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?