Scotland, the centre-left and social democracy: A conversation between Gerry Hassan and Joyce McMillan

A conversation between two of Scotland's leading political commentators on the significance of anti-Toryism and what it means for the country and its politics.
Joyce Mcmillan Gerry Hassan
18 November 2010

This conversation was sparked by Gerry Hassan’s Saturday Scotsman article on the limitations and pitfalls of anti-Toryism in both Scotland and the UK.

Dear Gerry,

It is right to reject the Tories as long as they continue to promote a destructive, inadequate and wrong-headed neo-liberal ideology. I'm waiting for them to change, and to enter a real conversation about where the policies of the last 30 years have failed. They never do. So really, Gerry, what are you saying here?

Best wishes,


Dear Joyce,

Anti-Toryism is a form of negative, tribal politics and part of the forces of conservatism in Scotland that you regularly rail against. Scotland isn’t as much - as many of us often say - social democratic - but more defined by its anti-Toryism. And this isn’t enough: a politics of perpetual opposition isn’t actually in its politics, policy and most importantly mindset. I would be interested to know if you agree or disagree with this - and if the latter what you think I have got wrong.

Cheers, Gerry

Hi Gerry!

Well, I don't think anti-Toryism in Scotland is just tribal. Of course, it is a bad thing if people are anti-Tory without knowing why, but I think most Scots do know why - they don't like the ideology. Remember that until the mid-1960s, more than half of Scottish voters were prepared to vote Tory. The change came when they abandoned one-nation Toryism and embraced a morally discredited form of neo-liberalism, once known as laissez faire.

So what progressive change could possibly result from being less hostile to such a party? I just can't see it, and I can't imagine why anyone on the centre-left would be bothered about it. Or are you genuinely impressed with the intellect and creativity of Cameron and his crew? Because they look like the same-old-same-old to me ....

Best wishes, Joyce

Thanks for that Joyce,

Anti-Toryism has a long lineage in Scotland and the UK which long predates Thatcherism - and is as old as the Tory Party. I think the dominant form of anti-Toryism in Scotland and the UK has ossified into an unthinking tribalism and black and white politics. In Scotland - this has become associated with a politics much more clear about what it is against than what it is for, and suspicious of new ideas, thinking and policies.

Being anti-Tory allows people to see politics in simple binary terms of good and bad, ignore complexities and difficult choices, and in Scotland and the UK ignore that the struggle against neo-liberalism - is a struggle not just about the Tories - but the neo-liberals in Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and no party. Do you really disagree with this?

Best wishes, Gerry


Thanks Gerry,

Of course I don't disagree with that, but hugging people who explicitly embrace the ideology you reject does not help. Why does ‘new thinking’ always have to mean a rapprochement with the right? In fact, neo-liberal ideas are a block to new thinking, because they've been kicking around and failing for so long. We need new centre-left thinking, informed by completely different values, and if there are any Tories who want to contribute to that process, I'll be happy to hug them.

Best, Joyce

Oh Joyce,

The 'hug a Tory' point comes from the Aberdeen University research. And the serious point about it is the need to understand and empathise with Conservatism - to more fully engage with and oppose it. Pre-Thatcherism - left-wingers seldom undertook any serious analysis of Conservatism; the sole exception to this was Andrew Gamble.

I am not, as I hope you know, arguing for a shift to the right; that is a misunderstanding of what I am saying. What I am arguing is that the culture of anti-Toryism in Scotland - of a politics of the bunker and black and white certainty - fundamentally aids a politics of sclerosis, inertia and conservatism.

And I would stress that the politics of a post-neo-liberal politics - cannot be based on reheating a battered social democracy - which has shown itself inadequate as a protection against corporate over-reach and market fundamentalism. I am not even sure the answer lies in a politics of the centre-left; what I mean by this is that the power, reach and nature of neo-liberalism and its hold over the British political class is so huge - that we need a fundamentally different kind of politics. And I am not sure the centre-left have the power and resources to do so on their own.

Best wishes, Gerry     

Phil Denning then makes a point in this thread about my original argument in ‘The Scotsman’ essay challenging some people to leave their ‘comfort zones’.

Right. I haven't been in a ‘comfort zone’ since the day in 1979 when some of the weirdoes I met at St. Andrews half a decade earlier all but took over the government of my country. Every hour of every day since then, I have striven to demolish their creed for the nonsense it is, and to argue for something better. Yet now, I'm supposed to abandon the whole idea of social democracy - demonstrably the most successful social system on the planet, in terms of quality of life delivered to the maximum number of people - because crap politicians have failed to defend it adequately, or to internationalise and update its principles, or to make the arguments when they needed to be made. Well, you put out the white flag if you want to. I won't.

And all this ‘no left and right any more’ is just a reactionary scam. People on the left are for the genuine and deliberate redistribution of wealth and power, people on the right are against it; what's not to understand? You are right, though; that we don't have an effective centre-left at the moment, because all our mainstream political parties have rolled over and accepted a right-wing agenda. Is that a reason for us to do the same? I think not.

Best wishes, Joyce

Hi there Joyce,

Thanks for this. The comment about you living in a comfort zone really seems to have got you going - and revealed some important points and assumptions which need examining.

First, you call 'social democracy' - 'the most successful social system on the planet'. This might be true of Nordic social democracy, but no one can say this of Scots or even British social democracy.

Scots social democracy co-exists with a country in which nearly one-third of our people are excluded, marginalised and don’t have a voice. One decade of devolution and none of our supposedly centre-left parties seem that interested in addressing this.

British social democracy - which did play a part in New Labour and its three election victories along with the embracing of neo-liberalism - has seen Britain become the fourth most unequal nation in the advanced capitalist world.

So we live in a Scotland where we write off hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, and where Britain is distorted in so many ways by a culture of inequality and the self-importance of power and privilege. These are two societies where social democracy has a huge responsibility for this state of affairs.

And your solution is more social democracy. Given we live in the context of an economic, social, democratic and environmental crisis - alongside a planetary crisis of epic proportions - it would be grand if the solution was just more social democracy. Isn’t that part of the problem: of modernist, economic determinist thinking, and one which hasn’t proven much of a radical politics in Scotland, the UK or in the face of neo-liberalism.

In all of this we need to not cling to the wreckage of a discredited social democracy, and the limited politics and politicians you criticise every week Joyce. I think your perspective might work in the Nordic nations, but does not really offer us a way of getting out of the neo-liberal disaster we have experienced and are living through in the UK.

Best wishes,



I don't share your analysis of recent Scottish history. Social democracy in Britain as a whole came to a shuddering halt in 1979, when Thatcher explicitly broke the deal. The social damage and inequality so evident in parts of Scotland is largely a consequence not of ‘Scottish social democracy’ but of the UK's disastrous 30-year experiment with various forms of neo-liberalism, under both Tory and New Labour governments. I agree that social democratic rhetoric in Scotland has not been matched by effective action - arguably that is difficult without independence - but I would like to give the successful Nordic model of social democracy a try in this country, and I can't see why you would have a problem with that.


Dear Joyce,

We come to an interesting point of disagreement. I see the state of affairs of Scotland and Britain which has arisen in the last thirty years as being something which social democracy has some responsibility for and played a part in creating. You on the other hand see it as – clear-cut – being the fault of neo-liberalism. And the solution a purer, bolder social democracy.

If we address why Britain became such a disfigured, unequal country over the last thirty years – the compromises, dilution and retreat of social democracy played a huge part in this. The neo-liberals just didn’t do it on their own; they achieved their revolution because progressive and centre-left politicians made significant mistakes. Some of this involved acquiescing to neo-liberalism, but also important was the centre-left command and control authoritarianism – which allowed the right to steal the mantle of ‘freedom’ convincingly.

New Labour was a strange mix of social democratic actions – the national minimum wage, redistribution by stealth, a decade of massive public spending – alongside a politics which in its Blairite zeal became more and more explicitly neo-liberal. The complexities of New Labour will be studied for decades – its missed opportunities, lack of pluralism and progressivism, and its abandonment of liberty – yet it cannot just be dismissed as entirely a neo-liberal project. I am not in any sense trying to make the case for New Labour, or even make some Toynbee-Walker conditional case for New Labour’s record in office. I am merely making the case that a social democratic mindset informed some of the major thinking of Labour in office.

And as for Scotland, we are disfigured by horrific inequalities – with the worst health inequalities and life expectancy in all of Western Europe – and these cannot just be laid at the foot of neo-liberalism. Part of this story is one of long-term economic and social change and the decline of traditional industries. Part of it is the record of UK governments these last few decades. And part of its is the official public discourse and story institutional Scotland tells itself – about ‘us’ being a nice, warm, compassionate social democratic, egalitarian country. This when we are one of the most conservative, risk-averse, hierarchical places in Western Europe.

Social democracy has a profound sense of responsibility in these last few decades for the state of the UK and Scotland. It proved an inadequate shield against neo-liberalism. It bent itself, compromised and became a weak, unsure form of progressive politics. The very phenomenon of New Labour itself is proof of the weakness of social democracy.

We cannot just go back to as if Thatcherism and New Labour never happened. Instead, we really need to acknowledge that neo-liberalism and social democracy share more than they would like to admit: both being modernist, economic determinist, and about a narrow idea of human needs based on material goods and stuff, rather than what the soul of man and woman is about. And given the multiple crises of the UK, the West, the form of capitalism we live in, and crisis of progress, I think we need to aim higher than reheating a diluted progressive politics: social democracy, which is itself a product of the retreat of the centre-left over the post-war era.

The politics of a post-neo-liberal, post-social democratic polity would address many of the issues we have talked about but in a very different style, voice and philosophy to what we have grown accustomed too. It would not be a modernist project, nor would it be fixated on endless economic growth, and nor would it be about a narrow idea of human needs.

We do face a battle of hearts and minds with the neo-liberal leviathan – which social democracy has shown itself not up to the task of resisting. It would be good if progressive people such as you and me could be part of the task of developing a serious, credible alternative to neo-liberalism. As you know such a task is not a luxury or a frivolous exercise; but something urgently needed.

Best wishes,


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