The Strange Death of Labour Scotland - review

A reminder of the scale and significance of Labour’s contribution to Scottish life.

Great Scot: the late John Smith. Photo: Gemma Levine/Getty Images

The Strange Death of Labour Scotland
Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw
Edinburgh University Press, 336pp, £19.99

It is a rare feat in an era of e-publishing for the title of a book to seem outdated on the day of its publication. For Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, the authors of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, Labour’s success in last May’s local council elections must have proved somewhat disconcerting. Far from these elections writing the epitaph on a strangely or otherwise “deceased” party, Scottish Labour emerged with the largest number of seats in local authorities across Scotland; from Dumfries in the south, to Aberdeen in the north, Edinburgh in the east and, despite loud nationalist predictions to the contrary, Glasgow in the west.

Those wins mattered, not least because they dispelled a myth more common than that which the authors describe as the “myth of Labour Scotland” – that the success of the SNP in 2007 and 2011 was indicative of a fundamental shift in Scottish voters’ attitudes towards independence. In fact, the Nationalists won these elections despite their calls for independence, not because of them.

The introductory chapter tries, rather unconvincingly, to reconcile the book’s title with the truth – that Scottish Labour is clearly alive and kicking – by asserting that, for the authors, “Labour Scotland” is something very different from “Scottish Labour”. They go on to explain that “Labour Scotland’ – the belief that Labour spoke for and represented most of Scotland – was always a myth, albeit one widely held within and beyond the party.

The book itself is a curious mix – part narrative history, part reference book, part policy guide and part political polemic. It supplements a depressingly small archive covering the place of Labour in Scotland’s contemporary history. It has been long in gestation, with interviews undertaken between 2003 and 2011. Yet, given the wide range of people interviewed and the limited number of central players, there remain curious omissions. Can you really hope to understand the huge impacts of the devolution debates within Labour in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s without hearing the views of Gordon Brown or Brian Wilson?

The book is on surer ground in describing the conditions that gave rise to Scottish Labour’s ascendancy over past decades: the predominance of council housing, trade union membership and Labour’s dominance of local government. These were indeed hugely significant factors in Scottish society in the 1960s and 1970s, but from 1979 onwards, improvements in housing, a decline in industry and Labour’s defeat at local elections saw their significance slowly shrink.

The authors go on to suggest that Scottish Labour, in the decades after 1979, has mostly defined itself against three forces: first, Thatcherism, then New Labour and, now, Scottish Nationalism. Let’s take each in turn. There is no doubt that in the 1980s and 1990s, with the industrial closures at Methil, Bathgate, Linwood, Lochaber and Ravenscraig, Scottish Labour became the vehicle of opposition to Thatcherism favoured by a growing number of Scots.

Scottish Labour’s attitude towards New Lab - our was more nuanced than the authors suggest, however. Far from being uniformly opposed, Scottish Labour – largely because of the unique national element in our politics, a lingering antipathy towards the Tories and traditional support in Labour heartlands – never really felt it needed to be “New” Labour. It is arguable that the process of “modernisation” might not have been required to defeat the remaining Tories in Scotland. But this comfort in old orthodoxies later contributed to the party’s disorientation, vulnerability and ultimate defeat when we came under attack from a different and more nimble nationalist opponent.

The SNP saw the economic diversity and strength of a modern Scotland – a significant portion of it generated in the decade following 1997 – and sought to annex the sense of confidence it generated to their definition of Scotland and its destiny. Buoyed by years of economic growth and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, the SNP worked hard to try and capture the sense of possibility that, in a previous generation, was proffered by the Labour Party. Ironically, Scottish Labour failed to understand and adapt as quickly to a changed political environment that it had helped create.

Where the authors are correct is in recognising the power of stories or “myths” in shaping our understanding of politics and society, recognising the limits of negativity in securing electoral success and being clear that Scottish Labour needs to change. However, they are much less convincing on their prescription of what that change should look like. It won’t be achieved by retreating into romantic notions of a better yesterday. The very economic and social changes the authors describe mean that some of the old Labour “hymns” are unfamiliar to an audience without personal knowledge of the tunes. It will not be achieved simply by attacking the SNP: if the Scottish people sense we hate the SNP more than we love Scotland, they won’t vote for us. And it won’t be achieved by simply improving our structures, finance and organisation, or reforming the way we identify and select candidates, vital though these all are.

At a time when the public’s feelings towards politics is one of antipathy and their attitude towards politicians is one of mistrust, the motivation of political parties and the perception of that motivation has never been more important. So we need to tell a different and more compelling story about Scotland and its future possibilities. We have to give voice to a new type of progressive politics that, while acknowledging the British dimension, is unashamedly Scottish and which comes to terms with and draws its relevance from contemporary Scotland and the claims and challenges of the future.

That requires not a retreat into old tribalism but an embrace of new thinking – on the most important issues, such as economic growth, social housing and education. I believe Scottish Labour, far from being ready for some “bucket list”, remains the most likely and valuable political vehicle for advocating and making such changes.

The authors do well to remind us that we need no dirges. Scotland needs, and Scottish Labour can offer, a new song that speaks not just of a shared love of our nation and its people but one that calls us to its economic, social and democratic renewal. That broad, generous and patriotic vision was the prescription that, in a different time and in different circumstances, gave rise to the ascendency of the Scottish Labour generation that included Dewar, Smith, Cook and Brown.

This book reminds its readers of the scale and significance of Labour’s contribution to Scottish life over recent decades. I remain of the view, however, that Scottish Labour’s greatest contributions to Scotland and its people are before us, not behind us. We will realise that promise and fulfil that calling not by rejecting our longest-held beliefs, but by being a better expression of them. It’s time for us to get back in the future business.

Douglas Alexander is shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South