Labour: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Where did it all go wrong? (Photo: Ian Jones)

When I think back to how the Scottish independence debate has evolved in terms of my personal journey, I can see it in three distinct phases. The first was best expressed by the bitter and ugly sentiment “its all the English’s fault.” This guff was fairly ubiquitously trumpeted when I was a kid, and largely sustained, I believe, by an infantile football mentality. I was always unmoved by this idiocy: nobody was going to tell me that my cousins in Wolverhampton or Aunt in West London were in any way culpable for our circumstances north of the border. In retrospect, the ban on the annual Scotland v England match was the best thing that ever happened to the debate, it helped folk think a little more clearly. When ‘politics’ is mixed up with football, the end result is invariably the ossification of cretinism. This phase left its psychological legacy; to this day I find it hard to support the Scottish national team, or, indeed, have any truck with the term ‘nationalism’.

I’ve been greatly inspired by the post-devolution generation, and their pragmatic thinking on the issue of independence.

I came from a family of trade unionists, and in my youth I was a Labour Party supporter. My political hero was Tony Benn. I recall, with my dad, watching Neil Kinnock in a political broadcast, and, roused by the Welshman’s stirring oratory, I joined the party in my teens. I hated the SNP, regarding them as a divisive force of tartan Tories. I loved Brian Wilson’s attacks on them, in magazines like the West Highland Free Press and the short-lived Seven Days.

For most of my young adult life, I moved between Edinburgh and London. As the 1980’s wore on, I noted how things started to change in Scotland; there was a growing realisation that the problem wasn’t the English, it was our own stupid selves. Whatever our circumstances, they were only existent because we tolerated them. This was what I regard as ‘phase two’ on the evolutionary scale of the Scottish Independence debate. It was progress, for sure, but the downside of it was the self-hating element, which the character Renton identifies with in Trainspotting. Ultimately self-loathing is no more edifying than the scapegoating of others, but in order to make headway it’s probably essential to face up to your own shortcomings, no matter how painful. And this led us to stage three of the debate.

I’ve been greatly inspired by the post-devolution generation, and their pragmatic thinking on the issue of independence. I believe they have enabled an emotionally backward and immature country (as all countries, by definition must be, when they are governed from elsewhere) to grow up and move forward. It’s this generation who have given us phase three of the independence debate: beautiful, wonderful phase three, which says that it doesn’t matter who is to ‘blame’, the important thing is to fix it.

When I was recently back in both Scotland and England, it was instructive to see how generational the independence debate has become and how my own one has split on the issue. There is certainly far less unanimity between us than there is with the smart, educated young people I met in Edinburgh. Almost to a man and woman they were enthusiastically, if critically, on the ‘yes’ side of the discussion. Crucially, the few who demurred seemed very different from the depressed, resentful naysayers of my own generation, in that they were also highly ebullient about the ongoing discourse. This youth represents the new Scotland; they won’t be looking for safe a Labour seat in Westminster, or marching in sectarian parades with flute and pipe bands, and they are equally unexcited by the tartan army-esque see-you-Jimmy buffoonery of kitschy nationalism.

It’s a little painful to report that the representatives of this post-devolution generation were far more impressive than many of my old comrades. Of my motley crew, the ones excited and revitalised by the independence debate are all firmly ‘yes’ advocates. But my ‘no’ friends, all people I respect (and yes, love), were invariably annoyed, scared and even angry, that this debate, this democracy, this real discussion on their own futures was even taking place. When I asked why, what kept coming back was that we should be talking about something else. That they were almost all Labour Party supporters should come as no surprise, nor should it be a shock that the ‘something else’ was usually defined as ‘kicking the Tories out.’ To what end, I would enquire. To build a fairer society, was the invariable reply. So I wondered, sometimes out loud, sometimes not, how exactly they intended to do that. Through Trident? War in Iraq? NHS trusts? Deregulation of the City, with subsequent bailouts after they fucked it up? Through the House of Lords? Or the continuing negation of democracy, and siphonage of the country’s resources to a transnational elite?

It struck me that we, the post-war consensus generations from hippy to punk to post punk to house, have left them, the new breed, this youth engaged and politicised at grass-roots level by the independence debate, with absolutely nothing. The trade unions have been debilitated, Labour rebranded as a centre-right conservative party, the welfare state and the NHS destroyed, and with this, a massive redistribution of wealth from everybody to the super rich. And all of this took place on our watch.

So if the current youth of Scotland, with their free tuition fees and free medicines, have been ‘bought off’ by Salmond, it has been in exactly the same way that I was ‘bought off’ by Bevan.

The delusion by many on the left, that by trying to maintain the United Kingdom (the clue is in the name) they are fighting to preserve some sort of socialist internationalism, is an astonishingly persistent one, representing the ultimate triumph of hope over experience. The UK has always been an imperialist construct, set up to protect and further the interests of the rich. There was a brief period after the Second World War when it sought to be something more. The elites conned people into participating in the bloodbath of WW1 on the promise of ‘homes fit for heroes’ and the ‘patriots’ were rewarded with more slums, a depression, and hunger marches that met with only the indifference and hostility of the UK state. Then, the ordinary folks were shunted back into the line of fire to face the Nazis. Something fundamental did happen when we opened Hitler’s death camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, and our collective humanity was stirred. Moreover, people returned in the mood to fight for concessions, and the elites were pragmatically ready to concede them.  So we had the emergence of a post war consensus and the welfare state.

I was a benefactor of that consensus. I took evening classes at the local college for a pound, had my university fees paid, obtained a full student grant, and benefited from universal healthcare. For the social equivalent of me today, making this progress would be impossible without accruing a lifetime of debt and becoming no better than a slave – fuck that bullshit. So if the current youth of Scotland, with their free tuition fees and free medicines, have been ‘bought off’ by Salmond, it has been in exactly the same way that I was ‘bought off’ by Bevan.

All that has now gone, and the Labour Party will not be bringing it back. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were no aberrations; they were the natural progression of a movement that has ‘evolved’ from its radical roots into a centre-right focus group-driven party of power. Now, on a policy level, they chase middle England votes, while lecturing working class people on their ‘duty to vote’ (Labour), in order to ‘keep the Tories out’.

Gordon Brown’s recent book My Scotland, Our Britain on the case for the union, like his critique of Thatcherism, Where There Is Greed, would be highly impressive if this was still 1985, and he himself hadn’t been in power for so much of the time that has passed since it was. Yes, politics is the art of the possible, but the message from the Labour Party to the people, is that in the face of neo-liberalism, nothing is possible – but keep voting for us anyway. Why?  Because, goes the stock reply, ‘we care more than the Tories’. This is true of Labour voters and party members, but it hasn’t been true of the leadership for a long, long time. They don’t seem to care that much that it’s likely that UKIP, the right-wing of the Tory party and the Mail and Sun will set the agenda at the next election. A no vote is therefore a vote to preserve that poisonous dialogue of nationalist politics, with more unwanted racist policies on Europe, immigration and security, foisted onto Scotland.

Our Labour has gone; it probably died when it got rid of Clause Four, the ‘public ownership’ statement, which served as the radical conscience of the party.

An anti-independence argument, repeated in the discussions with my old Labour-supporting pals, is one I’ve consistently heard down the years. It contends that we have to ‘stand alongside our comrades in England.’ I agree wholeheartedly, but fail to get how ‘standing alongside’ somebody involves trudging to the polling booth every five years and sheepishly sending down a cluster of political class lobby-fodder careerists to Westminster, who then continue to preside over the transfer of resources from the rest of us to the super rich. The brutal truth is that we haven’t properly ‘stood alongside’ any English or Welsh comrades since the miners strike of 84-85, because we haven’t been able to – the UK state has made sure of that with its anti-union laws. Yes, the same ones the Labour Party has had plenty of chances to modify or repeal, and let people in their workplaces have a role in our democracy. I recall twelve years later, really ‘standing alongside’ comrades in Liverpool during the dockworkers dispute, to the complete indifference and embarrassment of the Labour Party, who would rather have had everybody just go home. Towards the end of the strike, I was sitting in a London hotel with Dockers leader Jimmy Nolan and the writer Jimmy McGovern, meeting American intellectual Noam Chomsky. Jimmy Nolan was telling our visitor that they had far more support from Larry Bower’s New York longshoremen than the UK Labour Party or senior Trade Union officials like Bill (Lord) Morris. Where was this ‘internationalism’ or ‘solidarity’ from the Labour leadership? By contrast there was significant support from the Labour rank and file. They deserved better then, and they deserve better now, than a leadership that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Conservative Party against Scottish independence. Our Labour has gone; it probably died when it got rid of Clause Four, the ‘public ownership’ statement, which served as the radical conscience of the party. (I think of it as being the member of the band who kept it real. Nobody listened to him that much, because they knew that if he had his way they would never sell another record. But once he was kicked out, the band quickly lost its soul and now contests the ‘political’ version of Britain’s Got Talent every five years.)

Therefore I don’t designate what we’re currently doing as ‘standing alongside’ anybody; I call it endorsing a set-up that maintains our joint misery. Better to call time on that self-defeating nonsense and encourage and inspire others to do the same. This ‘internationalism’, so publically heralded by ‘No’ leftists, (but only in response to the Scottish independence threat –otherwise its generally forgotten about) has in reality been used as a Trojan horse for a corporate-led globalisation and imperialism, where this transfer of resources from the rest to the rich is aided and abetted by the UK state.

On a related note, as well as Scotland and England, I visited Ireland, where I lived for five years, in order to attend a wedding. I felt just as close to my friends there as I did to the ones in England and Scotland: we don’t need to have the same domestic governments to moan about in order to bond as human beings over common areas of concern. It’s called internationalism, and as tough a concept as it is for some people to grasp, that doesn’t stop or start at London. Independence isn’t divisive; gross inequality, as promoted by the UK state, now that is schismatic.

So perhaps the unionist apologists from my generation should consider that it isn’t just about them any more. A march towards democracy is a process, not a destination; it’s not solely about a ‘vote’ on September 18th, or any other vote. It’s not about politicians, including ‘Salmond’ (the bogey man who brought us free prescriptions, paid higher education fees, and protected the NHS from Labour and Conservative privatising trusts – that’s also the one who hasn’t led us into war in Iraq, deregulated the City, redistributed our wealth to the already stinking rich – we should choose our demons with a sense of perspective), for once, just this once, it simply isn’t their party.

What I think it is about, is this generation having something of their own, a project that inspires them. The rest of us should be cheering them on, not sneering, grumbling, or ‘standing alongside’ establishment reactionaries against them, fuelled by a petty strop because we so manifestly failed to deliver on our own dreams. For the new generation, social progress is about more than trying to vote in a right-wing Labour Party every five years.

So maybe its time to let those smart young Scots take the lead in building something different and inspirational, free from the whines of the browbeaten, gloomy naysayers and vested interests of the elitist no-can-dooers. And, while we’re at it, support the bright young people of England in getting on with creating a truly post-imperial, multi-ethnic civic identity and democratic society, based on ability, rather than cemented rank and privilege. Give them the chance to take the fight to the Tories, UKIP, EDL, BNP and other small minds, without being distracted by the Scottish agenda, which will not go away. As with the young Scots, I believe in their ability to do just that, without a cynical, moribund Labour Party leadership professing to enable the process, but in reality always standing in their way. Because it’s our great conceit that we’re currently ‘standing alongside’ people in England; in my opinion, we’re just getting in their road.

I looked at the smirking face of Tony Blair and thought: there is no fucking chance I can ever vote for this guy. I’ve felt massively liberated ever since.

I believe that our joint aim should be to make these islands the home of a batch of healthy, vibrant democracies, instead of a chess piece in the saddo G7/militaristic ‘sphere of influence’ games of the power brokers: those war-mongering (never war-fighting) cowards and their pathetic groupies in the privately owned media. Let this happen in Britain, in Europe, across the world. That’s internationalism, not preserving an elitist, reactionary, pomp-and-ceremony failed UK state, which has over the last thirty-five years systematically crushed every single gain that non-privileged people in this country have fought for.

Sept 18th is a very small but important step in that process. A ‘yes’ vote won’t deliver the kind of society people aspire to any more than a ‘no’ vote will derail the aspiration towards it, but it will be a setback to a reactionary UK state, that has promoted little but elitism, hierarchy and the transnational superrich, at the expense of democracy.

I’m still –even now- often asked; don’t I feel sad at abandoning the party of my parents and grandparents? I went through that dilemma years ago, when I looked at the smirking face of Tony Blair and thought: there is no fucking chance I can ever vote for this guy. I’ve felt massively liberated ever since. On the contrary, I feel very angry about the current Labour Party’s continual betrayals of everything those generations fought to achieve. Brian Wilson still attacks the SNP, but now from the right, and I can’t believe Jack McConnell signed up for all this to argue against food banks from the House of Lords. Neil Kinnock is now a Brussels commissioner who probably doesn’t even know there’s a referendum in Scotland, but in the Yes movement I feel the same kind of inspiration I did when I was seventeen, after hearing his moving and invigorating speech in that broadcast. I know that plenty others who joined the Labour Party had one of those big moments in their youth too, and that’s why I’m writing this piece.  Although I detest what it has become, with its detached political class leadership, and spineless, focus group opportunism, the voters and the rank and file members of Labour remain the salt of the earth. Underneath all the cynicism, defeatism and no-can-do-ism they’ve swallowed down the years, I believe they still want the same thing: a fair and democratic society. They’ve just been fighting rearguard actions for so long, to defend jobs and services, many have simply forgotten how to go on the offensive. For the first time in years the UK establishment are taking a kicking by the people, and it is on the issue of Scottish independence. Labour should be gleefully putting the boot in, not shielding our blows on their behalf. So we need real Labour people to be inspired again, as they were when they first joined the party, in order to help build new democracies in those islands. And if they try to tell us that they are getting that inspiration from either the UK state or the Labour leadership or the No campaign, we just know that they are faking it. Maybe some have merely grown old and tired. That happens to us all, but becoming a defacto Conservative and standing alongside the establishment, that still remains an optional part of the ageing process.

But after mouthing off about the Labour Party, it’s only fair that I make a personal declaration as to where my own politics lie today. Like most people, I’ve moved away from my tartan Tory perception of the SNP and accept it as a benign, bourgeois party of the centre-left. Yes, it’s nakedly opportunist, but that factor certainly doesn’t distinguish it in modern politics, and its fairly narrow goal of Scottish independence makes it harder for it to sell out. Nonetheless, its not my party, I’ve never voted for them and would find it hard to do so, for the same reasons I can no longer vote Labour and will obviously never vote Conservative – it’s not in my internationalist DNA. Having long given up on parties, I’m stuck with having my political aspirations for these islands placed squarely in the hands of a new, broadly-based, grass roots campaign led by a different generation, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m now a dedicated ‘phase three’ yes man: let’s get it sorted out. But I want as many of my old buddies, and as many real Labour people on that journey as possible, and for bigger reasons than to deliver a yes vote for social progress on the 18th. That, as I’ve said, is only part of the process. I want them onside, because the core values that they believe in; fairness, justice and democracy, are the only values that a new Scotland -and a new England- can be constructed on.