A Very English Coup

So where shall we start with these unfolding episodes of ‘Carry on up the Constitution’? Like many others, I had the vision that Gordon Brown would have to be dragged out of Downing Street by his ankles with Brown’s clunking fist hanging on to a leg of the cabinet table jammed in the door of number 10. But if anything, his tortuous exit was even more humiliating. This wasn’t tragic, this was farcical, though before long it will settle with the dust in Scotland as yet another very English coup.

Many nationalists will have found it difficult to resist the temptation to sip a glass, or a couple of bottles of schadenfreude in celebration. But before you have any more, remember this. Brown’s Scottishness may not, as the opinion pollsters say, have been a ‘salient issue’ for voters in Middle England, but it was there alright. Call it a latent issue if you prefer, Middle England’s backlash against poor old Gordon, the ‘Scottish Raj’ as well as those chippy nats at Holyrood.

It’s small consolation to us now to be in the unenviable position (for the fifth Westminster parliament in the last thirty years) to retort, ‘Whaur’s yer West Lothian Question noo?’, for Middle England is partaking of its own schadenfreude. And theirs tastes so much sweeter than ours (again). The Tories in England got three million more votes than Labour at this general election – hang on to that thought, I want to come back to it – a significant improvement, you’ll agree, on the Tories’ performance in the 2005 general election when they got 800,000 less than Labour in England.

So the New Labour interregnum is over. Middle England, like its claims about football in Euro 96, is “coming home” to the comforting embrace of another Tory government with a few gushing Lib Dem sidekicks, the Lib Dem nae-knickers and the fur-coated Tories. If the Liberal Democrats were deeply objectionable before this general election they are completely off the scale now. But given England’s proud underground tradition of radicalism and dissent, what is remarkable, after the outcome of this election, is not that England’s streets are pulsating to the rhythms of the purple bandana brigade, but that there aren’t more people on English streets calling for less Liberal Democrats at Westminster.

It’s not for nothing that the twentieth century is known in ‘Britain’ as the ‘Conservative century’. And make no mistake, if we remain in this dying union much longer, then before we know it, the Conservative twenty-first century will be well underway. No-one does British statecraft like the Tories, as the Liberal Democrats will discover first-hand.

Curiously though, New Labour never really got (officially) going in Scotland did it? Isn’t it odd how the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party was happy to nominally separate itself from the British Labour Party in 1994 (I thought we were supposed to be the ‘separatists’?) but, in those heady days of New Labour novelty and neologisms, never adopted the moniker ‘Scottish New Labour Party’? The genesis of this very English coup was 1979, but New Labour is the twist in the tale, the interface between that woman and Dave and Nick, though you can’t understand New Labour unless you understand Thatcherism, and you can’t understand Thatcherism unless you understand old Labour.

In 1987, what was left of old Labour, after its third consecutive general election defeat in England, (and its third consecutive general election victory in Scotland) instituted its Policy Review. Remember ‘Labour Listens’? To cut this, as they say in academic circles, long ‘narrative’ short, Labour ditched most of its previous policy commitments, the policy instruments and objectives were now kaput. And by the time we get to 1992, the year of Labour’s fourth consecutive general election defeat in England (and Labour’s fourth consecutive general election victory in Scotland), the Policy Review was more or less complete. The conditions were created for the ‘official’ launch of New Labour and, no coincidence, the creation of the ‘Scottish Labour Party’ in 1994. New Labour’s appeal to disaffected Tories in Middle England could now begin in earnest. But just who have Labour voters in Scotland been voting for since 1997? We’ll never know, the pollsters don’t dig that deep.

The most apposite obituary of the British Labour Party was written by Gregory Elliott, note the date of publication, in his Labouring and the English Genius: The Strange Death of Labour England (1993):

“It is otiose to commend or condemn Labour for abandoning something – socialism – it had never espoused and for embracing in its stead something – social democracy – it had already jettisoned”.

And social democracy is where Scotland should be right now. After all, it’s what the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland have been voting for in every single British general election since 1979, the modern genesis of this very English coup. But in this 31 year period we’ve had 18 years of Tory governments (that’s 58%). And if we fast forward to 2015, if we stay in this wretched union that long, it will be 23 years of Tory governments in the previous 36 years (that’s 64%). But it’s worse than that. For in most of those five British general elections, including 2010, even if every single voter in Scotland, that’s with a 100% turnout let it be noted, had voted Labour, it would have made no difference to the outcomes of those general elections, we’d still have been governed by the Tories. This isn’t back to the 1980s, this is taking us back to the period before the nineteenth century Reform Acts!

Just turn this round a minute. Given that their loathing of Gordon Brown, the ‘Scottish Raj’ and some ‘chippy nats’ induced a backlash from Middle England in 2010, what would Middle England’s response have been if, in five of the last eight British general elections, a real majority of them and a hypothetical 100% of them had voted Tory but ended up with Labour governments? This wouldn’t just have been a watertight case for English independence, they would have reached for their pitchforks! In truth, Middle England wouldn’t have tolerated this for one general election never mind five. And here’s the point, here’s the coup de maitre of this very English coup, in 2010 Scottish Labour MPs couldn’t bear to tolerate it either.

You see, this was a ‘British’ general election, it doesn’t much matter whether the majority, or even all of Scotland’s voters are disenfranchised, if we’re not used to that now we never will be, right? The ‘Scottish’ Labour Party, and let’s give them this, are entitled to conclude that if we Scots were prepared to put up with 18 years of Thatcherism we’ll put up with anything. You have to say, they’ve got a point. But let’s stop short here of that time-honoured Scottish proclivity of self-loathing and get back to this coup de maitre.

What really matters here, is that both London Labour and Scottish Labour were at one. Whilst Scottish Labour votes may be dispensable and irrelevant to the outcome of a British general election, what was never going to be countenanced here – and this is why Labour’s talks with the Lib Dems ended – was that even the prospect of disenfranchising England’s Tory voters was enough not only for London Labour to sacrifice its leader but for Scottish Labour to sacrifice its own voters.

Take yourself back to that fateful long weekend of Gordon Brown’s farcical resignation. It was the intervening period (barely 24 hours remember) between Brown’s first pledge to resign in the autumn, when the Lib Dem talks were on, and his final resignation with immediate effect, after the Lib Dem talks had ended, that’s the key to this. It was in this intervening period that the cries from Scottish Labour MPs were at their most shrill. ‘We could never enter a coalition with the nats, they can’t be trusted etc’. Convincing? Not quite. After all, if Scottish Labour MPs really believed this then what better way to finally finish off the nats? Get them into a coalition, wait for the nats to break it and let in a Tory government, resuscitate the ‘Tartan Tory’ tag and the nats are history in Scottish politics. Of course, politics doesn’t work like this – “men [and women] make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing” – not least because ‘Scottish’ Labour doesn’t tell London Labour to do anything. Scottish Labour does what it’s told.

What Scottish Labour understood, and the reason for their hysterical reaction to not only a “progressive alliance” but, just think, a government that truly represented the British people, was that this would have effectively disenfranchised those voters in England in this general election who’d given the Tories the largest per centage share of the vote (in England) and the largest number of Westminster seats. For Mandy and Campbell, who’d originally summonsed Gordon Brown all the way back from Kirkaldy to London (again within 24 hours), while Brown’s mitts were still warm from glad-handing the congregation in Kirkaldy, there was a bigger prize. Labour would get its new leader. In this sense, Mandy and Campbell read the Lib Dem runes better than the unfortunate Gordon.

It would seem, then, that Scotland’s fate is now in the hands of a quintessential Tory toff and a grasping Lib Dem parvenu. If this wasn’t politics what a penitent ‘Scottish’ Labour Party should be saying to its voters now is: ‘We warned you that a vote for the SNP was a wasted vote. We warned you that the SNP were irrelevant to this election, this was a UK election. We warned you that if you vote SNP you’ll let the Tories in. We warned you that voting for Labour was the only way to keep the Tories out. Well, we lied, just as we lied to you in the general elections of 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992. But you have to admit, in 1979 it was worth waiting 18 years for the next Labour government wasn’t it? As for 2010? Look on the bright side, at least we stuffed the nats’.

Let’s make sure that between now and the election that counts next year, that we turn the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party into a greater object of ridicule than even Gordon Brown was in 2010 to the overwhelming majority of voters in Middle England. Here’s a slogan we can take into 2011, one that works on a number of levels: ‘Vote for the Scottish Labour Party – you can rely on us to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory’. Let’s relentlessly expose the real tartan tories in Scotland.

But there’s a more important task than this ahead of us. We need to provide a vision of Scotland’s future that’s bigger than independence and that goes well beyond the horizons of escaping from the British disease – take your pick from, among other things, Atlanticist military adventurism, underinvestment, the hegemony of the City of London, delusions of grandeur, isolation from Europe, increasing inequality and what conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the ‘Conservative disposition’, oh and don’t forget the unmerciful calculus of Anglo-American neo-liberalism.

The SNP does not need to radically shift to the left, much as I would like to see this, it’s not going to happen. But it does need to offer a social democratic vision of an independent Scotland that goes beyond ridding us of Trident, re-connecting Scotland with Europe, and vague aspirations towards ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’. OK there’s more to SNP policy than this but that’s the point, most people in Scotland just don’t see it that way.

Discrediting the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party is the easy bit. It’s winning over Labour voters in Scotland to our cause that, even now, is going to be tricky. But let’s avoid heady talk of revolutions. On the contrary, Scottish independence is about normalising Scotland. Getting what your country votes for. What could be more normal than that?

Comments (9)

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  1. IMarcher says:

    You say “this was a ‘British’ general election, it doesn’t much matter whether the majority, or even all of Scotland’s voters are disenfranchised”.

    It was a ‘British’ election only for the purposes of UK reserved matters, in which the voters of ‘Scotland’ were no more or less disenfranchised than anyone else. You cannot talk of a ‘British’ election and then mention ‘Scotland’ in that context. For a British election, voters are in constituencies, not countries. If you want to talk about countries, then you have to address devolution. In terms of devolution, ie domestic matters devolved to the four countries, this election doubled up as an election to the English parliament from which should be formed the English government. Since English voters are disenfranchised from voting in elections to the Scottish Parliament, so too should Scottish voters be disenfranchised from voting in the English Parliament.

  2. Alex Buchan says:

    “Discrediting the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party is the easy bit.”

    Is it? How easy will it be to campaign on the slogan ‘Labour let in the Tories’ when Cameron has learned the lesson of Thatcherism’s abysmal handling of Scotland. Will anyone apart from our base be listening? Westminster is adapting to the dynamics of its [dis]United Kingdom. Against a background of the broadcast and print media’s enthusiasm for the new spirit of co-operation and tolerance, it will be more difficult to demonise the Tories, irrespective of the coming cuts.

    And heres the rub, large sections of the Scottish public see things from this UK perspective, as well as a Scottish perspective. That is why those Scottish Labour politicians felt confident enough to speak about not respecting the will of the electorate because they knew that such an outrageous contradiction would never be questioned by anyone except the Nats. This is how they school the Scottish electorate and they do it with skill.

    From what I can see there are reasons why the SNP doesn’t campaign around an image of a future Scotland. Reasons, in other words, why it stays within the mold of British politics, as Jim Sillars accused it this week in a Times interview, and that is because the prevailing culture, including the political culture, is still essentially British. It is not without risk to step out of the prevailing cultural construct, it takes courage and vision.

    Gramsci’s point still rings true: you have to change the terrain before you can advance, But not everything needs to be up to Scotland or the SNP. The British state and its supporting media may inherit reserves of experience and confidence but they also inherit a constitutional tradition that is not up to the unfolding challenge of the centrifugal pressure arising from the loss relevance of Britishness.

    Living in England, I am amazed by the display of English nationalism that far eclipses anything in Scotland. Since St George’s day the English flag is now everywhere; like a virus it spread from billboards to every pub, every industrial building, in bedroom windows and on buntings up market streets. It may be allegiance to the national team that’s behind it, but the message is unambiguous: the Union Jack is conspicuous by its absence, as England rediscovers pride in itself.

    The decision, necessitated by the Tories relative weakness in Wales and Scotland, to agree to legislative devolution in Wales and to implementing Calman in Scotland only makes pressure for some formal recognition of England more difficult to resist. Their commission on the West Lothian Question may have put the question into the long grass, but it also shows their difficulty in knowing how to respond to this rise in English national feeling.

    Scotland is not Ireland. In Ireland the terrain definitely did change before Ireland gained independence. Scotland is as British as England, or Wales, but all three nations are moving towards a post-British future in response to the needs of the time.

  3. Michael Knowles says:

    It seems to me that the only way to settle the issues of this very convoluted, agonising, tortured article is for Scotland to leave the Union altogether. Otherwise, if the writer is right in what he says, Scotland is heading for a total nervous breakdown. At the very least, if Donald genuinely reflects the mood of the whole Scottish nation, he should on their behalf go into a dark room, lie down, put a damp cloth on his forehead, take a couple of paracetemols together with a lemon and honey with a measure of the wee stuff and see if he can sleep it off. Otherwise, we are looking at an outbreak of total paranoia and sheer mental breaddown across the whole of Scotland. I doubt I have ever read anything quite like it.

    Michael Knowles
    Congleton, Cheshire.

  4. Ste says:

    I cant wait for that fated day when Scots vote “Independence” (if ever) and then all of a sudden realise they arent “Independent” even after voting for “Independence”……as they are just an EU Region ruled by Brussels, within our outside of, the laughably titled “United Kingdom”.

    Priceless.

  5. Tocasaid says:

    Ste – then means all the EU states are either independent or ‘ruled by Brussels’. Whatever, most seem to enjoy it and many small nations are eager to join. I haven’t heard of many protests in Estonia as they plan to join the Euro.

    My own mind is not completely decided on the EU – but mostly i enjoy the benefits of travelling unhindered around Europe and not having to change money everywhere i go. As to identity, Germany still seems very German to me and Poland still seems Polish.

    Having said all that, there’s no denying the wealth and progressive social democratic values of Norway, independent of both the EU and Denmark or Sweden.

  6. Tocasaid says:

    Alex Buchan – i see at least three weakpoints in Labour that the SNP could profit from:
    – Alastair Darling’s doomsaying that his cuts, if elected, would even shade Thatchers. So much for ‘Tory Rule’.
    – Labour scuppering efforts to make a ‘progressive’ coalition or even a pact of opposition parites to oppose minority Conservative rule.
    – The most obvious being that only by ‘voting Labour can you keep the Tories out’. Certainly at this point, it would seem as if the only possible situation where Scotland would be Tory-free is one that was independent of England and her Tory-voting millions.

    1. Alex Buchan says:

      I’m not saying it isn’t possible. I’m reacting more to the complacency in saying that’s ‘the easy bit.’ It seems to me to sum up the macho turf war politics between Labour and the SNP that, far modeling what a modern independent Scottish politics could be like, instead turns people off.

      It also assumes that the Tories and Labour won’t have learned lessons from the experience of the 80s and 90s and will be sitting targets. They won’t. Labour has already learned how to fight clever, as demonstrated by the moves made by Jim Murphy to shore up Labour’s vote.

      I suppose I am arguing for the SNP to match the Tories by adapting to the new setup and raising their game. The Tories attempt to portray themselves as ushering in a new politics of respect and mutual tolerance can only be countered if the SNP appear to be equally principled and modern.

      Getting involved in a slanging match with Labour doesn’t seem a very clever way to go about that. If the Scottish electorate sees through the ConDem hype it wont need to SNP to tell it that voting in large numbers for Labour didn’t help.

  7. bellacaledonia says:

    This from Donald:

    Neil Buchan,
    You raise a number of interesting issues in your posts and it won’t surprise you to learn that I agree with Tocasaid.

    I can assure you, though, that I’m not complacent about the strategy of discrediting Scottish Labour. They’ve just won 41 out of 59 seats in Scotland and a 42% share of the vote! What I said was that “Discrediting Scottish Labour is the easy bit. It’s winning over Labour voters in Scotland to our cause that, even now, is going to be tricky”. What I meant was that, neither of these tasks are easy but, compared to the task of winning over Labour voters to the SNP, discrediting Scottish Labour is the ‘easy’ (or comparatively easier) bit and I should have made this meaning more explicit.
    No one could disagree that the SNP is anywhere close to changing the terrain in Gramscian terms but the terrain is changing. To take a couple of obvious examples: compare the variations in the SNPs and Scottish Labour’s share of the vote over the last decade in British, Scottish, European and local elections. There is a great deal of movement there which suggests the electoral terrain is shifting. It may be that what we are seeing is the beginning of a pattern whereby, at British general elections more non-Tory Scottish voters play the ‘British card’ and vote Labour in greater numbers, while at Scottish Parliament elections they may be playing the ‘Scottish card’ and voting SNP in greater numbers. If this is the case, and the 2011 result will give us an indication of how plausible this is, then it’s the reasons behind this dualism that are important in Gramscian terms. It also raises the question about how sustainable this is as a ‘strategy’ on the part of non-Tory voters in Scotland.

    More than this though, one way to interpret the recent changes (admittedly from a partial nationalist perspective) is that since the 1990s, British governments and unionist parties in Scotland have recognised the necessity for meaningful reforms in Scotland in the hope that one of the packages of reforms would stick and coincide with the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people. This far, no further etc. Yesterday’s briefings on the Queen’s Speech, on this analysis, suggests that the coalition hopes that, this time, the implementation of Calman will do the trick. This too, if correct, suggests also that the terrain is changing and, once again, it’s the reasons for this which are significant.

    I’m not as convinced as you are about Cameron’s charm offensive – would ‘chummy offensive’ be a more appropriate epithet? – I would argue that what we are witnessing is good old-fashioned Tory statecraft. I don’t want to sound like one of those old Tory historians but, it has to be said, the analogies between 2010 and 1951 are striking.
    Then, as now, an exhausted Labour government that had ran out of ideas, was replaced by a new Tory government, though Churchill in 1951, could hardly be considered a fresh-faced Tory toff. But in their 1951 manifesto, the Tories recognised the need for “stable Government…during which time national interests must be faithfully held above party feuds or tactics…A Conservative Government will cut out all unnecessary Government expenditure…and prune waste and extravagance in every department”. Then, as now, the Tories made much of the “terrible legacy” they’d inherited from Labour, in 1951 as today Britain had huge debts and balance of payments problems although, typical of the British, even into the 1960s they were still spending significantly more on defence that on either health or education. Then, as now, the Tories took over an Atlanticist-inspired “Labour war” (in Korea). There’s even an analogy with the renewal of Trident in that both the Attlee and Churchill governments needed American help to develop a British ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent as a means of British self-edification in the world. There are other analogies but I think that’s more than enough for now.

    The point being that the Tories are good at this and the Tory statecraft in 1951 ushered in 13 continuous years of Tory governments – they’re in this for the long haul again – as well as a ‘consensus’ among the main parties. Perhaps the left, though, shouldn’t make too much of this analogy as 1951 also ushered in the ‘golden age’ of capitalism! Having said that, the existence of the coalition as well as the (Tory) members of Cameron’s cabinet suggest that this analogy may not be so plausible after all, both the coalition and the Tory party itself still have a great deal of potential to tear themselves apart over Europe for example.
    As for your point about the SNP having a slanging match with Scottish Labour next year, it’s an interesting thought and you may be right but my own view is that Scottish Labour won’t give the SNP much of a choice here, though I don’t think this can be attributed to “macho politics”, it’s just politics. There are lots of reasons why I think the slanging match is inevitable. For example, the SNP has already tried conciliation with its offer of forming a “progressive alliance”. Look at Scottish Labour’s response. What we saw there was the instincts of Scottish Labour laid bare and I don’t think that it’s realistic to suggest that Scottish Labour will unlearn those instincts just because Cameron has launched what, for the Tories, is an expedient charm offensive. This is the same Cameron who, when he became Tory leader, pledged to end “Punch and Judy politics”, if I remember rightly that lasted barely 24 hours before the Tories themselves broke it.
    Second, and more important, for different reasons 2011 is a must-win election for both the SNP and Scottish Labour. What they both have in common is that victory will allow the next Scottish Government to authorise its claim to be the legitimate opposition to the Tories in Scotland. A reasonable implication to draw from your posts is that, in the next twelve months, Scottish Labour will draw on its considerable British resources to continue with its strategy of attempting to discredit and marginalise the SNP. These resources include not only the broadcasting and printed media but, just as important, the numerous and well-funded Labour supporting think tanks, lobby groups, academics, trade unions etc. In these circumstances, it would be perverse for the SNP to adopt the strategy that you recommend.

    I’d agree with much of what you say about Jim Sillars – now if only that Scottish Labour Party had blossomed. If I remember rightly, he did say in his article that he’d be happy to work for the SNP, or words to that effect. In the ideal world, this would be an offer that Alex Salmond and the SNP couldn’t refuse but, as I’m sure you know only too well, in the real world of SNP politics it’s not going to happen. That’s unfortunate as I think the SNP is going to need all the help it can get over the next 12 months.

    One point that should send shivers down the spine of every non-Tory voter in Scotland, is something that David Miliband said in the recent launch of his leadership campaign at Tyne and Wear. He told his audience that, after the 2010 general election result, “In the three southern regions outside London, there are [now] 12 Labour MPs out of 212 MPs”. Hence, Middle England truly has “come home” and it’s hard to see them shifting back to Labour this side of 2015 at least, unless something dramatic happens – anyone for Diane Abbott as Labour leader?
    There’s a lot more I’d like to say on these issues, particularly about SNP strategy but I’ve already tested the patience of Bella’s editor with a lengthy article, I don’t want to push my luck with this reply. Suffice to say, I’m still thinking over some of the points you made in your posts.

  8. Peter Williams says:

    I’m just reading this on 18th May 2015.
    What a prophetic article.

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