(c) The Times
When I lived in London in the early 1990s, I used to drink occasionally with a Scotsman who worked for the Labour Party. In fact, he was an advisor to its then-leader, the late John Smith. Our relationship was testy and at times gave way to complete fireworks, because my own political sympathies lay with the Scottish National Party. I recall one time remarking to him that I didn’t understand why the Scottish wing of the Labour Party and the SNP couldn’t cooperate more. After all, many of their policies were similar. And didn’t they have a common enemy – the Conservative Party, who were in power at the time?
My Labour Party associate gave me a pitying look and spoke very slowly, as if I was retarded and might not understand his words. “Look,” he said, “The SNP hate us and we hate them.” And that, as far as he was concerned, was that.
During the 20 years since, that’s been my main impression of the Labour Party’s raison d’être in Scotland: hating the SNP. Never mind trying to do anything constructive or innovative. So long as they’re in a position where they can screech and scream all day long about what an evil bastard Alex Salmond is, they’re happy. (I’ve just checked out my old Labour associate’s Twitter feed and, sure enough, he’s ranting on it about Salmond: “What nice hotel at taxpayers (sic) expense is Mr Salmond going to be put up in tonite (sic) for.”)
This hatred seems to spring from the other defining characteristic of Scottish Labour: a mighty sense of entitlement. They see themselves as top dogs in Scotland. Scotland’s their territory. Until 2005, Labour returned about 50 out of 72 Scottish MPs to Westminster. After that total of 72 MPs was reduced to 59, Labour kept the lion’s share of it – they’ve got 41 in the current parliament. Traditionally, Scottish politicians played a disproportionately large role in the UK-wide party – John Smith, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, John Reid, George Robertson, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy. Even that political chameleon Anthony Charles Lynton Blair could claim to be Scottish and make his scaly skin turn tartan (admittedly not very convincingly) by talking about his childhood, which included periods spent in Edinburgh and Stepps, near Glasgow; and about his schooldays at Edinburgh’s prestigious Fettes Academy.
And many a Labour loyalist, having served time at Westminster, has ended up in cosy, comfortable and ermine-clad retirement in the House of Lords. See the likes of John Reid, George Robertson, Michael Martin and Helen Liddell, lords and ladies to a man and woman.
Yes, I know. In 1999, during Blair’s premiership, Labour did set up the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. But I’m sure it was seen as a means of keeping additional numbers of loyal Scottish Labour Party hacks in lucrative employment and it was designed not to rock the boat in any way for London. The Scottish parliament was organised so that no party (i.e. the SNP) could ever win an outright majority in it and its ruling executive would always have to be a coalition. And the biggest party in any coalition, Blair and co assumed, would always be the Scottish Labour Party.
It was a shock for Labour when in 2007 the SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament, eschewed coalitions and ran Scotland for the next four years as a minority administration. And it was an even bigger shock for them when in 2011 the SNP achieved the impossible and managed to win an overall majority of seats in the parliament. Hadn’t Labour’s finest minds arranged things so that this would never happen? This left the SNP free to do whatever they liked, which included holding last month’s referendum on Scottish independence.
Yes, it must be tough for long-time politicians and apparatchiks in the Scottish Labour Party to see Scotland – their stomping ground, their fiefdom, their station of departure for the gravy train that runs all the way to the House of Lords – turn on them, reject them, betray them and climb into bed instead with those evil, conniving bastards in the SNP. There’s nothing worse than having a sense of entitlement and then not getting what you believe you’re entitled to.
At this point, I should say that there’ve been Labour politicians, north and south of the border, whom I’ve respected. For example, I had a lot of time for John Smith. His unexpected death in 1994, which opened the way for Tony Blair, left us with one of the great what-ifs of British politics – what if Smith had lived to become prime minister instead of Blair? And over the years I’ve also admired Tony Benn, Robin Cook, Dennis Skinner, Tam Dalyell, Dennis Canavan, John McAllion, Ron Brown and even – long ago, before he became a purveyor of putrid piffle – George Galloway. The problem is, all those guys proved to be too independently-minded and off-message to fit comfortably with a London-based Labour leadership that’s increasingly expected obedience and conformity from its politicians. One way or another, all of them became isolated. At best, they were politely ignored. At worst, they were treated as pariahs.
With the Scottish Labour Party on the winning side and the SNP on the losing side in last month’s independence referendum, Labour should currently be in rude health. But instead, the weeks since the result have seen the party stricken with divisions, tensions, insecurity and pessimism.
During the referendum campaign, it surely stuck in many Labour supporters’ craws to see their leaders singing from the same hymn-sheet as David Cameron and George Osborne, the hated Bullingdon-Club millionaires of the Tory Party. And the fact that the areas of Scotland that did vote for independence in the referendum – Dundee, Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire – were supposed to be Labour strongholds can’t have helped party morale either.
Although UK Labour-leader Ed Miliband put his name to a pledge that Scotland would receive more devolved powers in the event of a ‘no’ vote, it’s become clear that Labour is the party least enthusiastic about bestowing new powers – less enthusiastic even than the Tories. Meanwhile, post-referendum, membership of pro-‘yes’ parties like the SNP and the Scottish Greens has rocketed and, if the opinion polls are to believed, the SNP could take more than a few seats off Labour at the next Westminster election.
Clearly, if Labour is to survive in Scotland, it needs to be a truly Scottish party. It can’t any longer be tied to and subservient to the Labour Party in London. It has to be able to devise its own centre-left policies that appeal to a Scottish electorate. But with Ed Miliband – a leader who genuinely seems not to ‘get’ Scotland – at the London controls, backed by a rabble of Neanderthal old-school Scottish Labour MPs in Westminster who have no wish to cede power to the party north of the border for fear of losing their own status, perks and privileges, that isn’t going to happen.
I’ve just read that Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour Party for the past three years, has announced her resignation. According to the BBC news website, she claimed that “the Labour Party must recognise that the Labour Party has to be autonomous and not just a branch office of a party based in London… We must be allowed to make our own decisions and control our own resources.”
These comments might possibly be the first brave and wise things Ms Lamont has said in what’s been a pretty inept and unimpressive political career. But it’s worth reminding her that only a month ago, on September 18th, she had a golden opportunity to make the Scottish Labour Party autonomous, and responsible for its own decisions and resources, and not the branch office of a party based in London. By urging people to vote ‘yes’ in the independence referendum.