How Scottish Labour is moving towards constitutional radicalism

The party has finally recognised that the country's political and economic woes flow from the centralised and outmoded British state.  

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Between May and June 1987, a 78-foot locomotive made out of straw dangled over the Clyde from the gib of a gigantic crane in Finnieston, Glasgow. The straw locomotive was the work of the sculptor George Wyllie, who had seen countless real locomotives being hoisted onto ships by the same crane in the 1930s when he worked in the surrounding yards. Those ships were headed all over the world, part of an international market in heavy engineering which once had Glasgow at its heart. 

Wyllie’s own train, however, was more lament than celebration, as Scotland’s heavy industries found themselves the victims of transformed international markets and domestic political neglect. Just weeks earlier, a workers’ occupation of the Caterpillar factory in nearby Lanarkshire – which made earth-moving equipment – had concluded after several months, failing in its attempt to stop the closure and sell-off of the factory’s assets despite grabbing the nation’s attention. Elsewhere in Lanarkshire, the huge Ravenscraig steel mill narrowly avoided closure the same year, but it too was shut in 1992. After Wyllie’s train was taken down, he set it alight in a “Viking funeral”, with a lone piper playing as the straw burned away to leave nothing but a wire skeleton.

The straw locomotive was burned in the Springburn district of Glasgow, famous for its railway industry and now the site of a new struggle over Scotland’s industrial future. The St. Rollox “Caley” Engineering Works, well over a century old and employing approximately 180 people, are facing closure as Scotrail modernises its rolling stock and investment for diversification is not forthcoming. Unite’s “Rally Roon The Caley” campaign is calling for the Scottish government to intervene but the SNP are being typically cautious, waiting for Gemini, the owners, to find a buyer and arguing that EU state aid rules prevent them from taking action. 

In the meantime, the campaign – with the help of local councillors and MPs – has developed an inventive new proposal. Just a year after the straw locomotive was burned, an old South African steam engine called the “Springbok” was repatriated to Scotland to sit in the Summerlee Museum of Industrial Life, just outside Glasgow. It’s still there, and the Caley campaigners are proposing that the Springbok be refurbished in Springburn as a heritage project, allowing the Scottish government to bypass state aid rules and give the Caley extra support while a long-term solution is found.

The same problem of finding short-term fixes for Scotland’s deep-rooted, century-long industrial decline has been recurring for years. Two weeks ago, I wrote about a similar crisis in Fife, where renewables fabrication yards lie dormant even as a new offshore wind farm is proposed on the nearby coast. BiFab and the Caley are merely the latest potential victims of Scotland’s “branch-plant” syndrome, as the country’s once proudly home-grown industries have been off-shored and undermined by competition from abroad. Another victim is the Scottish government itself, whose defining ambition to bring “sustainable economic growth” to Scotland – inclusive of workers, big business, local communities and the environment all at once – is coming up against structural processes and institutional limitations, from the internationalisation of ownership to EU competition rules.

It is a painful irony that Scotrail, which could be a coordinated source of support for the Caley, is run by Abellio, an arm of the Dutch state’s nationalised rail company. But the most obvious casualty of the branch-plant condition has been the party that built its identity and its success in Scotland’s industrial heartlands, but now struggles to be heard defending what’s left of them: the Scottish Labour Party.

For decades, Labour thought itself near-invincible in Scotland, still seemingly hitched to the roaring locomotive of progress long after Labour’s “forward march” was halted in England. In reality, the party arrived in the 21st-century a brittle and deadened thing, exhausted by local hegemony and unready for the new, more proportional democracy in Holyrood. 

Deindustrialisation, reported and resisted through a distinctively Scottish lens, transformed the relationship between class and politics in Scotland just as profoundly as it did in England, but in a nationalist direction rather than a Conservative one. The independence referendum of 2014 wrenched much of Labour’s remaining base away from the party, towards the SNP’s promise of a different, more confident and independent relationship to the wider world. 

Has Scottish Labour met the fate of Wyllie’s dangling locomotive, its dried-out stuffing torched to an empty skeleton by the spark of 2014? Or is there still life in the rusty old engine yet, ready to roar back to life if we can just tow it out of the museum? These were the questions facing Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard on Saturday, as he sought to renew his own left-wing vision for the party he leads at an event in the symbolic location of Ravenscraig – once an emblem of industrial decline, now perhaps of rebirth as it is transformed into a new town. The name of the place refers to a nearby cliff, and it was the twin precipices of climate catastrophe and industrial collapse that dominated Leonard’s speech, building on Jeremy Corbyn’s recent appointment of Scottish MP Danielle Rowley as Labour’s shadow minister for climate justice and green jobs.

Leonard’s programme shares many features with Corbyn’s, and the most crucial and promising is a strong sense that the overlapping crises they face demand a transformative, structural solution. Both have begun to settle on a “Green Industrial Revolution” as the name of this solution, inspired by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” in the United States, but Leonard – who is a keen economic historian and former researcher for the Scottish Trades Union Congress, as well as a former board member of Friends of the Earth Scotland – seems particularly enamoured with the idea. He knows that the original industrial revolution was not made in London; it was dispersed across the UK, from Manchester to Glasgow, and driven not by a centralised state, as it was in countries playing catch-up elsewhere, but by local initiative. In the new context of climate emergency and industrial decline, Leonard has noticed that an agenda of political decentralisation can tie these things together in a way that also takes on the SNP. He is beginning to solidify and radicalise the loose talk of “federalism” that has become Scottish Labour’s stock constitutional offer.

The political scientist James Mitchell has described the history of British federalist proposals as a “thick file of thin responses,” with few serious plans to rebalance the British state away from metropolitan dominance and the overwhelming voice of England. But the problem here has not been structural so much as one of political will and intellect; Labour has thus far simply not put the work in when it comes to serious, UK-wide constitutional reform, either in terms of thinking or campaigning. Nor has it really seen the point. Instead, “federalism” usually becomes another word for “devolution”, with the constitution pushed into the margins as a Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish or otherwise “regional” problem. 

It is only now, with Brexit threatening the party – and country – with disintegration, that Labour is beginning to see that the problem might lie at the heart of the British state. “Labour is not a party that stands for the status quo – economically, politically or constitutionally,” Leonard declared; ‘We delivered the Scottish parliament, but I recognise that the UK is still too centralised a state.” Here, he repurposed an old Labour response to left-wing nationalism, typically deployed to emphasise the similar class interests of voters in places all over the UK: “that’s not just the view from Motherwell or from Edinburgh, or Inverness. It’s the view from Manchester and Leeds. And it’s the view from Birmingham.” Everyone, it seems, wants constitutional change now: “We are tapping into an understanding which is clear to many people, that the UK state needs to be reformed.”

What does that actually mean? The Scottish party has already set up a working group which is set to deliver a far more substantial set of constitutional proposals than we’ve seen before. Leonard will launch the results of the long policy process in September, but the direction of travel can be seen from his Ravenscraig speech.

In terms of devolution, there is a new recognition that Scotland needs more economic as well as political power, increasing the borrowing powers of the Scottish parliament to support a just transition to publicly-owned green industries, as well as renewing existing parts of our transitional infrastructure such as BiFab and the Caley. More importantly, there is now a clear sense that the basic structure of the UK has to change, with the House of Lords abolished and replaced with a Senate of the Regions and Nations, increasing the influence of Britain’s peripheralised areas over the direction of the state and ensuring a greater voice in debates over Britain’s wildly uneven economy. Leonard’s language of “breaking up the centralisation of power” and “sharing power” between nations, regions and communities suggested an even more radical reshaping of British sovereignty itself, dispersing it away from Westminster and across the whole country.

This was, he argued, part of a “long revolution,” and a “possible” one. The real test of possibility – when we will know whether this is all just words, or something more fundamental – will come when the wider UK party is confronted with the full proposals. Jon Trickett, tasked with drawing up plans for a British constitutional convention by Corbyn after he became leader, is set to make a keynote speech at the end of August at a conference run by “Politics For The Many”, a labour movement campaign for constitutional reform. There, we will get a sense of the extent to which the party in England recognises the need for a constitutional transformation to reinforce and democratise its economic agenda. The party’s left still likes to talk about an “irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people,” a line from the party’s February 1974 manifesto; but so long as sovereignty sits undivided in London, any rebalancing will always be reversible. 

The casualties of Britain’s reversible political and economic system are countless, from the miners at Orgreave to the workers at Caterpillar and Ravenscraig, all stuck at the wrong end of an ancien regime that lay hundreds of miles out of sight and reach. Labour owes it to them to restart the engine of real constitutional transformation on the banks of the Thames, and stop dangling straw promises of “more devolution” over the Clyde. 

Rory Scothorne is completing a PhD on the relationship between the Scottish radical left and nationalism, and is the co-author of Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland.