almost impossible to avoid chauvinism or ethnocentrism, in which one’s own national interests are seen to override the interests of others. It is, I think, difficult at the best of times to avoid nationalism descending into ethnocentrism, but with ethnic nationalism that is virtually impossible, as it is centred on a belief in a shared heritage, common faith, and usually a common ancestry and language, as opposed to, implicitly or explicitly, the heritage, faith etc. of others – these things are used as markers of difference. Even if Murphy doesn’t fully adopt the ‘common ancestry/language’ element, he is clearly pointing to these other factors as ethnic nationalist markers of difference (ironically, this comes at a time when Ed Miliband is discouraging his activists’ engagement on ethnic nationalist lines – perhaps Murphy didn’t read that memo?).
For many years, one of my hesitations about the Scottish National Party was its ethnic nationalism. However, under Alex Salmond and others, since the late 1970s/early 1980s it moved decisively to embrace a much more open civic nationalism and thereby also adopt a broad social democratic stance (perhaps the SNP should more correctly be called the Scottish International Party in the meantime?!). The ethnic nationalism that used to be at the heart of the SNP has been almost completely excised – a great achievement.
This is why I see the direction that Murphy apparently wants “Scottish Labour” to now take as highly problematic: ethnic nationalism is at core destructive, it harms inclusive prevailing discourse, and I therefore strongly oppose it. Even though, of course, all of the things that ethnic nationalists regard as important are just constructions (such as a shared heritage, belief etc.), the ethnic nationalist makes them real to themselves and uses them against others, and that is where the potential for serious harm emerges. Eric Hobsbawm cites Gellner before concluding (the sexist language is in the original):
‘Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent… political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-exiting cultures: that is a reality.’ In short, for the purposes of analysis nationalism comes before nations. Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round. (E J Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality, London 1990, 1992: 10.)
So that is all rather worrying.
What is fascinating about this announcement? Quite simply, it is the astonishing paucity of new ideas: south of the border “Labour” has spent much of it’s time recently trying to out-UKIP UKIP (thereby becoming more racist, something that Miliband’s move perhaps finally recognises?), and now north of the border Murphy wants to out-SNP what he thinks the SNP stands for? If so, he is simply one in a long line of “Labour” politicians who completely fail to understand that the modern SNP has more or less completely ditched the ideology of ethnic nationalism for a much more open and inclusive civic nationalism. However, it took decades for the SNP to achieve that, leading me to wonder: perhaps Murphy isn’t expecting his party to be electable for decades?!