Kirk Williams criticises the post-election response of the Scottish
Labour and Scottish National parties
No retreat behind Hadrian's Wall
We were promised a Tory Free Zone. Govan MP, Jim Sillars, predicted thousands
of Scots gathering at Glasgow airport to wave goodbye to departing Tory
Scottish secretary 'Michael For-South' (geddit?) as he fulfilled his promise
to emigrate south and look for new employment. After all the blarney is
over, the Tories are left as the second party in parliamentary seats and
votes, and Jim Sillars is the one looking through the jobs pages.
The Scottish general election results broke many hearts and careers. After
13 years many Scots hoped that the election would finally see the back of
the Tories. The bombshell result has left many people confused as to why
the Tories are still here. The one thing all of the opposition parties in
Scotland now agree upon is that the blame lies to the south.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has blamed the Labour Party for 'conning'
the Scottish people into voting for it by offering the false dawn of a UK
Labour government. Some SNP leaders such as Sillars have accused their own
erstwhile supporters of being '90-minute patriots'.
However, they have saved their greatest scorn for the English working class,
especially so-called Essex or Basildon Man. As the singer and prominent
SNP supporter Pat Kane put it in the Glasgow Herald, 'don't forget
what you could have voted for, if you'd known a week earlier which way Basildon
Man and Co was eventually going to fall'.
The Scottish Labour Party has echoed much of this. Some members can be heard
arguing that the English only vote for 'selfishness and greed'. Some Scottish
Labour MPs were the first to demand that Neil Kinnock should go, and have
blamed their fourth defeat in a row on the Labour Party in the rest of Britain.
The question all of these opportunist politicians are avoiding is this:
if the problems of the opposition parties are the fault of the English,
then why did so many people in Scotland reject them as well?
For or against?
The irony is that Scotland was probably the one place where the Tories'
three-week election campaign proved effective. The Conservatives adopted
the high-risk tactic of trying to polarise the constitutional question between
outright independence and the Union. The result was to put the squeeze on
the Labour and Liberal parties, by making their devolution proposals look
wishy washy and forcing them to come out with their own pro-Union prejudices.
By forcing a discussion on the consequences of independence, the Tories
also put the spotlight on some of the more moonbeam policies of the SNP.
It was often comedy night seeing SNP politicians try to defend themselves
in the media.
The result of all this was that the Tory vote went up, a markedly better
performance than in the rest of the UK. Labour and Liberal support declined
from their 1987 positions. The SNP's supposed take-off never really got
off the tarmac; it was promising 37 seats on the eve of the election, it
now has three.
It was clear throughout the election that none of the opposition parties
was able to enthuse the electorate. No matter which party's election meeting
you attended, there was always more empty seats than attenders, more shuffling
of feet than questions and a real lack of excitement or enthusiasm - a marked
contrast to the state of political ferment portrayed in the media's version
of the Scottish campaign. Meanwhile, the high stakes which the Tories were
playing for ensured that they got their vote out.
The May council elections in Scotland confirmed the lack of dynamism behind
any of the opposition parties, as Labour slipped back and the SNP again
failed to make a significant breakthrough.
The political geography of Scotland may seem little different after the
general election. But the potential fallout from a fourth Tory term with
49 Labour MPs sitting in Scotland like lame ducks has led many to think
about their political futures and party alignments. They are thinking local.
This is a pattern that is being reproduced throughout Europe. The old left
is becoming ever-more marginal to mainstream politics, losing national elections
badly. In response, many on the left are seeking solace in regional redoubts.
The regionalisation of the left is the logical next step for those who have
long given up fighting on the big issues - like racism, militarism, or women's
rights. For those who no longer believe (if they ever really did) that it
is possible to change the world, retreating and trying to build local power
bases is the cause of the moment.
In withdrawing into Scotland and Scottish issues, the old left is simply
sidestepping its political problems. It is effectively blaming external
factors - such as the English voter--
for its own lack of political appeal. Many on the Scottish left are now
adopting a strategy not unlike that seen in Eastern Europe over recent years,
where discredited politicians from the old order have tried to salvage their
careers by putting on nationalist hats.
Major party realignments are probably still some way off in Scotland. But
there is a growing demand for alliances and pacts. Within the Labour Party,
the debate is between those who want to move towards an alliance with the
nationalists, and those who see no need to change. It is not a left-right
split but one along Unionist - nationalist lines.
All of the old institutions of the left and the labour movement are likely
to come under this pressure. The growing row between British trade union
leader Bill Jordan and the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), over whether
the STUC should concentrate on preserving jobs (that would be a first) or
campaigning for constitutional change, is indicative of the likely trend.
There is much talk in Scotland about dropping differences, sharing platforms
and offering the 'hand of cooperation' for the common aim of constitutional
change. There are now at least seven cross-party groupings in Scotland proposing
some form of constitutional change. The memberships and even the spokesmen
for these groups are often interchangeable. They are the people who have
led every failed attempt at constitutional change over the past 13 years.
The latest groupings are Common Cause and Scotland United. Common Cause
represents all the worst aspects of the Scottish chattering classes. They
could be found on election day hoping that the Scottish Office were already
preparing the alterations to the Scottish Assembly building on Calton Hill
in Edinburgh, to transform it into a real working parliament.
Scotland United has been set up in a blaze of media hype. Newspaper reports
put the size of the two rallies in Glasgow's George Square at even bigger
than the organisers' exaggerated claims. The aim of this campaign is to
force the Major government to hold a multi-option referendum on Scotland's
political future. This has been SNP policy for two years. It is now supported
by all parties bar the Tories. The Scottish Labour Party performed an immediate
post-election somersault from its long opposition to a referendum, for fear
of being marginalised and losing its nationalist wing.
Several leading politicians associated with Scotland United have hinted
at the need for civil disobedience and to 'live a little dangerously' to
gain the referendum. This is pretty rich coming from the likes of Labour
MP George Galloway, who condemned the poll tax protesters in Trafalgar Square
as 'lunatics, anarchists and other extremists' (see Living Marxism, May
1990), or Charles Gray, Labour leader of Strathclyde Regional Council, who
supported the jailing of poll tax non-payers. Gray has already rejected
the request from Glasgow teachers to stop docking their wages for boycotting
the Tory programme of testing primary school children.
The fact that these manoeuvring politicians are able to put themselves at
the forefront of the campaign for change in Scotland is testimony to the
low expectations of those involved.
The question which none of these groups have been able to answer is this:
why should a local parliament do any favours for Scottish people? Why should
a geographical reorganisation of the system of government solve Scottish
people's problems? Those living close to Westminster in Brixton and Hackney
don't seem to have benefited much from having a handily local parliament.
What matters is not where a parliamentary talking shop stands. What
matters is who has control over society. In Scotland, as in the rest
of Britain, power rests with the capitalists and the state machine which
serves their interests. Having a parliament in Edinburgh or the Outer Hebrides
can make no difference in a society where the ownership of wealth decides
A referendum on whether the government should sit in Whitehall or Edinburgh
would offer Scottish people no choice at all. Channelling opposition politics
into a campaign demanding such a useless referendum is a diversion away
from tackling the big issues in the Tories' fourth term.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992