Scottish Labour: Utopia… or bust?

A spectre is haunting Scotland – the spectre of … what, exactly? What is this storm cloud that has risen so quickly, and so powerfully and completely swept Scottish Labour away?

Our ongoing attempts to try to make sense of Scotland’s irresistable independence movement seems to have turned us all into sociologists. Some hold on to the belief that it is a virulent but ultimately ephemeral protest movement, a Scottish manifestation of the profound disaffection with mainstream politics that has been building across Europe for many years, reaching a new intensity after the financial crash. For others it is a kind of faith for a secular age, or even a cult. I’ve had a go myself, suggesting that with its idealism, passion, discipline and scorn for reformism, it bears some comparison with the revolutionary movements of the last century.

Though its ostensible cause is of course an independent Scotland I suggest that the Yes movement has become a channel for a political impulse that hasn’t been seen in Scottish politics since the 1920s, when post-war Scotland, like much of the rest of the Europe, was convulsed by mass industrial unrest and the real prospect of revolution. A hundred years on the shimmering prospect of independence has re-opened that Pandora’s Box, so long closed, setting free the uncanny spirit of utopianism, a daemonic presence on the loose, howling through Scotland’s political landscape.

The Yes movement has the protean character of all utopianisms: independence is a blank screen on which everyone can project their particular dreams, a wishing well in whose waters we each see our own face reflected. Some see an urbane civic nationalism, some Nordic-style social democracy. The nationalist right discerns a lightly taxed and regulated hub for inward investment, the left an ‘independent socialist Scotland’. The independence movement is a skein of contradictory desires that would unravel into its constituent strands if its goal were achieved. But for now, the incendiary utopianism that fires it overwhelms all opposition.

Only a fortnight after the election this website and others already prove that there will be as many answers to the question of how Scottish Labour might begin to respond as there are stars in the sky. But it seems to me that it is possible to organise those responses into two broad categories, two possible ways forward.

‘Utopian Labour’

The first would be to meet fire with fire. Scottish Labour, stung by innumerable taunts that it has ‘sold out’, ‘lost its way’, ‘betrayed its heritage’ etc, could respond to Yes utopianism with a radicalism of its own. A ‘Labour utopianism’ might have two elements.

The first would be the development of an ambitious programme that would seek to compete with the Yes movement on its own territory, offering a Labour vision of the ideal society. It would draw upon Scottish Labour’s own radical streams (they exist, but have tended to run underground for some time) and some of the ‘avant-garde’ ideas current in progressive circles, including many of the Yes groups. These might include:

  • the unapologetic embrace of an expansionist economic policy centred on a ‘Green New Deal’ proposing big investments in renewables;
  • the devolution of political power through the breakup of Scotland’s existing structures of local government;
  • the extension of economic democracy through greater worker representation on company boards and options for employees to take over failing businesses;
  • the exploration of a four day week and the principle of a basic income;
  • the scrapping of Trident;
  • outright opposition to TTIP.

I could go on – you get the picture. Many might find this kind of ‘social democracy 2.0’ too rich a brew, but Scottish Labour would need to be thinking in these terms if wanted to go head-to-head with the Yes movement as Scotland’s agent for progressive change.

The second element of this new ‘Radical Labour’ would involve the devolution of further powers to Holyrood to give a future Scottish Labour administration the scope it would need to pursue such a far-reaching agenda. This new powers might be proposed as part of a review undertaken by the wider UK Labour Party into a comprehensive federal settlement for the whole of Britain.

‘Sceptical Labour’

Scottish Labour, then, could take a utopian high road of its own. But there’s another way: to go in precisely the opposite direction and position Labour as the unapologetic party of sober, unsentimental realism.

If one looks beyond the noise of the ongoing Yes carnival it soon becomes apparent that very many people in Scotland don’t actually want ‘sweeping change’ and ‘radical agendas’. The story of last year’s referendum was not just Scotland’s festival of democracy: for all those energised by a new spirit of political engagement just as many were repelled. Many people don’t want or trust politicians to deliver much. They just want them to get the basics right: to secure economic stability, to undertake incremental reforms where necessary, to address obvious injustices.

That might sound more like the ‘middle England’ than re-elected David Cameron than independence-intoxicated Scotland. But there’s a middle Scotland too, the Scotland that delivered the No vote last year, and that constitutes much of the electorate that didn’t vote for the SNP on 7 May. The kind of people more likely to be tending their own gardens than checking out the Common Weal online store for the latest ‘All of us first’ desk toy.

‘Pragmatic’, ‘anti-utopian’ Labour might emphasise economic economic credibility, returning to the ‘prudence’ that characterised Gordon Brown’s early years at the Treasury, attempt to rebuild of public services as finances allow, and pursue a cautious redistributism through tax credits. Above all, this would be a sceptical Labour, a forensic opposition relentlessly highlighting gaps between the SNP’s rhetoric and record, and delighting in exposing the wilder enthusiasms of the Yes movement. It would emphasise that the powers the Scottish Parliament already has should be fully used, and held to proper account, before new ones are granted.

This second, less spectacular path, would in some ways be rougher road than the first. It would mean more years of ‘Red Tories’ abuse, interpreted by the Yes movement as confirming all their prejudices about the Scottish Labour they regard as a unimaginative, complacent, establishment party. And, harder still, perhaps, it would frustrate many within Scottish Labour itself. For all its undoubted caution Scottish Labour’s self-understanding is still that it is a party of the left, progressive in intent. And small ‘c’ conservatism is still – despite the capture of the party by economic libertarians – taken to be a Tory characteristic, finding expression in the sceptical tradition first fully articulated by Burke, carried on today by the likes of Roger Scruton and, here in Scotland, Allan Massie (and son Alex) and Michael Fry.

But this ‘sceptical Labour’ could in time, when the forces of political gravity start to operate and the Yes movement starts to lose its lustre, become a home for a non-nationalist counter-culture: the party of the cautious, centre-left majority. By pouring repeated buckets of cold water on the pretensions of its opponents a sober Scottish Labour could help put out the flame of utopianism, and position itself once again as the party of social democratic impulses who people are prepared to trust.

Blending idealism and realism

Permit me a similarly prosaic conclusion, but it is perhaps most likely that Scottish Labour will chart a course somewhere between these extremes.

Both of these ways forward have important things to say. On the one hand, Labour does need to show it is capable of rigorous, inventive thought, and throw of the ‘stupid party’ label. We need to find and enthuse new members, who will otherwise be attracted by the energy of the Yes parties. And many ideas generated by the independence movement have great value, particularly in regard to its re-thinking of the meaning of contemporary citizenship and the imaginative responses it has proposed to the challenges of climate change. On the other hand, in these exceptional, heady times, Scottish Labour needs to retain and sharpen its scepticism. Our new one-party Scotland needs to be held to account by a strong Labour opposition willing and able to resist the monoculture that threatens to overwhelm our politics.

Scottish Labour, like the rest of the UK labour movement, has always blended idealism and pragmatism. As a party of the left it has dreamt of a better world, but it has only been able to move towards it because it has been prepared to make the compromises essential to win office in the first place, and, once in government, to do the hard work necessary to design realisable policies that will make concrete differences.

Labour wins when it has been able to convince the electorate that it understands both where Scotland needs to go and how to make change happen. Labour scored its major victories in 1945, 1964 and 1997 because it had a credible vision, one that people trusted it to carry out: in 1945 it was the foundation of the welfare state; in 1964 the modernisation of British industry; in 1997 the rebuilding of the public sector through fiscal responsibility, and incremental constitutional reform.

At its best Labour isn’t utopian, it is modernist: an unsentimental party oriented to the future. Progressive, yes, but with a glint of steel. That, I suggest, is the cutting edge Scottish Labour needs to find to get back on its feet.

This post first appeared on Labour Hame and is re-published here with permission.

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