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Labour’s strange solidarity narrative

Posted on May 23, 2012 by

A curious phenomenon occurs when debating the issues of independence with those of the Labour party – one that was highlighted again in the debate published on this site last week. Labour constantly repeats the mantra of being “stronger together” and asserts that the SNP only cares about a poor child in Glasgow but not about a poor child in Bradford, citing this as a reason to maintain the Union.

(Quite why the Scottish National Party would ever be expected to concern itself with the sovereign affairs of England is a question we’ll leave for another day.)

The “solidarity” narrative insists that both issues must be tackled at the same time, and that it would be unfair to focus on only one of the children while failing to provide the same attention and resources to the other. In order to show solidarity, the fate of both children must be tied to that of the worst-off, and if the fortunes of both cannot be improved then neither should be.

(For some reason this narrative doesn’t usually extend to covering children from Istanbul or Delhi. There’s no discernible intent among Labour activists to create a European superstate so that all deprivation can be addressed simultaneously. The party appears to apply double standards for the UK and the rest of the world, only serving to highlight its British-nationalist ethos rather than any commitment to a global brotherhood of man.)

By way of illustration, imagine that (Heaven forbid) you find yourself in a lifeboat in the immediate aftermath of some terrible maritime disaster, and there are two groups of children in the water. The lifeboat can only accommodate one of the groups, and so a decision must be made which to save. At present the boat is captained by the SNP, who are intent on plucking the nearest of the two groups from the ocean and moving them to safety. Within the lifeboat, however, there are also Labour politicians who insist that as they cannot save all the children, it would be selfish and unfair to save only a few, and that therefore in order to show “solidarity” the lifeboat should pick up no children at all, leaving all to drown or succumb to hypothermia, comforted only by the identical fate of their companions.

This narrative is now central to Labour’s policy in respect of anything where Scotland and England/the rest of the UK differ, such as free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly and free higher education. In effect, it argues that Scotland should change to accommodate the English approach, thereby implying that Scotland is in the wrong.

The party argues that free prescriptions in Scotland are wrong if those in England cannot get them, not that the English should be granted the same rights. They argue that free personal care for the elderly is wrong on the grounds that others south of the border cannot get access to such a service, so Scotland is somehow being greedy in choosing to prioritise the wellbeing of its pensioners over, say, hosting the Olympics. On higher education, meanwhile, the “solidarity” narrative means that they accept the imposition of increased tuition fees in England (but advocate only a 100% increase rather than a 200% one), and imply that to redress the “unfairness” Scotland should follow suit and reintroduce fees in Scottish universities, so that once again there would be equality across the Union.

It’s not evident that it ever occurs to the party to suggest addressing the imbalance by raising standards to the Scottish levels, rather than dragging them down to the English ones. The key principle is solidarity (including, if ideologically necessary, solidarity of misery), not the welfare of the electorate.

Labour appears to consider the opportunity to share suffering across the UK to be a trump card in the war against independence – logically, it follows that it believes if you were to stop the average voter in the street and suggest that in order to show solidarity with those in England, the Scottish NHS should be privatised in a manner similar to that currently taking place south of the border, you would receive an enthusiastic response. We suspect the opposite is true.

Labour’s position is that improving the lives of Scots if we can’t improve the lives of everyone else in the UK at the same time is not just selfish but actively wrong, so we shouldn’t even try. The policy is another example of how the party’s blind hatred of the nationalists has overcome its principles, shunning opportunities to build a better society in favour of scorched-earth tribalism. (Perhaps it senses defeat, and wishes to ensure that the SNP inherits an independent Scotland crippled by neo-liberal asset stripping, which might be fertile ground for a Labour opposition to achieve the one goal it really cares about – the  regaining of power.)

In autumn 2014, one of the groups of metaphorical children in the water will have the opportunity to grab hold of the lifeboat and be taken to safety, from where they may be able to alert rescuers to come to the aid of the others. Labour would rather we scuttle the vessel and sink together into a cold, watery grave.

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23 to “Labour’s strange solidarity narrative”

  1. MajorBloodnok says:

    When I was reading that I had image of Leonardo di Caprio and Johann Lamont on the prow of the Titanic.  Shudder.

  2. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy) says:





  3. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy) says:

    P.S. Picture would fit into story above last paragraph if you wanted to add it…

  4. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    Your wish is my command.

  5. MajorBloodnok says:

    Thanks for that! … indelible image! I laughed out loud.

  6. I’m glad somebody worked it out,I just knew it was wrong but could not get the idea formulated in my mind correctly,so thanks Wings OS.
    Aye its a case of conning the people again telling us that we are now too greedy,but wait are we not too poor or stupid,or is it too wee? So how come we can do these fair and just things while England can’t?
    Now if I can get the analogy right its the same as when my granny said “If he jumped in the Clyde you would as well?” remembering that from when she gave me the last biscuit and and none left for my cousin.Now it makes sense.

  7. Doug Daniel says:

    Ahhh, Labour’s policy on tuition fees. I few weeks back I had a Twitter debate (are we calling these Twebates yet?) with what I can only assume is the son of Mark Lazarowicz MP, where he declared that Labour’s policy in England of “raise fees from £3,000 to £6,000” represented CUTTING fees. Possibly the most impressive piece of spin I’ve ever had used against me – the boy has clearly learned his party’s approach to the truth very well. I pointed out, of course, that as the fee increase was yet to be implemented, he was speaking crap.

    Anyway, great article, and so true. If Labour were truly a left-wing party “putting Scotland first”, they would be upholding the good left-wing things Scotland has and trying to make their London colleagues see sense. As it is, their first priority is re-election in England, and in order to attract the left-wing voters, they need to stop Scotland highlighting how right-wing the Labour party truly are by inconveniently showing that there IS an alternative to privatising education and health.

    The interesting thing about the Labour party’s British nationalism is their utter refusal to accept it. I know fine I put the needs of Scotland first and foremost, in a “put your own house in order first” way, which is why I’m a Scottish nationalist. There is nothing inherently wrong with caring mostly about those closest to you – in fact it’s human nature – and it does not prevent you from also wanting to better the lives of others. The difference is, as a Scottish nationalist, I recognise the difference between your “circle of concern” (i.e. things you want to change) and your “circle of influence” (i.e. things you CAN change). As a Scottish voter, I can make Scotland move in a progressive direction – I have no such ability in regards to the UK, any more than I do in regards to any other nation.

    The question is why Labourites have such a problem recognising their British nationalism. They purport to “put Scotland first”, when clearly this is just spin. Why do they use this line? It’s a tacit admission that putting the needs of your immediate electorate first is the right thing to do – so why continue to put Britain first instead? Or if they truly do want to put Scotland first, why not recognise that their party does not?

    Labour really are one fucked-up party. At least the Tories KNOW they couldn’t give a shit about Scotland and don’t make much of an attempt to pretend otherwise.

    Final note: why does the following address not lead to a page saying “NOTHING”?  

  8. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy) says:

    @Doug Daniel

    It is not just Labourites that the “Solidarity Narrative” applies to, as was evident in the debate involving George Galloway on Scotland Tonight.

    It would appear that the lack of positive cases for the union has led to the acceptance that this double negative thinking is now a Unionist stop gap to counter lack of coherent arguments.

  9. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    “The question is why Labourites have such a problem recognising their British nationalism.”

    It’s a weird one. I mean, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in being nationalist about your nation (as long as it’s civic nationalism, of course) – otherwise what was all Gordon Brown’s cobblers about “Britishness” for? – and if you’ve chosen the UK as your nation rather than Scotland, that’s perfectly fine. So why deny it so hotly?

    The fact is, at the end of the day nobody can have two nationalities. (You can, of course, have multiple citizenships, but that’s not the same thing.) Labour spout a load of guff about being “proudly British and proudly Scottish”, but that’s only possible on the basis of one of them being a regional subsection of the other.

    I grew up in Bathgate, which is in West Lothian, which is in Scotland, which is in Britain, which is in Europe, which is in the Northern Hemisphere, etc. I belong to all of those entities, and am perfectly happy to be identified as such, but only one of them is – or can be – my nation.

    I’ve only ever agreed with Norman Tebbit about one thing in my life: if you say you’re “Scottish and English” or whatever, your nationality is the one you want to win when Scotland play England at football or rugby or cricket or elephant polo. The other is just the place you live.

    (If your two nations never meet in sporting events, as Scotland and Britain tend not to, it’s still easy. Imagine that Scotland’s become independent and – however unlikely it is that this would be a consequence – you’re only allowed to have a passport from one of them and have to choose. It’s an impossible decision for you, so you leave it up to fate. You elect to toss a coin, deciding that come what may, for better or worse, “heads” will mean you’re Scottish, “tails” British. Toss the coin. Don’t look yet. You KNOW in your heart which one you want it to be. That’s your nation.)

  10. James Morton says:

    Also flies in the face of Duncan Hothersalls’ assertion that Scotlands interests can be defended within the Union. They truly are a wretched farce of a party, they look and sound more “tory” every day.

  11. NorthBrit says:

    Very good response RevStu on the nationality question.  I am quite happy being British – the problem being that British will be as dead a nationality as “Roman” if the Union breaks up. 

    What I find bizarre is that Scottish Labour members aren’t British in their attitudes at all.  Their outlook is grim socialist international – see the absurd Councillor Kelly’s “Avanti poplo”(sic) and Grahamski’s heinous appropriation of Gramsci’s name and image.  (I imagine that Gramsci is doing around 12,000 rpm in his grave right now at having his memory traduced in this fashion).  

    This peculiar world view allows them to play at being “anti Fascist” by bashing evil nationalists while supporting a party that is well to the right of the pre-Thatcher Conservatives.

  12. Mark says:

    I think it’s just that the term ‘British nationalism’ is probably considered toxic, because it’s normally associated with English ethnic nationalism, and by extension racism. And so it’s ‘unionism’ as oppose to ‘British nationalism’.

    As recent as two years ago I remember having to explain to some English friends that the SNP were in no way similar to the BNP. I think it’s taken a while for the English press to understand the difference too.

    I know George Galloway stood as a list candidate in Glasgow last year, but I get the impression that he doesn’t really follow Scottish politics too closely. He was only on the programme to deliver a few one-liners etc.

  13. Bob Duncan says:

    There is no dichotomy between Scottish and British nationality. Scotland is a nation without statehood and Britain is a state containing multiple nationalities. I am currently a British subject and a Scottish national – both at the same time. After independence, I will become a Scottish citizen, but my nationality will be unchanged and I will continue to be British, but in a strictly geographical sense, as a Swede is also a Scandinavian.

  14. MartinB says:

    The falsehood at the heart of this narrative is that by implementing policies that are more responsive to the needs of each nation, you may benefit both.
    That’s the fundamental argument for independence: that we may set our own policies to suit our own needs unfettered by what Westminster may choose for the addressing of rUK’s needs. And vice versa.
    (I do think that the guid folk of Bradford have a case that Westminster ignores their needs in favour of those of the City of London, but that’s a matter for rUK to resolve and I wouldn’t want to step on their toes)

  15. MartinB says:

    What you’re unlikely to learn from history lessons in a British classroom is that the Scandinavian nations have been members of a number of Unions between them over the centuries, the last effectively being dissolved in 1905
    They’re still happily feeling Scandinavian over a hundred years later, while existing as separate states.

  16. YesYesYes says:

    We know that Scottish Labour’s ‘internationalism’ doesn’t extend beyond British borders as it’s not that long ago that Johann Lamont was criticising the Scottish government for giving contracts to Chinese steel workers over Scottish steel workers, conveniently glossing over the fact that, as a consequence of successive British governments’ policies, Scottish steel plants don’t have the capacity to produce the types of steel that were required. But, even putting this to one side, a genuine internationalist would never demand Scottish jobs for Scottish workers any more than s/he would support Gordon Brown’s/the British National Party’s mantra of British jobs for British workers.
    But doesn’t this example give the lie to Scottish Labour’s deception here? For example, suppose a British government or a private firm had to choose between awarding a contract with large employment-creating opportunities to a workforce in Glasgow or a workforce in Liverpool. The jobs would either go to one place or the other, not both. If Scottish Labour really did care as much about people in Liverpool as they do about people in Glasgow then what they are effectively saying is that they would not campaign on behalf of the workforce in Glasgow as that would be to the detriment of workers in Liverpool. Of course, we know that this is nonsense just as we know that Labour MPs in Liverpool would have no hesitation in campaigning vigorously for the jobs to go to Liverpool. And while the loss of jobs in Glasgow wouldn’t be something to celebrate for these Labour MPs in Liverpool, if it’s a choice for them , then it would be better if Glasgow lost these jobs rather than Liverpool.
    So when Scottish Labour say that they care as much about people in Liverpool, Bradford or wherever as much as they do about people in Glasgow or Dundee what they mean is that, in principle, they care as much but, in practice, they will always promote Scottish workers’ interests over the workers of other countries, including England. At least, I hope that’s what they mean. We should have a name to describe the politics of this position. I’d suggest nationalist internationalism. We can all sign up to that.  

  17. foo says:

    You are missing the point. People in Bradford will ultimately be better off if they get democracy closer to their rulers; if they are not, perhaps England needs further devolved. Civic nationalism has a fairly consistent world view. The argument that Scotland should not get what it wants in case England does likewise, is fundamentally a poor one.
    About as poor as the idea that there is some distinction between nationality and citizenship. Nationality, to wit:
    the status of belonging to a particular nation,  whether by birth or naturalization
    Citizenship is merely an expression of nationality. There is nothing in that definition that says you can’t belong to more than one group, and people are complex and can belong multiple groups at once. Maybe their parents are of different nationality and they feel ties to both places; maybe they are immigrants and have natutralised but still feel ties to home, maybe they’ve been invaded at some time in the past and ended up on the wrong side of a line they don’t want to be. People don’t necessarily spend all their time in one place, and experiences are formative throughout life. You don’t get a mark on you when you are born. The alternative here is you wind up with Tebbit’s cricket test and arguing people aren’t properly X because of some arbitary constraint.
    That is separate from saying that only the people living in a place should get to vote on something.  That is simply the converse of “No taxation without representation”.

  18. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    “The alternative here is you wind up with Tebbit’s cricket test and arguing people aren’t properly X because of some arbitary constraint.”

    Yes, it is. In this particular case, the correct alternative. You can change your nation, but you can’t have two nations at once, any more than you can have two wives or two livers at the same time.

  19. Appleby says:

    “they will always promote Scottish workers’ interests over the workers of other countries, including England.”
    That will be a first for that useless bunch of cretins that call themselves Labour.

  20. TYRAN says:


  21. YesYesYes says:

    The points I was making were straightforward, or at least I thought they were. I’m not sure why you’ve strayed on to the issues of devolution for Bradford, people’s multiple identities, definitions of citizenship and the other generalisations that you refer to.
    To avoid further confusion, let me expand a little. The main point I was making was to draw attention to the hypocrisy of Scottish Labour. One of the reasons they are being hypocritical here is because they are in an invidious position. That is, as members of the British Labour Party they know that they ought to espouse internationalism in principle and, in Scotland, that has the added advantage in that it allows ‘Scottish’ and British Labour to position themselves as being anti-‘nationalist’. In practice, however, the British Labour Party discovered a long time ago, in common with other socialist parties in Western Europe, that the principle of internationalism was, at best, problematic. That is, WWI caused huge divisions in socialist parties at the time between those socialists who supported their own nations’ war effort (patriotism trumped the principle of internationalism here) and those socialists who steadfastly opposed their national (or imperialist) war efforts. This was the major faultline in the history of socialism, for example, between the Second and Third Internationals after 1914.
    Ever since the end of WWI the British Labour Party has had to negotiate the tensions between, on the one hand, putting its British nationalist cards on the table, so to speak, in order to win political power by appealing to the people of the British ‘nation’ and, on the other hand, upholding the principle of internationalism. As we know, every Labour government since 1945 has had no qualms about subordinating the principle of internationalism to the realities of its British nationalism. It could hardly be otherwise.
    In summary, the point I’m making is that Scottish Labour’s internationalism is little more than a hangover from British Labour’s socialist past but it is politically expedient for Scottish Labour at the moment to attempt to exhibit its ‘internationalist’ credentials as a means of countering the independence movement in Scotland. But these internationalist credentials, such as they are, are pretty thin. For example, the comparatives that are invariably used by Scottish Labour – to illustrate how much they ‘care’ about the people of other countries – rarely extend beyond British borders. The point being that, although Scottish Labour claim to care as much about the people of Bradford as they do about the people of Glasgow, we are not told how much they care about the people of Cairo, or Copenhagen or Cork. Is it the same as or less than they care about the people of Bradford and Glasgow? In other words, Scottish Labour is part of a British nationalist party, the British Labour party.
    Finally, it’s unfortunate that in your discussion of the nation and citizenship that you omitted the most important institution, that is, the nation-state. Contrary to what you say, citizenship is not “an expression of nationality”. Citizenship is an expression of nation-stateness. The distinction is not just semantic. Surely, given the context of this exchange, no-one should need to be reminded that nations do not have sovereignty – the authority to change constitutions, to enter into treaties etc with other nation-states, a monopoly over the means of violence and so on – only nation-states are sovereign. Of course, people have multiple identities but they don’t have multiple citizenships and I don’t think that we’re going to advance the debate on Scottish independence by conflating identity and citizenship. Surely that really would be to miss the point?

  22. Holebender says:

    One thing we can be absolutely certain of: it would never cross the minds of the Labour people in the lifeboat to jump in the water and sacrifice themselves to make enough room so that both groups of children could be saved.

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