Labour and Independence: The Power of the Past


Beyond the posturing, allegations and counter-allegations of recent days on the vexed subject of Labour for Independence, there are a series of important and often unexplored questions which tell us much about Scottish politics.

Why does Labour, ostensibly ‘a non-nationalist, non-unionist party’ in the words of Lallands Peat Worrier’s reflective blog (1), so preclude not only any consideration of independence, but so firmly, trenchantly and aggressively, a rejection of it? The answer is complex, and can be found deep in the history and evolution of British and Scottish Labour.

It is about the idea of ‘Labour Scotland’ (which some present day Labour politicians seem to be unable to comprehend as distinct from Scottish Labour) and its relationship to ‘Labour Britain’. It is about how Fabian socialism became an ideology of the British state, and one which saw the British state as the main instrument of its policies and practices. But crucially, it is about how Labour, which has through the ages proclaimed itself as a party of the future and creating the future, has been historically and contemporaneously shaped, defined and even a prisoner of the past.

Labour is a party, a mindset and way of thinking which has been anchored and grounded in the past. It has from its creation as the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900, and the party’s formal adoption of its nominally federal structure and aims and values (the famous ‘Clause Four’), been in its inner culture, what Henry Drucker calls in a penetrating study, its ‘ethos’ (2).

This past is a strange, almost Dickensian world, one of grainy images, black and white pictures, of powerful industry and working men. It is one shaped by lots of defeats and humiliations: Tolpuddle, Taff Vale, the General Strike, but even more profoundly, by memories and practices of exploitation, injustice, and degradation of humanity, alongside the transformative power of solidarity.

Labour’s concept of the world from its inception has been framed by this mostly idealised dystopian past, and by the redemptive power of collective action. This is a place of ‘them’ and ‘us’, where the good people of solidarity, compassion and idealism stand against the bad people of exploitation, bad employers and asocial capital (the rentier class, monopoly capital, etc.).

Labour, ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ Politics and the Nationalists

Into this, Labour’s understanding of the SNP, Scottish nationalism, and the Scottish dimension falls (3). Labour historically has always caricatured its opponents. It has portrayed Tories with a lack of nuance, depth or real understanding through the ages: as spivs, speculators, the landed gentry, and the deferential working class. And it is this outlook which informs its understanding or more accurately its lack of understanding of the SNP.

For sure, Labour’s entitlement culture and its propensity to see Scotland as in some way elementally being theirs, ‘our Scotland’, ‘our Scottish Parliament’ in a manner similar to the mindset of ‘our NHS’, is a world of possession and ownership, which fundamentally matters and one I have written about extensively (4). Yet I think something more primordial is at work. And that is that the entitlement culture, sense of ‘our Scotland’, and sheer affront at the bare-faced cheek of those pesky separatists, is driven by this deeper set of dynamics, about an idealised past, a world of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and good and bad.

In this perspective, in this Manchean world of good and bad people, of people who often at enormous cost to themselves have stood for social justice, and those who are doing the exploiting, where exactly do the SNP fit in? Labour people have consistently believed that the SNP doesn’t understand the wider cause of labour, of issues such as employment and labour rights, and this isn’t all entirely self-delusion.

From the view of inside Labour, numerous people stood for the good causes down the years, Labour activists and campaigners, trade unionists, people in the wider labour movement and community groups. And while individual Nationalists could be part of this noble calling, the cause of organised, official Nationalism was at best ambivalent on the issue of justice, or at worst colluding with the forces of injustice, and nothing but ‘tartan Tories’.

There was a crucial British dimension to all of this. There once was in the ‘Labour Britain’ account, a popular people’s story of these isles, which was a bit over-romanticised and uncritical of the Whig account of history and progress. This was in part the Labour vision of a future: fairer, more egalitarian, shaped by solidarity and of course, that problematic concept, brotherhood.

Yet this ‘Labour Britain’, ostensibly about the future was shaped by the past, the injustices, the wrongs to be righted and the sheer damage done to working people by industrialisation, enclosure and unfettered competition.

This was always a delicate balance between these two forces, past and future. At some point after 1945 Labour began to buy into the official Whig version of Britain too much, and to believe that the British state, unreformed, the focal point of imperial power, and the product of elite, pre-democratic forces, could somehow be transformed without structural change, into a force of enlightenment and uplifting working people.

This is after all the account of ‘Labour Britain’ between 1945-79 – of thinking that Fabian socialism or more accurately, benign expert-led administration could be brought about in a pre-democratic state without any overt process of democratisation. This turned out to be a colossal misjudgment on every level, as the post-war managed society fell apart in the 1970s and then was torn apart explicitly post-1979 by the Thatcher Government.

Subsequently, we can observe that the past has risen as a popular, political force in modern Britain, and one used by the forces of power and privilege to legitimise their rule of ‘the new few’ and onslaught on social, welfare and collective provision. And there is a relationship between this and Labour’s culture of living in the past – one at first very different from the establishment story, but which through time has been interwoven and interchangeable with this problematic, elite version.

Look at contemporary Britain. This is a society where the voice of past dead generations seems to matter more than the living. Where the consistent marking and enacting of anniversaries, military contests, conquests and struggles, feels as if it accelerates by the day. Next year we have ‘the big one’ of anniversary celebrations, by chance in the same year as Scotland’s independence referendum. On June 6th, there is the 70th anniversary of the D Day landings, on July 28th, the 100th anniversary of the onset of the First World War, and on September 1st, the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, arguably, the last British ‘good war’.

It seems that Labour while still shaped by the past, has forgotten even the totemic symbols and emblems of its own history, while being taken hold of by the British state story of events. And that ultimately is a terrible place for a party of the centre-left, of social democracy and agitating against the status quo, to be.

The Death of ‘Labour Britain’ and its Relationship to ‘Labour Scotland’

In short, something profound has happened to the idea of ‘Labour Britain’ and ‘Labour Scotland’ which the party barely understands. Once upon a time, Scottish Labour became a party of instrumental unionism, by which I mean, not the notion of the union as the be and end all of everything which was the Tory variant, but of the union as a means to an end – that end being the end of exploitation and the triumph of solidarity.

As the United Kingdom has become this ‘global kingdom’ of inequality, insecurity, winners (and losers) and new elites, this has become an almost impossible story to tell. Near too impossible. This has led to Scottish Labour slipping its moorings from this qualified, pragmatic, progressive unionism, and ending up arguing for the union as an end in itself. This is a complete cul-de-sac for a progressive party, because to take just one fundamental, it entails colluding with the dominant Tory account of Britain.

A different Labour politics in the current state of Britain would be difficult. It would have to flesh out an instrumental unionism which first, addressed the challenges of resurrecting a progressive Britain, and second, put forward a Scottish dimension in the leadership of the case for that kind of Britain (and explicitly Scotland). This approach would engage with the left, progressive and socialist arguments for independence and self-government, and openly say that we understand why widespread groups of what used to be natural Labour territory now have such a problem with Britain.

That of course is a world away from Scottish Labour today which can be characterised as a mean minded, petulant, uncomprehending, ‘we’re no havin it’ approach. It is a sad state of affairs, and one which has consequences for the wider body politic of Scotland.

Many of us who want to nurture and advance a socially just, fair, egalitarian, inclusive, green Scotland, and know the challenges involved in that, are having to do this while Scottish Labour snipes at the sidelines excluding itself from much of the national debate.

This could be a generational shift. Many assume that a Scottish Labour politics could be rejuvenated by a Yes vote, while the party thinks its future will be shaped by a decisive No vote. But in reality, the future of Scottish Labour and Scotland is being created in the here and now.

Gerry Hassan



1. Lallands Peat Worrier, ‘On Labour for Independence’, August 1st 2013,

2. Henry Drucker, Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, Allen and Unwin 1979.

3. The best historical account of Labour and Scottish nationalism remains despite its age, Michael Keating and David Bleiman, Labour and Scottish Nationalism, Macmillan 1979.

4. Gerry Hassan, ‘The Auld Enemies: Scottish Nationalism and Scottish Labour’, in Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh University Press 2009, pp. 147-161.

Dr. Gerry Hassan is the author and editor of numerous books on Scotland, politics and ideas, including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’. 

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About Gerry Hassan

Dr. Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and thinker about Scotland, the UK, politics and ideas and Research Fellow at the School of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of the West of Scotland. Gerry has written and edited a dozen books in the last decade on Scotland and the wider world of which his latest is ‘Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland’ published by Luath Press. Further details of his writing and research can be found at:

There are 6 comments

  1. Peter A. Russell

    Truly amazing. Not a mention of Labour government 1997 to 2010, its achievements in social policy (one million kids out of poverty) and democratic reform (devolution). But glad to see that you are with New Labour and reformers, Gerry. Many of us share the aims of socially justice, fairness, egalitarianism, inclusiveness, green-ness and know that the challenges involved including new ways of working and reform. It just that our vision of those objectives extends to the UK. To limit them to Scotland is redraw a border dissolved in 1707 – so who is a prisoner of the past?

    1. NorthBrit

      Let’s look at these achievements then:

      3600 new criminal offences and sustained attacks on free speech.

      Massive increases in inequality, unparalleled in Europe, put in place by a government intensely relaxed about a few people getting filthy rich.

      An unrelenting process to privatise the few remaining publicly owned services such as the NHS and Post Office not to mention selling QinetiQ for a song.

      Labour’s other “achievements” mainly comprised almost bankrupting the country and a continuous series of expensive wars that did nothing to advance Britain’s interests.

      You should be glad that people choose not to bring up this hateful track record.

      It’s “truly amazing” to claiming devolution as a Labour achievement given Labour’s history of trying to prevent it from happening.

      I’ll put the manifest idiocy of your post down to your self-confessed green-ness.

      As far as I’m concerned, Scotland will be reborn the day the last SLab politician is strangled with the last copy of the Scotsman.

    2. DougDaniel

      Your vision of those aims extends to the UK? Why not further? Why don’t you care about the poor in Ireland, France and Spain? I thought you guys were supposed to be internationalists, not British nationalists?

  2. Jeanne Tomlin

    Gerry, an excellent and powerful article.

    And Peter, you do a pretty good job of ignoring illegal wars, continuing stationing of WMD in Scotland, and democratic reform limited since it did NOT achieve either vote reform or an elected upper house of Parliament and only happening when forced, and a nation brought to the edge of bankruptcy. I wouldn’t brag about that 1997 to 2010 failure of a government. None of these serious problems can be addressed without a Scotland with the power to do so. Moreover, the border was not “dissolved” in 1707 since Scotland did not cease to exist.

  3. Bill Cruickshank

    Gerry – In my opinion a very thought provoking, right on the money and pragmatic article. A cracking read.
    @Peter A. Russell – Peter you criticise Gerry for being “a prisoner of the past”. I’ll hold my hands up and confess to being a fully paid up member of that brigade. As a life long socialist, I am very comfortable to declare that my socialist values are based on the socialism espoused by John McLean, James Connolly and Jimmy Reid. All sons of Scotland, all socialists and all believers in the fundamental right of a people to self determination.

  4. Peter A. Russell

    This is disappointing: any rational discussion would admit that the New Labour governments had a mixed record, as all governments do. There is a balance sheet of success and failure, and I have attempted to explain the successes on my own blog. It also includes a discussion of the failure of the occupation in Iraq which is always brought up by those in the thrall of Aaronovitch’s Law.
    But instead we have the usual ‘4 legs good, 2 legs bad’ account from Nationalists, according to which Labour has been an irredeemable and malicious source of unrefined evil.
    What I was actually trying to say was that there has been for nearly 20 years a discussion in the Labour Party about how to pursue the party’s principles in a modern context (as John Prescott put it when supporting John Smith’s OMOV proposals.) As ever, the question is to how to be sensible and radical at the same time, and above all to gain the consent of the electorate for a progressive programme.
    Certainly New Labour succeed on the last of these counts – even in 2010, it polled over twice as many votes in Scotland as the SNP.
    It is as intellectually deficient for Gerry Hassan to fail to consider the New Labour reforms (even if he were to disagree with them) as it is for the respondents here to deny that Labour 97-10 did no good at all and only bad.
    For the record, I am a long term supporter of electoral reform, and I do not see much point in Trident, but see that the governments in question had no mandate to either introduce one or scrap the other.
    And I will always prefer the achievements of a Wheatley to the empty rhetoric of a McLean; and of the successes of Jenkins and Healey to the failures of Benn and Foot. And I recall that Jimmy Reid was for the greatest part of his political career a cheerleader for the vile and repressive Soviet Union.

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