The paradox of the Labour attitude to Scottish independence

There is a fundamental paradox or contradiction at the heart of the stance toward independence taken by the Scottish branch of the UK Labour Party. This is a party that espouses equality. An independent Scotland would provide it with a population with a permanent left-of-centre majority. A place where all of Labour’s policy aspirations and ideas could come to fruition. A place where there would not be a constant battle to justify social democratic policies in the face of a right-leaning press. A place with sufficient financial, natural and human resources to turn their vision into reality.

Yet, from the outset, they turned their face against this opportunity. That is the paradox.

Why did they make this choice? The massive anger toward the Scottish regional branch of the Labour Party, that has emerged since the referendum result, seems to be based on two explanations. There is a view that the party in Scotland has lost sight of, and lost touch with Scotland – it is dominated by their leaders at Westminster, and by the need to position itself to be electable in England. This is the ‘taken for granted’ explanation. A second perspective is that those who run Labour have gone over to the dark side, and have been seduced by money, power and the hope of a seat in the House of Lords. This is the ‘noses in the trough’ explanation.

No doubt these explanations have some validity. However, impugning the motives of opponents is never entirely satisfactory, as political analysis.

I would like to try to go deeper.

I have been interested what things were like in British society in the 1950s (the world I was born into). What is clear from historical accounts of that era, is just how closely involved the Labour party was in running things – transport, mining, manufacturing, energy, media… Huge parts of the British economy were nationalised, and government ministers had direct responsibility for practical decision-making. Even a decade later, I can recall my first direct memories and interest in politics being stimulated by reading about the frequent need for ministers in the Wilson government to intervene in union-management disputes.

All this changed, and was swept away. The nationalised industries were sold off. Labour politicians ceased to be people with any experience or interest in practical decision-making. By the time of the Blair government, central government politics had been reduced to two things: (a) broad-brush policies that would be implemented through budgets and legislation, and (b) management of the media (spinning). This is the political world in which the leaders of the Scottish Regional Branch of the UK Labour Party have learned to operate. It is a world in which politicians function within a bubble, separate from the population as a whole.

But this approach is not what is needed in Scotland. Making things happen by sitting in a government office pulling the levers of power won’t cut it in a small country with a political system designed to make sure that parties work together for the common good. It won’t cut it, in fact, in any modern democracy with an educated population that has access to the internet. The deep metaphor for politics now is not Fat Controller. Instead, it is Borgen, it is ecology, it is flexible, creative problem-solving, it is politicians that you can bump into in the supermarket because they are part of your community.

I believe that this is why Labour Scotlandshire turned their faces against the golden opportunity of a leadership role in a freshly-minted social democratic political playground. They wouldn’t know what to do with it. They don’t understand how to make things happen any more. They would be found out.

Look at them – Lamont, Brown, Alexander – none of them seem capable of listening to other people, of working with people who they don’t control, of engaging in dialogue, of sorting things out in creative ways.


One thought on “The paradox of the Labour attitude to Scottish independence

  1. Your comment about “politicians that you can bump into in the supermarket because they are part of your community” reminded me of something I read in Bob Holman’s book, ‘Good Old George’, his biography of George Lansbury, leader of the labour party in the 1930s.

    When others suggested that, now he was leader, he should move out of city and into (supposedly) surroundings more fitting for the leadership, he is said to have replied something to the effect that he’d prefer to live near enough to the people he represented so that if they were dissatisfied with him they could put a stone through his window rather than have to write him a letter!

    There was no doubting his solidarity with people on the ground.


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