Scotland: almost afraid to know itself?

Issue: 109

Neil Davidson

bq. A review of Gregor Gall, The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? (University of Wales Press, 2005), £19.99

Macduff: Stands Scotland where it did?
Ross: Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself!
(Macbeth, act 4, scene 3)

Does Gregor Gall’s new book help Scotland to ‘know itself ’? The Political Economy of Scotland is not a political economy of Scotland—the focus is too narrow for that. (In the
acknowledgements, Gall still refers to the book by its cur rent subtitle of Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? which suggests late interference by the publisher.) Nevertheless, it should be cr itically
welcomed, if only because it subjects the claims about Scottish radicalism to sustained quantitative scrutiny for what may well be the first time.

Gall takes levels of trade union membership, activity, recognition and collective bargaining over the last 30 years (ie roughly since the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of 1971-72) as the main measures by which radicalism can be assessed. He establishes that, if we compare Scotland to the other 11 administrative regions of the UK, it has generally been in the top quartile by these criteria, but that ‘workers in Scotland are not any more radical than the most radical or militant workers in the rest of
Britain—these being found in Wales and the northern regions of England’ (pp65-66). At one point Gall suggests that one reason there is more union activity in Scotland is because Scotland has more of the industries where unions are likely to be active—an unspectacular but sound conclusion supported by a ser ies of
detailed statistical tables which are among the most valuable features of the book.

In a preface Tommy Sheridan criticises Gall for treating what he calls ‘our nationstate’ as a mere region of the UK. Gall does no such thing. He simply points out that, given the differences in population, geography and economic structure between Scotland and England, it is legitimate to compare Scotland to particular regions of England. This has nothing whatever to do with Scotland’s status as a nation, which is surely not in doubt. But it does lead us to ask what we are taking to be meant by ‘Scotland’. If data for, say, Perthshire or Inverness, were made to stand for the whole of the country, the figures would look less impressive: ‘When talking about Scotland we are really talking of the Central Belt and, in particular, Strathclyde’ (p40).

Gall, glumly, but probably accurately, predicts that his work will nevertheless be received with ‘shadow boxing and inaccurate representation’ (pxvii), citing this reviewer’s experience in 2003 as a precedent. It is therefore important to state that his attempt to quantify what is known about Scottish trade unionism gives his
book a scientific rigour which is all too often missing in discussions of this subject.

But there is a problem with simply treating trade unions as a measure of radicalism. Unions will be crucial to the future of
socialism, but only a minority of workers currently belong to unions and they may not necessarily be the most radical sections
of the working class. Strikes can be passive, leaderships bureaucratic, collective bargaining compromised. There is, in
other words, a limit to what can be understood from studying statistical tables.

The data also needs to be contextualised, and this is not done simply by adding the results of opinion polls. We need a method—the term ‘dialectical’ is inescapable here—capable of capturing the
social dynamics at work and for this purpose the static models of empirical social science (Industrial Relations Branch) are simply inadequate. Broadening out the range of evidence might include the fact that racist attacks were, until the London bombings in July, higher in Scotland than England and this points to a less palatable aspect of Scottish identity which should not be avoided.

The main problem, however, lies in the latter part of the book. The discussion of trade unions is essentially a preparatory stage for Gall’s central argument. Having dispensed with the more obviously exaggerated claims about Scottish radicalism, Gall attempts to establish its existence on a firmer footing. He claims
that a broadly social democratic set of values has become bound up with the Scottish national identity, a process which he—correctly, in my view—sees as taking place through the Thatcher/Major years, when resistance to Tory governments
took on a quasi-national character.

Gall sees Scotland as a special example of what he calls a ‘community of collectivism’ where there is a ‘fusion of national identity and consciousness with…oppositionalism’ (p177). National
identity is a more powerful basis for this than the regional identity prevailing in areas which otherwise had similar political responses to Thatcherism:

‘With a weaker form of identity… supported by less well-defined public institutions distinct to these regions, the associations with radicalism for these populaces within their geographical confines are often not so sharp or deepseated’ (p121).

Leaving aside the methodology (sources are almost all derived from opinion polls) and taking the conclusions at face value, I
think there are three main problems with this analysis.

First, Gregor regards the strength of Scottish national identity as an advantage people in, say, Yorkshire do not possess. But the opposite is true. One of the greatest problems which faces the left in Scotland is precisely the way in which virtually every issue is viewed through the distorting lens of the ‘national question’, even when that has nothing to do with it.

Second, Gall does not attempt to define what he means by nation, national identity or any of the related terms. ‘What we are discussing is not Scottish national identity per se, but obviously a certain manifestation or type of Scottish national identity which is of a progressive, radical and social democratic bent, for the other
form of national identity in Scotland is conservative and reactionary’ (p178).

But national identity is not a container which can be filled with a range of ideological contents. National identity can be more or less radical or conservative, but is always confined by the existence of actual or potential capitalist nation-states, which means that there are limits to how radical it can be. It is not compatible with revolutionary socialism, for example. (Indeed Gall points out that Scottish national identity is essentially a form of ‘radical populism’ (p156).)

At one point he writes that ‘the strength of Scottish national identity is such that it can never be entirely disassociated so that
it is believed by many (workers and nonworkers) that workers in Scotland (or At one point he writes that ‘the strength of Scottish national identity is such that it can never be entirely disassociated so that it is believed by many (workers and nonworkers) that workers in Scotland (or

We gather from this passage that Gall does not regard the possession of a readable prose style as obligatory for a writer, but I can assure readers that I have accurately reproduced the words as they appear in the book. What I think this incredibly
convoluted sentence means is: ‘People in Scotland may not actually be more radical than anywhere else, but they believe that
they are, and this may influence their behaviour.’ Well, maybe—but I think that it is just as likely that a genuine social crisis would shatter these cosy assumptions. A major conflict over public sector pensions, for example, would test the much-vaunted
‘radicalism’ of the Scottish middle class to destruction. It is more credible to see the radicalism of Scottish national identity as an alternative to or substitute for genuine socialist internationalism, born of a period of defeat from which we are only just emerging.

Third, Gregor’s fixation with the trade union movement to the exclusion of all else blinds him to the fact that we are now moving into a different period. Many of the hundreds of thousands who marched against the Iraq war or to Make Poverty History in recent years were in trade unions, but many were not (although they would join if they had the chance, or they were asked)—surely their views also need to be taken into account? But these are outside the industrial relations frame of reference Gall imprisons himself in here. Nor are they compatible with a purely
national narrative—displaying as they did the welcome beginnings of an international consciousness.

In conclusion, this is a deeply frustrating book. At various points Gall himself raises virtually all the problems that I have done
here, but never pursues them or integrates them into his account. His refusal to follow through the more sceptical aspects of his analysis will win him no friends on the hard or even soft nationalist wings of the SSP, who do not want a politics of ambiguity. The book stops, rather than concludes, without any clue as to what he thinks socialists should actually do in relation to the identity he describes. Should socialists in Scotland frame their arguments in terms of a supposed radical national identity or not? The answer to this question is one of the most important
facing the Scottish left today. In so far as this book begins to tackle the issue, it is to be welcomed. In so far as it avoids the
question, it represents a missed opportunity.