During the last Scottish Conservative leadership election, Murdo Fraser stood on a platform of formally breaking the link with the national party and brand. This was generally perceived as a radical measure necessitated by our party’s long-term struggle to regain a position of strength and relevance in Scottish politics. It is striking, therefore, that there is a new pressure group calling for a similar measure… in Scottish Labour.
The group, called ‘Labour in Scotland’, advocate breaking the link with London and establishing an independent Scottish Labour Party. In fact, they go so far as to propose calling it the ‘Independent Labour Party’, and aim to set out “a radical agenda for Home Rule in the 21st Century”.
Despite being the party that passed devolution, in party terms Labour is much more centralised than the Conservatives – tellingly, it did not move its party headquarters from Glasgow to Edinburgh when the Scottish Parliament was established. That elements of the party feel the need to “tack nationalist” to regain relevance in Scottish politics, given its historically dominant position, demonstrates quite how seismic the long-term fallout from the referendum campaign could be.
It is unlikely to be popular with the Labour establishment, but the attraction for those on the left of the party is apparent. For all that the SNP contain a healthy portion of centre-right figures, the closing months of the Yes campaign had the feel of a left-wing crusade. Scotland was a morally superior country, the argument ran, and only independence could save the NHS from being sold off by wicked Englishmen and ensure the “fairer Scotland” which was, apparently, the subject of the vote.
The minnow-like junior partners in the Yes campaign, the once-relevant Scottish Socialist Party and the Greens, are both parties of the hard left. Having taken a kicking in their heartlands as working-class voters flocked to the separatist promises, and unnerved by the continued efforts of post-referendum Yes organisations to permanently lure these votes in a separatist direction, it must be tempting for some to think that Labour might be able to ride the nationalist tiger, and harness the newly-energised electorate to drive a Labour revival.
Yet in truth an Independent Labour Party would face the same problem that Murdo’s Not-the-Tory Party would have done. Either it would cooperate with Westminster and take part in national politics, in which case building pseudo-nationalist credentials would be very difficult, or it wouldn’t, and it would become another nail in the coffin of the UK.
One of the proposed policies is evidence enough: Labour in Scotland want Labour to rule out cooperating with the Conservatives in the event of another independence referendum. This serves as a neat shorthand for Scottish Labour’s role in bringing the UK to its current position.
In a healthy democracy, people should be able to put party politics in its proper perspective, and rank “country” above it. It is quite possible to profoundly disagree with someone’s politics and still treat them civilly, concede that they have good intentions, and place things like the unity of the nation above such divisions.
Yet for decades, substantial elements of Scottish (and Welsh) Labour have not done this. You will find visceral hatred of the right amongst the left across the UK, of course, but in these areas it acquired a nationalist edge. Margaret Thatcher’s governments were not comprised of fellow citizens with whom Labour disagreed. No, they were nasty, foreign, English governments.
For a variety of motivations, elements of the Labour Party worked very hard not just to oppose Conservatism but to de-legitimise it, to cast it as “anti-Scottish” and the very presence of a Tory administration that “we didn’t vote for” as an insult to the Scottish nation. Devolution, it was argued, was necessary to protect Scotland from the nasty foreign English Tories – and by extension, all those nasty foreign English people who kept voting them in.
Playing up the wickedness of the Tories inevitably tarred their voters south of the border with the same brush, which helps to explain why Scotland perceives itself as very politically different to England despite the populations of both countries holding very similar views on most policy issues.
After the establishment of the Parliament the tune has remained the same. Devolved politicians meet every political crisis with demands for more money and more powers, blaming problems on remote “Westminster”. More powers means better insulation from those wicked Tories the English, strange and alien folk that they are, keep voting for.
This has fatally undermined Labour’s unionist case. The essential ingredient for the long-term health of the Union is a commonly-accepted common identity which trumps specific policies and party politics. “Tory or not, they are our countrymen” should be the motto.
This is not a case that can be credibly made by a party that has spent decades draping itself in the Saltire to demonise its political opponents, and is obviously uncomfortable cooperating with them even in the course of national unity. The best it could come up with was trying to cast the entire Union as a ‘Labour story’ and promising to win the next general election.
If Scottish Labour won’t even share a platform with the Scottish Conservatives – their fellow countrymen, even in nationalist eyes – how convincing can their case for sharing a country with foreign Conservatives ever be to the working class voters whose loyalty to the Union has been worn away by decades of divisive rhetoric? If by splitting they concede that British institutions – of which the Labour Party is one – are fundamentally illegitimate, how will that possibly help them see off the nationalist threat?
For decades, unionists have been trying to triangulate nationalism by conceding a growing and ever more dangerous number of its foundational assumptions. As Alex Massie wrote, in a different context: “Pandering to the beast and appeasing the beast only feeds the beast.” Once you concede the essential legitimacy of an opponents case, voters are more likely to plump for their full-hearted solution than your half-hearted one. That’s what Glasgow did.
To stem this tide, Labour must not only reject the siren calls of yet another bunch of people who think another erosion of Britishness will kill nationalism stone dead, but explain to their voters why they are proud to be British – and will proudly fight alongside political opponents to defend the country they love.
Assuming, of course, that Dan Hodges is not right when he writes that: “the truth is that Labour does not really believe in the Union. In reality, it only believes in the Union so long as that Union is presided over by the Labour Party.”