Thursday 12 December 2019

British Labour now between the Thistle and the Thorn

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

I have no time for nationalism, at home or abroad. So I am glad Scotland said no. But I stayed silent on the issue until now because my voice would have been drowned out in the deafening Irish media consensus in favour of Scotland booting the Brits out.

Meantime, I reflected on the life and work of one of my own great political heroes, the late and much lamented John McGrath, founder of the famous socialist Scottish 7:84 theatre group, an author and activist who helped create the concept of civic nationalism. Or as I prefer to put it, Scottish patriotism.

George Orwell drew a hard distinction between nationalism and patriotism. "Patriotism is of its nature defensive . . . Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power."

RTE rooted for Alex Salmond and Scottish nationalism from the start. And for most of the campaign it was morning in Montrose. The result led to mourning in Montrose. But RTE was not alone.

Most of the Irish media lauded the notion of Scottish independence, turned sour when the Scots allegedly bottled it, and tried to settle for the consolation prize that Cameron was in trouble. And got all three issues wrong.

Media support for Salmond meant the Irish media turned a blind eye to bullying by the Yes camp. Intimidation was so bad that local broadcasters reported it was impossible to get No supporters to speak publicly. And the attempted bullying of Nick Robinson, political editor of the BBC, and Louise Richardson, the Irish principal of St Andrews University, proved the silent majority of No supporters were right to be wary.

When Robinson reported that Alec Salmond had dodged some hard questions a Yes mob assembled outside the BBC studios to demand his removal.

Salmond called it a "joyous" expression of popular feeling but it was just political bullying.

So was Salmond's demand that Richardson withdraw her remarks that Scottish independence would hit university research. I heard no howls of indignation from RTE, even though Richardson is Irish. And no sign that RTE recognised the reactionary nature of Scottish nationalism.

Let me give them a reality check about what the working class can expect from a society governed by the SNP.

In 2011, the SNP-controlled Council of West Lothian scrapped free milk. It was followed by two other SNP councils.

The SNP is also two-faced. It wants to keep the British Queen as the head of state.

Even more bizzarely, it wants to keep sterling as its currency although it would give the British Chancellor of Exchequer coercive clout over the Scottish economy.

This brings me to John McGrath, the socialist playwright who was wary of sentimental Scottish nationalism.

His pluralism is pointed up by the fact that he was not Scottish but Liverpudlian Catholic-Irish.

I first noticed McGrath's name on the credits of the BBC's Z Cars, the first really good cop show on British TV. But nothing prepared me for the brilliance of his Brechtian drama The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil which his 7:84 theatre group toured to the Abbey in 1974.

McGrath used sketches, songs and comedy to punch home his socialist message - Scotland's workers should carve out their own destiny but as part of the wider British working class. In doing so he drew on Harry Lauder as much as Lenin.

Today, the phrase 'political theatre' is enough to turn audiences away. But McGrath had no time for the notion that "to be creative in the theatre you must be a pain in the arse".

His ambitions for a popular as well as political theatre are caught by the title of his brilliant book on the subject, A Good Night Out.

Back in 1974, with the Provo armed struggle in full slaughter, progressive Irish socialists were captivated by McGrath's refusal to reduce Scottish history to what he called "the lament syndrome", and which I call the wirra wirra tradition.

Far from wallowing in sentimental nationalism, McGrath sent it up. The show began with the saccharine song 'These are my mountains'. But morphed into a bleak revelation that mountains did not belong to the Scots but in succession to the sheep, the lairds and the Scottish and British bourgeoisie.

The effect on Dublin was electrifying. The following year Jim Sheridan, John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy assembled a raft of writers, of which I was one, to write The Non-Stop Connolly Show in 1975.

Eamon Smullen and the Workers' Party set up a Workers' Cultural Centre, which toured with portable pop- up sets putting on street plays about unemployment and oil and gas.

McGrath's influence even reached into RTE. In 1976, to mark the American bi-centennial, John Kelleher and myself presented a Brechtian history of Ireland in song and sketches called The Greening of America. The politics of this Jacob's Award-winning production can be deduced from the final scene, where an American businessmen recalls partying in Kinsale. "We had great gas ( pause). Still got it."

Naturally, I wondered how McGrath might have voted. We know he agreed with the sentiments of his strong supporter Billy Connolly, who said: "I've always remembered that I have a lot more in common with a welder from Liverpool than I do with someone with an agricultural background from the Highlands."

McGrath himself told the Scottish National Party conference that nationalism was not enough. Like the early James Connolly, he reminded it that removing the British flag would not end native exploitation.

McGrath's play Little Red Hen, perhaps best sums up his politics. Set in the 1970s, Henrietta, a young militant, wants to join the nationalist struggle for independence. But her grandmother gives her a crash course on an alternative Scottish history.

"There's two Scotlands, hen . . . there's the Scotland that's you and me, that's been robbed and cheated and worked to the bone when it suits or thrown on the queue at the burroo when it dosnae suit - that's one Scotland; and there's a Scotland that owns factories like yours and sweat shops like I worked in, and grouse moors and mountains and islands and stocks and shares, and says what goes - and there's only one of them can be free at a time."

The Irish media reduced the complex class politics of the Scottish referendum to a crude nationalism.

The results show it read the mind of Scotland wrong.

And it's still reading the results wrong, judging by the cack-handed attempts to blame Cameron.

Far from making a mess of the campaign, Cameron has walked the Labour Party from the Scottish thistles into the thorns of the English rose. Ed Milliband is now caught between a waking English nationalism and sullen Scottish nationalism.

He forgot Orwell's warning that nationalism, whether Irish, Scottish or English, is a primitive force that sweeps progressive politics aside. Socialists should always oppose it, never appease it.

Sunday Independent

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