Joyce McMillan: Why SNP should be wary of Corbyn

Trident is one of the three pillars of wisdom of the British state - or rather was until now. Picture: Contributed
Trident is one of the three pillars of wisdom of the British state - or rather was until now. Picture: Contributed
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A POLITICS of hope could take hold if the Labour leader can open up serious debate, writes Joyce McMillan

Jeremy Corbyn arrives in Scotland, for talks with the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale; and if the SNP is not too absorbed in dealing with this week’s allegations involving culture minister Fiona Hyslop and former Westminster business spokeswoman Michelle Thomson, then it should be keeping a careful eye on the new Labour leader, and the wind of change in English politics that he represents.

It’s not that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party presents any immediate threat to the SNP’s dominant position in Scotland. Apart from anything else, his relationship with the Scottish Labour Party is fraught with uncertainties; indeed there’s something slightly embarrassing about Corbyn and Dugdale’s repeated insistence on the Scottish party’s independence, at a time when Scotland’s great army of disgruntled swing voters - the ones who have recently moved from Labour to the SNP - are probably far more interested in Corbyn, and what he might achieve, than in Labour’s more conventional Scottish leadership.

In the longer term, though, it’s becoming obvious that Jeremy Corbyn’s aim, whether he leads his party into the 2020 general election or not, is to leave a legacy of real change in the landscape of British political debate; and if he succeeds, there are aspects of that change which may, in time, present a huge challenge to the SNP’s successful political strategy of the last two decades.

For the last 25 years, after all, we have been living, at UK level, in a steadily narrowing field of party political debate, in which all serious players were increasingly required to bow the knee to the three great certainties of British public life: that the monarchy is a vital symbol of the nation and not to be questioned, that our armed forces - including the Trident nuclear deterrent - are essential to our national security, status and prestige, and that to be British is to accept a pretty brutal form of mercantile capitalism, along with the seven-year trial by austerity which it has recently imposed on ordinary British citizens.

To express dissent from any of these certainties, in recent years, has not only been to marginalise yourself from the mainstream of British politics, but to invite furious accusations of a lack of patriotism. And in this strangely restricted political climate - made possible by the profound political decision of the Labour Party, in the mid 90s, not to oppose the prevailing neoliberal consensus - it was supremely easy for the SNP, at home in Scotland, to portray the British state as one now hopelessly wedded to an increasingly reactionary form of politics, in which even the supposed centre-left opposition had moved so far to the right that it could not be trusted to defend basic social-democratic values.

Yet if there is one thing that is clear about Jeremy Corbyn, three tempestuous weeks after his election, it is that he is determined to use his time as leader, however short, to ensure that an alternative vision of Britain is discussed, and - so far as possible - restored to the mainstream of political debate. In terms of economic policy, he and John McDonnell, his Shadow Chancellor, seem determined to attack the Tories’ dubious narrative on austerity until a critical mass of voters begin - not before time - seriously to question it.

And on those other matters of how we define and express our Britishness - well, to judge by his period as leader so far, Corbyn is beginning to open up the possibility, at least, that we can express pride and patriotism at least as well by defending the NHS, building affordable homes, and making sure that workers are paid a living wage, as we can by kneeling before the Queen, singing the national anthem, or voting to renew an old-fashioned and hugely expensive nuclear deterrent that even many Tories agree no longer serves a useful security purpose.

Now there is, of course, no guarantee that this attempted revolution will have the effect on British politics for which Corbyn hopes. His party is so profoundly divided that his leadership may be over in months, or the party itself may fall apart, leaving the Tories to dominate UK politics for decades. And his policies have been greeted in many sections of the media with such furious, blustering contempt that they may simply be dismissed by most voters, without serious thought.

Yet those who anticipate this kind of result, within weeks or months, should perhaps think again. If Corbyn’s policies are so absurd, after all, why did he so comprehensively defeat the three well-behaved conventional leadership candidates who stood for election against him? And if Corbyn’s vision of a party dedicated to continuous debate, where people are under less pressure to agree about everything, is so electorally disastrous, then why were the conventionally-run UK parties of the pre-Corbyn period so unpopular, so hollowed-out, and so bereft of enthusiastic members on the ground?

In so far as the British media and political establishment is intent on crushing Corbyn’s idealism, in other words, and dismissing it once again to the margins of politics, they reveal themselves not only as enemies of democracy, and of the real ebb and flow of democratic debate in the nation, but also once again as the greatest enemies of the Union, the ones who have deliberately shut down the centre-left space in Westminster politics into which the SNP has moved, and in which it may continue to flourish.

If the counter-attack fails this time, though - if Corbyn succeeds in facing down the personal abuse to which he is subjected, if he gets his and McDonnell’s ideas firmly into the public sphere, if he opens up serious debate on austerity, on Trident, even on the monarchy - then the Britain that goes to the polls in 2020 will not be precisely the same Britain that Scotland came so close to rejecting in 2014. As any Corbyn supporter will tell you, it will be a Britain in which the politics of hope, for ordinary citizens, has once again found a foothold. And that is a possible political development to which the SNP will have to prepare a subtle and generous response, if it does not want to find itself overtaken by events, and caught out re-fighting the battles of the past 20 years, in completely new times.