frontline 19.

Rally Round the Flag?

Andrew Rossetter continues our look at Gordon Brown’s announcement with his own views on class and national identity.

I don’t really know where to start with Gordon Brown’s half-baked plan to celebrate “Britishness”.

For a start what does Brown mean by “Britishness”? Does such a thing even exist? When John Major (who was one of the first public figures to declare themselves in support of a British day) described his vision of “Britishness” in the run up to the 1992 general election he conjured up his ideal of “cycling home from evensong, sipping warm beer on the village green while watching cricket.” Brown himself in the speech to the Fabian Society last month described British patriotism as “encompassing progressive ideas of liberty, fairness and responsibility”.

Therefore we can see from the outset that the whole notion of “celebrating Britishness” is wrapped up in confusion. It is obvious that John Major’s picture of village life will have little or no relevance to the vast majority of people in these islands, and reflects just how alienated from the reality of life for ordinary people throughout Britain he was. What relevance does sipping warm beer on the village lawn have to a single mum on a council estate in Manchester? Who knows what evensong is anyway?

At the time Major made the statement The SNP attacked it for confusing English identity with British identity. But what the SNP didn’t understand is that what John Major was describing was not English identity. He was describing the experience of life for a narrow section of the population in the English countryside.

Gordon Brown on the other hand attributes values such as liberty, fairness and responsibility as exclusively British values, which is patent nonsense. Do the Dutch not support liberty? Are Ethiopians ignorant of fairness? Do Bulgarians not understand responsibility? And in any case it could be argued that sexism, racism, homophobia (The biggest selling newspaper in Britain The Sun reported the news of Elton John’s partnership ceremony with David Furnish with the headline “Elton takes David up the aisle” - hilarious) are British values too.

The truth is that there are as many different British identities as there are people in Britain. The rather predictable and depressing response from the nationalists in both Wales and Scotland to Gordon Brown’s proposals is to throw their hands up in horror at the idea of celebrating Britishness. They counter that instead we should celebrate Scotishness and Welshness. Alex Salmond responded by reiterating his plan to establish a winter festival celebrating Scottish culture stretching from St Andrews day in November through to Burns night in January. Labour MP Michael Willis who has been working on the idea with Brown, told Radio 4’s today programme that the chancellor wanted there be a day to “focus on the things that bring us together, whatever our backgrounds” He went on to say that “The French have it with Bastille Day, The Americans have it, most countries actually have a national day and I think its probably time we do too.”

In January of last year Gordon Brown used a visit to Tanzania to call for a “return to patriotism”. In an interview with that well-known bastion of tolerance and common sense The Daily Mail, Brown said “ I’ve talked to many people on my visit to Africa and the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should move forward.” He goes on “we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it”

“Our strong traditions of fair play, of openness, of internationalism, these are great British values.”

The irony in all this was that the interview was conducted in Dar es Salaam, which was for many years a base for the ANC in its struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and was a haven for activists against white colonialists. What Brown and his allies seem to have overlooked is that many of the national days celebrated throughout the world are themselves celebrations of liberty from oppression, colonialism and independence from foreign domination. And for many countries the national day is a celebration of the ending of British rule.

The list includes Australia (Jan 1st), The Bahamas (July 10th), Barbados (November 30th), Botswana (30th September), Canada (July 1st), Cyprus (October 1st), The Gambia (February 18th), Ghana (March 6th), Guyana (February 23rd), India (January 26th), Kenya (December 12th), Malaysia (August 31st), Myanmar (November 24th), Nigeria (October 1st), Seychelles (June 18th). The degree of separation from Britain differs in these states, some still have the Queen as head of state, but they can all still celebrate independence.

Brown also talks longingly of America where “having the US flag hanging in your garden is commonplace”. This is just the kind of jingoistic nonsense that should be about as welcome as a dose of bird flu.

While many in the SSP may have a lot of sympathy with the idea of responding to the debate about “Britishness” with assertions of “Scottishness” it would be mistake to go down that road. There are very real reasons for the strength of Scottish identity and culture and for the support for Scottish nationalism in its various forms. That nationalism ranges from the ninety-minute variety that you can see in the stands of Hampden and Murrayfield, to those Scots who form the base of the independence movement.

It is however no mistake that support for independence is higher amongst those at the bottom of the economic ladder, those who suffer the worst poverty in Scotland. Independence is seen as a radical solution for the problems of deprivation and inequality. That feeling emerges from years of ‘democratic deficit’ under Thatcherism. It stems from the destruction of industrial communities and the imposition of the poll tax. All things which also affected the working class in England, but which in Scotland were sharpened by the national question.

In arguing for an independent socialist Scotland, the SSP has used the transitional method to reach these layers. We have not restricted ourselves to ‘bread and butter’ issues but have taken up democratic questions too, using such methods as the Calton Hill declaration and the Independence Convention.

However the SSP’s approach has never been about ‘national unity’ across classes. We recognise that Scottish society is as divided by class as every other capitalist nation. The shocking inequality still prevalent in Scotland illustrates this fact with grave clarity. There is a yawning chasm between those Scots who live in poverty and those with wealth. On average you could live 30 years less if you are in the poorest postcode area in Scotland compared to the richest.

We are as critical of the business friendly policies of the SNP as those of New Labour. In fact the SNP have only sought to emulate the economic policies of Tony Blair’s party.

We counter pose their ‘celtic tiger’ free market dream with a vision of a Scotland that is not only an independent sovereign state, but which is independent from the rule of the multinationals and which stands against the tide of neo-liberal globalisation and war.

Some will point to November the 30th as a day when we should celebrate but personally the only relevance that day has for me is as the anniversary of John MacLean’s death. Marxists aspire to a planet where national divisions are forgotten, where borders and passports are historical curiosities and where working people are united in their opposition to oppression and exploitation whatever flag it happens under.

Scottish working people already have a day to celebrate anyway and its the same day working people on every continent celebrate every year, the 1st of May. Our response to Gordon Brown should be to encourage Scottish workers to join with their sisters and brothers across the globe and celebrate Mayday, to raise high the banner of class consciousness and internationalism and to fight for genuine independence.