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Labour needs to restore its distinctive Scottish identity

In the 1920s, Labour MPs had radical demands for devolution. But what does the modern party stand for? 

By Kenny macaskill

Researching the life of the late Jimmy Reid, the Scottish political activist who came to prominence because of his work with the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders has afforded remarkable insight into the extensive roots of the Scottish Labour movement with home rule. Much of it has been obscured over recent years. Yet it’s both worthy of recollection and may offer clues to any possible Labour revival north of the border.

Reid, after all, was committed to both socialism and Scottish home rule hroughout his life. Though his party membership changed, his commitment to these values remained undiminished. It was the external factors, whether within his party, or the social and economic conditions in the country, that changed. 

Reid left the Labour League of Youth to join the Young Communist League. Then, despite being seen as a future leader, he left the Communist party in 1976 for the Labour party. He contested a seat unsuccessfully in 1979, but remained heavily involved in both Tony Benn’s campaign for deputy leader and the election in 1983. Meanwhile, he had begun a career as a journalist, and in 1987 then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock felt his contribution as a columnist with The Sun and other media outlets was more valuable than any input he could make as an MP. However, disillusioned by New Labour, he drifted away. Ultimately, he left the party and joined the SNP in 2005.

The story has relevance, not just because of Reid’s input in Scottish life, but for the political journey he made. From pursuing a British road to socialism, he ended up supporting Scottish independence. It was a journey followed by many, judging by the 2015 general election results, when the SNP won 56 out of 59 seats. Understanding that journey may provide some answers to why Labour has declined, with further challenges ahead at the forthcoming council elections.

The Labour party north of the border was forged with a commitment to home rule and socialism. Not just Reid, but Keir Hardie had been clear in that. It was to be given greater prominence through the Red Clydesiders during the 1920s and 30s. Not just the Labour party, but especially the Independent Labour Party, which was prominent in Scotland, was in the vanguard on both issues.

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As Labour climbed in the polls, the cause of home rule was not neglected. In 1924, during the first Labour minority government, a Scottish Home Rule Bill was proposed by George Buchanan, the ILP MP for the Gorbals. It envisaged a parliament with control over pensions and employment, as well as the power to vary imperial taxes. Joint institutions would remain such as for the Post Office and Customs and Excise but funds would be remitted north. Moreover, a joint board between Scotland and London would officiate on areas of dispute, with an appeal lying to the Privy Council.

What would happen to Scottish representation at Westminster was never fully explained. The Labour secretary of state for Scotland accepted that the Bill was wanted, and supported in the country. However, it ran out of procedural time – causing anger both within the Scottish grouping.

But, try again they did. In 1927, the Rev James Barr, the ILP MP for Motherwell, lodged a bill that was even more radical than Buchanan’s. He envisaged all taxes raised in Scotland falling to the Scottish Treasury and the withdrawal of all Scottish MPs from Westminster. The military and the Foreign Office were designated joint services and were to be shaped between the two parliaments. A joint council would be established to decide on issues of dispute. That bill fell due to lack of interest from south of the border but the Red Clydesiders had been united in their support for it.

Of course, that was at a time both before the creation of the EU, let alone Brexit. It was the time of the creation of the Irish Free State, and the advocates were more Redmondite (a moderate Irish nationalist) than Republican. However, it shows the radical nature of what was sought. Labour’s commitment waned thereafter, but the likes of Jimmy Reid worked to keep the flame alive.

Ultimately, the Labour government established a Scottish Parliament in 1999, though with powers far less than those proposed generations before. Labour seemed to be the national party of Scotland, speaking for the Scottish people. All that changed, though, with the referendum on independence and the alliance with the Tories in the Better Together campaign.

Labour has a proud history on home rule, but it has been overshadowed by recent events. The party has to restore its distinctive Scottish identity, not warp itself in the Union Jack. Moreover, it has to state what it’s for, not just what it’s against. It has to spell out more radical options than currently exist, and it has to mean what it says. Finally, it needs to ensure that it is supported in these aims not just in Scotland but in London. Otherwise, its efforts counts for nothing, as the 1920s showed.