Back to the Future for a Democratic Politics for Scotland

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, July 21st 2012

The untimely death of Bob McLean in the last week might seem news from another era, but it offers an insight into the current and future state of our politics.

McLean was a passionate home rule supporter, campaigner and catalyst for cross-party co-operation for a Scottish Parliament, who played an important role in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Labour’s slow journey from an Assembly to a Parliament, as convenor of the pressure group Scottish Labour Action (SLA).

His political and civic activism tells us a number of things about politics. One is the power of the individual; and the impact generous, ecumenical, open-minded idealism can have. Second is the power of the small, specialist ginger group in a political party at key moments in history. This shows a very different concept of politics from today’s leadership fixated world of manipulation and control.

SLA was the achievement of Bob along with Ian Smart and others. It brought a whole generation of twentysomething and thirtysomething activists together: Susan Deacon, Wendy Alexander, Jack McConnell, Sarah Boyack and older voices such as Bernard Crick.

As a member and supporter of SLA from the outset it was the first time I had met a group of similar minded Labour people who were contemptuous of old Labour, prepared to do something about it, and stand for a very different kind of politics around home rule.

Set up in the aftermath of the 1987 election and Thatcher’s third election victory on the back of Tory retreat and rout in Scotland, SLA was a response to Labour’s inability to do something. Post-87 Labour’s Scottish leadership and mainstream ‘soft left’ seemed unable or willing to provide a convincing alternative.

SLA’s founding statement the following year declared its support for ‘Scotland’s right to self-determination’, said the Conservatives had ‘no mandate’ to govern Scotland, identified itself with non-payment of the poll tax and cross-party campaigning to achieve a Scottish Parliament.

This was a very different kind of Labour politics to what we had known and what came after. It was pluralist, radical, even nationalist, and it played a big role in how Labour slowly came to terms with the growing Scottish dimension.

It aided Labour coming out in support of ‘A Claim of Right for Scotland’ initiative which led to the Constitutional Convention, while moving Labour to a different position on electoral reform and a Parliament. All of this put pressure on a cautious Labour leadership and at the same time gave them permission to ‘live dangerously’ in the words of Donald Dewar at the time.

This represented, as the SNP’s left-wing 79 Group a few years previously also did, a generational movement and rebellion, of youngish, articulate, confident left-wing activists, impatient with the dull, safety first politics of their parties. This was part of the emerging ‘new left’ in each party in the 1980s, and the rising ‘polyocracy’, the product of the 1960s expansion of higher education.

Some of the people associated with this political shift ended up in the leadership of their parties, Jack McConnell and Wendy Alexander in Labour, Alex Salmond in the SNP. Yet it is also true that in the process they lost much of their radical edge, and ended up colluding and embracing much of the post-Thatcherite politics they had earlier so despised.

The impact of SLA shows that the age of Blair, Cameron and Salmond, of Napoleonic like politics, control, constant positioning and ever-present presentation, is not only limited but also not the only way.

A Scottish Labour Party that genuinely tried to speak a different language and politics from old Labour could learn much from the example of SLA. For a start, it would recognise the power and reach of self-determination, as an ennobling and enabling idea across Scotland, taking power from elites, institutions and cosy arrangements, and putting it in the hands of people.

It would develop a pro-autonomy, pro-distinctive Scottish agenda which started with a proud, confident Scottish Labour Party practising what it preached, seeking a Scottish mandate and speaking with an unapologetic Scottish voice. And it would take this attitude and mindset into its politics, being nationalist with a small ‘n’, and developing a politics about the transformation of Scottish society.

In so doing, it would be a collaborator in British Labour, but in partnership, not the silent acquiescence it currently offers. It would say a Britain of inequality, of the marketisation and fragmentation of the NHS, and of Trident nuclear weapons on the Clyde was one no Labour north of the border could collude in. And it would demand after decades of Labour quangocracy, the highest standards of public life; post-New Labour it would not allow former ministers such as John Reid to use the ‘revolving door’ to take lucrative contracts with the like of G4S and retain the party whip.

To even begin daring to dream of a different Scottish Labour politics requires a different party culture. One where party members discuss, argue, come together, form party pressure groups, and do all this in a comradely, respectful manner, contributing to the remaking of their parties, changing their cultures, and how their leaderships act.

The age of the leader as the fount of wisdom and political acumen has not exactly served politics well. It has hollowed out political parties, reduced party conferences to impressive looking backdrops, and resulted in the two big British parties being extensions of corporate power and Murdoch court manoeuvrings. It has done this and changed the mindset of the young party member, from one of idealism and public service to the politics of the extended state and networks with all preference and advancement centred on researchers, advisers and a world of patronage and preferment around power.

There is a direct relationship between the rise of this self-promoting, preservation politics and the multiple crises of British public life, in our banks, financial institutions, media and politics. It doesn’t have to be this way. If there is to be a point to political parties then individual members have to take them back, own them and recoccupy the political system.

There is an example in Scottish Labour’s recent past of a small group who did just that: who made a courageous stand of principle and in so doing changed Labour and Scottish politics and contributed to where we are. The finest tribute people who could pay to the generosity and overflowing humanity of Bob McLean is if they learnt this lesson and began taking back their political parties and politics from their current deadly embrace to the markets and the politics of manipulation.