Where Now for Scottish Labour?
The SNP’s crushing electoral victory has changed Britain’s political union for ever. Whatever else now happens, the constitutional and political status quo is no longer an option. The Scottish Parliament’s powers will change. Scotland’s political parties will change. The relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK will change. We are already living in what Alasdair Gray described as the early days of a better nation.
Yet the changes set to sweep across Scotland will not be welcomed everywhere. In particular, they will not be welcomed by what remains of the now traumatised leadership of the Scottish Labour Party. A Labour Government may have brought Scotland’s Parliament into existence, but the Labour Party itself has never been fully at ease with the devolution of political power away from its spiritual home in the Palace of Westminster. Labour’s devolution project simply never conceived of the possibility of an SNP majority in Scotland’s parliament.
When, after the 1987 general election, the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly produced its report “A Claim of Right for Scotland” calling for the setting up of a Constitutional Convention it was initially given the cold shoulder by Labour’s Scottish parliamentarians. As a Labour backbencher at that time, I put down an early day motion welcoming the report’s publication but struggled to get more than a handful of my colleagues to support me in signing it.
Despite having for the third election in a row seen their majority control of Scottish seats cancelled out by huge Tory majorities in England, most Scottish Labour MPs back then had no interest in resurrecting Scotland’s national question. This was not long after the SNP had branded Scotland’s Labour MPs as the “feeble fifty” and sent each MP a white feather in the post. Any initiative that smacked of nationalism was always likely to receive short shrift from most of them.
What changed their minds was the Glasgow Govan by-election in November 1988. Jim Sillars’ stunning victory for the SNP with a 33% swing in one of Labour’s safest heartland seats shocked Labour’s Scottish hierarchy. Having lost 3 elections in a row, Labour in Scotland now found itself facing a new and more radical working class political alternative on its own doorstep. Something had to be done and quickly.
Within less than six months of the Govan result Labour had embraced the main recommendation of the previously ignored “A Claim of Right for Scotland” and joined in the setting up of Scottish Constitutional Convention. At a meeting in the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Hall on the mound each of Labour’s Scottish MPs even formally signed a Claim of Right for Scotland that among other things acknowledged the “sovereign right of the Scottish people” to determine their own form of government. The decisive step towards devolution had now been taken. There could be no turning back.
There is little doubt that many in Labour’s ranks were sincere in their support for a form of Scottish Home Rule that stopped short of full independence. Donald Dewar was a lifelong devolutionist. His genuine support and enthusiasm for the Scottish Parliament finally established in 1999 is beyond question. John Smith too meant what he said when he described devolution as the “settled will” of the Scottish people. Dennis Canavan not only believed in a Scottish Parliament, he was prepared to sacrifice his life membership of the Labour party for its sake. Labour’s nationalist wing was real enough.
But there has always been another faction inside the Labour Party in Scotland who supported devolution not for its own sake but as a means to the end of dealing with the SNP threat in their own back yards. They were the group that opposed the changing of the party’s name from the Labour Party in Scotland to the Scottish Labour Party. They were opposed to proportional representation for Scottish elections. They even denounced Calton Hill as a possible site for the new parliament because they saw it as “a nationalist shibboleth”. To these died-in-the-wool unionists devolution was simply a tactical tool. Without the SNP threat, it is almost certain that they would not have supported devolution at all.
Lord Robertson is the best known of this group because of his infamous remark that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead. But there were many others. They include the career MPs at Westminster who have never tried to disguise their contempt for what they regard as Scotland’s second rate talking shop. Then there are the ambitious MSPs at Holyrood who take off for Westminster at the first available opportunity. Behind them is a Party bureaucracy that insanely tried to use the Holyrood candidate selection process to weed out anyone who might be capable of original thought or independent action. In short, to weed out anyone who might have wanted to make a success of Scotland’s new Parliament.
As the New Labour project has driven the party politically rightwards, so this unionist faction has become more dominant. They eventually became the party leadership in Scotland. The most able among them were wholly focussed on careers in Westminster. They snubbed Holyrood as a secondary and inferior tier of government. When they intervened in Scottish politics it was either to denounce Scotland’s SNP Government or to rubbish the concept of Scottish autonomy. They have spent their political lives telling Scots what they can’t do politically and disparaging the idea that Scotland can aspire to be like any other independent country in the world.
Now they have paid the political price for decades of putting Westminster before Scotland. Can they recover? Can Scottish Labour again become the national party of Scotland? We do not yet know the answers to these questions. What we do know is that any party that aspires to be the national party of Scotland will have to put Scotland first. It remains to be seen whether Scottish Labour is capable of putting Scotland before the union. I suspect not.