Labour made a catastrophic mistake in giving up on the north of Scotland, says former SNP activist MALCOLM CUNNING


It was 1973; I was young, innocent and had a peculiar interest in politics. I had already shocked the elderly librarian in the small fishing village where I was brought up by asking for copies of “Das Kapital” and Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”. When it came to joining a political party there was only one local possibility which appeared to match my youthful radicalism. And so it was that I joined the SNP.

I have now been a member of the Labour Party for over 30 years. Though I live in Glasgow and was proud to be a Glasgow councillor, I still regard myself as a North East loon. Not a day passes when I do not check the P&J online or the North East section of the BBC website. Sadly, the Labour Party, which consumes so much of my time and an almost equal loyalty, is a virtual irrelevance in that part of Scotland which I still call home. Any sixteen year old in Fochabers or Fettercairn with an interest in politics would make exactly the same decision today which I made all those years ago.

In the two elections of 1974 the SNP pulled off the trick of persuading a near entirety of the non Tory vote in several NE constituencies to coalesce behind the nationalist banner. I campaigned in Banffshire (for Hamish Watt, may the gods forgive me) where decades of Liberal Unionist and Conservative domination were swept aside. Though 1979 saw a brief resurgence in Tory fortunes, the SNP had breached the dam and have gone on to build a solid power base across the entirety of the North East.

In truth, most of the fisherman and farmers are little interested in Scottish nationalism. They are interested (and why shouldn’t they be?) in the protection of rural communities and rural industries. But the SNP put these issues at the forefront of their rhetoric and are assiduous in avoiding any suggestion that they are dominated by the views or priorities of the central belt. In many parts of Scotland “Glasgow rule” is as much an anathema as “Westminster rule” – perhaps more so. The SNP twigged that particular truism years ago.

On May 5 the SNP finally achieved in the central belt the same sort of victory they first achieved in the likes of Banffshire, East Aberdeenshire and Moray & Nairn in 1974. This time, of course, it is the Labour Party which has been the victim of their success and we have to be fearful that we could go the way of the Inverurie Tory: slow and terminal decline.

Inevitably, in the immediate aftermath of our defeat, the talk is of how we can win back our traditional heartlands and reinvigorate our core support. I would suggest that we perhaps look a little more widely and consider why it was that we allowed ourselves to become so dependent on the heartlands and the core. Should we not take the opportunity to develop policies, strategies and campaign activity (a new narrative, if you must,) which reaches out beyond the urban laager and appeals to a far wider geographic and social Scotland?

Rural Scotland may appear idyllic and picturesque to the day tripper but it hides real poverty and inequality. Access to housing in some rural areas is even more problematic than in the central belt. Wages, particularly for those in low skilled and manual jobs, tend to be lower, house prices are inflated by incomers and retirees, and social housing is even more difficult to come by. The traditional industries based on fishing and farming are either in decline or, in the case of farming, so heavily mechanised that they no longer provide jobs for anyone other than the tenant farmer and a few specialist contractors. I met the son of an old family friend recently, who now runs the farm on which I once picked potatoes and did other odd jobs as a boy. In the early  ’70s, in addition to dozens of seasonal casuals, the farm still employed a foreman, a shepherd, a ploughman and several other full time staff. They are all gone.

Specialist healthcare can involve round trips of over 100 miles and if there is only one secondary school within a 20 mile radius you have to hope that the local headie is getting it right because a transfer request is not a serious parental option. Even plagues that we tend to think of as quintessentially urban now blight some of our rural communities. In the fishing towns and villages of the North East coast, drug dependency is now an endemic issue. The concomitant problems of organised crime and women forced into prostitution to fund their habit are less obvious but no less real.

Labour must have a message for these communities. Independence is certainly not of itself a solution, with or without the oil.

I left the SNP in 1977 having reached the dizzy heights of being national secretary of the Federation of Student Nationalists on the same executive committee as a young Alex Salmond. I left because I came to two important conclusions that still inform my politics today. Firstly I realised that the nationalism of the SNP was in no way related to the national liberation struggles of the post-colonial era – a romantic fiction which I had accepted for far too long. Secondly I came to believe that the principles of socialism and social justice had far more to offer in terms of solutions. I believe that this holds true for the entirety of Scotland from Muckle Flugga to Gretna.

We do have many policies which are relevant to the rural areas and have, when in power at Holyrood, acted on occasion to protect and enhance rural interests. The “right to buy” legislation has reinvigorated a number of Highland and Island estates but we have signally failed to capitalise on such successes. The Labour Party in country areas throughout the UK is far more likely to be characterised as the party that legislates to stop folk from pursuing pastimes they have enjoyed for years rather than champions of rural rights.

For far too long we appear to have been happy to allow the SNP free rein in huge tracts of Scotland as long as they were beating the Tories. We held the heartlands and that is where we concentrated our efforts. Fine, put a candidate up in Banff and Buchan, (which succeeded the old Banffshire in boasting the lowest Labour vote of any Westminster constituency outside of Northern Ireland,) but measure success as holding on to our deposit.

Now that the SNP have given us a good kicking in what we have, until now, considered our own backyard, it is perhaps time to redefine the battleground and start challenging the SNP in those areas where we have failed, for well over a generation, to say anything of any meaning whatsoever.

Let Alex and the SNP be the party of nationalism; it’s our job to make the Labour Party the party of Scotland – all of it!

Malcolm Cunning is a former Labour councillor in Glasgow. He worked for Charlie Gordon MSP until May 5 and still works for Tom Harris MP. He was once chased round Turriff swimming pool by a gang of girls who mistook him for the drummer out of the Bay City Rollers.