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Wings Over Scotland

An open letter to Scottish Labour

Posted on June 17, 2011 by

I originally wrote this piece for a website recently set up by some Labour MPs and MSPs from Scotland, which had solicited contributions from supporters of other parties. The site had attracted a large amount of comments (almost all of them genuine attempts at discussion, rather than jibes) from non-Labour voters, but some readers got very huffy about this “cybernat invasion”.

Sadly, despite asking me to write the piece after I suggested it to them, they’ve declined to publish it, and the site has now taken to deleting comments from non-supporters wholesale. (I had a minor Twitter scuffle with the Labour MP behind the site last night, and he’s turned out to have a very thin skin. One of his posts on the blog was also so mercilessly shredded for inaccurate facts that its entire comments thread has now been deleted.)

So here it is instead. It’s an entirely genuine piece with no secret agenda, but it looks as though “Scottish” Labour is already closing ranks in order to adopt the same approach to learning the lesson of its 2011 humiliation as it did to the much narrower loss in 2007. Oh well. If it comes to it I can very much live with the SNP in power for a generation or two.



There seems to be very little scope for disputing the fact that Scotland is a predominantly left-leaning country. For the entire 40-plus years I’ve been alive, my homeland has returned overwhelmingly Labour MPs to Westminster and consistently, resoundingly rejected Conservative values.

During that time the fortunes of the Tories in the UK as a whole have ridden a rollercoaster that would have done Alton Towers proud, from Thatcher’s landslides to the laughing-stock years under Hague/Duncan-Smith/Howard and back to power again, yet the Tory vote in Scotland barely flickered from its flat-line.

Let’s speak plainly. Anyone who isn’t delusional to the point of having someone cut up their soup for them knows that the Tories will never achieve a plurality of Scottish seats or votes (let alone a majority) either at Westminster or Holyrood in the lifetime of anyone currently my age – I’ll take any wagers on that proposition that anyone would like to put forward – and the remarkable thing is that the Scottish Conservative Party finds itself in this moribund position despite the left vote in Scotland being so spectacularly and bitterly fragmented.

(Describing Labour as being on the left in anything other than a historical context is of course a position contradicted by most empirical fact, but that’s an argument for another day and it’s not really what I’m here to talk about.)

Labour’s hatred of the SNP is so venomous that in the last Scottish Parliament it found common ground (measured by Holyrood votes) with the Tories more often than with a party that – independence aside – shares the vast majority of Labour’s traditional values. (Or at the very least, shares a lot more of them than the Tories do.)

Even allowing for the fundamental nature of opposition that’s a staggering statistic considering the supposed ideological positions of the three parties, and it’s very much reflected in the angry reaction of many Labour supporters on this blog to the presence of a few SNP-leaning commenters.

But the most noteworthy thing is that this fury at “cybernat invasion” has been directed at comments which are, by a huge margin, constructive in nature. People have tried genuinely to explain to you why a predominantly left-wing Scottish electorate, with hundreds of thousands of disenchanted anti-Tory former Lib Dems looking for a home, so comprehensively rejected Labour and instead voted for the party that some in Labour still embarrassingly try to smear as the “Tartan Tories” (a slur a mere 40 or so years out of date).

We’ve tried to tell you that in an internet age people see through the tired old lines, that nobody’s scared of the SNP any more, and that maybe you should try to engage the electorate positively and truthfully.

With a couple of honourable exceptions, your reaction to this magnanimous offer of insight and a helping hand has been to shove your fingers in your ears, shout “LA LA LA WE’RE NOT LISTENING” and revert to partisan type, with an outpouring of exactly the sort of snide negativity, petty name-calling, denial and occasionally outright lies that handed the SNP the most spectacularly crushing election victory on the British Isles in living memory.

(With a greater share of the vote than either Thatcher or Blair in their pomp ever secured, and more incredible still because the SNP achieved it in a four-party system rather than a three-party one, and despite that system being specifically designed to prevent majorities and even more particularly SNP ones.)

Of course, it’s an understandable response. Firstly because you’re still hurting, secondly because it’s hard to face up to uncomfortable truths about Labour’s real location on the political spectrum nowadays, and thirdly because it’s easy to be sceptical about advice from your enemies, particularly enemies you’ve loathed so bitterly for so long. I’m not an SNP member or activist, but I’m a believer in independence and also proudly a socialist  – remember those?

The purpose of this piece is to offer, with sincerity and honesty, an attempt to explain why myself and others like me are actually, genuinely, trying to help you.

(And not even “help you come round to our way of thinking”, either. I mean actually help you to oppose us.)

The problem with – and for – the organisation operating under the kid-on brand of “Scottish Labour” (a term banned in European elections for being misleading) is that it’s neither Scottish, nor Labour. Its leader is in truth the “leader” of nothing and no-one, a ceremonial figurehead entirely answerable to London – a position made starkly clear when Wendy Alexander tried to throw the reins and end the MSP group’s destructive opposition to a referendum on independence, only to be swiftly slapped back down into line by Labour’s one and only actual leader, Gordon Brown.

Scottish Labour’s policies are therefore in practice those of UK Labour, and UK Labour is a right-of-centre authoritarian party.

(If you doubt this, imagine yourself a time traveller visiting the Britain of 1960, or 1970, or 1980. Picture yourself encountering a random inhabitant of that world, and telling them of a political party in their near future that stood for nuclear weapons, nuclear power, slashing taxes on the rich, handing billions of pounds to private companies to build hospitals for massive profits, wasting untold billions more in a failed attempt to introduce ID cards and the prosecution of illegal imperial wars despite millions marching in protest, creating thousands of new crimes, cramming the prisons and trying to lock people up for months on end without trial or charge, inflating a property bubble while letting social housing go to rack and ruin, doing nothing for unions, talking tough about immigration, presiding over a huge increase in the gap between rich and poor, demonising and victimising the unemployed and the sick, etc etc. Would that person decide you were describing the Labour Party, do you think?)

While it’s by far the most left-wing of the four main parties in Scotland, the SNP is a social democratic one, not a socialist one. Alex Salmond no more saw through the fantasy economy led by RBS and HBOS than Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Alastair Darling did, and he has less excuse for being fooled than they did.

(By virtue of his own experience in banking, and the fact that he wasn’t being blinded by a pile of Treasury tax receipts.)

Those of us who don’t accept that socialism is a discredited ideology are therefore supportive of the SNP almost by default rather than through choice. There is no hope in the forseeable future of the UK electing a socialist government again – because that would require the sort of shift in Labour ideology that takes a generation to enact – and so the only practical way of living even in part under a broadly left-minded government is to elect one to Holyrood.

(As we’ve just seen, voting Labour is not currently a valid option in terms of that goal, because “Scottish Labour” has no power to reverse the edicts of UK Labour, which is in thrall to the right-wing votes of Middle England and tailors its policy cloth accordingly. If you suffer from the delusion that “Scottish Labour” is in any meaningful sense autonomous, ask yourself which of the policies listed three paragraphs above it did anything to obstruct.)

Westminster Tory governments are the awkward skeleton in Labour’s closet, the cousin you don’t like to talk about. An independent Scotland would be about as likely to elect a Tory government in the next 50 years as to adopt Sharia law or choose “Itsy-Witsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” as its new national anthem, yet staying in the Union condemns us to one on a regular and inevitable basis.

When Labour in Scotland opposes independence it is inescapably (because English voters outnumber Scots ten to one) saying “We’d rather Scotland’s government was chosen by English Tory voters than Scottish Labour ones”, and that’s a tough position to defend while you’re still pretending to be the alternative to the Conservatives rather than a watered-down version of the same thing.

As a basically socialist country, Scotland needs more than one party of the left. I celebrated as wildly as SNP supporters did on May 6th, but the sober reality is that absolute power does, as the old saying goes, corrupt absolutely – I celebrated wildly too in 1997 as Blair kicked out the Tories, and look where that ended up. It’s in nobody’s interests for the SNP to govern Scotland unchallenged, because the nature of power is that it destroys even the best of intentions.

For reasons which are both as obvious and as certain as night following day, “Scottish Labour” is doomed as long as it remains a toothless adjunct to the UK party. Such talent as you might manage to raise will continue to hightail it to the “big-boy” Parliament south of the border as soon as it possibly can, where it will be employed in shaping the party to the greater good – the needs and wishes of Essex Man.

If you’re worried about abandoning your English comrades to the tender mercies of the Tories, don’t be. UK Labour doesn’t need you. Every single one of Blair’s election victories would still have delivered absolute control of Westminster on English and Welsh seats alone, while conversely Scotland’s huge block of Labour MPs could do nothing to affect Thatcher’s majorities. The myth that Labour would be doomed to permanent Westminster opposition if Scotland were independent is just that – a total myth, easily disproven by the simplest arithmetical facts.

(In fact, Scotland’s Westminster MPs – of all parties – are a complete irrelevance to both Scotland and the UK, a pointless waste of money and resources. They have a say in the governance of either of those nations/states in the same way Kilmarnock have a say in the running of the SPL – that is, their voice is heard only so long as it agrees with everyone else’s.)

So when we come here and offer you advice, it’s not sarcasm, it’s not a double-bluff and it’s not an artless attempt at sabotage. We truly WANT an effective opposition – to keep the SNP honest and stop Alex Salmond turning from the respected, admired leader he is into a power-crazed megalomaniac, which I’m sure he’d concede is a constant danger – and an effective opposition means one with a chance of winning.

The fact of the matter is that nationalists would much rather the government of Scotland – the WHOLE government, not just the crumbs of power Westminster deigns to let fall from its table – swung between a left-wing Labour and the SNP (as it surely would in an independent Scotland) than between a right-wing Labour and the Conservatives, as it always will in Westminster.

We truly don’t understand why you’re so scared of the former prospect, and so determined to keep being a wee pretendy “party” with the training wheels permanently on and Big Brother constantly watching over your shoulder from London to make sure you don’t do anything daft.

You tell us constantly that you’re as Scottish as we are, that you have the best interests of Scotland at heart, and that you hate the Tories. Yet you regularly, needlessly, condemn the people of Scotland – YOUR people – to years and decades of Tory governments that they’ve overwhelmingly rejected at the polls, by insisting our fate stays tied to the vagaries of English opinion. What sort of concern for the people of Scotland is that? Tough love?

And if you’re Scottish and you prefer the latter scenario I outlined, you might want to take a step back, put down your Alex Neil voodoo doll for a second and ponder why it is that you hate the left-wing social-democratic SNP more than you hate Cameron and Osborne’s vicious Bullingdon Tories, and what that says about your own beliefs and the nature of your opposition in the Scottish Parliament.

Be Scottish, be Labour, and not only might you have a chance of victory at Holyrood, but the people of Scotland will be the winners. The way you’re headed now, to paraphrase a well-known slogan, things can only get worse.

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14 to “An open letter to Scottish Labour”

  1. Alistair Hutton

    It would also help if Labour didn't run election campaigns based around slogans such as (only slightly para-phrased on my part) "Scotland is a useless bankrupt hell hole that can only survive whilst parasitically feeding off England".  It's not hard to see why that didn't resonate whilst the SNP's "Scotland – Fuck Yeah" did.

  2. At least your country's political leaders aren't wingnut religious fanatics being egged on by a bloated heroin junkie on the radio.  Also, your population isn't drool-bubble-on-the-nose stupid.  So it could be a lot worse.

  3. Steve, from the internet

    Well said, Rev. Campbell, well said. Hear hear, not that they will.

  4. orkers

    I hadn’t discovered ‘Wings’ at the time so I missed this Post by Rev Stu.

    A stunning piece of writing.

  5. Seasick Dave

    Well found, Orkers.

    I can’t believe that this excellent piece only has four comments.

    Well worth getting it out again and giving it a dusting down. 

  6. muttley79

    Labour’s hatred of the SNP is so venomous that in the last Scottish Parliament it found common ground (measured by Holyrood votes) with the Tories more often than with a party that – independence aside – shares the vast majority of Labour’s traditional values. (Or at the very least, shares a heck of a lot more of them than the Tories do.) Even allowing for the fundamental nature of opposition that’s a staggering statistic considering the supposed ideological positions of the three parties, and it’s very much reflected in the angry reaction of many Labour supporters on this blog to the presence of a few SNP-leaning commenters.

    Oh dear, the more things change, the more they stay the same…(with an honourable exception to LVI).

  7. Grouse Beater

    Worthy sentiments, but alas, a waste of time.

    Scotland’s Labour branch is the last I’d write to, in effort to illustrate where they’ve gone wrong. Let them work it out themselves.

    My American friends might be tempted to add, never give a sucker an even break.

  8. Thepnr

    @Grouse Beater

    What brings you here? 🙂

    Your right though, the advice offered by the Rev back in 2011 was accurate but ignored. Pointless giving advice to those that will not listen.

    Even after the events on Thursday they are still not listening. Hell mend them.

  9. Helena Brown

    Well said Stuart, we do need a principled opposition not the bunch of frequently lying toadies that masquerade as one in the Scottish Parliament.
    This will not happen until Labour either regain control of their Scottish Branch or preferably let it go. Labour or indeed a totally new Party would be better, a remade Socialist one, one which has principles. I think hell may freeze over before that ever happens. We have a bunch of troughers masquerading as Politicians who have been well subverted by the British Establishment, bought out with seats in the Upper House and chances of Directorships.

  10. Alan Mackintosh

    Well said and even though this was 5 years ago, it could have been written today. If they thought it was bad in 2011, wait til we see the results this May.

  11. jimnarlene

    And yet they, SLab, will continue down the path of self a destruction; still blinded by their hatred of the SNP.

  12. K1

    This should have been a front page lead across the Scottish msm at the time of writing Stu, absolutely prescient and the vast majority of people in Scotland could have done with this kind of analysis at the time of writing.

    It’s a ‘keeper’ as Mac would say.

  13. jamero66

    Great piece,

    Obviously even more relevant now.

  14. Auld Rock

    This piece is like a good malt – it just gets better with age. You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, so it is with SLAB still pretending to be ostriches.

    Auld Rock

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