Scotland: Labour’s love lost? Behind the Scottish Labour Party's collapse
Tony Benn discussing politics with Ralph Miliband (right) at the Socialist Society Conference, Chesterfield in 1988. Photograph: John Harris/reportdigital.co.uk.
By Andrew Perchard
April 16, 2015 -- History Workshop, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In the midst of last year’s Scottish independence referendum campaign, a friend and fellow historian of modern Britain, visiting from the north west of England, recounted his Damascene moment in grasping the national conversation in Scotland.
He had been visiting friends several weeks before and was taken to a bar one night in a former mining village in central Scotland. There he had been struck by the overwhelming number of those in the bar, whose politics he typically associated with the Labour Party, who openly declared they would be voting in favour of Scottish independence.
My friend’s account reminded me of the remark made by one of the leaders of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in, socialist Jimmy Reid, when asked about his decision to vote Scottish National Party (SNP) in 2008: "It wasn’t so much that I left Labour. I felt that they left me." Over the past year, much to the elation of pro-independence supporters, seven of Reid’s fellow UCS leaders, along with the former works convenor at the Ravenscraig strip mill, Tommy Brennan, declared themselves in support of independence and the SNP.
This apparent disaffection with Labour from within their core constituency was voiced in Blantyre in Lanarkshire when British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband visited, in one of the party’s attempts to shore up the vote for the [anti-independence] Better Together campaign; "Labour Tories", remarked one resident, while another, campaigning for Yes, remarked:
We’re all ex-Labour supporters – but now they’re just Tories in red ties. Mr Miliband’s come up today to a place he doesn’t even know – he probably couldn’t even put a finger on a map of where it is. He told us two months ago he’d come up to Scotland and spend the last six weeks living here. But they never even told us he was coming to Blantyre today.
This was symbolic. Blantyre is a former mining and textile community, and site of one of Scotland’s most legendary mining disasters in 1877, which took the lives of 207 miners; an event put to song in the famous Blantyre explosion so beloved of labour movement get-togethers.
Ultimately, around one third of self-identified Labour Party members voted in favour of independence in the referendum vote. Labour is said to lack canvassing infrastructure; to be losing candidates to both the SNP and the Greens; to have been damaged by appearing on the same platform as the Tories in the referendum Better Together campaign; and to be generally out of touch with Scottish voters (for instance, remaining Labour activists questioned the wisdom of having Tony Blair support Scottish Labour candidates, considering his pariah status). Many column inches have been dedicated to Scotland’s lost love of Labour in recent weeks, but these explanations are rooted in very recent developments.
As a historian who has worked on the long-term effects of deindustrialisation on Scottish society and national psyche, as well as being politically engaged with the 2014 referendum and upcoming general election, I suggest that there are more profound historical reasons that might also help to explain the decline of Labour in Scotland.
The recriminations voiced by the ex-Labour supporters in Blantyre against the current UK Labour Party leader—that he was out of touch with the socialist principles of the labour movement; with his own rank and file; and with regions of the country far away from the metropolis of London – ironically evoked the comments of Miliband’s own father, Ralph, about the tensions within the British Labour Party.
As Miliband senior put it in Parliamentary Socialism in 1961, the issue lay in "that grand reconciliation between the Labour movement and contemporary capitalism which is the essence of revisionism". The problem, as he divined it, was that the party’s leadership had "always sought to escape from the implication of its class character by pursuing what they deemed to be national policies".
Leo Panitch, in his obituary of Ralph Miliband in 1995, cited Miliband’s observation in 1966 that: "… it is not reasonable or realistic for socialists inside the Labour Party to believe … that they have any serious prospect of shifting the Labour leaders to the left in any substantial or comprehensive sense". Instead Miliband argued of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government: "Even if all previous evidence is left out of account, the Labour Government’s record in office should be sufficient to show that these leaders work within a pattern of policy which is firmly set, and which excludes socialist commitments."
Whatever one thinks of the accuracy of Ralph Miliband’s contemporary analysis, his observations about a crisis of "Labourism" were prescient.
If that sense of divorce between leadership and rank and file was evident, then deindustrialisation was central to it. This was manifest in the Scottish coalfields in 1966, at the time of Ralph Miliband’s article. The anger was captured in a speech that National Union of Miners, Scottish Area (NUMSA), president (and later national vice-president of the NUM) and Communist Party (CP) member Michael McGahey gave the same year in the Ayrshire coalfields:
What we are experiencing is not the normal process of life of closing down exhausted pits, but the deliberate, premeditated murder of an industry at the hands of government and other big interests in this country.
Four years earlier, in 1962, another key Scottish (and National) NUM official, and former CP member, Lawrence Daly declared in the pages of New Left Review that Scotland "had her industrial 'coffin' before England and is now suffocating from the stench of economic obsolescence." Drawing on the language of 1930s unemployed workers' movement, Daly urged: Scotland draw your sword – for you’ve drawn the dole long enough!" The solution, Daly proposed, lay in a Scottish parliament; one which "could not only revitalise Scotland’s economic and cultural life" but also "set the pace for the progressive social transformation of Britain".
The impact of deindustrialisation provides particular insights, as Jim Phillips and I have argued elsewhere, to the shift in political loyalties amongst working class voters in Scotland – particularly in areas formerly linked to the industrial mainstays of coal, engineering, steel, shipbuilding, and textiles – over the past 50 years. It is no coincidence that the highest votes in support of independence recorded in last year’s referendum were for the former industrial heartlands – carrying Dundee, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, with very close results in Inverclyde and North Ayrshire.
Grassroots anger over the loss of jobs and eroding of mining communities, for example, was reflected in shifting patterns of voting in the coalfields. It also contributed to the emergence of a splinter pro-devolution Scottish Labour Party (SLP), and saw NUMSA directly responsible for encouraging the Scottish Trades Union Congress to embrace home rule. Scottish mining constituencies may have continued to vote Labour at UK general elections, but by the 1970s a very different picture was emerging locally.
In 1974 and 1977 district elections, the Labour Party vote fragmented and the SLP (led by Jim Sillars, John Robertson and Alex Neil) and SNP, which had also become more proletarian in membership and outlook under Billy Wolfe’s leadership, benefitted. In the previous devolution referenda of 1979 and 1997 respectively, coalfield areas delivered resounding support for home rule.
Chris Harvie, a pre-eminent historian of post-1945 Scotland, observed in Scotland and Nationalism: "What is true for Motherwell [the steel production capital of Scotland] applies to the other settlements of the Scottish central belt, from the colliery villages of Ayrshire to the textile towns of Strathmore… It is this unknown Scotland, not in the guidebooks, away from the motorway, seen fleetingly from the express that holds the key to the modern politics of the country."
Harvie, like this historian, had a personal investment in the history he was writing: his journey from the Lanarkshire "steelopolis" of Motherwell through his membership of the Labour Party to joining the SNP (ultimately as an MEP for the SNP) linked his personal narrative to Scotland’s national one.
Of course, this "Forward March of Labour Halted" was not confined to Scotland: the working-class crisis of confidence was seen across other parts of the UK, and more broadly Western Europe, Canada and the United States. Harvie’s Scotland & Nationalism was originally published the year before Eric Hobsbawm memorably suggested, in his Marx Memorial Lecture, that Labourism was in terminal decline: "This common 'style', if I may so call it, of British proletarian life, began to emerge just about a century ago, was formed in the 1880s and 1890s, and remained dominant until it began to be eroded in the 1950s."
The breakdown of the unionist social contract was tied to the decline of Scotland’s heavy industrial mainstays, which has led to the demise of Scottish Labour, and working-class Conservative unionism as well. The contraction of these industrial sectors generated a powerful national narrative in which deindustrialisation features prominently, particularly rallied around "sites of memory" like the Ravenscraig strip mill (closed in 1992) and frequently symbolically associated with Thatcherism. It is a narrative reflected in the cultural musings of musicians, novelists and journalists. Michael Gove – the son of Aberdonian Labour Party supporters – observed in an interview with Scottish journalist David Torrance:
All this played to a particular part of the Scots psyche, what I call, but no one else does, the “Letter from America ideology,” where distant figures seek to impose an alien ideology – often a free market one – on Scotland. Whether this was the Hanoverian monarchs, the Highland Clearances, or “Lochaber no more,” there was a pre-existing narrative into which Mrs. Thatcher was unwittingly slotted.
“Letter from America” refers to the popular single by Scots song-writing duo The Proclaimers. The song juxtaposes later industrial closures and outward migration within Scottish history. Similarly, James Robertson’s award-winning book, And the Land Lay Still, itself reflected the part played by the author in the pro-home rule paper Radical Scotland, as well as his understanding of Scottish national narratives from his doctoral study of Sir Walter Scott.
The prominence of Ravenscraig as an influential "site of memory", symbolising industrial decline, was reflected in the fact that both the Conservatives and Labour used the Ravenscraig site in the previous Scottish parliamentary and general elections to launch their campaigns; the former using the business park that now stands there to attempt to link discredited Conservatism with wealth creation in the wake of the closure, the latter to remind the Scottish electorate of Thatcherism. Activists of all shades in the 2014 independence referendum and 2015 general election campaigning have used those iconic images of the demolition of "The Craig", as it was known colloquially.
Gove’s reduction of "Lochaber no more" to unwarranted rhetoric ignores the fact that this narrative emerged from the outpourings and lived experiences of former industrial communities across Scotland. The association of modern Scotland as an "industrial nation" was thus equally met with an irredeemable sense of loss and anger when these heavy industrial mainstays declined.
Seen in such terms, it is not so much that the SNP has appropriated Scottish Labour’s language but that they have better understood the national narrative.
It is not simply about grasping a national narrative, however. Scottish Labour’s decline owes as much to a failure of leadership. This too has long roots. In the face of the contraction of heavy industry in Scotland – and the social upheavals which accompanied this – it was the trade unions, notably the NUM and subsequently the STUC, not Labour, that responded to the outcry of working-class communities and led calls for home rule and opposition to Thatcherite policies in Scotland. Despite a tradition of support for home rule within the Independent Labour Party, as advocated by Robert Cunninghame Graham, James Keir Hardie and James Maxton, Labour in Scotland after 1945 remained resistant to constitutional change.
This resistance to reform was further entrenched in the 1960s and 1970s by the dominance of Scottish Labour by staunch unionist Willie Ross. The distance between Scottish Labour, and working-class constituencies, has subsequently grown over time. The loss of Donald Dewar and John Smith continues to be acutely felt by Scottish Labour. However, their leadership abilities – and the devolution settlement – cannot make up for a lack of imaginative policies which chime with Scottish working-class voters.
Scottish Labour’s recent attempts to regain ground in retracing their steps in recent months have appeared hollow. If Labour is to regain any ground in the future in Scotland, it will need some deep soul searching on the party’s policies. In the meantime, retaining seats in Scotland in its traditional heartlands will be a major struggle. Scottish Labour’s love lost lies deep in the social and cultural legacies of the loss of Scotland’s industrial mainstays, and the party’s inability to respond effectively to that trauma.
[Andrew Perchard is senior research fellow at the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University and an editor of History Workshop Journal and History Workshop Online. Formerly he taught at the University of Strathclyde. He spreads his time between his family home in Glasgow and Coventry, and is a member of Academics for Yes.]