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The strange story of Scottish Labour, unloved and misunderstood

Scottish Labour isn't the selfish beast some make it out to be, but it has lost its way in a devolved Scotland.

Gerry Hassan
19 March 2014

The Scottish Labour Party tends to get a bad press. People say it stands for nothing. That for years all it was interested in was power and self-preservation. They thus discount its contribution to public life down the years – and in particular its role in the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish Labour may not be in a good way but stereotypes evoked of it by some of its enemies are as unhelpful as they are inaccurate. Some nationalists propose that ‘Scottish Labour is a fiction’, seeing it only as a branch operation of the British Labour operation. This is just as problematic as the Labour caricature of the SNP and Scottish nationalism as what holds back politics north of the border; in actual fact both distortions are problems, along with the dysfunctionalism between the two traditions.

Scottish Labour has traditionally presented itself as the party of Scotland and Scotland in the union, and as the long-term advocate of home rule. Pre-devolution the party used to be able to undertake the bridge building exercise of pressing Scotland’s interests in Westminster, while selling the benefits of the union in Scotland. This delicate negotiating act has broken down since the advent of the Parliament.

It has emphasised itself as the party of home rule from Keir Hardie onward. What this ignores is that Labour inherited the home rule commitment from the Gladstonian Liberal tradition, and that it always sat uneasily in the Labour centralising perspective – the party’s dominant strand from the early 20th century.

Suffice to say the evidence for this is manifold. There was Labour’s thirty year opposition to home rule from 1945-74; the party turning its back on home rule in the Attlee era and the rise of the National Covenant, formally adopting an anti-devolution stand in 1958 as it fully embraced centralisation at a British level and the merits of redistribution and planning. Its road back in 1974 and subsequently has at points been awkward: the botched, ill-thought-out 1978 Scotland Act and the Blair U-turn on a referendum in 1996.

Some think the unveiling this week of Labour’s devolution proposals in its Devolution Commission will see the party win a convincing No vote, drive the SNP to the margins, and see ‘normal service’ resume. Others think that these proposals can only be skin deep and an unconvincing cosmetic exercise. Reality will be rather more complex.

For starters, the age of ‘Labour Scotland’ is over irrespective of the result of future Westminster elections. ‘Labour Scotland’ was part a vision of society and part a political operation – a way of extending the reach and influence of the party and building a power apparatus of patronage. This has withered on the vine.

Labour has had little comprehension pre-devolution that the inauguration of the Scottish Parliament would bring forth a set of processes and dynamics which would accelerate the undermining and hollowing out of the Labour state.

The party has reacted in an awkward, defensive manner to the rise of the Scottish dimension from the 1960s onward. A consistent strand runs through the party’s stance from Hamilton to Govan Mark I, Kilbrandon and devolution in 1979 and 1997, and the party today. This can be described as Labour attempting to hold the line in Scotland while maintaining the compact Scotland has with the British state.

To Labour this has been based on the retention of the number of Scottish MPs (the 1997 reduction from 72 to 59 being reluctantly accepted by the party), Scottish Cabinet representation and the Scottish Secretary of State post, avoidance of the West Lothian Question, and continuation of the Barnett formula of funding. In short, it has for over 40 years seen devolution as a set of proposals to be grafted onto the undemocratic practices of an unaltered British state – one founded on parliamentary sovereignty, absolutism and centralisation.

This has ill-served the party producing an attitude of uneasiness and defensiveness. It has barely understood how terrain north of the border has shifted. Labour used to embody an instrumental, pragmatic unionism – one based on seeing the union as a means to an end – namely egalitarianism, redistribution and using the centralised powers of the British state to aid this.

It has, as Britain has grown more divided and fragmented, ended up supporting an intrinsic unionism – one which is an end in itself. This is a cul-de-sac for a progressive, social democratic party and such a profound shift is one the party barely seems to comprehend, along with its long-term consequences.

The challenges and pressures on Scottish Labour are many and varied. It has seen the demise of the old ways of securing and maintaining its power – ‘Labour Scotland’. It has seen its rationale, ideas and resources retreat across Scotland – with this aiding an insular, bunkerist and bitter tone to many Labour pronouncements as it perceives the SNP take what it believes is its by natural right. The Johann Lamont-Paul Sinclair leadership is only a manifestation of this set of predicaments – although their tone, style and content politically exasperates all of the above and makes Labour sound like a party speaking to itself, in denial and at war with many aspects of modern Scotland.

The party also has to confront the realities of what Britain has become – one of the most unequal counties in the developed world. This is a huge obstacle to developing a plausible social democratic pro-union politics, and has been one of the major influences on why the party has ended up advocating the cul-de-sac of an intrinsic unionism.

It is not completely impossible to imagine the terrain the party would have to inhabit to address this. It would entail acknowledging the problem of the British state, and that it has ceased to be an advocate and mechanism for redistribution and radical progressive change. Such a move would have to involve Scottish Labour becoming a vehicle for Scottish reform, and challenging the crisis of British social democracy. There is no real sign the party even understands these dilemmas.

All of these challenges are reinforced by how Scottish Labour perceives the SNP (which it caricatures and stereotypes which is the worst way to understand your political opponents), the missing question of England in British Labour circles, and the lack of a credible reform agenda for the British state. This is then further exaggerated by the problematic legacy of New Labour which had many progressive gains, but did so while humiliating the wider traditions and values of ‘the labour movement’, and laying down at the alter of power, privilege and inequality.

The multiple crises of Scottish Labour along with the continual misunderstanding of part of the Nationalist tradition of it, does not in the long run serve Scottish politics. What it does is harm the vibrancy and health of Scottish social democracy, and irrespective of the independence debate, allow the SNP’s ‘Big Tent’ politics (with all its similarities to New Labour’s version of politics) to straddle the ground of centre-left sensibilities and free market capitalist orthodoxies.

There seems little sign at the moment of Scottish Labour waking up and realising the predicament it is in. It is focused single-mindedly on its detestation of the SNP and Alex Salmond being happy to throw any mud it can get at him, and believing a No vote will produce a change in the political weather.

When will Scottish Labour realise that it has to have a distinct Scottish autonomy agenda of party and country, speak out about the crises of Britain and collapse of the vision of progressive Britain, and as importantly, seize the Scottish terrain of economic and social issues which its opponents are wary of?

Fifteen years into devolution, Scottish Labour still show little sign of having developed a mission for the Parliament and its politics they played a huge part in bringing about. Until they do they will continue to find themselves pushed to the margins, speaking for a declining part of the country, while others shape and embrace Scotland’s future.

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