The historical myth of Labour as Scotland’s national party

Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw have produced a fact-rich, reference-rich work, ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, which illuminates contemporary Scottish politics. For some 40-odd years Labour seemed to dominate Scottish politics and convinced itself, especially after Thatcher’s accession to power, that it was the national party of Scotland.

Hassan and Shaw have put that misinterpretation into perspective. Until the first world war Scotland was essentially a safe Liberal province. From 1918 the Liberal vote crumbled, in part to Labour but primarily to the Tories. As well as a rural heartland which Labour never penetrated, the Tories had a significant block of Protestant working class voters. Glasgow in particular, contrary to the Red Clydeside mythology, had a strong Tory presence.

In the 1945 Labour UK landslide, Labour’s lead in Scotland was considerably lower than in England and in Glasgow Labour captured only one seat, Kelvingrove, from the Tories. For the following three elections Labour took eight Glasgow seats to the Tories’ seven. Hassan and Shaw use these facts both to challenge the ‘socialist Scotland’ myth but also to reinforce their pertinent note of a Protestant working-class Tory block. They might also have considered that Glasgow’s link to the empire, through ship-building, locomotive manufacturing and other industries geared to an imperial market, meant that there was an objective factor tying sections of the Glasgow working class to the pro-Empire party.

As well as questioning the myths however, Hassan and Shaw explore the nature of Scottish Labour. They note that the very strengths of Labour’s electoral base, high proportions of the population residing in council housing and in trade union membership, have both been seriously undermined by changes in housing tenure and by deindustrialisation. They pose Labour’s enormous strength in Scottish local government as the third pillar of the ‘Labour Scotland’ self-perception but also as the root of much of the party’s innate conservatism. Men and women (but it was overwhelmingly men) who attain local status and influence through an effective electoral machine become enmeshed in that machine and in their local power. They are right and have accurately identified the petty-minded conservatism as well as the cronyism which such a machine engenders.

It was not entirely rotten. I recall in my early days in the Labour Party in the late 1960s getting to know Labour councillors in areas such as Ardrossan and Saltcoats, including Davie Lambie, later an MP, and had nothing but admiration for their genuine commitment to a better world and their far from conservative perception that the creation of decent municipal housing and public services was a small but vital part of that process.

I also however, as my years in the Labour Party passed, became aware of petty corruption in many of Labour’s safest councils. In Midlothian, for example, where the Labour council group was led by a prominent Orangeman, there was total opposition to the abolition of councillor-allocation of municipal housing. Hassan and Shaw also examine extensively the alleged Catholic bias of Labour in Monklands Council in the 1970s.

Much of the municipal corruption was of a much more petty nature. I recall, for example, from my own days on Edinburgh District Council, Labour councillors entering licensing meetings and sharing masonic handshakes with applicants. I also recall the pleasure certain councillors took in the trappings of power, the limousine, the ermine robes, the invitations to the garden party. Small-minded men take inordinate pride in the exercise of very limited powers.

The strength of the book is its analysis of the fissures and tensions in Labour created by the rise of the SNP and by devolution. Labour’s first, almost instinctive, reaction (and it was mine in the 1970s) was, at best, to see this as a passing phenomenon; at worst, to insist it was a reactionary diversion from the struggle for a just, socialist society. (A tiny number of quite perceptive right-wingers such as Tam Dalyell understood that it potentially presaged the end of the British state.) It might have been useful had Hassan and Short given more attention to the aftermath of the 1979 devolution referendum.

The Thatcher years reinforced a fundamental change of direction by Labour. The Tory attacks on local government, the miners’ strike, the poll tax battles, school league tables, all changed both the Labour Party in Scotland and the Scottish electorate. Labour’s response was, at best, muted on each of these issues. The Scottish electorate may also have been divided but saw all of these actions as typical of a party out of sympathy with Scotland’s social ethos. The 1997 Scottish Tory vote (17.5%) was an all-time low for a party which had won an outright majority of the Scottish popular vote in 1955 but had become perceived as ‘anti-Scottish’.

Hassan and Shaw develop the seeming paradox that while Labour moved inexorably, between 1979 and 1997, to a position of clear public commitment to devolution and a Scottish parliament, the strains which would later emerge were constantly visible. A large sector of Labour’s local government cohort was utterly opposed to devolution. There were major reservations in the parliamentary Labour Party and, once the legislation was secured, it became clear that Blair had little enthusiasm for a development which challenged the New Labour project’s highly centralist tendency.

Such tensions became apparent particularly over Henry McLeish’s introduction of free personal care for the elderly. This policy, based on the social democratic tradition of a universal benefit, was, ironically, well-supported by the Liberals but opposed by most of Labour’s back-benchers. It also aroused enormous ire in the Blair government which had insisted it could not afford such a move for England. Labour in Scotland also ploughed a more traditionally social democratic furrow by refusing to inject the market-oriented reforms which New Labour championed in England (with the exception of PFI for capital projects) into the NHS and comprehensive education. All of this is well examined, with the suggestion that Scottish Labour is therefore, curiously, both more social democratic and more conservative.

Labour, especially under Jack McConnell, deserves some credit for several reforms which might have been seen as both electorally risky and against its socially conservative grain. One was the ban on smoking in public places, more popular with middle-class electors than with Labour’s traditional voters. Another was the introduction of the single transferable vote for council elections, a policy which puzzled and angered its local government cohort from which power and dominance were removed in one fell stroke. The last was the repeal of Section 28, despite the opposition of the Catholic Church to which Labour had historically deferred.

This is a fine work and even a review such as this can only skim its contents. A few small reservations: in a work characterised by meticulous attention to academic reference (almost at times cluttering the content) the text is peppered with recurring stylistic sloppiness. One sentence captures this: ‘The group who had been most alarmed about Alexander’s position ultimately were the SNP’. The use of ‘who’ rather than ‘which’ is careless but the application of a plural verb to a singular subject is not only enraging but is the common usage throughout the work. There are a few technical inaccuracies with at least one, embarrassingly for this reviewer, referring to him.

The work ends by insisting that with the ‘Labour Scotland’ myth having been debunked, Labour in Scotland requires a new purpose. Indeed it does. Part of the identified problem is that Labour and the SNP are vying for the same left-of-centre electoral ground. Labour needs not fear that position. The SNP has its strong, free-market, ‘Celtic tiger’ wing. It also has its socially conservative wing.

Labour’s real dilemma is that as it enters a pan-unionist coalition for the referendum, it may well suffer the same fate as the Scottish Tories by being seen as essentially anti-Scottish. Given that an independent Scotland will need a strong party of the left, that would be a tragedy. Whether Scottish Labour has the capacity or the gumption to avoid that trap is highly dubious.

 

The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 26 July 2012: http://www.scottishreview.net/AlexWood2.shtml

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