A different future: A reply to Nick Pearce on Scotland, England and Britain


by Gerry Hassan, Open Democracy, February 14th 2011

The nature of the United Kingdom, the territorial dimensions of its politics, and the national questions of these isles are going to come to the fore of British politics in the next few years.

Tony Blair post-Cool Britannia and his anxieties about multi-culturalism, Gordon Brown and Britishness, and now David Cameron mowing both lawns at the same time in Munich, all indicate the sense of uneasy and nervousness in the political class since Labour’s constitutional reforms and 9/11(1).  At the same time John Denham, Jon Cruddas, Frank Field and David Miliband are among the Labour MPs who have begun to talk about one of the major no-go areas of British left politics: the English question (2).

It is welcome then that Nick Pearce of IPPR, one of the most interesting and thoughtful voices on the British centre-left, came north of the border to examine the different political dispensation (3).  It also should be acknowledged that alone among the Westminster obsessed think tank world, IPPR has attempted to address the politics of devolution and the territorial dimensions of the UK (4).

Pearce’s northern travels see him find a world where voters are coming home to Labour in droves: a land where Labour is connecting to popular concerns and offers Ed Miliband’s Labour a glimpse of a progressive future.  There is the potential of a Lib-Lab politics in Scotland which he thinks could offer signposts to a more pluralist left across Britain.

Sadly the reality of Scottish Labour and Scottish politics is more conservative and limited than this and it has been Scottish Labour that has done all in its power to keep it this way.  It does not offer a vision of a positive future or road map for radicals.

Pearce recognises, like everyone else, that in the forthcoming Scottish elections in May:

Labour will now go into the Scottish election as the party claiming it is best-placed to protect Scotland from a Conservative-led government in Westminster

He then goes on to claim:

… the SNP will suffer from incumbency and a sense of drift over the last two years by comparison with their energetic start after winning in 2007.

This is a partial truth; the SNP Government have in many respects run out of steam, ideas and been bereft of an economic policy since the politics of the crash removed the party leadership’s case for independence – which was a kind of Scot Nat New Labour strategy.  But there is no evidence that the Nationalists are going to suffer from incumbency.  The SNP Government has been generally popular with voters, Alex Salmond hugely so as First Minister, and if, as is likely, the SNP lose on May 5th nonetheless their vote will remain the same or be higher than what they polled four years ago.  If so, it will be quite an achievement and the reason they are likely to lose is the swing of Lib Democrats and even Tory voters to Labour.

Pearce addresses the options open to Labour if it wins and becomes the largest party – but well short of a majority: either governing as a minority or in a Lab-Lib coalition.  While he acknowledges many of the party faithful would favour the former, he opts for the latter – for the reason that it would tidily fit Westminster machinations:

It would give substance to Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour can practise a more liberal and pluralist politics, while allowing Liberal Democrats to argue that they remain an independent force, capable of working with both parties.

My argument with Nick Pearce is when he comes to address the future challenges of Scottish politics.  His argument is revealing and omits major issues.

He states that: ‘the real challenge for both parties is the development of a new progressive political agenda for Scotland’, meaning Labour and the Lib Dems.  In fact the central tension in progressive politics in Scotland lies between Labour and SNP.  Both lay claims to represent Scotland’s social democracy.  Their continued bitter conflict has not aided its state.  Pearce’s interpretation does not address this.

He writes that Jim Gallagher will be set out in a forthcoming issue of the IPPR journal why in Scotland ‘the political debate needs to escape the gravitational pull of the independence issue’.

This is a contentious statement on every level.  Potentially it pins IPPR to a narrow, partisan, Labour unionist agenda north of the border.  This is a shame given IPPR’s record and certainly is not what Scottish politics needs.

For a start, Jim Gallagher is symbolic of the Labour establishment and nomenklatura who have continued to govern Scotland under devolution and even under the SNP administration.  He is a former civil servant, who served as Secretary to the Calman Commission, and who now, in what many see as a conflict of interest typical of Labour in Scotland, has become an adviser to the Scottish Parliament committee overseeing the scrutiny of the Scotland Bill, inspired by Calman (5).  Wendy Alexander, who first came up with the idea of Calman, chairs the committee even though many across Scotland have disquiet about her partisan style.  It isn’t progressive and you don’t have to be a black and white Nationalist to notice the way Labour treats Scotland.  Before it has even returned to office it has returned to the good old practices of the past.

For Scottish Labour is a party of patronage, preferment and clientelism.  It has not modernised or renewed itself under devolution, or after defeat in 2007.  All of Scottish Labour’s five leaders since 1999 – from Donald Dewar to Iain Gray today – have chosen the path of least resistance when it comes to the traditional Labour state way of doing things.  Today behind Gray a small army of quangocrats, academics and serial consultants plan to renew the way they have governed Scotland since the 1950s; indeed most of them have continued their roles since the SNP came to office, but clearly the return of Labour will provide more opportunity for reward and the expansion of their entitlement culture, even in tough times.

Then there is the troubling phrase about how we ‘escape the gravitational pull of the independence issue’.  This is the Labour story of just not understanding the Nationalists and the constitutional dimension.  It is a failure that has been going on since the arrival of the modern SNP in the mid-1960s.  Such a phrase just doesn’t help anyone in the long run: it validates Labour bunkerism and its inability to understand the SNP which is much more significant and disfiguring than how the SNP views Labour.

A better use of IPPR’s time and resources would be to look at a wider, more generous politics of shared-sovereignty and post-sovereignty relations of the people’s and nations of these isles.  And that is an agenda the SNP could creatively contribute to which could ultimately remake the British state in a way which aids a progressive future.

Pearce then moves on to the interesting ground of why devolution has not seen an explosion of ideas, talent and creativity in Scotland:

Devolution did not produce the flowering of a distinctly Scottish public sphere, as many had hoped it would … it was too much to expect that Scotland would undergo a second Enlightenment ….

This is a theme I looked at recently in ‘the Scotsman’: the narrowing and lack of dynamism of the Scottish public sphere (6).

Pearce looks at the some of the predictable accounts on offer such as the size of Scotland’s state and its ‘dependency culture’ and calls rightly for ‘a more nuanced account’ which takes account of:

… what happened to the wellsprings of Scotland’s politics as the animating force of the Scottish working class receded in the 1980s; the failure of its civic institutions to build on the momentum created for a Scottish Parliament in the early 1990s; the lack of a more distinct middle-class popular culture; and the relative weakness of the classic institutions of the public sphere in Scotland, such as its universities, media and civic organisations.

He then states that these are questions IPPR ‘hopes to answer’ in the near-future.  If so it is a very partial and incomplete list, which needs adding to.  Pearce does not identify many of the most important reasons why devolution has indeed proven to be a ‘safety-first’ politics.

These include the strange nature of Labour: the leading party of conservatism in Scotland, a one-party state like the Mexican PRI or Pakistan People’s Party; then there is the caution and timidity of the Scottish Nationalists, a party profoundly British in its limited politics, and in Scotland, which has attempted to win over the Labour extended state and civil society from Labour as a party.  Then there is the nature of ‘civic Scotland’: that overused phrase and its lack of pluralism and diversity.  And there is the absence of resources and dynamism in the policy community.

But the biggest issue in all is the nature of devolution itself.  Devolution wasn’t meant to bring about wholesale change to Scotland.  Instead, devolution was about institutionalising and legitimising the Labour state and nomenklatura who run Scotland; the Jim Gallaghers of this world as they move seamlessly from one area of public life to another.  It is not an attractive, democratic or sustainable form of politics: because it is based on control, manipulation and the denial of the popular will.

Just as England cannot be the one country in the world which is governed without its own government and parliament, Scotland cannot indefinitely have a Parliament and the trappings of a political system, and not have a democratic culture and politics.

This is where Pearce I think misses the big questions.  There may not be a Scotland ‘fizzing with new energy and ideas’, but outwith the Labour payroll state there is a growing impatience and disquiet with this mini-devolution politics of cynicism, control and authoritarianism.  A new collection published in a few weeks, ‘Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination’ (7) edited by myself and Rosie Ilett, brings together a broad and impressive range of voices: nationalist, post-nationalist and radical, challenging this minimalist vision.  It makes the case for a politics which focuses on addressing self-determination as a society, and how we diffuse and redistribute power across Scotland – a politics which has to entail the dismantling of the Labour state.

This is but one example of a wider constituency outwith of Labour which wants to face up to these issues in a mature and considered way, looking for a politics which challenges the new devolution establishment and its limited, ossified worldview.

I would hope this would be a politics, journey and set of conversations in which IPPR might be interested in being an active partner, rather than just trying to shore up a discredited Labour politics north of the border.  A dialogue which engaged with Scottish Nationalists rather than dismissing ‘the gravitational pull of independence’ without discussion and debate.

If IPPR were open to a politics of self-determination rather than devolution, it could have rich rewards.  A radical approach in Scotland, talking about England, and addressing territorial politics, nations and democracy across the UK might just unlock a different future for Britain that allows us to break out of the Empire State.


1. David Cameron, PM’s Speech at Munich Security Conference, February 5th 2011, http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/speeches-and-transcripts/2011/02/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference-60293

2. Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford, ‘Alan Johnston Resignation: Labour needs to rediscover the values and virtues of England’, Daily Telegraph, January 20th 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/labour/8272685/Alan-Johnson-resignation-Labour-needs-to-rediscover-the-values-and-virtues-of-England.html

3. Nick Pearce, ‘Scooping Scotland’s Future’, IPPR, February 11th 2011, http://www.ippr.org.uk/blogs/nickpearce/

4. Guy Lodge and Katie Schmuecker (eds), Devolution in Practice 2010: Public Policy Differences in the UK, Institute for Public Policy Research 2010.

5. Joan McAlpine, ‘Time for some Academic Transparency’, Go Lassie Go, January 30th 2011, http://joanmcalpine.typepad.com/

6. Gerry Hassan, ‘Whatever happened to Scotland’s salon society?’, The Scotsman, February 2nd 2011, http://www.gerryhassan.com/?p=1514

7. Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett (eds), Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination, Luath Press 2011, http://www.luath.co.uk/acatalog/Radical_Scotland.html

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Gerry Hassan.
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