2007 - 2021

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.

Comments (35)

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  1. James Hunter says:

    I’m past caring. Labour died in 1994.

  2. Scottish republic says:

    John, you sound like you should be in the SNP.

    I mean, you really do.

    It’s never too late.

    Seize the future and make a better nation based on the values you have that are entirely absent in Labour Scotland but entirely present in the SNP.

  3. Aidan Skinner says:

    What an amazing amount of drumbeating bile for this blog, if not the former Sillers Labour Party / Labour backbencher turned Scottish Socialist . I know it’s quite hard-Nat round here but.. really.

    Yes, the Scottish Labour party needs a serious attitude adjustment in a few areas, particularly regarding candidate selection but I do sometimes wonder if the bitterness directed at the Labour Party at all levels is because people desperately want us to be better than we are..

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Yes, that’s it Aidan … LOL. The negativity towards Labour comes from the fact that a generation waited to get rid of Thatcher (18 long years) then when Labour did win we got Blair, Iraq, PFI (Pretty Fucking Ironic) and more privatisation than Thatcher would ever have dared.

      1. Bugger (the Panda) says:

        I was brought up in a council house in Glasgow, a tied one where my father was employed by the old Corporation and thus had to bend the knee to his “soviet” betters.

        I never forgot that and I rejoice in their ultimate demise.

        Yes I want my people to receive better than what they were given and aspire to be better that what they were herded to be.

        A Pox on Labour.

        A Party and a philosophy purloined, manipulated and hereticised.


      2. Aidan Skinner says:

        There you go again, completely ignoring the good things the Labour governments at Holyrood and Westminster did such as the minimum wage, independence for the bank of England, civil unions, a massive reduction in both absolute and relative child poverty, not to mention the small matter of devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

        I almost resisted the opportunity to point out that the SNP government in Holyrood has embraced PFI under a slightly different name in Public Private Partnership but couldn’t.

        Iraq was arguably illegal, and was bitterly opposed by most of the Scottish Labour party. The biggest parliamentary group that voted against the Iraq war was the 139 rebel Labour MPs.

        Labour: we’re not perfect, but we’re pretty good, and certainly not the devil this article seeks to make out.

  4. David MacGille-Mhuire says:

    Why can we not be honest and admit the full historical record to our discourse?

    Way back to Hardie and MacLean et al, integral to Scottish visions of socialism were the national and republican cores (subsequently subject to sustained calumnies until the freak-show of imperialist Trotskyite and “social-democratic, appeasing and collaborationist “Scottish” ‘Labour’ ‘won’ the ‘ground'” in another distorted freak-show – now past sell buy date and thank Christ – of duplicity.

    Scotland seems to have shrugged off this imposed partial, pseudo-intellectual drivel: Will oor self-elected commentators be capable of doing the same and chucking out and smashing auld irrelevant ‘paradigms’?

    It seems the citizenry have.

    En passant, never a squeak hear about the Gandhi-esque, Maoist, Stalinist, Lygate, MacLean-ist, Connelly shaped and anarchist inspired – a la Stewart Christie – contributions to the Scottish body politic.

    Trot manipulations?

    1. Bugger (the Panda) says:

      Yes Stewart Christie has just resurfaced, for me anyway.

  5. Steven H says:

    It should have been obvious in 1997, even to the most dim Labour drone, that a parliament in Edinburgh with a proportional voting system would have produced an SNP government – by coalition or whatever means – eventually. An SNP administration should not be viewed as some catastrophe, or a harbinger of the end of the union; just as the change of government it is. It’s healthy – more so than the situation in Wales, where Labour has ruled since 1999.

    Labour’s main mistake in 2011 was to run a flaccid campaign, headed by a man of integrity but little steel, in which David Cameron and Nick Clegg were the main hate figures. It made me wince. The SNP keep its most talented (I use that adjective loosely) in Edinburgh, and they know exactly who the main threat to their power is. They have proved basically competent, for the most part, in office.

    These factors explain the SNP victory – not some transformative, redemptive, all-conquering groundswell of popular opinion that will sweep the SNP into permanent government. I remind you all, again, that barely half of the Scottish electorate bothered to vote.

    If anything will restore Labour to government – and things are in the balance at the moment – it will be the overconfidence of the SNP. Beware…


  6. bellacaledonia says:

    Steven – its debatable whether things are in the balance at the moment. And equally debatable whether SNP overconfidence will have the slightest effect on the fortunes of Labour.

    Labour in Scotland have done more than lose an election; the old generational loyalty is broken, perhaps forever – which was the last thing that kept Labour in power. Now the Labour cupboard is bare. There is no way back for them in the next five years for the straightforward reason that they have nothing new to offer. They embraced Blairism and that ship has now sailed.

    Bar small pockets of honest community-based activists and old school socialists – the Mike Daillys and suchlike who actually make a difference to the lives of the poorest – the Labour party has been gutted of principles, ideas and visonaries and replaced by legions of career politicans in suits who never give a second thought about anyone but their own careers. They took people for granted for too long and now its over. Glasgow City Council is their last bastion of control and its a good bet that they’ll be swept from office there too come next year.

    Maybe a new Scottish Labour Party will emerge from the rubble, which is relaxed about Scottish Independence and is astute enough to see Independence as an opportunity to pursue a progressive social democratic agenda. As far as I can see that’s their only hope of regeneration. But I dont see any sign of it happening.

    Until then its game over. Goodnight Irene.

    Kevin W.

    1. Steven H says:


      I quite agree that Labour dominance is crumbling in their heartlands (who could’ve predicted the Glasgow results, really?) but this doesn’t mean the seats are now the SNP’s by divine right. It merely means that they are competitive, which is a good thing (I’m sure Glaswegian voters would agree). The SNP recovered from a lousy result in 2003 (when, by the way, a number of Labour figures were predicting the imminent death of the SNP – sound familiar?). Is it impossible for Labour to do the same?

      And I’m not sure about the wisdom of arguing that Labour is now a principle-free tribe of grey suits. You could say exactly the same of the SNP (except that the suits are somewhat more competent). I mean, honestly, how much policy difference is there between the SNP and Labour now? They’re both left-wing parties with populist elements. This is admittedly simplifying things, but, still, I fail to see any great policy cleavages between the two, except on independence, which the SNP hardly made a campaign issue.

      And there’s the dilemma – how does an opposition effectively differentiate itself from the government in voters’ minds when there are vast swathes of areas with which you (more or less) agree with your opponent? I would argue – drive to the centre and make the SNP look extreme.


      1. Aidan Skinner says:

        As a Glasgwegian Labourite I’m glad our seats here are competitive now. We have had a real problem with stagnation and the rot that that inevitably brings. The Liberal Democrats forcing us to introduce STV was one of the best things that happened to local government in Scotland.

        Are we picking our electoral teeth out of the carpet? Yes. Are we dead in the water? I hope not. Labour, and the distinctive political analysis we represent, have a lot to offer Scotland.

  7. Peter Curran says:

    I was a committed Labour voter for 50 years, John – Glasgow east end, bred-in-the-bone Labour. The core values we held were an internationalist outlook – the global brotherhood of humanity – concern for the poorest and most vulnerable in society, a profound distaste for militarism, rank and privilege and undemocratic institutions, and Aneurin notwithstanding, an anti-nuclear stance.

    I watched Labour abandon everyone of these core values over half a century, culminating in the horror of Iraq. And I came to see that what was rotten in the state of Labour was what was rotten in the state of the UK.

    You used the phrase “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”. I would take issue only with the term ‘spiritual home’ – there was nothing spiritual about it – it was a cynical obsession with the Westminster village as the pinnicle of its power base, with Scotland as the taken-for-granted underpinning of that power base.

    Scottish Labour is irretrievably lost, together with its values, its humanity and its Scottishness. I know the visceral shift that has taken place among my friends and colleagues, old and new, ranging from the the solid gold Glasgow working class to the professional and managerial classes. That shift involved real pain, the residual feeling of a betrayal of old, albeit misplaced loyalties. These people will never return to Labour, anymore than the brutally dispossessed ordinary people of Dalmarnock will ever return to the party of their oppressor, Glasgow Labour-controlled council.

    I will never return to Labour. You should make the quantum leap, John – it’s not a dyke but a giant leap a,cross an intimidating chasm, but you can do it. You must do it.

    1. Herman Munster says:

      Thatcher gets given a lot of stick (rightly) but Labour gets let off the hook –

      Wars under Thatcher/Major
      * Falklands
      * Gulf War

      Wars under Blair/Brown
      * Kosovo
      * Sierra Leone
      * Bosnia
      * Afghanistan
      * Iraq (x2 – google Operation Desert Fox,1998)

      Wars under Cameron
      * Libya

      Labour shapes up as a major warmonger and has never abolished nuclear weapons.

  8. Peter Curran says:

    Postscript: Sorry for the typos – done in haste, John.
    When I said make the leap, I meant to the SNP – I know you have already moved from Labour, but in my view, in the wrong direction. A man of your principles and talents should not be in a marginal party, but in the mainstream of Scottish politics in these crucial times.

  9. George A says:

    Peter Curran post

    I share your sentiments. I grew up in the sixties with journeymen of such conviction the had joined the International Brigade to fight in Spain. They held the views you expressed so well and argued with sound conviction. They would never have believed what would become of the party. If you sell your soul to achieve power (Blair/Brown/Mandelson) it’s a one way journey

  10. You are so right. The labour vote went down by a staggering. 0.75 per cent, an overwhelming victory , clocks fell off mantlepieces across the world , strong men cried etc etc.
    When are you guys going to return to earth?

    1. Alex Buchan says:

      Well the Labour MSPs in the first debate in the Scottish Parliament don’t seem to think nothing much has changed. They accept there has been a landslide and the consensus seems to be because of the margin of the SNPs majority that they have to look to the SNP having at least 3 terms. The issue isn’t how much the Labour vote fell, from an already historically low vote in 2007, but how much the SNP vote increased in West Central Scotland and in Edinburgh, and all the other places where the SNP were presumed to have little hope of a breakthrough.

      1. Aidan Skinner says:

        The SNP have a majority of 2.

      2. Alex Buchan says:

        An overall majority of 2 in a proportional system where the idea of any party getting an overall majority was felt to be impossible. You need to stick to the reality rather than trying to score idiotic points. That reality is that unless the LibDem vote massively improves, which seems unlikely given that most pollsters are predicting a wipe-out of the LibDems at the UK level, meaningful coalition as a way back to power seems blocked unless Labour enters into coalition with the Tories. So Labour has far more than a majority of 2 to overcome.

  11. James Hunter says:

    While the Tories are in the ascendancy in England a Scottish Labour Party is about as useful as the Pope’s balls. As for the Westminster Labour Party I only think of one word: IRAQ. Nothing they ever do or promise will ever wash away that sin.

    As Lady Macbeth said

    “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
    perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
    hand. “

  12. Scottish republic says:

    The Brit nats just don’t get it, do they, God bless their cotton socks for that too.

    They don’t get it because the aspirations of the scots to them is clearly just a political game. To us it’s about many things, not least the which is a decent society (preferably Tory free) with a heart and filling the cup of humanity with generosity, fairness and caring. None of these things exist in Labour and even if they did they wouldn’t get elected by Essex man. We create a new society here and England will follow as soon as they see they’ve been sold a crock of s**t by the Westminsterites.

    Bella, glad to see someone else comment on the excessive post Thatcher privatisation of Blair/Brown. I was beginning to think I was alone in noticing that since people don’t really mention it.

    Vote YES

  13. George A says:

    maxwell mcleod post

    I didn’t mention the vote level I talked about values. Yes you can still vote Labour for the reasons of loyalty to previous role models such as I had. The cord stretches as this loyalty is strained – I do not measure my satisfaction by the size of the ballot paper pile. I question the representation of my values in the party I vote for. I do not want to win over middle England in order to get power if it means surrendering these values (I imagine you favour the theory “better in power to act than have good principals but not be elected”). Let’s agree to differ here!
    On another blog today I seen a post by one Labour supporter recommending a move to the centre in Scotland to isolate the SNP? (An unhealthy fixation methinks)
    All of the left of centre parties in Scotland (This includes the SNP & Greens)have several common aims regarding the type of society they desire – this is the objective NOT being in power.

    I know – a dreamer!

  14. Bugger (the Panda) says:

    I tend to agree, who cares the current manifestation of the Westminster Labour Party Party (North Britishire Sub Region) is a dead Parrot.

    It is dead and Scotland must move on.

    Whether Labour will is in no way a certitude but, I feel that even Dr Frankenstein would be beyond this resurrection.

  15. Bugger (the Panda) says:

    Who do you lot use for moderation?

    Blether Without Brian, FFS?


  16. David MacGille-Mhuire says:

    The “union” is dead forbye the expulsions of air from its crevices. Prayers over the meat in the earth before the worms have at it, fine – a ritualistic and spiritualistic rite of closure over the dressed corpse of even a manipulative and abusive relative. An evil “get” in reality. The social niceties tokenly observed in public and face maintained – Victorian type “proprieties” dramatically performed to shush the neighbours’ gossiping comments and allusions. Then, the moving on in unspoken relief. The job and “duty” done to everyone’s purious satisfaction.

    Bury the “UK” cadaver and move on.

  17. Scottish republic says:

    David when I first read your post I thought it was chaotic, then I read it again and it’s actually rather good poetry.

    You could help the reade by separating the ideas with paragraphs.

    Still, interesting.

  18. Tocasaid says:

    Good riddance to Labour rule for now. Minimum wage? Supported by all right-minded people, not just Labour. Ending poverty? Really? While Labour spent £billions on an illegal war, the gap between rich and poor widened.

    Like many others, I come from a ‘tradtional’ Labour stronghold which has now gone SNP. I remember the incompetence, corruption and complacency of Labour in days gone by. They did a lot for themselves but little for Scotland.

    The best thing ‘Scottish’ Labour could do is to leave its London masters and embrace independence with a view to using Scotland’s assets for the good of her people.

  19. Mad Jock McMad says:

    The main problem with Labour is you can not get a fag paper between their policies and their arch enemies ‘The Tories’.

    In Scotland the only answer they had to the SNP’s positive campaign was for MacTernan to try to be even more negative about any Scottish ambition for self determination and then pouring the blame on Labour’s Scottish CLP’s and MSP’s for being unsophisticated and unable to deliver his ‘brilliant and cunning’ message effectively to Scots voters, on Newsnicht on the 6th May.

    Like many sixth or so decade Scots I was brought up on the tales of Hardy and Maclean at Glasgow Cross in 1919 and the fear their appeal for ‘Home rule for Scotland’ created in Westminster to the extent Scottish Troops were locked up into their barracks and English regiments brought North to keep a lid on things.

    Now it is ‘New Labour’ in the 22nd Century that would lock the Scottish Troops up and bring English Regiments on to the streets of Scotland as self determination becomes ever closer for Scotland. This is the problem that Labour apologists decline to see.

    On the Tories FPTP measures the SNP had a majority of seats. In terms of the PR votes again the SNP had the majority of votes and if you add in the fringe independence supporting parties reflects 56% of the vote on the day.

    The turn out is the turn out and reflects those Scots who were bothered to use their electoral franchise. The reality is that the turn out was only down 5% on previous elections.

    No – the Unionist supporters will just have to realise they have lost their ball, the goal posts have moved and there is a new interpretation of the rules being developed by Wee Eck and the SNP.

    If ‘Call me Dave’ wants his Calman minus bill to pass Holyrood then there are going to be a lot of changes otherwise the Unionists latest plan to stop the SNP once and for all is dead in the water.

    Time for Unionist apologists to move away from MacTernan’s failed negative attacks on Salmond and start engaging in the real issues of what is best for Scotland.

  20. Scottish republic says:


    Under our roughly proportional system, the final election result was as follows:

    SNP 69 (53.5%) Labour 37 (28.7%) Tory 15 (11.6%) LD 5 (3.9%) Green 2 (1.6%) IND 1 (0.8%)

    The first-past-the-post element (used for 73 seats) resulted in the following:

    SNP 53 (72.6%) Labour 15 (20.5%) Tory 3 (4.1%) LD 2 (2.7%) Others 1.1% (0)

    Under first-past-the-post, David Cameron’s ‘fair, simple tried-and-tested system that has served us well’ the result would have been as follows (out of Holyrood’s 129 seats):

    SNP 94 (72.8%) Labour 27 (20.9%) Tory 5 (3.9%) LD 4 (2.3%) Others 0

    Makes you think, eh?

  21. Steve Arnott says:

    John McAllion is a decent guy but for many years voices such as his were a drowned out minority within Labour in Scotland, which has historically existed for years now to promote certain UK and local nepotistic and tribal interests with only the fig leaf covering of progressive politics. The average Daily Rant reader bought it as being at least better than the Tories for a post Thatcherite generation or so, but there is a new sophistication abroad. To paraphrase Peter Finch in ‘Network’ – we are totally fucked off and we aren’t going to take it anymore.

  22. Conduct Unbecoming says:

    Steven H says:
    May 27, 2011 at 11:05 am
    “I quite agree that Labour dominance is crumbling in their heartlands (who could’ve predicted the Glasgow results, really?) ”

    It appears that someone in the Labour Party predicted the Glasgow results, way back in 2008. I assume they were ignored due to the success of the 2010 GE campaign, ie “vote SNP get Tory”.

    Here’s a snippet : “The biggest mistake the party could make is to assume Glasgow East was a one-off bolt from the blue (or yellow and black, if we’re talking party colours), and that the natural order of things will inevitably be restored at the next Westminster election. That mode of thinking and lack of honest reflection will cost us many seats at the next general election and lose us Holyrood again. We are no longer the natural party of government in Scotland and the sooner we all wake up and work out what that means the better.”


  23. Scottish republic says:

    I spoke with a friend at the weekend and he confirmed John McAlion’s view that Sillars’ win shook Labour to their core, thus catalyising their take over of the Scottish constitutional convention (much to the anger of Gordon Wilson apparently).

    Jim Sillars is greatly responsible for devolution evidently. I hope Jim returns to lead the campaign in Glasgow.

  24. Labour history is obviously interesting – but like any other self-loving beast – it always is.
    If Labour are serious about getting Scotland’s back on its feet then they need to realise that the Scots need at least fiscal autonomy to start at both creating jobs – but also creating the correct financial possibilities for companies and individuals to start business here.
    If Labour is so good – then how is it always the non-educated, benefit dependents with poor housing and poor health/ living styles – who always vote for them. These people have had Labour councillors, MP’s MSP’s for decades and yet their neighbourhoods and lifes are in tatters.

    All I hear labour say is the now obligatory “we will have a root and branch review” – oh yeah – what about the Scottish people – get you head out of your arses.
    Do you think that the Scottish people can wait for their boat to turn – or have they not yet realised that a tsunami has turned it upside down.

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