21 May 2015

Two bereavements

Towards the end of the film Conspiracy (2001), Kenneth Branagh's character - Reinhard Heydrich - relates the following story.  Sceptical Doctor Kritzinger had been strong-armed into backing the Obergruppenführer's "final solution" at the Wannsee Conference, but he leaves the SS officer with this cautionary tale.

"He told me a story about a man he had known all his life, a boyhood friend. This man hated his father. Loved his mother fiercely. His mother was devoted to him, but his father used to beat him, demeaned him, disinherited him. Anyway, this friend grew to manhood and was still in his thirties when the mother died. The mother, who had nurtured and protected him, died. The man stood at her grave as they lowered the coffin and tried to cry, but no tears came. The man’s father lived to a very extended old age and withered away and died when the son was in his fifties. At the father’s funeral, much to the son’s surprise, he could not control his tears. Wailing, sobbing… he was apparently inconsolable. Utterly lost. That was the story Kritzinger told me."

The scene came back to me this morning, as I reflected on this remarkable half decade in Scottish politics.  Devolution has, somehow, killed Scottish Labour stone dead. The autopsies of the last two weeks have seen innumerable diagnoses of the party's predicaments exchanged by friends and foes of the People's Party. Amputation, anaesthetic stupefaction, and other kill-or-cure remedies are all being offered. 

The five stages of grief have all been in evidence, from outright denial and anger, to bargaining, depression and some signs of acceptance. In the immediate aftermath of the result, even the much diminished John Reid had a catch in the voice, and a wetness in the eye. Ian Davidson took immediately to the warpath. The affable Tom Harris was a picture of sod-it resignation. Margaret Curran and Jim Murphy shook with hysterical bonhomie. Ann McKechin slumped forlornly against the drapes. Ashen faced or bilious, despair was general, devastation and bewilderment. The old gods are finally dead -- and they have been a long time in the dying. 

To the unsympathetic observer, this looks like nemesis finally catching up with unpardonable hubris, But the stunned aftermath spoke of more than just sorrow for the collapse of a party, of grief for lost jobs, foiled ambitions, fallen comrades, and wasted hours of activism ending in disappointment -- May the 7th represented the final collapse of a long-eroded world-view. Of an identity, and a sure sense of political touch, lost. 

The Better Together campaign ran on the basis that Labour "understood" Scotland. That confidence has proven remarkably misplaced. It is no accident that many Labour sorts now seem thunderstruck, seeking easy explanations which insulate their party and movement and leadership from serious introspection or self-analysis. It is only human, after all. Not admirable, perhaps, but understandable. 

"Scotland has gone mad." "The electorate has become irrational." "The rise of nationalism." "It's just a battle of the flags with you lot." "People just wouldn't listen" -- all of these now familiar diagnoses mask a more basic cri de coeur. "I haven't the foggiest clue what is going on. The immortal magic has faded. How the hell could this happen? How could the Scotland of Daisley's grandfather desert us?"

So much, so familiar. But what folk perhaps haven't fully reckoned with is that the post-election dawn brought with it a second bereavement. It represented not only the death of Scottish Labour's conceit of itself -- of Labour Scotland -- but an end to the political world and assumptions which SNP activists have operated within and against for decades. 

My father was active in the SNP in Stirling during the doldrum days of the early 1980s, when the city was a carve up between Darth Michael Forsyth, his apprentices and Jack McConnell and the recently defenestrated Labour MP for Linlithgow and Falkirk East, Michael Connarty.  They were unhappy, hopeless times to be a Nat. The disaster of 1979 was still in the air. The local campaigns were generally unpleasant -- and above all unsuccessful. 

The idea that the party would or could go on to take the town in Holyrood and now Westminster would have seemed beyond fanciful. Thatcher sat in Downing Street. Scottish Labour were planted firmly in opposition. We were nowhere. No devolved parliament. No hope of devolution. No hope of casting off Tory rule. Nowt. It was pretty gruesome. It is all too easy to support the SNP these days. Back then, it meant lost jobs, seemingly rewardless struggle, looks askance, grief and failure.

It is no accident that even very senior Nationalists with access to good data couldn't bring themselves to believe that a 56 of 59 wipe out was possible. If Labour parliamentarians drank down this stuff, deluding themselves, Nationalist activists have long imbibed many of the same assumptions. The post-indyref newbies bring a different set of experiences with them, but the old hands will know what I mean. 

The heavy certainties and the anticipated disappointments: Nothing changes. Dyed in the wool. The siege wall around Fortress Glasgow and Lanarkshire is unbreachable. And now the old laws are dust. For Scottish Labour supporters and activists, the election result must have been devastating. But for the SNP too, it is also a bringer of change, of opportunities, but also a death of generational certainties and assumptions about how Scottish politics operates. It made John Reid croak. In me, it generates a sense both of opportunity and trepidation.

When the Tories finally ditched Ted Heath in 1975, Harold Wilson's first reaction was glee at having finally seen off his old opponent.  But his sense of triumph was blunted almost instantly by a rising sense of apprehension, as he confided in advisor Bernard Donoughue. I know this man. I've spent a decade watching him, opposing him, debating with him. I know his mind, how he thinks. I think I can anticipate how he will react. But what's coming next? What now? The defensive impulse is to cling on to the flotsam and jetsam --  to continue to read the riot act to the stricken Labour Party about its failures, its mediocrity and arrogance, and neglect. 

But eventually, even these old maps give out. The familiar boundaries and landmarks recede. And the canvas is blank. Strange times. 


  1. Only 6 months ago Jim Murphy said Labour would hold every seat,was it the glue or denial?

  2. The Canadian Conservatives went overnight from being in power to being reduced to 2 seats in 1993.

    They got back into power in 2006, and have been there since.

    1. Your claim is misleading..

      The present guise of the Conservative Party of Canada has only existed since 2003.

      You are talking about the Progressive Conservative Party (PCP) which merged with the Canadian Alliance (previously the Reform Party). The latter party won 52 seats in the 1993 Federal Election.

      The PCP never really receovered from the 1993 hammering hence why it merged with the Canadian Alliance. The right of centre vote is no longer split whereas the left of centre vote is divided between the NDP and the Liberals.

  3. Andrew, an interesting article. It will be interesting to see how the SNP respond now that the old certainties of Scottish politics have been dashed against the rocks. However, I still think that the SNP will deal with these changes quite comfortably as they have proved remarkably adept at creating their own reality over the past 10 years. What would be interesting to see is another party finally taking the initiative in Scottish politics by truly shaking up everybody's expectations and putting the SNP on the back foot. An example of this would be if Scottish Labour were to go into the 2016 election with a pledge to hold a second referendum.

    Following on from this, I think that you are too quick to rush to judgement in pronouncing the death of the Scottish Labour party .

    As a member of the party, I am convinced that Scottish Labour still has a future. However, radical change is surely required if the party is to thrive once again.

    In order to rise back to the top, the party must adopt a basic two-pronged strategy: (1) become more left-wing than the SNP; and (2) become more Scottish than the SNP.

    In order to achieve these aims, it is essential that Scottish Labour separates completely and irrevocably from UK Labour. One of the reasons that the SNP have done so well recently is because it has become established in the public mind that the SNP is the only party that will always put Scotland's interests first, whereas the other parties must necessarily subordinate Scotland’s interests in order to act in the interest of the UK as a whole. It is for this reason that so many people consider the SNP to represent “Scotland’s Voice”.

    If Scottish Labour were to be free to stand up for Scotland's interests alone, they would then be able to pursue policies which appeal directly to the Scottish electorate and would no longer be held back by the attempts of UK Labour to appeal to the decisive centre-right electorate of Middle England.

    This radical step of creating a wholly separate and independent Scottish Labour party would hopefully mean that the Scottish people would finally give the party a fair hearing for the first time in 5 years.

    When the Scottish people are ready to listen again they should hopefully hear the voice of a new party that is putting forward a positive left-wing agenda which is more radical than the small “c” conservative / pro-business elements of the SNP (e.g. John Swinney, Fergus Ewing, Ian Blackford, Chris Law, Alex Salmond in his Celtic Tiger days) would ever be willing to contemplate.

    On Day 1, the Scottish Labour party should demonstrate that it has truly changed by adopting the SNP's key progressive policies such as abolishing Trident and supporting extensive devolution of power verging on full fiscal autonomy / responsibility. Following this, the party should then push forward by advocating that every available new tax power should be used to squeeze the rich and redistribute to the poor through greater investment in education, health and jobs. The focus at all times should be on helping to lift people out of poverty and improving the lives of ordinary working men and women.

    In my view, an independent small "n" nationalist Scottish Labour party which is able to put forward a left-wing agenda based on principles of democratic socialism will eventually supplant the SNP as the dominant force in Scottish politics and also secure the continued existence of the Union.

    The challenge now is for Scottish Labour to demonstrate the intellectual self-confidence to step up and do what is necessary to win back the trust and support of the Scottish people.

    1. O... K... How do you imagine you'll deliver "extensive devolution of power verging on full fiscal autonomy / responsibility", just as a matter of interest? If you're completely separated from the UK Labour party, they're not going to deliver it for you. Even if they were in power, which they're not, nor likely to be for quite some time.

      The SNP are pretty clear about how they propose to deliver for Scotland, if Scotland is prepared to go for it. Take the power required in the form of independence, then re-negotiate a grown-up relationship with England.

      You're not prepared to do that. You want to have your cake and eat it. You want to offer Scotland what Scotland seems to want, but you're not prepared to take the only step which can deliver on these promises in the face of a Westminster government not disposed to grant them.

      I think the Scottish people have witnessed Scottish Labour making promises it has no means of delivering for long enough. I don't think they'll go for more of the same, even if it is trying to wrap itself in tartan. In fact, all the more so, because there won't even be the theoretical possibility of a Labour-led government in Westminster delivering - the new party won't have any way to arrange that.

    2. "In order to rise back to the top, the party must adopt a basic two-pronged strategy: (1) become more left-wing than the SNP; and (2) become more Scottish than the SNP. "

      How about a one-pronged strategy of just not being so obsessed with the SNP?

      Trying to steal SNP policies and then rebadge them as a new Scottish Labour party isn't going to fly with the electorate, mainly because people can smell a marketing exercise when they see it.

      SLab's hatred of the SNP is what has gotten them to this position, and until you folk can see that, you'll never understand why you've lost Scotland. And you certainly won't see a revival as long as you make the union a red-line issue, because then you're limiting yourselves to No voters, and a big chunk of them are dyed-in-the-wool Tories who would never vote Labour.

      The path to redemption for Labour is remarkably simple: just start being honest with yourselves, and with voters. Can't see that happening anytime soon, though.

    3. Rolfe, you ask how an independent Scottish Labour party would achieve full fiscal autonomy / responsibility.

      The answer is that Scottish Labour would do it in exactly the same way that the SNP intends to achieve independence.

      Scottish Labour would first pledge to hold a referendum on full fiscal autonomy / responsibility in their manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary elections. If they are lucky enough to be elected as the Scottish government they would then argue that they have a mandate from the Scottish people to hold a referendum. Following this, I would expect the UK government to grant the Scottish Parliament the power to hold the necessary referendum. The rest would follow.

      The SNP are relying on this exact same process in order to enable them to hold a second independence referendum. They are currently operating on the basis that the UK government will inevitably agree to accept the will of the Scottish people as expressed at the Scottish parliamentary elections and thereby authorise the Scottish Parliament to hold a second independence referendum. If the SNP are correct in this assumption, the same rule should also apply for any referendum that is proposed by an independent Scottish Labour party.

    4. But you wouldn't drop your support for the union? You wouldn't stop hating the SNP? The latter is principally what has alienated 50% of Scottish voters?

    5. I don't see in your analysis a plan for how you will defeat the dead hand of the Blairites to achieve your Nirvana. As Falkirk showed they can both be ruthless and have the vindictive support of big business behind them.

      If you think the Blairites are going to just go away and leave the party to those they think they defeated so long ago you are dreaming. The few remaining lefties like you have been kept on as window dressing only. The Blairites will run the party into the dust rather than let you have it and you know it.

      It's beyond saving. Leave and join the SSP or TUSC if you really want to campaign on those issues. Come to a RIC meeting and be amongst friends again.

  4. Andrew: 'But eventually, even these old maps give out. The familiar boundaries and landmarks recede. And the canvas is blank. Strange times. '

    Funny i have been thinking of Lanark and new maps -

    “Who did the council fight?"
    "It split in two and fought itself."
    "That's suicide!"
    "No, ordinary behaviour. The efficient half eats the less efficient half and grows stronger. War is just a violent way of doing what half the people do calmly in peacetime: using the other half for food, heat, machinery and sexual pleasure. Man is the pie that bakes and eats himself, and the recipe is separation."

    1. A different kind of "separation" ;-)

    2. I never could do wuth that faffing with separate eggs, i am a horse it all kind of cook.

  5. That was a bit gnomic. To expand, yes the old order hath changed, not just Labour in West of Scotland but Liberal in Highlands.

    Anecdotes for what they are worth -

    - I remember a nice young English Tory in the 70s telling me he couldnt work with 'these people' (Scottish Tories) - he was outraged at Scottish sectarianism

    - I was part of the small band of demonstrators protesting at the SA ambassador getting lunch at the City Chambers, lunch with the egregious Labour provost Hodge. I wrote an account of the day for British Amnesty (which had a newspaper in those weird far off days). Later Michael Kelly made amends by working to get Mandela honoured by the city. At the time the council leader in Glasgow was a Tory, one you could work with, the respected (and Home Ruler) John Young

    If the past was weird, i susect the futuremay be weirder.

  6. Oh, but LPW isn't it just SNP propaganda to say that devolution has killed Scottish Labour stone dead? Perhaps it is how you define Labour. I would say that the Winter of Discontent and the Miners' Strike put Labour out of action as an emanation of the politically-organised working class.

    The point is that the SNP doesn't bring the masses back on to the stage politically. It is merely a reaction to Old Labour's demise, in almost exactly the same way that Blairism was. Those who persist in the delusion that the SNP is left-wing magically fail to see all the familiar hallmarks of Blairism - the making a virtue of the centre ground, Salmond's use of the Activate canvassing system (even before New Labour used such technology), the snuggling up with Murdoch. Blair threw a bone to the Left in wanting to ban fox-hunting. With the SNP, it is trident.

    Labour is in such trouble at the moment because Scotland has no need of two Blairite political parties.

    1. But I failed to mention all of the authoritarian policymaking which the SNP takes from New Labour's book. I think the "named person" legislation would make even Tony Blair pause and whimper "I've created a monster!"

  7. Labour was corrupted by complacency, but the level of self-delusion was also significant. The bloated self-servers who time-served through the 80s when they defined the image of themselves: "Not the Tories. Against Thatcher." They triangulated themselves into the very thing they'd opposed. Now the scale of the SNP victory has torn back the cloth concealing the Portrait of Dorian Gray.

    At present they still locked in horror stare at the countenance they've been forced to behold. I suspect there is no way back for the party unless they sever themselves from the Whig-like mannequin corpse that is UK Labour, but doubt there is sufficient gumption within their ranks to cut the cord. We shall see.

    The SNP may not be anywhere close to the state Labour found itself in a decade ago, for there remains an ideal within clear sight and they have a leadership whose trustworthiness is still above reproach. Whether this can be sustained as the natural party of government in Scotland, without serious opposition and with all the temptations, corrosive donors and Establishment blandishments to come will be one of the great tests. We shall see.