2007 - 2021

Donald Dewar’s Glasses

Donald Dewar will be remembered, among other things, as the last Labour figure whom Scots looked upon with any real sense of affection. After his sudden death, while the Parliament he proclaimed was still learning to walk, a movement swiftly gathered to honour his memory with a statue in Glasgow, and less than two years later, in 2002, Kenny Mackay’s nine-foot crumpled monument in rust-green bronze was erected outside the Royal Concert Hall.

But Glasgow isn’t the kind of place to let anyone, even a father figure like Dewar, peer down his nose at people as they tramp up Buchanan Street in the rain. In its first few months the statue’s glasses were twisted out of shape, replaced, and twisted again. And so it went on. Whether it was drunken vandalism or a spirited attempt to crown Dewar’s likeness with the obligatory traffic cone, nobody was quite sure. Mackay had fashioned several pairs of glasses in anticipation of such practical engagement with his work, but he couldn’t keep up with demand. Eventually the spectacles broke off altogether and Dewar was given a more elevated position, courtesy of a new, 6ft high plinth inscribed with his epitaph: ‘There shall be a Scottish Parliament.’ The glasses were restored, but the perspective had changed.

When historians come to write the complete history of the United Kingdom (and it may not be far off now), they will ponder how the Scottish Labour Party’s seemingly iron pact with the people rusted away so quickly. From the start, the devolution project was designed to shackle the potential energy of the SNP. The Nationalists would be permitted influence, but denied power. The proportional voting system effectively stymied any party’s attempts to gain a majority. As a party of perpetual opposition, the Nationalists would wither, and if the demonic prospect of a Tory government in London approached the border, fearful voters would flock back to Labour. Even if the unthinkable happened, the SNP’s ambitions would be tempered by the need to appease an opposition block that was implacably opposed to their core goal.

From the outset Labour conceived the Parliament in terms of what it could not do rather than what it could. It was evident in the decision to list reserved powers rather than devolved ones and Tony Blair’s careless, but telling, ‘parish council’ comment. George Robertson envisaged Holyrood as a squatting hulk that would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. In Labour’s eyes it was a second-division Parliament for second-tier politicians, an attitude epitomised by Jack McConnell’s mission statement to ‘do less, better’ and his failure to get beyond the first part of that target.

It was entirely in keeping with Labour’s instinct for trivialising and belittling the nationalist threat. In election campaigns Helen Liddell would decry the SNP as the Tories’ ‘little helpers’; John Reid, pugilistically, equated nationhood with spending millions on military hardware; George Foulkes would have us believe that nationalism would founder because nobody could agree on how many tin-hatted border guards to post at Gretna. For years they refused even to utter the word independence, preferring instead to speak menacingly of ‘divorce’. No word could better have summed up Labour’s treatment of Scotland than this: the fear, the meekness, the submissive mindset the party fostered. If the Scots were unhappy with their marriage of convenience, they were not to make a scene or threaten to leave. They would regret it if they showed up their more prestigious partner in front of everyone. Rather, they should be grateful that England had chosen such a low-bred midden of a nation for a consort. And finally, the Union was ‘sacrosanct’, so let that be an end to such ungodly musings. As a stance it reeked of misogyny: ‘divorce’ was a vain notion indulged by flighty, ungrateful creatures with ideas above their station.

However the next few years play out, whether independence becomes a real prospect or a dwindling aspiration, on May 5th Scotland liberated itself from the fearful, degrading rhetoric that has choked the issue. And in the process, the SNP broke Labour’s electoral shackles to score a nine-seat majority. Nowhere was the shift more palpable than in Glasgow, a place whose history is bound up in the best and worst traditions of the Labour movement. Glasgow Southside fell and there was a shudder. Then Cathcart went down and we felt a rumble. And then Anniesland, Dewar’s former fortress, a place he had nurtured and cherished and hauled three stops up the line from Garscadden, cracked and it was an earthquake.

This country has had its fill of dismal little men pursuing dismal little goals. Tory cynicism and Labour anomie have been cast off: the argument about independence will be won or lost on pragmatic grounds, in the best enlightened Scots tradition. The SNP, for their part, have won a famous victory, but a greater challenge lies ahead. They are up against the canniest and most ruthless electorate in the world, a nation that sends Labour members to Westminster to sabotage the Tories’ aspirations and SNP members to Holyrood to punish Labour’s stifling tendencies. They will be tested, like Dewar’s Labour, on the strength of their vision. There will be no statues in their honour if they fail.

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  1. Ian Hamilton says:

    This piece says nothing new but it’s a delight to read such lovely English.

    Ian Hamilton

    1. Gordon Darroch says:

      You flattering old cove, Ian.

      You miss the point, of course, but thank you all the same.

  2. keezo says:

    Great article.

  3. lenathehyena says:

    Ooh, Ian Hamilton, I beg to differ.

    It may not be saying anything that hasn’t been aired before but I like the tone and the sentiments and it is worth reminding everyone how Holyrood was created to smother the growing rage for independence but instead the parliament, along with the electorate, has grown in confidence and ambition.

    Good piece.

  4. With respect, because it’s a good piece, I think you are a little guilty of some rather indulgent belittling yourself.
    The labour party’s vote did not collapse, as you and indeed David Cameron at PMQ implied, it went down by a whopping 0.5 per cent, facts my friend are chiels that winna ding.
    Certainly the SNP fought a brilliant campaign, certainly Labour fought a terrible one, certainly Alex Salmond is a genius and Iain Grey is not.
    But calm down my dear and keep an eye on reality.

    1. Steven H says:


      I sympathise with your argument, but remember this – a governing party managed to increase its vote by 10 points last week. I cannot remember the last time this has happened, anywhere. They are not invincible but Labour has quite a mountain to climb, to say the least.


    2. Gordon Darroch says:

      No, the Labour vote didn’t collapse, but by every measure Labour lost significantly. Where it was a straight fight between Labour and the SNP, the Labour vote went down; the effect was mitigated by gains elsewhere (e.g. Aberdeen South: Lewis Macdonald picked up 8.6%, but Kevin Stewart put on 9.7%). And remember, they picked up two constituencies from the Tories. That puts the shift in their western heartlands into some perspective.

      One other detail: the constituency vote did indeed slip by 0.5%, but the list vote fell by 2.9%. And contrary to popular belief, the list vote matters. Just ask Andy Kerr.

  5. Steven H says:

    In retrospect Scottish Labour’s fortunes began their steady decline to the present day (their vote has declined in every Holyrood election since 1999) when Dewar died. He was, I think, the only Labour politician of genuine imagination, empathy and stature. His speech on the opening of the Scottish parliament always leaves me with slightly wet eyes. He wasn’t perfect, granted, and he had a difficult time as first minister, but every Labour leader (I say nothing of the back benches) since him have been smaller figures. Henry McLeish has grown since he left office, and Wendy Alexander certainly had the right strategy for a referendum (“Bring it on”) – but in general, Labour are a mediocre bunch.

    Incidentally, I think negative scare tactics work (look at the No2AV campaign) – but I think that unionists now should always stress the benefits of the union rather than wail bleak predictions of the results of independence.

    I have always thought that Scotland could make it on its own; I just don’t think that independence will inaugurate the earthly paradise that some nationalists (stress on the “some”) imagine.


  6. bellacaledonia says:

    Bella is glad to have published Gordons piece. We want to explore the election result in the round, as well as further celebration (to come) – the shift in language – or just the consciousness that that language is inappropriate, which Gordon explores is telling.

    Anyone remember the ‘best small nation’ line?

  7. Donald Adamson says:

    Maxwell Macleod,

    You’re right, of course, if you compare Labour’s share of the vote to the 2007 Scottish election.

    Much more interesting, however, is to look at what’s happened to the change in the number of Labour and SNP voters compared to the British general election twelve months ago. In the British general election in May 2010, Labour received 1,035,528 votes, the SNP received 491,386. In the Scottish election last Thursday, Labour received a constituency vote of 630,461 and the SNP received a constituency vote of 920,915. In other words, compared to 12 months ago, the number of Scottish Labour voters has fallen by some 40 per cent and the number of SNP voters has increased by some 63 per cent.

    As you say, facts are chiels that winna ding!

  8. Donald Adamson says:

    Oops, typo alert, that should read, the number of SNP voters has increased by some 83 per cent. It’s been a very long day.

  9. Justin Kenrick says:

    They’re all long days just now, Donald.

    Maybe we think we’re still dreaming and so feel there’s no need to go to to sleep . . . well we’re not, and there is!

  10. Donald Adamson says:

    Agreed Justin, I’ll take your advice.

    But before I do, just want to say that on the basis of the local election results in England last week, there are grounds for arguing that Labour’s problems in England are at least as serious as they are for Labour in Scotland. That too, might be something to do with a lacklustre campaign. Or maybe it’s the price they’ve paid for sending all those party workers up to Scotland! Whatever the reason, the net result is that the Tories are sitting pretty with three times as many councils as Labour.

    1. Steven H says:

      Some perspective might be helpful –

      SNP, 2003 – 24% (constit.) 21% (list)
      Labour, 2011 – 32% (constit.) 26% (list)

      As nationalists you should be especially careful of writing premature political obituaries.


  11. Donald Adamson says:

    Steven, just wanted to fire this off before I start work.

    Point taken. But suppose we put up another table:

    SNP 2003 – 24% (const) 21% (list)
    SNP 2011 – 45% (const) 44% (list)

    The grass is always greener eh?

    No-one with any sense is writing the obituary of Labour or underestimating it as an electoral force in either Scotland or England, and certainly nobody in Wales is! But unless the Tories completely mess things up, I can’t see how Labour (in England at any rate) can get back into power before 2020 at the earliest. In effect, if this is correct, and assuming that the Tories don’t completely mess things up, that means that, assuming Scotland remains in the UK, it’ll be governed by Tory governments at Westminster for at least the next nine years.

    And looking at Labour’s shadow front bench at Westminster, to be brutally honest, I don’t think the Tories have a lot to worry about, but maybe I’ve missed something? I think the union is going to be increasingly hard to sell in Scotland as we approach the British general election in 2015, and then there’s the referendum campaign. At the very least, it’s all to play for.

    It’s also worth mentioning that in Scottish Labour’s 15 constituency seats the SNP is a close second in 13 of them. Of these 13 seats, the SNP needs only a 3 per cent, or less, swing from Labour (significantly less in most of the seats) to win them. Unlikely perhaps in most cases, but there’s some mair chiels that winna ding.

    I think that the turnaround in the number of Labour and SNP voters in the last twelve months could be the most important statistic in this election as we anticipate an independence referendum. Even if you make the unrealistic assumption that every single one of the 300,000 votes that the Lib Dems lost (since 2010) went to the SNP, that still wouldn’t explain the huge increase in the SNPs vote compared to 2010 nor does it tell us anything about the collapse in Labour’s vote compared to 2010.

    It’s true that since devolution the SNP has progressively done better at Scottish elections than it has at Westminster elections, and we might be able to discount here some element of the SNP vote being less likely to turn out at Westminster elections than at elections for the Scottish parliament.

    But it’s clear that, while a number of complex factors fed into last week’s result, from both inside and outside Scotland, I wonder if what we’ve also witnessed in last week’s result is a kind of Westminster-rebound effect. That is, one of the underlying reasons for the inflated Labour vote in Scotland at British general elections, including most notably 2010, is a desire to keep the Tories out at Westminster and a recognition, on the part of many of these voters, of the SNPs poor performance at British general elections. Having been thwarted in 2010 many of those voters then had to make a decision about who was best placed to protect Scotland against the Tory government at Westminster in last week’s election and, as we know now, the SNP was the beneficiary.

    The reason I think this might be significant is that, if there is any substance to the argument above, that the Tories might be a good bet to win the 2015 British general election, then this Westminster-rebound effect could be amplified in the independence referendum, particularly if it is held after the 2015 British general election with the Tories firmly ensconced in government at Westminster until 2020. This suggests that there might be a soft underbelly to Scottish Labour’s support which, in the right circumstances – and they could hardly be more auspicious for the SNP – could inflate a yes vote in an independence referendum.

    There are a number of other potentially favourable circumstances here (favourable for the SNP that is) that need to be accommodated and, of course, a lot can change in either direction, but I’d better go now. Cheers.

    1. Steven H says:


      The point I was trying to make was that for the SNP to rebound so dramatically from such a low vote share, it should be at least theoretically possible for Labour to do the same on a somewhat higher vote share. I well remember the more triumphant Labour types declaring the irrelevance of nationalism as a political force in 2003; it’s just ironic that some of the more intemperate nationalists are proclaiming the identical thing about Labour.

      I’m sure this may be construed as sour grapes, but popularity – and political momentum – is an evanescent thing. Just ask Iain Gray! Or, perhaps more pertinently, look at the experience of the DPJ in Japan; sweeping to power in 2009, breaking the hegemony of the LDP – and then forfeiting much of their popularity in the year that followed. The exultant statements of some nationalists – the ones that equate 45% of the vote on less than 50% turnout as the “will of the Scottish people” for instance – suggest to me that hubris is the greatest danger faced by the SNP.

      I happen to like Ed Miliband, but I’m forced to agree with your assessment that the Tories will be in power in London until the end of the decade. Osborne and Cameron are ruthless – the latter, especially, projects an air of competence and assuredness that Gordon Brown rarely did. I have never voted Tory, by the way!

      It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the unstoppable force (Salmond)meets the immoveable object (Cameron). I don’t mean that Cameron will block a referendum, I just think he will be a very shrewd and devious campaigner.


      1. Gordon Darroch says:


        I hope I didn’t come across as intemperate, and I agree with a lot of your points. I was almost on the point of tagging SNP hubris on to that line about Tory cynicism and Labour anomie: it’s a very big pitfall and one they’ve fallen into before (remember “free in ’93”?) Only a fool would write off Labour as dead and buried, but they need to learn some big lessons quickly if they’re not to go into the same long-term decline as the Tories. If independence happens, the parties who thrive will be the ones who redefine themselves in the light of the new political landscape – and that, arguably, will be a bigger test for the SNP than anybody.

        As for Cameron being shrewd and devious, it’s not as if Alex Salmond is deficient in either of those qualities. I wonder, too, just how strong a fight Cameron will put up in a referendum. The argument for the union is becoming harder to sustain, especially for the Tories, who only defend it because it’s hardwired into their DNA. In practical terms, independence would surely boost their prospects on both sides of the border. It’s an irony that they absorbed the reality of devolution far more readily than Labour, despite fighting bitterly against it, and independence might have an even more galvanising effect. It would be their chance to break free from the Thatcher legacy, perhaps even under a new name. (I’m not a Tory, by the way, I’m just aware of what a tenacious bunch they can be).

        Finally, I hope Labour do get back on track, ditch the scaremongering and find a distinctive Scottish voice. One-party hegemony of any colour is bad for democracy in the long run.

  12. Steven H says:


    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you were one of the fanatical, foaming at the mouth nationalists! But we do know they exist. Not every SNP member is a hard-liner, but every hard-liner is an SNP member.

    You’ve made me think about what exactly the SNP’s role would be in an independent Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon was on newsnight last night, and was quizzed by Paxman as to the practicalities of independence. Other than suggesting that nothing would change (keeping the Queen, the pound, etc) her main line was “let the people of Scotland decide”, a truism no-one disagrees with. It was astounding to watch. Is this the totality of the SNP (front bench) vision for Scotland?

    I despair, by the way – utterly despair – of the negative rhetoric regarding independence that has been used by Labour over the past decade or so. It makes me wince and it’s not the way to win this argument. I imagine a beaming, joking Salmond against 3 dour prophets of doom, and I lose all hope in the unionist case.

    We’re agreed regarding the undesirability of one-party rule. Also important, I would argue, is the state of the Tories. I don’t like the idea of power always alternating (again, assuming it does) between two basically left-wing parties, each with tinges of populism. There are a lot of socially conservative Scots out there, as the section 28 incident a decade ago showed. Maybe there’ll be a repudiation of Thatcher by a future Tory leader, a la Khrushchev of Stalin in 1956? I jest, but only in part.

    And I’ve always thought that Cameron’s unionist credentials were a core part of his moderate, Macmillan-esque persona. I don’t really see him as a little englander.


  13. Alex Buchan says:

    The voting system may have produced an overall majority when it was supposed to preclude such an outcome, but what is generally being overlooked is that, in the absence of a rare convergence of exceptional circumstances, it will always tend towards preventing an overall majority. In other words, this overall majority is extremely unlikely to be repeated. The exceptional circumstances that produced this result are not really in dispute: the extreme unpopularity of the Lib Dems, the persistent refusal of Scottish Labour to adapt to change, due to the slimness of the SNPs last majority, and a Labour Party leader in Iain Gray who it was clear from the day he got the job was always going to be an electoral liability.
    For me the significance of this is that the SNP needs to be thinking in terms of the longer term by seeking a broad front for more powers in the country as a whole as well as in parliament. The possibility of a vote for independence in the referendum may help to persuade other parties of the need for an enhanced Parliament. But I think it’s wrong to put all of your eggs in the basket of the referendum. I was wrong as it happens in thinking that a referendum might be initiated by Westminster, because, although Michael Moore had previously told a common’s committee that technically the Scotland Bill did not necessarily need to be referred back to Holyrood, that position is clearly now untenable. But I still feel that there is widespread hostility towards the granting of more powers, both in the commons and the lords. The default position in Westminster by all the unionist parties is likely to be, Calman, but no more.
    We have already seen Moore trying to hold the line against any significant improvement on Calman and the Scotsman reports today unease about this by Scottish Lib Dems who now, as a result of the election, want to highlight their distinctive position of fiscal federalism by ditching Calman. Their call for Moore to resign shows the on-going effect of the election result. Moore of course will not resign and the UK government’s spokesman said the Moore will abide by the principle of collective responsibility. In other words the Lib Dems in government are tied to a minimalist response to change.

  14. Ian Shoesmith says:

    Really interesting piece, Gordon. To declare an interest, he is an old mate of mine from when we did our journalism training together, far too long ago.
    I had the privilege of watching Donald Dewar in action on a daily basis when I covered the fledgling Scottish Parliament in 2000. Without being party political, he was head and shoulders above the rest of his party (in much the same way was and arguably still is for the Nats).
    One wonders how things might have turned out differently, and how the Tories will deal with the independence issue.
    On the one hand, of course, contemplating a breakup of the union is horrible for them. But on the other, imagine not having to overcome dozens of Labour seats in Scotland at every general election…
    If it comes to it, will the head overrule the Tory heart?
    It will be fascinating to watch from south of the border…

  15. Ian Shoesmith says:

    Of course there is a missing word in my above post – Salmond…

  16. Alex Buchan says:

    The idea that Cameron, and more importantly the British establishment, are relaxed about Scottish independence is wide of the mark. They will move mountains to stop it. When you couple their absolute determination to stop independence with Nicola Strugeon’s reported (I didn’t see it) inability to articulate an argument for independence beyond nothing much will change, one can well envisage the AV referendum as a dress rehearsal for the Independence Referendum. The no campaign will wipe the floor.

    Why the British establishment will put all it’s got, including vast resources, into stopping the Independence Referendum dead is not difficult to understand. It’s mainly about Britain’s standing in the world. This is something dear to Cameron’s heart, as witnessed by his desire to be seen leading the charge on Libya. The fact that a recent survey by City AM and Politicshome found a slim majority of, largely Tory supporting, workers in the City in favour of Scottish independence and that a majority of new Tory candidates in England before the last General Election said they were relaxed about Scottish Independence suggests that people in England are not too concerned about it. But that shouldn’t deceived us into thinking the establishment isn’t.

    For a start there would major problems in relocating trident; a report in the press a few years back suggested that all the sites in England or Wales presented insurmountable problems. The rump state would experience a major blow to its prestige, with ramifications that are impossible to quantify, but though impossible to quantify, there will be concerns over its relative position in the EU and over its Security Council seat as well as the ability of the rump UK to exert both soft and hard power across the globe. Added to that is the ramifications for the Monarchy with Commonwealth countries reassessing their relationship to Britain including their ties to the monarchy. As I say the ramifications would be huge and impossible to predict.

    1. An Duine Gruamach says:

      Were they real problems or NIMBYism? Anyway, I’m sure if nukes are such a good idea, they’ll find somewhere.

      1. Alex Buchan says:

        As I recal they were technical problems. The analysis narrowed the possibilities down and then identified technical problems with the one or two locations identified.

    2. Gordon Darroch says:

      I had absolutely no time for Paxman’s bizarre line of questioning and obsession with the minutiae of setting up a state. It’s angels dancing on pinheads, George Foulkes’s border guard argument all over again. The notion that you can’t establish an independent state because nobody’s decided what colour the passports should be is plain insulting. If Curacao can manage it, so can we. Besides, what possible purpose does it serve to decide these administrative issues several years before the consent of the people for the principle of independence has been secured? The SNP have quite rightly focused on showing they can govern the country rather than building castles in the air.

      I don’t doubt the Tories will instinctively resist independence, the problem they will have is trying to articulate the argument for the Union. The party grandees may be implacably opposed to the idea of diminishing Britain’s standing in the world, but the younger generation may well look at the political landscape and wonder what they’ve got to lose. The city workers *are* the Tory establishment these days, so if it’s true that they favour independence then that ought to be enormously heartening. And the strength of the Tory attachment to their dominions can be overstated: Churchill fought the Second World War believing he was saving the Empire, but little more than two years later India was gone. Practicality trumps sentiment in these cases.

      1. Alex Buchan says:

        It might be a bizarre line of questioning but it cleverly gnaws away at that which is important, credibility. Having now watched it on I-Player, I think that Nicola Strugeon performed well, but Paxman’s tactics are nevertheless effective. Regardless of what Cameron says the No campaign will not be primarily about putting the positive case for the union (although Cameron may play the statesman) it will be about undermining the case for independence by identifying the fears that Scots have and exploiting these. What I feel most strongly is that we should forget about the election that has just past because, quite frankly, the campaigns by all three unionist parties were a joke, we are unlikely to have that advantage again, and certainly not in any independence campaign.

  17. Alex Buchan says:

    I forgot to add military and security concerns. Defending and controlling access to an island is easier than having a land border with a foreign state. I also forgot to mention economic considerations. Britain is in a stronger position in having oil, and then there is the whisky and the renewables potential as well as food security with Scottish fishing and farming.

    Just thinking through all the reasons why the British state would do everything it can to stop Scottish independence gives a sense of the opposition the pro-independence campaign would face, coming as much from inside Scotland as from outside. The print and broadcast media can be relied on to be unrelentingly negative.

    This is why references to Slovakia are wide of the mark because so much less was at stake in that case, and because it followed on from the seismic collapse of communism. The best comparison in terms of impact is to Russia, but again this merely followed on the back of to an even deeper change with the collapse of communism and Russia was big enough to withstand it and has shown absolute ruthlessness in preventing any further secession.

    It is for all of these reasons that I believe an independence referendum will not be won unless there has been an on-going movement to bring it about starting now; one that manages to engage ordinary people. The mistake would be to leave it to Nicola’s softly, softly, approach.

  18. Steven H says:


    Of course the British state will try to resist – what kind of state, anywhere, voluntarily weakens itself? The only scenario featuring a rapid seperation I can imagine is one in which violence is involved. And there’s been none of that, thank god.

    Watch the Sturgeon interview on iplayer (yesterday’s newsnight, about 20-25 minutes in). The idea that the Scottish and rump UK governments might spend years (decades?) in deep negotiations over almost every issue imagineable in order to create a state that is almost exactly the same as the one it’s replacing is utterly repellent to me. The Scottish government would hardly be able to focus its full attention on Scottish social problems while this negotiation is ongoing, would it?


    1. Alex Buchan says:


      Thanks for the pointer to Sturgeon’s interview.

      Of course no state would voluntarily give up territory but my comments were in response to Gordon’s suggestions that Cameron only defends the union because its hardwired into the Tory DNA, and I notice that Ian Shoesmith echoes this point in his comment above by wondering whether the head will overule the Tory heart.

      This kind of idea is not uncommon in comments in English blogs and the attitude of those city workers and Tory prospective parliamentary candidates would tend to back it up, but I feel this is a mistake. The Tory head as well as heart is fully determined to not allow Britain’s standing to be deminished.

      Their changes to constituency boundaries will guarantee them majorities without Scotland unless things go badly for them. I do not rule out consessions from the Tories on the consitution in the future if necessary, but they will fight the independence referendum with all the ruthlessness that they put into the AV referendum.

      Our positions are diametrically opposed I think the end of the British state would be a good thing in itself, irrespective of the benefits for Scotland. I think you are exagurating the issue of negoiations, but this is exactly the kind of propoganda that will be used to try to defeat a yes vote.

  19. Donald Adamson says:


    I did get your point, as I indicated in my opening remark, but the point I was making was that although anything is “theoretically” possible, I think that Scottish Labour’s predicament goes a lot deeper than you suggest even if it were plausible to project an increased share of its vote from its high-ish base. To see this broader point even more clearly we need to re-trace your own steps on this thread.

    In an earlier response you stated that, “In retrospect Scottish Labour’s fortunes began their steady decline to the present day (their vote has declined in every Holyrood election since 1999) when Donald Dewar died”. It might be helpful to remind ourselves of this decline in Scottish Labour’s voters in the constituency vote (with per centage share of the vote in brackets):

    1999 – 908,392 (39%)
    2003 – 659,879 (35%)
    2007 – 648,374 (32%)
    2011 – 630,461 (32%)

    From 1999, in other words, Scottish Labour has lost some 31 per cent of its voters and it has been haemorrhaging votes in every election since 1999. Compare this with the performance of the SNP in the same period:

    1999 – 672,757 (29%)
    2003 – 449,476 (24%)
    2007 – 664,227 (33%)
    2011 – 902,915 (45%)

    In contrast to Scottish Labour, the SNP has increased its number of voters by 34 per cent since the previous high of 1999 and increased its number of voters by almost 50 per cent between 2003 and 2007 and by a further 36% between 2007 and 2011. In fact, the increase in the number of SNP voters in Scottish elections from 2003 to 2011 is 101 per cent which, by any standards, is astonishing, particularly in such a short period of time.

    We do need to note too that, since devolution, this Scottish election was the closest of any to a Westminster election and, more importantly, the first under a Tory government. The fact that it has yielded an SNP government with an outright majority, in an electoral system that was devised to prevent that, against the background of a flat-lining British Labour party and with the dramatic turnaround in the two main Scottish parties’ fortunes outlined in this and previous posts, suggests that we are in new territory. And that’s one reason why I’m sceptical of your “momentum” and evanescence argument. I can’t see any reason why the momentum should suddenly switch back to Scottish Labour before 2015. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen but, even the most optimistic Scottish Labour supporter would struggle to argue the case.

    In fact, it’s just as likely, perhaps more likely to continue to further propel the SNP at a key stage in its progress towards its objective. Much depends on voters’ perceptions of its competence, over the next four years in particular (up to the referendum or British general election, whichever comes first). Its performance in next year’s local elections is critical for lots of reasons (the same can be said of Scottish Labour). Equally, the fortunes of British Labour in the southern half of England will become increasingly important as we approach 2015 and, of course there are a number of other factors. For example, the SNP are about to discover that incumbency has disadvantages as well as advantages, let’s see how they cope with the former.

    It may be, though, that Scottish Labour is in a similar rut to that of the Tories in England, particularly after 1995 (after John Major’s “put up or shut up” ultimatum to the Tory eurosceptics). There are a few analogies. For example, they’ll take a while to recover from the stigma of their ‘Black Wednesday’ equivalent, they seem to have been overtaken by events, they’ve been outperformed by a party and, more importantly, a movement to which they don’t appear to have an answer. Their share of the vote seems to have peaked (in Scottish elections), their next leader will be their sixth in twelve years, they seem to lack direction and purpose, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few protracted rounds of quite serious in-fighting breaks out, enhancing the prospect of some defections to the SNP among other things.

    Another issue worth picking up is the missing 300,000 Scottish Lib Dem votes that I referred to earlier. An interesting issue here is not only where have those votes gone but, where will they go in the future? This is worth thinking about as they constitute almost half the constituency votes that Scottish Labour received last week. Or put it another way, what is the future for the Scottish Lib Dems? They could be forgiven for concluding that the British Lib Dems have locked themselves into a long-term rather than short-term pact with the Tories in England. Nice arrangement for the Lib Dem leadership down south but this could destroy the Lib Dems in Scotland, indeed it almost has – it didn’t do the Lib Dems any favours in last week’s local elections in England either of course!

    It’s not implausible that, in an independence referendum, some/many of those Scottish Lib Dem voters, particularly after this election result, may reconcile themselves to the fact that federalism is a pipe-dream and that, rather than continuing to vote for their own self-destruction as long as Scotland remains in the UK, their fortunes in Scotland might be greatly enhanced were they to separate themselves completely from their British counterparts and take that one further step and support independence. They could become a not insignificant political force in an independent Scotland. As you said, momentum can change with events.

    To cut a long story short, the only losers in this would appear to be the Scottish Tories but then, looking at Scotland’s election results in every election in Scotland and Britain since 1964, that’s what the majority of Scottish voters have been trying to tell us all these years! That would leave a landscape contested largely by a right of centre Tory Party, centrist/left of centre Lib Dems, left of centre Labour Party and an assortment of parties to the left of Labour, including, hopefully, a resurgent Scottish Green Party (many SNP supporters having dispersed into all of these groups but concentrated in the latter three).

    In other words, the majority of Labour voters and the majority of SNP voters would get the government that they, broadly, want, one definition of democracy. With the introduction of an effective PR electoral system and a movement away from the sterile British debate of devolution for Scotland to a movement, after independence, to devolution within Scotland, politically, that has the makings of a progressive social democracy. Isn’t that what most Scottish voters seem to want, at least for starters?

  20. Scottish republic says:

    Personally, I always found Donald Dewar to be a vile rasping Labourite stooge.

    His rasping pronunciation of the word ‘GarrssssssccccKKKkkkaden sticks in my ears like an annoying buzzing mosquito-circlar saw to this day.

    He was after all a pointless little man.

    Ian Hamilton QC, get a grip and stop acting the imbecile. For an intelligent man, you’re acting like a spoilt baby who can’t find his rattle. I admire you for many things but your comments are unhelpful and it’s time you supported the SNP as we approach the referendum which will make dreams come true. Your points about the SNP are irrelevant w.r.t. a devolved government.

    Help man, don’t hinder.

  21. Scottish republic says:

    Incidentally, my only regret about last Thursday’s victory is Dewar didn’t get a doing with the rest of the Labourites.

    1. Steven H says:

      Scottish republic – magnanimity is a virtue, please try and cultivate it.

      Alex – there is undeniably a little englander element in the English party, but while they are brash and loud, they are a minority. No major figure in the party does anything more than flirt with it. And I would expect them to fight the referendum robustly – good. I can’t imagine Salmond running a demure, gentle campaign, can you?

      And I restate – if you replace the British state with something that is 90% similar, you’ll be haunted by the British state, forever. Do nationalists really lust after a Scottish embassy in Washington that much? Is that the sum total of their ambitions?

      Donald – last week was certainly a famous victory, I do not dispute that at all. And labour are still reeling, and will continue to do so until well after next years local elections. They’re also greatly hampered by the spectacular withering of their most natural coalition partner. As a result, it will be much more difficult for the party to govern from now on.

      Still, I think my Japanese example is quite relevant. An opposition surges both in terms of the vote and seats; the natural party of government is dramatically thrown out of power for the first time in decades.

      Sound familiar? And since 2009 the DPJ has struggled mightily. They have power, but they have no idea how to wield it. The polls are dire. Now, the parliamentary term has barely started and I am not saying this is the snp’s fate by any means. But it is a possible fate.

      Incidentally I think the snp will govern the way they have since 2007 – taking credit for everything that’s good in Scotland and blaming London for everything bad. Your school’s been closed? Londons fault. That council tax freeze? Yeah, that was us. As I think I’ve said, a shameless, if politically effective, way of governing.

      We have a very long five years ahead of us…


      1. Frankly says:

        Your last paragraph, Steven, as a matter of interest, is not only in harmony with but very close to something that Tam Dalyell said in an STV devolution debate which was broadcast prior to the devolution referendum in 1997. At this point in time that programme is very much worth watching again:

        If you do watch it, you will also see Donald Dewar performing, and Alex Salmond, who was judged to have argued his case, in favour of trusting the people, far more cogently than any of the other debaters argued theirs. Some things just don’t change.

        Dalyell argued that Dewar’s devolution scheme would marginalize Scotland within the UK and eventually propel it into independence. He warned that, if the Scottish electorate voted for devolution, Scotland would enter a motorway with no exit. Dewar sat back smirking, apparently confident that he had Scotland and the SNP tightly tied up in a foolproof electoral system that would prevent the SNP from gaining control of his shiny new parliament. The fact that he has just been shown to have got it wrong invites us to re-examine Dalyell’s argument when considering the course that events are likely to take over the next few years, I venture to suggest.

  22. Donald Adamson says:


    It looks like we’re agreed, on the main issue at least. Labour’s only prospect of getting even a share of power before 2015 is the hope that either the Tories completely mess things up at Westminster and/or the SNP completely mess things up at Holyrood. Stranger things have happened, no-one would take that hope away from you. But I’d still argue that neither of these is likely to happen and that, in the case of the SNP in particular, those four years of minority government will hold it in good stead up to 2015. I think that they learned a lot of important lessons as a government in that period, which is one of the many factors that makes an analogy with another country problematic to say the least.

    One final thought. If, as seems to be the consensus opinion in the Labour Party, it’s accepted that the SNP ran a great campaign for the Holyrood elections, I’m tempted to say, in anticipation of the referendum campaign, that they aint seen nothing yet. I wouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the campaign will energise the SNP and its supporters at all levels. Many of us have waited too long to live in these times, and this campaign will be the single most important political event in our lives. I can assure you, we’ll act accordingly.

  23. Steven H says:

    Frankly – Thanks for bringing that devolution debate to my attention! I shall have to watch it all the way through sometime. And it doesn’t suprise me that Salmond was glib and unbearable (to me, at least) even in 1997. In retrospect Dalyell was the most articulate and thoughtful, though negative unionists. His grumpy style doesn’t do his case any favours. Regarding the nationalist style of government, I repeat: If you seek a grievance long enough, you will find one. I think – again, my personal opinion – that the SNP has used the Scottish Parliament as a megaphone to proclaim such grievances; Dalyell warned against this eventuality, if I recall correctly. It’s my hope that the situation Dalyell warned of – devolution being a “motorway to independence” – is but one possible outcome of our present state.

    Donald – I fully expect the SNP and their fellow travellers to strain every sinew to win a referendum. This, like you suggest, will probably be one of the defining events in the lives of many nationalists. Emotive, visceral issues like independence compel people who are, in most other respects, quite moderate and reasonable, to heroic efforts. No sensible unionist thinks that defeating an independence referendum will be easy, or pre-ordained; I certainly don’t.

    But, a word of warning. Unionists like me, who are sick of the incompetence and intellectual laziness of the parties that claim to represent us – Annabel Goldie’s idiotic bragging during the campaign about how she could control Salmond without much difficulty, for instance – will embrace the referendum as a means to finally drain this particular abscess once and for all. I, for one, will donate to the unionist campaign; I would never donate to a political party.


  24. Donald Adamson says:


    Independence, self-determination and autonomy (see top-right of Bella banner), can, at times, be “emotive and visceral”, no doubt about it. But they can also be liberating, life-enhancing, offering new futures, new pathways and hope. I suppose what I’m saying here is that, on this issue at least, your glass is half-full, mine is half-empty.

    I supported independence in 1979 before Mrs Thatcher was elected. I believe that history justifies my position on that one. I supported independence before 1990 when John Major became leader of the Tories. I believe that history justifies my position on that one too. I supported independence before the election of New Labour in 1997. I’d argue that history is on my side on that one too. And, after 2010, the whole shebang is kicking off once again, perhaps, who knows for another eighteen years.

    Tell me I’m wrong, by all means, and prove to me that it was better for Scotland that it remained in the union after 1979, 1990, 1997 and 2010. But don’t tell me that I’m being emotive and visceral. If that’s your argument, my advice to you is, keep your money in your pocket.

  25. Donald Adamson says:

    I meant to say of course that, on this issue, your glass is half-empty mine is half-full!

  26. Steven H says:


    It may surprise you to know that I have always regarded myself as being an optimist, believing that Scotland can achieve all of its goals within the union. It’s certain nationalists that have always struck me as weirdly pessimistic, bemoaning the eternal iniquity of London, and such.

    If some of us sound pessimistic it’s because we don’t believe that a unionist victory in an independence referendum will be treated with the finality that a nationalist victory would. Look at Salmond, declaring that the people of Scotland must decide, but that “the destination [independence] is set”. If we win, the question will just be asked again…and again…and again – as many times as necessary – until a yes to independence vote is returned. On the other hand, if you win, that will be that, forever. Will a referendum be held a decade into an independent Scotland on whether to rejoin the union? Of course not.

    That’s why so many of us feel somewhat cheated in this matter.


  27. Donald Adamson says:


    Fair enough. But as a Marxist first, and ‘nationalist’ with a small ‘n’ second (always second) I’ve no problem with contradictions, negations, crises and reflexivity. In fact that’s life and not just in politics. For my part, I’m happy to let the democratic process run its course. Might we leave it at that I wonder, at least until the campaign begins in earnest?

    1. Steven H says:


      Yes, we all have plenty of time to debate these issues. There’s no rush.

      I came across a telling quote from Naomi Mitchison today that made me ponder:

      ‘It seems to me that you are bound to assume that a self-governing Scoland is going to be immediately morally better, and I don’t see it unless there has also been a revolution.’

      I see no prospect of the kind of democratic revolution I would dearly love – a radical redistribution of power away from the centre – in an SNP-led Scotland. You probably hope for the other kind! But we both have grounds to worry.


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