After Britain’s once-mighty Liberal Party had been obliterated into a marginal rump by the 1930s, the journalist George Dangerfield penned The Strange Death of Liberal England to find out why. It remains a classic study of how an apparently unassailable party could be reduced to ruin in a terrifyingly short period of time. This famous tome has generated many spin-offs, but the most recent is The Strange Death of Labour Scotland. The title is only a slight exaggeration: with Alex Salmond remaining the most formidable front-line politician on these Isles, Scottish Labour remains a mess – and the consequences have seismic implications for the future of Britain as a whole.
It is certainly true that the explosive rise of the SNP and, more broadly, Scottish nationalism, cannot be put on the heads of the Scottish Labour leadership alone. It has much to do with the trauma of Thatcherism and the subsequent disappointments and betrayals of the New Labour era. Few remember that, in 1955, more than half of Scots voted for the Conservatives’ Scottish sister party; at the last general election, the fringe status of the Scottish Tories was confirmed when they won less than 17 per cent of the vote. I spent two years of my childhood in Falkirk. My parents took me to march against the Poll Tax – cruelly introduced in Scotland by Thatcher before anywhere else – in 1990, and I still remember the bitterness and passion of those who demonstrated.
Hatred of Toryism runs in the blood in much of Scotland, just as it does in working-class Northern England and elsewhere.
But if Scotland does indeed break with the Union in 2014, the fall of the House of Scottish Labour will be partly responsible. The party has apparently willingly sacrificed its role as Scotland’s standard-bearer of social justice to the SNP, ensuring that progressive politics and the cause of independence have become welded together. Last week, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont called for the abolition of free university education, arguing it was “not sustainable”.
Her argument that Scottish colleges were being hammered by SNP cuts had merit, but a progressive Labour leader would have called for devolved income tax to raise new revenues. Instead, she delighted SNP spin-doctors. There was a “Labour-Tory alliance” on the issue, said Alex Salmond, who gleefully claimed that Lamont had capitulated to Cameron’s position.
Flanking on the wrong side
It is not Lamont’s first disastrous public intervention. In September, she echoed the language of the right by announcing that Scotland could not be “the only something-for-nothing country in the world”, suggesting that universal benefits could be scrapped.
“Good to see Johann warming to Tory ideas,” tweeted a jubilant Scottish Tory deputy leader, Murdo Fraser.
The rights and wrongs aside, it is a baffling political strategy to outflank the SNP from the right. In last year’s Scottish election, Labour was reduced to a pathetic 15 constituency seats, down from 53 in its 1999 landslide. Salmond retains much better personal ratings than Lamont. That Labour celebrated winning the same level of popular support as the SNP in this year’s local elections shows how far it has scaled back its ambitions: after all, Salmond has been in power for five and a half years. The party membership is hollowed out, leaving many local parties as battered husks. “It’s not even contempt any more – we’re laughed at on the doorstep,” one senior party source told me. Speeches from party leaders lack any central themes or vision for the future. Labour’s flagship policy at the last election was the automatic locking up of anyone caught with a knife in public, an unworkable, reactionary policy. Disgusted middle-class progressives and working-class Scots fled into the arms of the SNP. Instead of youth unemployment, the shortage of social homes or investment in colleges, the party leadership instead obsesses with often petulant attacks on Salmond.
Part of the problem is that Scottish Labour has long been a feudal-style centralised party based around huge personalities. In the 1940s it was Tom Johnston, who served in Churchill’s wartime coalition and had practically dictatorial powers in Scotland; then Willie Ross in the 1960s and 1970s, a dour Presbyterian who famously denounced the then-rising Scottish Nationalists as “Tartan Tories”; then, of course, the likes of Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar and Robin Cook. Today there is an insular triumvirate – Lamont, her deputy, Anas Sarwar, and Margaret Curran in Westminster – who are obsessed with the 2011 electoral slaughter but doggedly refuse to listen to the advice of others.
Polls show that those most attracted by independence are exactly those Labour should naturally champion: those in deprived areas, council tenants, private renters, the unemployed and the young. Here are those who anticipate a bleak future in modern Scotland. A vibrant left is growing outside of the Labour party, with more than 800 Scots flocking to the Radical Independence Conference in November to debate what a progressive independent Scotland might look like.
If anyone was to grab the Scottish Labour leadership by the lapels, this is what they should tell them. That the SNP has positioned itself to the left gives Labour political space to be radical. Working-class and young voters who have deserted the party need to be inspired again. Opposition to independence should not be about Union Jack flag-waving or economic blackmail, but rather about the shared interests of call-centre workers, supermarket assistants and nurses north and south of the Border. Working people in Scotland, England and Wales built the welfare state together and they should unite to defend it again, particularly as it is savaged (again) by ideologically warped Tories. Instead of warbling on about the Union, Labour could champion a new federal Britain run in the interests of working people.
If Scottish Labour continues as it is – devoid of any coherent vision and unable to inspire those who have deserted it – then Salmond has little to fear. Scottish nationalism will not want for recruits. This will not be the Strange Death of Scottish Labour: it will be its Entirely Explainable Suicide. But it is not just the party’s future at stake. Its failures could lead to Britain as we know it being dismantled.
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