Only days after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he “wasn’t ruling out” consenting to a second Scottish independence referendum, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard seemed to signal this weekend it’s completely off the table if the party gets into power. But Rory Scothorne, writer and activist with Labour Campaign for Socialism, says Scottish Labour is ultimately still traumatised by the independence referendum and won’t be able to get over it until it develops a plan to transform the structures of the British state…
Perhaps one should never take Scottish Labour’s latest position on ‘another independence referendum’ too seriously. Their leader, Richard Leonard, has nevertheless been quite clear: if Jeremy Corbyn is ever invited by Elizabeth Windsor to govern the country on her behalf, he’ll not allow the Scottish Parliament to hold a legally binding referendum on Scottish independence. By next conference, this position will have been sufficiently forgotten or laden down with enough fudges and qualifications to be reinflated and sent floating off again to join Scottish Labour’s other forgotten contributions to socialist thought, things like abolishing free university tuition and building lots of nice battleships. The exercise will be met with the same growls of discontent from Scottish Labour’s small democratic contingent, and outraged moon-howls from Scottish nationalist modem-botherers, that occur every time Scottish Labour embarks upon its latest electoral hunger strike against the past fifty years of Scottish history.
It’s important to understand this isn’t an instance of Scottish Labour being a so-called ‘branch office’ of the Labour Party as some SNP supporters like to insist: this latest bout of IndyRef fundamentalism comes from within the Scottish party, who still haven’t got over losing to the SNP in 2007, never mind the deeper traumas of IndyRef itself and the subsequent electoral collapse in 2015. Jeremy Corbyn is taking plenty of flak for it anyway, partly because the SNP are still slightly concerned about his appeal. But his choice is a grim one: he could, on the one hand, let Scotland hold a legally-binding referendum if the Scottish Parliament votes for one. This would be in keeping with Labour’s most principled and electorally successful position on the right to self-determination, encapsulated in the 1989 Claim of Right by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, in which Labour played a leading role:
”We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.”
But Corbyn hasn’t done this. On the contrary, this latest announcement appears to consign the Claim of Right to a slightly awkward footnote in the party’s history, invalidated by the failure of devolution to keep Scottish nationalism in check. Should Labour win the next UK general election, it will consider this a ‘mandate’ to refuse a second independence referendum. But unless they rapidly reverse their fortunes in Scotland, this ‘mandate’ will come overwhelmingly from the English electorate. Does this signal a ‘contempt’ for Scotland, as some have suggested? Again, no: it signals instead the contradictions faced by Labourism – a traditionally centralising, British-nationalist ideology – in Scotland, where questions of home rule and national identity have been refracted through a highly territorialised internal party politics as well as electoral calculation.
Corbyn’s inconsistencies on Scottish self-determination – first, an apparent ‘refusal’ to rule out allowing another independence referendum, followed by Leonard’s announcement – reflect a deep tension between, on the one hand, a desire to keep his options open, and on the other a need to respect the right of Scottish Labour to set Scottish policy. There are two conflicting cases of ‘national’ self-determination here: one regarding Scotland’s relationship to the British state, and one regarding the relationship between the ‘British’ and Scottish wings of the Labour Party, shaped by decades of perceived marginalisation by the British leadership and ‘branch office’ taunts from the SNP.
The most important question, then, is: why is Scottish Labour so desperate to avoid another referendum it will abandon its own justification for the Scottish Parliament itself? Is it because Richard Leonard is a hard-line unionist (not the good kind)? I doubt it. Indeed, being Leader of the Scottish Labour Party is almost enough to make a battle-scarred shop steward sympathise with management. The party never benefited from the same left wing membership surge as down south, and is even more fractious and confused than the British party as a result. Members and parliamentarians alike are still struggling to adapt to the democratisation of Scottish politics since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999. A lot of the MSPs, and one MP in particular, are still concerned with avoiding losing unionist voters to the Tories rather than win left wing voters from the SNP. This is often because of the makeup of their own local electoral coalitions, but it’s combined with an inability to come up with new ideas. This defeatist electoral arithmetic is justified and romanticised via the myth of ‘Real Politics’, part of an imagined binary between constitutional ‘distractions’ and ‘bread and butter’ issues, ‘delivering’ in the areas of health, housing, education and so on: the ameliorative sewer socialism on which Labour’s pre-devolution Scottish hegemony was built.
This tension isn’t new. In the 1970s, the UK leadership had to force a very reluctant Scottish party into even vaguely supporting devolution. This reluctance underpinned such deep divisions during the 1979 referendum that the ‘Yes’ vote, despite being a majority of the vote, failed to bypass an artificial 40% turnout threshold added in by a London-based (but Scottish-born) Labour MP. In the aftermath of that failure, pro-devolution Labour members and their fellow travellers (particularly in the Communist Party and an increasingly diverse wider Scottish left) spent much of the 1980s slowly and painfully winning round Scottish and British Labour MPs to the position stated in the Claim of Right.
Many of those activists came from a particular generation of socialists influenced by the new left and international opposition to Stalinism after 1956 and 1968, and by frustration with the reduction of politics to economics: this inspired a new emphasis on democracy, drawing together issues of civic participation, women’s and LGBTQ+ liberation, proportional representation and national self-determination into a broad and at least rhetorically ‘radical’ wing of the more moderate campaign for a Scottish Parliament.
But Thatcherism, and the wrong kinds of success, strangled much of the radicalism out of Scottish Labour’s new left. As one generation got tired, and the new generation of devo-crats – Donald Dewar’s debate club chums, time-serving council leaders, professional public sector board-sitters, lawyers and so on – took over, that tradition got twisted into a Scottish form of Blairism, or the only apparent alternative: the very same social democratic economism which the new left had once tried to escape. The party’s extra-parliamentary links were also transformed by the arrival of New Labour and its success in the Scottish Parliament.
Any left-wing political tradition only maintains its dynamism through engagement with living social movements. But after the campaigns against the various manifestations of Thatcherism and for devolution, what social movements were there to keep Scottish Labour sharp? Stop The War wasn’t an option for grimly obvious reasons. Before Corbyn, there was a near-impassable chasm between the Labour leadership (below) and anti-austerity movements too.
In fact, there’s only been one major extra-parliamentary campaign – albeit barely a social movement – that the whole Scottish Labour Party has really thrown its weight behind since devolution, and which has profoundly shaped its character: Better Together. Far from an inconvenient ‘distraction’, the campaign against independence gave a jaded party some kind of non-electoral purpose again. They duly summoned up all the remaining resources of the Scottish Labour imagination and said something along the lines of ‘sorry, it can’t get much better than this’. The party was subsequently obliterated.
Think about what that experience does to someone who got into politics to make a difference. Not only have you spent years grimly telling people not to get their hopes up; they’ve rewarded you for your wise advice by booting you out. The result is a generation of party members and MSPs who basically can’t tell a satisfying story about their own place within the past 20 years of devolved politics. There’s no resolution beyond various shades of betrayal: either the voters betrayed us, or we betrayed them.
The only way around those questions is through outright superstition, the old socialist curse of ‘false consciousness’. It was the SNP that betrayed everyone by tapping into those dark forces which lurk within the masses and must be repressed at all costs (unless it suits Labour). Before the independence referendum, everything was fine – Labour still looked set to win the lion’s share of Scotland’s Westminster seats, after all. It was only with the referendum, so the story goes, the darkness began to bubble up, possessing the helpless masses and dragging them down into the SNP’s underworld, beyond Labour’s earthly, wholesome reach. Scottish Labour’s referendum terror appears at first to be the product of a profound lack of faith in the people themselves, in their ability to make the correct democratic choice; but this would be a somewhat strange inversion of Scottish nationalism’s own false-consciousness myth, which states the people were similarly duped into voting against independence. After all, didn’t Labour win the last referendum? What have they got to worry about from another one?
Labour’s terror goes deeper than that, buried further out of sight, because its trauma is more profound – something fundamental to the party’s identity has been broken. It wasn’t the Scottish people who betrayed Scottish Labour, but something just as familiar, and even more cherished: the British state. Scottish Labour were brutally, callously sacrificed, and then tossed aside by the one thing they have done as much as anybody else to defend. They took one hundred years of hard-won political capital, concentrated into that final, triumphant ‘No Thanks’ advert full of trade union marches and democratic reform, and blew it all on keeping the family together.
The party were the only credible face in Scotland for the unforgivably bleak message of ‘Project Fear’, little red stickers peeling from the anoraks of concerned messenger-boys and -girls who knocked the doors of workers, pensioners and immigrants, telling them only the British state could look after them, safe in the knowledge a Labour Government was just over the horizon. Then, on the day of their triumph, that very same state turned around and began its meticulous, expert sabotage of the party’s chances. Suddenly, Labour hadn’t beaten the SNP at all; they were in fact in the pocket of Alex Salmond, willing to do a deal with Sturgeon, a danger to the very stability they’d just saved. The result in Scotland was an historic, almost fatal defeat.
This experience has driven most of the Scottish Labour Party into a state of complete intellectual and political collapse, incapable of caring or even thinking about anything but the most basic functions of the welfare state they still love: running hospitals and schools, paying people’s wages, cleaning up rubbish, running hospitals, paying people’s wages, running schools, running schools, running, running, keep running, run, oh god, run, run… the nationalists are coming!
There’s only one way out and that’s by finding the source of the trauma and facing it down. The reason Scottish Labour were destroyed after the referendum wasn’t because they ‘sided with the Tories’ or because they failed to support independence: it was because they offered no serious alternative to the British state itself, no recognition that economic justice and democratic transformation must go hand in hand. They were forced instead into a desperate sales pitch for one of the most effective and durable criminal enterprises in the history of humankind, an evil wet lump of crumbling architecture, expensive weaponry and tenured racists, the only redeeming features of which were forged by a labour movement born in conflict against it, which will die in the same struggle if it doesn’t realise the conflict only ends when one side is destroyed.
If Scottish Labour is ever to recover, if they are to not only counter the enduring appeal of a Scottish breakaway but also revive their own battered identity, they must offer and argue for a plan, throughout the UK, to bring about a complete revolution in the structures of the British state, far beyond the tepid reforms of ‘devo max’ or ‘federalism’. It’s time, in other words, for revenge.