Aspiration, lionising "wealth creators", punching coal miners -- the UK Labour leadership election is in full uninspiring swing. And political triangulation is once again the order of the day. I remain leery. Before the General Election, in a piece in the Scotsman, I wrote the following:
When you adopt the discourse of your opponents, when you co-opt their vocabulary and their ideology, you may think you are working a neat political trick, triangulating your way to victory. For a time, it may appear as if you have wrong-footed your enemies, as they struggle to replace the political costumes you have stolen from them.
Tony Blair was a past master at this. Today, the technocratic and soulless Ed Balls continues to practice these dark arts. But ultimately, triangulation is a way of ensuring that your opponent wins, whether you retain office or they boot you out. It is a recipe for an asphyxiating political consensus, for conceding your opponents’ common sense, and not for victory on something like your own ideological terms.
Power-hungry proponents of triangulation will always be able to give their cynical gambits a realist gloss, casting their opponents as self-defeating dinosaurs insisting that there must be be no compromise with the electorate. The old ghosts of Blairite "pragmatism" - Mandelson, and the great man himself - have crept from their hiding places to dance the dans macabre on Ed Miliband's political grave. His brother grouses across the water about rediscovering "combination of economic dynamism and social justice."
Dan Hodges and John Rentoul have been browsing the restricted section, seeking copies of the Secrets of the Darkest Art in the hope of transferring the tarnished former leader's soul into a new political body. And in Liz Kendall, these strange passions seem to have found their perfect vessel. Given her antipathy to much of its historic platform and allegiances, you've got to wonder how the Leicester MP ever found her way into the Labour Party. And front-runner Andy Burnham seems to be pivoting the same way.
Starkly, oddly, missing from this discussion is any reflection on how any of these candidates might help the Labour Party to "reconnect with the people" they lost in their Scottish ridings. But ironically, this national triangulation to the right which is prompting another discussion on whether Scottish Labour should borrow another set of consumes from the Scottish National Party - and make a unilateral declaration of independence from their comrades in England and Wales. The branch office must close. It must be rebranded under new management. It must be liberated to devise its own merchandise and to make its own offers. What cures us in England will kill us in Scotland. That is the logic, anyway.
Scottish Labour should be untethered from the UK line and have the opportunity to pursue the distinctive Scottish Labour Scottish line pursued by patriotic Scot Jim for Scotland during his abortive leadership of the party. The proposal has gained enthusiastic cheerleaders in the press and on the airwaves. Some are speaking up from within the Labour Party. Others are offering gratuitous advice from outside the tent. Iain MacWhirter has been fashioning thunderbolts in his Herald column, arguing that "the tsunami" of the May general election "was the clearest possible message that all political parties in Scotland now have to place Scotland first." Scottish Labour, he argues, must disaffiliate to survive.
Respectfully, this seems like total guff to me. It represents a feeble, doomed attempt at triangulation which mislocates the People's Party's travails and would fatally undermine the principled if quixotic case for the Union which Labour spent months advancing and which probably represents the Union's best last chance for survival in the longer term. As a partisan Nationalist, I suppose I ought to encourage the party to take this primrose path -- but let's consider the facts for a moment.
The parallels Iain draws with the SDLP in Northern Ireland are inexact. As are those from the German Republic. Practically, you can see how an Independent Scottish Labour Party might manage its relations with and English and Welsh Party. But it it is nigh impossible to see how an ISLP could ever demonstrate its independence in the context of UK wide general elections. The Scottish Liberal Democrats also enjoyed a paper federation with their colleagues in England and Wales. Bugger all good it did them too.
But more pointedly, as unseated Labour MP for Glasgow South Tom Harris argued this week, Labour "spent three years campaigning, persuading Scots of the value of a UK-wide political union - the benefits of pooling and sharing of resources." Labour UDI would blast this increasingly strained commitment to shared values to bits. In the very fabric of the party, it would cry them hokum.
Conceding your opponents logic in pursuit of the fleeting hope of victory is almost always a demonic bargain. Labour will not win again when they persuade Scottish voters they have passed some kind of imaginary patriotism test, but only when can translate their tired rhetoric of shared values across these islands into (a) a campaign with a sense of inspiration, mission and vision with (b) a potent and authentic cultural and social basis.
That may be impossible in the short, medium or long term. But the "Scotland first" diagnosis which preoccupies MacWhirter and his fellow travellers is a sideshow. As Robin McAlpine argued back in December, when Jim Murphy was first elected, the patriotism he espoused felt oddly dated and misplaced:
"... his pitch to Scotland looks awfully like a Russ Abbot sketch – stand on an Irn Bru crate, wear a Scotland football jersey, eat a Tunnocks’ Teacake. So bad (I think) is his misreading of the mood in Scotland that he has taken to using the word ‘patriot’ like it is the talk of the steamie across the country. He’s even proposing to put it in the Labour Party constitution. The only times I’ve head anyone going on about being a patriot in Scotland it was always a member of the Scottish establishment pretending to be ‘au fait’ with the locals. I really do think he is misreading the mood quite badly. Those Labour have lost don’t want to be ‘more Scotch’, they want out of London-based financial corruption. So far Murphy offers them nothing but platitudes of distinctly the wrong type."
These exaggerated protestations of patriotism had an early 1990s feel to them. But worse, they reified the dubious "surge of nationalism" story which dominated much of the UK media in the aftermath of the referendum. The crass sketches of "Glasgow Man". The picture of swithering Yes voters as dull-minded, policy-illiterate, beer swigging, sport loving sentimentalists who had been taken in by national feeling-- and who could be won back by a few tired performances in a manky old football shirt and an incontinent sprinkling of Scottishness in Labour's campaign literature.
Murphy even sought to exploit the idea that we want our politicians, like Dick Whittington, to head to London with nothing but a bindle, and to return heavy with gold pauchled from English mansions. It was a picture of crassness and misunderstanding.
I don't know about you, but I just don't recognise the electorate Murphy was trying to address. Not in the tenements of Glasgow. And not in the small town and rural communities in which I grew up. The only place I have seen such a constituency consistently conjured up is in the columns of frustrated, confused, pro-union, right-wing writers -- who feel like their sense of political gravity has deserted them in the aftermath of the 18th of September 2014.
For Scottish Labour to premise its general election campaign on these tangled, embittered -- and I would argue -- essentially misplaced diagnoses was remarkable. Murphy hoped to ride a wave of national sentiment which does not exist. At least not with anything like the force and intensity he seemed to imagine. The average elector is not the cybernat of hated preoccupation. Scottish Labour's problems are not due to the perceived dearth of their patriotism, but to arrogance, ideological drift, triangulation, laziness and organisational hollowness. The Scotland to be regained is not a Braveheart nation.
Forming an independent Scottish Labour party would be a historical blunder of even bigger proportions. Let's hope they make it.