Riding The Unicorn


The mainstream left in Scotland stands petrified by the ghost of social democracy and its companion, the zombie-demon of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s symbolic role in the transformation of 20th century capitalism is essential to what we can call the ‘containment’ argument, which features prominently in both nationalist and ‘devolutionist’ ideology. According to this position, independence or some degree of autonomy is necessary to protect Scotland from the unholy trinity of free markets, ‘Victorian values’ and xenophobic jingoism that characterised Thatcherism. Thatcher’s main political legacy – New Labour – is a part of this narrative, and the Thatcher-Blair consensus is taken as proof that ‘Scottish values’ have no hope at Westminster.

The demonization of Thatcher is a literal one – she is perceived as a creature of quite astonishing malign power. Her importance in the global shift from the mixed capitalist economies of the USA-led Golden Age to the state-shrinking and multi-centric neoliberal era is not trivial, but we have effectively beatified the iron lady on behalf of the Tory party faithful (a Tory saint being equivalent, of course, to a leftist demon). The implication is that the descent into our current predicament was caused not by the contradictions of welfare capitalism , but by the miraculous will of one British prime minister, whose gains were consolidated by Blairite apostles.

This misdirection plays an essential and dangerous role in the liberal-left ideology of containment. If the manifest ideology of Thatcher and Thatcherism caused rampant inequality, corporate excess, pervasive commodification and so on, then the manifest ideology of Scottish social democracy can contain or even reverse the effects of global capitalism (effects to which the rest of Britain must apparently be abandoned). Such an attitude allows an escape from the truly horrifying realisation that our New Jerusalem of 1945 was an impossible dream: the vast growth of a capitalist consumer economy that demanded cheaply produced goods could not peacefully coexist with the rising wage demands of an empowered working class, so the trade unions and their members were duly cast aside.

Some argue that if we only flip that story on its head and replace our consumption habit with a low-growth and low-consumption (but still essentially capitalist) market economy, we could remake that utopia afresh. This is ignorant of two things: firstly, that capital requires its own expansion in order to function properly, demanding the constant creation of new markets and cheaper production; and secondly, that well-intentioned regimes which deny their citizens consumer goods rapidly lose legitimacy. The European Communist parties of ‘really-existing socialism’, for instance, suffered enormously from their inability to meet the demands of people hungry for the riches of modernity. People expect nice things, and to deny that in the name of an abstract ideology is politically unsustainable.

But can we not see the “spirit of ‘45” made real again with just one glance north? What of Scandinavia, which seems to hit all the right progressive notes on the environment, foreign policy, social and economic equality and beyond? The Scottish utopians’ latest production, the “Common Weal” project, is the most popular Nordic aspirational paper among the Scottish middle classes and many of the pro-independence left. These projects have a firm basis in anti-Thatcherite nostalgia, alongside a passionate fidelity to the Nordic model. Anti-Thatcherism and Nordicism cannot exist independently of each other in Scotland. The myth of Scots-Nordic social democracy, far from its vaunted image as the Brave New World of capitalism with a human face, is an anachronism, an agonising reminder of that abandoned future that expelled its last desperate breath for us in 1979.

The Common Weal’s idea of the Nordic model confronts us as the end (or containment) of history, an indefinite time-out from historical struggle and transformation, precisely because it exists in their rhetoric as if history has ended. It offers no significant analysis of the historical conditions for the emergence of their chosen utopia, nor does it place Nordic success within any kind of historical trajectory. If it were to do so, two things would immediately become clear:

1. The top-down imposition of a Nordic model of welfare capitalism in Scotland is as impossible as the time travel that would be necessary to produce it authentically. The sheer political will of thinkers like Robin McAlpine and Pat Kane will not suffice as a placeholder for the decades of class struggle that created Sweden’s Folkshemmet as a compromise between workers and capital, nor will a ‘Yes’ in 2014 approximate the conditions of relative prosperity in which that compromise was able to occur. There is no significant link between the development of the British and Nordic economies other than that which binds us more generally to western capitalism, which has spawned a range of different models.

2. The Nordic model, like every other model of capitalism ever, will not last, even in its parent countries. Our attempt at social democracy lasted as long as the Golden Age of British capitalism, which ended in the late 1960s to be replaced with terminal decline. The same trajectory, albeit delayed, applies to the Nordic states, whose increasingly globalized economies are already making significant concessions to neoliberalism. Sweden has been cutting taxes and benefits over the last seven years, with the right-wing rhetoric of “individual choice” being used to justify an increasingly market-centric agenda. In Denmark, corporation tax cuts are being funded by cuts in student grants and unemployment benefits. Norway looks set to go the same way, with the centre-right opposition on course to win elections later this year.

We should therefore question the very desirability of Nordicism itself: with our planet approaching a terrifying ecological crisis and capitalism mutating into new and more insidious forms, dare we rely on something which is eroding in front of our eyes? Far from Scandinavia’s quiet success becoming a model for the rest of the world, it is China’s aggressive, state-driven capitalism that looks most likely to dominate the next stages of global history.

There is in fact something distasteful about the Nordic model, even at its most attractive – a comfortable exclusivity in the face of upheaval, a model that profits from global capitalism but keeps a visible distance from the accompanying dirty work of imperialism, environmental degradation and exploitation of the poorest countries. This is the essence of nationalistic moral containment, a satisfying illusion of redemption for our volk from the horrors of the economic system that brings us riches. This pick and mix of the nicer parts of Nordic culture ignores recent evidence of social degeneration. What about the rage that burned over a hundred police cars and shocked neighbourhoods in Sweden this year?

If we peer through the smoke of these vague ideals, a more concrete but equally fantastic symbol from our own history emerges: the unicorn. Present on Scottish royal heraldry from the 12th century, the unicorn still features on our coat of arms as a Scottish companion for England’s lion (some nationalists will undoubtedly take masochistic pleasure in noting what appears to be a chain securing the unicorn to the British coat of arms, while the lion stands free). Is this beautifully impossible creature not an appropriate metaphor for the predominant ideology of the nationalist left? Positioning itself against Mike Russell’s infamous programme for an independent utopia of free markets, low taxes and low wages, the Common Weal and its supporters are pursuing an equally absurd fantasy – the Nordic ghost of ‘45, rendered transparent by our knowledge that it has died already, in front of our eyes… But in a moment of desperate escape from that grief, Scotland’s social democrats believe their lost love to have returned. The cheap joke of this paragraph is that the alternative to “Grasping The Thistle” must not be the ambitious but hollow “Riding The Unicorn”, embodied by the Common Weal. Overcoming that impotent binary requires the exorcism of a few ghosts and the slaying of a few demons, of which social democracy ought to be first and the überThatcher second.

It is not the mere combination of an ideology and an election – in this case, independence as the Nordic Thatcher – that will alter the direction of history, but a conjuncture of historical factors. Or, as Marx put it more eloquently:

Men make their own history, but they do not do it as they please. They do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

An analysis of Scottish, British and global historical conditions, including the development of capitalism and the struggle of economic classes, is necessary for any particular vision to be a realistic and effective alternative to the status quo, either within or outwith the union. The likelihood of this analysis producing a Nordic solution is akin to that of driving up the A9 and ending up in Stockholm.

Rory Scothorne
National Collective

Originally published on Mair Nor A Roch Wind.


About Rory Scothorne

Rory Scothorne is a co-founder and political editor of National Collective. He studies History and Politics at Edinburgh University, where he has developed a taste for hard work in the same way that a shark develops a taste for lettuce. Rory is also a perfectly adequate songwriter and musician, but ruins it all by trying to sing as well.