Scotland’s lost socialists


This is a story of three artists, all leaders in their fields: an actor, a musician and an author. They are known, not just for their world-leading skills, but for their authenticity. These working-class men have developed and promoted their talents to the top of their fields and have gained as much respect from the quality of their work as from their uncompromising attitude to their craft. No-one can say that their work, and attitude to it, is not authentic.

These men are: the Emmy-winning actor Brian Cox, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, and Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting. I deeply respect each of these men as artists: Trainspotting is one of my favourite films: we quote it all the time in our house. Primal Scream’s ‘We wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time’ was part of our 90s soundtrack, and it seems like Brian Cox seems to star in every second film we watch, as well as killing it in Succession (not secession).

Yet, when it comes to politics, these men, and many as famous and not as famous as them, have allowed themselves to flirt with, and be seduced by, that most inauthentic of creeds; the cult of Nationalism. They claim to be socialists, but support, in various degrees, the crude us-and-them politics of that selfish ideology.

How did they abandon their socialist principles? Perhaps Nationalism seemed a reasonable path to take at the time, considering the alternatives. But now, years in, and far from home, it seems they are lost.

Cox is currently promoting his autobiography. Putting The Rabbit In The Hat as well as the third season of Succession, the critically-acclaimed, satirical TV show centered around Logan Roy, a Scots-born media mogul, played by Cox, and his wayward children; think Rupert Murdoch as King Lear. Cox fills Roy with the kind of world-weary growls, self-pity, aggression and bitterness that perhaps only a Scot could bring to the role, as he clings to the threads of his empire, while his children work to usurp him. Memes of Roy telling us all to ‘Fuck off’ are all across the internet. 

Talking to Mark Kermode in The Guardian, this past Sunday, it’s clear that Cox thinks deeply about the roles he plays. If only he thought so deeply about his politics. The actor used to be a socialist, providing voice overs for Labour party broadcasts, but he was dismayed, as many were, by Blair’s support for the Iraq War:

“Oh boy,” he says, as if shouldering the weight of the world. “You know, I was a big Labour man for such a long time. Then the whole ‘weapons of mass destruction’ thing happened…The hubris of Blair just made me go: ‘Who does this man think he is?’ And I helped him, because I did ‘the Voice of Labour’. I was really excited. I thought: ‘This is the beginning of something.’ But we were never quite able to do it…” The thought trails off, and he looks at me with a weary shrug.

He continues…

“You know, as a kid I always thought: ‘Who am I? Who am I supposed to be? Where do I fit in? How do I do my job?’ I’d always been a bit… [he waves his hand in a gesture of uncertainty] like that about Scottish nationalism. And I don’t like the word ‘nationalism’ – I hate that word.”

Kermode immediately homes in:

“But Brian, the party you support is literally called the Scottish National party.”

“I know, I know,” he says, with a mixture of frustration and amusement. 

Why does Cox claim to not like ‘Nationalism’, but actively supports that ugly ideology here in Scotland? Could it be that he knows that Nationalism is bad, but has somehow convinced himself that it suits his socialist principles? 

Nature abhors a vacuum. As Scots turned away from Blair’s war, up popped Salmond and the SNP claiming they were the real progressives, the true anti-Tory vote, while cannily masking their core anti-English bigotry and selfishness (and the fact that they can never form a UK government). It worked: The SNP stole Labour’s votes by pretending to be socialists, and sent Scotland on the path of national division and grievance.

Cox justifies his support by claiming that the SNP will magically give up power in an independent Scotland…

“Because there’ll be other parties, and the paradigm will have to shift when we become an independent country.” 

More on this below, but for now, it’s a fallacy to think that the SNP will give up power after Separation: their voters don’t want to, and their politicians want to keep that lovely gravy train going. Why wouldn’t they? If they achieve independence, after being voted in despite all their sleaze, corruption and mismanagement, does anyone really think they’d give it up so that someone more competent would be in charge? Not a chance. I explore this magical thinking in detail in Vote Indy, Get Tory.

Cox goes on to say that Nicola Sturgeon has done an ‘astonishing’ job. Despite living in the United States, I think it’s fair of him to have an opinion on Scottish independence, but perhaps if he lived here in Scotland and saw our services spiralling the drain he’d have a different opinion on Scottish governance.

What’s astonishing is that Sturgeon has got away with ALL OF THE ABOVE. When people like Cox excuse a charismatic leader’s many failings for the good of the nation, then we are living in troubled political territory. The question is: why doesn’t he see it?

On the same day, also in The Guardian, Irvine Welsh interviewed Bobby Gillepsie about Gillespie’s new memoir, Tenement Kid. Inevitably, the conversation turns to Scottish politics, and Welsh gives his view on why he wants to break up the UK…

The media fanned the spark that had been there for years. Brexit became a kind of civil war of elites that everybody else was dragged into… I’m not as much for Scottish independence as I am against imperialist nation-states. I think it’s better to be governed by non-hierarchical nation-states that aren’t based on imperialist precepts and entrenched beliefs. I’m for Scottish independence as a mechanism for breaking up the UK, and I’m for English independence and Welsh independence. The real fear of elites in England is that, if Scotland is independent, at a stroke, there’s no royal family, no House of Lords, no Eton. And people in England are going to say – we’ll have some of that.

Welsh builds his separatist dream on cherry-picked issues. To him, the UK is the House of Lords, Eton and The Royal Family, not the people of Liverpool, Harrogate and Brimingham. He wants to ‘break up the UK’ to destroy elites, while ignoring the common bonds between ordinary people, all of whom will be diminished, financially, culturally and socially, by the country’s break up. 

I don’t think Welsh actually believes that England will say ‘we’ll have some of that’ at all. Like all Nationalists he wants to make his part of the world better and leave everyone else to fend for themselves. Instead of doing the hard work to try to reform the House of Lords, he wants a short cut, so that his part of the country can get a better deal. In other words, like all Nationalists, he’s lazy and selfish.

He also doesn’t seem to care that Scottish Nationalism has created an authoritarian, centralised, unanswerable and corrupt new Scottish Nationalist elite. But it’s oor elite! It’s oor one-party state!

Gillespie, though, being the son of a Labour man, knows implicitly what Welsh’s Nationalism means, but cannot allow himself to reject it…

I remember reading you at the time of the vote in 2014, and thinking, that’s interesting. This idea that, if Scotland gets independence and becomes a more social democratic, left, liberal country, maybe people in England will finally wake up. I totally understand that point of view, but I find it very hard. I’m only nationalist when it comes to football. My dad’s influence was to be internationalist.

That’s right Bobby, socialism is internationalist NOT nationalist. Yet, earlier this year, In an interview in The Daily Record, and when the polls were in Nationalists’ favour, Gillespie said that ‘Independence is inevitable’

Scottish independence is coming. We support it…[We] Would love to see a real plan for the future. A radical plan. Way to the left of the SNP. But remember, the E.U. is a neo-liberal construct. It won’t be easy. Ask the Greeks.

In a follow-up message, he tried to distance himself from Nationalism: 

Just to be clear. I am not a nationalist. I come from an international socialist / class politics background. However, I do think that Scottish independence is inevitable. That doesn’t make me a nationalist.

There it is again. I’m not a nationalist. 

Aside from the fact that there is currently no path, no plan and no popular will for a second referendum, much less ‘independence’, one has to wonder: what party is the vehicle for the ‘inevitable’ independence of which he speaks? Not the Tories of course, but it’s also not Labour, who are re-committing themselves to the people of the entire UK. The only viable vehicle for independence is the SNP, a Nationalist party, so does Gillespie support them? If so, he supports Nationalism. But, as he is at pains to tell us, he’s not a Nationalist.

It appears Gillespie is trying to have his cake and eat it. Gillespie knows that Nationalism is bad, but still feels he has to pay lip service to it. I feel for him. It’s hard to be a Scottish creative giant (and I’ll include Sharleen, Martin and Andrew as just a few others here) and say you don’t support an ‘independent’ Scotland. Whatever will the fans think? But isn’t Gillespie supposed to be a rebel? Isn’t that where his authenticity springs from? 

Can we have some clarity, please? Despite Cox’s magical thinking, you cannot get to socialism through Nationalism. When you vote for Nationalists you don’t get more socialism, you get more Nationalism. This is just plain logic. 

You can’t be a socialist and claim to want equality while supporting the selfish us-and-them politics of Nationalism. They are incompatible. This is also plain logic.

Nationalist politicians draw an imaginary border and say that workers in Scotland deserve more than workers in the rest of the UK. Then they push grievance and bigotry, claiming they’re against ‘Westminster’, but it’s just as much against Newcastle, Manchester and Bristol. This is utterly against socialism.

How difficult is it for Gillespie to say: ‘While the idea of Scottish ‘independence’ sounds appealing, the only vehicle for it is Nationalism, which we all know is abhorrent, and has always been abhorrent through history, even when you dress it up in Sturgeon’s smart suits. As a socialist, I reject the us-and-them politics of any kind of nationalism.’? And then some bonus points for talking about the mess Nationalists have made of Scotland.

How hard is it for Cox to say the same. And Welsh? And all the rest of those who try to convince us that their Nationalism is ‘progressive’ and decent? It’s well past time that lapsed socialists stopped getting their rocks off on, and actively supporting, the fake socialism of Nationalism. It’s not benign, it’s a cancer.

If artists are going to speak out about politics, their audience deserves the same authenticity and rigour that they apply to their work. Their attitude to their work shows that these artists are better than this.

It’s time they, and the many others who have taken the same route, realise they are on a false path. They must reject the ugly Nationalism that has fooled them for too long, show leadership, and get back to working for an authentic socialism that benefits the many, not the few.

Mark Devlin is the publisher of The Majority

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Written by Mark Devlin

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