How Labour need to understand Scottish Independence and the problem of the British state

The UK is in a mess, its economy no longer delivers; society is divided and fractured, and government under the Tories no longer provides support for those who need it. Beyond this the direction of British politics, public debate, and the state itself increasingly take the form of a degenerate, callous form of governance which flaunts its lack of care, compassion and concern for most people.

This nightmare version of Britain cannot be reversed by simply ejecting the Tories from office. Rather it requires understanding the dynamics of British capitalism, its media and political elites, the descent of right-wing politics, and the role of the British state in aiding this. The days of seeing the central organs of British governance as the agency that can be used by a Labour Government to push through radical change – via First Past the Post, the Whitehall civil service and government departments – are long gone.

The Tories have increasingly seen government and state as something to bend and manipulate to serve their interests and that of their crony capitalist allies. Yet, despite all this, Labour still clings to the wreckage of believing in an unreformed British state and a Labour Government taking majority political power even when our indefensible electoral system produces a minority administration which must rely on others – most notably the SNP and Lib Dems. 


One part of Labour understands the nature of power in Britain

While Westminster Labour and Keir Starmer cling to the wreckage of the British state and cannot let go of their old majoritarian impulses, elsewhere in the UK, parts of Labour have learnt to adapt and learn to the new environment. And even recognise that the version of the UK promoted by the Tories and Labour at Westminster is part of the problem holding back a radical, cutting-edge project of democratising Britain, challenging the existing capitalist order and calling time on its vested interests.

Welsh Labour First Minister Mark Drakeford has shown that he has a profoundly different take on politics and power in the UK. His recent intervention on Scottish independence is important and blows apart the Keir Starmer-Anas Sarwar line of saying no to Scottish self-determination which has aligned Labour with the ancient regime of absolutism.

In a thoughtful interview with BBC Radio 4’s Evan Davis last Friday Drakeford said that Scotland had a right to an independence referendum and the Scottish Government had a mandate to hold one, completely contradicting Starmer and Sarwar.

He said of the SNP’s victory in 2021: “If you have a government that is elected by its people with such a proposition in its manifesto it should have the right to implement that manifesto. The Scottish National Party much as I disagree with them on the issue won the election on the basis they would seek another referendum. How can that be denied the Scottish people?”

Drakeford is not making the case for independence, but for democracy and the principle of self-determination. He is also standing against the Tory debasement of the UK and union which is seeing the re-emergence of the absolutist Empire State in Westminster aided by Brexit. He described the Johnson Premiership with its desire to plaster huge Union Jacks the length and breadth of the land as “an aggressive message of imperialist unionism.” Can you imagine a Scottish Labour politician talking in such a clear and radical way?


The examples of Welsh and Scottish Labour

Welsh Labour have consistently taken a much bolder line on Scottish self-determination and sovereignty. They have continually spoken out, in common with the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon, against a hard Brexit and the degeneration and dogma of the British state.

Welsh Labour are different from Scottish Labour. They are still the dominant party of their country, have adapted to devolution and been in power for the past 23 years – sometimes on their own, other times with the Lib Dems and even with Plaid Cymru.

Scottish Labour are currently in the wilderness.  They have spent 15 years in opposition and seem unable to adapt to the new political landscape of SNP ascendancy and the salience of independence.

Mark Drakeford is Welsh Labour First Minister so his words have impact and influence. Even more than this, they come with form from a host of senior Welsh Labour figures who have made similar statements about Scotland and the nature of political power in the UK.

Carwyn Jones, the First Minister before Drakeford from 2009-18, made an important intervention after he left the post in January 2020 when he said that the hard Brexit being advanced by Johnson and the Tories was an attack on Scottish and Welsh autonomy.

Moreover, he laid this at the tradition of English parliamentary sovereignty which has no basis north of the border saying that: “Scotland will have imposed on it a form of sovereignty that firstly doesn’t exist in Scotland and secondly cuts across the Treaty of Union of 1707.”

Welsh Labour is proudly, unashamedly Welsh and expresses a vision of self-government that is both political and cultural; centred on an increasingly distinctive, autonomous, confident Wales. It sees the degeneration and absolutism of the British state as a problem and threat and isn’t afraid to say so. And this even includes occasionally challenging Westminster Labour politicians playing their part in propping up this rotten order.

Scottish Labour in the last two decades has grown increasingly apologetic about its Scottish credentials and unsure of standing up and fighting for Scotland’s interests. It is against self-determination, and associates the cause of independence solely with the SNP and those pesky “separatists”, so opposes it without seriously thinking about or understanding it. And if you are waiting for a Scottish Labour politician to criticise Westminster as an institution (as opposed to what Tory Governments do), the British state, or British Labour, you will be waiting a long time.


Championing Labour’s radical traditions and critiquing the British state

Unlike Welsh Labour, Scottish Labour has turned its back on its own rich tradition of self-government. Keir Hardie and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) were for Scottish self-government and against Westminster absolutism and arrogance. James Maxton, Labour and ILP MP – of whom Gordon Brown wrote a biography – spoke in the 1920s of a “Scottish Socialist Commonwealth”, meaning an independent, self-governing country; underpinning the radical socialist and anti-imperialist sentiments of the ILP.

Nobody would believe a Scottish Labour Party now that came out for independence. However, of the party’s different potential positions – standing full-square with Westminster and Tory denial of democracy against Scotland’s right to decide its future and hence self-determination – are a disaster for the party and a complete cul-de-sac for it standing for anything radical.

The party should be standing for the right of Scotland to decide its future; for self-determination as a principle, and challenge the rotten, decaying order of Westminster and the Tory and Labour maintenance of it. This is after all the position of much of the wider labour movement, including the STUC.

This would reflect the changing nature of Labour’s vote. As many pro-union voters have increasingly deserted the party and gone over to the Tories, so Labour’s vote in Scotland has become more pro-independence – with 40% and sometimes more of Labour supporters consistently supporting it.

This is a reality evident since 2014, but one Labour leader after another has tried to ignore it and hope that it would just go away. Instead, they have backed a Tory absolutist version of the union which has nothing in common with the traditions of the labour movement and socialism.

Labour have turned their back not only on their rich and radical Independent Labour Party (ILP) tradition, but the creative period of leadership and cross-party collaboration it embodied in the 1980s in opposition to Thatcherism. In both of these periods the party understood the limitations of the British state and Westminster obsessed politics.

In the 2014 indyref and since the party has fallen into the trap of defending the union unconditionally – seen in the language of Gordon Brown and others. Instead of as Labour used to, making the case for the union as a means to an end of greater social justice which is impossible in present-day Britain, they now stand for the union as an end in itself – which is a disastrous place for Labour and progressive politics to find itself in and the language of unapologetic Tory unionism.

Scottish Labour has had ten leaders over the devolution era – Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray, Johann Lamont, Jim Murphy, Kezia Dugdale, Richard Leonard and now Anas Sarwar. Some made an impact; some hung around; some only lasted a few months such as Jim Murphy and left quickly after experiencing electoral debacle and defeat: the near-wipe-out of 2015 at Westminster from which the party has never recovered.

It is now a long time since a Scottish Labour leader said anything of worth or that had much impact and which the wider electorate actually noted. On a wider level the Scottish party has not embodied or positively championed a single position or cause that anyone has taken any notice of since the party went into opposition in 2007 with the rot going much further back.

As for standing and representing anything original, Wendy Alexander once said the party had not had an original idea since 1906 which was harsh – as the party had a very fruitful, fertile period of radical thinking in the 1920s aided by the ILP – but she was broadly right.

Instead Labour knows what it is against – independence and self-determination, even opposing Scotland’s right to decide and having still not come to terms with the rise and ascendancy of the SNP. There is a yearning for a return to “normal service”, that somehow the SNP will implode and that we can go back to the good old days of Labour v Tories.

All of this is underpinned by a Labour miserabilism about the big questions facing Scotland and our future. This when the answer to Labour’s predicament is in its own traditions, namely, to embrace self-determination and challenge the SNP on their conservative version of it and widen it to a politics which includes economic and social democracy for Scotland.

Draw from the ILP well, drop the “branch line” mentality, become finally an autonomous Scottish party, and stand up like Welsh Labour – and understand that there is no future for progressive politics in this version of Britain.

The old Labour version of Britain – the omnipotent central state, benign government holding forth across all four corners and nations of the UK, and an enlightened, expert civil service – cannot be resuscitated and is gone forever. How long will it take the Westminster Labour leadership to realise that by clinging to the rotten vestiges of the conservative order all they are aiding is the dominance of toxic Toryism and reaction, and hence contributing to the maintenance of the present-day broken Britain?

Gerry Hassan is a leading Scottish thinker and writer. More of his work is here.

2 thoughts on “How Labour need to understand Scottish Independence and the problem of the British state

  1. What an incisive article, getting right to the heart of the issues for English Labour. The only danger is that it could be seen as a clarion call for more nationalism, and we must defend our independence movement from critics who call us bigoted extremists. We must use independence as a platform for greater justice and fairness, especially in those areas close to England where I live.

  2. Such a clear concise article on Labour’s misguided mindset. It speaks of the deep political and constitutional crisis this country is facing. We will have to confront the reality of no longer being an empire, but a small nation isolated on its own, and the societal discord from that.

    It is therefore depressing to see the Parliamentary Labour Party so out of step with the party’s membership and the progressive electorate, which represents a majority of the voters. What is it saying about European re-alignment or proportional voting? Nothing. How about the soaring inflation, NHS that’s on its knees woefully underfunded and undertsaffed (thanks to nationalism) or voting for 16-18 year olds? Instead it thinks of the good old days of a two party system harking back to maintaining the status quo. To a time when it could every so often have its time in government with a good ol’ majority, without unfathomable modern day problems requiring a say from other parties. Celtic nations wanting greater freedom was never something the old Establishment order imagined.

    It is possible that Labour becomes the largest party leading a minority government at the next election, supported by Liberal Democrats just about bumbling along for a parliamentary term achieving little. The question is what then? A party that is unable to represent the voters will ultimately let itself down, in the same way that it has previously let the country down by not radically modernising politics of state. Westminster Labour could look at the Scottish LP for an example of a party left behind without a clue and see itself in five years. It could but probably won’t

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