In his third article, John Andrews, a past SNP and independence supporter looking again at Labour, considers the stories independence supporters on the left tell themselves about Scottish radicalism compared to the rest of the UK, and finds them unconvincing.
One of the most frequent arguments put forward by pro-independence supporters on the left is that Scotland could choose a more radical government than the UK.
There have been moments of radicalism in Scotland in pockets of the country throughout history, such as the Glasgow rent strikes or the Upper Clyde shipbuilders’ work-in.
But so too elsewhere in the UK, the Jarrow March, the Anti-Corn League or the miners strikes across the north of England and the Midlands. It was England that became home to Marx and Engels, and gave a powerful voice to George Orwell. Robert Owen founded New Lanark via birth in Wales and starting his career in England.
It’s true that trade union membership in Scotland as a proportion of the workforce is slightly higher at 29% than the UK average of 23%.
But Scottish Social Attitude surveys tend to mirror British views overall on immigration, tax and spending and welfare, with only minor differences to the rest of the UK and certainly no major appetite among Scottish voters for a radical approach to great increases for any of the aforementioned.
The most popular Labour leaders at general elections in Scotland as a proportion of the vote, the ones achieving 40% or more here, include Brown, Blair, Wilson, Callaghan, Gaitskell and Attlee. Only the last of these was committed to radical increases in the role of the state and nationalisation of industry, and that at a moment when the rest of the UK also backed these plans. The rest took a pragmatic approach to balancing the role and interests of trade unions on the left of the party while trying to grow the economy and depending on your point of view most would be described as being on the right or centre ground of Labour. Two obvious radical omissions from that list include Corbyn and Foot, two left-wing radical Labour leaders who tellingly failed to poll more than 40% of the vote in Scotland.
The Scottish Socialists didn’t survive on their policies alone for electoral appeal beyond Tommy Sheridan’s spectacular downfall, and the Greens don’t yet have the means to offer a credible alternative government if they ever can afford to stand candidates in all constituencies.
Equally there’s clearly not much appetite for a radical libertarian, low tax, small state vision of Scotland, as the centre-right in Scotland haven’t been anywhere near winning the biggest proportion of the Scottish vote since the 1950s.
So a future government in an independent Scotland wouldn’t be all that far removed from the rest of the UK as it has been since the 1990s, according to voter preference. The Conservatives stay relevant and in office because for the most part they are smart enough to realise public opinion is to the centre left of their grass roots support and pivot accordingly when necessary – witness the furlough scheme and massive increases in state intervention and restrictions on personal liberty as a response to the pandemic.
Arguably the UK’s radicalism has in modern times always been cultural rather than political, with pop culture radical phenomena like northern soul, punk and acid house taking root in London or Manchester as a reaction to changing social eras. These cultural shifts were often imported from American youth culture led by African Americans and the LGBTQ+ communities of New York and San Francisco, driving social change through music, fashion and underground trends. Maverick music label owners Tony Wilson of Factory Records and Alan McGhee of Creation Records were experts at spotting an emerging movement and channelling that creative energy.
I was a teenager at the height of what the tabloids crudely dubbed Britpop but in truth was much deeper. Suede, Radiohead, Primal Scream, Portishead, Massive Attack and The Prodigy – arguably that youthful energy in a very small way contributed to Tony Blair taking office. I always felt he realised most voters care less about ideology and sociology, and are more focused on the everyday practicalities of paying the bills and keeping a roof over their heads and, maybe, if they are lucky, spending money on their social life and leisure time, a nice car, house or holiday if there’s money left over. They want good schools and hospitals and an affordable standard of living.
Once voters in Scotland realise the SNP’s vision of independence is no less pragmatic than Labour, and actually far less effective or focused on delivering social justice, I’m convinced they’ll get bored and vote for change again. Labour’s patience and long term approach will pay off and we’ll be able to focus on improving lives and local services, without the constitutional wrangling.