The choice for Scottish Labour – sentimental delusion or feasible idealism?


Stephen Maxwell

Since last May’s General Election most surveys of voting intentions for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections have given the Labour Party a clear lead over the SNP.

Even Scottish Labour’s most ardent champions would not attribute their advantage to a stream of compelling new policies or to their leader’s easy dominance of the Scottish debate….

Stephen Maxwell

Since last May’s General Election most surveys of voting intentions for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections have given the Labour Party a clear lead over the SNP.

Even Scottish Labour’s most ardent champions would not attribute their advantage to a stream of compelling new policies or to their leader’s easy dominance of the Scottish debate.  They know that the most plausible cause of their party’s advantage lies in Scotland’s traditional anti -Tory reflex allied to the discomfiture of the SNP at finding itself in Government in Scotland in the middle of the UK’s worst financial crisis since the Second World War, and to their deliverance, thanks to their party defeat in England, from any Governmental responsibility for managing that crisis.

Some of the tactical advantages which Labour currently enjoys will erode over the next few months.  Labour’s opportunistic attacks on SNP as the party of cuts will become progressively less credible as all Scottish political parties confront the detailed implications of George Osborne’s October spending review.  And following Labour’s UK Election defeat the fading of a generation of senior Scottish Labour politicians led by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling will weaken Scottish Labour’s voice in both UK and Scottish politics.  More serious for Labour their windfall advantage cannot conceal the accelerating erosion of their strategic position in Scotland.

The first weakness is the continuing divergence of Scottish and English voting patterns.  Prior to last May’s Election Scotland  had been ruled from Westminster by parties which it had rejected at the polls for twenty seven of the sixty five years since the end of the Second World War.  If the current Coalition Government survives for a full term Scotland will have been ruled by UK Governments it has rejected for thirty two out of seventy post war years.  A further six years of Conservative led Government would see Scotland having spent half its post War history under Westminster Governments it had rejected at the polls.

With its historic tendency to discount Scotland’s democratic claims Scottish Labour might have been able to shrug off this democratic deficit had it not been linked to the growing ideological divergence between English and Scottish politics.  That divergence first appeared in 1970 when English voters put Edward Heath into Downing Street.  The crucial political marker then was the rallying of Scottish political and civil support against the Heath Government’s attempt to close down Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, with Jimmy Reid’s 1972 Glasgow  University Rectorial  Address as its ethical coda.  

Seven years later Mrs. Thatcher’s election, again by English votes against Scottish opposition, ushered in a version of market economics which doubled the rate of Scottish unemployment and came close to doubling the level of Scottish poverty.  The Conservative Party duly suffered a fall in its Scottish vote from 31% at the start of Conservative rule in 1979 to just 17% at its end in 1997.  

The new ConDem Government elected by English voters intends to cut Scottish public spending well beyond anything Mrs. Thatcher achieved.  Whether the consequences will match the social cataclysm of the Thatcher era remains to be seen but no one doubts that  the effects will be severe  throughout Scotland’s economy and society with the economically weakest again feeling the most pain.

Mrs Thatcher’s Government started out with 31% of the Scottish vote. After eighteen years of Tory Government her successors could muster only 17%.  The ConDem Government started life with the Conservative vote in Scotland at just 17% and the Liberal Democrats at 19%.  August polling surveys show the Lib Dems down to just 12% and the Conservatives at 14% – after only three months of the coalition Government and before their cuts have begun to bite.

The second strategic weakness in Labour’s platform is Scotland’s improving budgetary position at a time of UK fiscal crisis.   With the addition of its geographical share of North Sea oil revenues Scotland’s notional current budget balance as reported by the official GERS reports has been in modest surplus between 2005/6 and 2008/9 when the UK budget has been in massive deficit.  Of course the balance of the Scottish budget will fluctuate annually but as the  global economic recovery gathers pace amid fears of impending ‘peak oil’ the world price of oil is likely to follow a strong upward trend which will boost Scottish revenues at a time when Westminster cuts will be decimating Scotland’s public expenditure.  The Independent Budget Report estimates that £42bn will be stripped from Scottish public spending between 2009/10 and 2025/26.  On quite conservative estimates of oil values over the period Scotland could contribute twice that sum in oil revenues to the UK Treasury.

Labour’s third strategic weakness lies in its conservatism on devolution.  The experience of Mrs. Thatcher’s English Government persuaded Scots that they needed their own Parliament.  But Cameron’s round of English Government is demonstrating that the limited devolution conceded by Westminster offers Scotland no protection against the periodic pogroms against the public sector which English politics demands.  Whatever the preferences of the Scottish voter, whatever the Scottish possibilities for economic development and social reform, under limited devolution in both its pre and post Calman versions the UK Treasury rules OK.  Denied substantive powers over tax or economic development the devolved Scottish Parliament is revealed as a fair weather vessel carrying far too little ballast to steady Scotland’s course through global economic tempests whose impact on Scotland has been multiplied by Westminster’s regulatory failures and persistent budgetary short termism.

The fourth, and perhaps most fateful, strategic weakness in Labour’s position is the erosion of the UK’s ‘social union’.  Symbolised by the NHS, the UK’s social union was the bedrock on which the Calman Commission founded its rejection of calls for Scottish fiscal autonomy.   The one thing Scotland must not do was to loosen its UK links with the NHS, the benefits system and the other achievements of the British welfare state.  To the Commission, Thatcher and New Labour had never existed and Cameron and Osborne were just a bad dream. 

Well the Commissioners know better now.  As Cameron and Osborne dismantle the unitary NHS, introduce even more class segregation into the English education system and load a disproportionate share of the burden of correcting the fiscal deficit on to the poor they are marching through doors opened by Thatcher and Blair.   After five years of regressive ConDem Government led by rich former English public schooolboys the social union as imagined by Calman will be a ruin beyond the will of English politics to restore.

So where can Scottish Labour turn?  Should we expect to hear a small voice of surviving sanity from somewhere within its inert corpus urging it to seize on Scotland’s steady support for social democracy and its favourable economic prospects to claim for the Scottish Parliament the power to build the more just and sustainable society Labour’s Scottish voters have been seeking for the past forty years?  Or will it succumb yet again to its cheating old unionist heart and throw in its lot with its fickle English partner in Middle England?  More clearly than ever it’s a choice between a sentimental British delusion and a feasible Scottish future.

Stephen Maxwell is the Treasurer of the Scottish Independence Convention: