It’s a Family Affair: the Strange Relationship of Labour and SNP

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, April 26th 2015

The forthcoming general election in Scotland, and to an extent in the UK, is being decided by the battle between Labour and the SNP.

There is history and bad blood here which almost amounts to a bitter family feud. Insults such as ‘tartan Tories’ and ‘red Tories’ are exchanged – both phrases pre-exist their current Labour and SNP use, but are now synonymous with the enmity between the two.

The past is a distant country in this. The SNP electoral breakthrough when Winnie Ewing won Hamilton in 1967 sent a chill up Scottish Labour spines. It was one of the most impregnable Labour seats in the UK, and after it happened, politics were never ever quite the same again.

Labour’s anger against the SNP since then borders on the elemental. This was magnified and given validity by the events of March 28th 1979 when eleven SNP MPs voted with thirteen Liberals to bring down the Callaghan Government. This heralded the 1979 general election and Mrs. Thatcher – which Labour as a result believe the SNP (but never the Liberals) are in some way responsible for.

The reason for the two parties fractious relationship is much deeper than mere events. The SNP call Labour ‘London Labour’ and see Scottish Labour as not a real entity, but in Johann Lamont’s words, as ‘a branch office’.

At the same time the SNP have, from the 1980s onwards, attempted to differentiate between failures of the Labour leadership and senior politicians and the good faith of many Labour members and voters. This strategy began to bear fruit in Jim Sillars’ famous by-election victory in Govan in 1988, but has taken longer for it fully mature.

There are limitations on both sides, but the relationship has always been shaped by Labour seeing the SNP as an existential threat which questions their very being. Labour’s fury at the Nats has partly been about how the SNP didn’t historically correspond to tidy left-right and class distinctions.

Having begun to see the Tories off from large swathes of Scotland, Labour found themselves confronted with an enemy they couldn’t fully understand. And whereas their caricature of the Tory enemy (land and lairds, toffs) worked, they never quite got how to do the same to the SNP (coming nearest with the phrase ‘tartan Tories’).

Critically for Labour it had something precious to lose in Scotland which the SNP wanted to take away – namely, seats, power and ultimately, its purpose.

From the 1960s onward Labour increasingly became the political establishment of this country. One which had lots of MPs, councillors and patronage. The SNP threatened this, and did so in a manner which Labour could never fully understand or compete with.

Part of this dynamic is informed by the similarities between Labour and the SNP, excluding the independence question. This has contributed to the fetishisation of small differences between the two: a phenomenon seen the world over.

There is a human element to all this. Many in Labour and the SNP in different circumstances would have found themselves in the opposite party. There are some of the same radicals, pragmatists and social conservatives in each.

In places where the SNP and Labour competed with each other from the 1970s -such as Dundee or the Western Isles – many members in each were virtually interchangeable – the same hopeful teachers and public sector professionals, or those with small businesses. Much as it might offend some Nationalists now, it is possible in a parallel universe in which there was no SNP, to easily imagine Nicola Sturgeon as a successful Scottish Labour politician.

Even more many in Scottish Labour are reminded by the existence of the SNP of their own early idealism – whether it was believing in the cause of socialism, or the totemic issue of nuclear weapons in Scottish waters.

It isn’t an accident that some of Labour’s most vociferous anti-Nats – such as the likes of Brian Wilson and George Robertson – were themselves as young men members of the SNP because of their anti-nuclear views. Today when some in Scottish Labour look enviously at the SNP, at their collective self-motivation, their belief in their cause, and their sense of a long journey to a worthwhile destination, it must in some way remind them of their earlier radical selves and the Labour Party in distant times.

In recent days and weeks, the rhetoric and bitterness between some in each of our big parties has reached epic proportions. This masks so much cross-over, shared histories and values, and even similar personalities. And yet this almost family like feud is for some a life and death struggle to reject something rather similar to themselves.

Scottish Labour for all its detractors has contributed richly to our society, with many significant achievements that have helped make our country a better, fairer and more humane place.

These milestones – the NHS, council housing, the Hydro-Electric schemes of the Highlands – are increasingly in the past, taken for granted, or widely supported politically. The party which legislated for a Scottish Parliament lost its way under devolution and then with the arrival of the SNP in power.

The indyref didn’t help : a subject Labour didn’t want to talk about, and which it struggled to develop any distinct Labour message of the union in. And that’s leaving aside the inconvenience of having to ally in some way with the Tories.

This brings us to this election. The launch of the SNP manifesto this week with its progressive British credentials situated itself on the terrain Scottish Labour should have. This is to say from a Scottish perspective Britain increasingly doesn’t work for most people. It is a testament to Labour failure that the SNP felt able to make this audacious move.

This is a watershed election. For Scotland and the UK. It isn’t about the constitution or an indyref2. Instead, it is about who is best placed to represent Scotland’s interests in Westminster, and our place in an evolving union.

Underneath this, beneath the sound and fury, is the challenge of how to advance social democratic ideals in a difficult and challenging environment. That mantle looks like it is shifting from Labour to the SNP, but if it is, then that will require a more substantial and serious policy agenda from the Nationalists than what we have had so far.