Velvet and Stone

Photo by Marzena Pororzaly

Interview with Neal Ascherson, journalist and historian, (@jamesmaxwell86).

Neal Ascherson was born in Edinburgh in 1932. He was educated at Eton College and then at Cambridge, from which he graduated with a triple starred first in History. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s he worked as a foreign correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer. In the mid-1970s he moved back to Scotland to write for the Scotsman. During this time he founded the breakaway Scottish Labour Party (SLP) with Jim Sillars and Alex Neil.

He returned to London at the start of the 1980s with his wife, journalist Isobel Hilton. In 1993 he was awarded the George Orwell Prize for Journalism and in 1995 he won the Saltire Award for Literature. He stood unsuccessfully for the Liberal Democrats at the first elections to the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. In 2002 he published Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland. Since 2009 he has worked as a professor of archaeology at University College London.

How do you account for the decline of the Labour Party in Scotland?

Well there are a lot of reasons. One is the general decline of radical socialism since 1989, which discredited all the great visionaries and thinkers. Another is just what everybody repeats: stagnation – the stagnation of a controlling force with great patronage.

This is the result of a sort of lemming tribalism with the Labour Party, founded on the idea that you get elected and we wave goodbye to you at Central Station and say “You’re going to betray us and we know it but we still love you”, and off they go. An element of that still survives – the career structure, the Westminster-centred ambition. And those professional expectations are absolutely bolted into a sense of ‘Britishness’.

Then there is the despair about recent Labour governments, which has played a big part. Scottish Labour just slowly fell into a pessimistic view of everything. There was a time when the labour movement could say, “This is what we want for Scotland. We’ve got great ideas and new plans”. All that is completely in the past. Labour has become tired and reactive. Of course, that was one of the joints in the armour through which the SNP went at the last two elections.

Where does the deep animosity between Labour and the SNP come from?

The Labour Party in Scotland is incredibly possessive. Loyalty is one, two and three in values. It would be kind of admirable if it wasn’t so politically limiting. But it comes mainly from the fact the SNP is starting to eat into the working class vote. There are people who used to vote Labour and their fathers did and their grandfathers did but now they are voting SNP. That is unnerving.

Perhaps, also, there is a kind of inner discomfort because somewhere deep down in Labour hearts they actually agree with a lot the SNP stands for. Somewhere in the bone marrow there’s a feeling that they would like Scotland to govern itself and that the SNP is now doing what it should have done. Nobody would ever admit that but maybe it sort of accounts for some of the bitterness. Nevertheless, some in the SNP can be extraordinarily merciless about Labour and I don’t like that.

Would it be fair to say the SNP now occupies the radical territory abandoned by Labour?

In some ways, the rise of the SNP has aspects of being a very British thing. The Nationalists are trying to build a kind of reverse Hadrian’s Wall behind which the very best of the British post-war settlement will be preserved. They are saying “behind this wall we will preserve what’s left of British social democracy, what we can save, not all – what is gone can’t be recovered – but what is left we will defend here
and only independence can really do that”.

This is a formidable position. In England people just laugh and say “You can’t do that. You can’t do away with tuition fees and have free prescriptions – it’s antique, it’s archaeology“. But, actually, maybe it’s not. That is what the SNP are promoting – the very best of British social democracy.

Nonetheless, I do think Scotland needs a Labour Party. That it still commands a pretty huge allegiance and yet is in such a plight is no good to anybody. I mean it is all very well for the SNP to rejoice in its weaknesses and contradictions and hopeless blunders, but in the end Scotland does need a Labour Party.

Is the break-up of Britain now inevitable?

The Salmond strategy is to bear down on the whole devolution structure in such a way that it could be shown not to work and a situation would arise in which Westminster was continuously blocking Scottish demands and the Scottish people would feel that the current constitutional settlement just wasn’t working. But now things have moved so fast that his long-term strategy may be to just spin things out until devolution breaks down of its own inadequacy.

Then there is the Quebec scenario. Maybe what happened in May was that ten of thousands of people felt free to vote for the SNP because they knew it was not necessarily a vote for independence. You can have that for a bit, but if you want full independence there has to be some long-term strategy which gradually changes opinion. That means Salmond has to show the limits of devolution, so that demands knock against denials down south but those denials are repeated with an increasing lack of conviction by the British government.

Of course, the whole ‘independence-lite’ battery of ideas complicates things. That strategy depends on keeping devolution going – on ‘devolution-max’. But I’m not sure the plan isn’t to slowly, slowly drive events toward a crisis which will only end one way: with people deciding independence is the only route out of this, that it’s the best way for Scotland to manage its relations with the rest of Britain. Ultimately, though, I think it will break the way that Alex Salmond wants.

Can you imagine the break-up of Britain happening as a result of the English just losing patience?

I’ve argued this in the past – partly because of my experience in Czechoslovakia with the so-called Velvet Divorce, where the Czechs got fed up of the Slovaks and just booted them out. And I can’t see a million people gathering in Princes Street shouting ‘freedom’ – I don’t think that is how Scotland works. Perhaps the English will just get terminally fed up with the growing complexity, cost and bad feeling of the devolution arrangement and they will just say ‘this is our final offer – devolution max – and if you want more you can fuck off and be independent’. And suddenly, in a really undignified way, Scotland will arrive at independence.

The real question is: who is a Unionist in England and why? That’s the difficult thing to find out. You can see why some people are because their careers are locked into the UK framework and if it disintegrates then their careers disintegrate too – Scottish Labour ministers in the British cabinet, for instance – but who else apart from that very small group really cares?

Is it possible Nationalists underestimate the resilience of the British political structure?

The people who really care about the Union are in Scotland – and quite a lot of them feel quite intensely. But in London, apart from the clique of people at Westminster who owe their careers to the UK machinery, no-one really cares. And the SNP have been quite smart in their new approach to ‘Britishness‘. They are aware that the issue of ‘Britishness’ has to be treated with some care and that if they can appropriate it in some way – draw out its sting – that would be a good thing to do.

One of the things about the Anglo-British political tradition is that it absolutely doesn’t allow for federalism, partly because of this insane dogma of parliamentary sovereignty – you can’t have federalism if parliament is absolute. But if you look at modern federations, like Germany, their constitutions include an obligation to equalise living standards in all parts of the country, in all states of the federation. In Britain, though, this would be absolutely unacceptable, unthinkable. Imagine some Prime Minister or another stood up and said “My first obligation is to equalise living standards so that living standards in the south-east shall be the same as on the Tyneside”. People in this country would think the natural order of things had been turned upside-down.

When Tony Benn became a minister in the 1960s – and I think this must be apocryphal – he had a huge map of Britain hung upside down in his office, so the channel was at the top and Scotland was at the bottom and, apparently, he said, “This is how we need to look at this country, with the money and the power draining by force of gravity out of the south east”. That was a great idea. I rather liked him for that. I don’t know if it’s actually true or not.

How would Labour fare at Westminster without its Scottish contingent?

It comes back to the English question, which is: why do the English leave all the pain and agony and concern about their nation to a few mindless thugs with Union Jacks painted on their faces? Why don’t the English middle-class and intellectuals go out there and take hold of their country and do something radical with it? It is not true that there is absolute built-in Tory majority in England. I don’t buy the idea that in the long-term, without Scotland, England would be stuck with endless, timeless Tory domination.

What would a post-UK English nationalism look like?

I’m a bit optimistic about it. I’m hopeful that English nationalism, taken out of the hands of the hooligans, could become respectable. After the Union the English could look at their country and see it as it were for the first time, without all the miasma and entanglements, without the cataract-impediments created by the idea of Britishness, which confuses state and nation, and they would understand that an enormous amount needs to be done to modernise their country. I’m kind of optimistic that post-Union, England would be not a bad place – it could work, although it would be one hell of a fight.

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  1. He may have been born in Scotland and live in Scotland but he really doesn’t seem to understand Scotland or the Scots,which I suspect is largely to do with his education! When he talks about “British social democracy” I think he actually means Scottish social democracy!

  2. J McIllaney says:

    Great piece, thanks Bella. Neal raises some vital points and paradoxes for both the SNP and Labour. For the SNP it’s the issue of whether they are just the best of British social democracy? What are the distinctively Scottish roots to their political philosophies? And for Labour the issue is at what point will the their core support collapse and go across to the independence cause? Nothing in the review suggests there is an original idea to transform or renew the moribund party.

    Where I disagree with Ascherson is the idea that Scotland needs Labour. Scotland needs reborn and transformed.

    1. I think Scotland needs Labour, but not as it currently is. A Labour Party that stands for the working people is something we need, but don’t have. Punt the free-marketeers, the managerialists, New, Blue, Newer-Labour, authoritarians, cronies and phonies and you’d have something we need.

  3. James Morton says:

    The problem for the labour party is that they are all at sea without a paddle and without a clue about where to go or what to do when they get there. Their shambolic campaign during the Scottish parliamentary elections exposed this, and they suffered for it. As for Mr Ascherson’s assertion that Scotland needs a labour party – I would say that the Labour party needs Scotland, not the other way around. Scotland will vote for those that will draw a line in the sand and fight Scotland’s corner. No party has any right to expect or demand the votes or loyalty of the Scots, but the Scots do have the right to demand the loyalty of the parties they vote for. It should always be Scotland first – with party politics coming a poor second. They work for us, not the other way around and it’s high time they learned this.

  4. pat kane says:

    I agree with Ascherson that it would be healthier for Scottish progress if the Scottish Labour Party could rethink itself as a party making a social-democratic (or even democratic socialist) critique of the SNP’s platform, with the same openness to Scotland’s constitutional future that characterised it in the days of Ascherson’s SLP, or later Scottish Labour Action. Indeed, in terms of that latter organisation, you can see how disillusion and despair scars the character, in the entertaining (tho dyspeptic) murmurings of ex-SLA head Ian Smart Ascherson’s bemusement about why federalism can’t be properly conceived in the UK is one I share. Indeed, if Ed Miliband wants a clear electoral win in the next four years, he should hitch his wagon to Salmond’s “devo-max” option, nested within a British federalism which gives England its parliament, and perhaps even places a new Federal government centre in the North of England – taking Tony Benn’s upside-down map exercise for real. I remain an independista because the abolition of nuclear power/Trident, the reining-in of military adventurism and a fully green energy/economy are only deliverable through full Scottish sovereignty, if we look at the Labour and Lib-Dems existing political prospectus. And also, because there is a positive, constructive dynamic between culture and policy in Scotland that will drive us on to great reforms and achievements, of a global standard. But for the sake of comradely compassion, would I wish for an English Labour party to be inspired by what the SNP is doing? Of course I would. The Compass end of it is at least listening and observing, and I have many conversations with Compass types that are encouraging and intelligent. But in the meantime, we have our own mighty project, which we need to get on with…

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      I agree Pat, an SLP or A type Labour party with an openness to change could be a really important grist to Salmond’s mill. This looks highly unlikely to emerge from the autopsy though, a constitutionally hyper-cautious and economically conservative Scottish Labour with partial autonomy seems more likely.

    2. Ard Righ says:

      Military adventurism?, is that new speak for imperialism?

  5. vronskytoun says:

    Here are the last several election results, with and without the Scottish contribution. Clearly the Scottish effect on the overall outcome is marginal at best and usually irrelevant. Of course even if it were otherwise it would not constitute a reason for remaining in the Union – English affairs are English affairs.
    1966: Labour majority of 96. Excluding Scotland, Lab majority of 4
    1970: Conservative majority of 15. Excluding Scotland, Con majority of 40.
    1974a: Labour largest party, no overall majority. Excluding Scotland, Labour largest party, no overall majority.
    1974b: Labour majority of 4. Excluding Scotland, Lab largest party with no overall majority.
    1979: Conservative majority of 44. Excluding Scotland, Con majority of 71.
    1987: Conservative majority of 101. Excluding Scotland, Con majority of 153.
    1992: Conservative majority of 21. Excluding Scotland, Con majority of 71.
    1997: Labour majority of 177. Excluding Scotland, Lab majority of 137.
    2001: Labour majority of 166. Excluding Scotland, Lab majority of 127.
    2005: Labour majority of 65. Excluding Scotland, Lab majority of 43.
    2010: Conservatives largest party with no overall majority. Excluding Scotland, Con majority of 20.

  6. Where is the need for ‘Labour’ as it currently exists in the Scottish frame?

    I do not see it, Labour’s Scottish region does what London tells it to the point they just do not understand how stupid they look to their fellow Scots. They are the epitome of Uncle Jock’s Cabin – repeating the too wee, too poor, too stupid mantra in many different forms. When was the last time anyone in Labour’s Scottish region either MP or MSP said anything positive about Scotland?

    Look at Labour’s Scottish region mouthpiece on Pacific Quay no matter that even the Chair of the CBI UK says Scotland’s economy is supporting the rest of the UK, the plethora of indices that shows Scotland in rude economic health and yet BBC Scotland can only see doom and disaster. ahead. The BBC Scotland narrative is Scotland’s too wee, too poor, too stupid …..

    For the English electorate to take up revolting stances requires them to admit for the last thirty years they have been serially lied to by Westminster about too wee, too poor, too stupid Scotland’s subsidies which are not as Scotland has been and remains a net contributor to the UK Treasury’s coffers – that is a big ask for even England’s social democrats having been fed the same Scotland’s too wee, too stupid, too small mantra by the Guardian and the Independent, let alone the rest of the London based media’s misinformation campaign.

    I see the need for a party to the left of the social democrat SNP just as I see the need for a party to the right of the SNP but whether that should be Murphy’s Labour and Murdo’s Conservatives I would suggest a big ‘NO’ to that. Labour and the Conservatives will bring far too much acrimony and retrenchment baggage with them that a newly independent Scotland could well do with out.

    Come independence the UK Party’s Scottish rump will wither and die.

  7. Scottish republic says:

    He raises some points but nothing we don’t know. He is largely pining for love Labour lost. Labour are what they are because they have no soul, they have spouted venom and hatred towards the SNP in equal measure as we have towards them.

    ‘Painfully to pore upon a book
    To seek the light of truth; while truth the while
    Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.’

    From Love’s Labour’s Lost… expressed far better than this humble comment deserves.

    I have a problem with Labour in the fact that they supported a unionist state to the detriment of every single Scot in Scotland and did it with the complacent faith that they were the top cats in the natural order of things. “The fightback begins here”… no it doesn’t.

    Moving on, a ***1st, I’d like one of those.

  8. Andrew says:

    Why all this red eyed sadness over the demise of the Labour party,excuse me folks but the sentiments above are expressing a fondness for a movement not a party,remember that.That movement never died it just moved on,the party it spawned is now in its death throws,part of the very system the movement came together to get rid of.

  9. Ard Righ says:

    Superb balanced article, very clear.
    If anyone hasn’t picked up a copy of Stone Voices, read it.

  10. daretodare says:

    The essence of this growing realisation and ambition of civil society in Scotland seems to come down to two points made very well by others here and two other points of equal importance not mentioned

    Pat Kane (like a growing majority of Scots) “remains an independista because the abolition of nuclear power/Trident, the reining-in of military adventurism and a fully green energy/economy are only deliverable through full Scottish sovereignty.” People in Scotland are increasingly behind the drive to great (social and economic) reforms and achievements, of a global standard. 

    The bonds exactly with James Morton’s point where he correctly expresses the view of almost all voters “that the Labour party needs Scotland, not the other way around. Scotland will vote for those (parties) that will draw a line in the sand and fight Scotland’s corner. No party has any right to expect or demand the votes or loyalty of the Scots, but the Scots do have the right to demand the loyalty of the parties they vote for. It should always be Scotland first – with party politics coming a poor second.” In this backlash to the appalling  past behaviour of the political class Mr Morton’s articulate the message loud and clear-  “they work for us, not the other way around and it’s high time they learned this”.

    Agains this back drop we have the following facts. The Clair oil field west of Shetland has proven oil reserves in place of approximately 1.75 billion barrels with a forecast recovery valued of in excess of £500 billion. That’s one oil field not the whole north sea industry reserves –  but that’s not the point

    This “one” oil field could create for Scotland a sovereign fund of comparable value to the sovereign fund of Norway for the present and future benefit of all Scots.  But again that’s not the point.

    The point is; in Scotland at the beginning of the 21st century  we have one of the highest levels of “actual” poverty and one the lowest levels of “actual” health and life expectancy in the developed world. And that’s a betrayal and indictment on each one of us that we created and tolerated this situation. It is therefore our collective duty, not the political class or the duty of the banks that should server our society, to stop that abuse of our present and future citizens. We, the people, obviously have the financial means and it would seem we’ve now found (or are discovering) a growing determination to do so. 

  11. bellacaledonia says:

    Well put, though the exploitation of this oil resource is highly problematic and shouldn’t be reckoned to be a panacea.

  12. daretodare says:

    It’s appreciated that oil revenue is not in itself a panacea but (speaking as someone who worked in the oil industry) – has it never struck you as odd that 80 % of all published oil reserves are in areas “North/East” of Shetland? Is there no oil in the waters to the West? Is the Clair field a one off?

    One official (MOD) reason given for no exploration activity and development to the west of Shetland is that the underwater listening devices protecting the entry and exit routes of our nuclear sub’s (to the Clyde) would be ineffective due the the noise created by oil rigs/production. 

    You guys are intelligent journalists – read the McCrone report. Do you think he made a mistake? Did he? Even if he’s out by 50% the value and volume recovered to date is less than 20% of what history will record was/is available from Scottish/UK waters.

    For example the 1.75 billion barrels of forecast recovery from the Clair field is only an estimated % from total 5 billion known reserve. 

    Think about it. If you want to curtail expectation tell people that it’s going to run out – then manipulate expectation by ignoring 80% of the exploration territory! 

    Remember you’re not even allowed to look for oil in UK waters without Westminster granting a license. And thereafter the publication of any discovery is also classified!

    We can not accept or reject any aspect of the  status quo in these debates without first becoming better informed Westminster are global leaders at mis information and creating false concerns.  So I disagree with the highly problematic point of view regarding solving the oil question – but accept that it’s highly improbable that we do solve and articulate the solution unless we first become better informed.

    History tells us that getting away with murder is relatively easy – but getting away with the cover-up is always relatively impossible. Maintaining the cover-up is the only bit that’s problematic – and that, as we all know, is Westminster’s problem.

  13. Ard Righ says:

    “Think about it. If you want to curtail expectation tell people that it’s going to run out – then manipulate expectation by ignoring 80% of the exploration territory! ”

    Yes, that has annoyed me for quite some time, as well as the Extra Regis Territories “act” of 1997, its arbitrary paper!

    No doubt you’ll be familiar with this:

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