I’ve been mulling over why the Labour party has failed in its efforts to stop the rise of the SNP since the Scottish Parliament was instituted in 1999 and oddly enough it’s the articles posted on the new LabourHame site which was set up to revitalise the Labour blogosphere which have given me a further insight into why that failure has occurred. I posted a few comments on LabourHame when it started but I decided to stop because no comment I posted was going to change the political stance of the bloggers on there on the issue of independence and despite being both a long-time commenter on blogs and in what the military would describe as a, “target rich environment”, on LabourHame I couldn’t therefore really see the point of commenting there. Commenting on the site reminded me of playing Serious Sam as a stress reliever several years ago. It didn’t matter how many arguments you shot down they just kept coming in identical waves across the blogscape.
There were three things on that site which finally crystallised in my mind the reason why Labour has failed to stop the SNP over the last ten years. The first was a reply by Tom Harris to a question I put to him on the, “Natwatch: Playing the SNP’s game”, article by Judith Fisher, the second was the content of that article itself while the third was the article by Jamie Glackin, “Be part of a Better Aberdeen!”.
Why did these three things finally crystallise my thinking about the Labour party’s attitude to the SNP, or more correctly its attitude to an independent Scotland and its resultant failure to have any real strategy to counter the independence movement within Scotland?
In the, “Natwatch: Playing the SNP’s game”, article Judith Fisher proposes that Labour should neither campaign for a yes vote or for a no vote on independence because although they can’t campaign for a yes vote a no vote would make them look negative whatever the outcome of the referendum. Judith Fisher’s attitude to the independence referendum revealed that she is still thinking in terms of outcome for the party rather than in terms of the outcome for Britain or for Scotland. This was not someone who appears to have strongly held beliefs about either Britain as a nation or Scotland as a nation. She was not advocating a no vote to save her country as a British nationalist or a yes vote to recover her country as a Scottish nationalist. Although she preferred to retain the Union she was thinking in terms of how the party would be perceived whatever the final outcome of the referendum whether in a continuing Union or in an independent Scotland.
In the comments on Judith Fisher’s article I asked Tom Harris the question, “If it was proved to your personal satisfaction that independence would make Scots as a whole better off, would you support independence?” and to my surprise he answered yes. He then asked me the obvious return question, “If it was proved to your personal satisfaction that independence would make Scots as a whole worse off, would you support remaining in the UK?” and to his surprise I answered no. Tom Harris surprised me because I always assumed that he was an overt British nationalist but his reply was almost instant. If he thought Scots would be better off independent he would support a yes vote in the independence referendum. Not that I think that this situation will ever come to pass for Tom but again if his answer was sincere he was not thinking in terms of British nationalism or Scottish nationalism. My answer that I would still vote for independence even if Scotland was worse off surprised him because that is not the way that he thinks. For me Scotland is a culture, a people, a place, an identity, a nation and an economy and that the whole is a sum of the parts and where one part is not more important than all the others. Tom Harris, from his answer, regards Scotland simply as a regional economy. If a yes vote improves the economy he’ll vote for independence, if a no vote improves the economy he’ll vote for the Union.
In Jamie Glackin’s article which is written as a piece of humour against Scottish independence he calls for independence for Aberdeen and that Aberdeen should keep all the oil wealth for itself making it obvious that Jamie Glackin also takes a regional view of Scotland by equating Scottish independence to independence for Aberdeen. The reductio ad absurdum argument against Scottish independence where calls for independence for smaller and smaller regions of Britain are used to argue against Scottish independence by showing how logically absurd they are works only if you regard Scotland as a region of Britain not as a nation. If it was an argument deployed against East Anglian calls for independence or Merseyside calls for independence it would have some validity but as Jamie Glackin thinks of Scotland as a region of Britain in both cultural and geographical terms for him the reductio ad absurdum argument against independence is quite valid and logical as he regards Scotland as a region of Britain which wants independence.
And that point and the two others are the core of Labour’s problem. Labour does not regard Scotland as a nation. Labour are quite aware that the SNP want independence for Scotland and are also aware that there is a referendum coming but they don’t know their enemy because they cannot understand the motives that drive both the SNP and its supporters and therefore are always reactive not proactive. On LabourHame Lord Foulkes is only now calling for an English Parliament. If Labour had started the process towards a four nation four parliaments federal Britain ten years ago they might have had a chance of stopping the SNP but too little, too late and always on the back foot. Alex Salmond was quite right when he said that, “Labour’s devolution bus runs on SNP petrol”.
Scottish independence could better be described in Labour terms as a regional secession because in their terms it’s not a nation it’s a region and they treat a national independence movement as a desire for more regional autonomy with the concomitant failure to understand the drivers behind both the independence movement and its vehicle the SNP. Labour are the British Establishment and operate in the context of the British nation and in England they don’t have to think about nationality because it is simply assumed to be British, it is the default state, it is who they are and there is no need to think about who they are and the idea of separate nations within Britain is not considered and that outlook is therefore also dominant in Labour in Scotland because Labour is a single monolithic party across Britain. The fact that a Labour loyalist like Tom can flip-flop from no to yes at the clink of a coin and that Judith Fisher cannot bring herself to say yes to independence but worries what a no campaign means for labour after independence means that I have some doubt if they can ever come to terms with the idea of a separate Scottish nation. I even have some doubt from their articles and replies that they can even comprehend the concept of an independent Scotland which is not also simultaneously a British region.
There is also the influence in Labour’s current thinking of how Labour in Scotland actually perceive themselves. In their self-image they are a Scottish party of the working man and in fact the true Scottish party, rooted in working class Scotland and fighting for both Scotland and the working man. That’s why Tom Harris answered yes to independence if it could be proved to him that it made Scotland better off. There was no way in his internal representation of who Labour are that he could answer no and put anything above the conditions of the Scottish working class, even the Union. For Judith Fisher the party comes before everything because it is more important than nationality and Jamie Glackin believes he is driven by the ideal of working class solidarity which crosses international boundaries.
But what Labour have hit in the last few years is the boundary between what they believe they are and what they actually are. It’s instructive to see on LabourHame that there are now several commenters and contributors who claim that Labour are not the, “party of the Union”, because the idea that Labour are the party of the British Establishment and British nationalism, the party of the status quo and the party which puts the continuation of Britain and the Establishment above all is in direct contradiction to who they believe they are, the party of socialism, the working man and Scotland. However even here the realisation that the internal representation of what they believe Labour stands for is out of kilter with what the party actually does has not gone beyond a recognition that there is a tension between the two. Claims that Labour isn’t the party of the Union are not followed by calls for independence or a recognition that Labour should swing wholeheartedly behind holding an independence referendum or even campaign on a yes vote in a referendum but for more Scottish-centric policies from Labour within the Union and perhaps the nebulous concept of, “devo-max”. For a party that doesn’t believe that it is the, “Party of the Union”, the enemy is still the party that calls for Scottish independence.
The old adage, “Know your enemy”, is still true and Labour’s strategy against the SNP is handicapped because they work within a default national identity of instinctive British nationalism and do not understand Scottish nationalism and therefore in Scotland they do not know their enemy. It’s compounded because Labour do not even understand what their own party is for. This is a British party which has fought tooth and nail against the nationalist SNP for decades and prefers Scotland to be Tory run than independent and yet at the same time its Scottish members cannot accept it is the, “Party of the Union”. Perhaps, “Know thyself”, has to come before, “Know your enemy”, for Labour and is especially true for those members in Scotland.
I found this quote from Sun Tzu’s, “The Art of War”, on Wikipedia. It seemed quite appropriate for Labour’s current soul searching.
“So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”