Stuart Winton was on fine form when he posed the following questions in a recent article on thinking about devolution. He asks, "why would a UK-wide party want different policies in different parts of the UK and hence different standards of service delivery or public choice"? They’re classic conundrums of devolution. Just why should a UK party adopt different policies in one party of Britain and not another, and secondly, how can any divergence be justified while maintaining the party’s unity, consistency and riotously hierarchical leadership structure? It’s the question that has been puzzling a few Scottish bloggers recently in the context of what Gerry Hassan styles the 'Tale of Two Labour Manifestos: "Choice" & the Absence of England.' How to conceptualise these two documents’ diverging tacks?
Argues Mr Winton, “So Labour at Holyrood will seek to deliver the same things that Labour at Westminster is promising. Thus what's the point of devolution? But then Mr Gray said they wouldn't do the same things, but seemed unable to rationalise why they wouldn't.” In this sense, there are at least two questions. Firstly - why devolution? What justifies devolved powers and why did the Labour party support it? Various arguments have been adduced. Different priorities, civil society's different landscape, different economic structures, different interests, a notion that certain matters are for "community" resolution, while accepting that reasonable men and women can reasonably differ on the preferred course to take. Secondly, and obviously connected to the first question - why should a UK party adopt a different policy and a different approach in one part of the country, and how to justify that difference while maintaining your unity, your consistency, your party's riotously hierarchical leadership structure?
Always keen to assist my fine friends in the Labour Party, just a few points we should bear in mind, when thinking about these issues. Firstly, they could worm around by making the old managerialist distinction between goals and instruments for the realisation of those goals. On the meta-level of norms and values, they might say, the Labour party is a broad convocation, rapt in equal adoration for the same gods, whether they're Scots or not. Climbing down from these lofty ethical positions, faced with the brute deviations in society, the respective parties simply adopt different methods for realising "fairness" or what have you. Despite the ostensible and incompatible deviation in their approaches, this theory would argue, they are indistinguishable on the level of their beliefs. It is, after all, this particular sore spot which critics, always with a keen nose for dissent and disagreement, mercilessly prod when they ask Iain Gray or his predecessors impish questions about his apparent disagreement with his supervisor Jim Murphy and his superior, Gordon Brown. Gray couldn't reasonably attempt to deny that different practical courses are being charted, that Scottish Labour wants to rig the country up differently. What matters to these hostile viewers is deviation from party doctrine, not the mundaneness and specificities of the party's rites and material rituals. This approach to policy formulation, you'll notice, is resolutely unempirical and assumes that there can be and must be only one order of beliefs, which seem to exist in a vacuum. This view is not something purely external to the Labour party, inflicted upon this poor, helpless animal. Indeed, this theory of unitary ideology only becomes relevant precisely because of the structure that makes Iain Gray a daft little mannequin, rattled by strings jerked and tugged from the party's London centre. Equality does not prevail among Labour's Wee Three Kings.
For myself, I don't find this division convincing and would argue that the gulf between policy "beliefs" and the tools used to bring them about (or hoping to bring them about) isn't a helpful way to imagine our politics. Moreover, the acrobatic argument I suggested that Labour might think of using - admitting practical deviations but denying any ideological difference between London and Edinburgh branches - hardly convinces, precisely because it relies on this false, sharp division between ends and means. Of course, many of you reading this will write it off for damned Scotch metaphysics. After all, we know the real reason why Gray fidgets and why Murphy smoothly denies there is a problem. Fundamentally, on particular policy agendas, Scottish Labour simply doesn't agree with the ideology being pursued by Brown from Downing Street. But being craven, dishonest and slippery - they pretend there's no problem, lest they find themselves getting biffed by internal party commissars for making Gordon's life difficult. They do as they're told. We needn't muse too deeply into the complex relationship between our dim goals and the complex political and administrative processes to understand that. That said, however, I'd disagree with Stuart Winton's argument to this extent. Although Labour invite a damned good thrashing for pretending and choking off capacity for real internal disagreement on approaches - we should never lose sight of the empirical relationship and context in which policy should be put. Policy formulation, in short, shouldn't be imagined in any simple two step manner of (1) identifying and elaborating your "beliefs" a priori and then (2) realising them through practical measures. Policy formulation is a creature of distributed cognition.
In that sense, it might be helpful to think of our references to "policy" or "beliefs" as operating on at least two levels. At the level of allegiance to broad concepts, pretty vacuous concepts mind you, Labour may well be more or less of a piece. Such things are the spur to unity and ongoing purpose in a party, agitating together. When they say this is true, they're not exactly being dishonest. Merely, the detail and level of agreement underlying such commitment shouldn't be overstated. Its for this reason that two Labour politicians might make almost identical speeches, one after the other, drawing on exactly the same rhetorical tradition and carpetbag of concepts, yet fundamentally deviate in what is meant, what is proposed. In context, these divergent approaches hastily manifest because the empirical content of the speeches - their real world referents - remain absent, the audience taking from them what they will, what they understand them to mean in terms of their own political priorities and concerns. This becomes impossible in government, rooted in a particular pre-existing structure of institutions and their self-identities and accounts of their own activities and values. The hypothetical becomes actual. Loose concepts become particular conceptions, faced with these pre-existing structures of power and influence and possibility and difficulty. For this reason, any Labour justification of their different policy approaches which relies on the first model of instrumental reason will come unstuck. Its fundamentally dishonest about the nature of applied and realised values