Brown's tartan troubles

With the SNP in the ascendant north of the border, the government's only hope is to set up a fully a

If part of Gordon Brown's problem in England is that he is too Scottish, his problem in Scotland is that he isn't Scottish enough. Labour MPs and ministers up for the Glasgow East by-election were astonished to find how many of their "natural" voters now regard themselves as Scottish nationalists. Nationalism has spread across Scotland like a social networking craze since the SNP entered government just over a year ago. Almost irrespective of party or social class, it is becoming the default political attitude north of the border.

This is hugely significant for the future of the United Kingdom, but it also poses an immediate challenge to the Labour Party as it faces defeat at the next general election by the Cameron Tories. Even in the darkest days of Thatcherism, Labour leaders could always rely on a block of 50-odd Scottish Labour MPs to keep the party's end up in the Commons - it's why the Blair cabinets spoke with such a markedly Scottish accent. But Labour's tartan era is drawing to a close.

Glasgow East was a catastrophe for Labour and a personal humiliation for Gordon Brown. On this kind of swing - 22.5 per cent - only one Labour MP would be returned at the next election in Scotland, and it wouldn't be the Prime Minister. You can't draw conclusions from one by-election result, but Glasgow East is only the latest phase in Labour's Scottish crisis. In the past year or so, Labour has lost: the Scottish government, two Scottish leaders, most of its councils, half its councillors and now the third-safest Westminster seat in Scotland.

When Scotland turns against a political party, it doesn't mess about. The Conservative and Unionist Party used to dominate the Scottish political landscape half a century ago, and the Tories remain the only political party ever to have won a majority of seats and a majority of votes in any Scottish election, in 1955. Yet in 1997 the Conservatives were wiped out. Even today, there is only one Tory MP in the whole of Scotland. The Scottish electoral pendulum does not always swing back.

Some metropolitan commentators were surprised to discover that the Conservatives remain flatlined in Scotland even under David Cameron. The very "New Tory" candidate in Glasgow East, Davena Rankin - a black single mother and active trades unionist - may have come third on the night, but she returned a lower share of the vote than the Tory candidate here in 2005.

Whatever happens at the next general election, Scotland is going to remain largely a Conservative-free zone. Which may explain why there are rumours sweeping Westminster that the Cameron Tories are looking to do a deal with the SNP. Cameron is reported to be offering greater economic powers to the Scottish Parliament in exchange for keeping Scotland in the Union. Both sides deny any deal is being struck, but logic suggests that one is inevitable.

If elected, David Cameron is expected to introduce a form of "English votes for English laws" to answer the West Lothian question, and to review the Barnett formula on Scottish public spending. To prevent Scotland leaving the UK altogether following the loss of these privileges, he is going to have to offer the Scots something in exchange. The nationalists' bottom line will be a share of oil revenues and fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament. They might well get it, too, because Cameron will not want to risk going down in history as the prime minister who presided over the break-up of Britain.

But the ham in the sandwich is the block of Scottish Labour MPs who face the loss of voting rights in Westminster. They are likely to find, under any Tory-SNP pact, that they become constitutionally superfluous. The truth is they are pretty superfluous even now, because most of the key domestic issues that concern their constituents - health, hospitals, schools, crime - are now the responsibility of Holyrood, not Westminster. Labour MPs are becoming the lost tribe of Scottish politics, an increasingly disgruntled and delinquent coterie of grumpy old legislators who spend most of their time complaining about the incompetence of Labour's own MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.

Labour in Scotland must change or die. The impact of the minority nationalist government under the ebullient First Minister, Alex Salmond, has been shattering. This is not because the SNP has been trying to provoke a constitutional crisis, but because the nationalists have astutely been using the Scottish Parliament to implement the kind of social- democratic policies that new Labour has rejected.

In its first year, the SNP administration has curbed the right to buy council homes, abolished student fees, cut prescription charges, extended free personal care and frozen council tax. Alex Salmond has also moved to scrap private finance initiatives and end private-sector involvement in NHS care, rejected nuclear power stations in favour of renewable energy, opposed the renewal of Trident in the Clyde and demanded the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Populism it may be, but these are the kinds of policies many Scottish Labour voters hoped Gordon Brown would introduce. Instead, Brown has abolished inheritance tax for the rich, while scrapping the 10p tax band for the low-paid; and has been cracking down on incapacity benefits, while allowing the banks to have access to tens of billions of pounds of public funds. Brown tells the public-sector workers to accept below-inflation increases while Network Rail bosses get six-figure bonuses for ruining their own industry. The way Glasgow East sees it, Britain has become a grossly unequal society under Labour, a nation of property speculators and financiers manufacturing debt rather than wealth.

Scottish Labour voters have been dismayed by the cynicism and sleaze of the Labour Establishment. The machine politicians who are more interested in soliciting loans from tax- exile businessmen than in promoting the interests of their constituents; who harvest hundreds of thousands in parliamentary allowances, while turning their constituency homes into business parks. The prodigious parliamentary expenses of the former Glasgow East Labour MP David Marshall - who claimed £500,000 over six years for employing his wife to run his office in the family home - did a lot to destroy Labour's credibility in this cash-strapped constituency, where half of all households depend on benefits.

The SNP fought a classic Labour campaign in Glasgow East: the people against a decadent political Establishment. For too long, Labour has treated its core voters in places such as Glasgow East as election fodder - to be graced by the occasional ministerial visit before polling day, and then forgotten for the next four years. Well, it's over now. Within the week, the Scottish Labour Party began the process of electing a leader to replace Wendy Alexander, who resigned in June after a campaign funding scandal. But whoever wins will inherit a political wasteland. Labour's only hope in Scotland would be to set up a fully autonomous party, with its own policymaking apparatus and its own bold policies. To win back Scotland from the SNP, Labour is going to have to declare UDI.

Iain Macwhirter is political commentator for the Sunday Herald

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games