14 June 2015

The Scotland to be regained is not a Braveheart nation

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. 


  1. I think your analysis is wrong in one important respect although I do concede this is merely personal opinion: I think there is now a core of at one time Labour voters who will never again trust the party as long as it is in thrall to the UK party.

    1. May be. But for folk so minded, even a loose federation is likely to look like a hierarchical relationship in practice...

  2. The argument is spot on, but the original Scotsman article and this quotation from it both misspell "practise"...

  3. You are right to say that Labour will win “only when [they] 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”. Policies, in short, must be based on genuine values.

    But you go on to say “That may be impossible in the short, medium or long term.” There’s the rub. Political parties need presentation as well as policies. In an arena dominated by a highly integrated (and strongly anti-Labour) media Labour will be crucified if it tries to present the same policies as sufficiently left-wing for Scotland and sufficiently right-wing for England.

    In committing itself to a half-way house of asymmetric devolution Labour has put itself in a structurally impossible position. If Labour is serious about developing consistent value-based policies applicable to the whole UK then it must either propose some kind of symmetric (i.e. federal) system or bite the bullet and abolish the Scottish Parliament.

    The latter would be political suicide and the federal dream still looks as wraith-like as ever. Maybe Labour’s goal really is impossible in the long term.

  4. They cannot save themselves if they ditch UK labour. Thats an interesting argument, not one I readily agree with. For example:

    UK labour has convinced itself that it cannot win unless it invades the heartlands of the Tory party. Home court advantage counts for a lot and frankly labour is setting itself up for a sucker punch if it tries it. Yet we know Labour in Scotland cannot win by shifting to the right whatsoever. If your analysis is true and they were campaigning on behalf of the Scottish right wing press; trying to please the great gods of the holy column inch, then they frankly they will have no idea as to how they engage with the electorate they lost. That right wing press was as instrumental in driving that vote away as McDougall or McTernan were.

    Labour in Scotland cannot campaign against its UK party leadership. It has no autonomy other than what it has under the Scotland act. If it wanted this...truly wanted this, then it would have to put its full weight behind the SNP and gain substantial powers. But we know it wont. It has decided that it wants to surrender powers to councils, because it thinks it is safe there. And wants to get rid of "dead weight" MSPs to make way for DOA MP's. The whole party reeks of failure. The party does not know how to push for something with vision or to inspire hope. Look at the dithering over Bedroom tax. Or outright lying about voting down fracking in Westminster. We can spend a lot of time picking on its many faults, but frankly I can no longer endure any more autopsies of this party. The question then is this: If it will not separate, and we now know it won't. If the UK party decides to further adopt the arguments of its opponents how can Scottish labour ever develop a new direction?

    I think the answer is that it cannot. We may have to concede that given the UK parties current trajectory, the Scottish branch will not be able to recover. It may very well slip into a semi-comatose state that the Scottish Liberals are in. Passing into irrelevance, but talking about how they once part of the "warp and weft" of Scottish culture.

  5. Nice piece Master Worrier. However, I fail to see how the circle can be squared, with what is good for Labour in England, being bad for Scotland and vice versa, unless Scottish Labour become an independent entity, the disaffected voters will never return. Your last line rings out loud and clear and I echo your sentiments.

  6. Andrew: 'I don't know about you, but I just don't recognise the electorate Murphy was trying to address.'

    True, but I would say the same about the electorate the SNP was trying to address - if ayhting even more imaginary - yet of course this didn't stop about half the real voters - the buggers - choosing SNP.

    Scotland seems to me to resemble Marianne Moore's definition of poetry - an imaginary garden with real toads.

  7. And as for Robin McAlpine’s observations on Murphy, this is the man who describes the Sheridan bandwagon Hope Over Fear as “the only truly working class part of our wider movement” -


    All our perceptions may be relative, but Murphy is a Brian Cox in comparison to McAlpine’s Shelley von Strunckel

    1. I would have thought that a man of your liberal intelligence, Edwin, would be immune to the logical fallacy that A is wrong about Y, therefore A is wrong about everything...

  8. It's news to me that the Scottish Lib Dems are constitutionally separate. Both because I've never seen or heard one of them say that and of course secondly because none of them show any sign of it being true in practise.

    I'm also a former labour voter who will not even consider going back to them this side of independence when their own independence will be forced upon them. I presume the iScotland govt will have sensible policies about foreign political donations in place to protect our independent politics to ensure that.

    Oh and if the Scottish Greens can operate and survive as a separate party, why can't SLAB? It would require some jiggery pokery including separating out Scottish union member's contributions and they may have to surcharge their employed members for the short term funds at risk of deselection but both are doable.

    It depends how close to independence you think we are and how inevitable you see it as. IF we have a euro referendum next year and that triggers another referendum, we could be independent by mid 2018 so SLAB would be well advised to get the process rolling. Though if we have to rely on cloth eared Tories converting No voters piecemeal with every cut and statement they may have until 2020. But still it looks fairly imminent to me.

    See Stewart Hosie's warning in today's National for eg. I think if SLAB do not take him at his word they will be making a bad mistake. I'm certainly raring to get out there and chap doors and maybe don a panda suite or wear a Carmichael mask for IndyRef 2 (though perhaps wearing said mask while canvassing might not be good idea, don't want to be mistaken for a Halloween thing or give old ladies heart attacks).

    1. Though if you ask the Scottish Greens -- getting the media correctly to report their separate status was heavy weather.

  9. Political metaphors come in (forgive me) Shades of Grey, but I am aware that I am reading the above and typing this on the anniversary of the all-conquering Sinn Féin being ripped asunder by the 1922 Treaty, to the extent of one side taking heavy artillery to the other. Absit omen, even as a passing allegory.

    The SNP will become really, really interesting when its fissures start to show. For, be assured, they will. It's the essence of politics.

    Doctrinal:or opportunist? Politics, as the axiom goes, is all about choices. Resources are limited. Today's land flowing with milk-and-honey may tomorrow be semi-skimmed and suffer foulbrood. Then there's the ever-present danger of lowliness being young ambition's ladder ...

    Political tides come in, and go out. When Dorigen's or Nicola's "grisly rokkes blake" again emerge, as they must, what crawls from under them?

    There are worse things than a Labour Party.