We are posting this article by Steve Freeman first posted on the Republican Socialist Alliance outlining, mainly for the benefit of republican socialists in England, the Scottish dimension of ‘Labour’s historic defeat’.
You may remember the famous Monty Python sketch about a parrot returned by a dissatisfied customer, John Cleese, to the pet-shop run by Michael Palin. As Cleese enters the shop, Palin says, “We are closing for lunch”. Cleese says “Never mind that, my lad, I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.” Palin replies “oh yes, the, ur, the Norwegian Blue. What, uh, what is wrong with it”. “I tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad,” says Cleese, “E’s dead, that’s what is wrong with it”.“No, no e’s uh…. he’s resting” claims Palin.
“Look matey,” says the increasingly irritated Cleese, “I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I am looking at one right now”. The argument over whether the parrot is dead or only resting then descends into farce. “This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! E’s stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace”….’Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory”.
So, we must turn to “istory” to understand how the Labour Party in Scotland has expired and gone to meet its maker. The ‘Labour Together’ Report (LTR) on the 2019 general election says the party suffered “an historic defeat”. But in Scotland the picture is far worse. Labour was wiped out and now has only one MP. The Labour Together Report says, “Labour retained just 51% of its 2017 vote and collapsed to its worst ever vote share. As well as losing six of its seven seats in Scotland, Labour is now the third party in Scotland with the Tories taking second place”. (‘Labour Together’ Report)
Is the Scottish Labour Party dead or merely resting? No doubt members of the Scottish Labour Party will be arguing, like the dodgy shopkeeper Michael Palin, that revival is possible. If British Labour has suffered a ‘Historic Defeat’ as the LTR claims, it is in Scotland that the radical nature of that defeat is most sharply and clearly posed. The roots of Labour’s historic defeat in Scotland go back over three hundred years, long before there was an industrial working class or a Labour Party.
The ‘Glorious’ revolution (1688-1707) created the basic foundations of our present UK state and constitution. It created the financial structure to build the British Navy, supervised the slave trade and extended the British Empire. In 1940, threatened with Nazi invasion, the UK and its Empire was facing an existential crisis. It survived the ‘Battle of Britain’ and by 1945 had become a major power in Europe in alliance with the US and USSR.
Nevertheless, the UK lost an Empire and became a ‘social and constitutional monarchy’. The rise and fall of this ‘social monarchy’ after World War II forms the background to the current crisis. In 2008 a massive financial and economic crisis marked the beginning of an epoch of Degenerated Social Monarchy. This new period is a political crisis in the constitutional settlement (1688-1707) whose life was extended by the 1945 social contract, which was destroyed by neo-liberal policies.
Act of Disunion
The 1707 Act of Union was the last part of the Glorious revolution, the final piece in the jigsaw. The UK was made a centralised union state with a single parliament, not a federal state, like the USA or Germany, with nations or regions having their own local law-making parliaments. Sovereignty was vested in the Crown-In-Parliament with the monarch as head of the protestant Church of England.
Queen Anne and her Ministers demanded the Union with Scotland to ensure the Protestant succession, intended to pass to the protestant Elector of Hanover. It was to make sure Scotland could not become a base for the archenemy, Catholic Absolutist France. It completed the process of securing the UK as a Protestant state whose rule would extend over Scotland, as well as England and Wales. Ireland was finally brought into the Union state in 1801.
The Union with Scotland was achieved by a combination of bribery of Scottish MPs and a considerable dowry for Scottish commercial, financial and imperial interests. It gave them access to English imperial markets and colonies and the lucrative slave trade. The Scottish ruling elite was won over by a combination of golden ‘carrots’ and the big ‘stick’ of an English army waiting at the border just in case.
The Act of Union was neither popular nor democratic. It was made without the votes or agreement of the Scottish people. Many resorted to rioting, the normal means for the lower classes to show their great displeasure. It was imposed on Scotland by the English ruling class with the help of their influential Scottish allies. The Union stands alongside the monarchy and the House of Lords as one of the anti-democratic pillars of the present state.
If the Union were likened to a marriage of nations, then we have a shotgun wedding with a large dowry paid to bribe the father of the bride. There could be no divorce. The marriage would last forever. By abolishing the Scottish Parliament, the bride had nowhere to complain if the marriage became oppressive. There would never be a democratic assembly to rival Westminster.
The Union remained unpopular and unstable over the next sixty years. It was finally secured by the suppression of the Jacobite uprisings in 1715 and 1745 and by the growing prosperity of the British Empire and colonies providing material benefits for Scottish upper and middle classes. The Union and Empire made the ruling classes of England and Scotland, partners in crime, very wealthy. Their ill-gotten gains transformed Scotland into ‘North Britain’.
The North British industrial revolution created an industrial working class in mining, shipbuilding and engineering exploited by an industrial capital and an organised trade union movement. From the end of the nineteenth century the Labour Party became the voice of the majority of the Scottish working class within the Union. The First World War and the 1916-21 Irish revolution shook the Union, but Scotland and the Scottish working class remained loyal through the 1930s and the Second World War. In 1945 Labour won its largest majority so far in Scotland.
The 1939-45 war was the beginning of the end of Britain’s colonial Empire on which the industrial economy depended. Yet the Union remained strong through the creation of the post war social monarchy. The Scottish Unionist Party was main centre right party in Scotland from 1912 to 1965 with more than half the popular vote in 1931 and 1951 and providing two Prime Ministers in Bonar Law and Alec Douglas-Home. In 1965 it merged with the Tories to become the Conservative and Unionist Party.
Between 1945 and 1970, the two main Unionist parties, Conservative and Unionist Party and the LabourParty, secured the majority of the seats in a two party contest. In 1951 they matched each other. The Tories won a majority in 1955, but the trend was towards Labour, who by the 1960s had two thirds of Scottish seats. The Liberals remained a small, but significant minority Unionist party.
During the 1970s the social monarchy descended into crisis as a result of the civil rights and republican movement in Northern Ireland, a political struggle between the miners and the Tory government in 1972 and 1974 and an oil crisis in 1974 followed by a world recession. In 1970 the SNP won its first seat in a general election and in October 1974 won ten more. In 1974 the Labour government set out to resolve the crisis, overcome a militant working class and head off growing support for the SNP.
The Labour government was eventually undone by the strikes of low paid workers, known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’, and by the failure to carry its Scottish Devolution proposals through Westminster despite a majority in Scotland voting for it in a referendum. These problems exploited by the Tories paved the way for Thatcher to win the 1979 general election.
The new Thatcher government began to carry out its programme of dismantling the social monarchy through ‘free market’ policies of privatisation, deregulation and anti-union laws. The key to their success was the Ridley Plan to take on and defeat the National Union of Mineworkers. The Tory victory in the Great Miners’ Strike 1984-5 had a massive impact on the trade union movement and the industrial base of Scotland.
The Tory neo-liberal revolution in the 1980’s saw their support in Scotland begin to shrink. In 1979 and 1983 hey held more or less the same number of seats as they had in the 1960s and 1970s. Then in 1987 they lost half their seats and all of them by 1997. They did not recover in the next two elections (2001 and 2005) as Tory support collapsed from around twenty seats to zero or one. Scotland became virtually a Tory free zone.
Thatcher’s success in dismantling the social monarchy created its own ‘crisis of democracy’ as Scotland rejected Thatcherism. Now, spurred on by hubris, Thatcher decided to impose a poll tax and use Scotland as the testing ground. Scotland responded with a militant anti-Poll Tax campaign. This mass democratic movement was about more than local taxes. It was about who ruled Scotland and inevitably strengthened the demand for a Scottish parliament, soon incorporated into Labour’s 1997 election manifesto.
There were important economic factors behind the rise of Scottish democracy in the 1990s. The ending of the British colonial empire removed some of the Union glue. The growth of a North Sea Oil industry brought a new prosperity. The UK became part of a much bigger and expanding European Union. Scotland had new opportunities, which did not depend on England alone. Neo-liberal economic policies destroyed Scotland’s industrial base and alienated Scotland’s social democratic majority.
Reform – from decline to degeneration
Over the last thirty years there have been two major reforms to the Act of Union by Blair (1998) who restored the Scottish Parliament and Cameron (2014) who permitted an independence referendum. These reforms did not establish the sovereignty of the Scottish people nor the right to self-determination. But they introduced new contradictions into the constitution. These did not make the constitution democratic, rational or consistent. They made a semi-Unionist and semi-federal pottage.
The UK is no longer a full Union state but not quite a federal state. There is one central Union parliament, but each nation, except England, has a national parliament. Northern Ireland, although not a nation, is given nation status with a reinvented Stormont parliament. The 2014 referendum introduced the idea there could be a democratic and peaceful separation of England and Scotland. What the Act of Union made impossible became practical politics when the Crown granted this a ‘once in a lifetime’ concession.
These two reforms could have been made at any time over the last three hundred years. But from the mid 18th century, support for the Union state grew, with the rising prosperity and opportunity afforded by the Empire. In 1913 a Scottish Home Rule bill passed two readings in the Commons before being suspended by the First World War. Reform was later staved off by the 1945 social contract and arrived in the wake of the crisis in the mid-70s and the descent into neo-liberalism triggered by Thatcher.
The 1998 Scottish Parliament was recognition of the strength of the democratic movement opposing the Tories. It would be bought off by the government, which would engineer a constitutional settlement as a barrier to the SNP and more radical democratic demands. Blair, however, had no intention of breaking with Thatcher’s neo-liberal politics. If the majority in Scotland wanted to restore the social monarchy they would have to look elsewhere.
The Blair reforms were intended to strengthen the Union by conceding a degree of Home Rule. The liberal tradition favours the devolution of power because it maintains what is essential. Power is retained at the centre, in the hands of the Crown and HM Treasury. It is a ‘historic compromise’ between the Crown and popular ‘republicanism’. This ‘reform’ was counter-revolutionary, a gift made to the democratic movement with the intention of dividing, delaying or halting it.
Blair’s counter-revolutionary reforms worked for twenty years in a contradictory way. They satisfied the popular sentiment for Home Rule and at the same time raised expectations. Queen Anne understood that if Scotland had its own parliament it would provide a platform and lever for rebellious Scots. This is why Blairfelt cautious, if not reluctant, to make this concession and had to be encouraged to see it as necessary for Labour’s 1997 election victory. So it proved. Labour won fifty-six seats in 1997 and 2001 general elections and then forty-one seats in 2007 and 2010. The SNP won only six, five, six and six seats in the same elections.
Degenerated social monarchy
However, in 2008 things were about to change with a massive financial and economic crisis whose consequences were to tip the UK from a declining social monarchy into the epoch of Degeneration. The neoliberal chickens came home to roost as the deregulated global financial system crashed and major British banks went bankrupt. The New Labour government took action to protect the banks by nationalising their debts and transferring them onto the public purse.
In 2010 the Tories won the general election against a discredited Labour government by promising to cut public spending and share the costs across society. Cameron’s Tory government imposed austerity on public services and forced the working class and the poorest sections of society to pay the high cost of bank failure. Their programme of cuts and privatisations did more serious damage to the remnants of the social monarchy. The Tory solution to the crisis was to administer more of the poison that had virtually killed the patient in the first place.
This new epoch drained confidence in the pantomime politics of Westminster. If people lose trust in the political class and their parties, they will turn to more radical answers. The extension of a social crisis into a crisis of democracy raised fundamental questions about the nature of democracy and the political culture that supports and maintains it. It raises questions about the UK constitution and the very identity of the British nation.
The post 2008 epoch was not simply an extension of the decline of the social monarchy. It was a qualitative change from decline to degeneration. The characteristic of this new epoch was the transformation of a social crisis into a constitutional ‘crisis of democracy’. It was not simply that people looked back to World War Two and the 1945 social contract but to the settlement of 1688-1707. In Scotland the ‘crisis of democracy’ took the form of a crisis over the Union.
In 2011 Cameron was made aware, with the growing support for the SNP, the Union was again under threat. He decided to adopt Blair’s liberal approach with a new reform. The Act of Union made divorce illegal and now the 2014 referendum made it possible. The Cameron government gambled that by agreeing to a Scottish referendum they would defeat the nationalists and derail the democratic movement for another twenty years. But in a time of degeneration any reform soon becomes out dated or overtaken by events not least because trust between rulers and ruled has worn thin.
Blair’s reform delayed the achievement of sovereignty until the SNP won a majority and secured the 2014 referendum. Cameron’s victory was intended to extend delay for another generation. It was soon overtaken by a crisis in the Tory Party, the 2016 EU referendum and the UK’s descent into a Brexit crisis. The victor of 2014 was out of office before he had chance to milk the applause. Scotland’s vote to remain in the EU by sixty five per cent put self-determination back in the driving seat. The further England sunk into a swamp of reaction, the more essential it is for Scottish democracy not to be dragged down with it.
In 2016 the European Union referendum made this more obvious when Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. In 2014 Scotland’s majority vote to remain in the UK contained a promise voting No to independence was the only way Scotland could remain in the European Union. After 2016 this ‘broken promise’ became electoral fraud when Scotland was denied the right to vote on the Tory Brexit Agreement.
England’s majority for leave swamped the votes of Northern Ireland and Scotland to remain in the EU. This goes to the very heart of self-determination. Northern Ireland was given a special deal to allow it to remain part in and part out of the single market and customs union. Scotland was denied this opportunity. Labour failed to support Scotland’s right to a ratification referendum (not to be confused with a ‘second’ or repeat referendum demanded by English liberals).
Scotland’s right to a ratification referendum on the Tory Brexit Agreement is the recognition of the right to self-determination and the sovereign right of the Scottish people to decide, given their vote to remain. The Scottish people should have been asked, “Given you voted to remain, do you now accept or reject this UK agreement?” If Scotland refused to ratify the UK agreement then they should have had the right to a referendum on independence (i.e. self-determination) rather than be forced to follow England and Wales into the wilderness of US free trade.
The reforms of Blair and Cameron could not create a stable constitution but the seeds of disorder and sources of further conflict. The Scottish Parliament secured more influence over political power but not popular sovereignty nor self-determination. The Blair and Cameron ‘reforms’ undermined the fundamental principles of the Act of Union. But they did not end the democratic deficit over sovereignty and self determination. Yet they opened a path to both, and new reasons why Scotland should not follow the reactionary path taken by England.
Labour’s Unionist crisis
In Scotland the degeneration of the social monarchy into a political-constitutional ‘crisis of democracy’ took the form of a growing crisis in the Union with England. In 2007 before the financial crisis, Labour and the SNP took more or less equal seats in the Scottish parliament with the SNP becoming the largest party for the first time. This might seem to contradict the idea that the real switch to nationalism came after 2008.
However, Euan McColm argues in The Scotsman that in 2007 the SNP won seats by playing down their demand for independence, seen to be, as yet, too radical. He says, “When the SNP won its first Holyrood election in 2007, it wasn’t swept to power on a wave of nationalist fervour. There were no bold promises about independence or claims that the Union had had its day.” He explains that the “Then leader Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon assured small c conservative voters that a vote for their party was not necessarily a vote for independence.” (Euan McColm, The Scotsman, 9th August 2020)
The 2011 elections were therefore the first elections fought in the new conditions of austerity and democratic political crisis when the SNP demand for an independence referendum came to the fore. This saw a big swing the SNP. The party won 69 seats compared to Labour’s 37 and the Tories 15. The SNP was able to form a majority government. It was a signal that Scotland was on a different trajectory.
The losses of the SNP and Labour’s revival in 2017, seen in voter shares, put Labour and the Tories within 1.5% of each other. This translated through first past the post voting into Tories holding almost twice as many MPs. In 2019 the Tories slipped back slightly whilst Labour lost another ten per cent of the votes. The SNP recovered its position as the dominant Scottish voice in Westminster.
Overall the SNP increased its vote share by thirty per cent between 2010 and 2015. It declined in 2017 before beginning to rise again in 2019. Meanwhile the Tories have increased their voting share by ten per cent whilst Labour shrank from forty two per cent in 2010 to nearly nineteen per cent in 2019. It is important to recognise that Labour’s big drop in support took place between 2010 and 2015 before Corbyn became leader.
British Unionism and Scottish Nationalism
The degeneration of the social monarchy after 2008 brought a shift in class politics in Scotland from the traditional format of ‘Conservatives versus Labour’ to a new political framework of ‘Unionism versus Nationalism’. Scottish politics began to look more like Northern Ireland, long divided in this way, although not on the same historical or sectarian lines. This is not to deny the connection between Scottish Unionism and the Orange Order.
Scottish nationalism, in the twenty first century, has its own distinct roots and culture. Like Irish nationalism, it was always about political and constitutional change. But in Ireland, nationalism took both constitutional legal and republican-revolutionary form (see United Irishmen, the Fenians and the 1916 republicans and republican socialists etc.). Scottish nationalism, as represented by the SNP, is a constitutional-legal movement.
The 2016 EU referendum showed the UK divided, with Northern Ireland and Scotland voting to remain in the EU and England and Wales voting to leave. This reinforced the idea that politics in Scotland and Northern Ireland work around Unionism-Nationalism polarity compared to England and Wales. There is an All-Ireland majority and a Scottish majority in favour of the European Union. In the wider context this is a struggle between a narrow British nationalism and wider pro-European nationalisms.
The following information on elections in Scotland is based on aggregating the votes of the Unionist bloc of Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats against the Nationalist bloc of the SNP and the Green Party.
|Year||Unionist Votes||Nationalist Votes||Unionist Seats||Nationalist Seats|
The shift from ‘Tories versus Labour’ to ‘Unionists against Nationalists’ goes some way to explain the rise of the Tories in Scotland. The Tories reinvented themselves as the most militant Unionist party in Scotland, not least under the leadership of Ruth Davidson. Politics polarised between the Tories and the SNP, with the Labour Party squeezed without a credible idea about the Union. The Tories gathered up the majority of the Unionist and Orange votes in 2017 and 2019 and won more votes and seats than Labour.
|Year||Unionist Votes||Nationalist Votes||Unionist Seats||Nationalist Seats|
In 2020 these trends have continued. On the 5 July 2020 the Daily Mail reported there is now 54% of Scots in favour independence whilst 46% opposed it. Professor John Curtis, polling expert, highlighted the 6-month average of all polls had ‘Yes’ at 51% and ‘No’ to Independence at 49%. For the first time in history supporters of independence were a majority.
Degenerated Union and English nationalism
The Glorious Revolution created a Union state not a democratic state. Its historic legacy has been a long struggle for democracy. We can identify reactionaries who wanted to restore absolute monarchy and the divine right of monarchs. But after 1745 the main struggle was between conservatives, aiming to preserve the constitution, liberals, to save it by reform and revolutionaries seeking to scrap it and start again. With the exception of the Irish revolution (1916-22) and the Northern Ireland based republican movement from the 1970s and 90s, the revolutionary tendency has been marginal and confined to the fringe of mainland British politics.
Mainstream politics has been contested between conservatives and liberals in a binary choice of ‘Tories versus Whigs, ‘Conservatives versus Liberals’, and from the 1920s as ‘Conservatives versus Labour’. The rise of Labour in the twentieth century was recognition of the political importance of the working class. Labour was the means of incorporating organised labour, the trade union movement, into the state and its constitution.
In the epoch of the degenerated social monarchy, two new binaries have emerged in the form of ‘Unionism versus Nationalism’ and ‘Leave versus Remain’. Although different in aim, they reflect and represent the present disintegration of UK politics and rise of Scottish nationalism and its alter ego, English nationalism. Both nationalisms reflect a concern of millions of people for the failure of ‘democracy’, in one case traced to\ Westminster and in the other to Brussels.
English nationalism is a reaction to perceived threats or injustices from the EU and nationalisms in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is being defined as reactionary by the authoritarian populism of the right with their theories of England as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation with a proud chauvinist history of imperialism and war. This is a measure of the ‘crisis of democracy’ and decline and degeneration of the British nation.
The Unionist-Nationalist framework in Scottish politics is sign of the crisis of democracy and the degeneration and disintegration of the Union. But it is at the same time the rise of the politics of constitutional change and democratic revolution. The rise of Scottish nationalism and support for remaining in the EU is not a contradiction because Scottish public opinion is identified with a more European civic nationalism and not with narrow isolationist chauvinism, which characterises English nationalism.
In the 2019 general election the Tories successfully incorporated the ‘revolutionary’ and reactionary impetus of the leave campaign – taking back control and breaking up of the EU – to secure their election victory. In England, class politics was squeezed back into the traditional binary of Tory versus Labour with the help of UKIP. This time the hostility of English nationalism to the EU divided the working class to the benefit of the Tories. It enabled the Labour Right to wreak Corbyn’s chance of victory on the rock of a ‘second referendum’.
The degeneration of the social monarchy after 2008 is more than simply the continuation and extension of the destruction of the ‘welfare state’ since Thatcher’s neo-liberal revolution. The rot goes to the very foundations of the British state from 1688-1707, which annexed Scotland, abolished the Scottish Parliament and locked Scotland into a permanent marriage with England without divorce. Scotland is now facing a ‘constitutional crisis’, which may be delayed but not avoided.
The British Labour Party suffered a historic defeat in the 2019 general election. It ceased to be British and became, in effect, an Anglo-Welsh party with no seats in Northern Ireland and one in Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party was more or less been wiped out in the Westminster parliament. British Labour, without Scotland, is a ‘dead parrot’. It has ceased to be, gone to meet its maker.
Of course, the Scottish Labour Party is not literally dead because it still exits with members, political funds and MP’s. It is, however, ‘dead’ in the political and historical sense that it can no longer represent the social democratic working class when the state on which it depends is at the end of its life. The Scottish Labour Party is dead and alive – it has become a zombie party – because the state that gives it life is dying.
The Union of 1707 and the social monarchy of 1945 have now degenerated beyond repair. Scotland’s ‘crisis of democracy’ meant the Corbyn programme of restoring the social monarchy and saving the union was not too extreme but simply too little and too late. Corbyn drove his ambulance to Scotland only to find the patient already dead on its feet.
The historic defeat of the British Labour Party in Scotland has little to do with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 or even the campaign of character assassination waged against him by the state and the billionaire press. Scottish Labour was already on a downward trajectory before he became leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Indeed in 2017 Scottish Labour had an upturn in votes before resuming its downward trend in 2019.
Scottish Labour can be resurrected from the dead by becoming Scotland’s republican party. It would have to shift from the Unionist to the Nationalist camp and then occupy a position as a republican socialist party to the left of the SNP. But given the nature of Scottish Labour and the politics of its leaders and members this prospect is more or less impossible. Scottish Labour suffered a historic defeat because history has overtaken it.
Steve Freeman 31st August 2020
(Original 12 August 2020 Labour’s historic defeat in Scotland