March 2012: Breaking the grip of ‘fantasy island Britain’: Social justice, Scotland and the UK by Gerry Hassan
Gerry Hassan, PhD, born in Scotland, is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland who has recently been awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published ‘After Independence’ (co-edited with James Mitchell). His most recent books are ‘Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland’ and the just published ‘Independence of the Scottish Mind: Elite Narratives, Public Spaces and the Making of a Modern Nation
After their humiliating defeat in the 2011 elections, the Scottish Labour Party have found themselves ensnared in a circular dialogue of apology and aggressive stereotyping. Breaking out of this requires a change of focus – away from Alex Salmond and the SNP and towards the party’s professed values of social justice.
The Scottish independence debate had many dimensions, Scottish, English, British, European and global. It was also one that the insular London political class and media had only episodically covered the last forty years, being content to rest on ‘Braveheart’ and romantic, restless nationalist stereotypes.
It is then timely and apposite that the Fabian Society in association with Compass held a discussion under the theme, ‘Debating the Scottish Independence Referendum: What Future for the United Kingdom?’ with Labour MPs, Jon Cruddas, Anas Sarwar, Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour, and Gemma Doyle, along with myself, in the Houses of Parliament this week.
The evening showed some of the many comfort zones and delusions which Scottish Labour still hold to after its 2011 Scottish Parliament election humiliation. The two Scottish Labour MPs and Anas Sarwar in particular, spoke a language of renewal and urgency but which seemed mostly devoid of real political understanding or content.
The thoughtful observations of the evening from the Labour MPs came almost exclusively from Jon Cruddas who talked with an acute eye about England, the absence of English Labour, and the shifts in the Tories with a brash, aggressive English nationalism emerging in the party. Cruddas referenced the Australian debate under Paul Keating which redefined national identity, and cited Tom Nairn and the challenge of ‘the hyper-empire of capital’.
In terms of hinterland Cruddas as well as referencing Nairn and Keating, mentioned George Lansbury’s ‘My England’ and Clement Attlee. Sarwar and Doyle, as representatives of today’s new political classes, showed their ‘thin’ external world, with not one wider reference or example all evening.
In my presentation, I suggested Scottish Labour stop talking to itself and stop using words such as ‘devolution’ and ‘separatism’ which gave the party succour and satisfaction but which were mostly meaningless to the general public. ‘Devolution’ was a narrow notion of political change and a concept born of 1970s compromise and accommodation. ‘Separatism’ which is how Labour describes the Scottish Nationalists is an archaic relic of a term which reveals much about who says it. The SNP have never been ‘separatists’ and indeed the true, serious ‘separatists’ in the UK are the fossilised, fanatic parliamentary sovereignty fetishists of Euroscepticism. Labour has to drop its own private world of language, stop talking process and embrace substance.
Labour’s obsession with the SNP has been an unhealthy one, destabilising and disorientating the party’s view of the world. Despite the fact the SNP have been on the Scottish political scene for over 40 years, Labour north of the border have yet to fully come to terms with them. The aggressive language and stereotyping which goes on between the two parties belies that these are two rather similar parties, both broad churchesand both, in parts, significantly (small c) conservative.
Sarwar and Doyle presented cartoon caricatures of the Nationalists, citing ‘separatism’ many times, with Sarwar articulating a convoluted definition when challenged on Labour’s constant of use of the big bogey word. The Nationalists talked left and right, he maintained, depending on the audience (just like New Labour), and as he accurately observed, have left independence so far undefined. Doyle talked from the old hymn sheet, talking of the SNP as having cornered ‘the right wing vote’ and being just like the Tories.
Scottish Labour has a proud history and story but they are currently in a terrible place and have barely begun to realise what has happened to them. Both Sarwar and Doyle railed against the SNP Government for not using the Scottish Parliament’s existing tax powers, omitting that Labour in office for eight years had done exactly the same. Similarly the SNP’s floated idea of cutting corporation tax was trumpeted as proof of their right-wing perfidy, ignoring New Labour’s cutting of it. What this seemed to suggest was that the speakers had one rationale for an action when the SNP did it (bad), and another when New Labour had done it (good).
How does Scottish Labour get people to listen to them again? I suggested that the party apologise for 50 years of taking people for granted and for municipalism, cronyism, clientism and council patronage. Cruddas immediately spotted that this was a wider Labour malaise, to which I agreed, pointing out that it was a Scottish variant of that crisis.
So far Scottish Labour has offered a half-hearted apology for losing in 2011, but hasn’t begun to understand why it was so soundly rejected. Its public mantra has become ‘we have to stop apologising’ when the party hasn’t recognised the longer story of the machine politics it built in Scotland which it needs to take responsibility for and offer an explanation. Then and only then, people may begin to sit up and take notice.
This is not just a Scottish but a British and international debate. All evening Sarwar and Doyle defended a union which was in reality, a ‘Fantasy Island Britain’, the land of the most successful multi-national partnership in all human history, a place where redistribution and social enlightenment march proudly forward claiming the future. At no point did they engage in some of the uncomfortable realities: of the UK as the fourth most unequal country in the rich world according to Danny Dorling, and on existing trends, set to overtake, Portugal, USA and Singapore, and become the most unequal country in the developed world.
Labour needs to embrace an agenda of social justice and stop talking about the constitution and being obsessed with the SNP and Alex Salmond. Twenty years after the Commission on Social Justice was launched perhaps Scottish Labour could revisit this terrain instead of talking all the time about ‘devolution’ and ‘separatism’.
What this could involve is renewing and marking John Smith’s values and coming up with a social justice covenant for the 20th anniversary of his tragic death, which coincides with the run-in to the autumn 2014 Scottish independence vote.
A Scottish Labour Party engaged with social justice would aid people in the SNP to develop a more distinct, radical social agenda and thus improve the quality of the entire Scottish debate. It would reduce the superficial noise between these two parties and develop a debate with more substance addressing what Scottish voters want to see it engage with.
Such a politics would entail addressing how we tackle and end child poverty, challenge welfare entrapment and despair, and address the huge gap in life expectancy between rich and poor across Scotland. It could even be called the John Smith social justice covenant.
Such a move would make the Scottish debate about self-government and independence both more subtle and real. It would take it away from the politicians’ love of the abstract and grandiose and connect it to the complex choices of modern life and challenges to progressive politics.
The values of solidarity, communitarianism and inclusion have always influenced and shaped much of the Scottish debate, driven in part by a distrust of British politicians and the state. It is now crucial over the next two years that they are brought to the fore, from the implicit to the explicit. We have to ask how do we best champion social justice in Scotland and in these isles? That is what Scottish self-government and independent has to directly address; namely, the relationship between progressive values and government structures, and in so doing help all of us to make sense of how we all break out of ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ which has so served the forces of power and privilege.
Great piece, I agree with a lot of what you say here, and I often find myself agreeing with John Cruddas who is one of the few gifted politicans we seem to have at the moment.
Labour’s problem in the Scottish election in 2011, and the General election in 2010, both relate to it taking people for granted so much that they lost all enthusiasm for the party which was once their own, it has yet to refind this either in Scotland or the rest of the UK. John Smith was a great man, and would have been a fantastic PM, I think if Labour can reinvent itself both UK wide and in Scotland by revisiting his legacy and perspective, then it can be revialised in Britain, regardless of whether Britain is made up of 2 sovereign states on 1.
Thanks for your thoughts. We need to bring the debate about the future of Scotland and the UK fundamentally on to what kind of future, what kind of society and economy.
Sad and telling that Labour MPs still blindly defend the imperial centre as this great force of progressivism; a kind of blind faith ….
Absolutely, what really gets me about the modern Labour party is how soulless it has become. The 13 years they were in power were squandered, it was a real chance to help working people up and down the land, make a real difference to things such as housing, education, health and transport, but they wasted it, and now the Tories are back with their Lib Dem bag carriers.
There were some achievements, such as the Minimum Wage…any other good achievements currently escape me… The party needs to redefine itself and break away from it’s slavish ‘Thatcherism Lite’ type of ideal. The problem for me with Labour (& I am still a member) is that it totally lost touch with what it was about during the Blair/Brown era, people on the ground want things like decent housing, good transport, good schools and opportunities for their kids, good healthcare, and a decent Welfare State to support people when the fall on hard times.
Labour needs to be on the side of the ‘little guy’ regardless of whether it is Labour in Scotland or wider Britain, too often it found itself on the wrong side in recent years, and that is something that I feel hasn’t yet changed. Markets, and big business have their place, and always need to be taken into account, and listened too, but they shouldn’t dictate everything in society. For me, the saddest, chapter in Labours’ recent history has to be when Gordon Brown met Gillian Duffy, a real person, and Labour supporter, who was concerned about immigration volumes, and he described her as a bigot…it kind of said it all, the arrogance and dislocation of the leadership from the supporters, from the average people in the street.
I am disenchanted with the current leadership, they have scored the odd victory like last year against the Murdoch Empire, Miliband did well, but they don’t have the vision or the passion to make (me at least) feel anything has really changed since they left power. Personally, I think that the ‘Blue Labour’ project that Jon Cruddas has been associated with is potentially the way forward, as it does seek to reconnect with our past as a party, and at the same time takes on board ‘the man on the streets’ concerns about immigration, law and order etc.
More of the same from Labour just won’t work, at the moment it feels as though they are just waiting and hoping that the public get sick of the Conservative Party, but not providing any real hope for anything better.
I am English, so not mega hot on the Scottish political scene, however, I was disappointed with the Johann Lamont appointment as leader, as once again that spelt for more of the same. Looking into Scotland as an outsider, it would appear that the challenge again is to get back on the side of ‘the little guy – the man on the street – the working man’ (& women of course). The party obviously needs to take account of the current Scotland independence debate, and perhaps argue more vigorously for Scotland within a wider UK setting. It should also always seek to be more progressive than a nationalist party like the SNP, and only by reconnecting with it’s soul can it do this.