This is an essay the Scotsman commissioned me to do on the crazy-maybe-not-so crazy idea of a “Labour for Independence” campaign at the coming Independence Referendum in 2014. A bit of miscommunication meant that I originally wrote a much longer piece than has eventually appeared - the unedited version runs below, the edited version is here.
I also received some excellent pre-publication responses from political commentator Gerry Hassan, and a new voice to Thoughtland - Cailean Gallagher, the young editor of the Oxford Left Review, who is (as far as I know) the only “out” Labour party member supporting independence. These are printed below the main piece. And of course, all comments (from all comrades!) welcome.
Labour For Independence Isn’t Such a Mad Idea
Pat Kane, The Scotsman, Feb 9, 2012
Unedited version below (1763 words). Edited and published version (950 words) here.
THE SCENE is the aftershow of a riotously joyful Celtic Connections gig. I have just met one of my oldest friends in the Scottish music scene - a great facilitator of the business of rock in this country for over thirty years. A smart, sophisticated man (he once included a book of Seamus Heaney poems in my dressing-room rider) we naturally fall to talking about politics.
I’m surprised to find out that he describes himself as “virulently Labour”. How virulently? “I have to confess a terrible thing”, he says. While half-smeeked at a recent cultural opening, he tottered over to a notoriously sweet-natured Scottish Government minister and asked her, “you still a member of the Scottish Nazi Party?”
It’s so ludicrous I have to laugh out loud. “But you see, I’m of that generation”, he explains. “Hate narrow nationalism. Closer to a worker in Liverpool than a laird in Ullapool. You cut me, I bleed Labour”. You’re a bit in trouble then in the old homeland, aren’t you? “You could say that”, he murmured, gripping his German beer.
For those of us who would describe ourselves as “Scottish Left”, and who see independence as the most immediate lever to realise our values and visions, it’s chastening to come out of our echo chambers and hear just how subcutaneous some political identities are. I sent my friend scurrying off with the challenge, “Come on now! You should be starting Labour for Independence!” Out of the mouths of party-animals...
Yet even as a piece of social-science fiction, it’s an interesting concept. Under what conditions - say, the next 24 months leading up to the most important political event in 300 years for Scotland - could a “Labour for Independence” exist?
One basic argument for the existence of Labour for Independence is the need for strategic thinking about the party’s survival, if a majority for independence is achieved. If the current Scottish Labour leadership’s claim is sincerely held - that is, willing to serve Scotland, no matter the constitutional arrangement - then it seems somewhat reckless for the Scottish Labour movement not to develop some sense of their platform in a future independent country.
Many on the Scottish Left have given the SNP our crucial votes, regarding them as the main instrument towards achieving full sovereignty (though with the Greens, and in past years the ultra-left parties, as other options).
But post the Great Day, would we necessarily wish to find ourselves with a “National Party of Scotland”, to quote Salmond’s words immediately after the May 2011 victory: a party fully vindicated in its mission, and awaiting a electoral mandate which might even extend (according to some recent polls) their current command of the Scottish polity?
I don’t question the talents, commitment and values of the SNP Cabinet, MSPs and wider membership. But one-party dominance would not be healthy for a newly independent country, which would need all available minds and talents on hand to steer us through the rapids of realpolitik, geopolitics and globalisation.
Would Scottish Labour - or at least some significant chunk of it - really want to be on the sidelines at this vital moment? Despite the fury this would cause in the current leadership, would it not be prudent for some groupuscules in the People’s Party to start brewing up some wisdom, strategy and research around their post-independence existence?
Of course, in an earlier, less acute stage of the “process-not-event” of Scottish self-determination, we have seen innovation of this kind from the Labour Party in Scotland. Jim Sillars famously broke off from being a hammer of the Nats to found the Scottish Labour Party, and thence to the SNP itself (his old compadre in the SLP, Alex Neil, is now a well-behaved Enterprise Minister for the Scottish Government).
From the 80’s, the ginger-group Scottish Labour Action once contained both Wendy Alexander and Jack McConnell in its ranks. SLA produced confident pamphlets about Labour’s “home rule” traditions which envisaged much more “fiscal autonomy” than anything proposed by the Party at present. And of course, not forgetting the mavericks of old, like John McAllion, Dennis Canavan and (perhaps) Malcolm Chisholm, dormant volcanoes of “independent-mindedness” in the Scottish Labour party.
In this current vertiginous stage of the “process”, is Scottish Labour capable of the same kind of innovation? Certainly, if the Labour leadership line holds against constructing an answer to the SNP’s “Devo Max” proposition, Labour for Independence might become a necessity for some.
UK Labour let the musculature of federalism go to waste in its 14-year Westminster dominance. They spurned the chance to cement a “progressive majority”, through a steady argument for PR with Lib-Dems as allies. This allowed the Orange Book Liberals to come through and get their sweaty palms on the reins of power. Salmond’s calculation may well be based on this historical failure. With Devo-Max, he’s offering the federal key to a pallid political constituency that can barely raise a trembling finger to respond.
Incidentally, constitutional literacy, and pluralist thinking, is not dead in the UK Labour Party. Compass - shaped by political guru Neal Lawson, who has invited me to speak at its London conferences many times - is the residue of an intelligent centre-left that reaches out to Greens, Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and the wetter Lib-Dems, in an organisation which is now open to non-Labour-Party members. But their presence in Scotland is barely established.
Thus we will witness the gory spectacle of Scottish Labour epigones sharing, or half-sharing, or phoning in that they’re sharing platforms with Westminster Coalition politicians. They will defend a “Union” which retains domestic and offensive nukes, which accepts spending cuts over capital investment and Keynesian stimulation, which is currently privatising and stratifying its health and education services in England... We can imagine the SNP’s gleeful framing of all this, and its brightly positive responses.
Does every member, and every MSP, in Scottish Labour really want to be lining up alongside the serried horrors of Westminster, associating themselves with an acid rain of negativity, fear-stories and condescension? Or might at least some of them want to argue a Labour case for independence which allows them to speak as the social-democrats, or democratic-socialists, they are in their hearts?
I’m on the steering group of the Jimmy Reid Foundation precisely because, like its founder, it creates a space on the left in Scotland for economic equity and social justice that includes - or at least doesn’t exclude - the context of independence. Its first report on government procurement, written by SNP stalwarts and economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, is a perfect example of how an SNP government can find a “critical friend” in a Scottish Left, now fully alive to the possibilities of maximal self-determination.
How do we assert a national economic interest over £9billion pounds worth of Scottish government expenditure? What’s the proper argument between “value for money” for the Scottish taxpayer (often returned via successful overseas bidders for Scottish contracts), and supporting indigenous enterprises - and what does that imply for the strategic usage of the economic powers of statehood?
The question of the demilitarisation of Scottish society - from nuclear missiles to Hamish Henderson’s “braggarts crousely crawing” - is something that has animated a Scottish Left for decades. Yet the highest of moral high-grounds in the national conversation is currently held by the SNP, in terms of its implacable opposition to Trident and its thoroughly non-adventurous conception of our “defence” forces.
Is every Labour supporter blithely happy to attack independence as a threat to our military-industrial (or even just military-employment) complex? In terms of the sheer difficulty and expense of relocating Trident from Coulport (as recently indicated by the Ministry of Defence), could not a hypothetical “Indy-Labour” support a “Yes” vote - as an instrument towards the removal of these weapons of mass destruction from these islands as a whole? And is there no appetite or ability to plan for “swords-into-ploughshares” left in the labour movement?
When framed in an independence context, a few of Scottish Labour’s current policy positions begin to make at least some kind of sense. Their opposition to SNP plans to lower the rate of corporation tax rings hollow, if we think of Scottish Labour as part of the same party which rampantly deregulated finance in the City of London under Gordon Brown.
But placed in an independence context, it starts a real debate about national economic strategy, one brought to a focus regularly over the years by the political scientist Micheal Keating. In his words from 2007, “An independent Scotland could thus be not only viable but successful, but only with structural change accompanying independence. One form would be the deregulated, low tax model, open to international business. Another would be a concerted and networks economy, with a stronger emphasis on public services and high-value activities. Little of this, however, features in the political debate.”
Or to be precise, the SNP - in their public discourse at least - try to transcend both forms: low-tax and pro-enterprise on one side, the “social wage” and the “commonweal” on the other. Can it really be done? We haven’t even touched the Greens’ critique of petro-fuelled growth in Scotland, solidly within the context of independence - that’s for another time. A proper left-green critique of the SNP’s macro-economics is required. But it won’t be remotely credible coming from a Scottish party so associated with the bubble-wrapped neo-liberalism of the New Labour years.
However, a small sliver of that party - audibly imagining itself operating under independence, and bringing its positive, constructive visions of political economy to that society - might have a chance of being heard. They might also be the penicillin that keeps the Labour Party from expiring entirely in a post-independence Scotland.
Back at the rock’n’roll gig... I left my “cut-me-I-bleed-Labour” friend with a hug across his shoulders. We’ve worked together in this country for nearly a quarter of a century, and we’re certainly not going to let the difference between left-nationalist and democratic-socialist sully that in the slightest.
“But promise me”, he pleaded at the last, “the SNP will disband as soon as they get independence, won’t they?” I doubt that very much, I answered. But for the health of the country, I hope that some in Scottish Labour are thinking about how they’ll cope, and maybe even thrive, in the early days of a fully sovereign nation.
Response from Cailean Gallagher:
Last week in parliament Patricia Ferguson made a jibe to the SNP benches, about the number of members of the SNP who would be in Scottish Labour if it were in favour of independence. This indicates something gone wrong at the top of Scottish Labour – it views its commitment to the union as fundamental to its values. I view it as incidental.
Of my generation of young Scottish Labour members, many have tribal affinity, and an element of this is staunch dedication to the Union. Others, among them socialists increasingly unconvinced by Scottish Labour’s ability, hang on in hope of great change. Some believe that the radical economic and political change of independence could lead to socialism.
I am one of them, and I remain a member of the party because I see nothing incompatible in being so. I understand Scottish Labour to be a party of democratic reform in social and economic relations for the good of all, and especially for those who sell their labour in society, and redressing the effects on individuals and groups who do not do so well from capitalism.
The question of independence is incidental to this. Scottish Labour is a vehicle for a form of democratic reform of society, which begins to redress the poor quality of life of many who work and live in Scotland. There is nothing in these Labour values, traced back to Keir Hardie, which insist upon a British political unit.
I look forward to when members of Scottish Labour begin to ask ‘why not independence’, and to consider it in terms of the party’s values. Some believe fervently that it is and must be a British struggle. Fair enough, but they have no claim to speak for all of Scottish Labour. I hope that when the time comes, some people in Scottish Labour will lose the default negativity to independence. I reckon a good number will find themselves drawn to independence. It is certainly conceivable that a campaign group will emerge within the party.
What it requires is a wee bit of courage on the part of those Labour members who are inclined at least to consider independence. A campaign group may then emerge, and when that time comes, it will do little harm to Scottish Labour, and much good to the aims for which the party stands.
I think one point worth making draws what you said about the 'subcutaneous' nature of the tribal divide. It relates to my generation. Many of us active in the young left movement (in Glasgow) are pro-independent. Many are ex-SSP. Others were in Labour, but have left. I'm still a member (just), as are some others. We work hard together outwith Labour or SNP, despite our differences on independence; but it is immensely frustrating to know that as soon as you become active in one or the other the independence question becomes the salient one, and the tribalism you describe becomes suffocating.
Tribalism along party lines develops at the start of a person's political involvement, especially for those who are involved at an early age. The depth of the tribal roots is awful to watch at a parliamentary level, but even more depressing to watch as it is cultivated amongst peers in the Labour party. The uncritical opposition to independence, the view of the SNP as a plague of gnats, is worrying and pervasive. It needs to be criticised and challenged, but it looks unlikely to be broken within the hierarchies of the Scottish Labour tradition. One way to challenge it would be to open up a space in Scottish Labour for pro-independent thought and activity. Perhaps it is only really a united left (probably working from outwith either party, but finding expression in a pro-indy Labour group) that can achieve it.
A ‘Labour for Independence’ group would start a debate within the party as to its own aims, and would raise questions within the Party about why anti-independence seems to trump all other issues. It would resolve the unnecessary conflict for those who are committed to the Left-wing aims of the party, but who see independence as the best means to this end.
And the result of starting such a debate is not simply to loosen up the Labour party's tribal attachments. If Scottish Labour breaks its hardline anti-independence, then this is a serious change for the whole political spectrum - it opens up involvement to many who would be in Labour, were it not for their stance on independence. And it also means in turn that the next generation would not be so divided along these pro- or anti-independence lines as per tradition. This can only be a good thing.
Scottish Labour could, probably should, root itself in all the ground of the Scottish Left, including those parts that are pro-independent. As Ferguson said, elements of the pro-independence movement would naturally be part of a Labour movement, if only it were not for Labour’s unequivocal anti-independence. Of these, many could be classed under 'the Scottish Left'. It would then have the chance to be the mainstream party of the Left in Scotland – a prospect that should inspire left-wingers whatever their constitutional stance.
Response from Gerry Hassan:
a) I think you need to address that even the most radical parts of Labour were never comfortable with independence; and their radical agenda, like the Convention, was often about process, not policy and values.
b) What is missing most from your piece is an understanding of Labour as a party, its culture, motivations, what still holds together whats left. That’s a strange world to describe after the one party state has collapsed ....
c) Part of this world is Labour seeing itself as part of a British story; of being British nationalists without ever using that big word; and because of that Labour sees itself as having a British and Scottish set of identities which go to its core. What is interesting here is two fold:
- The British Labour story is in tatters - this means post-New Lab, but it’s also a longer story,
ii) the pre-Devo Labour balancing-act of British and Scottish interests are no longer so easily possible in devolutionary times, in part because the SNP have so occupied the Scottish terrain.
d) Post-socialism, what does Scottish Labour stand for but being anti-independence and anti-SNP? What could a positive Scot Lab story and politics look like?
e) Why not engage on a bit of fantasy at the end? What would happen if Lab came out for independence? Think of the leap and liberation for all Scotland - we could then get on to a constructive and serious discussion about Scotland's future.