Before there was the Labour Party there was a Scottish Labour Party. Keir Hardie – after whom Labour’s new leader was named by his parents – was co-founder of both entities. Whilst the Scottish original did not last, the Britain-wide version that Keir the First helped bring into being now finds itself reduced to a single MP in the land where much of its story began. Can the unmistakably English Keir the Second save it or, in the age of devolution, must Scottish Labour look to its own means for survival? Indeed, what is Labour without its historic Scottish battalions?
If Scottish Labour can only survive on its own wits and animal cunning, then its immediate prospects look poor indeed. Richard Leonard has been leading it since 2017 although not in a way that most Scots have appreciably noticed. The binary division created by the SNP to successfully recast Scotland’s voters as unionists or nationalists has been brutal to Labour, allowing the Scottish Conservatives back into the fight as the union’s doughtier champions.
Holyrood is the primary venue for this conflict, with so much – including the possibility of a second independence referendum – hinging on the outcome of the Scottish parliament elections that are scheduled for May next year. By contrast, for the next four years at Westminster, the only Scottish constituency represented in the PLP belongs to a solitary MP, Ian Murray, who is shadow Scottish secretary in Keir Starmer’s newly assembled team. Highly capable though Murray is, there’s only one of him.
What does this absence of Scots mean for the Labour party in England and Wales? Scotland used to provide a lot of infantry, in terms of backbench MPs, but also an extraordinary leadership cadre of top brass. Tony Blair (an Edinburgh-born and educated Anglo-Scot) and Gordon Brown (about as Scottish as Glemorangie) could call upon such talented Scottish political operators as Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, John Reid, Douglas Alexander, Des Browne and Jim Murphy. By contrast, at the court of Keir the Second there is only Murray and – at a pinch – Anneliese Dodds (the shadow chancellor is an Aberdonian gone south – as distinctively south as Oxford East).
It was no momentary quirk that so many of the Blair and Brown cabinets’ most talented ministers were Scottish. Rather, Scotland’s contribution has been fundamental to the history of the Labour party throughout its existence.
Its first leader in 1906 was Keir Hardie (Scot) and he remained in the role until 1908. In 1910 another Scot, George Barnes took over as Labour leader, before in 1911 he handed over the reins to yet another Scot, Ramsay MacDonald who stood down with the outbreak of the first world war. Then between 1917 and 1921 the party was led by the Scot, William Adamson, who then handed the leadership back to MacDonald again who remained leader until 1931, by which time he had twice been prime minister. That is four separate Scottish leaders in the first quarter century. Truly, to a disproportionate extent, Labour reached political maturity as a Scottish-led party. And it is a testament to how united the kingdom was that so few English voters made it much of an issue.
Yet, it is when you add quantity to quality that the extent of Scotland’s contribution to Labour’s endurance as well as its success is revealed. After Labour overtook the Conservatives as the largest party in Scotland in the 1959 election, it consistently provided between 40 and 50 MPs in each subsequent election until 1997, when it returned 56 Labour MPs – an achievement it repeated exactly in 2001.
trade unions know that there’s always a deal. And a deal always means compromise.
Given the size of Blair’s first two victories, he did not really need the numbers from north of the Tweed. But in tougher times Scotland has kept Labour as a credible force in Britain when it was in the doldrums in England. In 1983, for instance, Michael Foot’s disastrous performance in England was shored-up nationwide by the 41 Labour MPs who came to the rescue from Scotland – their number including many of those who proceeded to provide so much of the talent in the Blair and Brown governments.
To dissect a distinctive Scottish Labour philosophy involves confusing tone with thought. Indeed, as the political strategist John McTernan, who was Tony Blair’s director of political operations and also adviser to Scottish secretary Jim Murphy, convincingly argues in this week’s Critic podcast, Scotland’s clearest contribution to Labour (at least before the Corbyn experiment) was in making the party less ideological, certainly when compared with most European socialist contemporaries.
Why so? The strength of traditional Scottish blue-collar trade unionism has much to do with it. McTernan points out that “the Labour party is not itself a socialist party, it is a labour party formed by trade unions for trade unions with lots of leading trade union members within it. And it has within its heart a pragmatism that is the pragmatism of trade unions because unions know that there’s always a deal. And a deal always means compromise.”
Away from the clever Fabians and Oxford intellectuals in their pursuit of the abstractions of maximum utility, the Scottish trade union tradition was vital to keeping that pragmatism –a rough and tumble pragmatism as it often was – at the fore. We can debate when that began to fray (with hindsight the unions might have been better advised helping rather than hindering James Callaghan’s incomes policy in 1978-79) but along with the loss of Scottish votes, Scottish MPs and blue-collar union members, the consequences have been to cut Labour off from at least one half of its brain as well as its brawn.
In terms of raw numbers, the Scottish trade union tradition scarcely matters to Labour now. Indeed, at Westminster the party’s only Scottish seat is in that citadel of bourgeois sentiments, Edinburgh South. In bad times such as Labour now finds itself, it no longer has Scottish pragmatism and worldliness to fall back upon.
Instead it has London and English university towns. These are the resources at Keir Starmer’s beck and call. This shrinkage of experience and of empathy is as damaging to Labour as the Conservatives’ contraction to their south-east of England core vote during the Blair years was to the Tories’ ability to see things in the round. Oxford East and Canterbury are emblematic of the sort of constituencies that view Labour as the best hope for liberal progressivism. They are a far cry from the sort of voters for whom Keir Hardie sought to provide a parliamentary voice when he helped bring the Labour party into being. The man who is named after him has a supreme task before him in getting them back. Scotland would be a good place to start.
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