Scottish Devolution is a product of New Labour’s hatred of democracy. It’s therefore not surprising that the movement’s undead activists are returning to the forefront of Scottish politics, argues David Jamieson.
The concept of the dead rising from the grave has haunted imagination since time out of mind. In literature it became a symbol of the perversion of natural order, often at times of great social dislocation.
In Shakespeare’s day, waves of moral panic about devils, ghosts and witches convulsed Europe in the wake of the Reformation. He had MacBeth express this horror at the breakdown between the corporeal and supernatural worlds: “The time has been that, when the brains were out, the man would die.. But now they rise again.”
Fear of the dead accompanied the rise of industrial society. With Frankenstein’s promethean zombie, man had become the twisted god of modernity, creating undeath. The persistence of the old aristocracy, still fighting for influence despite the death sentence of history, gave us Dracula. This walking, stinking corpse emerged from old Europe, and invaded liberal, modern England.
In Scottish politics, we are surrounded by the dead. Some resemble the ghosts in The Sixth Sense who: “…don’t know they are dead”. The spirits in that turn of the century blockbuster represented the pervasive sense of atomisation and listlessness that had gripped the west. Lonely souls wandered the world, seeking acknowledgement.
Like them, the Scottish Liberal Democrats drift hopelessly in twilight, unaware of their demise. It’s strange to think Scotland was the spiritual home of that party in its golden era.
These days, many of their SNP colleagues cut a similarly melancholic profile, shuffling around the parliament, awaiting the blows that may come sooner – like at the forthcoming Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election – or later, but which everyone now expects are finally coming.
It’s less these sorry spectres that are haunting me, than the revenant terror of Scottish New Labour. From the pit of what hell have we dredged Douglass Alexander?
As part of the 1997 intake and a cadre of the Blair and Brown clique even before New Labour’s rebrand, he carries the stench of that sordid era into our times. As part of David Miliband’s die-in-a-ditch faction of hardliners after Brown’s tenure, he warned that Britain “shouldn’t be paralysed by the experience in Iraq”, and advocated war elsewhere in the world, including the now shattered Libya.
Alexander is hoping to return to Westminster as a Scottish MP in the forthcoming General Election, as seats are vacated by a retreating SNP. He’ll be joined in the quest by other figures from the old guard, like Blair McDougall. Another veteran of the older Miliband brother’s failed leadership bid McDougall is better known in Scotland as a captain of the top-down, synthetic Better Together movement.
Yet another praetorian from New Labour’s high period, now chasing a seat in Scotland, is Kirsty McNeill. One of Gordon Brown’s creatures, she shares his milieu of elite charities and even more elite nodes of the foreign policy establishment (in her case, the European Council on Foreign Relations). There’s a lot of money and backslapping in Scottish New Labour’s world of mawkish post-Kirk sentimentality. McNeill was a key fixer at Gleneagles for Make Poverty History in 2005. Alexander worked as an adviser to Bono – you get the picture.
In the months between the 2014 independence referendum and the 2015 General Election, I think many of us in Scotland reasoned that Scottish Labour – or at the very least New Labour – might be down for a long count. Remember the scale of the electoral purge, the happy decanting of that other foot soldier – Jim Murphy? It was a justified humiliation for a clique who had come to believe in their right to rule, and their impunity to the judgement of working class constituents.
The evidence that the SNP would replicate not only the style, but the substance of their rule was clear early on. Scottish Labour and the SNP famously hate each other, not for their differences but their profound similarities. The SNP aren’t a nationalist party (at least if this means trying to create a new nation-state), and Scottish Labour isn’t social democratic. These are both cartel parties that actively distance themselves from any active political constituency and seek no fundamental political change. They exist, principally, to exist.
Real power rests elsewhere – at Westminster, in the boardrooms of transnational corporations, in Washington. And what’s more, that’s where both these parties think power belongs. If you don’t believe that regarding the SNP – what do you think Sterlingisation and automatic EU accession are supposed to achieve? The evacuation of popular sovereignty from politics, and the building of ramparts between the institutions of governance and the social majority, is the common programme of the rival factions.
What have we Scots done to deserve five of these parties where two would suffice (at least for the sake of appearance of liberal democratic, parliamentary order)? To answer that, we need to remind ourselves that Scottish devolution itself is a product of New Labour. Douglas Alexander was there at its creation, assistant midwife to Donald Dewar.
Our institutions bear the mark of their makers. The parliament was consciously designed as a post-political entity – all great questions having been settled by the ‘End of History’ with the closure of the Cold War. What remained was the application of ‘expertise’ and the consultation of ‘marginalised voices’ in the policy development process.
But most importantly, the division of powers between London, Edinburgh, local authorities, and transnational bodies was designed to spread responsibility for governance so widely and thinly, that politicians are insulated from democratic pressure. The Barnett formula exemplifies this practice. Scottish politicians in Holyrood are habituated to spending a tightly controlled budget – enjoying both the spending on patronage networks, and the controls, which limit the potential for radicalism and confrontation with the business class.
At Westminster, our MPs are even more untethered from responsibility. All they can do is whine in the direction of government, north or south depending on cartel membership.
So New Labour’s zombies aren’t clawing their way out the grave, and lumbering into the world of the living. In seeking to represent modern Scotland, they are returning to the crypt, to the institutions they built to defend the post-political form of rule they sought. Banishing them requires more than the beating they took in 2015. It requires a much more fundamental challenge to our institutions, and for a redefined democracy.