If Lord Ashcroft’s polling is correct, Labour faces an unprecedented defeat in Scotland at May’s general election. As the party struggles to maintain its heartlands north of the border it’s high time these long neglected constituencies made their voices heard.
The full implications of such an implosion would represent the death of Scottish Labour as we know it. Certainly, the party would have to genuinely re-invent itself. It would become impossible for potential future leaders like Kezia Dugdale to accept a role that, even in the hands of such unscrupulous opportunists as Murphy and McTernan, has become entirely compromised by the pressures of union.
But a uniform swing of 25 points across Scotland to the SNP would do something far greater. It would mean that no party would be able to lay claim to representing both Scotland and the UK. Just as with the Liberals, the Tories, so now with Labour: a party that once did exceptionally well in Scotland is facing terminal decline.
This brings with it certain problems for the future of Scottish politics: such dominance from a disciplined, broad and occasionally eccentric SNP cannot speak for so many, without the release of such pressure through independence sooner rather than later. The danger is that devolution, or even full-blooded Home Rule, simply allows another chance for a complacent social democratic party to cosy up to all sources of power in Scotland. From London an offering will become apparent: the consolation prize for not gaining independence will be full control of the Scottish establishment. Within clear economic parameters.
For an example of what such dominance can do we need only look at the early years of devolution. That period of hubris and inertia is at the root of Labour’s current crisis. The flow of prominent, credible, political figures out of Scotland stopped a generation ago. Gordon Brown, the last of this group to remain standing, is still being treated as a kind of prophetic genius, despite his own notorious failure to comprehend losing the Scottish Parliament in 2007, and his impending retirement. Faced with an insurgency at the level such polls predict, a moribund party can do little other than repeat old homilies and hope for damage limitation in the form of quiet tactical voting.
The demise of Labour in Scotland will be the end of an auld song, certainly. But this is a party that has suffocated an authentic British left for a century: its earliest success in Westminster saw it ditch Home Rule and the peripheral corners of the British Isles that were its original source. Similarly its long, complex and fraught relationship with the trade unions, its complicity in the City’s dominance of the British economy and its firm commitment to Atlanticism have finally tied the party in a knot of its own contradictions. It remains trapped and entirely unable to comprehend what has happened in a country that it once knew so well. The crowning insights of Labour’s election strategy, it would seem, are that Scots like public spending and don’t like the Tories. All that is left to complete such ingenious messaging is to drape it in the saltire.
But this is far from unique to Scotland: for a generation Labour has been a party of the ‘extreme centre’, struggling to trace its steps back from the heart of power to the far corners of these isles and its roots. The extent of its impending collapse can only be mitigated by how well it squares the circle of Westminster electoral maths. Torn between the focus groups of Kettering and unrepentant socialists on the Clyde, it may, somehow, cling on to centralised power, but that very act will only make it less able to connect with the provinces, those communities still so distant from power.
Within the union, under a Labour party that has painted itself blue and white, we are told that Scotland can become the ‘fairest nation on earth’. At the heart of that is a transparent and flawed reading of Yes rhetoric, premised on the assumption that all that the past few years have proved is that Scots are daft enough to vote for anything, if it’s vaguely nationalist and social democratic. The disdain, at a strategic level, is palpable. This distance between Labour and the people is exposed as vast. It was not the promises of politicians that defined 2014, but the thrill of collective action and a tangible, definable political goal.
The referendum did something irrevocable to Scotland that can only be embedded by continued political movement: that’s what it thrives on. It placed itself at the centre of a vast and radical political event, it came within a ten point margin of breaking apart one of the world’s largest economies and most influential states. That the referendum is now being seen in the light of numerous struggles: for autonomy, for an end to austerity: for alternatives, that are now gripping Europe, is unsurprising.
Syriza’s recent victory bears little comparison to UK politics. However the most intriguing story that lay behind that remarkable event was the drastic change in the fortunes of the New Labour-esque PASOK, that went from party of government to fringe status, with only 5 per cent of the vote. The events still unfolding in Greece are as much about the systemic failure of social democracy in Europe as they are about new left insurgency.
While on most issues the SNP remains anchored to the political centre, modulated perhaps by the egalitarian rhetoric that is a staple of Scots public life, its policies on certain issues provide the kind of leverage that have the potential to unlock the political system. Nicola Sturgeon recognises the value of appearing on the Andrew Marr show to talk about shaking up the British establishment. In the process of carrying out the referendum the party inadvertently adopted a more radical posture than it intended: something of an inevitability when the full force of the political and financial establishment of the world’s sixth largest economy is bearing down upon you.
The truth that the SNP forgets at its peril, is that such a dynamic was one that converted many Scots to the prospect of independence. It awoke something that is perhaps far deeper than party political conviction, or even national identity. It took a set of people, the Scottish working class and told them that they mattered. That their dignity was central.
Of course, unlike the strange new radicals elsewhere, the SNP is blessed on two fronts. Within its ranks it can maintain a taut discipline. Thanks to the overriding aim of independence significant ideological tensions only rarely surface for public view. Secondly, its dominance of the Scottish Parliament allows it to maintain credibility in power while avoiding playing its hand on the most definitive ideological question of all: the economy. Rather than taking a gamble on the forcing of such a hand, British politicians offered a nakedly opportunistic fudge in the form the Smith Commission, at the heart of which is a desire to force higher levels of income tax on Scotland to provide a politically acceptable line on better services to voters in rUK.
The great political challenge that Europe currently faces is relevant here. By far the most intense pain of the Eurozone crisis was felt largely on the periphery. In Ireland, in Portugal, in southern Spain and particularly in Greece. One election has inverted the dynamic: the voice of the periphery, in the form of a new and radical Greek government is loud and clear. It says to the distant, centralised authorities that dreamt up austerity, that their policy has failed. That the logic of centre-right and centre-left politics has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Of course the notion of such legitimacy itself, means very little to central banks or supranational institutions, but without it the entire edifice is insecure. Cracks are appearing in both the European and the British union, because their own political and economic orthodoxy insisted that the centre must stop talking to the periphery. Today, the centre cannot hold.
The term radical, derived from the Latin radix (root) contains its own inherent logic. Change that doesn’t begin at home rarely has the ability to travel far. The minute that the SNP forgets that, its steady unravelling of the union becomes a hollow project. The most important question for the party is not in fact a constitutional one. Rather, it is this. If, as Lord Ashcroft suggests, a substantial tranche of seats in the still post-industrial heartlands of central Scotland change hands, what will be different? If, as the polls predict, Coatbridge (represented by Labour since 1935) moves to the SNP, what will the party do for the lives of its inhabitants? What might be the greater significance of ending eighty years of the same ‘x’ in the same box? Will it make their participation in politics central? Will it search for policies to change the vast swathes of central Scotland that remain trapped in a precarious, economically bleak stasis?
If the SNP fails to make the demands of these ‘peripheral’ areas of Scotland central to its political platform, its dominance of Scottish politics may yet dissipate as inevitably as Labour’s did post-devolution. Like New Labour, like PASOK, like all social democrats in Europe today, it ignores their voices at its peril.
Christopher Silver is currently working on a book, The Case for a Scottish Media, which can be pre-ordered here.