Breaking the grip of ‘fantasy island Britain’: Social justice, Scotland and the UK

After their humiliating defeat in the 2011 elections, the Scottish Labour Party have found themselves ensnared in a circular dialogue of apology and aggressive stereotyping. Breaking out of this requires a change of focus – away from Alex Salmond and the SNP and towards the party’s professed values of social justice. 

Gerry Hassan
15 March 2012

The Scottish independence debate has many dimensions, Scottish, English, British, European and global. It is also one that the insular London political class and media have only episodically covered the last forty years, being content to rest on ‘Braveheart’ and romantic, restless nationalist stereotypes.

It is then timely and apposite that the Fabian Society in association with Compass held a discussion under the theme, ‘Debating the Scottish Independence Referendum: What Future for the United Kingdom?’ with Labour MPs, Jon Cruddas, Anas Sarwar, Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour, and Gemma Doyle, along with myself, in the Houses of Parliament this week.

The evening showed some of the many comfort zones and delusions which Scottish Labour still hold to after its 2011 Scottish Parliament election humiliation. The two Scottish Labour MPs and Anas Sarwar in particular, spoke a language of renewal and urgency but which seemed mostly devoid of real political understanding or content.

The thoughtful observations of the evening from the Labour MPs came almost exclusively from Jon Cruddas who talked with an acute eye about England, the absence of English Labour, and the shifts in the Tories with a brash, aggressive English nationalism emerging in the party. Cruddas referenced the Australian debate under Paul Keating which redefined national identity, and cited Tom Nairn and the challenge of ‘the hyper-empire of capital’.

In terms of hinterland Cruddas as well as referencing Nairn and Keating, mentioned George Lansbury’s ‘My England’ and Clement Attlee. Sarwar and Doyle, as representatives of today’s new political classes, showed their ‘thin’ external world, with not one wider reference or example all evening.

In my presentation, I suggested Scottish Labour stop talking to itself and stop using words such as ‘devolution’ and ‘separatism’ which gave the party succour and satisfaction but which were mostly meaningless to the general public. ‘Devolution’ was a narrow notion of political change and a concept born of 1970s compromise and accommodation. ‘Separatism’ which is how Labour describes the Scottish Nationalists is an archaic relic of a term which reveals much about who says it. The SNP have never been ‘separatists’ and indeed the true, serious ‘separatists’ in the UK are the fossilised, fanatic parliamentary sovereignty fetishists of Euroscepticism. Labour has to drop its own private world of language, stop talking process and embrace substance.

Labour’s obsession with the SNP has been an unhealthy one, destabilising and disorientating the party’s view of the world. Despite the fact the SNP have been on the Scottish political scene for over 40 years, Labour north of the border have yet to fully come to terms with them. The aggressive language and stereotyping which goes on between the two parties belies that these are two rather similar parties, both broad churches and both, in parts, significantly (small c) conservative.

Sarwar and Doyle presented cartoon caricatures of the Nationalists, citing ‘separatism’ many times, with Sarwar articulating a convoluted definition when challenged on Labour’s constant of use of the big bogey word. The Nationalists talked left and right, he maintained, depending on the audience (just like New Labour), and as he accurately observed, have left independence so far undefined. Doyle talked from the old hymn sheet, talking of the SNP as having cornered ‘the right wing vote’ and being just like the Tories.

Scottish Labour has a proud history and story but they are currently in a terrible place and have barely begun to realise what has happened to them. Both Sarwar and Doyle railed against the SNP Government for not using the Scottish Parliament’s existing tax powers, omitting that Labour in office for eight years had done exactly the same. Similarly the SNP’s floated idea of cutting corporation tax was trumpeted as proof of their right-wing perfidy, ignoring New Labour’s cutting of it. What this seemed to suggest was that the speakers had one rationale for an action when the SNP did it (bad), and another when New Labour had done it (good).

How does Scottish Labour get people to listen to them again? I suggested that the party apologise for 50 years of taking people for granted and for municipalism, cronyism, clientism and council patronage. Cruddas immediately spotted that this was a wider Labour malaise, to which I agreed, pointing out that it was a Scottish variant of that crisis.

So far Scottish Labour has offered a half-hearted apology for losing in 2011, but hasn’t begun to understand why it was so soundly rejected. Its public mantra has become ‘we have to stop apologising’ when the party hasn’t recognised the longer story of the machine politics it built in Scotland which it needs to take responsibility for and offer an explanation. Then and only then, people may begin to sit up and take notice.

This is not just a Scottish but a British and international debate. All evening Sarwar and Doyle defended a union which was in reality, a ‘Fantasy Island Britain’, the land of the most successful multi-national partnership in all human history, a place where redistribution and social enlightenment march proudly forward claiming the future. At no point did they engage in some of the uncomfortable realities: of the UK as the fourth most unequal country in the rich world according to Danny Dorling, and on existing trends, set to overtake, Portugal, USA and Singapore, and become the most unequal country in the developed world.

Labour needs to embrace an agenda of social justice and stop talking about the constitution and being obsessed with the SNP and Alex Salmond. Twenty years after the Commission on Social Justice was launched perhaps Scottish Labour could revisit this terrain instead of talking all the time about ‘devolution’ and ‘separatism’.

What this could involve is renewing and marking John Smith’s values and coming up with a social justice covenant for the 20th anniversary of his tragic death, which coincides with the run-in to the autumn 2014 Scottish independence vote.

A Scottish Labour Party engaged with social justice would aid people in the SNP to develop a more distinct, radical social agenda and thus improve the quality of the entire Scottish debate. It would reduce the superficial noise between these two parties and develop a debate with more substance addressing what Scottish voters want to see it engage with.

Such a politics would entail addressing how we tackle and end child poverty, challenge welfare entrapment and despair, and address the huge gap in life expectancy between rich and poor across Scotland. It could even be called the John Smith social justice covenant.

Such a move would make the Scottish debate about self-government and independence both more subtle and real. It would take it away from the politicians’ love of the abstract and grandiose and connect it to the complex choices of modern life and challenges to progressive politics.

The values of solidarity, communitarianism and inclusion have always influenced and shaped much of the Scottish debate, driven in part by a distrust of British politicians and the state. It is now crucial over the next two years that they are brought to the fore, from the implicit to the explicit. We have to ask how do we best champion social justice in Scotland and in these isles? That is what Scottish self-government and independent has to directly address; namely, the relationship between progressive values and government structures, and in so doing help all of us to make sense of how we all break out of ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ which has so served the forces of power and privilege.

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