21 April 2010

How innocuous is the phrase "London parties"?

Just how innocuous is the phrase “London political parties”? It’s a familiar rhetorical trope used by Plaid Cymru and the SNP to describe the totality of Tweedles dum, dee and dem. Three words, but in a Nationalist mouth, probably denoting a distinction between the three UK-wide parties and the SNP, currently emphasising an argument that the real choice is between the SNP and any of these parties, perhaps invoking the idea of rule from London as a distant and oppressive mode of governance without popular participation or check. For some, the phrase might dimly recall words of Sir Walter Scott, in a pointed section in the Heart of Midlothian ~

I dinna ken muckle about the law, answered Mrs Howden; but I ken, when we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o' our ain, we could aye peeble them wi' stanes when they werena gude bairns - Bit naebody's nails can reach the length o' Lunnon.

For others, this is the least of it. The funereal Jim Murphy sprung a pre-plotted sententious diatribe when Angus Robertson merely referenced the term on last night's brisk debate on STV. Its noteworthy that this popped up in the section on public finances and that Robertson was making an argument about party policy on Thatcherite-grade spending cuts all the while investing oodles of loot in new nuclear technologies. The only man in the room who took this as a hurtful goad at identities was Jim Murphy. I transcribe the whole of his spontaneous little speech.

“Angus spits this London Parties thing out. I'm not sure where he gets the insult from. I don't think any of us are from London, Angus. I'm a patriot. I'm proud to be Scottish. Don't try to capture this sort of politics of patriotism with the St Andrews flag as if you were Angus ... We're all Scottish and we're all proud to be Scottish, Angus. So don't spit this London thing out at us.

Watching this last night, it struck me as a rather bizarre little hobbyhorsing riposte by Murphy - since it plainly wasn't warranted by what Angus Robertson actually said. Nobody mentioned patriotism but Jim. The crucial point about this is that the phrase London parties can't simply be chalked up with a single meaning. It doesn't necessarily mean that the SNP hate the English, Londoners or anyone south of the Tweed. I'm often surprised - but increasingly less so - at how the Labour party seem to yearn for a xenophobic SNP, how readily they reach for epithets which characterise us as spittle-flecked moonies, who dream fond dreams of border posts, army uniforms for our future military President and tartan apartheid for all Sassenachs found in the country after Independence Day. Its a curious question - one I've never been able to satisfy myself with a plausible answer to - why does the Labour party so desperately want the SNP to be racist? If you have a theory, do let me know.

Equally, it should strike us as immediately ironic that Murphy allegation of identity politics is itself a use of identity to scotch a legitimate ideological position. The SNP's argument is that Scotland should exercise self-determination, we should have a care for our own affairs from Edinburgh - and that England and Wales should be able to do likewise. London Parties don't fit into this picture of good governance for Scotland, by Scotland. Legitimate so far? Sure, you might disagree - but few folk would say that this is a radically unacceptable thesis in a modern democracy. So what does Jim do? Jim suggests that if you have a  problem with rule from London, this immediately equates with blood and soil nationalism. If you want to exercise self-determination, want to persuade the people of your argument - Murphy will shoot you down as greasy little Saltire-waving Chauvenist. An incredible position to adopt.

Or so I thought. Not incredible enough not to find an echo in Edinburgh's finest daily number. Rather than using their wits and wiles to unpack Murphy's toadstool diatribe, the Scotsman decided to take their cue from the cadaverous Secretary of State for Scotland, using this morning's editiorial to make this extraordinary claim of the SNP manifesto that it...

Regrettably ... opened with an underlying tone of xenophobia with the SNP's main rivals – the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems – referred to as the London parties, a blatant and dishonourable attempt to re-write history and ignore the Scottish antecedence of the main UK parties.

Helpfully, we've got a copy of the manifesto before us. So what particular opening reference to "London parties" got them in such an indignant wax? Surely some great horror to prompt the scribblers to scrounge up this pretty scandalous suggestion. Lets have a look at the Maximum Eck's introduction. Certainly, one can spot the reference to 'London Parties' - but look at the context. 

This election is about ensuring a strong team of Scottish MPs in the House of Commons - a team of SNP MPs. Local champions, who will be there working hard for you, your community and Scotland. The London parties all offer the same thing - the wrong priorities for our nation. They aren’t talking about the issues that matter most to people or offering the solutions and ideas that will improve life here in Scotland. For them the needs of our families, neighbours and communities are a second thought. Scotland deserves better. The SNP cares about Scottish success. We are Scotland’s Party and here at home, and in the parliament in London we offer Scotland a stronger voice. When the SNP is successful, London listens.

So, this sneaking tone of isolationism and racism detected by the sensitive lugs in the Scotsman - amounts to a statement that Westminster is in London, that the SNP want to participate in that institution in the short term, and what is more, that the parties aren't talking enough about ideas to improve life in Scotland. And who the devil mentioned history, anyway? Since when did the historical provenance of a movement become the agreed upon and final standard of reference? We might consider, for example, where the parties are based now - Manchester? Leeds? Oh no. Wait - the Labour Party Head Office is in Victoria Street, London. The Conservative Campaign Headquarters – formerly Conservative Central Office – is in Millbank tower in another SW1 address, while the Liberal Democrats’ headquarters are on Cowley Street, London SW1P 3NB. They are, in this sense London Parties. Does that make me a xenophobe for pointing it out? Or does it suggest that the phrase London Parties has none of the necessary evil which Murphy and his press cronies impute to it? Wouldn't it suggest that we should examine around the context of the remarks to understand what they denote? Wouldn't that require the press to actually find a killer, xenophobic quote - instead of resorting to the lazy tropes of all conspiracy theorists and flat-headed cynics? 

- The xenophobia is sort of in its tone, where they put that comma there - I can almost smell it - no, no, its nothing he said exactly, but I can see clearly that it is the case, despite the total absence of evidence and his strenuous objections to the contrary...


  1. My main problem with this phrase is that it is quite lazy and can easily be twisted other ways.

    Under the rationale that Labour, the Lib Dems and Conservatives are all 'London parties' because their offices are based there (as well as the UK Parliament) does this make the SNP an 'Edinburgh party’?

    There was some criticism of Labour during the GARL dispute for making themselves out to be a Glasgow/West of Scotland party, highlighting the fact that they were standing against an east coast-biased SNP.

    Labour were criticised for this doing this but surely it's no different from saying 'London parties' and seeking to create a divide in that manner? And it’s likely that if at the next election other parties starting running a campaign against the ‘Edinburgh parties’ these complaints would continue.

  2. Father MacKenzie21 April 2010 at 12:38

    Angus Robertson is from London, which I felt coloured Murphy's "None of us are from London, Angus. I'm a patriot"

    Ideas of Civilisiation:

    Yes by the same logic the SNP and the Greens would be the Edinburgh parties, but the only party that could claim to be the Glasgow party in that context would be the SSP. For Labour to claim it is the Glasgow party when it is HQed in London is palpably false.

    I think it is fair for voters/the media etc to question both Labour and the SNPs bias towards other areas of the country.

    The SNP can point to the increase in funding Glasgow has received and their commitment to the commonwealth games related infrastructure projects around the city.

    Labour can point to...anything that will distract the locals from the reality of the situation.

  3. "why does the Labour party so desperately want the SNP to be racist? If you have a theory, do let me know."

    It's only a theory but the reason is probably twofold.

    Firstly, the Labour party is convinced that if the SNP win independence Scotland will become some weird cross between, "The Broons", and Brigadoon. Men will be forced to wear kilts while the Scottish leader will be greeted by an upraised arm and a salutation of, "Hoots Heid-man". All nationalism is bad except for British nationalism in their eyes.

    Labour want the SNP to be racist because then their stereotype will match reality.

    Secondly, it is very easy to attack a racist party. If the SNP were racist then it would be open season on them. Labour want them to be racist because then they would have an open goal to attack instead of having to justify why Scotland is better off in the Union when plainly it isn't.

    So Labour want the SNP to be racist in order to make their internal beliefs match reality and it would also make the SNP an easy target for Labour.

  4. They are literally London parties. They are headquartered in London.

    There is in fact no such thing as the Scottish Labour Party or the Scottish Liberal Democrat Party or even the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

    These are - literally - the Scottish branches of London-based parties.

    In contrast to the Greens for example. There is a Green Party in England of course and a Green Party in Scotland. But they are not the same party. The Scottish Green Party is an autonomous party, not a branch of the English Party.

  5. IoC,
    I take the view that, far from being lazy,the term 'London' is actually doing more than one job. Also that it cannot simply be returned-to-sender as 'Edinburgh!' or racialised as 'England' (however much The Scotsman & The Labour party wish they could).

    Besides the simple fact of the London addresses of the London parties, it is also a commonly accepted view - far beyond the SNP - that the UK is (by comparison with most other democracies) politically and economically grossly over-centralised; that it is not democratic, and is not sustainable. It's quite rotten, and it's in the air every time the SNP say 'London parties'.

    That wide objective acceptance is one part of what makes it unbearable to Jim Murphy because he senses he is being criticised for protecting the corrupt; hence the reflex to aim as low and fast as possible, and dissemble wildly by ejaculating nonsense about fascism. That viscerality of response surely indicates the level of weakness felt by Murphy, and it's right that LPW calls the issue into a debate here.

  6. Thanks for all your remarks and comments.

    Ideas of Civilisation, Labour's Glasgow GARL rhetoric occurred to me here too as an example of a "parallel" sort of argumentative resort. At the time, I didn't criticise them for resorting to the argument per se - but merely cautioned that that it might not be without its cost in the wider Scottish context. Others, however, more directly rejected their premise. Along with Fr Mackenzie, my own sense is that distribution of capital expenditure and whatnot in different parts of a Government's jurisdiction is a legitimate sort of enquiry to raise.

    Even admitting that a parallel can be drawn between the two rhetorics - the benefit of the metaphor is that the two lines of argument don't meet. One is concerned with a particular conception of equitable distribution within an accepted decisional community. The latter, by contrast, doesn't concur on the basic framework about the number of relevant communities worth consulting - and how the basic powers of decision-making should be located. One might imagine an internal Scots example which would be more or less the same as the latter example - say an udal independence movement, wanting to liberate Shetland from "Edinburgh rule". I'd argue that matters are less neat if we use the example of GARL.

  7. Per the post one up, I agree with your analysis of the "GARL argument", Fr MacKenzie.

    I didn't know that about Robertson's provenance. In which case the "reading" of the line could be taken with the emphasis on the "us" - we three - "I don't think any of us are from London, Angus."

    If so, the way Murphy enunciated it on the telly didn't catch my ear. I took him to mean - we four. Might explain a little of the background tweakiness, however.

  8. An a potentially plausible theory it is too, DougtheDug!

    One of the reasons why I particularly like it is that it concedes something important - it doesn't go in for the easy accusations of more or less conscious and unrelenting fraudulence. Although not totally implausible, although we know that they will occasionally strategically deploy definitions of the SNP which are opprobrium-laden - that doesn't falsify a fundamental and solid kernel of belief in the truth of some version of the same accusations.

    Instead, your theory "follows the natives" and becomes embroiled in their own contradictory accounts of the social and their political opposition to the SNP. Premising your account of some idea of Labour's basic honesty, albeit cognitively dissonant, ambivalent honesty - seems to me a powerful starting point.

  9. To put the opposite case, Indy - for the sake of my training as a professional Advocatus Diaboli - just as I rejected a simple historical account, I imagine Labour, Tory & Liberal Democrats would argue they aren't defined by their centre in London. Not by the concentrated sites where decisions are made - but rather by their width, which extends from the proverbial John O' Groats to Land's End. On this formulation, even the Scottish context would cease to be a relevant - it would be equally applicable to Cornwall, Wales, the north of England and the South. You could probably marshal some decent evidence too, to demonstrate this dispersed wholeness - and from that argue on for its definitional supremacy over the more powerful organs of the political centre in London.

    This may not be plausible - may not defeat the contrary nationalist arguments about where the centres of decision-making should be in the various parts of the United Kingdom. It is, however, an argument and an escape from "technically" founded allegations of London-metropolitanism.

  10. "why does the Labour party so desperately want the SNP to be racist? If you have a theory, do let me know."

    It's convenient, it's lazy and saves them the trouble of actually having to engage with the SNP as a left of centre, socially democratic party.

    HDS Greenway in the Boston Globe summed up the SNP perfectly for me.

    "The SNP's nationalism is based on citizenship, rather than on ethnicity, religion, or language, and is pro-immigration; quite different from many national movements."

    Doug the Dug's comments on 'racism' remind me of conversation I had with an 87 year old SNP member from Bolton, now resident in Dumfries and Galloway. He had been a lifelong member of the Labour party, sat on the NEC, a strong Union man. When he moved to D&G in retirement he maintained his loyalty to the Labour Party and brought many young wannabe Labour politicians into being, including the current General Secretary of the Scottish branch of the Labour Party. When he reconciled with himself that the Labour Party he had known were now gone and that the SNP were more suited to his political viewpoints, he phoned his daughter, a Labour councillor in Bolton and told her he'd joined the SNP. He told me that she was horrified, couldn't bring herself to speak to him, eventually ringing off and telling him she'd ask about and get back to him later. When she called back she said, "I've asked HQ about them and they say, the SNP are the Scottish equivalent of the BNP, what are you doing dad?"

    That's the mindset we have to contend with.

    PS I prefer to think of Murphy as being more sepulchral.

  11. A case study! How splendid.

    Ta for that Mark. Perhaps my favourite detail is that his daughter didn't ... you know ... go on wikipedia or seek out other perusable online bits and pieces to find answers. Rather, she lifted the phone and put her enquiry directly to central command. A significant and telling move if ever I saw one.

    Re: the Secretary of State fur Scotia, I'm sure there are plenty of mausolean adjectives to go around!