The SNP and the not so strange death of Scottish LabourBy Sean Swan on 28 April 2015
The big story of this general election is that the SNP is currently on 45.9% in the opinion polls in Scotland, and projected to take 55 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, mostly at Labour’s expense. Even Senior Labour figures in Scotland like Douglas Alexander, admit that what is happening in Scotland is a “seismic event”. We are now in the absurd situation where Labour losing half its MPs in Scotland could be claimed as a good result. This appears dramatic when compared with the 6 seats won by the SNP in the 2010 Westminster elections on 19.9% of the vote. However, when compared to the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, in which the SNP gained an additional 32 seats and 45.4% share of the Constituency vote, it seems more inevitable than remarkable. Then as now most SNP gains came at Labour’s expense, for example taking 5 seats from Labour in its Glasgow heartland. There existed, for a time, ‘split’ voters who voted SNP for the Scottish parliament, but Labour for Westminster. The split has now vanished, and these voters have become consistently SNP.
Jamie Maxwell in the New Statesman sees the origins of Labour’s Scottish downfall in the 1990s, when ‘Blair and Brown exchanged Labour's post-war interventionism for a programme of liberalised markets and finance-led growth’, allowing the SNP to move into the now vacant centre-left space ‘as a progressive alternative to Blairism’. Similarly Christopher Silver argues that the decline of Labour arises from its ‘silence on major economic issues’. Labour has instead opted for ‘an ongoing expression of various forms of identity politics’, which is fine but an exclusive focus on identity has led to the tacit acceptance of ‘an enormously unjust economic order’. What Labour will not do is attempt to restructure the economy ‘from one based on a precarious service sector and casino finance into a productive one’.
This could be paraphrased as the ‘liberalisation’, economic and social, of the Labour Party. It might be added that identity politics are rather cheap in the sense that granting legal rights comes at little cost and tends not to touch on economics and the distribution of wealth within society. The current Conservative led government introduced equal marriage, but simultaneously its economic and social policies led to ever increasing socioeconomic inequality. The main British parties now all operate in an idea world the narrow boundaries of which nowhere exceed liberalism. There is nothing wrong – and much that is right – with an identities based equality agenda; what is problematic is its use to give a progressive veneer to parties whose economic policies are creating a deeply unequal society. It is little consolation to the poor to tell them they have the right to be recognised as a horse, should they so wish, but will get no oats.
There is a wider British story which can, perhaps, be summed up in one picture from the BBC leaders’ debate: the hug between SNP leader Nicola Stugeon, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and Green leader Natalie Bennett – as Miliband looks forlornly on. It is no coincidence that the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens are to the left of Labour and the new force in British politics. Thatcher, helped by the ‘Chicago Boys’, deregulated the City and made the British economy subservient to and dependent upon, unregulated financial capital based in the City of London. An ‘heroic’ surrendering to the ‘inevitabilities’ of neoliberal globalisation and subservience to Washington became the new orthodoxy. Peter Mandelson, in a speech given in California, announced that ‘New’ Labour was ‘intensely relaxed’ about it all. Now it has failed; politically, militarily and economically, from Iraq to Northern Rock. The economic devastation caused by the ‘greed is good’ Gordon Geckos is being paid for by austerity inflicted on the economically weakest sections of society, who exist in a Britain of zero hour contracts, Wonga loans and social security cuts. And millions more fear the same fate. Meanwhile inequality and City bonuses soar.
We no longer have a One Nation Conservative party or a genuine Labour Party, and Disraeli’s ‘two nations’ are back. In Scotland this division has taken the only political form left to it: separatism. Perhaps Miliband’s Labour is different, but if there has been a reformation in Labour, it has yet to be tested and has clearly come too late for Scotland.
No examination of this subject is complete without Tom Nairn. Writing in the preface to the 25th anniversary edition of The Break-up of Britain, Nairn suggests that his original analysis may have been ‘over economic’, observing that ‘outside of economic textbooks, people have never wanted to live merely to reproduce themselves in less awful circumstances. Once change is imaginable, they want to mean something, or to ‘stand for something’’. This brings attention back to more emotional factors of identity. On this subject, Nairn, writing on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, is emphatic that it is the subservient ‘special relationship’ with the US and resultant British ‘self-colonisation’, which will deal the final blow to the unity of the UK. Ultimately, being a satellite of a satellite holds little attraction for Scotland.
Paul Cairney argues that SNP and Labour policies are very similar but perhaps misses the point that there are significant areas of difference, and, importantly, the SNP possibly have more credibility. One reason for this is the fact that Labour in Scotland is led by Jim Murphy. Murphy is very much London’s man, having been a minister in both the Blair and Brown governments. He is a Blairite – or at least was ‘until late last year’. Murphy also supported the invasion of Iraq ‘and wants Trident – the bête noire of progressive Scotland – renewed in full, whatever the cost’. Johann Lamont, his predecessor as leader of Scottish Labour, resigned in October because the Labour leadership in London “do not understand” Scottish politics. She may have had a point. Murphy is predicted to lose his own seat – to the SNP.
The SNP are not a radical socialist party. Their policies are fundamentally adaptive to globalisation. They would like to lower the corporate tax rate in order to attract more multinational companies to Scotland to stimulate economic growth. In many ways SNP policies are similar to Fianna Fail’s in Ireland in the 1990s, policies which created the Celtic Tiger (that beast is now limping, but Ireland is still considerably wealthier today than in pre-Tiger days). But, and it is a big ‘but’, the SNP, unlike the atomistic neoliberals, have a sense of society and the commonweal. Their instincts are social democratic. This is a form of politics that a City dominated UK, apparently irredeemably wedded to variants of neoliberalism, seems unable to deliver. The choice is not so much an identity one of ‘Scotland or the UK’, but a political one of ‘social democracy or neoliberalism’, unfortunately the only way many in Scotland see political change being possible is in escape from the UK – so the ‘identity’ and ‘political’ choices merge. Almost all of this applies equally to the north of England, the divide is not really between England and Scotland, but between the City dominated south east and the rest. The main difference is simply that the north lacks both the separate national identity and coherent borders which make separatism a viable path of political reform for Scotland.
Sean Swan is a Lecturer in Political Science at Gonzaga University, Washington State.