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The limits of Labour and Nationalist Scotland

Scottish politics has been saturated by nationalist and Labour ideologies and myths towards their right to rule, but in their political quests are they sacrificing the opportunity to be a tolerant and progressive state?

Gerry Hassan
22 July 2013
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The justified sinner. Flickr/some rights reserved.

The Scotland of the present is a product of how we understand our past; and the past is always been made, remade and contested. It is not then too surprising that in recent weeks Labour figures – such as former MPs Brian Wilson and Maria Fyfe – have laid into what they have seen as the over-promotion of the Nationalist tradition, with both criticising VisitScotland for profiling Robert McIntyre’s election as SNP MP for Motherwell in 1945. What people like Wilson and others are asserting is that the Nationalist history and folklore of Scotland is somehow illegitimate. That it is partisan, not mainstream and unworthy of becoming part of the official canvas of modern Scotland. It is a deeply flawed, problematic and pernicious view of Scotland. 

Let’s take a very different view of Scotland – one of many of us have grown up and are familiar with – the Labour story of Scotland. This has celebrated the life and ideas of Keir Hardie, James Maxton and John Wheatley, the formation of the Independent Labour Party, ‘Red Clydeside’ and Tom Johnston. The story depicted working people standing up for economic progress, social progress and reform. They were campaigning for issues from temperance to home rule – and for the arrival of Labour as a party of government – first in minority administrations in 1924 and 1929, and then as a majority Labour Government in 1945. 

This is part of the fabric of what has made Scotland – and one Labour politicians have invited us to accept uncritically as a national story. But let’s be clear: it is a minority account of Scotland. For even at the zenith of its powers Labour never was a majority party of the popular vote. So it ill-behoves Labour figures who have trumpeted and oversold their own history – which nearly all of us accept as an intrinsic part of the modern Scottish story – to start being so dismissive about Nationalist Scotland. Their story is a powerful, potent one filled with emotion, idealism and people of principle in its early days, standing up for what they believed in against all the odds. Just like the formative period of Labour. 

Robert McIntyre’s victory at Motherwell is a significant point in Scottish politics; it doesn’t matter that he was only elected for three months. Keir Hardie’s Scottish legend is centred on him standing in the Mid-Lanark by-election of 1888, winning a mere 617 votes and being humiliated. McIntyre’s victory gave the SNP hope at the height of the two party system. Then there is the coming of Polaris to the Clyde in the 1960s, the rise of the anti-nuclear movement and Labour’s first abandonment of it. There then follows Winnie Ewing winning Hamilton, Margo MacDonald and Govan, the watershed of the 1979 referendum, and the Thatcher decade, leading up to present events.

The Nationalists have contributed enormously to the enriching of Scottish public life and for anyone who doubts that, just imagine a politics reduced to a choice between Labour, Lib Dems and Tories: between Johann Lamont, Willie Rennie and Ruth Davidson. It would be a diminished Scottish political scene. And it might even be one without a Scottish Parliament, for the electoral threat of the SNP were a huge factor in Labour’s reluctant turn back to devolution in the 1970s. Imagine contemporary Scotland without the bulwark of the Scottish Parliament against Conservative led cuts and austerity; the SNP played a huge role in the slow challenging and eventual ending of Westminster direct rule.

What seems to get a large part of Labour annoyed is the very existence of the Nationalists who don’t conform to neat left/right distinctions. But more fundamentally, they have threatened Labour’s divine right to rule and the entitlement culture which exists to this day in the heart of the people’s party. For Labour to ever develop a mature strategy of opposing the Nationalists they are going to have to come to terms with them as a permanent part of Scottish life. Instead of hating every breath Alex Salmond takes, they have to learn to respect and understand him, get inside his psyche, and then begin to make sense of and exploit his weaknesses. This would be a better approach than insulting him every day in a scattergun fashion, which has little impact.

Yet, if Labour history is only one part of the fabric of our nation, so then the same is true of Nationalist folklore and tradition. The SNP may be a catch-all party with a wide appeal across groups and communities the length and breadth of Scotland, but they are still, like Labour at its peak, a minority force. More people voted for parties other than the SNP even at their spectacular 2011 election landslide. There is a deeper set of truths at play in this. Ergo, the Labour account was once seen and portrayed as the only show in town – something dangerous and anti-democratic. The same is true of a Nationalist account of Scotland, which becomes too over-bearing and the monopoly of wisdom. 

Any political dispensation which becomes too much the official story sends out danger signals for the vitality of democracy. A part of the Nationalist perspective could easily go in that direction, from the perils of a majority government in a PR Parliament to how ‘Blackwatch’ has been promoted as official history. Even James Robertson’s novel, ‘And the Land Lay Still’, is portrayed as the nationalist account of post-war Scotland. There are many Scotlands, if not quite the infinite Scotlands of Hugh MacDiarmid’s imagination. One once dominant account, Labour Scotland, is still coming to terms with its diminished status, and is clearly in a lot of pain and denial. 

The Nationalist account is now firmly part of the mainstream of Scottish public life and, even in places, the new establishment, but it cannot and must not be allowed to become the only show. Scotland has to belatedly embrace pluralism and the idea of different, competing visions of our politics and country. There is a politics beyond Labour and Nationalists, a politics beyond politicians, and even ideas of change which aren’t narrowly focused on politics. Understanding this would be a small but gigantic leap which could contribute towards transforming the context of the independence debate, but perhaps even more importantly, changing the culture of our nation into one which allows for, tolerates and respects differing and dissenting opinions.

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