Thursday, 25 February 2010

Consider the lily

Consider the Labour party at the moment - likely defeat at the next UK election, already in opposition in Scotland, MPs jumping ship left, right and centre, (arguably) a distinct lack of talent left on the benches and staring at a future which looks decidedly against them.

On that basis, I have a question for Yousuf.  And, well, all Labour-types really who purport to be "social-democrats".  It's about Labour, the next election, preferences, social democracy and conservatism.  Actually, from that previous sentence, you can probably make the question yourself.

Why would the Labour party in Scotland prefer to see Scotland governed by a Conservative government at Westminster - and, in turn, the Tories roll back all any of the good, social democratic policies delivered by Labour in the past 13 years - when they could have an independent Scotland which, in all likelihood, would see social democracy as the norm?

This question - put in a fairly similar form - was put to the author of a different blog but I can't for the life of me remember which blog or who asked it so I will very much apologise for not sourcing it.  If it is any consolation, I thought it an excellent question, and one I've been thinking about since.

Labour's campaign for re-election in Scotland purports to ignore the SNP as irrelevant, focusing solely on the Conservatives.  Perhaps that is smart - it is a UK election, where the SNP are on the fringes after all - but for me, it smacks of desperation.  The SNP form the devolved government of Scotland - people are not going to forget who they are.  But by setting up the election as a battle between themselves and the Tories, Labour are drawing the battlelines - and identifying their real enemy.  And apparently it isn't nationalism - its conservatism. 

Now that makes sense - "social democracy" (as New Labourism likes to self-define as) has always been opposed to conservatism.  The outlook on the individual, on society, on the role of government is all different - in short, they stand for different things.  I guess Labour will tell you they want a "fair" society, with "equality of opportunity" for all while for the Conservatives, the focus is on law and order, and on encouraging enterprise.  Obviously these concepts are not mutually exclusive, but it is the way in which the parties focus - and prioritise - which provide the biggest differences.

Priorities.  Preferences.  The key concepts in this debate I think.  For if Labour, as they purport to be, really are about promoting equality and improving standards of living, then surely that could be achieved better on a smaller scale?  And their opportunity to do so on a smaller scale would also be bigger - that is, political competition in Scotland is focused on the politics of the centre-left, with only the Conservatives and their 15-20% of the vote residing outside the dominant political discourse.

What is my point?  Simply this - Labour's core principle, social democracy, is one which is easier to achieve on a smaller scale.  In Scotland, Labour's core principle is in tune with the electorate (arguably it is across the UK, but only really in cycles).  Labour's visceral behaviour towards the SNP is predicated upon a threat not to that principle but to their electoral prospects and their ability to enact these principles.  If the party were not so blinkered, they'd see in the SNP a party with principles remarkably similar to their own.  Yes, the SNP are a broad church of opinion - with independence the glue that holds it all together - but predominant policy in the past 25 years has been guided by centre-left values.  Combined, the two parties dominate Scottish politics.  Why would that be any different in an independent Scotland?

So, I'll put the question to the Labour types again:
Why would the Labour party in Scotland prefer to see Scotland governed by a Conservative government at Westminster when they could have an independent Scotland which, in all likelihood, would see social democracy as the norm?
If the SNP are smart, they'll start asking Iain Gray and Jim Murphy this very question.


Jeff 25 February 2010 at 15:34  

It's a good question but I think has a very simple answer.

Labour will one day be in power again, at Westminster, at Holyrood and at council level and when they do they want to govern a United Kingdom rather than separate nation states.

Let's spin your question the other way Malc. If the Tories were in power at Holyrood and Labour in power at Westminster and a UK election was coming up, should the SNP ditch independence and campaign for unionism?

Of course not.

Generally speaking, Labour believes in the UK and the SNP believes in independence. Short term permutations of who governs where shouldn't derail those overriding principles.

Still a good question though!

Malc 25 February 2010 at 15:43  


Your flick-around question doesn't work for me, on the basis that that the main principle for the SNP is independence. The main principle for Labour is not unionism, it is social democracy.

Labour as a party was not set up to defend the union, it was set up to deliver socialist (and latterly, social democratic) governance. The SNP was set up to deliver independence. Thus, as I say, your analogy falls.

My point is only partly about short-term political capital though. If Scottish Labour were so principled and believed in social democracy so much that they believed Scotland would benefit from it, then why shouldn't they support independence in order to deliver that?

Craig 25 February 2010 at 17:28  

I genuinely believe that you give Labour to much substance regarding their core beliefs. They have been in power for many years at Westminster and have not taken the chance to deliver. I think the concept of Scottish Labour occupies a very narrow, intellectual space in the minds of those who adhere to it. It's akin to following a football team; you cant't quite quantify the loyalty but it just exists. A blind cult.

Malc 25 February 2010 at 17:33  


You're probably right. There was a time (actually, that time is probably still now) in Scotland when, if you were a Labour activist for long enough you would get selected - and practically automatically elected - without any real examination of your policies.

My argument is really that, at UK level it is more difficult to follow through your policies given a wider range of political beliefs. In Scotland, its over 80% centre-left, but division between parties is what makes it difficult to get things done (ask the FM about "broken promises" and you'll see).

But yes, a valid point. I guess what I'd ask then, is that if there is no principle to adhere to strictly, why bother with the union in that place either?

Yousuf Hamid 25 February 2010 at 17:59  

you are quite right that Labour is not fundamentally about the Union but about social democracy and it is the lack of ideology which is the main reason why the SNP will not get anywhere near 20 MP's in May.

In response to the question it isn't about if it was a Labour Scotland or a Tory Britain but a fairer Scotland.

The public finances of Scotland are such (and we can have a boring statistical debate on the numbers if you want) that we will have a choice between major tax rises or big spending cuts which would be permanent and if it was tax rises it would be horrendous in terms of a brain drain and attracting inward investment so that would mean it would require large government spending decreases.

Indeed whilst they dispute the figures it is interesting that the model the SNP wish for Scotland is an Irish one where you slash business taxes to try and attract inward investment simply because that is the best way for small countries to grow where governments are as small as possible.

To some people that's desirable but for those of us who believe in Government playing a very active role (indeed having a duty) to create a fairer society it will be disappointing and case more poverty, inequality etc
What I am trying to say is that even a left wing (and I consider myself to be to the left of the UK party in terms of reducing the inequality gap so when I say left wing I mean to the left of Brown) government in an Independent Scotland would not be able to do as much for the poor as they can in the UK.

Indeed there is a school of thought that says that redistributing wealth is incredibly difficult in small countries because you have to specialise in particular industries (like financial services in Ireland) which means that you may grow but are unable to increase taxes to redistribute and if that sector collapses then all hell breaks loose (again, like Ireland)

That is why the Scottish Parliament is important where we can reflect the will of the people (which I believe to be to the left of the UK) whilst retaining the benefits of a larger well-diversified stable country.

So the only solution is to vote Labour at Westminster and Holyrood :)

Malc 25 February 2010 at 18:00  

My goodness Yousuf. You fail, entirely, to answer the question - they'll make a fine politician of you.

And you couldn't resist a pop at the SNP. Incidentally, I don't think you'll find me saying anywhere that the SNP will win 20 seats - I thought it was ambitious at the time and now seems daft. If they get more than 8 seats I'll be surprised.

Malc 25 February 2010 at 18:07  

Actually, I'm maybe being unfair. You at least try to answer the question.

The point about the SNP is moot - ideology is nothing like the reason they won't win 20 seats. I also wish you wouldn't treat me like a cyber-nat - I believe in independence but I'm not slavish about it.

But your point later is interesting. But I disagree. I think you can do much more to equalise things across a smaller scale than you can on a larger scale. Taking your argument to its logical conclusion, we should disband all nations because ultimately, they are all too small, we can make matters more equal across the globe.

Incidentally, I also disagree with you on the desirability of a left-wing state, but that is semantics - we're talking about what Labour should do.

eric 25 February 2010 at 18:43  

Very intelligent piece, if I may say. And the first two posts above capture my instinctual feeling by way of a reply, although all the posts are really interesting. But to add a little to the discussion, perhaps I could make one point.

The SNP has always sold itself as a party of transition - i.e. once they 'succeed' then you'd have a resurgent left/centre/right choice in the context of an independent Scotland. All of the Westminster seats held (minus Glasgow East) by the SNP at present were formerly Tory seats. A surprisingly (to some) large element of the SNP support base is conservative, hence the philosophical tension between East and Central/West coast (e.g. say, John Swinney and Alex Neil). An independent Scotland would therefore likely pressage a conservative resurgence. Whether or not it would be strong enough to win elections or not is a moot point, but they were the largest party in the 50's and it's notable that the small Scandanavian countries are mainly run by conservatives too.

I take your point about a broad social democratic consensus in Scotland, but many would say the same about Scandanavian countries where, apparently paradoxically, conservatives presently hold the upper hand.

Stephen Glenn 25 February 2010 at 19:02  

Surely the whole point of a social democracy that sees part of its acheivement to devolve power from the centre is that at some points the democratic right of the people to elect the overseeing legislation, or devolved parts, might go aginst the parties of social democracy. You hope to live in a society that has the democratic right to choose someone else, anything else would be a dictatorship.

Yousuf Hamid 25 February 2010 at 19:15  

What part of the answer didn't you think was answered?

You ask why a party which believes in social democracy would not want a left-wing government in an Independent Scotland and I've explained why I think an Independent Scotland would be less equal regardless of what government was in charge.

Malc 25 February 2010 at 19:32  

Sorry Yousuf, I'd half-read the first response you put up (which you then deleted!) when I said you hadn't answered the question. I tried to put that right with my 2nd comment when I said that you had answered, but that I disagreed with your analysis.

Malc 25 February 2010 at 19:49  


I find it interesting that when asked a question about Labour in Scotland, your answer is about the SNP!

That said, your point about the SNP is right - a party of transition, a broad church which is maintained only by the prospect of independence. But, despite the internal conflict (and I'd suggest Fergus Ewing as a better example of the right within the SNP!) they've still promoted themselves as left-of-centre, something that the electorate have seen them as since. And yes, the SNP seats are previously Tory seats (but then so are Labour seats!).

I'd still suggest that the electorate in Scotland is more to the left than the rest of the UK - whatever you think of the SNP's electorate. Whether that would be different with independence is a difficult - and different - question.

Mine was - why wouldn't Labour prefer to run a social democratic Scotland than allow the Tories to run a conservative Britain? Yousuf has come closest to providing an answer.

On a personal level, wouldn't you prefer a centre-left Scotland than a centre-right UK?

Craig 25 February 2010 at 21:01  

Lots of comments and viewpoints. I wish for independence, but within a context that some may find strange. I simply do not believe that the UK works as an economic and political entity; for all sorts of reasons which I'm happy to air. But here's my visions in summary. An independent and refreshed Scotland, along with an England (and Wales?)that can look at itself in a new light, a realistic light that properly reflects their proper place in this world. Mine is a compassionate view of independence, that as a bonus, will allow England to reinvent itself, restructure it's, frankly, basket case economy and move on in this world to the ultimate benefit of the people who live there. Oh, and the people of Scotland will be doing alright as well. So, a new arrangement based on mutual respect within these islands. Several differing economies and political systems, but all for the best in the end.

Neil 25 February 2010 at 22:36  


A very well argued and well timed post - given that the draft referendum bill was announcement today. This is something I have been thinking about for quite some time as well.

I have to say not one person has answered the question about whether there would be pressure from the grassroots in the Scottish Labour party if the Tories do manage to gain a majority (which doesn't look likely from my reading of things, incidentally).

There are far more members of the Labour party in Scotland who are sympathetic to the idea of the Scottish Parliament having its full complement of powers than their creaking party machine would have us believe. When you scratch the surface I reckon you could say that about the Lib Dems and Tories too, but to a lesser extent.

So if the Tories do win in the next few months, there is going to be pressure of the party in Scotland to back the referendum bill and at least campaign for what would be a YES/NO vote. I.e. yes to DevoMax no to full powers.

I think that, in an independent campaign, could swing the momentum very strongly towards the SNP/Green etc YES/YES vote.

And if the Tories do get a working majority the likelihood Brown will go, leaving a (even greater) leadership vacuum at the head of the UK Party with Balls, Miliband(s) etc scrapping it out. The same situation faced the Tories post-97 which left them weak in opposition and unelectable for a decade.

Labour faces the same if they lose the next election - a decade or longer out of power at Westminster and a massively divisive scrap for power within the party. This will have a knock-on effect on the strength of the Scottish party too.

But for the referendum to see the light of day it will come down to events. The General Election will be the first.

Donald 26 February 2010 at 23:59  

Well-conceived post. This isn’t a hypothetical question of course. After all, the period 1979-97 demonstrated that, for Labour in Scotland, Thatcherism was a price worth paying to keep Scotland in the union, given that, in the 1983 and 1987 general elections in particular, it was clear that Labour was going to be trounced in England.

Faced with a choice between lofty but impotent opposition to right-wing Tories at Westminster or making a significant contribution to the creation of social democracy in an independent Scotland, Scottish Labour’s historical and ideological instincts have always fallen back on lofty but impotent opposition. Nothing has changed in 2010 except, of course, that devolution promised to provide Scottish Labour with a means of overcoming its lofty but impotent opposition in the event of a return of the Tories to government at Westminster. The problem here is that an SNP government at Holyrood wasn’t in the script in 1999. The power of incumbency has provided a wonderful opportunity to the SNP to advance the struggle for Scottish independence and left Scottish Labour without a purpose.

The other issue here is that there is a great deal of a priorism in the debate and understanding of ‘social democracy’. For New Labour, it seems to mean, among other things, a high toleration of inequality under the auspices of ‘meritocracy’, a seemingly unerring faith in marketisation, a tacit commitment to marginal redistribution at the lower end of the income scale, a stuttering commitment to end (absolute) child poverty and a quasi-communitarian faith in ending ‘social exclusion’.

As someone considerably to the left of Yousuf, that’s not what I understand by social democracy (I like Eric Hobsbawm’s argument, in his introduction to Verso’s 150th anniversary edition of ‘The Communist Manifesto’, that social democracy in the twentieth century, particularly its early post-war mainland European variant, isn’t such an aberration from Marx’s discussion of the possible paths of development of socialism).

I have long been convinced, though, that independence offers Scotland the only realistic means of escaping the ‘British disease’ and its chief symptoms: economic short-termism, under-investment, European isolation, military adventurism, constitutional ad hocery and the hegemony of the City of London. Like an increasing number of Scots though, I’m fed up criticising the British, I just want to make Scotland a better place to live.

One final thought. Here’s another question: why did the Scottish Labour Party, which for decades has steadfastly opposed the ‘separatism’ of the SNP, come to the conclusion that its electoral prospects in Scotland would be enhanced by nominally separating itself from the British Labour Party?

DougtheDug 27 February 2010 at 13:44  

Why would the Labour party in Scotland prefer to see Scotland governed by a Conservative government at Westminster - and, in turn, the Tories roll back all any of the good, social democratic policies delivered by Labour in the past 13 years - when they could have an independent Scotland which, in all likelihood, would see social democracy as the norm?

The way that a question is asked can often influence the answer. The Labour party in Scotland is not a separate beast from the British Labour party and it has no regional organisation or regional leader to organise round even if there was rebellion in the air among the members of the British Labour party who reside in Scotland. The British Labour party is a party of the establishment and a party of the union. It's not that they would prefer to see Scotland ruled by the Conservatives rather than Scotland as an independent nation it's that the idea of independence as a valid option to Conservative rule from Westminster is simply surreal. In the best tradition of computers in Science Fiction it, "Does not compute".

In UK terms both Labour and Conservatives accept that they will be out of power at some point but they will inevitably get back in to power in the future. The British Labour party would not want to lose the northern province of Britain just because it has elected very few Conservative MP's under a Conservative government in Westminster. In fact the idea would be regarded as madness within the British Labour party. To suggest independence for Scotland and Wales which are Labour strongholds simply because the Tories don't have many MP's there would be regarded both as electoral suicide and the mindless breakup of their beloved British state.

It was not suggested under Thatcher when both Wales and Scotland were almost entirely Labour and the Labour "Feeble Fifty", of MP's in Scotland never once introduced independence as a threat to gain concessions from Thatcher in Westminster.

The question is asked based on the idea that the Labour party in Scotland thinks independently from the British Labour party and that the members of Labour in Scotland put the interests of Scotland before Labour. Wrong on both counts.

eric 27 February 2010 at 19:38  

Malc, I'm a politician, gimme a break! It's your question, fair enough. And you're right, Yousuf has made a good fist of answering it. To tell you the truth, I don't have a unionist/independence hang-up at all. If I thought Scotland would be more economically successful, more affluent, fairer under independence I'd vote for it. But while I'm not an economist (thank God) I simply don't think the economics or politics of independence stacks up in the 21st century. And I don't think a UK Conservative victory's a done deal yet either, so there.:-)

Malc 28 February 2010 at 08:19  

I wondered how long it would take before a Labour type would use the "and anyway, we're not going to lose" line, Eric! Thanks.

Yours is fair comment. I don't think there are that many of your colleagues who would be as honest on the issue, so I thank you for your candour.

I guess I've never been one to argue the economic case for independence, on the basis that I believe that is a practical element of the debate - and that I think the positive case for independence lies in other, more central themes (self-determination, liberal conception of human nature, subsidiarity). But yes, the economy is important, if for no other reason that it dominates news cycles - and people's payslips.

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