Doctrine and Ethos in the Scottish Labour Party
Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw
Paper to the Political Studies Association Annual Conference,’Regionalist Parties and Territorial Politics’
April 1st 2010
Before I was born my father was involved in socialist politics and from boyhood I have known all the great men – Hardie, Maxton, Tom Johnston and Wheatley. I have heard some describe the wonderful society that socialism will bring to the working class.
All of them went down to the Parliament in London, and from there they could never deliver socialism to the Scottish working class. It is only when our people realises that all of our socialist dreams have been destroyed by the London connection that we will make any progress. We need a Parliament of our own. That’s our only hope.
Retired miner, 1979 election meeting, Netherthird, Cumnock (Sillars, 1986: 75)
The Scottish Labour Party has contributed significantly to the politics of Scotland and Labour more generally. It has articulated a politics which has embodied both a sense of Scottish distinctiveness and British interests, and acknowledged the role and overlap of Scottish and British identities whose subtlety and nuance has often wrong-footed its opponents.
This is a party which is seen by some as a ‘unionist’ entity, as a flag carrier and apologist for ‘Old Labour’ by others, and even by some cyber-nats as not existing: this latter group arguing that ‘the Scottish Labour Party’ cannot be found registered at the Electoral Commission and that it is merely the branch line of the British Labour operation. There have been many narratives of Scottish Labour over its history and recent past, many emphasising the supposed radical character of the party and how it is the direct descendant of Keir Hardie and Red Clydeside. In the last decade one of the dominant perspectives of how the party is perceived and portrayed from outside it has been a negative one: talking about Scottish Labour as a ‘political machine’, conducting Tammany Hall style politics, and gaining strength and influence through the ‘networked’ and ‘extended state’ (Hassan, 2004).
This is a party with a distinct sense of itself, its place in the world, a set of myths and reference points, and its own unique history which feeds into but is separate from British Labour. It is also a party which has as a centre-left political force had an impressive record of electoral success, achievement and support consistently over its history, and in particular since 1945. Much of how the party defines itself, how its opponents see it, and how it is seen in wider Scotland and the UK, stems from this record of winning votes and elections.
Henry Drucker and ‘Doctrine and Ethos’
In 1979 Henry Drucker’s path-breaking study of ‘Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party’ was published. The purpose of the book was ‘to argue that there is more to the party’s ideology than socialist doctrines. Its ideology has been equally strongly influenced by the sentiments and traditions of the people who have created and controlled it.’ The ideology embodied ‘both doctrine and ethos’ (Drucker, 1979: vii). He defined ideology, broadly, ‘to include the traditions, beliefs, characteristic procedures and feelings which help animate the members of the party’ (Drucker, 1979: 1). He then distinguished between two dimensions of ideology, doctrine and ethos. ‘A doctrine is a more or less elaborated set of ideas about the character of (in this case) social, economic and political reality which is accepted by a considerable group of people. In the case of political doctrines, these ideas lead to a programme of action, often by being expressed in a series of policies.’ (Drucker, 1979: 8). The concept of ethos refers ‘its traditions and habits, its feel. The ethos is not explicit; it is not laid down in the rules’ (Drucker, 1991: 244).
Drucker was teaching at Edinburgh University when he wrote the book. One cannot help speculating that, in formulating his ideas, he was heavily influenced by his own experience and observations of Edinburgh Labour Party of which he was a member. So it seems particularly apposite that, in a PSA conference meeting in Edinburgh that we reflect on the subject of doctrine and ethos in the Scottish Labour Party. We address three main questions. Firstly, how adequate are Drucker’s concepts of doctrine and ethos? Secondly, how much light do these concepts shed on the nature and conduct of the contemporary Scottish Labour Party? Finally, is there a distinctive Scottish Labour ideology?
We begin by exploring the two central concepts of ‘doctrine’ and ‘ethos’. Labour’s doctrine (as Drucker conceives it) is a relatively open and diverse assembly of ideas revolving around some ‘common doctrinal ground’, notably the commitment to equality (understood in terms of a more equal distribution of income, status and power) to be realised through such means as such as ‘progressive taxation, comprehensive state education, free medical care, state intervention in the economy’ (Drucker, 1979: 9). He distinguishes between various doctrinal positions that assert that socialism is about nationalisation, or about equality or about partnership with the trade unions in defence of the material interests of the working class (Drucker, 1979: 45).
What, then, of ethos? This is the more novel part of Drucker’s analysis. Three points can be made of his use of the term. Firstly, by ethos he appears primarily to have in mind norms, or notions of behavioural propriety which are ingrained in the institutional fabric of the party and into which new cohorts of members are socialised. Norms can be defined as tacit understandings about appropriate ways to interact with others within the party in given roles and situations. He identifies four such norms: loyalty to the leader, rather puritan expectations of the expected lifestyles of its leaders and officials, highly prudent attitudes to the spending of party funds and its belief in strict adherence to a body of codified rules (Drucker, 1979: 12-17). The precise reasons why he has chosen to focus on just these four attributes is not made clear.
The second aspect of Labour’s ethos – and a major theme in the book – is the degree to which the party is grounded in a strong sense of its own past. Labour is a party soaked in its own traditions. ‘The Labour Party has and needs a strong sense of its own past and of the past of the Labour movement produced and sustains it. The sense of its past is so central to its ethos that it plays a crucial role in defining what the party is about to those in it’ (Drucker, 1979: 25). By ‘past’ he does not mean objectively verified history – ‘the past’ – but the past as it lives in the collective memory of the party. A ‘past’ in this sense refers to ‘the way in which collections of half-remembered, often repeated and occasionally embellished tales of a specific past of a specific people’ serve to bind the party together’ The past, in this sense, ‘is a force making for group identity’ (Drucker, 1979: 31).
Thirdly, that past is a sociologically specific past, an ‘expression of the past experience of various parts of the British working class’ (Drucker, 1979: 25). Labour, Drucker maintained in 1991, ‘still possesses habits and traditions which do not arise from any doctrinal conception, which are traceable in large measure to its ties with trade unions, and which shape much of the current controversy within the party’ (Drucker, 1991: 245). Thus an essential component of Labour’s ethos is that it is more than a party – it is a part of a movement composed of both ‘political’ and ‘industrial’ wings. As Drucker put it in 1991 ‘Socialists who want to belong to a party which is not tied to the unions are quite right to think that they had better leave the Labour Party’ (Drucker, 1991: 244).
‘Doctrine and Ethos’ written as a time behavioural, positivist and quantitative approaches to politics – or ‘political science’ – were becoming increasingly influential in the UK. Partly for that reason and partly because the study of ‘party ethos’ raises difficult methodological issues, the approach that Drucker’s study pioneered has rarely been emulated. But in the last decade or two there has been a growing recognition – notably in the ideational, constructivist and culturalist literature – of the importance of what one can call the subjective aspects of political action. Drucker would surely have endorsed the core proposition undergirding this literature that political action can only be described and explained with reference to the meaning such action has for the actor in question. What Eckstein calls touchstone of ‘culturalist theory’ postulates that ‘actors do not respond directly to “situations” but respond to them through mediating “orientations.”’ These orientations can de defined as ‘general dispositions of actors to act in certain ways in sets of situations’ (Eckstein, 1988: 790). In institutions such as political parties such meaning is shared and form collective ‘meaning systems’ which members imbibe and internalise and help engender shared responses to political problems.
So Drucker’s work was, arguably in advance of his time. But there are some gaps or weaknesses in his account. For example his selection of the norms which in toto are seen to constitute Labour’s ethos is rather narrow and a little random. Thus the Shorter Oxford Dictionary defined ethos as an institutions ‘characteristic spirit as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations’ or its ‘character as represented by its values and beliefs.’ Similarly Plant saw ethos as ‘a matter of the spirit of an organisation’, its shared understanding and traditions, ‘It is a kind of second nature to people who are part of whatever it might be’ (Plant, 2001). In other words, it should refer to more than (as the term is employed by Drucker) behavioural norms or notions of propriety. This brings us to the second point. If ethos refers, as Drucker accepts, to ‘the spirit of the party’, that is its vital principle or animating force, then it must encompass its fundamental values. This begs the question: what is the relationship between what Drucker sees as the two component parts of Labour’s ideology, its ethos and its doctrine? This question is ignored – indeed ‘ethos’ and ‘doctrine’ are treated quite separately as if they existed as compartmentalised aspects of the party’s ideology.
Fortunately the relationship between ethos and doctrine have been explored elsewhere in the literature, especially in that on ’labourism’. The advantages of this concept is that it absorbs within itself notions of both doctrine and ethos as well as using a rather broader concept of ethos. Perhaps for this reason it is a rather fuzzy and imprecise concept which had leant itself to significantly diverging interpretations (see Shaw, 2004). Yet, Cronin suggests ‘for those trying to make sense of Labour and its history, the term “Labourism” has proved particularly useful as a description of the “project” and the package of ideas, attitudes and predispositions that has held it all together’ (Cronin, 2004: 6). Its value is that it ‘describes an ethos, a culture that to some extent transcends and conceptually precedes doctrines’ (Cronin, 2004: 7). In short, it forges the essential connection between doctrine and ethos.
The doctrine and ethos of ‘labourism’
As is well known, the Labour Party was formed to give ‘the labour interest’ and the working class in general a direct voice in the deliberations of government. But the relationship between the Labour Party and the unions that founded it was never principally a pragmatic one. The relationship between the ‘political’ and ‘industrial’ wings of ‘the movement’, Minkin commented, was rooted in a ‘common loyalty and a deeply felt commitment to a wider entity and purpose – the Labour Movement…What constituted labour as a movement was the belief that each struggle was, or could be, linked into a larger social purpose’- or a ‘shared historical project.’ (Minkin, 1991: 4-5). This gave to Labour a different imperative and a special raison d’être. The term ‘movement’ was ‘both a description and an aspiration’ (Minkin, 1991: 4). Description referred to the institutional binding between the party and the affiliated unions. Aspiration referred to shared purpose and engagement in a common struggle: hence the (once) constantly reiterated phrase ‘this great movement of ours’. Indeed Drucker went as far as to argue that ‘the spirit of the party; its traditions, its habits, its feel’ were all largely a product of its ties with trade unions (Drucker, 1991: 244).
The party was not only permeated by a set of norms and values derived from its trade union progenitors: it was sustained by institutional arrangements which entrenched trade union power within the party. Some commentators concluded that the organisational and financial arrangements of the party enabled the affiliated trade unions to dominate the party (Cronin, 2004: 9). The privileged position of unions not only ensured for them a major role in the formulation of Labour’s policy and strategic direction but enabled them to impose a set of parameters to which the party’s leadership had to conform at risk of impairing their own survival in office. Minkin, in his seminal study of party-union relations, offered a more nuanced and subtle interpretation. The relationship was governed by a historically evolved and culturally sustained set of norms or practice – the ‘rules’ in Minkin’s terminology. ‘Although overall the ‘rules’ dictated mutual obligations and mutual restraint, and although they derived in great measure from trade union defined values, the most significant feature of the way the rules operated was that they limited the effective power of the group which appeared to have all the key formal levers of power at their disposal — the trade union leadership’ (Minkin, 1991: 629). However all commentators would agree that the trade unions possessed a major role in decision-making and this gave Labour’s policy and programme a distinctively ‘labourist’ hue.
But what does ‘labourist’ mean in this context? To answer this question we need to briefly understand the origins of the term which gained their modern meaning in the New Left critique of the Labour Party, particularly found in the writings of Perry Anderson (1964), Tom Nairn (1964a;b) and John Saville (1973). The Anderson-Nairn theses as they came to be called made the case for British exceptionalism, and that ‘a supine bourgeoisie produced a subordinate proletariat’ (Anderson, 1964: 43). This emphasises the unique and insular quality of the British labour movement compared to its European counterparts: the place and position of trade unions, working class sectionalism, the overwhelming acceptance of parliamentarianism, and the weakness of any radical, socialist alternatives to the Labour Party.
For most commentators, then, ‘labourism’ conferred upon the party a cautious, narrowly reformist and defensive mentality. Thus Marquand has argued that, notwithstanding its commitment to a socialist programme, the ‘labourist’ temperament was essentially a guarded one, ‘an ethos of resistance, not of attack; of the objects of history, not of the subjects.’ Here Labour reflected its roots for ‘the labour movement was a product of the world of “us” against “them”, but it existed to protect “us” against the injustices perpetrated by “them”, not to enable “us” to join “them”, and still less to replace “them” by “us”. (Marquand, 1991: 21-22). As a result, Labour’s horizons were limited. Its programme was geared to affording the working class protection against unemployment, insecurity, sickness and poverty through a range of ameliatory measures. The object of ‘labourist’ ideology, in short, was the incorporation of the working class into the existing social order (Saville, 1973: 222) and the pursuit of relatively modest aspirations publicly through collective action. To Coates, the concept of ‘labourism’ ‘is meant to capture the dominant definitions of “the political” enshrined in the political philosophy and practice of the Labour Party since 1900’ (Coates, 1989: 36).
An ancillary argument is that ‘labourism’ has imparted to the party a hard-headed, atheoretical cast of mind and an indifference to ideas or ideologies. This, Minkin has argued, was evinced in a habitual accent on the practicalities of a question, on the need to adjust to ‘hard realities’ and on the inescapability of compromise (Minkin, 1991: 40-41). Precedent, tradition and established custom and practice and experience were seen as more reliable guides to action than abstract intellectual schemes (Minkin, 1978: 118). Forrester similarly contrasted the socialist ‘ideal type’ defined as ‘educative, ideological, principled, intellectual’ with the ‘labourist’ one characterised as ‘reflective, empirical, pragmatic, evolutionary’ (Forrester, 1976: 35). Marquand equally noted that Labour has been constructed not by committed socialists but by trade unions and ‘deliberately chose to identify itself as the instrument of the labour interest rather than as the vehicle for any ideology’ (Marquand, 1991: 16-17). Drucker uses the rather misleading term ‘corporate socialism’ to denote this mindset. He sees it as ‘a form of extreme pragmatism’… It has no goal, but posses an astute and sensitive awareness of what it wants to protect: the economic standards of employed working-class men’ (Drucker, 1979: 45). It was precisely this indifference to theory, its immersion in the solid world of practicalities and give-and-take that enabled the unions to perform the indispensable role of as the ballast or the anchorage of the party, retraining the party when tempted by the sirens calls of left and right.
The Story of the Scottish Labour Party
We can summarise that the essence of ‘labourism’ as both doctrine and ethos is bedrock partnership between party and unions: in Drucker’s pithy phrase, the party was ‘unthinkable without the unions’ (Drucker, 1991: 245). How applicable is the concept to contemporary Scottish Labour? Has it remained (as has been claimed) more stubbornly ‘labourist’ than the party south of the border? Has this imparted to it a distinctive ideological tint? And, if this so, does this explain why it has followed (in case devolved areas such as healthcare and education) a rather different programmatic trajectory than the party nationally?
The story of Scottish Labour is one filled with myth, history and the party’s romanticised view of itself and its past. There are at least two powerful, potent strands which the party emphasises in its early days of formation. The first is the ‘official’ history of Keir Hardie standing in the 1888 Mid-Lanark by-election as an independent Labour candidate which led to the formation of ‘the Scottish Labour Party’, a distinctive, Scottish body that predates the creation of the ILP in 1893 by five years. The second is the radical agenda and legacy of Gladstonian liberalism with its mixture of support for Scottish home rule, land reform, temperance and crofter’s rights invoked within the rhetoric of egalitarian Scottish democracy (Keating and Bleiman, 1979). While the first was the romantic story emphasised by the Labour Party subsequently, stressing as it did the role of independent organisation, the second counts as much in Scottish Labour, and provides alongside a radical rhetoric, a sense of continuity and even conservatism in the party, as the mantle of first, radicalism, and then, the political establishment passed seamlessly from Liberals to Labour. This, in Drucker’s terminology, was Scottish Labour’s own ‘past’.
Equally its ethos was derived from the lived experiences of the working class. With its highly urbanised demography and its concentration of heavy and extractive industry Scotland for most of the twentieth century has been a heartland of trade unionism. Not surprisingly, and particularly after the departure of the ILP in 1932, the relationship between party and unions (especially the big manual unions, the TGWU, the NUM, the General and Municipal Workers Union and the Engineers) was solid and intense. At all levels of the party, party and union office-holders worked closely together. Indeed one of the clues to an enduring puzzle about the party, particularly in its bastions like Scotland’s central belt – its ability to sustain political hegemony despite persistently low levels of membership and activism and often weak organisation – may well derive from its access to the manpower, resources and to a whole network of local connections that the could unions place at its disposal. In the party stronghold of Fife, for example, ‘Unions and Labour were very, very close. Unions were very active and supportive with in terms of finance, sponsorship, and foot soldiers. The Labour Party was small in membership and the union were large and when it mattered they were there’ (interview with Henry McLeish).
A party becomes, Moschanas has written, ‘the bearer of its own tradition’ and this tradition is ‘embedded in its identity, its conception of itself’ (Moschanas, 2002: 243). Scottish Labour’s conception of itself was that it was working class, hardheaded and instinctively radical. Party leaders and activists would make copious reference to the traditions of the Red Clydesiders and the struggles, political and historical, of the labour movement. But within Scottish Labour there has always been a disjuncture between self-image, ritual and emotional symbolism on the one hand and practical policy and actual behaviour on the other. After disaffiliation by the ILP (which had a very strong presence in Scotland) in 1932 Scottish Labour was increasingly dominated by officials primarily interested in building up electoral organisation, and hardheaded and practical trade unionists. As it ensconced itself – from the 1950s onwards – in the citadels of local government power Labour emerged in many areas as the local political establishment. ‘Pragmatism and management became ingrained in Scottish Labour’s post-war outlook’ (Finlay, 2004: 32). Most of the energies of local party organisations and activists were expended in running local government which meant that a high proportion of its upper layer (excluding Labour MPs) were absorbed in the practical details of municipal administration. This imparted to it a highly practical cast of mind. Keating summed up the ideology of the Labour Party in the largest by far of Labour-run councils, Glasgow, as `municipal labourism’, that is ‘a concern with a limited range of policy issues with an immediate impact on their constituents- notably housing matters – but little consideration of wider policy issues.’ Wider political issues – such as public ownership and the structure of the welfare state – ‘were taken for granted but their contemporary meaning rarely debated’ (Keating, 1988: 12-13). To some commentators, Labour in Scotland has exhibited the defensive mentality and lack of intellectual fertility which scholars have seen as characteristic of ‘labourism’. In Christopher Smout’s astringent judgment, `Labour in Scotland became synonymous with the defence of council housing, jobs in heavy industry and sectarian schools: it had nothing whatsoever to do with participatory democracy, enthusiasm for socialism or hope for the future’ (quoted in Knox, 1999: 248).
This spilled over in the culture of local Labour parties. A large proportion of the (usually rather modest number) of active members were local councillors and meetings were dominated by council reports and by organisational and electoral matters. The prime purpose of the party on the ground was to (one seasoned senior party figure recalled) was to act as ‘an electoral machine to get people elected to the political battlefronts.’ There was little debate of wider ideological issues. (interviews Henry McLeish, Rosemary McKenna). As a result, the bread and butter issues of local politics – housing, education, the pay and conditions of municipal workers and so forth – increasingly dominated the political agenda and set the intellectual horizons of Scottish Labour. Labour’s parliamentary contingent from Scotland was composed largely of people with a local government or trade union background, practically-minded, level-headed and intensively loyal to the party leadership (Hutchison, 2001: 95) – though especially from the late 1970s and early 1980s there were some notable exceptions, MPs with a broader outlook and a more radical stamp, such as Gordon Brown and Robin Cook.
Scottish Labour, like the party elsewhere, was composed of currents on both left and right. The formation of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee in the year before Drucker published ‘Doctrine and Ethos’ rather altered the tenor of Scottish Labour politics. It led to the influx of a new cohort of activist into the Scottish Executive, such as Bill Speirs (later head of the STUC), Mark Lazarowicz, Mike Connarty, George Galloway – all later elected to Parliament. In the early and mid-1980s it was an influential force on the Scottish Executive and though it never really penetrated the party’s West Central belt power clusters it did alter somewhat the culture of Scottish Labour politics. There was more discussion of broader policy issues and the inwardness of Scottish Labour politics abated somewhat. But it was the West Central belt that continued to shape the party’s politics.
Places such as Edinburgh, Stirling and Dundee produced a new generation of Labour leaders, influenced by the new left, the GLC, feminism and a host of radical currents. These were areas ‘where the party has faced more competition and serious challenge, produced a less traditional kind of labourism, as indicated by the origins of the ‘new left’ currents of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee and Scottish Labour Action’ (Hassan, 2002: 146). This new wave of energetic local Labour leaders did not sustain itself and change the party. This Scottish new left was a smaller, more conservative group than in England, and it only ever achieved a partial influence, running out of steam and being marginalised as the West of Scotland Labour model reasserted its hold.
Scottish Labour, New Labour and ‘Labourism’
‘Labourism’, its critics have argued, bestowed upon the Labour Party a rigidity which inhibited its capacity to adapt to rapidly changing social circumstances and mired it into a obsolete traditions which would progressively push in to the margins of British politics. As the New Labour strategist Philip Gould commented (referring to both Drucker and Marquand’s accounts) it ‘made the party cautious, defensive and backward-looking’ (Gould, 1998: 26). It was precisely to break the hold of labourist ideology that the New Labour project was launched. ‘“Labourism” as a set of loyalties and a source of identity and socialism as a vision of a new social order were both spectres to be exorcised from the new Labour Party’ (Cronin, 2004: 14).
However, this campaign of exorcism was less successful in Scotland. For some critics it was precisely this failure to transform itself that was responsible for the failure of Labour-led administrations in Holyrood to following New Labour’s modernisation of public services. This has been manifested in a widening policy divergence (especially in healthcare and education) between Scotland and Westminster, which have largely taken the form of a reluctance on the part of the former to adopt the market-oriented policies, the promotion of competition, choice and the involvement of private providers in the delivery of public services, espoused by the latter. The relative electoral success of Scottish Labour in the 1980s and early 1990s meant that it had never challenged into questioning long-held beliefs and assumptions. The result was, as political advisor John McTernan put it, ‘politics in aspic’. The framing assumptions of Scottish Labour remained grounded in a corporatist mentality whose presumptions were that state activities should constantly expand, that collectivist, state solutions were always superior to market ones and that private sector involvement in the delivery of public service should be eschewed as far as possible. ‘Every problem had a public sector solution’ (interview, John McTernan). From this perspective Scottish Labour is in something of a time warp. It has resisted the modernising impulses that gave rise to ‘New Labour’ south of the border. It permeated by labourist assumptions.
But there are problems with this analysis. The institutional link with the trade unions provided the conduit through which the norms, habits and traditions of working class experiences permeated all aspects of Labour’s inner life (Marriott, 1991: 7). Yet since the early 1980s Scotland’s economy and society had undergone a profound change. There has been a massive attrition in Scottish manufacturing employment with the collapse of many traditional industries (coal, steel, shipbuilding etc). This had inevitable consequences for Scottish trade unionism as the membership (especially in the private sector and manufacturing) shrank alarmingly. The heavily unionised, concentrated working class, mostly housed in council estates ‘whose experiences had generated past solidarities in working-class communities’ and which had provided bedrock support for Labour and the unions’ was dislocated and began to fragment (Knox, 1999: 252).
Drucker’s own work on Jim Sillars’ breakaway Scottish Labour Party entitled ‘Breakaway’ and published one year before ‘Doctrine and Ethos’ and the 1979 election, gives a snapshot of a Labour world that was on the cusp of huge change (Drucker, 1978). Sillars was the Labour MP for South Ayrshire, an area once dominated by the mining industry. Drucker noted of Sillar’s constituency:
The Doon Valley is the epitome of the old Scotland. It is an area of small towns and mining villages. It also, unfortunately, has a 40% male unemployment. It is intensely proud of its own. It has a very strong NUM and is the heart of the South Ayrshire Constituency Labour Party. (Drucker, 1978: 141-2) But ‘Old Scotland’ was changing rapidly’. Drucker observes: ‘An industrial Scotland dominated by extractive and heavy industry as it was in the period between 1880 and 1920 and though to a lesser extent, up to about 1960, has passed by.’ This meant that: ‘A new Scotland of public administrators, teachers and privately owned light industries is emerging’ (Drucker, 1978: 143). Sillars later acknowledged that ‘he was not aware that the self-sustaining, supporting world of Labour was slowly eroding and disappearing until the moment he lost his South Ayrshire seat in 1979’; nor how ‘insular and oppressive it appeared to those outside it’ (interview with Jim Sillars).
At the same Labour’s implantation in the social fabric of working class communities has weakened. Particularly in the last few years an already small membership has shrunk further. Active party members, for example, have become predominantly middle class and whilst still usually union members, their unions are largely middle class (e.g. the Scottish teachers union, the EIS) and not affiliated to the party. Most party members are separated by at least a generation from life in close-knit working class communities. Party representatives (most emphatically at parliamentary level) increasingly have middle class occupational backgrounds. The capillaries that attached the party to local communities are becoming progressively enfeebled. Labour’s ideology, Drucker stressed, was ‘an expression of the ethos of the dominant group in the party. It incorporates sets of values which spring from the experience of the British working class.’ These values affected relationships within the party, relations with other groups, with society as a whole and ‘ reflect the role of the working class in the United Kingdom’ (Drucker, 1979: 9). It has now become increasingly plain that, in Scotland as throughout Britain, Labour is loosing its anchorage in the life and culture of the working class and as has been doing so at the very least since the inception of the New Labour project sixteen years ago. The arteries through which the experiences and norms of the working class flowed into the Labour party are being clogged up. Union membership has fallen, sentiments of class cohesion and solidarity begun to wilt and the class-party link, mediated through the unions, has waned and with it the notion of a common enterprise. Scottish Labour has within its ranks considerably fewer members who were also prominent local figures embedded in social networks within their communities (Interviews MPs and MSPs). The very phrase ‘the labour movement’ has now a rather dated and faded air. It was hardly, if ever, used by our interviewees (27 so far). As one MP mused, ‘I haven’t heard anyone say “this great movement of ours” for a while’ (Interview, Anne McGuire).
This is not to suggest that the party-union link is eroding. Whilst party reforms in the 1990s, particularly the institution of one-member-one-vote in the selection of parliamentary candidates, has to a degree diluted the role of the unions in the party’s power structure the notion of an institutional separation between party and unions has always been (and still is) regarded as inconceivable. But the nature of the relationship is changing. Firstly, with the subsiding of solidaristic ties and sentiments, pragmatic considerations have acquired greater significance. From the party’s perspective, the unions remain a ready supplier of funds, personnel and campaign mobilisation efforts. Ironically (given New Labour’s hopes) in some ways its dependence has intensified as other sources of help have dried up: membership is in free fall, constituency organisation is slipping rapidly into disrepair and donations from benefactors rapidly tapering off. Without the unions, party organisation and constituency campaigning would probably be falling apart. This has meant that, in organisational terms, the unions remain major power brokers within Scottish Labour, notably in selection contests. But as the party’s implantation in working class communities have decayed so too have the channels through which the culture of those communities dried up. This has had inevitable effects upon the party’s ethos. But what of doctrine?
For Marquand a key-defining element of ‘labourism’ was that societal cleavages were construed in more or less exclusively class terms. As a result, working-class interests were accorded ‘a special legitimacy denied to other class interests’. Rooted as it was so fixedly ‘in the labour interest and the ethos of labourism’ the party could not ‘transcend these without betraying its vocation and dishonouring its origins’ (Marquand, 1991: 23). These comments, as applied to Scotland, however overlook the profound and far-reaching change which have altered the nature of Labour’s politics as a result of the social, occupational and economic changes referred to above. A cross-class alliance of middle class professionals, public sector workers and public organisations, whilst deepening Labour’s dominance also reshaped its ideology. The key point here is that whatever may have been the truth in the past, post-devolution it is simply inaccurate to depict Scottish Labour as a party that accords trade-union mediated working-class interests ‘a special legitimacy’ denied to others..
It is true that, in matters for which the Scottish Parliament has jurisdiction, greater efforts have been made by Scottish Labour ministers to accommodate to the preferences of affiliated unions than has been the case in Westminster. But it is not at all evident that the influence of affiliated manual unions has been paramount. The one issue where there was an open confrontation between Labour ministers and the affiliated unions, was the decision to rely heavily on the controversial Private Finance Initiative in capital investment projects. The PFI, a scheme for using private funds for the building of new schools and hospitals which would be owned by private consortia and then rented out to public organisations, was adamantly opposed by the unions – but with minimal effect. . For the former First Minister Henry McLeish the recourse to PFI indeed demonstrated that in his administration ‘that in any conflict between pragmatism and ideology, pragmatism would always prevail without sacrifice of principle’ (McLeish, 2004: 147. Whoever’s interests were accorded ‘a special legitimacy’ it was certainly not the affiliated manual unions. Indeed PFI deals were almost as common in Scotland as in England (in contrast to Wales).
In this instance there was a broad policy convergence between Holyrood and Westminster. But this was not always the case. . The most marked example of policy distancing have been in strategy for running the public services. Labour in Scotland remained staunchly attached to the delivery of public service by public organisations operating in a non-competitive environment. There was little interest in the introduction of quasi-markets, consumer choice and diversity of provision of which have figured as major policy themes in New Labour’s ‘modernisation’ agenda (for details see Arnott, 2005; Greer, 2003; Paterson, 2003). There are a range of reasons for this (consideration of which would take us beyond the remit of this paper) but one major fact, we maintain, is the distinctive ideology of Scottish Labour.
Whilst variables such as historical legacies, the composition of policy communities, institutional arrangements and political calculation all play a part in structuring policy choice we follow cultural analysts in contending that, ‘without some grasp of the collectively shared mental constructs that account for the meanings actors attach to their experiences and environments’ political behaviour cannot be understood (Sil, 2000: 359). The behaviour of political actors, in short, is a function both of ‘the experience of objective situations and actors’ subjective processing of experience’ (Eckstein, 1988: 790). Scottish Labour’s attachment to a more traditional social democratic vision of public service provision is, we argue, a result of a distinctive element in its ideology: but this – and this is a crucial point – has little to do with ‘labourism’.
To elucidate the matter further we draw upon Perkin’s analysis of a rather neglected cleavage line in British politics and society. Supplementing the familiar fissure between capital and labour is the struggle between those ‘who benefit directly from government expenditure and those who see themselves as the source of that expenditure.’ The clash is ‘between those who perform a public service, paid for out of taxation or voluntary contributions not derived from their immediate clients, and those employed by private corporations’ corporations’ (Perkin, 1989: 10, 401). In effect the division is between the public sector professional establishment on the one hand, and the corporate (financial and industrial) elite on the others. This division manifests itself (and this is the central point for the purposes of our analysis) not only in the struggle for resources but also in conflicting ideological conceptions. These conceptions do not simply represent structures of legimation to justify particular interests but also rival notions of how social relations should be organised. The corporate elite utilizes the ideology of the free market ‘to present themselves as the guardians of the consumer and the deliverers of the widest choice of goods and services at the lowest prices’ (Perkin, 1989: 12). Public sector professionals in contrast evoke the legitimacy of expertise, public service and the performance of socially valuable functions (Perkin, 1989: 379).
The latter, the professional ideal, has always heavily influenced Labour’s thinking. Indeed confidence in the professional ethos underpinned ‘the social democratic state’ (Ransom and Stewart, 1994: 11). These beliefs came to be codified and even institutionalised into the notion of ‘the public service ethos’, a concept which deeply permeated Labour thinking ‘about the motivation, character and moral importance of the public sector within the political community’ (Plant, 2003: 561). Broadly-speaking, professionals could be relied upon to use the considerable discretion bestowed upon them to do their utmost for those they served, ‘trusted to deliver quality services in an efficient, responsive, accountable and equitable fashion’ (Le Grand, 2007: 18). Whilst the steadily contracting influence of the affiliated (and largely manual) unions in the 1980s and 1990s eroded the hold of ‘labourist’ ideas , in Scotland at least faith in professionalism and the ‘public service ethos’ remained a cornerstone of Labour ideology.
This was not the case for Labour’s London leadership. Heavily Influenced by ‘New Public Management’ and rational choice theories , key policy entrepreneurs: (the PM himself and trusted ministers and advisers) increasingly came to doubt (as the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit put it) ‘the reliability of the public sector ethos as a motivational drive’ and to believe that ‘self-interest was the principal force motivating those involved in public services’ (PMSU, 2006: 59). The public sector must, it was reasoned, learn to be ‘entrepreneurial.’ Without the spur of competition and consumer pressure, public organisations tended to succumb to bureaucratic inertia, a wasteful use of resources, rent-seeking behaviour, weak management and producer control (PMSU, 2006: 50). Hence the need for competition between service providers, consumer choice and the involvement of private operators in the delivery of public services. As Blair put it, We must develop an acceptance of more market-oriented incentives’ (Blair, 2003).
Scottish Labour in contrast was quite notably less receptive to such thinking. Our interviews evidence suggest that this was for a number of reasons. The first was pragmatic: public services in Scotland operated on too small a canvass for choice and competition mechanism to operate effectively. Hence for reasons of scale there were strong practical objections to the extension of market-style modernisation north of the border. However further questioning indicated deeper reservations, rooted in fundamental values, amongst most (not all) senior Labour figures. The Labour ministers we interviewed accepted that public sector organisations, professional associations and trade unions (the Educational Institute of Scotland was often named) would seek assiduously to promote their own collective and institutional interests and could often act as a break on innovative policy reforms. But they were less convinced than Blairite modernisers in London about theories of ‘producer control’ and ‘public capture’ and remained unimpressed by New Labour zeal for market mechanisms (interviews with former Labour ministers). Greater competition, more choice and greater involvement by private sector providers, it was feared, would fragment the delivery of public services, erode community cohesion, widen inequalities in access to healthcare and education and thereby undermine social justice. Many would have agreed with Keating that ‘the NPM response, to deprofessionalise, to distrust professionals and to subject them to crude material incentives and penalties, is merely going to worsen the problem without providing an effective alternative’ (Keating, 2007: 247). Partnership with professionals and other public sectors workers was regarded as a much more fruitful basis for raising morale and improving the quality of public services than competition or consumer choice. The wariness and even mistrust that so defined New Labour’s attitudes to public sector professionals was much less evident. As one minister explained: ‘Our reform journey is predicated on the belief that we must value those dedicated, and often highly qualified, individuals who ensure consistently high standards of public services are provided to those who need them most’ (Tom McCabe, in Scottish Executive , 2006: 2).
All this reflects a belief more deeply rooted in Scotland than (at least Southern) England that public provision of collective goods is better and fairer than the use of market mechanism and private operators. McCrone found that that Scottish voters in general are somewhat more likely to be more collectivist in outlook than English ones, and that Labour voters in Scotland were significantly more left-wing than those south of the border (McCrone , 2001: 124. See also Paterson, 2002) Coupled with this is a greater respect for public sector professionalism. For example teachers in Scotland ‘appear to have retained status and the trust of the public and of politicians and policy makers, something seemingly long lost in English schooling’ (Lingard, 2008: 972). Added to this is an equally ingrained preference for partnership and co-operation – what many call (and some bewail as) the ‘cosy consensus.’ In short still embedded within the ideology of Scottish Labour is ‘a public-sector, collectivist ethos and culture in Scotland that markedly distinguishes it from New Labour aspirations and policies’ (Stewart, 2004: 143).
The Environment of Scottish Labour
Scottish Labour has operated in not only a different culture, but also a different political space, and crucially is perceived as different in Scotland from ‘British Labour’ or ‘New Labour’. The Scottish Election Surveys of 1997 and 1999 asked questions relating to voter perceptions of ‘New Labour’, ‘Scottish Labour’ and the SNP. ‘New Labour’ was – in the beginning – as popular as a ‘broad church’ in Scotland as elsewhere with 93% of Scots believing it looked after working class interests in 1997, but this fell to 53% by 1999. Scottish Labour was seen in 1999 by 66% as looking after working class interests; the same figure the SNP gained. ‘New Labour’ achieved a rating of 42% believing it looked after Scottish interests in 1999, versus 63% for Scottish Labour and 72% for the SNP (Paterson et al, 2001: 58). The authors of the report conclude: ‘there is some indication that there may be a case for concern for the Labour Party’ (Paterson et al, 2001: 59).
Labour’s politics in Scotland had to entail operating in an environment which was defined by social democratic values and the national question, and a multi-party politics which has been aided by the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system. In the period 1979-97 with four Conservative UK election victories, Scottish Labour held its own in terms of seats and votes – albeit the latter always on a minority. What Labour’s success in Scotland contributed to was a strengthening of a sense of the party’s distinctiveness and its popularity, and that this was a reflection of the relevance of the party’s image, policies and values north of the border.
British Labour on the other hand after four election defeats – in England – went on a journey of exploration and self-reflection which involved reappraising and rethinking a whole host of assumptions, attitudes, values and policies. British Labour had to in this process win new converts, and engage with a whole host of non-Labour voters summed up in the ‘Southern Discomfort’ research which gave birth to the New Labour ‘Middle England’ strategy.
The differences between the two Labour approaches is a profound one and gives an illuminating insight into how each party positioned and perceived itself. British Labour after four election defeats became driven by the external environment of needing to adapt and redefine itself to win over new voters. Scottish Labour had over the same period a sense of its power, place and appeal, and so did not feel it had to engage in such a systematic reappraisal; this meant that the party was less influenced by external factors and more shaped by its internal dynamics. The British party began a long journey which from a position of weakness challenged many of the party’s most cherished values and traditions, whereas in Scotland, the party from a sense of strength believed it had got many things right and knew how to win elections.
This Scottish Labour confidence led in places to a mistaken belief in the power of the party’s appeal, with various MPs mistaking Labour’s record number of MPs and councillors as a true indicator of its strength rather than its vote. This bred a certain culture of conservatism and sometimes complacency, In particular, many Labour MSP respondents believe that Westminster Labour MPs have an over-inflated notion of Labour strength in Scotland based on the Westminster FPTP seats. Nor is it at all clear that Labour in Scotland benefitted from UK associations. The party had a number of popular positions on devolved issues, but on reserved issues the party was associated with a number of unpopular positions: the Iraq war (64% opposition), nuclear power stations (51%), and replacement of Trident (42%). These three reserved issues caused problems for Labour and depressed its vote: the difference between supporting Labour’s policy on each and opposing it was 19% on the Iraq war, 11% on Trident, and 6% on nuclear power stations, and aided the SNP and Conservative votes (Curtice et al, 2009: 97).In effect, Scottish Labour has had to fight elections with one hand tied behind its back.
Wendy Alexander made one of the major themes of her brief period of leadership developing more autonomy for the Scottish party, and making the Holyrood leader – who is elected by the whole Scottish party – the leader of the whole party. Alexander’s leadership set out a pro-autonomy, more distinct agenda on three key areas: changing the role of the leader, developing an agenda of more devolution powers through what became Calman, and calling for an independence referendum, – the famous ‘Bring it on’ strategy. The first of these did not get very far at the time, and her successor, Iain Gray, has shown no interest in going down this route. The second saw its culmination with the reporting of the Calman Commission, whereas the final area, witnessed a dramatic disagreement between Alexander and Gordon Brown, Prime Minister.
What the above reflects is the tensions and disagreements over politics, strategy and power between different levels of Scottish Labour.. While it would be expected that the creation of a new institution and political environment around the Scottish Parliament would strengthen divergence, this has to be seen in the context of Scottish Labour’s historic balancing act as a mediator of both Scottish and British interests – advocating for Scottish interests in Westminster, and making the case for the union in Scotland. Pre-devolution, whether under Thomas Johnston in the 1940s, Willie Ross in the 1960s or Donald Dewar in the 1980s, the party successfully navigated and calibrated this very delicate political positioning. Post-devolution, it becomes much more challenging, but is still the obvious modus operandi of Scottish Labour. The Scottish Labour Party has always been a party about power and pragmatism, doing business and achieving its ends in a manner dominant parties do the world over. It has combined this kind of managerial politics with an intricate balancing act of Scottish and British interests, weighing up and measuring the complex needs of different needs and agendas, and very different, often opposed constituencies using different messages and voices.
Finally, in all of this there is the arena of party decision-making and democracy. The Scottish Labour Party’s decision-making processes allow it only to debate devolved issues at Party Conference and in the Policy Forum. The experience of devolution with four successive Labour leaders (technically: Leader of the Scottish Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament): Dewar, McLeish, McConnell and Wendy Alexander, all selected leader without one open contest. It took nine years of devolution and the fifth leader, Iain Gray, before the party had an open, democratic election. Reformist elements of the party acknowledge that there is a problem here: of culture, attitude and in how power is exercised. Stephen Purcell, now disgraced leader of Glasgow City Council said while he was still leader that ‘large parts of the party just don’t get it. The denial of democracy could cost us and come back and bite us’ (interview, Stephen Purcell).
Conclusion: Doctrine and Ethos in Scottiah Labour
We began by addressing three main questions. Firstly, how adequate are Drucker’s concepts of doctrine and ethos? Secondly, how much light do these concepts shed on the nature and conduct of the contemporary Scottish Labour Party? Finally, is there a distinctive Scottish Labour ideology?
On the first point we sought both to broaden out Drucker’s concept of ethos and to explore the relationship (more or less ignored by Drucker) between doctrine and ethos. Here we utilised the idea of ‘labourism’ to weld together these two ingredients of Labour’s ideology. Theories of labourism have given rise to a number of propositions about the nature and behaviour of the party which we sought to assess in the Scottish context. In particular, we investigated the question of the degree to which Scottish Labour’s distinctive programmatic trajectory since devolution, notably in the areas of healthcare and education, can be explained by its allegedly greater reluctance to abandon its labourist past. We did find that the ties between party and unions remain stronger north than south of the border though we also noted that the sense of attachment to a broader, all-encompassing ‘labour movement’ has weakened. However, on the key issue of policy divergence our conclusion was that whilst ideological considerations did play a part in accounting for it, it was less Scottish Labour’s ‘labourism’ than its allegiance to traditional social democratic ideas of professionalism and the public service ethos which rendered it reluctant to follow market-oriented modernisation so enthusiastically championed by the UK party .
We end on a note of caution. Labour has an ideology less in a sense of an overarching, internally-consistent view of the world than in a loose patterning of ideas, preferences, norms and sentiments not all of which are mutually consistent. ‘Labourist’ in the sense that the term conventionally employed by commentators should only be used with caution and qualification when applied to Labour in Scotland. But in one sense Scottish Labour does remain ‘labourist’: in its pragmatic, highly empirical temper and its disengagement from broader ideological debates.
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