Workers rally during on Clydeside, 1920s

The idea of ‘Labour Scotland’

I’ve spoken to many people about the independence referendum in the course of knocking on doors on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party over the past few months, and along with fellow canvassers have noticed two interesting things about how the party is now widely perceived.

First, the party that for so many years was Scotland’s dominant political force is now deeply unpopular with many Yes voters, a significant proportion of whom used to support it. And second, despite everything, many of those same people are still keen to identify themselves as ‘Labour people’, supporters of ‘Labour values’, wanting a ‘Labour Scotland’.

It is as if the meaning of the word ‘Labour’ has become detached from a necessary association with Scottish Labour and is now used as an abstract, indefinite signifier for the kind of Scotland that idealists want, as a shorthand term for nebulous concepts such as social justice, egalitarianism, social democracy, and civility.

I was interested to stumble on an essay discussing this phenomenon in a little book called Why Not: Scotland, Labour and Independence, edited by Jamie Maxwell and Owen Dudley Edwards, a collection of articles by writers with Labour affiliations, past and present, seeking to persuade Labour supporters to ignore the official party line and vote Yes.

Written by Robin McAlpine, Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, The Meaning of Things draws on the thought of the semiotics scholar Ferdinand de Saussure to analyse how words and phrases such as ‘Labour’ and the ‘Labour Party’ are used in contemporary Scottish political debate.

Saussure studied language’s instability, the tendency of words to change their meanings over time, often by the finest degrees. The relationship between words and the objects to which they refer shifts as the use of language evolves. A word once used to signify a certain object can over time float free of its original referent and come to mean something else. Or it might happen the other way round: an object signified by a word might be perceived as having changed so profoundly that it no longer seems appropriate to continue to refer to it with the same label.

McAlpine believes that the word ‘Labour’ and associated terms such as ‘Labour values’, ‘Labour people’ and ‘Labour Scotland’ are now commonly used to signify things quite other than the Scottish Labour Party, which is quite literally no longer regarded as worthy of the name: ‘Labour Scotland, has become a state of mind, often unlinked to the party.’

McAlpine’s journeys around Scotland to promote his Foundation’s Common Weal initiative have given him ample opportunity to note an often visceral hostility towards Scottish Labour. Much of it has to do with the Iraq war, which left an indelible stain on the party’s reputation. And it also owes something to Scottish Labour’s embrace of certain policies during the New Labour years that seemed to have little to do with its traditional values, market-driven measures such as the extension of the Private Finance Initiative and the contracting out of public services. But McAlpine believes it is Scottish Labour’s intransigent opposition to independence that has transformed irritation to outright disgust. For many on the left independence is a once in a lifetime opportunity to develop the kind of Scotland to which they have always aspired, a modern social democracy offering real democratic participation to previously disengaged people. The referendum has allowed Scotland’s progressives to start dreaming again.

And yet Scottish Labour, the party that would seem to be in the position to gain most from independence, which has for so many years been the repository of the hopes of the Scottish left for the building – one day – of a genuinely progressive nation, and whose support would have all but guaranteed a Yes vote, is saying No. Scottish Labour has cut itself off from Scotland’s other left movements – the SNP, the Greens, the Scottish Socialist Party, and newer movements such as the McAlpine’s Common Weal – and instead aligned itself with the Scottish Tories, the coalition government at Westminster, big business, millionaire land owners, the Orange Order, and the entire British establishment. It has been pulled by the logic of its participation in the Better Together campaign to align itself with conservative forces which have rubbished Scotland’s aspirations to strike out towards something new. For many voting Yes Labour’s opposition is quite simply an act of betrayal. The independence referendum, the opportunity for which Scotland has been waiting for so long to clear the space for genuinely radical change has come, and Labour, unforgivably, has aligned itself with the enemy.

And yet that word ‘Labour’ is still widely used by independence campaigners to signify hope. Over and over, McAlpine observes, Yes campaigners speak of themselves as ‘Labour people’, aspiring to use the opportunity independence affords for the building of a true ‘Labour Scotland’:

[I]t is here that we find ‘Labour Scotland’ alive and thriving. It’s just that this part of ‘Labour Scotland’ widely detests the Labour Party. They exist everywhere from Labour for Independence through the Radical Independence Campaign to the very active trade union presence in Yes and perhaps above all the ‘unaligned’ campaigners who all claim to be from a Labour background (and you’re as likely to find them in Business for Scotland as in Women for Independence or National Collective). They almost never get through a speech without saying ‘I’m voting Yes so we can have a real Labour government’.

It seems that the word ‘Labour’ has over the decades worked itself so deeply into the the political consciousness of the Scottish left that it is used instinctively when its members try to articulate their political identities and aspirations for an independent Scotland. It’s a word that still communicates hope, a blank screen on which visions of a new Scotland are project, a word used quite independently of what the actual Scottish Labour Party may or may not represent. As McAlpine puts it:

[I]n the perennial debate on Labour and Scotland, how have the signifiers and the signified changed in their relationships? The ‘Labour’ part, still signifying a social democratic politics rooted in working class experience and mythology is still there and strong. The ‘Labour Party’ bit is still clearly there and it refers to an identifiable object. It’s just that the meaning of ‘Labour’ and the meaning of the ‘Labour Party’ have diverged massively. Labour is still how we say ‘social democrat’ or ‘socialist’ in Scotland.

If we take the word ‘Labour’ in this wide sense, McAlpine argues, we can understand the referendum not as a conventional political scrap between Scottish Labour and the SNP, or between the Yes campaign and Better Together, but as a struggle between Scotland’s radical left, ‘Labour’, against the conservative British ‘establishment’ massed at Westminster.

There’s certainly truth in that. The independence debate is not, I think, ultimately about an assertion of nationalist sentiment: it is the latest, and so far most important, manifestation of an ongoing dialogue between the Scottish and the British political imaginations that has been going on now for most of the past century, the one broadly progressive, the other more or less conservative. Independence would break that old fault line into permanent separation.

So just why is Scottish Labour, a progressive party, so firmly aligned with the No campaign? It is isn’t just, I think, a formal matter of party discipline, of Scottish Labour’s obligation to follow the UK party line. It isn’t just because the parliamentary party at Westminster doesn’t want to lose the 40 or so MPs Scotland reliably contributes to its ranks. And it isn’t just because many within Labour are genuinely concerned about an independent Scotland’s economic prospects.

No: make of it what you will but Scottish Labour really does believe that a new Labour government elected to Westminster next year will have the capacity and the will to drive through the comprehensive economic and political reforms necessary to restructure the British state, and turn it in a new direction. Labour hopes that, like the transformative governments of 1945 and 1979, it will be able to push through the systemic reform Britain needs, and in doing so solve the problems to which Scottish independence is proposed as an answer.

That hope, of course, may very well be delusory. It depends on the election of successive radical Labour administrations able to take on and defeat the vested interests that dominate the British state: to unravel the financialisation of the economy, to distribute the proceeds of economic growth more equitably, to restore faith in the public sector, to reduce the Treasury’s dependence on proceeds from the trading of arms, to restore the concept of social security – and so on, and on..

But that is what the UK Labour leadership has set itself to do, with Scottish Labour’s support. It may end badly for the party. But it would only be fair to acknowledge that Labour’s hopes for Scotland, which are included within a wider vision for the remaking of the whole of Britain, are just as bold, indeed just as idealistic, as those dreaming about the possibilities of independence. And like those of the Yes campaigners, Scottish Labour’s aspirations for Scotland may founder on too much ambition, not too little.

Why Not: Scotland, Labour and Independence, edited by Jamie Maxwell and Owen Dudley Edwards is published by Luath Press.