Breaking Down the Scottish Labour Mythology

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During the recent election, the local Labour candidate came to my parents’ door and introduced himself. My father later told me what happened, sounding quietly honoured that someone like an MP would come to his little corner of the world and knock on his front door….


During the recent election, the local Labour candidate came to my parents’ door and introduced himself. My father later told me what happened, sounding quietly honoured that someone like an MP would come to his little corner of the world and knock on his front door.

This was how he described the conversation:

‘Can I count on your vote in the Election?’
‘Oh, aye. We’re Labour folk fae way back.’
‘Really?’
‘Aye. Mining stock. Baith sides ’o the faimily.’
‘Really? Whar fae?”
‘Motherwell and Kilmarnock.’
‘That’s marvelous. It’s aye nice tae meet people wha ken whar they’re fae. Ken whit ah mean? People wha can mind the auld days.’
‘Oh, aye. Different times noo, though.’
‘Aye. And there’ll be big changes again if they Tories get back in.’
‘Aye, you’re no’ wrang.’
‘Will ye be needing a lift tae the polling station?’
‘Ach, no. Wur getting oan, but we can still get aboot. A freen’s geein us a lift.’
‘That’s the spirit! Still soldiering oan, eh? It’s been a real pleasure tae meet ye. Cheerio, now.’

The hypocrisy of this exchange gave me bile. My father retired a couple of years ago and was disgusted to find that the pension he had contributed to all his life was almost worthless. I tried at the time to explain that it was Gordon Brown’s scrapping of tax relief on pension fund dividends that had destroyed his pension, but to no avail. That was one argument.

He often tells me about confrontations with local junkie neds, whose cheek he claims to find amusing, in an I-can-still-take-it, razor gang chic kind of way. He told me the story of the junkie asking for flavoured methadone from a terrified young chemist assistant and was bemused when I didn’t find it hysterical.

When pushed, he thinks we need a war to bring back some respect for authority. This is where I try to explain that we’re already in a war, that the lads who are dying in Afghanistan are just normal kids, and that these wasters would not be the type to join up anyway. And besides, what difference would a war make? After all, he hadn’t been a soldier himself – that was not where he had got his values from. That was another argument we had.

My mother was sick last year. She got the best of treatment in a hospital about two hours away. He visited her every day for a month, leaving the car for free in the car park, sometimes for hours at a time. I explained this was an SNP idea. ‘Aye but they stole the idea off Labour. And the free tolls on the Forth was just populist nonsense. Just a bunch of bloody Tartan Tories.’ Straight from the Daily Record songsheet.

He spent a small fortune on fuel on these trips, and grumbled at the time about the price of petrol. He was getting to the stage where he couldn’t even afford to run his car. The idea that we should be one of the richest countries in the world with cheap petrol is a fantasy he refuses to even contemplate. ‘If Norway is so bloody great, why don’t you bugger off and live there,’ he says.

The inconvenient truth for the SNP is that supporting Labour in the West of Scotland is part of Scottish workers’ identity – whether or not they still work. This is what the SNP are up against. The mainstream Scottish media have nurtured this identity for years. They feed Glasgow and the South West a steady stream of Old Firm rivalry, Scotland’s salt of the earth industrial toughness, and myths about her former glorious role in Empire, alongside the same celebrity tat that’s served up around the world. Not to mention any chance they get to make the Scottish Government look either incompetent or useless. And the central westies lap it up.

The tragedy is that Scottish working men and women are utterly unaware of the complete disconnect between the Labour Party of old and the slick PR operation of today. My father used to tell me when I was younger that I should get down on my knees and thank Harold Wilson for giving me my free university education, and, while I was at it, Clement Atlee for the NHS. To a certain extent, I agree. But these things were achieved decades ago. New Labour and old Labour are not the same thing.

To my father, the idea that the Labour Party has become a self-serving power structure that might actually have a stake in men like him staying poor is incomprehensible. He could never even begin to understand that Labour and the Tories need each other at Westminster, that they are both deeply conservative parties committed to the status quo, and that they must appear to be enemies to create problems for the other to fix up every fifteen years or so. Thirty years of Labour would be just as destructive as thirty years of the Tories. It is an oscillatory system of elected absolute power, periodically delivering up heroes and villains to satisfy everyone, and giving each side a bite of the cherry. Like an old German clock, rolling out different puppets every hour, both waving the British flag.

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how to change my father’s mind about Scottish independence.

Perhaps all politics are local after all, and the answer lies in delivering high profile health, social and transport programs that are clearly seen to be SNP policies. If so, continuing the battle to control the councils must remain core SNP policy. Fortunately, this is a war of attrition the SNP is winning.

The SNP must also learn to counter the non-stop scare-mongering in the Scottish unionist press, of the type ‘SNP denies plan to hand out free heroine to children.’ This is serious stuff. If Joseph Goebels proved anything it was that in absence of any dissenting voice, any intelligent, literate society starved of real news can be made to believe almost anything. The owners of the Daily Record know this. Scottish Government and SNP press releases on their pretty web sites are simply not getting through. This is a media war that Labour is winning.

Something has to give.

My father lost his licence this year because of his health, and can no longer drive himself to the fishing. Luckily, he’s well liked and one of the younger lads will often drive him up to his favourite loch when he feels the need to drop a line in the water. He might not get the place to himself anymore, but he’s still catching fish, and it puts a smile on his face.

I once asked him how the Scottish Government could help him.

‘Change the law about Sunday salmon fishing,’ he replied. ‘The working man has aye been denied fishing for salmon on Sundays, so the toffs dinnae hae their rivers over-fished by the workers.’

Perhaps he is right. This might win a few over. It sounds like a good idea, even though, dare I say, a tad populist. But how would this help lift the people in Glasgow out of poverty? And, just as importantly, how many would be persuaded by this measure to stop voting to stay in poverty? Not too many, I would think.

My mother doesn’t answer the door when politicians call. And like me, she’s learnt not to debate politics with my father. She knows he doesn’t like her voting differently to him and that he considers it a wasted vote if she does. She did it one year and told him, and he was furious.

Today, as far as my father is aware, she votes Labour too, and there are no arguments on polling day. But my mother and I always have the last laugh.

Mum votes SNP.

This article first appeared on the Power and its Minions blog.