Scotland’s centre-left politics and the dynamics of the Labour-SNP divide

UK politics and the UK political system are broken. Every week political discourse finds new lows of invective fuelled by a failing Tory Government wanting to weaponise division, racism and Islamophobia.

Yet this culture is not just evident in the Tories. Just over a week ago there was a major stand-off and manoeuvrings between Labour and the SNP in the House of Commons. There were obtuse proceedings, debates about motions and amendments, and controversy over the role of the Speaker – all leaving the SNP feeling disrespected. Underlying all this was the mutual mistrust and jockeying for position between Labour and the SNP.

Deeply felt emotions and political dynamics between the two parties underpin these events. All political parties across the world view opponents warily and antagonistically: this is part of political democracy. But there is something more elemental and off the radar between the two parties – how they see, and act towards, each other.

This rivalry has consequences for all involved in Scottish politics, ultimately having a deleterious effect on both parties, public policy, the values and principles which shape public life, and the future of Scotland – including independence.

Independence supporters often state with certainty that ‘the Scottish Labour Party’ does not exist. Rather it is, in the resignation words of ex-leader Johann Lamont, ‘a branch office’ of British Labour. This has a degree of truth in it, but is also over-statement as Scottish Labour exists as an organisation and brand, just not a fully autonomous one.

Many in Scottish Labour like to dwell on the supposed irrationality and grievance culture of Scottish nationalism trying to problematise and stigmatise it, ignoring that nationalism exists everywhere in the world. British Labour is a British nationalist force: ‘British jobs for British workers’ being invoked by Gordon Brown, while Keir Starmer has repeatedly wrapped himself in the Union Jack. There is in this, an element of deliberate incomprehension of ‘the other’ on both sides which has long-term costs.

The current political landscape and the prospect of a UK Labour Government makes this even more acute; exacerbated by the rising popularity of Labour in Scotland, with the SNP after 17 years in Holyrood being on the back-foot. The SNP won 48 of 59 Scottish Westminster seats in 2019 and will struggle to achieve this against the pumped-up Labour challenge. This new-found competitive politics has come as a shock to the SNP, just as the end of Labour’s dominance in Scotland shocked it – all of which contributes to a febrile, abrasive atmosphere.

A short history of Labour-SNP rivalry

Remembering history is important in all this. In 1888 Keir Hardie stood as an independent Labour candidate in the Mid-Lanarkshire by-election where he finished third. One of his major planks was Scottish home rule, and five years later in 1893 he was one of the founding members of the UK-wide Independent Labour Party (ILP) that had a major commitment to home rule.

In the 1920s James Maxton, Gordon Brown’s political hero, as a Labour MP was not only a passionate supporter of home rule, but spoke at times in support of independence, describing it as ‘building a Socialist Commonwealth.’ These points underline that the cause of Scottish self-government has been at the heart of the wider labour tradition from the beginning and is not owned exclusively by the SNP or anyone.

The modern era of antagonism between Labour and SNP began with the electoral rise of the SNP in the 1960s and Winnie Ewing winning Hamilton in 1967. This resulted in Labour’s Willie Ross describing himself as ‘Hammer of the Nats’ and using the dismissive phrase ‘tartan Tories’ about the SNP.

In this period Scottish Labour was completely committed to the British state, centralisation across the UK and anti-devolution. There is a telling set of observations in Labour’s evidence to the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution in 1970 where the party’s deputation stated emphatically that ‘there is no such thing as a separate political will for Scotland’, no issue of distinct mandates, and no question that Labour would ever challenge a UK Tory Government elected without a Scottish mandate.

At this point some of the fundamental Labour-SNP antagonisms began to harden and fossilise aided by further events in the 1970s, particularly after Labour abandoned its anti-devolution stance in 1974 pressurised by the electoral threat of the SNP.

Jim Sillars was a young Labour MP first elected in a 1970 by-election, who observed how newly elected Winnie Ewing spoke about Labour and Labour MPs. Writing retrospectively in the 1980s as a SNP member pre-Govan he observed that Ewing made the mistake of attacking ‘the labour movement’ rather than the Parliamentary Labour Party, questioning their motivation and commitment in what Sillars took as an assault on those very values, rather than demand they remain true to those values.

Looking back now at those attitudes, Sillars reflects: ‘In 1967 there was very little intimate knowledge of the labour movement in the SNP. I don’t think Winnie knew very much about the labour/socialist movement, how proud we were of its history of struggle and success, and the socialist ideology that underpinned it; and so how offended we were by what we construed were her attacks on people who embodied our values.’

He observes on the present day: ‘There was also, pre-79 group, no left wing in the SNP. It is different today. We have trade unionists who are SNP, including elected ones as MSPs and MPs, and it was the swing from Labour to SNP in the Central Belt that drove the great surge in support in the years since 2007.’

The folklore of Labour and SNP continued throughout the seventies. It culminated in the 1979 devolution referendum and 1979 vote of no confidence in the Callaghan Labour Government when the SNP voted against Labour resulting in a one vote victory: 311 to 310. This brought down the government (with no one ever mentioning the votes of the thirteen Liberal MPs led by David Steel in the same lobby as the SNP).

This day 45 years later is still brought up by Labour figures, as the parliamentary vote led to the May 1979 election and election of Margaret Thatcher. Nick Cohen, formerly of The Observer, dragged it up after the antics in the House of Commons saying that this is just what you expect from ‘tartan Tories’ who in 1979 collaborated with the Tories to bring down a Labour Government.

Present hostilities

Labour’s continued bitterness towards the SNP can be seen in recent events. Labour candidate and former minister Douglas Alexander claimed that ‘I struggle to identify a single area of Scottish public life that has got significantly better in recent years.’ This is to put it mildly a bit sweeping, dismissive and a caricature of events.

This is not to deny that the SNP after seventeen years in office do not have questions to answer and improve on. The SNP’s Panglossian defence of their supposed vast array of achievements over the period does now in significant places ring a little hollow given the lack of funding in large areas of public life.

Equally a regular Labour trope from the likes of Anas Sarwar and others is to talk of Scotland and the UK and ‘their two failing governments’. It is a good phrase from a Labour point of view but implying any sort of equivalence between the Tory and SNP-Green administrations is not how most Scots see things.

Similarly, numerous examples can be found where senior SNP politicians call out the Labour and Tory parties as basically the same. Stephen Flynn, SNP Westminster leader, said last year that UK Labour leader ‘Keir Starmer is little more than David Cameron with a red tie’ which is palpably untrue and not that good a political insult.

Scottish public opinion does not see Labour and Tories as interchangeable. For all the minimal offer from Starmer, and acceptance of much of the Tory agenda, public opinion in Scotland still recognises significant differences. A poll last year showed that Scots by a margin of over 3:1 prefer a Labour Government over a Tory Government. Despite all the retreats of Labour in recent years and since the Corbyn leadership, stating that there is no real difference between Labour and Tories does not sit well with most Scottish voters.

The long-running dispute between Labour and the SNP solidified and became more toxic in the 2014 independence referendum. A major point of fury of independence campaigners was Labour joining forces with the Tories in ‘Better Together’. This was widely seen as a betrayal of Scotland leading to the accusation that Labour were nothing better than ‘red Tories’.

This is now seen as a strategic mistake by many in Labour for which they paid a high price for in the 2015 UK election when their Westminster Scottish representation crashed from 41 to a single seat. Yet this does not mean that Labour can in perpetuity be viewed and defined by this mistake.

All political parties make profound and costly strategic mistakes. Think of the SNP in 1979 voting with the Tories, which reduced their Westminster seats from the high point of eleven in October 1974 to two in May 1979; and Labour in 2014 side-by-side with the Tories. These two moments defined first the SNP, then Scottish Labour for years. Eventually these become part of the tapestry of history as 2014 will at some point.

One missing dimension from much of the analysis on Labour and the SNP is the human factor. There is the over-arching point that it is the same sort of folk and sometimes literally the same people who have over the years joined Labour and SNP. This cross-over extends to the characteristics of voters from the two parties who in recent times have drawn from the same pool: centre-left, working class, West of Scotland, with many Labour voters in 2014, and after, being pro-independence.

The common ground of Labour and SNP conservatism

The bigger picture, leaving aside independence, is the similarities between the two parties. This is often described as ‘the narcissism of small differences’ to quote Freud; as openDemocracy’s Peter Geoghegan puts it (regarding Labour and SNP) that people ‘often hate what’s actually quite similar to themselves.’

Underneath all the rhetoric both parties share common features including in places their obvious conservatism, control politics and top-down nature. Both have invoked at their peak the metaphor of ‘movement politics’. ‘The labour movement’ used to be the central way that Labour thought of itself and is still residually mentioned, with the SNP citing ‘the independence movement.’ But both contain obvious tensions. Labour for years, despite originating in the trade union movement, sought to limit union influence in the party: a stance which was obvious as early as the 1926 General Strike when senior Labour parliamentarians distanced themselves and the party from the strike.

The SNP in 2014 and its aftermath cited continually the importance of ‘the movement’, but they have been wary of it becoming a permanent reality as that might mean having to cede control. The SNP leadership have post-2014 failed to engage in any tangible actions which can be seen as ‘movement building’. This is not synonymous with protest marches, but rather the infrastructure building of a variety of resources and values. Instead, the SNP have invoked ‘movement politics’ while wanting to see the party as a manifestation and expression of that to the exasperation of many. This is the idea of ‘movement’ as a rhetorical device to mask a politics of control.

Both Labour in Scotland and the SNP in their peak years emphasised their radical credentials. Yet a common conceit runs through both in how they have presented their radicalism. In these periods, Labour first, then the SNP, ran Scotland and invoked areas over which they have little control. These have traditionally included defence, foreign affairs, nuclear weapons, and in recent months, the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Labour in its peak years did not have radical policies in areas close to home such as local government, housing or public services. The SNP has ended up in office embracing a similar take as part camouflage for its domestic conservatism. Hence over the numerous areas of which the SNP has control – local government, education and health – the party has been far from radical or bold.

Yet in defence, foreign affairs and nuclear weapons it can safely take a radical stand against the British state and its impact in Scotland. What Labour and now the SNP’s, rhetoric on such issues disguises is that in their periods running Scotland they have both become system parties, insider parties and incorporated into the Scottish political establishment.

The power of Scotland’s right to decide

Beyond this convergence are obvious differences including the principle of self-determination. Scottish Labour continue to refuse to embrace the idea of Scotland’s right to decide its own future. This is controversial in some quarters in the party for the reason that Scotland’s right to decide is both popular and seen as making sense to most voters.

This issue produces tensions within the wider labour movement. Labour voters are overwhelmingly supportive, while the STUC and individual affiliated unions have shown their support for it. This means this topic has traction and future possible movement.

Current political sentiments challenge all parties. The SNP has to understand the Scotland beyond its appeal which it does not represent. The Nationalists like Labour before them have never won a majority of the popular vote. The SNP peaked at 49.97% in 2015; Labour at 49.9% in 1966. This means that just as anti-Labour Scotland was always a majority of the popular vote, the same is true of anti-SNP Scotland.

From this follows that the SNP does not speak for or represent all Scotland and that people who criticise and challenge the SNP are not criticising Scotland: a road regularly travelled by some SNP and independence supporters.

Similarly, independence supporters have to recognise the validity of the views of those unconvinced – or who believe in the union. It is bad politics to not be able to understand the rationale of opponents and opposing views, and in the independence debate this is a major part of the dynamic from the most passionate supporters on both sides.

In essence this is a wilful refusal to recognise the logic of the other side and in so doing to attempt to delegitimise them; on such an important subject this does not work. Instead it helps parts of independence and the union produce caricatured versions of their opponents ergo pro-union views are brainwashed by the BBC, Labour and ‘the Vow’, while some unionists think independence supporters are driven by flags, romanticism and anti-English. The entire debate is poorer due to such sentiments.

A final thought is that the similarities of Labour and the SNP are hardly surprising given their shared roots. The significant cost of the dance of mutual contempt and hostility between the two parties extends across most of the body politic of Scotland.

For a start, Labour and then the SNP have been shaped at best by what could be described as a defensive social democracy which is not that dynamic, progressive or redistributive, and has instead been shaped by a conservative mindset, resisting the encroachment of various Westminster policies.

Equally, the division within Scotland’s social democracy between Labour and the SNP has contributed to the qualities above and preventing the evolution of a shared language and set of values emerging which speak for a constituency which includes the nationalist and labour traditions as well as others such as liberals and greens.

The divisions between the two, fetishisation of difference, and salience of the independence question, has contributed to Scotland’s social democracy becoming calcified and frozen in time to the detriment of both parties, Scottish politics, and the cause of independence.

Across the developed world in the past 40 years social democracy and the left have engaged in deep debates about the nature of the economy and political economy, how to support the diversity of civil society, the role of government, the state and public agency, on the balance between well-being and economic growth, and issues of sustainability and thinking beyond the short-term.

This absence in Scotland is about something more fundamental than the SNP’s oft-cited point about the lack of ‘levers’ in the Scottish Parliament and particularly ‘economic levers’; such a shrunken ambition can be seen in the SNP’s refusal to address the trade-offs and choices involved in a renewed independence project post-2014.

There will always be competition and disagreement between political parties and Labour and the SNP for as long as the two parties exist. But it would be to the benefit of all of us if we could establish some common ground and language by which the two parties and some of their representatives, members and supporters, along with folk from other progressive parties and traditions, could speak, listen and learnt from each other.

Scotland’s divided social democracy and war of attrition between Labour and SNP is a zero-sum game and race to the bottom politically which produces a heavy cost to politics. A country which prides itself on the strength of its social democracy should have at the forefront of every public debate reducing child poverty and tackling our endemic health inequalities, rather than the tinkering and posturing we currently engage in.

There are good things which have come from Scotland’s social democratic tradition, but there is so much more we could do. Twenty-five years into the Scottish Parliament and nearly 60 years after Winnie Ewing won Hamilton is as good a time as any to say we can do politics better than we currently do.

This is not just about identifying the common ground of Scotland’s centre-left but working out the substance of what social democracy stands for; and from this even daring to map out the radical politics post-social democracy which has been hollowed out and bent out of shape in Scotland as it has elsewhere in the Western world.

To begin this process parts of Scotland’s left, in Labour, the SNP, Greens, and elsewhere, have to begin to talk, identify common ground, and challenge the co-dependency of the Labour and SNP leaderships in reinforcing the conservatism which has defined for too long Scotland’s politics.

Gerry Hassan is the author of several books on Scottish and British politics including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and ‘The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party’.

One thought on “Scotland’s centre-left politics and the dynamics of the Labour-SNP divide

  1. You’re right, Gerry, but there is no will to ‘talk’ – which is appalling given our PR system really ought to encourage consensus politics. Instead the parties (SNP/Labour) have dug themselves into trenches. I’m an ex-Labour member and activist who is still bewildered, angry and hurt by the contempt with which TU Labour-supporting colleagues openly (in official meetings) dismiss
    ‘the Cult’ (SNP members) – seemingly oblivious to the fact that as much as half of their colleagues are pro-Indy. The competition for seats/power is too fierce for talking to be something that will happen anytime soon. The antipathy between Brit Nationalism and Scot Nationalism is visceral. The clash is one of worldviews – despite both parties being remarkably similar in approach to the economy, social attitudes etc. Whilst Labour denies Scottish voters their right to choose and whilst it refuses to recognise Scottish Independence as a credible and serious alternative to ‘the UK’ – and to engage with the arguments in any way that transcends caricature and insult – I cannot see there being any ‘talking’.
    And no, I am not ignoring the SNP failures – timidity, lack of vision, a failure to adopt radical solutions. Their Achilles Heel is their Labour-fixation. Simultaneously wanting to occupy the same social and economic territory as Labour – but deeply hating them.
    Yes, it would be a great thing if they were to work together on the many areas they share similar interests and policies. But our political culture mitigates against that. It’s winner takes all.

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