by James Maxwell
Fintan O’Toole’s superb polemic Ship of Fools, a savage assault on the cynical, incompetent elite which has driven Ireland’s once booming economy to the point of ruin, contains a passage of particular significance for followers of politics in Scotland:
“Fianna Fáil existed as a machine for the gaining and holding of political power”, it reads. “It was in general inimical to political ideas that could be spelled out in detail or tested against reality. If ideas had to be worn at all, they could be easily discarded.”
This is just as accurate a description of Scottish Labour as it is of Ireland’s now former party of government.
Like Fianna Fail – which was emphatically defeated this month at the Irish general election – the only thing that really seems to motivate Labour these days is “the gaining and holding of political power”, a fact revealed by the conflicting positions the party has taken recently on key social policy proposals.
At the Scottish Labour conference in Oban last year Iain Gray announced that if elected he would introduce a £7.15 minimum rate of hourly pay for all public sector workers.
This is an excellent idea which could help protect a substantial layer of the Scottish workforce from some of the worst effects of rising inflation, mass unemployment and the recent VAT increase.
But in light of his subsequent decision in the chamber to vote down the SNP’s plan to impose a modest levy on large supermarket retailers, it can only be understood as a nakedly political manoeuvre.
Gray knows that elections in Scotland are won and lost on the left-of-centre ground, hence his support for higher public sector wages. But he also knows that Alex Salmond has already staked a strong claim to this territory, hence his opposition to the supermarket levy.
Double-dealing of this kind is typical of Fianna Fáil which presents itself as a socialist party to trade unionists and a laissez-faire one to the Irish business community.
Another powerful illustration of Labour’s wholesale disregard for political principle can be found in the recent Wikileaks revelation that the party engaged in an act of brazen doublespeak with regard to the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.
The absurd image of Richard Baker on Newsnight trying desperately to explain away his party’s breathtaking duplicity over the whole affair – condemning Kenny MacAskill’s decision in public while loudly applauding it in private – should serve as a vivid reminder to all Scots in the run up to May of Labour’s total refusal to observe basic standards of moral and intellectual conduct.
But the similarities between Scottish Labour and Fianna Fáil amount to more than simply a common taste for hypocrisy.
Both parties grew out of movements established with the aim of challenging London rule in the Celtic fringes.
Although Fianna Fáil fought to consolidate Ireland’s independence from the UK and Labour for only partial Scottish self-governance, in their original forms they shared a fundamental hostility to the historical conservatism of the British state and the democratic inequities embedded in its constitutional structure.
However, with time the radicalism that informed that hostility gradually ebbed away until they both came to resemble the conservative establishment they once sought to reform or overthrow.
Since the 1960s and 70s Scottish Labour and Fianna Fáil have functioned as entrenched, power-hungry institutions in their own right, obstinately resistant to any change that threatens their status as the dominant political force in their respective countries. Think of how Labour cynically rigged the 1979 referendum on home rule, or how Fianna Fáil’s elitist party structure smothers internal dissent.
Nonetheless dirty tactics like these have been incredibly effective.
Fianna Fáil has governed Ireland for 61 of the last 79 years, while Labour has held a large majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats for more than five decades.
Of course, the inevitable consequence of such electoral hegemony is a culture of cronyism and corruption (low-level in Scotland, high-intensity in Ireland) which has gradually eroded the pillars of representative democracy at the local and national levels.
O’Toole explains how this works in Ireland: “The political system, embodied most thoroughly in Fianna Fáil, [was interested] in power and patronage to the virtual exclusion of all else … A system of personal connection operated, from the constituent being ‘looked after’ by the TD (MP) to the donor being ‘looked after’ by the minister’.”
A similar system operates in Scottish Labour’s central belt and west coast strongholds.
The BBC reported last week that Jim Docherty, a Labour councillor in South Lanarkshire, vigorously encouraged the council’s planning committee to accept the building application of millionaire property developer James Kean, who also happened to be one of his close friends and a long-time donor to the Labour Party.
Docherty denies all charges of impropriety and, obviously, one incident of as yet unproven malfeasance does not amount to much of a scandal.
But it’s worth remembering that since devolution Scottish Labour has lost two leaders to accusations of financial mishandling and currently has one former MP in prison for cooking his parliamentary expense accounts. That something is rotten at the heart the party is beyond doubt.
O’Toole concludes by calling for the Irish people to establish a second republic in which the values of civic morality and democratic accountability are elevated rather than denegrated in public and political life. Perhaps Fianna Fáil’s crushing electoral defeat last week signals the start of that new republic.
Meanwhile, here in Scotland we have an election of our own to fight – and possibly a republic of our own to gain.