The Auld Enemies: Scottish Nationalism and Scottish Labour

Gerry Hassan

December 21st 2009

in Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh University Press 2009

Some might wonder why he as a perfervid Scot was not also a perfervid Nationalist. The reason was that the nationalism which he saw expressed in Scotland at present was not real nationalism: it was petty and parochial, and, he was sorry to say it, had signs of a kind of latent hatred. It had a sort of chip-on-the-shoulder hatred that could create very considerable trouble if it were not recognised as such and opposed.

Willie Ross, STUC 71st Annual Report 1968 (1)

The key argument is that if we remove all Scottish political control and influence over what all accept is a single economic entity in the United Kingdom, then we are left inevitably to be controlled by that total economy. Consequently, we would have less say than we have now over our own fate. Paradoxically, total separatism means less independence.

Norman Buchan, ‘Politics I’ in Whither Scotland?, 1971 (2)

The one country the Labour left can help liberate, by direct action, and without diplomatic, political or trading inhibitions is Scotland.

Jim Sillars, Scotland: The Case for Optimism, 1986 (3)

Scottish Nationalism and Scottish Labour have had a long, tempestuous and difficult relationship, characterised by differences and disagreements over philosophy and party competition.

The party story is a complex and nuanced one, influenced by a range of factors from the role of ideology to party identity and positioning, competition and relationship to the external environment. This chapter will focus on the Labour-SNP dynamic, examining the way each has tried to negatively define the other, use case studies to explore attitudes, and offer some tentative conclusions on what this tells us about the two parties and their inter-relationship.

There is subtlety and evolution around this subject. Some Labour politicians who are anti-Nationalist were once members of the SNP, while some SNP politicians were once in Labour. Several of Labour’s anti-Nationalists politically over the last few decades have been cultural nationalists: Norman Buchan and Brian Wilson being two examples. Buchan was a leading light in the ‘folk music movement’ of the 1950s and 1960s with people such as Hamish Henderson, and celebrated Scotland’s cultural life and nationhood, but saw Scottish Nationalism’s fixation on statehood as their ‘Ark of the Covenant’ (Buchan 1971: 87).

The Power of the ‘Tartan Tory’ Bogeyman

Labour dislike of the SNP has seen the party develop a lexicon of phrases. Most originated or were given added impetus by Willie Ross, Wilson’s Secretary of State for Scotland from 1964-70 and 1974-76 – ‘narks’, ‘phoney party’, ‘SNP: Still No Policies’ and, the most effective of all, ‘tartan Tories’.

Where did ‘tartan Tories’ originate? Fascinatingly for such a powerful phrase with such a rich lineage this is never examined in the literature. The phrase took on its modern meaning in the 1967-68 period as Labour faced an unprecedented challenge from the SNP. In the immediate aftermath of the SNP’s sensational victory in the Hamilton by-election in November 1967, Labour reacted in a number of different ways. Politicians such as J.P. Mackintosh and Richard Crossman wanted to understand the alienation people felt from the political system. Willie Ross and most of the Scottish Labour establishment had a very different take: furious at the sheer impertinence of the SNP in daring to encroach onto Labour’s territory.

At the March 1968 Scottish Labour conference, according to Harvie and Jones, Ross laid into the SNP and ‘fulminated against the ‘tartan Tory’ Nationalists’ (2000: 89). Will Marshall, Secretary of Scottish Labour, showed a revealing mixture of pique and being out of touch, complaining that, ‘The Scottish National Party created interest among young people by hammering away at nothing else but idealism’ (The Herald, March 23rd 1968). Robin King, of Labour Students, believed that the solution to Scottish concerns could only be found at a British level, not by entrenching Scotland behind a border ‘which is there only because it was the easiest position to defend for a 14th century Tory king’ (The Scotsman, March 25th 1968).

Both Wilson and Ross launched into detailed accounts of the Government’s achievements – with Ross itemising increased public spending and new factories brought to Scotland. This caused even the usually reserved Scotsman to reflect:

Mr. Ross’s harangue was, equally, as unappetising as a plateful of vitamin pills and protein tablets set down to a starving man – designed to sustain, but hardly to make the mouth water. (March 25th 1968)

At the subsequent STUC, pro-devolution and anti-devolution motions were debated and remitted with Willie Ross warning delegates not to become ‘the Scottish Trades Union Congrouse’ or to take refuge ‘in the quicksands of nationalism’ (STUC 1968: 415).

Labour’s 1968 UK conference saw a rare debate, with an air of bewilderment, about the advance of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. Tom Clarke, later to be a Labour MP, argued that the Scottish people should be clearly told ‘the facts’ of what Labour had achieved to stop the SNP ‘bandwagon’ asking: ‘Are we to agree that the Scottish National Party which has offered no real policy, no real alternative beyond perhaps Scottish policemen wearing kilts, be accepted into an aura of respectability by the British Labour Party?’ (Labour Party 1968: 181). James Hamilton stated that if the party had an ‘implicit faith in the Scottish people, they will once again rally back to the Labour Party’ (Labour Party 1968: 178).

‘Tartan Tory’ found its modern meaning at a time when Labour was struggling to find a credible and relevant message in response to the SNP’s attack. The first recorded use of the term in the Commons was by William Small, Labour MP for Glasgow Scotstoun, in June 1966 in a debate on Selective Employment Tax, towards the Scots Tory MP Fitzroy Maclean (Hansard, June 27th 1966). It quickly came to have an association with the Nationalists alone and in a November 1969 adjournment debate Winnie Ewing was continually put down and ridiculed by a range of insults including ‘tartan Tory’. Willie Hamilton interrupted and shouted at Ewing, ‘The Hon. Lady is a tartan Tory. She voted for the Tories’, to be followed by Archie Manuel stating, ‘The Hon. Lady is a Tory in disguise’. Manuel followed up by calling Ewing ‘a parasite’, while Hamilton intervened to comment, ‘The Hon. Lady should be on the London Palladium’ (Hansard, November 3rd 1969). Ewing had clearly ruffled feathers and revealed an unattractive, bullying side of Scottish Labour (Ewing 2004: 71-2).

This was uncomfortable for Ewing, but Labour knew something was changing. Labour was still wedded to a centralist philosophy and the party saw Scottish Nationalism as anti-Labour, hostile to progress, reactionary, and helpful to the Tories. Some of these attitudes went back to the Attlee Government when the Tories railed against ‘London centralisation’ and there was co-operation between home rule supporters and the Tories which saw Arthur Woodburn, Secretary of State for Scotland from 1947-50 call the pro-home rule Convention a ‘Tory plot’ (Knox 1984: 288). This crystallised in the 1948 Paisley by-election where home rule campaigner John MacCormick stood as a ‘National’ candidate with Tory and Liberal support.

Paisley gave Labour an excuse to see home rule as an anti-Labour cause and also legitimise its own tribal ethos of everyone else ganging up on them. This anti-home rule sentiment increased in the 1950s and early 1960s, and was the Labour position when returned to office in 1964. When the SNP polled significantly in the Glasgow Pollok 1967 by-election, aiding the Tories to gain the seat from Labour, this only added to Labour dislike of the Scottish Nationalists.

This continued in the SNP surge of the 1970s with the party’s gains in the February and October 1974 elections, eight seats from the Conservatives and two from Labour, contributing to the image of the ‘tartan Tories’. It became a widespread assumption outside of the party that the SNP vote in these seats came from the Tories and that its strength in rural Scotland and absence in most of urban Scotland made it a party of the centre-right. The SNP itself debated the nature of its support, with some in the party seeing itself as ‘centrist’, while others saw themselves as the inheritors of the anti-Conservative vote in rural Scotland.

‘Tartan Tory’ was the phrase which had the most power and resonance from the 1960s onward. It gained momentum through a number of factors: the creeping anti-Toryism of Scotland, the increased use of the term ‘Tory’ in politics and popular culture as an insult, and the fall of the 1979 Labour Government and the role of the SNP in this (examined later in this chapter). ‘Tartan Tory’ conveyed invective in both words, of an out of date, musky, sentimental pre- or anti-modern Scotland in an age long before ‘tartan’ was reinvented and reimagined.

It is no mere coincidence that ‘tartan Tory’ arose not only in the period where the SNP appeared as an electoral force, but the Scottish Conservatives began to decline and disappear as a serious threat to Labour. It was easier for Labour having defeated one opponent which was ‘Tory’ to label the new upstart with the same brush.

Tam Dalyell wrote of Willie Ross:

For a quarter of a century he was the ‘hammer of the Nats’ – though in retrospect it is clear that some of the epithets which flowed from his biting tongue, such as ‘Tartan Tories’ were counter-productive in terms of Scottish support for the Labour Party. (Dalyell 1977: 74)

‘Tartan Tory’ served Labour as an assault phrase as it struggled to come to terms with the SNP, something it has never fully managed. Once the SNP began to establish themselves as a permanent feature on the Scottish political scene, the phrase began to lose its sting, but Labour have never found a better one, and nor have they really managed to accept the Nationalists, thus, finding themselves in the worst of both worlds.

The ‘London Labour’ Establishment

What have the SNP had to challenge the ‘tartan Tory’ attack? They had a range of approaches such as emphasising the decency and integrity of the grass roots Labour Party and comparing them to the out of touch, selling Scotland short, parliamentary party. A host of phrases emerged over the years, talking of Labour as ‘London Labour’, ‘British Labour’, denying the existence of a separate ‘Scottish Labour Party’, seeing it as a branch line operation, and talking of the ‘English’ or ‘unionist parties’.

SNP attacks on Labour had to have a certain deftness of touch given it was the largest party in Scotland. An over-general attack on Scottish Labour could be seen as an attack on thousands of Scots men and women, and thus, hundreds of thousands of Labour voters. Winnie Ewing’s election in 1967 shocked the Labour establishment, but there is evidence that her attacks on Labour post-Hamilton were counter-productive. Jim Sillars reflects in ‘Scotland: The Case for Optimism’ on hearing Ewing speak in Ayr after the by-election:

We bristled, as she listed our ‘crimes’ against the Scottish people and as she sneered at our efforts over generations. It was an ignorant attack against men and women we knew to have fought a great struggle against Toryism and who had broken the landed gentry’s grip upon the working people. (Sillars 1986: 24)

Looking back twenty years later Sillars commented that the SNP had still to learn that certain kinds of attack on Labour could be ‘counter-productive’ (1986: 25):

Generalised attacks upon the Labour Party when the target should be the Parliamentary Labour Party (by far the least popular element and the most open to indictment) can too easily be taken as denigration of the whole Labour movement and its history. (1986: 25-26)

For decades the SNP has had to navigate this difficult balancing act, damning the representatives of Labour, while not dismissing the grass roots or wider values of ‘the movement’. The Nationalists were given more room for manoeuvre by the arrival of New Labour, who the SNP could criticise as a denigration of everything about Labour, and by the wider social trends under Thatcher and Blair which have undermined the basis and strength of the ‘the Labour movement’.

In the world of New Labour post-1997, with Blair et al’s focus on ‘Middle England’, floating voters and Westminster, the phrase ‘London Labour’ began to carry more weight. In the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections the SNP used as one of their central themes, ‘London Labour or Scotland’s Party: It’s Your Choice on May 6th’ (SNP 1999). This identified Scottish Labour as being fixated on and subservient to the needs of the British political system. It carried with it a popular signalling of where power lay in the UK and Labour, and the marginalisation of Scottish Labour in this.

There was an element of subtlety in this in the way Sillars had identified all those years ago. By explicitly creating a ‘London Labour’ entity which the SNP saw it as its role to challenge, it left the mass of Scottish Labour members and voters, acknowledging that they were different and thus open to persuasion to coming over to the SNP side.

While ‘London Labour’ had some success in making Scottish Labour Westminster politicians such as Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander uneasy, it could not fully deal with the popular sense that voters saw ‘Scottish Labour’ as an entity and different from ‘British Labour’ as repeated survey evidence from the Scottish Election Survey has shown (Paterson et al 2001: 58-59). ‘London Labour’ was a little too much of a broad-brush attack to be as effective as the SNP hoped. While it captured some Scots anxieties about the direction of Blair’s New Labour, it palpably weakened with the arrival of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister (despite his role as co-author of New Labour). It seems likely that this will become a much-diluted phrase in the future, with the possible election of a UK Conservative Government.

The Fall of the 1979 Labour Government

One of the most significant events which gave impetus to the Labour-SNP conflict, Labour’s charge of the SNP being ‘tartan Tories’ and the SNP’s distrust in Labour believing in and delivering devolution, was the politics of the 1974-79 Labour Government. From November 1976 to May 1979 Labour governed without a Commons majority and the SNP’s eleven MPs were crucial across a range of votes as well as high profile. None though were as crucial and controversial than the vote which brought down the Labour Government on March 28th 1979 and led to the election of Margaret Thatcher.

The Labour Government fell in a vote of no confidence by one vote after the 1979 devolution referendum. To understand why this happened it is crucial to appreciate the background. In December 1976 the Government announced that the creation of Scottish and Welsh Assemblies would be subject to referendums despite no such pledge being in Labour’s October 1974 manifesto. Then on January 25th 1978 the 40% rule was proposed by George Cunningham, Labour MP for Islington North with Tory support and that of five Scottish Labour MPs: Robin Cook, Tam Dalyell, Bob Hughes, William Hamilton and Peter Doig (Wood 1989: 116). The first was motivated by using the referendum device to paper over Labour divisions as the party had done with the European referendum, while the second can only be seen as a wrecking amendment from Labour anti-devolutionists. Neither proposal strengthened the Scottish and Welsh legislation.

Moreover, the timing of the Scottish and Welsh referendums at the fag end of an unpopular Labour Government shaped the debate and outcome. There was a high degree of Labour disunity and lack of enthusiasm for devolution, and this was magnified by ‘the winter of discontent’, which hit Labour’s poll ratings across the UK and in Scotland.

When the Scots vote resulted in 52:48 support for a Scottish Assembly, but way short of 40% of the electorate, the Government, given the terms of the legislation, had to table a Repeal Order of the Scotland Act. This left the Government in the situation where without a majority it faced either tabling the Repeal Order or facing a vote of no confidence. The former would bring the Liberals and Nationalists on board, but expose Labour divisions, while the latter would unite Labour, but not win over the Liberals or Nationalists and be lost. Jim Sillars attempted to build bridges between Labour and the SNP, despite having left Labour. The crucial issue was ‘whether the Labour MPs from England and some from Wales would put the life of their government before their hatred for a Scottish Assembly’ (1986: 72). He believed the SNP ‘unhinged’ and large parts of Labour had a ‘death wish’, and recalls asking Neil Kinnock if he worried about his actions leading to the fall of his Government, replying, ‘So be it then’ (1986: 72).

The rest is history. The SNP moved a motion of no confidence in Labour, superseded by the Tory motion as the official opposition, and in the debate on March 28th 1979 Labour lost by one vote: 311:310 with the 311 made up of 279 Conservatives, 13 Liberals, 11 SNP and 8 Ulster Unionists alongside two Irish abstentions. Yet Labour anger in 1979 and afterwards was directed towards the SNP. It became routine down the years to get an easy cheer at a Scottish Labour conference to talk of the SNP bringing down the last Labour Government and attempt to saddle them with the entire responsibility for the Thatcher era. Little mention is made of the fact there were 32 non-Tory votes with the Tories in the division lobby. Little anger has down the years been directed the way of David Steel, who Labour were happy to work with in the Constitutional Convention, or other Liberal MPs.

The SNP had consistently supported the Labour Government in 1974-79 on devolution and proposals which were ill thought out and commanded little genuine enthusiasm. While the SNP gave consistent support, the same could not be said of Labour backbench MPs, many of whom subsequently rose to the top of the party like Kinnock and Cook. The no confidence motion and its consequences have to be seen in the context of what happened in the 1974-79 Parliament on devolution and other measures.

The dominant voices in Scottish Labour despised the Nationalists and this clouded Labour’s judgement over devolution and the referendum. Helen Liddell’s memorandum banning ‘collaboration’ with other parties in the 1979 vote is striking for the gut, instinctual prejudice it displayed. Labour in her words was ‘the only party in Scotland which believes in devolution for its own sake’. She went on in triumphalist tones, ‘the achievement of an Assembly for Scotland will be ours’ and that the main argument of the ‘No’ vote would be that devolution could lead to independence, and therefore, ‘To associate with the separatists would be to provide our opponents with a major propaganda weapon’ (Macartney 1981: 17).

It was not surprising with such force of dislike and venom that the entire devolution experience of the 1970s ended in tears, particularly when combined with SNP ineptitude in those dark days of 1979. However, Labour choose to use the actions of the Nationalists to validate the feelings of animosity they had, and deflect any responsibility for the state of affairs from themselves, maybe even in their own inner feelings. The events of 1979 could have turned out differently, but they happened because of the distrust and febrile nature at the end of the Labour Government; for years some on the Labour side could not let go of the ammunition they thought it gave them, while many on the SNP side were scared and would not trust Labour to deliver devolution.

The SNP and the Constitutional Convention

The idea of a Constitutional Convention began to emerge post-1979 as a way to map out how to bring together a pro-home rule consensus. The first significant politician to suggest such a route was Gordon Wilson, MP for Dundee East, who proposed the Government of Scotland (Scottish Convention) Bill in March 1980, which was later taken up by the SNP and Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA).

Support for a Convention grew after ‘the Doomsday Scenario’ of the 1987 election with the CSA commissioning a Constitutional Steering Group who produced ‘A Claim of Right for Scotland’ which recommended the creation of a Scottish Constitutional Convention (CSA 1989). Pre-Govan, Labour were nervous about the idea of a Convention, but moved towards it under Donald Dewar’s declaration to ‘live a little dangerously’ after an internal consultation had shown support for party involvement (McLean 2005: 112). When Jim Sillars won Govan from Labour in November 1988, the SNP’s success seemed to go to its head and it refused to join the Convention in January 1989. The outcome of these few months was as Mitchell put it that:

Labour had out-manoeuvred the SNP, recaptured the mantle of ‘Scotland’s national party’ lost only three months before, exploited divisions within the SNP and was able to present the Nationalists as sectarian to the public. (1996: 129)

There were many reasons why such a turnaround of events happened. The SNP had a number of reservations about the proposed Convention which had come to be seen as a Labour dominated body with the SNP having 8% representation, when post-Govan it was on 32% in the polls. The SNP had previously supported an ‘elected’ Convention, which emphasised unambiguously the will of the Scots on sovereignty and power. There was the bigger concern of the SNP about whether a Convention would be able to freely debate Scotland’s different constitutional options and have these put to the people in a referendum, and not be a vehicle for devolution, with the SNP yet again trapped into supporting Labour’s proposals.

The SNP leadership justified its actions talking of ‘Labour’s rigged Convention’ (The Scotsman, January 31st 1989) while Margaret Ewing said staying outside was ‘a demonstration of political astuteness’ (The Herald, March 6th 1989). Chris McLean pointed to the Claim of Right’s confused thinking on sovereignty, ‘Either you are a nationalist and accept the sovereignty of the Scottish people, or you are a unionist and accept the sovereignty of the British people’ (McLean 1989: 112).

These opinions touched on much more deep attitudes about the SNP’s fear of co-operation and its own fragile sense of its own uniqueness, bordering on what some see as ‘sectarianism’ (Nairn 1989). The SNP felt it owned ‘Scottish nationalism’, hence MacLean’s use of ‘nationalism’ with a small ‘n’ and labelling all those who disagreed with it as ‘unionists’. Post-1987 the party showed its suspicions of cross-party, civic Scotland by refusing to participate in the STUC Festival for Democracy and their Say No to the Poll Tax campaign: a tendency which was present in the SNP pre-Govan.

The party’s refusal to take part in the Constitutional Convention was a watershed in Scottish politics and seen by large parts of civic Scotland and cross-party groups as a body blow to building a home rule consensus. The SNP post-1979 saw the reality of ‘civic Scotland’ as a smokescreen disguising the brutal face of Labour domination and well meaning people who were used by Labour. Large parts of the SNP could not recognise that Labour was changing on devolution and instead believed that ‘what was on offer in 1989 was the same as in 1974’, a complete misreading of the situation (Pittock 2008: 77).

Labour and the SNP: Similar and Different

Both Labour and SNP claim to be social democratic parties. It is the received wisdom amongst commentators and observers to acknowledge the similarities between the two: that both are on the centre-left, appealing to the same voters, and less explored, that both are compromised by their embrace of neo-liberalism.

However, there is a profound difference between Labour and SNP, their raison d’etres and notion of ethos. Labour’s ethos sprang from what has been called a ‘labourist culture’ which saw the world in terms of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ (Marquand 1991), and which on occasion articulated itself as ‘social democratic’. The SNP’s ethos are first and foremost ‘Scottish nationalist’ and only at a secondary level or that of doctrine ‘social democratic’.

These differences matter, while allowing for similarities and overlap. Both parties are informed by a centre-left social democratic politics which since the 1980s has been characterised by the intertwining of this and the national question, but with each party starting from different places. They have similar geographies of support, with the transition of the SNP into a centre-left party going after Labour’s Central Belt vote. This has produced an even more adversarial politics between Labour and SNP in by-elections and national contests.

There is also a significant similarity in some of the personnel in each party. Many of the SNP activists and prominent people in its breakthrough years came from Labour backgrounds such as Winnie Ewing who grew up reading ‘Forward’, steeped in the ILP and was even related to Arthur Woodburn. This reinforced a Labour sense that such people were betraying the values of Labour, and one thing they have long detested is the idea of ‘traitors’.

Then there was the influence of ‘the new left’ and CND. This could be seen in the rising support for nuclear disarmament in Scotland after Harold Macmillan’s agreement with Eisenhower in 1960 to locate Polaris nuclear weapons in the Holy Loch. This became an effective mobilising issue for the Nationalists after Hugh Gaitskell, Labour leader defeated the unilateral disarmers in 1961. It wove together a wide coalition of students, church campaigners and parts of the folk music movement. It also contributed to the form of the SNP’s modern symbol: a combination of the St. Andrews Cross and thistle in a CND like symbol which originated in William Wolfe’s West Lothian party (Wolfe 1973: 46-47).

The cause of nuclear disarmament brought the politics of direct action and peace camps to Scotland, and served to underline to many how unradical Labour were despite their protestations. Some senior Labour politicians had in their younger selves been attracted to the SNP over the issue, including some who in latter life became very right-wing: George Robertson is one example. Others who have followed the rightward march of Labour under Blair and Brown sit uncomfortably defending weapons of mass destruction and the post-Trident military escalation on account of the local jobs provided, and despise the SNP for reminding them of what they or their Labour colleagues said in days when CND membership was de rigueur in Labour.

Many of the SNP’s activists post-1979 were the sorts of people who in previous times would have automatically joined Labour as the main anti-Tory force in the country. Politicians such as Roseanna Cunningham, Nicola Sturgeon and Kenny MacAskill were the kind of talents who would have easily made it in any party, and certainly in Scottish Labour. Instead, they were repulsed by the political establishment that Labour in Scotland had become, and had another vehicle to nurture a very different politics.

Post-devolution Labour’s lack of understanding of the Nationalist cause has not gone away. It reached its apotheosis under Wendy Alexander’s short-lived and ill-fated leadership where she appeared to be fixated with what she saw as the SNP’s obsession with the constitution. Alexander’s speech to the 2008 Scottish Labour conference saw her attempt to draw a set of defining lines between the two parties:

Scotland is a country I love to the core of my being. However ‘Scotland’ is not a political philosophy. ‘Scotland’ can just as easily be Adam Smith as it can be John Smith. The world over, politics comes down to a choice: right versus left, conservatives versus progressives, nationalists versus internationalists. (Alexander 2008)

‘Red Wendy’ did not seem very plausible given her role in the New Labour project, but what it showed was the tribal power by which Labour thought it could still claim issues as their own and define themselves and the SNP: ‘Cutting poverty against cutting taxes. Rewarding hard work versus unearned wealth. Socialist versus Nationalist’ (2008). Scottish politics had moved on, and Labour’s attempts to brand the SNP as ‘right-wing’ fell on deaf ears, no matter how the ‘Daily Record’ used the speech to drag up ‘the tartan Tories’ taunt (March 28th 2008).

The Nationalists have at a leadership level developed a more thought through and balanced approach which is more adept at challenging your opponents while accepting their legitimacy. Labour across a swathe of opinion often seem to have the propensity to see the Nationalists as an illegitimate force in Scottish politics, who have somehow confused the natural order, and usurped their divine right to rule.

The contest between Labour and SNP in the first Scottish Parliament elections saw Labour frame it as a ‘battle between social justice and separatism’ (Brown and Alexander 1997: 46). Labour presented its case for devolution and against independence invoking the language of ‘stronger together, weaker apart’ and the politics of fear, instability and uncertainty in relation to independence. This stressed the supposed unique success story of the multi-cultural, multi-national nature of the Union that is the UK (Brown and Alexander 2007). There was an element of vagueness in this, selective memory and a Whig like sense of history as the forward march of British progress (Hassan 2009).

In finding ammunition to attack the SNP Labour have tried to paint the Nationalists in the same colours as the Conservatives, invoking memories of ‘the tartan Tories’ arguing that:

In their attitudes to Britain in the 1990s, the SNP threaten to be the mirror image of Mrs. Thatcher’s attitude to Scotland in the 1980s. If the threat then was a Britain intolerant to much that is Scottish, the risk now is a Scotland intolerant to much that is British. There is no idealism in moving from the narrow nationalism of Mrs. Thatcher to that narrow nationalism of the SNP. (Brown and Alexander 1999: 37-38)

This was a new kind of toxic pass the parcel: trying to taint your opponents by association with Mrs. Thatcher. Not only did Labour attempt to do this with the SNP but the SNP were also trying to do the same thing in branding New Labour as the direct inheritors of Mrs. Thatcher. The paradox here was that while both parties demonised Thatcherism, both choose to accept large parts of her legacy, and in significant places sought to extend it (Torrance 2009).

Will the Labour-SNP story of animosity diminish overtime? The old reference points of 1967, 1979 and 1989 are now fading and coming to be remembered for more historic events from ‘the summer of love’ to Thatcher and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many of the key players who were bruised in such debates have now long left the stage.

Labour has become a hollowed out party at both a Scottish and British level. For decades its main rationale north of the border was that it was the political establishment of this nation, a clientist party of patronage and preferment which ran Scotland through a web of networks at local and national level; it has in just over a decade become a central part of the British political system which is corrupted, broken and seen as such by voters. This all-encompassing crisis does leave Scottish Labour wondering what its purpose is given its old role as a British ‘bridge building’ project: selling Westminster’s benefits to Scotland and acting as Scotland’s voice in Westminster, is no longer viable.

The SNP are being transformed by being the Scottish Government, along with holding an influential position as the leading party in councillors across local government. This throws down numerous challenges about how the party can develop a sustainable policy prospectus in a devolved settlement which advances Scottish independence? It asks questions of the depth of the SNP’s commitment to a social democratic politics? What happens governing when you run of populist measures which may sometime have the easiest hits, but not be the wisest decisions, such as abolishing tolls on the Tay and Forth Road Bridges? Does the party have a political strategy for dismantling the Labour state? And what happens if it finds itself trapped in the devolution settlement unable to advance to independence?

A significant contributory factor in the Labour-SNP struggle will be the battle and fate for Scottish social democracy. Both parties believe this tradition is safest in their respective hands, but both have compromised and diluted it by colluding with neo-liberalism and a big business agenda. Neither has had much to say of interest about the wider crisis of social democracy: a predicament increased by the global economic crises of 2008-9.

The struggle between these two parties and traditions will go on and enter a new phase with new issues, less shaped by past folklore, and more by the challenges of Scottish politics after the economic and political crash, the crisis of social democracy and the demise of the neo-liberal order, along with the prospect of a UK Conservative Government. This is a story which still has a lot to run.


1. STUC, 71st Annual Report, Glasgow, STUC 1968, p. 417.

2. Norman Buchan, ‘Politics I’, in Duncan Glen (ed.), Whither Scotland? A prejudiced look at the future of Scotland, London, Victor Gollancz, 1971, p. 90.

3. Jim Sillars, Scotland: The Case for Optimism, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1986, p. 98.


Many thanks to Carole McCallum of Glasgow Caledonian University Archive for her assistance and interest, and to the staff at the Mitchell Library Archive.


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