Review: The Case For Left-Wing Nationalism by Stephen Maxwell


Against this background of social division Scottish Nationalists should not be surprised if their talk of ‘the Scottish nation’ is often dismissed as sentimental rubbish. The Edinburgh advocate in his New Town Flat and the Glasgow bus driver in a Red Road high rise may share a sentimental attachment to Scotland on the football field or athletics track and feel a similar irritation when ‘England’ is used for ‘Britain’ by TV newsreaders. But in their everyday concerns – their jobs, their incomes, their hopes for their children, their anxieties about retirement, the quality of their housing, their health – they might as well live in different countries. When Nationalists talk of Scotland the nation they must expect the questions: whose nation, what kind of Scotland?”

Stephen Maxwell, ‘The Case For Left-Wing Nationalism’, 1981

1979 was a bruising year for the Scottish national movement. The double-blow of the defeat of plans for a Scottish Assembly and the election of Margaret Thatcher, as well as the collapse of the SNP’s Westminster contingent, ended a decade of growth on a note of despair.

It was this context in which a group of young radicals within the SNP established the 79 Group, a left-wing and republican faction which argued against romantic nationalism and in favour of a political platform focused on the interests of the Scottish working-class. And so began a brief period of party infighting, which lasted until the 79 Group – including one Alex Salmond – were expelled in 1981.

Alongside Salmond and other prominent names such as Kenny MacAskill, Margo McDonald, Jim Sillars and Roseanna Cunningham was one Stephen Maxwell, an academic and party staffer who had managed the SNP referendum campaign in favour of a Scottish Assembly. Maxwell was a prominent and eloquent voice within the 79 Group, and his pamphlet The Case For Left-Wing Nationalism stands as a defining document in outlining the Group’s arguments.

That pamphlet forms part of this book which borrows its name, alongside Maxwell’s collected writings, which span from 1976 to 2011. This is the second book of Maxwell’s writing published recently, with Arguing for Independence published shortly after his death last year, and both books share the rational, self-critical and patient approach that characterised Maxwell as a writer.

Where the books differ, though, is that Arguing for Independence was written with the intention of persuading undecided voters, and is therefore by it’s nature accessible to a wide audience. The Case For Left-Wing Nationalism draws much of its contents from the pages of radical journals in the 80s, as well as some contributions to academic books and a speech given to SNP Conference. The nature of such a collection is that it is more likely to be of interest to those who would already broadly describe themselves as ‘left-wing nationalists’ rather than to the curious undecided, to which Arguing for Independence would be more suitable.

Throughout the book, Maxwell is unfaltering in his critical outlook, preferring to cut down lazy thinking than to embrace the dogmatic thinking of political allies. From the outset, Maxwell’s central frustration is with the unchallenged myths of Scotland as an inherently egalitarian, democratic society which allowed and encouraged the SNP’s traditional desire to cast aside ideological labels or class-based politics. Maxwell said of the SNPs social-democratic positioning in the 1970s that “[social democracy] carries a public relations gloss of moderation and even of conservatism which is convenient to a party proposing a major constitutional upheaval. It also sounds Scandinavian and SNP opinion is agreed on the merit of things Scandinavian. “Yet the social democratic label was not enough. “Certainly none of those within the SNP who have declared themselves social democrats have yet offered a systematic account of what they understand by the phrase.”

It was this perceived lack of ideological substance that encouraged the 79 Group to demand a more radical policy platform as well as a militant industrial strategy. The Group’s rationale was that support for devolution was highest amongst the working-class and, alongside a considerable crossover in support for Labour and the SNP, this pointed towards the potential base of support for nationalism. In order to achieve a Scottish electoral majority, the key constituency of the West of Scotland working class had to be won over – and that this could be done by presenting the SNP as the left-wing alternative to Labour.

Time has proven much of this analysis right. Devolution was won at the second chance with highest support amongst working-class voters, and it is working-class voters that remain most in favour of independence. The SNP’s parliamentary majority – and the referendum – depended on the SNP making inroads into traditional Labour territory, and this was largely the result of the SNP pitching itself to the left of Labour.

Much of Maxwell’s frustration – even during the 79 Group era – seems not to be with social democracy but with the failure of the national movement to articulate a policy platform that went beyond platitudes. By his later years, Maxwell had adopted the language of Nordicism, arguing in a lecture entitled ‘British Inequality and the Nordic Alternative’ that:

there is an alternative to the Anglo-American model of free-market capitalism available to us. The record of the Nordic welfare democracies – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark – in combining consistent economic growth with high levels of welfare and low levels of inequality and poverty is simply unmatched in the world.”

It is an approach that broadly fits in with the current trajectory of the independence campaign, with both the SNP and the Greens endorsing the Common Weal model and the Scottish Government committing to improving wages and reversing the attacks on the welfare state post-independence. It is here when nationalism is at it’s strongest – when we, as Maxwell demanded, disregard romantic nationalism and instead deal with peoples lives, their work, and their services. The result of the referendum may yet depend on answering Maxwell’s question from 1981: whose nation, what kind of Scotland?

Dan Paris
National Collective