Labour’s transformation after their 1992 defeat created a centre-right southern consensus that deprived Scots of a political voice – Independence offers an alternative.
“Free by ‘93”, they said, but it was not to be. In the UK general election on April 9th, 1992, The Scottish National Party’s hopes for a new dawn were dashed by a Scottish electorate of what their then-deputy leader Jim Sillars called ’90 minute patriots’. They were passionate about Scotland (and by extension the SNP, according to Mr. Sillars) within the confines of Hampden Park, but loyal to the unionist Labour party when it came to the ballot box. Thus the significance of the 1992 election in the drive for Scottish independence has always been seen through the lens of a Nationalist ‘false dawn’, where Labour’s staying power in Scotland was a setback, and the first breakthrough was with the triumph of pro-devolution New Labour in 1997.
This view must be challenged. It makes the mistake of equating progress towards independence with electoral success for the SNP, and is overly Scotland-centric. The modern, centre-left civic nationalist drive for Scottish Independence did not begin in Scotland, and its midwife was not the SNP, nor was it Thatcher, as many have suggested. It began in 1992, in the south of England, and was unwittingly instigated by the Labour Party.
My contention is this: Labour’s loss in 1992 convinced them of the need for a shift to the right to win over voters in the south of England. This alienated their voters in the north of Britain, and led to policies geared towards the desires of an affluent and influential (affluential, anyone?) swing minority of voters – known as ‘Essex Man’ or ‘Mondeo Man’ in political PR-speak – who voted with their wallets and led the retreat from traditional, entrenched party loyalties that has been occurring since the 1970s.
Scotland, whose ‘national party’ had been Labour since the 1950s, was left without any obvious voice at Westminster after the death of John Smith in 1994. The cabinet may have been packed with Scots, but their policy and rhetoric were geared towards an aspirational southern suburban mentality far removed from that of their countrymen. For a while, this transformation was tolerated – after all, years of Thatcherite rule were ended in 1997, and cross-generational loyalties take time to die.
Devolution gave the SNP a new platform from which to challenge Labour, and their quick emergence as the official opposition at Holyrood showed how easily they fitted into the new arrangements. From there, it was only a matter of time before disillusionment with New Labour translated into electoral success for the Nationalists, and with Gordon Brown’s downfall and the Holyrood result in 2011, the destruction of Labour’s Scottish identity was complete. In Scotland, this shift was not led by a middle-class floating vote, but the gradual transference of working-class loyalties from Labour to the SNP over the same period that saw the change in Labour’s ideological focus.
Paul Richards, a former special advisor to Hazel Blears and a contributor to Blairite bible ‘The Purple Book’, has written a piece for Labour’s influential Progress faction where he discusses the lessons learned from ’92, and why he believes they are still relevant. One passage is particularly important:
“If Labour cannot win over the hard-working, car-owning, owner-occupiers in southern and eastern towns and suburbs, piling up majorities in northern cities will count for nothing. This substratum of our society decides who governs. This is the real ‘political class’ – the people who decide who forms the cabinet. They do not like high taxes, an out-of-control benefits bill, or an interfering government. They have never been to Wales, Liverpool or Newcastle, but they have been to Ibiza and Majorca. In 1992, they preferred a grey man and party which had bashed the miners, brought in the poll tax and could not give a hoot about mass unemployment.
“Labour’s leader has to look them (or their grown-up children) in the eye and win them over to a party they rejected in record numbers barely two years ago. No one said it was going to be a walk in the park.”
I couldn’t have said it better. And it perfectly demonstrates why Labour’s loss in 1992 was, ultimately, the SNP’s gain. No longer are Labour a party for Scotland. They are not even a party for most of the UK. Scotland has a fallback in the shape of the SNP – which is why Scots have deserted Labour while the English have not (unless we include Gorgeous George, of course) – and if, within the United Kingdom, there appears to be no means of escaping the southern, centre-right metropolitan consensus that turned 20 years old this week, then the Scots will eventually choose Independence.