Pandering to Scottish self-pity
As Labour slumps in the Scottish polls, Allan Massie argues that it
is paying the price for playing the nationalist (small n) card against
Coming up to the Scottish Labour Party's special conference a few weeks
before the general election, Tony Blair was under some pressure. His decision
to hold a referendum on the party's devolution pro-posals had gone down
badly with those who thought a general election victory would be sufficient
mandate to introduce a bill setting up a Scottish parliament. There was
some dissatisfaction too with the degree of control being exerted from
Millbank. Though a majority of Scottish MPs had supported Blair in the
leadership election-in the run-up to which Gordon Brown had learned that
he couldn't count on the votes of a majority of his Scottish colleagues
if he ran against Blair-both Blair's Scottish credentials and his commitment
to traditional Labour were being questioned.
So we had a public relations stroke. We suddenly learned of Tony's granny
from Red Clydeside, a notable battleaxe who had campaigned on the issue
of 'Arms for Spain' in the thirties. She was actually no blood-relation,
since she and her husband had adopted Leo Blair, Tony's father, and there
was no evidence that she had ever influenced the young Tony. But that didn't
matter. She served her purpose: to suggest that Tony had roots deep in
the Labour Party in Scotland. Not a lot has been heard of granny Blair
since; nothing really.
Blair, it is said, goes down badly in Scotland. He doesn't have the
rapport he has established with Middle England. Indeed, his appeal to Middle
England is held against him by many, and when he tried to suggest that
there was a Middle Scotland too (which there is), people shook their heads
in indignant disbelief. So there are those who claim that he is a liability,
not an asset, in Scotland; though, as a matter of fact, the opinion polls
don't support this view. They still show him as more popular than the Labour
Of course Labour has been in trouble since its referendum triumph, and
it is easy to lay this at the door of Blairism. Onslaught on single parents,
imposition of tuition fees (from which students from Labour's working class
support will be exempt)...these are dismissed as Tory policies such as
This is frankly rubbish.
That Labour has slumped in the polls is undeniable. But the reasons
have little to do with a rejection of Tony Blair, however one may regret
having to say so.
Certainly Labour seems to have lost some of its traditional support.
Those who assumed that Blair's election would mean an immediate reversal
of Tory policies have been disappointed, and may have drifted to the SNP
where they can keep intact their illusion that cloud-cuckoo-land may be
translated into reality.
But the real reason for the loss of support is different. It is first
the series of scandals that have been exposed in Labour's west-central
Scotland fiefdoms. Labour is no longer seen as a party defending the people
against Tory harshness, but as a party which has itself been guilty for
a long time of the abuse of power, and as a party mired in (actually small-scale)
corruption. At a municipal level Labour now seems like a party that has
been in power for too long. The Labour fiefdoms have developed all the faults
characteristic of a one-party state. Now that the Tories have gone the
spotlight has been turned on Labour, and an awful lot of voters don't like
what it has revealed.
The second reason is equally potent, though in reality ridiculous. At
least since Labour began to recover after the 1983 election, the party
began to play a dangerous game in Scotland. Crying out that the Tories
had no mandate, since they were a minority party in Scotland, Labour carelessly
subverted the Union. It played the nationalist card in an attempt to embarrass
the Tories and steal the SNP's ground. It succeeded in the first aim but
not in the second.
The more Labour presented Scotland as a victim of Thatcherite aggression,
the more it stoked the fires of nationalism. The party pandered to Scottish
self-pity, and did not pause to consider that in doing so it was endangering
its own position. Then, after winning the election, Labour compounded its
folly by welcoming the support of the SNP in the referendum on devolution.
During that campaign, writing in oppos-ition to devolution, I frequently
quoted the old limerick about the young lady of Riga, who went, as you
may recall, for a ride on a tiger. 'They returned from the ride/With the
lady inside/And a smile on the face of the tiger.'
Well, the tiger is smiling broadly, more broadly than ever; and the
young, or rather elderly, lady-the Scottish Labour Party-still doesn't
know what has happened to it. So to its incredulous consternation, it finds
the (SNP) Nationalists tarring it with the brush with which it so happily
tarred the Tories. Labour, the Nationalists say, is a branch-office party
which takes its ideas from London. This is absurd, when you consider the
composition of the government; but some people seem to believe it.
In playing the nationalist (small n) card against Thatcher and Major,
Labour was doing the equivalent of paying the Danegeld.
'And that is called paying the Danegeld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Danegeld,
You never get rid of the Dane.'
That is Labour's problem now: how to calm the nationalist spirit it
provoked. I don't think wheeling out memories of Tony's Glasgow granny
will do the trick.
Allan Massie is a columnist for the Scotsman
Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998