My Dad – And The Case For Leftwing Nationalism | Sunday Mail | November 2013

The language of class has been pretty thoroughly scrubbed from Scotland’s political vocabulary.

Party leaders no longer talk about “working class interests.” They talk about “hard-pressed families” or – worse still – “the squeezed middle.”

Class politics – and its accompanying rhetoric – became unfashionable in the 1980s as the power of organised labour gave way to Thatcher’s “shareholding democracy.”

Yet class remains central to Scottish society. All the research suggests an individual’s life chances are largely determined by the circumstances of his or her birth.

You wouldn’t know it from listening to Yes Scotland and Better Together but class could play a decisive role in the independence referendum, too.

In 1981, my late dad, Stephen Maxwell, wrote an essay called The Case for Leftwing Nationalism. He was a senior member of the SNP at the time, having run the party’s press office between 1973 and 1978 and directed their campaign for a Scottish assembly in 1979.

His argument in Leftwing Nationalism was simple: in order to build a majority for independence, the SNP needed to “disregard romantic conceptions of nationhood” and make an “unsentimental appeal to the social and economic interests of the Scottish people.”

Specifically, he believed that the SNP should develop policies attractive to those Scots most affected by Britain’s post-war decline – the industrial working class.

He was confident of Scottish workers’ radical constitutional instincts. In the ’79 assembly referendum, lower income voters overwhelmingly supported devolution, while higher income voters opposed it.

After he died last year, a few months shy of his seventieth birthday, I re-read Leftwing Nationalism – and was immediately struck by its continuing relevance.

The class dynamics my dad described three decades ago are still at work today. Polls show enthusiasm for independence is twice as strong in working class areas as it is in wealthy areas.

If the Yes campaign present a vision of independence based on social justice, with less inequality and greater economic security for ordinary Scots, they stand every chance of winning next year’s referendum.

But political strategy alone was not what motivated my dad.

When he returned to Scotland in 1970, having completed degrees at Cambridge and the London School of Economics, he launched himself into the independence debate.

As well as working for the SNP, he began writing prolifically for progressive journals such as Scotland International, Question and, latterly, Radical Scotland.

Although his articles covered a wide range of subjects, certain themes kept resurfacing – the limits of British social democracy; the provincialism of the Scottish establishment; Scotland’s persistently high levels of poverty and unemployment.

As part of a group of leftwing writers that included Marxist intellectual Tom Nairn, journalist Neal Ascherson and Irish historian Owen Dudley Edwards, he helped bring a new, more radical identity to Scottish nationalism.

In the mid-1980s he left frontline politics for the voluntary sector but his preoccupations remained the same. “Any truly compelling case for independence must include an explanation of how it will improve the prospects of the poorest fifth of Scots,” he said in a speech to the 2007 SNP conference.

I often wonder what he would make of the current referendum debate. He certainly wouldn’t be surprised by the hostility of Scottish professionals to independence.

“They have been shamefully feeble,” he told The Herald in 1989. “The legals, the medicals and other middle class groups have had a decent life, but they have betrayed those Scots who have felt the rough edge of social change for most of this century.”

His frustration with the Scottish middle classes stemmed from their failure to seize the political initiative in the 1970s, when the discovery of North Sea oil could have transformed Scotland’s economy. Instead, as he saw it, they opted for the status quo – and ultimately abandoned Scotland to Thatcherism.

I admired my dad and, naturally, I miss him. He was a warm, engaging and immensely generous presence in my life.

This summer I edited a collection of his essays built around The Case for Leftwing Nationalism. The first piece was published in early 1976, the last in late 2011. The closer the referendum gets, the more urgent his arguments become.

He concluded Leftwing Nationalism with a call for the SNP to establish themselves “as the radical alternative to Labour” and for independence campaigners to “look to Scotland’s future, not her past.”

They should take his advice.

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