Around fifty years ago, the Scottish Nationalist (as it was then) Party was a joke to Labour. Ensconced as their MPs and councillors were in political fortress built out of Clyde shipyards, Motherwell steel mills, Fife coal mines and newly sprawling council estates, they laughed at the fledgling party—if they thought of them at all.
Then came Hamilton in 1967 and Winnie Ewing’s ground-breaking 1,779 majority in a place that traditionally weighed the Labour votes to save time. Since then, there has always been an SNP parliamentary presence but their advances did not appear to threaten Labour before 1974, when Labour’s Scottish Secretary Willie Ross confessed to Winnie that “It’s not the eleven wins that frighten me, Winnie, it’s your thirty-five second places“. From that point on, Labour has developed a deep hatred of the SNP for winning more and more of what they had seen as ‘their turf’ in seats, councils, geography and influence.
With a few creditable exceptions (Douglas Alexander springs to mind), this deep-seated resentment now so dominates party thinking that strategy and almost all campaigns are driven by it—see Gerry Hassan’s recent contribution in the Hootsman for a concise take. This is a pity, not just for Labour, but for Scotland as a whole. Though they have achieved landslides throughout the 1980’s, that merely underscored their impotence. Despite more recent decline, Labour is still a force in Scotland comparable to the SNP: the two together represent three votes in four and dwarf all remaining parties.
What if they found common ground?
Because, looking at what each party espouses, there are few stumbling blocks to that. Both want a fairer, more just, more egalitarian society. Neither has much time for Tory toff elitism, ineffectual Lib-Dem flannel, BNP racism or UKIP xenophobia. Both could find common ground with Greens and (at a pinch) socialists; both understand the need for a robust economy to fund their ambitions for civic enrichment; both regard the NHS and social programmes as pillars of enlightenment giving a better society; both have no patience with fascism in any disguise, especially blaming our own ills on foreigners.
Perhaps the venom that is voiced—and not all from Labour’s side—derives from having too MUCH in common and a consequent difficulty in distinguishing messages. The one difference on which they both agree is the matter of Scottish independence. Labour’s socialist past has a long and noble history of internationalism. Perhaps that’s why they see the SNP in erroneously truncated terms—they are nationalist; therefore they see all others as enemies and want to separate from everything. But this is simplistic as well as unfair.
There are two key matters here that Labour in Scotland seems too thrawn to grasp:
- The SNP is international: pro-Europe; pro-Nordic Council; pro-free trade; pro-UN; pro immigration; pro-cultural exchanges and (perhaps most importantly) pro-England. All they want is to establish Scotland as a normal country between Saudi Arabia and Seychelles in the world-wide panoply of countries. What happens then is up to the Scottish people and the government they choose but most of us have faith in the good sense and general outgoing inclusive curiosity about the world that Scots have exhibited since the days of the Hanseatic Ports trade and the Auld Alliance
- England isn’t particularly international. Used to centuries of dominance and getting its own way, it has yet to find a place in this 21st century world with which it is comfortable. Never having been in close contact with most nearby countries except on a war footing, the culture is more naturally conservative and therefore prey to the more isolationist elements of the Tory party. Together with the rise of BNP and UKIP (restricted entirely to England within the British Isles), this forms a natural majority that prejudices both the more enlightened internal policies and the more consensual international policies that the SNP and Labour share.
In short: the longer Scotland is held on to by England (and, with it, the Scottish Labour Party) the harder it will be for them to achieve the open and egalitarian society claimed to be its goal. Most Labour members know in their hearts that the 1997-2010 Labour governments were far more Islington- than Ingliston-driven. They were elected by the ambitions of the new yuppie middle classes, not by social principles familiar to the average Labour member.
Such differences with England (& things in common between the two parties) came to a head this week with Afirye’s attempt to shunt the whole European Referendum two years earlier and thereby hijack the Tory bill being teed up. This would not allow Cameron time to renegotiate parts of the treaty disliked by the more restless backwoods backbenchers. Whichever way that whole thing goes, we are faced with years of despair among Britain’s friends throughout the EU as we squabble over small-minded detail with no more affability or style than Maggie’s ill-informed hand-bagging displayed in the 1980’s.
Why would any Labour member want more of that? Combined with the loss of their tranche of Scottish MPs, that would condemn England to almost permanent Tory government. What happened to their real internationalism? What happened to their hostility to the expensive disgrace of a nuclear arsenal pointed at no-one? What happened to their bitter frustration throughout the 1980’s at having Tory policy rammed down their throat at every turn—right to buy; miners’ strike; poll tax; city’s ‘Big Bang’; bus deregulation rail privatisation; utlility privatisation; BT privatisation; privatisation of parts of the NHS.
Roll forward 25 years and we’re in another phase of the same obloquy. The PO is next. Pensions, social services, annual increments are all slashed; Britain—already the most unequal place in Western Europe—becomes more unequal year by year. Does Labour really think that if Scotland stays in the Union it’s going to be able to arrest all that any more than their ‘feeble fifty’ Labour MP’s did in the 1980’s?
But, imagine the alternative: Labour competing with the SNP to make Scotland a world example of an egalitarian society, built in a small country from its creative people and its rich resources. Learning from Scandinavia, putting its oil and energy wealth to positive use and not just funding nukes and peddling aggression wherever America’s paranoia points to. Imagine the two parties competing with innovative ideas for the votes of an enlightened Scottish population who capitalise on their world-class universities and splendid natural resources to be a beacon for the Rwandas and Malawis, the Nicaraguas and Costa Ricas, even the Estonias and Lithuanias (although if we don’t get cracking those last two at least will soon be teaching us how to achieve for our people).
It would be a country of which the great English people—once they finally wake from the myopic malaise into which Tory/UKIP small-mindedness is leading them—might be proud, even envious, to have us as their northern neighbour, much as the somewhat wayward Belgians envy the more effective, more prosperous, more globally respected Dutch.
Or you can support a union degrading further into a hard-up, third-rate power that still thinks acting as a diligent US poodle on the world stage earns its people more merit than opprobrium.