2012 in Scottish politics was a year to be remembered for two meetings. The first occurred on the 15th of October in Edinburgh between Alex Salmond and David Cameron. The purpose – to sign an agreement between Holyrood and Westminster on the terms of the 2014 independence referendum – was overshadowed by the staging. Salmond and the SNP clearly (and successfully) had choreographed the whole event so that it didn’t resemble a meeting between a country’s Prime Minister and the leader of a devolved parliament. Cameron – a culturally and politically alien figure at the best of times – was instead greeted by Scotland’s First Minister like a foreign dignitary. The awkward handshakes and the ‘signing ceremony’ added to this. By the time Cameron had shuffled on back down the road, perhaps even he realised that this was our first glimpse at Scottish independence in the flesh.
While historical record will note the importance of that meeting, it may overlook another that took place just a few weeks earlier. The speech delivered by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont to Labour Party member – as well as the assembled ranks of the Scottish political press corps – was, I would suggest, the political event of the year in Scotland. To be sure, its sensational qualities did not reside in the style of its address or the panache of the individual delivering it. But its content is likely to resonate well into the future.
Lamont’s ‘something-for-nothing’ speech marked the end of Scottish Labour in its proper sense. Scottish Labour, until this point, was not merely an organizational unit of the British Labour Party. The Labour Party in Scotland represented, particularly after Blairism and devolution, a recognisable and distinct ideological and philosophical current; a Party raised on the radicalism of Keir Hardie and Jimmy Maxton whose modern leadership, for all their parochial sensibilities and cowering to the spivs in Whitehall, appeared to retain some kind of intellectual autonomy from London. With Lamont’s speech, all that is over. The lapping waves of Blairism have finally overwhelmed the defences of Scottish Labourism. The ‘clear red water’ has been drained, flushed away by Sensible and Credible Johann.
Her attack on the principles of the welfare state was ignorant and blunt, but this at least ensured that it was unambiguous. Nobody paying attention could miss what she was saying or avoid its significance. The speech was not simply a piece of austerity porn; it was not in the main about ‘hard choices’ or the necessity of rationing during a downturn. This was an attack on universalism as such with recession and fiscal hardship an ideologically useful but ultimately unnecessary backdrop. The message was that the Labour Party was now committed to means-testing the welfare state out of existence, reducing its services to extent that they become politically unsustainable.
It is difficult to tell how Lamont’s speech has remoulded the landscape of Scottish politics. What is certain is that it has. Some of the dislocations caused by the end of Scottish Labour are likely to be dramatic. The question in 2013 is whether the non-Labour left, the most likely beneficiary of Lamont’s historic misstep, are capable of benefitting politically. Much excitement was generated by the Radical Independence Conference, but the conference (to someone who did not attend), seemed to pose more questions than it answered. Perhaps that is excusable for a first conference, but it remains unclear how the event and its organizers will respond to the real political challenges now emerging.
As the Scottish trade union movement begins to digest Lamont’s apostasy, it is entirely possible that larger and larger sections of its membership will begin to look at alternatives. The ability of the SNP government to retains its image as a bulwark against austerity will make it an attractive option for many Labour members still committed to the principles jettisoned by Lamont, but the SNP’s position is precarious. The Holyrood government has until now been able to avoid or delay the choice between radical austerity and soft social-democracy. That won’t last forever. The ability of the left to respond when all these contradictions come into full bloom will determine whether the coming period, referendum and all, ends in defeat or something else.