Home truths for the new Unionist party
Labour’s reluctance to capitalise on its achievement of delivering the Scottish Parliament is proving toxic, writes KENNY FARQUHARSON
When did Scottish Labour become the Unionist Party? When did a proud tradition of fighting for Scottish home rule that can be traced back more than a century to Keir Hardie turn into the sour suspicion of constitutional change we see in the party today?
And when did Scottish Labour’s attitude to its own country become so deformed that it sees a Nationalist conspiracy in every flutter of a Saltire?
With hindsight I can pinpoint the moment when the rot set in. It was the first sitting of the new Scottish Parliament after the May 1999 election. Up until that point Labour had largely regarded the SNP as a minor political irritant capable of sending just a handful of MPs to Westminster, where they were safely outnumbered. Suddenly, the Nats were sitting across from Labour in the parliament’s temporary home on the Mound, rows and rows of them, all with MSP after their name and staff paid by the public purse – a Nationalist army intent on depriving Labour of what it complacently regarded as a divine right to rule.
Fast forward to the present and Scottish Labour has broken the first rule of politics – it has allowed itself to become defined by its opponents. I know many people in the Labour party. Not one of them joined because of a burning desire to save the Union. Not a single one. Usually they were motivated by a desire for greater social justice, at home and abroad. Their conviction was drawn sometimes from ideology and morality and sometimes from concepts of class and nationhood. For many of them, home rule for Scotland was one of the key means of achieving a better society.
I am sure that among the rank and file this is still generally true. But for too many of the party’s elected members it has, in practical terms, become secondary. Their primary focus for some time has been constitutional – a visceral antagonism not just towards the SNP’s ultimate aim of independence, but also any substantial advance that could improve the governance of Scotland within the Union. This dogged resistance to change has become, to all intents and purposes, what Scottish Labour is for.
Of course, there has historically been tension in the party between small-“n” nationalist radicals such as Scottish Labour Action (which campaigned for a strong devo policy in the 1980s and 1990s) and sceptical MPs such as Brian Wilson and Tam Dalyell (who saw constitutional politics as, at best, a dangerous distraction and, at worst, a betrayal). But successive Scottish Labour leaders – Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell and Wendy Alexander – saw home rule as a key strand of the party’s DNA and were willing, to varying extents, to see devolution as a process, not a one-off event.
That spirit is now hard to find, replaced by a surly pessimism that constitutional advance can only be good for the SNP and must, therefore, be resisted rather than examined on its own merits.
A jittery Scottish Labour party now sees its own country through a distorting lens. Every manifestation of a confident Scottish culture must be frisked for signs of potential advantage to the Nationalists. In this atmosphere of paranoia, moves to teach more Scottish history in schools are seen as SNP propaganda, and the mere sight of a Scottish flag a provocation.
Scottish Labour is now the last redoubt of the Scottish cringe. Its sense of its own nationality could not be more distant from the relaxed pride in being Scottish that is, happily, part of the devolution dividend.
The stories I am hearing from inside Scottish Labour conjure up an image of a cornered animal tearing at its own wounded flesh. A cynical new revisionism is at work. Devolution was a mistake, say some. Proportional representation was a bigger mistake, say others, both for Holyrood and council elections. There is a rueful nostalgia for the days when Labour ruled unchecked and unbalanced, its power and patronage the fruit of a ridiculously unfair and untenable electoral system.
More disturbing is the role that self-interest plays in the party’s thinking. Moves towards devo max or a form of federalism would seem to be the most effective way of offering Scots a stronger Scottish Parliament short of independence – an outcome every poll suggests is the voters’ preferred choice for Scotland’s future. But, I’m told, this is being resisted because it would mean fewer Scots MPs at Westminster. This is unwelcome to some sitting MPs and also a UK Labour leadership who might need those Scottish MPs if there is ever to be another Labour prime minister in Downing Street.
Has it occurred to them that they could end up with zero MPs at Westminster because Scotland becomes independent? I’m told there is a quiet confidence a No campaign in an indy referendum can be won by adopting the same tactics employed by the No campaign in the AV votes referendum – simply arguing that the case for independence has not been made, and must, therefore, be rejected. This is comically complacent, based on a lazy assumption that the independence the SNP will offer the voters is the same outdated 19th-century nation state that has been so easy to dismiss in the past. Not this time, sunshine.
Scottish Labour has abandoned one of its great assets. This is still the party that delivered the Scottish Parliament. Remember when Alex Salmond sneered that “Labour couldn’t deliver a pizza, let alone a parliament”? Well he was wrong. Scottish Labour can now be the party that modernises that parliament so it is fit for the second decade of the 21st century, reflecting the new-found confidence and ambition of the Scottish people. If the party is unwilling to do this, it will only have itself to blame for what comes next.