The major fault line in Scottish politics isn’t what you think

mick watsonMick Watson says Labour must learn a harsh lesson. The dividing line in Scottish politics isn’t the constitution; it’s who has delivered for Scotland.


A great many commentators now tell us that the major fault line in Scottish politics is the constitution; that we are divided only on the independence question, and that policy falls a distant second in terms of priority. I think that’s nonsense.

What the SNP have done, in a short space of time, is make the people of Scotland feel like they matter. They’ve made them feel like they count for something. The big question for Scottish Labour has to be: why wasn’t it us that did that?

The people of Scotland care about the same things everyone else does. They want jobs and prosperity. They want decent housing and a strong NHS. They care about education standards and they want good schools.

Over the last few decades, people in Scotland have voted Labour and they got Tories; then they voted Labour and got Labour; then they voted Labour and got a Tory/Lib Dem coalition. What changed for Scotland in that period? More importantly, when Scotland finally got the Labour government they voted for, what did that Labour government deliver? What was Scotland’s reward? You can point to the minimum wage, you can point to the fact Blair’s government raised millions of families out of poverty, but those were UK-wide policies. What did *Scotland* get for being so loyal all those years? Where were the jobs? The houses? The prosperity?

By now you’re screaming that Labour delivered a devolved parliament, and of course, they did. But even there, Labour have been out-witted by the SNP. Yes, Labour delivered a devolved parliament, but it was the SNP that delivered the most powerful devolved parliament in the World. It was the SNP that delivered Smith. It was the SNP that made Westminster sit up and take notice, made them panic and had all three leaders of the main political parties stand together, look north and make hasty promises.

Let me ask you: why wasn’t it Scottish Labour that did that?

I lived in England up until 2010, and I have to tell you at the time the vast majority of people in England wouldn’t have a clue who Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish or Jack McConnell were, let alone whether they achieved anything of note. They weren’t on TV or the radio. Even now, writing this article, I had to look them up. Fast forward to 2016 and I bet most people in England know who Alex Salmond is; they know who Nicola Sturgeon is too; she’s on Marr every damn week. Those two are now international politicians of note; they are Scottish, they are important and people are listening to them.

After decades of feeling ignored, the people of Scotland feel like they matter, and it was the SNP that did that, not Scottish Labour.

That is the major fault-line in Scottish politics.

So how do we move forward? It’s easier to say what we shouldn’t do than what we should. I’ll reiterate that the people of Scotland are no different to anyone else: they care about jobs, money, their family, education and the NHS. They don’t like tax rises, they don’t care about whether policies are progressive or not.

Therefore Scottish Labour must focus on what they are going to deliver for the people of Scotland. How are we going to make Scottish people matter? How are we going to make Scotland count? What are the positives of the Union and how are Scottish Labour going to make sure Scotland gets the maximum benefit from the UK without any of the risks of leaving? Can we deliver jobs? Housing? A better NHS? Better education? More teachers, more nurses? Can we build schools without the absolute disaster that is PFI?

Attacking the SNP record has to be part of our strategy, but only a small part. These people are heroes to many of the voters we want to win back, and we won’t win them back by attacking their heroes.

We must seek to inspire people. And they’re not going to be inspired by tax rises. They’re going to be inspired by bold, radical policies that deliver benefits to the people of Scotland.

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9 thoughts on “The major fault line in Scottish politics isn’t what you think

  1. Thanks Mick. There is a clue in the name, of course: Scottish National Party. The SNP have always made it very clear they believe themselves to be “Standing Up for Scotland” and have effectively trademarked the slogan. The notion they pedal very effectively is that they are a competent administration that can be trusted, – but above all else they prefer policies dedicated to populism rather than to socialism. Their reward was a referendum and sitting where I am all I can see is they did very handsomely out of it. Instead of imploding, the SNP grew stronger and more confident and have now garnered to themselves the 45 per cent who voted for independence. To dismiss that as “nonsense” is simply not realistic when the evidence is clear – the people of Scotland trust them far more than they trust us because they are clear about what they want and how to achieve it – independence.

    The post-independence scenario is never discussed. Voters are free to imprint on that whatever aspirations they wish. The harsh reality that Scotland will be a commodities based petro-economy is certainly never aired nor indeed the SNP’s tendencies towards “business friendly” policies and even openly advocating more and more tax breaks for “Big Oil”. But undeniably for the past decade and more it is the SNP who have set the political agenda and now dominate as we have struggled to find a post-devolution identity. Opposition to the Tories is just not enough any more.

    Scottish Labour has dithered and attempted to play percentage games to claw back support and credibility but it has fallen between the two most obvious camps that do indeed dominate Scottish politics – and we have not helped ourselves by our continuing inability to promote a vision for Scotland aimed at reducing inequality and supporting economic growth. Instead, we are almost passive observers to our own demise with 36 per of voters considering Labour irrelevant to the future of Scottish politics.

    So, the starting point is a clear, firm and intractable decision to either remain in the Union or support independence. FROM that point we must establish – in my opinion – progressive and utilitarian policies aimed at reducing inequality of opportunity, alleviating the dire effects of poverty and championing equality and diversity. And stick to them! Why else did we join?

  2. I think what’s clear to me is that there is a percentage of SNP voters who are not necessarily pro-independence, but they do think the SNP do a good job for Scotland. I think the pro-Indy group will shrink over time (I suspect it already has, because of oil and the economy), but not necessarily the pro-SNP group. It is those pro-SNP, anti-independence people that Labour must compete for.

    How many of that 45% in 2014 are genuinely, unarguably pro-independence? Remember there was a very late surge; about 10-15% of that 45% were sold a vision and bought into independence; they are not lifetime, died-in-the-wool nationalists. We can sell them a vision and bring them back to the idea of union. Then there is a further 10-15% who support the SNP and who don’t support independence. Again, we need to sell them a vision.

    I agree with you that SNP supporters like them because they trust them; I disagree that that trust is based on independence. The SNP would like to think that, but support for SNP is much greater than the support for independence

    1. How many of the 55% in 2014 are genuinely, unarguably Unionist? Remember the very late intervention by Gordon Brown and the vision he sold to the electorate?

      If we’re going back into the business of peddling visions, we better be in a position to deliver fully and comprehensively. Our credibility is hardly stellar just now.

  3. Mick, You are looking for answers to your questions (third last para has nine question marks). I know this is not what you want to hear but maybe its too late for Labour in Scotland? Maybe over the years too many big mistakes in strategy has left SL irrelevant? Maybe Donald Dewar should have allowed ‘independence’ to have be an option on the table for discusion at the first Constitutional Commission way back in 92? Maybe SL should have taken Alex Salmond’s offer of a third option on the Scottish referendum ballot paper? Maybe SL should have been more open minded about their Scottish referendum position and not campaigned so hard along side the Tories in support of the union? Maybe Gordon Brown should have been less dogmatic in the days before 18.09.2014 on all those promises he was never in a position to deliver? Maybe Alistair Darling should have declined the Scottish Conservatives invitation to speak at their unionist rally, remember the one where he got a standing ovation? I could go on.
    Sometimes one has to make a decision that will be life changing. You dont realise at the time just how important the moment and the choice you make will have for your future until many years later.
    The same applies to political parties. I think SL has, maybe unwittingly, made a lot of wrong choices over the last 25 years. Personally, I cant see a way back. In fact I think it is only going to get worse. I see no respite. Next years local coucil elections I think will complete the misery.

    1. They way back is to be a positive party, promoting what we have done right, acknowledging what we have done wrong, and giving people a bit of hope that things will get better. The SNP are riding a very big wave, and in some respects, they deserve it. But they have no backbone. They are a populist party who will do anything to achieve one goal, but that goal has gone – there will be no indyref2, not for a long time. There is no economic case and they know it. They won’t be at the top forever and Scottish Labour must be ready when they fall.

  4. I don’t share the gloom Richard. However, I do accept that the road home will be much longer and harder than people think.

    The bottom line is that Labour was “the establishment” from about the 1950s until 2007. Labour dominated and it was Labour who were associated with the great Citadels of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. People in Scotland knew this. We were “in with the bricks”. We cannot deny that a sense of Labour entitlement grew up in Scotland. When the great de-industrialisation took place (a process clearly signalled in the 1960s) our response was largely to get angry with the Tories but look the other way. As communities were consigned to the scrapheap of history as Scotland’s economy re-modelled itself into a largely service based economy based on banking and oil we also abandoned our TU ties and bonds of fraternity. The purpose of Labour became unfocussed and blurred.

    Our return to power in the UK in 1997 was on the back of a huge amount of goodwill and trust but we lost our way. People stopped trusting us and the opportunities afforded by devolution allowed the SNP to not just poison the well but to stand on the shoulders of giants and claim what was ours – even if they had no intention of delivering it, improving upon it or replacing it.

    I assure you there are many folk out there who truly believe the SNP stands to the left of Labour, who have swallowed hook, line and sinker the message that only independence can deliver for Scotland because Labour cannot be trusted. We are still seen as “the Establishment” and It does not matter that we can point to the transformation of Glasgow and other cities as evidence or claim credit for building schools and hospitals, replacing Victorian infrastructure, attacking the symptoms of social deprivation and even achieving a massive increase in employment – without that trust we are nothing. What great societal change has the SNP brought about? None. What is the vision of the SNP as regards the status or ordinary folk? More of the same it appears but they have firmly established themselves as “Scotland’s Party” and casting us out into the cold at the same time.

    So, back to the drawing board. Time to have that debate – who are we and what do we actually believe in.

    The historians amongst us will point out that we had to do much the same in 1928, 1983 and 1995 but the task is much more difficult now. Back then the choice was left or right? Today it is Independence or Union (take your pick which form) and then left or right.

    The good news is that we have a new and youthful leader who will take on board the lessons quickly. We must now recognise that our performance at council level is now absolutely critical if we are to stage a recovery of any description and we must build from that level upwards because their ain’t no quick fix available.

  5. Peter, Your take on Scottish modern history is different to mine. “We are still seen as “the Establishment” and It does not matter that we can point to the transformation of Glasgow and other cities as evidence or claim credit for building schools and hospitals,” Transformation of Glasgow? Would that be the transformation initiated by Stephen Purcell and Gordon Matheson? Remember them and the example they set? “The credit for building schools and hospitals?” Would those include the Edinburgh schools built under PFI of which 13 are now closed due to health and safety concerns.
    I particularly liked “……….but we lost our way. People stopped trusting us and the opportunities afforded by devolution allowed the SNP to not just poison the well but to stand on the shoulders of giants and claim what was ours”. Is that what you really think Peter? Is it possible that anyone can be so blinkered to reality? Is it possible anyone can use so many cliches in the one sentence?
    Lets move onto your last paragraph regarding Scottish Labour’s new leader, who you claim “will take on board the lessons quickly. ” Well good luck with that one. My take on Kezia Dugdale is that it is a disgrace she has found herself in this position in the first place. Why? Because she is too young and inexperienced to hold this office. She is way out of her depth. Everyone can see it except of course yourself Peter. Scottish Labour’s senior figures are I believe guilty of dereliction of duty when they allow KD to carry the burden of leadership.

    1. Thanks for your comments Richard. I don’t share your views. Open your eyes to what has been achieved in Glasgow over the last 20 years. From “No Mean City” to cultural venue of choice for many. If you looking for a starting point of that transformation maybe you might prefer Frank McAveety’s first term in office? I suspect not. In fact, I rather suspect there is no evidence that might persuade you from your doleful discourse. Which leads me to your comments about the massive re-building projects that Labour got underway after 18 long years of Tory rule. You might not be proud of that achievement but I am. PFI is here to stay in one form or another. NPD is little more than PFI with a fake charity bolted onto the front of it. As for the Edinburgh schools fiasco – the beauty of the PFI contract is that the bill will be picked up by the contractors and not Edinburgh taxpayers. Far from being blinkered to reality I live and work in the commercial world. And in that real world we work with what we have instead of pining for something that will never materialise. Finally, your comments about Kezia Dugdale are not just borderline offensive but utterly misplaced. I shall accept your presence on this site as evidence, of sorts, that you are a Labour voter and supporter and not just some Yesnp troll moonlighting but try to temper your responses in future to avoid unnecessary personal sleights. Here to help.

      1. Fair enough Peter, lets leave this for the time being. What say we get in back in touch next May?

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