Lamont’s Apostasy

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2012 in Scottish politics was a year to be remembered for two meetings. The first occurred on the 15th of October in Edinburgh between Alex Salmond and David Cameron. The purpose – to sign an agreement between Holyrood and Westminster on the terms of the 2014 independence referendum – was overshadowed by the staging. Salmond and the SNP clearly (and successfully) had choreographed the whole event so that it didn’t resemble a meeting between a country’s Prime Minister and the leader of a devolved parliament. Cameron – a culturally and politically alien figure at the best of times – was instead greeted by Scotland’s First Minister like a foreign dignitary. The awkward handshakes and the ‘signing ceremony’ added to this. By the time Cameron had shuffled on back down the road, perhaps even he realised that this was our first glimpse at Scottish independence in the flesh.

While historical record will note the importance of that meeting, it may overlook another that took place just a few weeks earlier. The speech delivered by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont to Labour Party member – as well as the assembled ranks of the Scottish political press corps – was, I would suggest, the political event of the year in Scotland. To be sure, its sensational qualities did not reside in the style of its address or the panache of the individual delivering it. But its content is likely to resonate well into the future.

Lamont’s ‘something-for-nothing’ speech marked the end of Scottish Labour in its proper sense. Scottish Labour, until this point, was not merely an organizational unit of the British Labour Party. The Labour Party in Scotland represented, particularly after Blairism and devolution, a recognisable and distinct ideological and philosophical current; a Party raised on the radicalism of Keir Hardie and Jimmy Maxton whose modern leadership, for all their parochial sensibilities and cowering to the spivs in Whitehall, appeared to retain some kind of intellectual autonomy from London. With Lamont’s speech, all that is over. The lapping waves of Blairism have finally overwhelmed the defences of Scottish Labourism. The ‘clear red water’ has been drained, flushed away by Sensible and Credible Johann.

Her attack on the principles of the welfare state was ignorant and blunt, but this at least ensured that it was unambiguous. Nobody paying attention could miss what she was saying or avoid its significance. The speech was not simply a piece of austerity porn; it was not in the main about ‘hard choices’ or the necessity of rationing during a downturn. This was an attack on universalism as such with recession and fiscal hardship an ideologically useful but ultimately unnecessary backdrop. The message was that the Labour Party was now committed to means-testing the welfare state out of existence, reducing its services to extent that they become politically unsustainable.

It is difficult to tell how Lamont’s speech has remoulded the landscape of Scottish politics. What is certain is that it has. Some of the dislocations caused by the end of Scottish Labour are likely to be dramatic. The question in 2013 is whether the non-Labour left, the most likely beneficiary of Lamont’s historic misstep, are capable of benefitting politically. Much excitement was generated by the Radical Independence Conference, but the conference (to someone who did not attend), seemed to pose more questions than it answered. Perhaps that is excusable for a first conference, but it remains unclear how the event and its organizers will respond to the real political challenges now emerging.

As the Scottish trade union movement begins to digest Lamont’s apostasy, it is entirely possible that larger and larger sections of its membership will begin to look at alternatives. The ability of the SNP government to retains its image as a bulwark against austerity will make it an attractive option for many Labour members still committed to the principles jettisoned by Lamont, but the SNP’s position is precarious. The Holyrood government has until now been able to avoid or delay the choice between radical austerity and soft social-democracy. That won’t last forever. The ability of the left to respond when all these contradictions come into full bloom will determine whether the coming period, referendum and all, ends in defeat or something else.



Comments (13)

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  1. Mind you, she did also say: “We need individuals and communities to feel empowered to change their lives. Yes, we will change devolution but we need more profound change than even that.”

    I know it’s NOT what she meant, but what more profound a change is there than the Scottish people choosing political independence?

  2. muttley79 says:

    I don’t agree that the SNP has a choice to make between ‘radical austerity and soft social democracy.’ After all the Scottish parliament is funded by a block grant from Westminster. This has alreadly been reduced in the last few years by the Tories. There is no choice in the matter for the SNP. Ruth Davidson admitted it has been cut by 6%, This is why we need independence, we would have control over our own taxation and welfare systems, and our natural resources. We would also be able to get a written constitution.

  3. Paul Cochrane says:

    Lamont’s speech was merely confirmation of what most communities already know – the socialist principles of protection of the weak is gone.

  4. David Moynagh says:

    Lamont and the direction of her speech and its content has only managed to put another nail in the Blairite Labour coffin. As a Party supposedly representing the needs of ordinary people and the welfare state, they are a disgrace. The whole ” New Labour” debacle will collapse inwards without the support of traditional labour voters. As a sham party, it is no less than they deserve. They can lay side by side in the common grave with the tories. The worms wont tell the difference because there is none.

  5. florian albert says:

    The announcement today that the bill for benefits in Britain in 2012-13 will amount to £208,000,000,000 helps explain why Johann Lamont made the speech in which she moved away from universalism. Despite spending this huge sum, we have endemic poverty in the UK – with some of the worst of it in Scotland. It is unlikely that there will be much more money available in the future – and this applies whether or not Scotland votes for Independence. This being so, it is important that the money spent goes to those who need it most. At present, universalism means that much of the money, e g for students’ fees, goes to people who are already well off. While Callum McCormick writes of a ‘distinct ideological and philosophical current’ in Scottish Labour, most people associate the party with a form of statism which has failed to tackle the deep seated social problems facing the country. Before condemning Tony Blair too quickly, it is worth noting that Labour lost five of the last eight general elections. The three victories were when he was party leader.

    1. Callum McCormick says:

      Florian – there are so many things I disagree with in your reply that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

      Firstly, the majority of the figure of 208bn goes to pensioners (that is, people who have ‘contributed’ throughout their lives) and to children. People who quote this figure regularly miss out this point because they want to conjure up the idea that the welfare state supports, in the main, feckless layabouts. It doesn’t.

      You also seem to be baffled that *despite* spending this money, we still have poverty. Maybe the fact that poverty exists is evidence we don’t spend enough? What about this number is *obviously* too high? What number is more sensible?

      The problem with British Labour is that it is not *statist* enough. If by statist we mean the belief that the state should be used to correct iniquities generated by the market. The attack on *statism* is generally made by people who want to abolish the welfare state and put Richard Branson in charge of the local hospital.

      Universalism does mean that some money goes to people who are better off, of course. (Although money that goes to provide free education to young people is a particularly bad example to give). Universalism is important because it helps to retain political support for the welfare state. Typically the strategy of neoliberals is to try to run down the services of the welfare state so that only ‘poor’ people are able or want to access them. Then, since poor people lack political power, the services are promptly abolished. Look, for instance, at the fate of the EMA.

      As for Blair: you’re right that he was an electoral success on the whole for Labour. He is also an infamous war criminal and international fugitive. So I guess it just depends how you weigh it.

      1. florian albert says:

        You state that ‘the majority of the £208 billion’ is spent on pensioners. I find that very hard to believe. What is your evidence for this statement ? You suggest that ‘we don’t spend enough.’ We spend much more than we raise through taxes. Johann Lamont recognizes this and realizes that there is no likelihood of raising much more revenue. She is a serious politician who want to get elected to improve society.
        Your attempt to assume the moral high ground – by suggesting that those who wish to limit universalism also wish to dismantle the welfare state – is entirely unconvincing. With regard to Blair, once he has been convicted by a lawfully constituted court, you can refer to him as an ‘infamous war criminal.’

    2. Mloclam says:

      Most of this money is spent on state pensions. Benefits is a small proportion, and benefits abuse an even smaller one, made visible because we concentrate the poor in the places we don’t want to live.

  6. Macart says:

    Only one of the four in the above image actually believes in a stronger Scotland, a United Kingdom. The other three are at best hypocrites at worst careerists.

  7. Hetty says:

    Labour are a disgrace in attacking the poorest and going along with the tories divide and rule agenda. It has to be noted, that the EMA is still in existence in Scotland, essential support for poorer families.

  8. Mloclam says:

    Only 12% of the people in the photograph above are net contributors to Scotland.

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