Withdrawing our labour from Labour

imageThe decline of the Labour Party, in Scotland and the UK, has deeper roots than we usually imagine, says Michael Gardiner. And their misreading of “nationalism” is key. 

For years now, every new failure in the Labour Party in Scotland has been taken like a “warning” – a demand for soul-searching, yielding access to values that have been betrayed.

In London, this has taken the Party to its current ’70s retro turn, with the implied promise of remembering back before a turn to ‘New’ Labour when it is held to have lost its way.

But there are reasons to see a much longer decline of Labour behind this. Not based in any strategic mistake of emphasis, or seduction by an apparently alien neoliberalism. But much more to do with the failure of the UK “constitution” the Party is bound to defend and extend.

By now there is a noticeable gap between how this decline is perceived in Scotland and the rest of the UK. In part this arises from the way in 2013-14 the Labour Party was forced to identify as a defender of the unwritten British “constitution” (or the economic constitution, or the 1688 constitution, or the ‘Newtonian’ constitution).

By which I mean the constitution that is based on apparently universal laws that stand beyond any political interference, and of which the Westminster parliament is seen as merely a neutral and benevolent manager.

Now historically, the Labour Party might be seen as the most progressive outcome of the 1688 constitution, the “Glorious” and “Bloodless” Revolution. This understood citizenship as ultimately an association of economic actors. To be specific (and as the old Whigs understood it), it demanded the creation of property, by adding labour to nature to make it useful.

Capital-L Labour has never seriously questioned this ultimately economic vision of sovereignty – only flipped it around, so that more of the population can be absorbed into it.

Some of the limits of this idea of citizenship are immediately obvious. Environmental issues, for one – the assumption that there will always be more nature to convert to property.

Overall, there is a massive irony here. One of the great achievements of welfare state Labour, facing the decline of physical Empire, was to turn the property-creating process inward, using the lessons of wartime morale to turn to the cultivation of ‘human nature’. This cultivation – ensuring our healthy readiness for performance in the labour market – provided an emotional base for what we now call neoliberalism.

This points to another kind of limit – the exhausting demand that social belonging endlessly adjusts itself to the natural laws of the economy. However eternal its description, this suspension of the people from the economy would always become increasingly prone to criticism in the later career of the British state.

In the constitutional trigger area of Scotland, there has long been a shorthand for this kind of criticism – the bogey term “nationalism”. The Labour Party have long used this term to denote the social democrats sitting slightly to their left. Behind this, however, there is a wider sense of threats to the economy by a determining people.


Descriptions of nationalism’s threat to destroy the natural realm of the economy go deep into British life, all the way from the response to the French Revolution to the Battle of Britain, and easily connote threats to our way of life (‘Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr. Salmond?’, began one 2014 video by the ‘Save the Union’ group).

“Nationalism”, the scare-word, means a scandalous attempt to limit the universal reach of the economy by suggesting the determining power of any given population, and it must be contrasted with Britain’s own demands for allegiance.

2014 saw a return to the old formula of “patriotism, not nationalism”, taken ultimately from George Orwell’s 1945 ‘Notes on Nationalism’, an essay notorious for contrasting the general good of British “patriotism” with the fascistic menace of Scottish and Irish “nationalism”.

So when David Cameron’s March ’14 “lovebombing” speech from the London Olympic stadium reminded referendum voters of the dangers to the British brand, this was reported by the Herald as a desire to “fight Scottish nationalism with British patriotism”.

The apparently “popular” reach of Labour is crucial to this process of depicting British nationalism as not really nationalism at all.
This is legitimate, from one point of view, since Britain is indeed beyond any people – it is an economics based on the avoidance of a people. In which case, though, we should not be surprised if Labour’s “popular” reach melts away when the real possibility of popular sovereignty appears.

To reinforce the welfare consensus, all that had to be done about constitutional issues (in Labour thinking) was to drop in this bogey term: nationalism. Around 2014 though the strains on this term became unsupportable.

In one editorial just before the ’14 referendum, the Guardian admitted that “the independence referendum campaign in Scotland has been a reassertion of some of the things that matter most to this newspaper and its readers” – then segued into a call for a perpetual extension of the current economic realism, since independence meant nationalism, and “Nationalism is not the answer”.

So nationalism is also somehow against the British conception of the people – even when it means pointing out that the people have been eclipsed.

In 2013 Ed Balls claimed that Scottish self-determination would mean “perils” for public services, while arguing his Party’s line against free healthcare and university fees. The idea that public services’ slipping out of their economic rationale is “perilous” to the people this would benefit shows a particularly British faith in the ultimate sovereignty of the economy, as an abstraction. An abstraction in which the people themselves are lost.

Balls was also channelling a Hayekian and Thatcherite vision in which destructive market activity is a guarantee of political stability, and political uncertainty – popular determination – becomes an unthinkable disaster. This was the basis, of course, of Project Fear.

These strange disavowals, made daily by the debates of IndyRef1, are the everyday stuff of British economic realism in a neoliberal age. But they are also the swansong of Labour, and their absurdities say more about the Party’s 2010s meltdown than do any strategic mistakes of emphasis.

In this situation accusations of “nationalism” sound hollow. For one thing, however carefully independence visions are linked to actual benefits, there will always be an Ed Balls or a Guardian editorial writer around – ready to claim that political stability/ economic destruction is preferable to the “nationalist” scandal of specifying any particular people able to determine its own future.

As centuries of commentators have stressed, the secret to the British constitution is that it is “above politics”. For another thing, “nationalism” has for a while now been at odds with that restoration of the 1688 constitution we experience as neoliberalism.

As for the dark associations of nationalism with racism, we can understand them in this sense: The British state knows “society” as a collection of absolutely weightless unembodied individuals defined by rational market choices, not as people with bodies who affect their surroundings. Any physicality that detracts from the isolated individual is itself dangerous.

One of the legacies of the world Labour has helped make is the way a language of individual equal opportunities can be used to generate ever greater social inequalities – and this is accepted by any defence of the economic constitution in our current era, defined by what I call a “subjective economy”.

The familiar Blairite machinery of quangos, quota-filling, and “personal development”, represents not a misstep to be retraced, as the Corbynites might hope. It is the Labour Party’s only possible post-industrial destiny.

If the ‘New’ of New Labour meant anything, it was that personal property-creation should now be fixed to the longer moral claims of the industrial labour movement. Personal value in such a society is still defined by profit-making or property-creating work. So when we decide that we cannot be defined entirely by labour, nor can we be defined by Labour.

Nor does the challenge to this have to be from the SNP, but to make sense it can only come from some place sceptical of the “eternal” constitution. And whatever the name given to any such organisation, it will always be called “nationalist”, since “nationalism” means any interruption of the economy.

There is now a whole hinterland of political action that is called “nationalist” in these terms to which the Labour Party has no access, and which it cannot force onto the ground of British psephology.

The British constitution is not merely apolitical, but stands as a protection from any interruption by the political – but once this kind of interruption has happened it can’t be unhappened by Labour or any other British party. Such interruptions happen in a language these parties can’t speak.

So the description of self-determination movements as a kind of “warning” – a demand that Labour return to its legitimate mission, or remember its roots – look more and more thin. Independence movements are not a temporary vessel for the conscience of the Labour Party. And its current decline cannot be reduced to these terms.

Michael Gardiner is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature Studies at the University of Warwick. He is author of From Trocchi to Trainspotting: Scottish Critical Theory Since 1960, and other works.

Comments (16)

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  1. David Sangster says:

    Sorry, Prof, you lost me.

  2. JohnEdgar says:

    Whichever way one analyses it, (S)Lab have declined and so have the Tories and the LibDems in Scotland. The Tories over a longer period ad well as the LibDems, but Slabour over a shorter timescale!
    In fact, it is the people who HAVE spoken.

  3. David says:

    Superb insight and historical commentary. Its time for a real change across this island.

  4. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Wow. Insightful.

    I’ve often felt that there’s something terminally blinkered about British Labour, about how they never act as anything but the Left-Wing-Of-The-Establishment … even when more radical policies would be popular to voters and the party. I’d presumed they were cowed by Big Finance and the Deep State.

    But, yes, your analysis makes perfect sense. Labour’s basic ethos has nothing to do with popular sovereignty, and is all about the fetishisation of property – which has been fundamental to the British State ever since King Billy rode in on John Locke’s coattails.

  5. Onwards says:

    I think there is a far simpler way to look at the recent decline of the Labour party in Scotland.
    After the referendum it was seen as anti-Scottish.

    The UK Labour party was prepared to actively DAMAGE the Scottish economy if Scots voted for independence.

    They stood alongside the Tories in a pact to deny a currency union.
    There were implied threats that UK governments would veto or hold up Scotland as a new EU member if it came down to that.

    And taking a stance against self-government for Scotland ultimately showed a lack of faith in Scots to govern their own country better.

  6. C Rober says:

    Labour , created the NHS and Welfare state , but it really wasn’t as philanthropic as it appears. Much like Mill owners of old really.

    It was to rebuild after a war , with personal health covered after years of rationing that conitued into the 50s , also came the ability to build housing en masse , thus employment.

    And of course to have fitter men and women ready should there be another European land war – after all , two great wars within 30 years , with the iron curtain now appearing , it was a cheaper option than another war – and of course the debts of the previous war now needed repaid.

    The productivity and output seen during war time could easily be channeled to GDP….export away that debt to the private banks and America , with a byproduct of keeping the machines oiled should there be another land war. Win-Win.

    Today though that GDP from manufacturing is replaced by the service industry and FIAT Banking , and as we have seen a financial fart easily becomes a protracted austerity shart – if it is the dominant part of GDP …. Well a Shart for the ones previously called the working classes , now re branded the new middling classes , ad the wealthy have doubled theirs.

    Lets hit the RW button for a moment , to Thatcher , the blamehound of Scottish Socialist , therefore Labour voters for at least two generations.

    By the time she came to power she seen the Unionised workforce as a threat , strikes seen from Miners and Ship yards to Schools and Councils , all having been unionized traditional Labour voters.

    The first thing she did was invest into the police , and of course stock pile coal , this was a preemptive strike , one that continued to fill the ranks of the Scottish Socialist Labour voter , war was declared on the working socialist. IT is something that the Scottish have yet to fully recover from.

    During her reign , Labour , especially Scottish Labour , claimed there would be a return to mass employment , then later to housebuilding of the council variety. The SNP during this time merely a bit player in Scottish politics , with its singular goal independence , proving that old adage of single policy political party does not work.

    Instead on election to a majority , Nulabour became the whore to the banks , forgot the industrialisation promises and continued housing bubbles , avoided council housing creation , thus keeping the status qou of the wealth creation of the State within a Union , for London and its elites.

    When the con/libdem replaced Labour after their near 15 years at the helm , they had yet to do any of those whinge promises that had got them their majorities from Scottish Voters. 30 years of enduring the same , “the parting to the left is now the parting to the right” , during this the rise of the SNP was slowly building.

    Essentially it was NuLabour lies that created what we see today , they were centre , not left Southward of Preston , and not in any way left of politics outside of Scotland .Yet they remained happy to portray that lie , fooling the traditional Scottish Labour voter for nearly 6 elections that they were , and still are , Socialist Scottish Labour.

    They did however continue more of Thatchers idealogy , Nulabour was and still is Thatcherism , the only thing that remained of TruLabour was the colour of the flag and tie.

    1.Mortgage slavery and housing bubbles.
    2.Tinkering with social psychological engineering with renaming Council housing to Social.
    3.Working benefits aka tax credits instead of wage rises.
    4. PFI and its secrecy , where buildings cost 3x more and are collapsing
    5.Redrawing the maritime boundary annexing many miles of Scottish North Sea as English (in a supposed Union theres no need to redraw boudanries or is there?).
    6.To prepare the NHS for psudeo privacy under Darling.

    The irony of the above is that they were introduced , created , or enacted by Scottish elected Labour politicians. Bought and Sold for English gold indeed.

    Thatcher was right when she said , Tony Blair , thus NuLabour , was her greatest creation.

    Scottish Labour is therefore the bastard child of that bastard child , without adopting a CORE stance for Scottish Autonomy , be that FFA , INDY or indeed full federal – akin to what Germany has….ie a union within country , within a union.

    The one promise they did supply was the creation of Holyrood , and with it jobs for the boys , or so they thought , with very little devolved powers offered despite a Scottish Mafia leading the party. But as Donald Dewar once remarked , its the beginning of something bigger , meaning at least FFA , but perhaps more importantly indy , which has been conveniently redacted by his party.

    But I bet they truly believed that Holyrood would continue to empower them further , in a third if not fourth level of politics for Scotland.

    It did for a while , but no more. The writing was on the wall during and after the last Westminster elections. As Labour went central to get into no10 it worked in England in the late 90s , the SNP did the same by going more left than Labour had been in a long time , and so far it has worked , to SLAB’s cost.

    The failure/betayal of Brown and Blairs Nulabour on Scotland has come back to haunt Slab , well combined with “better together/project fear” during indy under Millibands orders , but ironically they haven’t changed anything internally since , well apart from going even further from the left with each and every new figurehead.

    IF the definition of Insanity is to keep repeating the same things and expect a different outcome , then Albert may have been a better psychologist than a theoretical physicist – that is when it comes to Scottish Labour.

    To blame nationalism now as the cause is laughable , especially so with a party that during its inception strove for home rule under Hardie , nationalism is not the problem , home rule , or the lack of it is.

    You cannot do a centre politics based Labour in Scotland , something that took Nulabour to No10 , and then expect to keep the core Scottish voter. Scotland is working class proud , despite the aspiration generation , but that generation too is politically split , and still has aspirations…..nationalistic ones.

    As long as the Scottish part of Labour does not withdraw completely from UKLabour , then the lack of nationalism , the lack of representing the electorate itself within the party itself is the problem for SLab…. not the voter themselves for being nationalist.

    That is why there is only one Slab politician in Westminster today , hardly any benefit whatsoever to UKL come any voting within the chamber.

    UKL shot themselves in the foot protecting the union , and as long as Corbyn is silent on the subject then it continues , to every Scottish Labour politicians cost , he is their employment liability , not the electorate.

    If the argument now is that Labour had to adapt to keep their jobs to get into No10 through going centre back then , then the new argument for Slab is a root and branch triage of the party itself , where that adaption is now a pure Darwinian one …. and for its very survival. They have to offer what the electorate wants , or remain unelectable , thats politics 101.

    The F-wit arrogance of Labour politicians to blame the very electorate , well it shows just how far away from them they really are , and that the voter themselves have evolved , even if their politicians have not.

    As long as the big guns , those making/following the decisions that steer the ship in Scotland have a 2nd life , like some perverted form of real life video game through the list votes system , and are all having their leadership jobs protected at the cost of new blood , rather than them removed from politics for failure , then the problem for SLAB will persist , and the party itself will follow Darwins law via Einsteins definition of Insanity – until its deserved demise.

    Its now up to SLAB members , come Thursday results , will you act ordering an EGM ?

    Will you remove the whip from those that are ironically using it on your own backs that remain through the list system?

    I doubt it , ostriches cant see much from under the sand.

    1. Kenny Smith says:

      A very in depth explanation on Slabs demise. The nhs and welfare state was created for cynical reasons and were probably planned to be ditched when the time seemed right but it was an advance for working classes and I dare say having a largely militarised and organised population helped as the elite’s would have been worried about the possible consequences if there was open revolt. I reached voting age just as the referendum for Holyrood was underway and for an 18 year old at the time was more interested in politics than the vast majority of my peers, Labour should have been my choice like generations before me but the minute Tony Blair and his mob never even attempted the reversal of any of Thatchers trade union laws and changed Labours commitment to the redistribution of wealth then I had already started to look elsewhere. I missed the miners strike but I remember the fall out, the court cases the grudging apologies the exposés and when I got a little older and then started to read up on things a little more you can see the rot setting in with Kinnock. The 1979 40% rule was also a sickner, especially after early promises of home rule. Iraq and the sea boundary change put the nail in it, contempt had turned to hate and I say that as an ex shop steward and a union member, total scum. The referendum showed them up to millions more but confirmed what many knew already the party of the people put the party before the people. In England Labour think they need to be more like the Tories which turns what’s left of their memberships gut in Scotland. The only way I could possibly ever conceive voting Slab would be in an Indy Scottish election but even then it’d be hard to separate them from history. SNP x2

  7. Frank says:

    Very interesting piece.

    For me, the Labour Party – and this is a problem of socialists in general, don’t understand contemporary Scottish nationalism. Left unionists see nationalism through the prism of fascism and the Second World War and therefore nationalism is always negative. They fail to understand that following the fragmentation of class, the hollowing out of class politics and the historic defeat of socialism – Scottish nationalism emerged to fill the socialist vacuum and at the heart of this new nationalism was not culture or ethnicity but rather a turn towards an ideal type Scottish state as the agent of the better society.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      “an ideal type Scottish state”? Whit the hangs “ideal”?

      Culture, including language, is arguably the key distinguishing feature of any nation. In that regard the Scots language, or what remains of it efter three hunner years o wilfu suppression, remains one of our enduring and key success factors. That is why we need a ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’. If the SNP hid een tae see…..

      1. Frank says:

        I meant ‘ideal type’ as it is used in the social sciences by those influenced by Maw Weber. The Scottish ‘language’ is a peripheral issue to most Scots.

        1. Frank says:

          That of course should have said Max Weber

          1. Jim Bennett says:

            Frank, I think Maw Weber simply gushes with irony given the point you were making.
            Scots language peripheral? Aye, yer maw!


        2. Alf Baird says:

          Frank, if Scots language is “peripheral”, how would you describe Scotland’s other indigenous language, Gaelic, bearing in mind the latter has already been given its own ‘Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005’ with significant public resources/bodies to develop the language further?

          1. Frank says:

            I said the Scots language was a peripheral issue to most Scots, which I think it is. The context for what I wrote was an attempt to situate historically the forces driving the demands for Scottish statehood.

    2. C Rober says:

      If nationalism is seen as facism , then surely socialism is therfore seen as communism at the other end of the scale?

      Perhaps then Nationalism should as a word be dropped , or god forbid go the Taiwan route and head for “Scotland , Republic of England”.

      Thus we would then have a Scottish Republican Party , which perhaps is too close to either the Republican Party ie American politics , or towards sounding like Irish history – where party is replaced by the word army…. and something that the SNP is keen to hide from its creation history.

      Its ironic that had the typical English voter , filled in the head with vitriol from the MSM diatribe , would have voted to Eject the whinging and sponging Scots given half the chance should it have been a Uk referendum.

      Yet there is still a 10 percent majority of Scots yet to convert to Indy as not a cause , but an eventuality for their own benefit – over that of the wealth creation and protection of it for the chosen few in the LaSE , and of course to keep their taxes heading southward never to return wholly , but partly , stigmatically badged as Barnet , with the Scots seen as some form of “McOliver” cheekily asking for more.

      That 10 percent difference in the Yes no Vote , well its about the same as the percentage of English born people of voting age living and working in Scotland. A population with an abnormally higher income level , through working in the likes of Aberdeen , or from working in Scottish media , and with it also a similar disproportionate unemployment level.

      Its of no surprise that those areas with high no vote numbers during indy are where that demographic is highest. Aberdeen , Edinburgh , and the suburbs of Glasgow , and were keen to keep it that way , project fear was not needed for that ten percent at all , just for the great unwashed thus the fire and forget missiles of NHS , JOBS , Civil Service , pensions and benefits.

      Some further reading here on affluence in Scotland , including that 10 percent have 74 percent of the wealth. http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Statistics/Browse/Social-Welfare/IncomePoverty and for the 10 percent , near half a million voters being Born in England see http://www.scotlandscensus.gov.uk/news/census-2011-release-2a or even from the daily mail itself http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2753400/Revealed-How-half-million-English-voters-living-Scotland-set-block-independence.html

      But there is another flip to the coin , there was during indy circa 750k Scots living and working outside of Scotland without a vote on its future , prevented from doing so , some say because they were pro Union anyway.

      However there is a european precedent set on voting recently in Luxembourg.

      Their constitution has been changed to “only those Born there combined with permanently living there” can now vote in elections and referendums… somewhat stacking the political deck. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-luxembourg-foreigners-idUSKBN0ON0PH20150607

      Perhaps after crunching the numbers the bean counters of the SNP have seen this , and are beavering away secretly towards indy II , hence the relative silence on the subject , but then again they may just be keen to just be politicians and in keeping their jobs instead , conveniently only having the national in the Scottish National party as an inaudible murmur.

  8. arthur thomson says:

    A fascinating, insightful post.

    It makes me wonder what effect the EU referendum is going to have. Project fear for England is taking the same form as was used in Scotland. It seems unlikely that either side will win with a very large majority. Will that generate a similar growth of nationalist demands in England in parallel with what is happening in Scotland?

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