The Scottish Labour Party has just finished its annual conference in Oban, and leaving aside Harriet Harman’s embarrassing self-induced own goal calling Lib Dem Danny Alexander ‘a ginger rodent’, the party feels rather pleased and comfortable with itself. It is confident that it is going to win next year’s Scottish Parliament election and see a return to the natural order of things: itself in office, and those pesky Nationalists brushed off once and for all.
At the same time, there is an element of uncertainty about what Scottish Labour stands for, what kind of vision it has, and what it wants power for beyond its own sake. Yet in one area: the party’s passion and fire beats unconstrained: its sense of detestation and antagonism towards the Scottish Nationalists.
There are many misconceptions about the Labour-SNP dance of animosity and battle for supremacy. One is that it has been with us since time immemorial or for as long as there has been a SNP; another is that it all stems from recent history such as the bringing down of the 1979 Labour Government in Westminster.
The received wisdom is that the whole Labour-SNP dynamic is the result of the closeness and similarity of the parties – philosophically, in values and the kind of Scotland they would like to see, apart from the fact that one aspires to independence and the other to being British.
This though is only part of the picture. Both parties insist that they are social democratic today. Yet they start from very different places which still inform them. Labour’s ethos were shaped in its formative years by a culture which saw the world in terms of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’; the SNP’s ethos by a ‘Scotland first’ and ‘Scotland why not?’ mentality.
The first is about the politics of economic and social values, the second nationhood and ultimately, the SNP’s soul of Scottish statehood. Wherever they position themselves now these are diametrically opposed places to start from.
A long history and memory matters here. When Labour leaders were committed centralisers and anti-devolutionists under Clement Attlee’s post-war government, ‘Scottish nationalism’, even as an idea, was portrayed by Labour as anti-Labour, hostile to progress, and helpful to the Tories. It didn’t help that the Tories railed against ‘London centralisation’, aiding Labour’s transition to its twenty-year stand against a Scottish Parliament.
Then came the influence of the new left, nuclear disarmament and CND in the sixties when Labour after briefly supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament turned its back on it. Instead, Labour embraced nuclear militarisation on the Clyde, and many of those who shifted over to the SNP at this time did so because of this issue.
The same process began to be evident after 1979 – with a whole generation of centre-left politicians – people such as Nicola Sturgeon, Roseanna Cunningham and Kenny MacAskill to take but three examples – who would have joined Labour as the main anti-Tory force south of the border became prominent in the Nationalists.
Labour’s onslaught on the Nationalists as ‘tartan Tories’ arose out of its sense of entitlement - a culture of feeling that it had the right to run parts of Scotland without scrutiny or challenge and a sense that this was now under threat. This happened in a way the party either didn’t understand or like: it didn’t correspond to the simple left-right terms of debate it was used to. Instead, the invective of ‘tartan Tories’ fitted the anti-Toryism which was increasingly the leitmotif of a Scotland which while pretending it had radical credentials, was in reality conservative, managerial and wary of change.
Labour was of the opinion that having seen off the once powerful ‘real’ Tories, now it had earned the right to do so with the new ‘surrogate’ Tories: the SNP. Both were seen as forces of reaction, holding back the bright, modern Scotland which Labour felt it was creating in the 1960s: a land of new towns, motorways and massive housing construction.
This antagonism has been mutual, while in recent years being more bitter on the Labour side. SNP politicians have regularly lambasted Labour as ‘London Labour’, seeing all the unionist parties as dancing to a different tune.
The most black and white cybernats even deny that ‘Scottish Labour’ exists, citing that it is not registered at the Electoral Commission and is only the regional ‘branch’ of British Labour. This is classic psycho-ops: trying to deny your opponent the right to exist.
Yet it is Scottish Labour which still more often falls for the politics of going over the top. From its most senior level to the grass roots, the party has not mastered Robert McNamara’s first dictum in ‘The Fog of War’ of how to fight a conflict, namely ‘to empathise with your enemy’, which states that you should never fall into the trap of dehumanising or demonising the enemy. Labour too often portray the SNP as an illegitimate guerrilla army, a kind of Scottish Vietcong, who have come down from the mountains, and need to be swept away in a counter-insurgency cleansing operation.
We need to ask and hope that one day this will be different, but will it and how is this even possible? The fantasy story of Labour-SNP co-operation and its absence is one of the defining faultlines and distortions of recent Scottish politics.
What are the circumstances which would make Labour-SNP engagement possible? An economic crisis of unparalleled proportions has not moved them together. But surely if the constitutional question solved itself, either through independence or a radical post-nationalist UK political order, a more civilised politics would emerge.
A deeper part of the Labour-SNP contest is about the struggle for the soul of social democracy. Yet both parties support a centre-left politics that embraces big business and corporate power from the SNP's backing the Trumpland golf course to PFI/PPP under Labour. Neither therefore can lay exclusive claim to this terrain.
Moreover, if we take a longer-time view, and look at this in the aftermath of the double collapse of socialism and the disaster of neo-liberal dogma, and add to it the failure so far of nationalism to develop a project about Scotland as a society which makes sense to the daily lives of people up and down this land, it is hard to see what comes next.
Is the best we can hope for a reheated, compromised and battered social democracy? Or, after the spike of the neo-liberal crash and with it the Blair-Brown ‘Fantasy Island Bubble’, is the articulation of a post-nationalist, post-social democratic politics possible? Change is coming to Scotland and the UK, to the economic and social fabric we have grown accustomed too, and this will have huge consequences for the political shape and makeup of the UK state.
Who gives voice to this change in Scotland could define our land and politics for a generation. Is Labour's Iain Gray or our current First Minister Alex Salmond up for this, or are both content to contest the mantle of ‘Scotland’s Shield’?
Cross-posted from Gerry Hassan's column in Saturday's Scotsman.