Scottish Labour’s Conservative Disposition


To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant…’

The news that Scottish Labour used the financial crisis to discredit the movement for Scottish independence is, for supporters of independence at least, hardly newsworthy. Who would have thought, though, that the latest revelations from Wikileaks would have shed more light on the murky underworld of Scottish Labour?

That underworld became even more murkier with the publication of Gus O’Donnell’s report revealing Labour’s shameful dealings with Libya and what Alex Salmond, in reference to the opportunistic posturing of Scottish Labour on the issue, has referred to as the most blatant example “of organised political hypocrisy”. All this in the same week that Jim Devine was unceremoniously disowned by two of his former Labour drinking buddies in the House of Commons bar (he’ll be missed). In the ideal world, all the SNPs Christmases should have been rolled into one in the last week but alas, in the fiefdom of Scottish Labour’s Scotland, a week is a short time in politics.

There will be few people who will be surprised to hear that Scottish Labour’s Jim Murphy was orchestrating the financial crisis attack from the Scottish Office, albeit with Maggie Broon pulling his strings. Things have come to a sorry pass, however, when it falls to a leftie to point out that, during the boom years of Labour’s boom and bust, the Labour governments and the UK Treasury, year after year, were quite happy to rake in the revenues from the corporation tax, income tax and VAT receipts, not to mention the significant investment and spending multipliers generated by RBS, HBoS and their employees. In those boom years, there were no concessions then from anyone in Scottish Labour that this demonstrated how ‘successful’ an independent Scotland could be. The dominant narrative was “Stronger together weaker apart” – funny how that narrative comes to an abrupt halt at the English Channel.

Counterfactual history (the Achilles heel of Scottish and other aspiring nationalisms) can’t prove anything of course, so we’ll never know whether an independent Scottish government in the years 1997-2010 would have shown the same incompetence and neo-liberal zealotry as British Labour governments did in these years. But we do know that the architects of Labour’s boom and bust – Gordon Brown and Ed Balls – were also the architects of the de-regulatory framework that precipitated the crisis and made the Scottish and British economies so vulnerable to its numerous consequences, one of which, of course, was a new Tory government.

It remains one of the most remarkable electoral phenomena in post-war Europe that Scottish Labour has won every single British general election in Scotland since 1964. What makes this all the more remarkable is that the consequences of this have proved so devastating for the majority of Scottish Labour voters themselves. Like Gladstone’s repeated bouts of self-flagellation after purposively and, we must assume, successfully resisting the temptations of London’s East-End prostitutes, it seems that Scottish Labour voters just can’t get enough of Tory governments at Westminster. This is, therefore, the most enduring problem (for nationalists) in Scottish electoral politics: why does Scottish Labour continue to be the main beneficiary of the anti-Tory reflex in Scotland?

We can get some help in answering this complex question from an unexpected source. In his 1956 essay ‘On being Conservative’ (Rationalism in Politics and other essays, Methuen 1967), the conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, provides a classic exposition of what he called the “conservative disposition”, if we define “classic” in the same terms as the poet Ezra Pound, “A classic is news that stays news”. In his essay, Oakeshott outlines the “general characteristics” of the conservative disposition:

“They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be…What is esteemed is the present; and it is esteemed…[not] because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity…Stay with me because I am attached to you…To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant…the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”.

The conservative disposition is not unique to the average Scottish Labour voter of course, not even in Scotland, and Oakeshott’s use of lower case ‘c’ alerts us to his universal pretensions. But we do know that whatever it is that’s keeping this particular show on the road, it has little to do with socialism. For Scottish Labour is to socialism what lifestyle anarchism is to anarchism (Oakeshott would have approved of such an unthreatening and conservative bunch). The lifestyle anarchist wants to ‘opt out’ of society, do her ‘own thing’, and often seeks compensation for the shortcomings of the real world, conveniently displacing her own shortcomings, in an array of lifestyle consumer products. In other words, lifestyle anarchism is the very antithesis of anarchism.

It is perhaps Oakeshott’s emphasis on the familiar, the present, and by implication, the resigned tolerance that informs limited horizons that, along with a strong dose of Scottish fatalism, helps to explain much of the electoral success of Scottish Labour. At any rate, those of us who support independence need to do a lot more research on this. Research that, nevertheless, ought to be informed by the acknowledgement that the very existence of an SNP government demonstrates that there is a soft underbelly to Scottish Labour’s support.

Britishness, like capitalism, trades on Oakeshott’s “familiarity” and the ontological security of the “present”. Familiarity with, among other things, ‘British’ popular cultural icons like Brucie, Tarbie, Gazza, the Sun, Posh ‘n’ Becks, the BBC, ‘Corrie’ and Eastenders. Remember when on BBCs Question Time, Scottish Labour’s Helen Liddell used the threat of ‘Corrie’ and Eastenders being removed from Scottish television screens as an argument against independence, and was applauded for it? And this in the middle of the digital revolution in television! We long ago entered the hinterland of Nietzsche’s “perspectivelessness” in the battle between the nationalisms in Scottish politics – if everyone is telling the ‘truth’ and everyone disagrees, how are we to arbitrate between them? Answer: stick with the familiar, with what you have in the present. So far, this has worked a treat for Scottish Labour.

Again like capitalism, Britishness also trades on other things, one of those is well illustrated by Scottish Labour’s attempt to use the financial crisis to discredit the arguments for independence: fear, or to paraphrase Oakeshott, fear of the unknown, the untried, the possible. Meanwhile, many people in Scotland have good reason to be frightened, not only about the effects of the next five years of Tory government but what may prove to be the next decade or more of Tory governments. And as this suggests, it isn’t independence that Scottish Labour voters should be frightened of.

Whatever happens in the next five years there is the possibility, not yet the likelihood that the Tories will get back into office in 2015, perhaps with an outright majority. Unfortunately, by the time of the 2015 general election, a lot of damage will have been done to Scotland as a consequence of Tory policies and Labour’s boom and bust, whatever cheap sticking plasters the next Scottish government can put on the gaping wounds. And it has to be said that one of the most unforgiveable consequences of Labour’s boom and bust is that it has provided the Tories with what will be their most potent weapon in the 2015 general election. You can write much of the Tory script for that election yourself, ‘The Conservatives are fixing the economy, don’t let Labour ruin it (again)’, ‘This Ed got us into this mess, the other Ed won’t get us out of it: Proof that two Eds are not better than one’ or, one for the post-modernists, ‘Ed doesn’t have the ear of Balls’.

This assumes that the Tories themselves don’t mess up. The Tories don’t need to worry about Scotland of course, nothing to lose nothing to gain there. In spite of the current pessimistic growth projections, the Tories will hope that, eventually, the ‘British’ trend rate of growth will be restored, ‘business confidence’ will return, the banking levy (a demand on the small change of the big banks) and regulatory tweaking will be successfully sold as the City’s contrition, and the bandwagon of house price inflation will get rolling again. With these and other ‘business as usual’ measures in place, a grateful Tory/wavering (old) New Labour constituency in middle England will conclude that it’s all been worth it. As for the Scots, well, they’ve been content with Hobson’s Choice so far, so what will be different in 2015? But here’s a thought: if middle England votes in another Tory government at Westminster for another five years in the 2015 British general election, does anyone know what Scottish Labour’s Plan B is?

Comments (0)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. C.Graves says:

    ‘It remains one of the most remarkable electoral phenomena in post-war Europe that Scottish Labour has won every single British general election in Scotland since 1964’ Without actually checking, I would hazard a guess that the same is true of Wales and Welsh Labour, and a lot of the subsquent analysis. (No hard feelings, but it would be nice if Bella treated Wales the same way as it treats Scotland – a nation on the road to independence/independent in the mind!)

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      Fair shout. I haven’t checked the Welsh results either, perhaps someone else will. It might also be noted that in the 1980s, when Mrs. Thatcher was in office, it wasn’t Labour or the SNP that were the beneficiaries of the anti-Tory reflex, in Scotland at least, but the then Liberal/SDP alliance.

  2. DougtheDug says:

    Donald, it’s a good if depressing article about Labour voting in Scotland.

    In effect what Iain Gray and Labour will be campaigning for in the coming Scottish election will be for Scotland to remain under the control of a Conservative Prime Minister for the next four years if the coalition lasts and perhaps the next eight to nine years of Cameron gets re-elected.

    But here’s a thought: if middle England votes in another Tory government at Westminster for another five years in the 2015 British general election, does anyone know what Scottish Labour’s Plan B is?

    I think the first problem is that Labour in Scotland won’t have a plan B because they they’re not in the business of thinking to put it bluntly. They are a region of the British Labour party and there is no formal leadership structure in Scotland for Labour. Their thinking, planning and strategy is done in the south by the NEC of the Labour party. Labour’s Scottish region are followers not leaders.

    The second problem is that for Labour in Scotland conservative rule is preferable to independence. Why do they need a plan B?

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      DougtheDug, you make the central point here:

      “…for Labour in Scotland conservative rule is preferable to independence”.

      We can understand why, for the Scottish Labour Party, Conservative governments are a price worth paying to keep Scotland in the union, the important point is, is this also true for all Scottish Labour voters? If it is, that really would be depressing. I don’t think it is and it’s that “soft underbelly” of Scottish Labour support that I would argue is the key to the next five years, given that neither Tory nor disaffected Lib Dem voters are likely to switch their allegiance to the SNP.

      Why does Scottish Labour need a Plan B? Many Scottish Labour voters will pay a high price for their continued support for Labour at British general elections. It’s true, of course, that for many this will consolidate their support for Scottish Labour as long as British Labour remains a credible alternative government to the Tories in England.

      But that’s the point, I don’t think that they will. Partly because, in England, Labour has nothing to say to win over those key ‘natural’ Tory/wavering (old) New Labour voters in middle England. In that sense, Labour’s problems today are much the same as they were before the Policy Review in 1987 but this time Labour has nowhere to go. Partly also, because the re-calibration of parliamentary constituencies will favour the Tories. Most important of all, although the Tories will mess up many Scottish lives, I don’t think that they will seriously mess up England’s economy.

      What I mean here is, part of the reasoning behind the severity of their deficit reduction plan is that it’s part of their strategy for the 2015 general election. Assuming that a recognisable trend rate of growth does return (and that’s the key variable), the only way the Tories can gain any fiscal breathing space before 2015 and in the run-up to that election is to sharply cut the deficit early. That will give them options in 2015 that, with a more modest deficit reduction plan, they believe they wouldn’t otherwise have. If this works, it will also allow them to inflate their economic ‘competence’ while amplifying the memory of Labour’s incompetence. If enough Scottish Labour voters get the message that ‘the game’s a bogey’ much will then depend on where the SNP has positioned itself in relation to Scottish Labour. This latter is one of my concern but that debate is for another time. A lot of ifs and buts here it’s true and, of course, no-one knows what’s going to happen.

      I agree with the spirit of your comments about “[un]thinking” Scottish Labour and where London Labour leads Scottish Labour usually dutifully follows, but I also think we should exercise caution. I’m all for ridiculing Scottish Labour, or at least the parliamentary party and leadership, and, fortunately, they’re making themselves a soft target. But their manifesto is going to make interesting reading and I think we should wait and see.

  3. john erskine says:

    Does the SNP itself even any plan for persuading the majority of the Scottish people to vote for Independence?

  4. FREEDOM1 says:

    John if you need persuading and cannot think for yourself then that does not say much for the intelect of the scottish voter? Don,t read the scottish newspapers, they are all London controlled. Look at websites like newsnet etc. and get the true story!

  5. An Duine Gruamach says:

    Labour’s Plan B is simply to carry on with Plan A.

  6. Morgan Laurie says:

    I think the SNP plan is for the labour party to continue the telling of lies and ensuring that the labour party will implode when the truth comes out. All of the real talent and good people have already jumped ship. After all if the grey man has reached the top, what does that say about the rest of them.

  7. Strathmore Innes says:

    Look, i know its a minor-ish point, but we DO have some idea what the SNP economic model is. The line was not to talk of Wales, but of Ireland + Iceland + Denmark etc. These, it follows, were the models. The fundamental flaw in Irish economy – low taxes, high Albanian – is exposed. Iceland’s love affair with banks – greater than Labour’s – is exposed. And the sunlit uplands of Scandics, my own Promised Land? Economies and welfare shattered by glabalisation, values so hammered that they’re in a race to the Right.
    And while its a more complcated debate . . . in THIS 21st century world, you expect Scottish voters to be brave? While the SNP itself is in complete thrall to the vested interests of the Scvottish public sector and is THE MOST conservative economic force in the nation. Pay more attention to its Albanian acts, not the ‘freedom’ rhetoric.

  8. Steve says:

    Most of Labour’s popularity in Scotland is simply the social make up of the country- for Glasgow read Liverpool or Manchester. For Ayrshire or Fife see Co. Durham or S. Yorkshire. Labour’s post-87 breakthrough in less promising territory in Edinburgh and Aberdeen came out of the great anti-Thatcher consensus which a becalmed SNP and post-hype Alliance were unable to exploit. Scottish Labour also had a formidable group of MPs at the time- Smith, Dewar, Cook and Brown really dominated, lest we forget.

    As the shine came off new Labour in 2005, the Liberals with their popular Scottish leader over-performed thanks to Iraq, etc. The SNP with the unpopular John Swinney at the helm underperformed.

    It was a miracle of Alex Salmond’s charisma, good strategy, excellent organisation, opportunistic business funding, the self-immolation of the SSP and the fag-end of Blairism that created the momentum that allowed 2007 to happen.

    By 2010, the TV debate broadcast the British nature of the election. The SNP were squeezed out and could only hold their own. Labour’s Scottish leader got a more respectful media and public hearing than in England, and the public schoolboys clearly had no appeal. Scotland’s payroll vote of public-funded workers, pensioners and unemployed were clearly very responsive to the idea that Labour might protect them from cuts- when the stakes are high, the protest vote goes out of the window.

    The SNP has run a professional administration, and politically it’s so-called “populism” has merely been an attempt to serve the interests of Salmond’s fabled “Mainstream Scotland”.

    Labour’s childish oppositionalism at Holyrood is the kind of tactic that works in politics, so don’t be surprised if they top the poll. Their main weakness is a glaringly obvious lack of political talent at Holyrood, and the thought of the puny Ian Gray as First Minister must make many Scots blush.

    From Labour’s point of view, they must be careful what they wish for. Swinney has just about finessed the cuts thus far, but there’ll be no avoiding even greater cuts to come, and First Minister Gray will struggle to offload the political heat onto the Tories at Westminster. The current Labour team don’t look like they will be any good at managing a decline in spending, and they seem to have run out of friends at Holyrood.

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      Steve, excellent summary and I agree with everything you say here except to say that Scottish Labour doesn’t have a lot of talent at Westminster either! Alexander, Murphy and McKechin are not in the same league as Brown, Smith and Cook. The fact that the former three are the core of Labour’s ‘A’ team at Westminster helps us to explain the paucity of Labour talent in the ‘B’ team at Holyrood and, of course, the haemorrhaging of party membership in the last decade has been another key factor.

      For some time now, Scottish Labour has been reaping what London Labour has sown, the paucity of talent and its conservative disposition are its most obvious manifestations. This is part of the legacy of New Labour as well as the discourse of the ‘post-ideological’ Third Way and we now find ourselves in the position where ‘anti-tribalism’ has become the new tribalism. In reality, not much has changed though. To coin a well-worn phrase, ideology is what we think with not against.

      I don’t think anyone will be surprised if Scottish Labour top the poll in May but it’s not over yet. A week may be a “short time” in Scottish politics but, even in Scotland, a lot can happen in three months.

      On reading your post something else occurs to me which I think needs to be accommodated here, for several reasons. The decline of trade union membership, particularly in the private sector, has also weakened Scottish Labour (the party not its electoral support). But there are a number of other interesting dimensions to this which also reflect the conservatism of the SNP (again, the party rather than its voters). This perhaps has to be qualified somewhat by acknowledging that, understandably, the SNP since 2007 has sought to demonstrate its competence to govern, to be a ‘responsible’ government as well as a minority government constrained by the devolution settlement.

      For example, the Tory governments’ labour/ant-trade union legislation of the 1980s and 1993 is one of the policy areas where a bolder SNP could have out-manoeuvred Scottish Labour, increasing the discomfort of the latter, not only with many of their own voters but, crucially, with trade unions, without alienating its own support (though of course, the ‘business lobby’ would have opposed it). Had the SNP adopted the position of pledging to repeal the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation in an independent Scotland this would also have inflated the SNPs anti-Tory credentials with the potential to win over some/much (?) of that “soft underbelly” of Scottish Labour’s support. Not much to lose here for the SNP, as, with independence the legislation would be annulled anyway.

      Scottish Labour are weak here for three reasons. First, they don’t have the political will to do anything about it. Second, there’s absolutely nothing they can do to repeal this legislation. As in so many other policy areas, Scottish Labour’s relationship to its voters in Scotland is like that of an absent parent – reminds me of a wonderful cartoon in Private Eye after Cherie Blair had the latest of the Blair brood. The drawing shows a small toddler looking up at a young woman doing the ironing with the caption: “Nanny, mummy and daddy spoke their first words to me today”. Finally, even if the political will was there, London Labour wouldn’t allow it, for It would be a gift to the Tories in England, they’d have a field day with it. In other words, again, as in so many other policy areas, Scottish Labour reaps what London Labour sows.

      But perhaps the real issue here is not just that this would have increased the discomfort and heightened the hypocrisy of Scottish Labour, it would have provided the SNP with the opportunity, in a key policy area, to devise an imaginative policy on industrial relations in an independent Scotland which could have helped to mobilise greater support for the party. As it is, does anyone know what the SNPs policy on industrial relations in an independent Scotland is? Precisely.

      At any rate, it is astonishing to note that Scotland (and Wales!) has the most repressive labour legislation in western Europe in spite of the fact that, throughout the last forty years, the majority of Scottish voters have been supporting parties that oppose it.

      Meanwhile, another dimension to this, is that the Tories, goaded by the Institute of Directors, are sharpening their claws for the next round of labour/anti-trade union legislation as part of their second-wave neo-liberalism and financialisation. This, in conjunction with, in England at any rate, the gradual displacement of public sector workers by voluntary workers will not only weaken public sector trade unions in England but it will, eventually, have devastating effects on public sector trade unions in Scotland also. It is, perhaps, this short-sightedness on the part of Scottish Labour voters that is Scotland’s real tragedy. And as Scottish Labour invites another generation of its voters to sleepwalk into another British neo-liberal nightmare, Scottish Labour’s only dismal consolation will be that they stuffed the SNP.

  9. Scottish republic says:

    Labour’s Plan B is to not give a damn what happens to the poor and helpless. This allows them to let the Tories change society one and for all, return to pre-1945 British society and pretend to be annoyed at the fact that the Tories did what they had intended doing all along anyway. No Plan C either.

  10. David McCann says:

    This article was published in February 2011. Well written as it was, why are we commenting on on a political landscape which are completly changed?

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.