Overdue time for Change: Scottish Trade Unions and National Identity Politics…

I’ve started this sentence six times now –

So far, so good…

Or bad. Here goes.

I spent most of the last week at the annual gathering of Scottish Trade Unions.

Most of which are, in fact, the Scottish Regional Branches of UK Trade Unions.

This structural reality has, for many years, simply been treated as an irrelevant organisational fact. Something that admin and constitutional anoraks and pedants might bother themselves with.

Devolution didn’t dawn on the unions until well after the event. And now, national identity politics are a seriously vexed and thorny issue for trade unions operating in Scotland. Take from one who knows… it’s just not pukka to draw any attention at all to the inherent Unionist structures of the vast majority of TUs with a presence in Scotland.

Many have done their (belated) best to adapt to devolution and the devolved administrations and power has been (mostly, patchily) devolved to the Regional Branches (of which Scotland is just one within the UK). But the majority (certainly the largest – with the exception perhaps, of the PCS) are affiliated to a Unionist party (Labour). And anyway, they all view Scottish nationalism (to be fair, I know the claim would be that this would be true of any nationalism – except British…) as inimicable to the default and professed socialist internationalism of the wider Labour movement.

It never fails to bemuse me – and I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before – this invisibility of Britishness. That – and the fact that the majority of my vocal trade union colleagues seem entirely and totally unaware of the contradiction lying at the heart of many of their positions vis-a-vis ‘the evils of nationalism’: they are fine with ‘being British’ and entirely comfortable defending a British national identity and defending (this is the greatest irony for me) the power structures that accompany that identity – but that they hate, with a deep and dark fury, Scottish nationalism, seeking to libel any Scottish nationalist as an English-hating Nazi – and the antithesis of progressive liberal democracy and/or socialist internationalism.

So. According to this tortured logic, British nationalism can be internationalist. But Scottish can’t.

Only Scottish nationalists are stupid and parochial and xenophobic – penny-pinching, kilt-wearing English-hating alcoholics – living and breathing national stereotypes. But British nationalists aren’t.

British trade unionists can act in solidarity with sister trade unions around the world. But Scottish trade unionists can’t. Or they can’t, not if they support Scottish independence – if their Scottishness includes a vision of Scotland as an autonomous country, governing itself.

The fact that trade unionists who also happen to be Scottish currently find very effective ways to express their solidarity and provide support to our brothers and sisters worldwide – well, that’s just ignored.

And the fact that Britishness doesn’t appear to present any barrier to expressions of solidarity – well, that’s just ignored too.


I’m tired of the lazy – and ugly – name-calling. I am tired of the failure of the Labour movement to take a long hard look at the Scottish situation. And I fear (because this is roughly where my own politics lie – though I’d be more Kropotkin anarchist…) that the movement’s failure to account for and to consider and take seriously, the views of the thousands of Scottish trade union members who are also Scottish Independence supporters (if not SNP supporters and members) will simply lead to even further marginalisation of ‘the left’.

No, the SNP are not ‘socialist’. They are Scottish managerial class politicians. Inheritors of a Blairite ‘third way’ (that they’d never acknowledge as Blairite!). But they have successfully cornered the market in credible representation of the hopes and aspirations of a majority of the Scottish electorate – and will likely occupy that position for at least as long as the Tories and Labour remain toxic to Scots (another generation?). And with the pending destruction of Labour on the 8th June it is surely essential that trade unionists in Scotland look a long hard look at their current positions re Independence.

Part of that requires their open recognition of the silent nationalism that has informed them until now – it requires them to bring (from out of that darkness that’s been born of a stubborn refusal to challenge a whole long worldview) the background nationalism that has underpinned their own internal structures since their inception.

And change is hard. It is painful. I understand that this process will not be easy. But this change is necessary.

It is necessary that there is a recognition of the contradictory nature of many of the arguments presented by pro-unionists – and it is contradictory to assert that nationalism is an evil when it calls itself ‘Scottish’ – but somehow it is benign; it is the natural order of national identity when it calls itself ‘British’.

‘British’ simply is not the simple inviolable and constant god-given fact of how and what we are (those of us who qualify as British, that is). And it is time to question its status as the ‘given’ – as the accepted and natural way things ‘just are’ and ‘always ought to be’.

As an Independence proponent I’m regularly excoriated for what pro-British pro-Union politicians refer to as my nationalists’ divisive, grievance politics. I am cheaply trolled as a ‘Nazi’. I am castigated as a single-issue, Independence-obsessed, cult member. And my assertion of a Scottish identity is felt as a repugnant, viscerally repulsive, subversive and reactionary act – an act that seeks to undermine the British State and/or ‘all that is held dear’ (I am struggling here folks – we have Brexit and May and vicious austerity and food banks – what is ‘dear’ about that?) and/or ‘dreams of international socialism’ (eh? you’ve been dreaming British dreams of that for a very very long time…spare me the ‘one more class push’ arguments).

In a week when a disabled man’s welfare benefits were withdrawn and he was told (by the fucking Government agency responsible for the fucking mistake) to go to a food bank FFS; when May hides in a hut in a Scottish forest speaking to an audience of enforced reluctants and some party faithfuls, avoiding all possibility of scrutiny and challenge; when she tells a BBC journo that there are ‘many complex reasons’ why nurses (who are in work!) are using food banks and fucking gets away with that despicable and callous and disingenuous response (try fucking POVERTY you fucking sack of shit); when my son attends a home care client who has been sitting in his own shit for hours and whose food cupboards are fucking bare (this has worried me for the longest time and I am proud of the job that my young son has done – and will continue to do because his heart is the largest kindest and most compassionate I have ever had the privilege to know) – ohhhhhh… what the fuck has this country come to.

It is time for change.

It is time for change.

It is fucking overdue time for change.


6 thoughts on “Overdue time for Change: Scottish Trade Unions and National Identity Politics…

  1. What a post!
    Nothing to disagree with.
    The ‘English’ mentality at the heart of ‘Britishness’ runs deep in all parties.
    Sad to see Scots trade unionists so desperate to be ‘English’ thinking thinking they are ‘British’ and not realising how the ‘English care nothing for them. I can assure you while most English like the Scots they consider them as ‘up there’ rather than a united nation. They have no understanding of Scots history and feeling whatsoever.
    Mind you I am no lover of unions either after my experiences of them…

    • Unions are just human endeavours Tynecastle. Run by frail humans – the majority of whom are well-intentioned – but maybe mostly not great at running a business or at managing other folk or… but without unions we’d have no minimum wage or holidays or health and safety protections or…
      It’s usually said – only half in jest I think – that unions make some of the worst employers… Truthfully – I know plenty worse ones.
      Re our country’s situation – I despair to be honest. You’d think a lawyer should know better than to look for a thread of logic or consistency in the arguments advanced by any of the UK/Scottish etc parties to the mess – but I do keep looking and I keep thinking I’ve missed something.
      And I think it’s emotion and inherent human biases.
      If it doesn’t feel logical or congruent then I need to look for the bias.
      And folk are naturally biased to the status quo – even if it’s damaging to them… 😦

  2. My superficial dealings with British unions suggested to me that they were so big as to be meaningless. When I was covering European market affairs around the time of the 2008 we’re-not-pretending-the-financial-sector-serves-you-anymore mass robbery, I spent a lot of time covering labour disputes that were actual DISPUTES on the continent and just a series of press releases and brief negotiations in Britain.

    It seemed to me that the continental unions, which were either smaller or (in the case of the really big ones, none of with were UNITE-type monoliths in their countries) whose branches were more independent, had much more freedom to strike or react effectively to lockouts, while the British ones were hamstrung by how thinly spread authority was. It struck me at the time that something as big as UNITE shouldn’t be a union – it should be a political party, and leave the union-ing to the unions.

    And that sort of spun me out when I thought about NuLabour and the historical opposition between effective unions and “socialist” government and . . . KABAMMO, Britain has been spending a lot of time making my head explode, even before last June. I mean in terms of trading in actual discourse for name-calling, policy makers there are running a hard tie with the US, and I suppose that’s the way they like it.

    Anyways, this is a very interesting perspective on it from an identity point of view. It seems like a similar contradiction to me. So big as to be meaningless and that’s the way policymakers like it.

    • Yip. Too big – except sometimes (when you are operating from within one of those massive TUs) the financial clout that comes with size is fantastic when it means your research is high quality and investment in members includes provision and funding of quality education/courses and you can fund high profile legal actions…
      The problem is repressive anti-TU legislation. Aligned with a ‘we don’t do things the volatile continental way’ type mentality.
      However, I am seriously pissed at the TUs themselves. They have failed – in big profound ways – their membership. They have failed their membership because they have failed to ensure their own relevance. They lose ever greater numbers of members – and wonder why but do very little except tinkering around the edges. Currently they are out of step with the folk they purport to represent – whether that’s white working class (they’ve never managed to sell into the BME communities in any great volume) or now just Scottish workers generally. Much of that is caused by affiliation and association and incestuous management crossover with Labour admin.
      There is some amazing innovative work being done here by groups like Better than Zero (http://www.betterthanzero.org/ ) – funded by the STUC – that the old unions would do well to learn from.
      But basically – the TUs have been disempowered by anti-TU governments. And by a very hostile very right wing tabloid media that has a very huge grip on popular culture.

      Yip. I wake up feeling sick at heart that folk like May and Johnston and Davies and Gove etc not only exist – but are elected officials.
      The hale evil-heidit clamjamfry of them – they sicken and disgust in equal measure.
      In many ways their evil and their culpability outweighs Trump’s (though not the despicable cratturs that surround and inform that unspeakable horror of a man) – because they do know better (I think).

      Ah jeez.
      I’ve depressed myself again.

  3. I agree with your analysis of the problems that have blighted Trade Unionism in Britain….there’s always been a schism between factions in trade union politics. That aside what struck me about your article was the phrase “They are Scottish managerial class politicians.” Are they? The thing is, pre-referendum I was born thoroughbred Labour Party working class voter. I voted YES in the Scottish referendum, yet there’s a part of me that still thinks SNP = “Tartan Tories” (Scottish managerial class). I’m convinced we need change…we only need to look at our current government…but there’s still a pat of me which is suspicious of divide.

    • I think they try hard to be all things to all people. A little bit of neo-liberalism a pinch of big State – middle of the road safety.
      Increasingly – mostly cos I have to deal just now with the industrial/employment impacts of their mess and centralising instincts (they think ‘local’ is Scotland…) – I just think they suffer from that stagnation that sets in when parties hold power for too long and haven’t had the benefit of strong effective opposition. They are borrowing education ideas from the fecking Tories just now!!
      Sturgeon’s good. Sometimes inspiring. The rest – meh… they are a bit of a dreepy shower and the longer they are in power the more arrogant/establishment they become.
      But what’s the alternative?
      It’s the nosepickers or naebody just now.

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