2007 - 2022

The History Trap

brittaniaBy Peter Arnott

“They’re going with their heart. It’s about who they want to be a voice for Scotland.”

How Scotland Lost its Mind.

How has it come to this? How can it possibly be that Scotland’s voters are so impervious to reason? Have they all just gone mental, as Iain Martin suggests? Are they just being emotional as the Insights Director at the polling organisation TNS would have it? What has gotten into them? Why was Labour’s participation in Better Together, which from their point of view was a pragmatic and principled defence of the structures of compromise and compensation Labour had historically negotiated on our behalf, so toxic? Are the Scottish electorate falling victim to some sinister mind control? Has Alec Salmond got a machine underneath Edinburgh castle that sends out idiot waves to the gullible, kilted inhabitants via the aerial implanted in the Sturgeonator robot?

The answer to these questions, as I see it, lies in the fact that these are the wrong questions. This is because they are questions about Scotland. What is happening in this election, just like what happened during the referendum campaign, is a question about Britishness. What was it? What is it? What went wrong with it? Can anyone fix it?

1. Scottishness hasn’t really happened yet.

Scottish identity, despite what everyone in the British Establishment North and South seems to think, is not an issue in this election any more than it really was in the referendum campaign, except on the very fringes of the Yes movement. Questions about what we want Scotland to be remain vague and unanswered and unasked by the electorate not because the electorate is mental, stupid or misled, but because the electorate are asking other questions. They are interrogating the idea of Britain as represented by the Labour party as the nice face and the Tories as the nasty face. And they are saying to themselves…hey…it’s the same face…This is possibly, even definitely unfair. But hey, history is like that. It’s an unforgiving old bastard at the best of times. And, for Britain, these are not the best of times.

In sum, though, it is the idea of Britain that is being found to be vacuous and it is the SNP who, in Scotland, are filling the gap. And you can call them liars and opportunists and mountebanks, and you may be right. But the essential fact is the vacuum. You ask any physicist.

There is something fundamentally wrong with Britain then that the Scottish electorate have noticed. And they don’t believe anymore that a unitary Labour government of the whole UK can fix it. All the rest is incidental. Jim Murphy and Nicola Sturgeon are accidents of personality. The history is what essential. History has made the Trap that is likely, if the polls are right, to squeeze the Scottish Labour party to death next week.

2. The Great Money River

It’s not that voters in the rest of the UK haven’t noticed what has been happening since 1945. It’s not that no one in South Wales or Newcastle or Bolton or Tower Hamlets and Southwark and Newham can’t see exactly how things work. To borrow a metaphor, as is my wont, from the late and great Kurt Vonnegut, everyone in these islands knows that somewhere through the centre of the ruins runs the Great Money River. Now this river is not exactly geographically located and is directly accessible only if you know the code to the room where they keep the buckets. But we all know where in the building the bucket room is. We all know who keeps the keys.

There is no blame to be attached to anyone for the architecture. It’s quite an old building, even if some of the most ancient and venerable institutional offices turn out to be mock gothic. Over the years, in order to keep everything the same, everything has had to change. Empires have come and gone, markets have been opened and shut and sovereignties renegotiated from time to time. Always adapting reluctantly to changes in the weather, but muddling through in the end, the river has been kept flowing. The necessary arrangements for its flow that were carved bloodily out of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and then the world, have become so natural, so obvious, so elemental as to unquestionable. To think that nature might be different is deranged.

Power is where power is. Things are what they are. The centre is the centre. To extend the “river” metaphor, complicated systems of pulleys, canals, locks and viaducts have been constructed to spread the water around. But to question the location of the river itself is unthinkable. In constitutional terms , no matter how ramshackle, illogical and jerry built, the structures that feed allocations of money and power to the British periphery must be maintained, but to divert the river itself? To permit the digging of a new, potentially rival river system ELSEWHERE? Are you insane?

3. The Project and The Trap

So, to focus again on the leading character in our wee drama, the Labour Party, in order to defend the National structures they have attempted to put in place, the civic structures, the redistributive structures, have had to become defenders not just of those things that compensate for “the way things are” but of “the way things are” in themselves.

When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown pragmatically embraced the structures of power in the 1990s, becoming relaxed about commercial borrowing for public projects, for example, and relying on the tax receipts from an unregulated financial market in the City of London they were only being pragmatic. The rich were flattered into allowing Labour to carry their very own buckets down to the river, and they poured away happily, and relegated questions about the actual sources of wealth and the ownership rights of the river and the bucket room to their juvenile past.

Their problems really started because they couldn’t quite tell anyone what they were up to. They were slightly shame faced about it. But as long as the river kept on flowing and they kept being handed buckets, everything was fine. It didn’t matter that they had accepted the de-industrialisation of the Thatcher era. It didn’t matter that they had accepted that the only part of the economy that mattered was located in one super-heated corner of it whose interests must be served if anywhere else was going to get a chance at the table scraps. It didn’t matter that Trade Unions remained underfoot, that generations of under-employment were allowed to regulate the labour market, that the welfare state and the health service teetered on the edge of privatisation or collapse. Just as long as the rich didn’t take their borrowed buckets back. Devolution and regional po,icy would keep things going provided only the taps didn’t get turned off.

Which is exactly what happened in 2008. And the ramshackle public structures of compensation for the “way things are” became unsustainable. Or at least that’s what the Tories argued. And not only did the Tories win (sort of) the election in 2010 on that basis, but the Labour party accepted the narrative, accepted the blame, accepted the logic, as a precondition for contesting the election that is happening right now.

And no doubt, in this election campaign, Hereford and Hampshire, and possibly even Hartlepool, they are doing the right thing. Not in Hamilton they’re not.

4. The British National Moment/ The Scottish National Moment

In the democratic era, the way that God or nature have arranged matters for the benefit of the river guardians has had to renegotiate itself in a democratic fashion. That is, “nationalistically” in the appalling, modern, French sense of the word. 1945 was the popular democratic British national moment, to this way of thinking, and it remains the foundation of everything the Labour party defines itself as standing for. Labour people in Hereford and Hamilton will bridle at the idea that their party of the unions and the cooperatives was in any way a nationalist phenomenon, but I beg them to think outside of their accustomed box for a moment.

Modern Britishness is a contested territory. But Britain has been the question in every election. As Billy Bragg once put it : “Theirs is a land of Hope and Glory; Mine is the green field and the factory floor” In this interpretation, which is inevitable, I think, through the prism of a pre-existing and conscious “national” identity as British and Scottish, every UK election has been about the National question. And the National question has always been : What kind of Britain should it be?

The Tories and Labour have always been and remain then, British National Parties. This is not to say they are the same. They contest the territory. But they believe in the same “Britain” and it is Britain that is in crisis. The question is whether britain will recognise the crisis in time to offer a British solution. And whether this election will provide the shock that will force Britain to do that.

If voters in Scotland are voting for anything in this UK election (as well as against an idea of Britain that has run out of steam, conviction and invention) they are voting for the shock that most of us now agree the system needs. There is no reason to be coherent yet about what the future of either a properly federal Britain or a fully independent Scotland look like (these being the only even medium term alternatives). The issue for today is to kick Britain awake. To say : a No vote hasn’t made all this go away, you silly sods.

Oh and by the way, you guys in the political parties and the papers and the BBC all getting together to agree with each other that we were a bit crap hasn’t gone down all that well.

You have to say the precedents aren’t promising. It is astonishing both how swiftly we became politically invisible again the moment we ceased to be a “problem” last year, and how irritated and petty the response has been to our perversely not having followed through on our “generation long promise” to shut up and go away.

I would contend now that what this election means is that the referendum was not an endorsement of the Union so much as it was a narrow decision to give it one last chance. And that when David Cameron came out on the morning of September 19th to say it was England’s turn now that all that unpleasantness was over with, and when Ed Miliband said, in effect, the other night that he rather preferred to idea of letting Cameron back into Downing Street than talk to Scottish people who haven’t been hand picked by the Labour Party, you can’t really blame us for not feeling the love.

But we did vote to give “Britain” one last chance to reinvent itself. Sending all those SNP MPs does not contradict that decision as the Daily Mail inter alia indignantly alleges. It is a condition of remaining in the UK that we represent ourselves within it differently. Britain has been reinvented by wars, an Empire and a Welfare State. What is happening in Scotland means that it needs to do it again. It’s just that we insist on taking part in that reinvention this time, as ourselves, rather than as mendicants with a nationalist begging bowl.

What happened last year is that the Better Together campaign succeeded in making the identity of “Britain”, “the Establishment” and “the Labour Party” unequivocal in Scotland. Even with a No vote, however, paradoxically, against expectation, it equally unequivocally established that the sovereign power of decision as to what happens in Scotland was now and forever to be a matter for decision in Scotland.

We voted No. But we voted. That turned out to be more important than the result. Because we had been told by the united chorus of the United Kingdom that if we had darted to vote Yes, all these for now benevolent creatures would turn on us like wolverines in a sack. We got the message. That’s why we’re sending the SNP to Westminster. For self-defense.

Still, one thing at a time. Next week, when the votes are counted, will come another defining and possibly final British National Moment. Whether and how it is followed, five or ten years from now, by a Scottish National Moment, is a question for all of us. Voting SNP is just our way of letting our brothers and sisters know that.

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  1. ELAINE FRASER says:

    Thanks Peter and thanks Bella for keeping us all going over these last few difficult months ( and beyond I hope!) whatever the result it finally feels like change is a real possibility at some point in the future for all our kids.

  2. The Long Decline says:

    That illustration is genius! Also thanks for the usual thoughtful article….I do think the Unionists will head to the polling booth with their sour expressions and vote tactically so SNP may “only” get somewhere around 40 seats. Interesting times ahead.

  3. HerewardAwake! says:

    A very interesting summary, Peter, of what has led up to this defining moment in the history of the UK, all of it. I would add that towering over this tempestuous scene is a very powerful figure, or at least the awesome ghost of such a figure. Loathed, loved or despised, it is that of Margaret Thatcher, the most divisive political influence of modern times, equal in her contempt of most of her fellow islanders, regardless of nationality. It was a tragedy that the Labour Party dressed up in her heavily-soiled cast-off clothing in order to try and regain a place on the electoral ladder. But they did, and in the process sold their soul to the devil for a handful of dirty silver. Her awful legacy hangs like a pall of gloom over the whole UK, and her political progeny are lurking in the shadows eager to leap out and continue her grim work. Divide and conquer – they whisper to themselves, fondling their massive bankrolls. Anyway, to cut to the chase, if you Scots want your independence you are free to take it, but I would much rather see a serious attempt made at some sort of federation within the UK and Europe before you jump ship. Better for all if we stay together, but its up to you.

    1. CJK says:

      Whilst wholeheartedly agreeing with your calling up of the long reaching shadow of Thatcherism I think the institution of Westminster is the core of the issue. And even then it is as the most obviously corrupt example of the failed state. Westminster is not a crucible of democracy it is the instrument of the British institutions not of the electorate. A federated uk would always be expected to defer to Westminster and therefore its chums and so ultimately Independence can be the only way forward for a new politics and genuine democratic representation.

      1. broadbield says:

        @CJK I was thinking federalism might be an intermediate solution but you present a compelling counter argument. Yes, the problem is Westminster and the governing classes, whichever party they come from – snouts in trough, revolving doors, secrecy, illegal wars, involvement with torture, corruption on a colossal scale in many of our institutions (see How Corrupt is Britain), a dysfunctional oligarch owned media and of course subservience to corporate power and wealth.

        Whether an independent Scotland would be any better I don’t know, but at least we would have the opportunity to start over.

        1. HerewardAwake! says:

          At least we can agree that the monsters facing us are even-handed in their attentions, and it should also not be forgotten that they proliferate in the wide world, have done so for a very long time, and are highly skilled. I hope that the UK can at last begin to cleanse itself of the stains with which it has become contaminated but it will take time. Whether an independent Scotland could insulate itself from all of this I don’t know. All the bangles, baubles, dividends, sweeteners, titles and the like that surround power are very tempting and usually the fish do take the bait. The world is a dark and dangerous place as I was reminded after watching some VE Day stuff today, but the realisation that even after all the miseries and disasters of WW2 our forbears had the foresight, guts, and resolution to launch the NHS and all the other post-war social advancements, must be an inspiration to us all.

  4. mike cullen says:

    Genius, as usual.

  5. Frederick Robinson says:

    ‘Fraid I got lost among the mixed metaphors, Peter….

  6. Clootie says:

    “…But we did vote to give “Britain” one last chance to reinvent itself. Sending all those SNP MPs does not contradict that decision as the Daily Mail inter alia indignantly alleges. It is a condition of remaining in the UK that we represent ourselves within it differently…”

    The key paragraph that sums it up – they just don’t get it!

  7. Frederick Robinson-I think you just got lost.

  8. Darien says:

    British nationalism, or what they prefer to call ‘unionism’, we can see is a far far nastier form of nationalism than Scottish nationalism ever was. Labour folk always got this awfully wrong and still do. Scottish nationalism is international nationalism by any standard, welcoming in many different respects, willing to engage equally and peaceably. British nationalism is the opposite, as it is aggressive, inward and has always sought to conquer and colonise and exploit. Their ‘Empire’, or what is left of it, is a rather big clue. Any British colony with get up and go has got up and left. Scotland must do likewise.

    1. ian says:

      I was thinking exactly that while cutting my grass in France today.I could’nt have put it any better.I am nervously watching from afar having already cast my vote to oust Murphy.

  9. Robert Graham says:

    A fine piece in my opinion ,Short of changing the electorate “us” they are f/kd ,however they try to twist and wriggle over the next few days and I expect something not to our benefit but to appease English voters this hasn’t been labour v Tory v libdem it’s been all of them as in the referendum joined and linked to protect each other they openly promote anyone but SNP vote tactically to keep them out do we really scare them that much ? .I hope for 59 but will settle for Curran – Alexander- Davidson and maybe for good measure Mr J,Murphy please let there be total carnage and a end to this farce that’s called the Labour Party Scottish branch

  10. mike cassidy says:

    I’m hoping for SNP to be the third party at Westminster – anything over 40 seats would be the proverbial pure magic.

    As, if Millipede does choose to inflict Cameron on his English mps and supporters rather than do a deal, there has to be a good chance it will spell the end of UK labour as it currently exists.

    It may even split in two – just like the Conservatives have in practice with Tory and UKIP factions.

    All grist to the mill of the long game of independence

  11. George Gunn says:

    Dear Peter, I think that Britain is f****d and the Tories know it. That is why I think they have prepared some hellish coup like stunt after the votes have been counted (rigged?). I suspect also that the SNP will be relieved if the Tories get in – and they might help in the spinfest which will facilitate the chicanery, or they may just keep their mouths shut. Whatever happens they win. Also, I disagree with you about Scottishness being at the fringes of the Yes movement. I think it was at the centre but in many ways it was unspoken. In Scotland at least we have our poets to speak of their dreams and if we cannot dream about our country becoming independent – which is normal – then we too are f****d.

  12. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Well said as always George Gunn.

  13. Jockeasy says:

    I’ve been describing the long-dead 18th century solution to a problem of governance dreamed up for animperial empire of the day as the catalyst for the emergence of the various independence/separation movements in these islands for a century and more.
    It’s onlywhen the largest nation, naturally enough being the one with “ownership’of the major institutions….inc. the C of E, much of the legal system, the parliamentary institutions, the monarchy etc, etc…..resists these clear diminutions of their ‘dominance’that the public I this largest grouping are fed a toxic diet of “whinging Scots’……with the Irish being earlier victims a century before.
    Now, in such circumstances, and in face of the force-feeding of that drivel to the southern masses, I don’t feel over aggreived at the attitude of your typical DM reader and the like. Far more, I am animated by the fact that so many of them seem to believe that, since us Scots have such insatiable appetite for “their” money, they should have theright not just to veto our democratically chosen MP’s, but that they believe that the have both the moral, and often the god given right to expel us….which simply reveals their mindset,…that the “union”is theirs, and theirs alone….a plaything with which they can twist the rules when a minority seem for the first time in generations, to be about to make a clear and definite point about our governance…which immediately is called into constitutional question.
    So……we play THEIR game, and by THEIR rules….and when they LOSE….( not because the arguments from the north are understood one way or the other)…..but simply because THEY as the southern “partner” are too, too divided, confused, and misled in the fashion of mere sheep to see that any influence wielded by our 59, versus their 600-ish is merely the result of their OWN inability to see what future they, and they alone, want for the future.
    ……………..but then of course, that immediately becomes the fault of the Scots….for the commission of that truly heinous crime of relative clarity of thought than the southern neighbours……..and nothing at all to do with the aforesaid archaic institutions on which only a very privileged few have any genuine loyalty or love, beyond the Oohhing and Aaahhing at royal baby/ wedding occasions for this german ancestored dysfunctional family within known Nazi sympathies within living memory, who seem only to be justified in recent years by the bare, stripped position that ‘they’re good for the tourists”
    On such delusion, even bigger empires than this remnant have expired.

  14. George Gunn reply Let it be said, we are a nation of poet warriors.

    Scotland Calling

    Scotland, nineteen ninety nine
    Things began to align
    A Scotland devolved
    With new found resolve
    Our old enemies fear
    Transparently clear
    For what will the lose?
    Without Scotland to use
    We will be as before
    Our task to restore
    Old Scotland to glory
    To continue our story

    James Dow

  15. Darien says:

    I hope they do expel Scotland from their beloved union, if that’s the Tories cunning plan. However I suspect they would be more likely to impose martial law north of the border for Scots daring to vote out unionist parties. How dare we!

  16. Justin Fayre says:

    There must be some sort of mind control system. I jokingly touched on it in my post.
    ‘Stirring the Nats Nest’

    But now you have JK Rowling tweeting her gushing support for Jim Murphy.
    What kind of mind control mechanism has taken hold of her and forced her to oblierate her own penniless and struggling history.
    Worse still she MUST rdalise that if by a quirk of fate shr was in the same position now under Westminster Austerity, there id no way on earth Harry Potter would have come to life.
    She would be too busy fighting ATOS ( or Lourdes as somrone once said – because you go in sick and come out cured) benefit sanctions – how very dare you think you can sponge of the state and waste your time with that nonsense. Get ye to McDonalds forthwith and take your wand with you.
    Sorry Ms Rowling your appeal against not attending a job interview because your child was sick has been turned down.
    No state hand out for you for at least a month.
    Don’t worry the Scottish Government that you hate so much will provide emergency funds or you could always ‘magic’ up some rations for your family.

  17. Justin Fayre says:

    Oh God. Please forgive me.I Haven’t recovered from Friday yet. Correct link in my previous comment should have been



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