Labour’s reluctance to capitalise on its achievement of delivering the Scottish Parliament is proving toxic, writes KENNY FARQUHARSON
When did Scottish Labour become the Unionist Party? When did a proud tradition of fighting for Scottish home rule that can be traced back more than a century to Keir Hardie turn into the sour suspicion of constitutional change we see in the party today?
And when did Scottish Labour’s attitude to its own country become so deformed that it sees a Nationalist conspiracy in every flutter of a Saltire?
With hindsight I can pinpoint the moment when the rot set in. It was the first sitting of the new Scottish Parliament after the May 1999 election. Up until that point Labour had largely regarded the SNP as a minor political irritant capable of sending just a handful of MPs to Westminster, where they were safely outnumbered. Suddenly, the Nats were sitting across from Labour in the parliament’s temporary home on the Mound, rows and rows of them, all with MSP after their name and staff paid by the public purse – a Nationalist army intent on depriving Labour of what it complacently regarded as a divine right to rule.
Fast forward to the present and Scottish Labour has broken the first rule of politics – it has allowed itself to become defined by its opponents. I know many people in the Labour party. Not one of them joined because of a burning desire to save the Union. Not a single one. Usually they were motivated by a desire for greater social justice, at home and abroad. Their conviction was drawn sometimes from ideology and morality and sometimes from concepts of class and nationhood. For many of them, home rule for Scotland was one of the key means of achieving a better society.
I am sure that among the rank and file this is still generally true. But for too many of the party’s elected members it has, in practical terms, become secondary. Their primary focus for some time has been constitutional – a visceral antagonism not just towards the SNP’s ultimate aim of independence, but also any substantial advance that could improve the governance of Scotland within the Union. This dogged resistance to change has become, to all intents and purposes, what Scottish Labour is for.
Of course, there has historically been tension in the party between small-“n” nationalist radicals such as Scottish Labour Action (which campaigned for a strong devo policy in the 1980s and 1990s) and sceptical MPs such as Brian Wilson and Tam Dalyell (who saw constitutional politics as, at best, a dangerous distraction and, at worst, a betrayal). But successive Scottish Labour leaders – Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell and Wendy Alexander – saw home rule as a key strand of the party’s DNA and were willing, to varying extents, to see devolution as a process, not a one-off event.
That spirit is now hard to find, replaced by a surly pessimism that constitutional advance can only be good for the SNP and must, therefore, be resisted rather than examined on its own merits.
A jittery Scottish Labour party now sees its own country through a distorting lens. Every manifestation of a confident Scottish culture must be frisked for signs of potential advantage to the Nationalists. In this atmosphere of paranoia, moves to teach more Scottish history in schools are seen as SNP propaganda, and the mere sight of a Scottish flag a provocation.
Scottish Labour is now the last redoubt of the Scottish cringe. Its sense of its own nationality could not be more distant from the relaxed pride in being Scottish that is, happily, part of the devolution dividend.
The stories I am hearing from inside Scottish Labour conjure up an image of a cornered animal tearing at its own wounded flesh. A cynical new revisionism is at work. Devolution was a mistake, say some. Proportional representation was a bigger mistake, say others, both for Holyrood and council elections. There is a rueful nostalgia for the days when Labour ruled unchecked and unbalanced, its power and patronage the fruit of a ridiculously unfair and untenable electoral system.
More disturbing is the role that self-interest plays in the party’s thinking. Moves towards devo max or a form of federalism would seem to be the most effective way of offering Scots a stronger Scottish Parliament short of independence – an outcome every poll suggests is the voters’ preferred choice for Scotland’s future. But, I’m told, this is being resisted because it would mean fewer Scots MPs at Westminster. This is unwelcome to some sitting MPs and also a UK Labour leadership who might need those Scottish MPs if there is ever to be another Labour prime minister in Downing Street.
Has it occurred to them that they could end up with zero MPs at Westminster because Scotland becomes independent? I’m told there is a quiet confidence a No campaign in an indy referendum can be won by adopting the same tactics employed by the No campaign in the AV votes referendum – simply arguing that the case for independence has not been made, and must, therefore, be rejected. This is comically complacent, based on a lazy assumption that the independence the SNP will offer the voters is the same outdated 19th-century nation state that has been so easy to dismiss in the past. Not this time, sunshine.
Scottish Labour has abandoned one of its great assets. This is still the party that delivered the Scottish Parliament. Remember when Alex Salmond sneered that “Labour couldn’t deliver a pizza, let alone a parliament”? Well he was wrong. Scottish Labour can now be the party that modernises that parliament so it is fit for the second decade of the 21st century, reflecting the new-found confidence and ambition of the Scottish people. If the party is unwilling to do this, it will only have itself to blame for what comes next.
Kenny Farquharson is Deputy Editor of Scotland on Sunday, where this column was originally published. Follow Kenny on Twitter at @KennyFarq.
19 thoughts on “Home truths for the new Unionist party”
Kenny Farquharson is wrong to save that the British Labour party gave Scots a Scottish Parliament – that was long standing constitutional demand, never a political gift.
It is these constitutional and political demands of Scots that has been Labour’s undoing. Gratitude at the ballot box will never be forth coming if Labour continues to block constitutional and political progress in Scotland. More and more, Labour is now being seen as the problem and not the solution.
My solution is more radical. Scottish Labour should stop pretending to being a party, it convinces no one, and actually become a real one. Develop a back-bone, find a voice and cut the ties with London. Recognise that Holyrood is the power in this country now, not Westminster.
If parts of Scottish Labour want to save the union then they should be honest with themselves and go and join the Tory party – right now that would be a very small step for many Labour politicians in Scotland.
Bravo…I hope someone “upstairs” is reading this and taking notes.
Ouch! Spot on in every detail. If he’s not already a member Labour should sign Kenny Farquharson up today and make him their leader in Scotland.
And credit where it’s due to Labour Hame for reproducing the article here. It must make difficult reading for Labour members. These are exactly the issues you need to address to make a recovery in Scotland. Stop opposing everything the SNP do just for the sake of it. And try starting every policy discussion by thinking “Is this good for Scotland?” instead of “Is this good for the Labour party?” They are most definitely not one and the same thing. Until the public perceive that change happening you’ll be warming the opposition benches.
Couldn’t agree more
Henry McLeish for one, thinks that devo max would be the best policy for Labour to adopt. There will be plenty opposed to such a policy but it is certainly the one most in tune with Scottish opinion if the polls are to be believed. Whatever Labour decides, it should be after serious debate and should be a policy that the bulk of the (Scottish?) party can be happy to campaign on. McLeish also abhors the idea of Labour campaigning alongside the Tories, no doubt worrying about cross contamination:- “flee wi the craws” etc.
I do not think this can happen. I dont think the leadership down south would go along with Home Rule and I dont see the Scottish party going it alone.
DevoMax would certainly make convincing many Scots to take that final step to independence that much harder. If Scottish Labour really is the de facto pro-Union party, this would be the best strategy to save the Union. The Scotland Bill, a bill the Labour Party believes didn’t warrant any real scrutiny, will be the death knell for the Union if it ever becomes implemented.
“I’m told there is a quiet confidence a No campaign in an indy referendum can be won by adopting the same tactics employed by the No campaign in the AV votes referendum – simply arguing that the case for independence has not been made, and must, therefore, be rejected.”
This is true. However, that does not mean that a no vote is a sure fire thing. For one thing the case FOR the union is equally unproven. A very barbed post that deals with some of the problems of “Scottish” Labour. Mac has correctly identified the other problem for “Scottish” Labour – in Scottish terms it is now a right of centre party.
Of course Labour is a right of centre party, those are the realities which we face.
The debt must be cut, albeit less quickly than with the Tories.
The economy must start moving again, the Tories are incompetent and it’s down to Labour to make it work.
The usual Tory riots have begun and it’s just a matter of time till there are more.
The Tories are right about putting the public services out to tendor, that will save a great deal of money. But in Scotland we need to make the case for raising council tax to pay for those services till they are eventually made competitive. We need to make the Scots pay for higher education, otherwise the debt will increase and who knows what after that…
Only a fool pretends were not right of centre and only a fool thinks the SNP’s policies can be funded from the public purse.
“But in Scotland we need to make the case for raising council tax to pay for those services till they are eventually made competitive.”
Where do you expect people to find the money to pay for your proposed Council Tax hike? In case you haven’t noticed, food prices are going up, fuel is going up, water is going up… while wages are not and unemployment is going up.
“Moves towards devo max or a form of federalism would seem to be the most effective way of offering Scots a stronger Scottish Parliament short of independence – an outcome every poll suggests is the voters’ preferred choice for Scotland’s future. But, I’m told, this is being resisted because it would mean fewer Scots MPs at Westminster. …..Has it occurred to them that they could end up with zero MPs at Westminster because Scotland becomes independent? ”
Has it occurred to Kenny that the popularity of Devo Max in the polls is no guarantee that it is the best solution or even that it is a practical possibility?
It’s worth reading Arthur Midwinter’s analysis on Labour Hame… it’s here;
It is what we the supporters and voters want. the case for the uUnion (as it is) has not been made either and bringing your favourite expert forward can be done by all sides.
Kenny may not be 100% right but he’s close.
Can’t say who I am but you and i debated these topics years ago,especially the Scottis Labour independence.
Please define what you mean by ‘guarantee’.
Kenny this is just garbage. I just don’t recognise any of it. You talk about “the stories I am hearing from inside Labour” and “a surly pessimism” and ” cynical new revisionism”. Well, you need to think about who you talk to. The people I talk to inside Labour are shocked by the loss of so many Labour seats in the Scottish Parliament. But not necessarily so surprised. And they are seeking to grab hold of the opportunity to change
The issues are nothing to do with some kind of ‘rot’ that set in when suddenly nationalist MSPs turned up in Parliament. After all we all expected to see them. Because that was nature of the Parliament all the Scottish parties and Scottish civic society agreed on – led by Donald Dewar. The issues for Labour in Scotland today are not to do with any constitutional debate either – they’re way more complex than that. And it’s not Scottish Labour that has been ‘defined by its opponents’ as you claim: it’s Scottish journalism that has been hijacked by the notion of independence to the point of obsession – and the boredom of most of its readers.
What we in the Labour Party all know are the issues are that our internal culture is old-fashioned and we’re not sure how to bring it into today’s world; that our policies and language are based, not on hope and ambition, but on problem-solving; and that we lack an obvious bedrock of competence. And, of course, we have failed as yet to find the right tone of voice to articulate back to the Scottish people what most of us see as the immense value of unity between the nations of these islands.
Some of us are getting on trying to get to grips with those issues. Without any reference to the SNP or the pre-occupations of journalists
Trevor, the problem that needs solved is come up with even just one undisputable positive argument for the Union. We’re now months down the line from the May election and no one, absolutely no one, has managed to come up with one.
You talk about the immense value of unity between the nations of these islands but that’s vague, very easy to dispute (What’s life expectency in Scotland compared with the South East of England? What about population growth? Would these be better or worse in an independent Scotland? – just a couple of example questions that through your assertion into doubt).
Yes, some parts of the Labour party are indeed getting on with addressing the faults that exist, but only some. There are still too many who resort to the now ingrained knee jerk reaction of oppossing anything, and I mean anything (Scottish Studies = brainwashing!!), that the SNP propose. I’ve said it before but until Scottish Labour move away from it’s foam-at-the-mouth hatred of the SNP it will continue to lose credibility as a serious contender to form Scotland’s government at Hollyrood.
I think this is a really important article.
Scotland needs social justice to be at the forefront of the economic and constitutional debate in this country. We have the opportunity to make a better Scotland and develop a more equal relationship between the nations of these isles. However, all too often the Labour party appears determined to adhere to a conservative, narrow identity politics of remaining at all costs unflinching and slavish supporters of the status quo, metaphorically wrapped in the union jack and putting unionism before socialism. This lacks vision and is hugely damaging for the Labour Party. A rational and open minded discussion on greater powers and/or independence focussed on how to most effectively achieve the ultimate aim of providing optimal living standards and equality is, in my opinion, essential if the Labour Party is to once again become an organisation worthy of its founding principles.
If people should beware Greeks bearing gifts they should be even more wary of journalists bearing advice.
It would appear that Scottish Labour is still in denial about the Scottish Elections – the SNP didn’t steal victory they won it.
Scottish Labour cannot continue to behave like a small child who takes his ball home because he is losing and hence stopping the game for all.
The Scottish parliament is now bigger, much bigger than anyone party. Scottish Labour doesn’t own it, and if they won’t up their game and become more indpendently minded they will be seen by more and more Scots as being just like the Tories when it comes to dealing with Scottish issues, that is, completely out of touch.
I do believe that the people who would benefit most from studying the new curriculum subject ‘Scottish Studies’ would be members of the Labour party.
@Mac ” do believe that the people who would benefit most from studying the new curriculum subject ‘Scottish Studies’ would be members of the Labour party.”
Excellent point and well made Mac
However, the plain and simple fact remains that in the eyes of the electorate, as ably demonstrated last May, there are parties in the UK that put the Scottish people at the forefront of their policies, and there are parties in the UK, that put Westminster as their priority
Given the austerity measures to come, people naturally are looking much closer to hame for solutions and unless Labour start prioritising Scotland over London, the baw is oan the slates up here…
Simple question – When you think of politics in Scotland, which party has positioned itself as putting Scotland first?
Ask that simple question to the masses and until they start to answer Labour, then you’ll face an uphill struggle
The elephant in the room, which is constantly overlooked, is that the referendum will be run by Holyrood and decided by the Scots peoples… we’ve seen the way that voting intentions for that parliament have gone in recent years… and time is running out….
Labour will never be in power in scotland again,unless it comes out in favour of full independence.Devo max is a non starter their london masters will not allow it.
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