The debate on the future of Scotland’s constitutional status has many legitimate views: pro-union, pro-independence, and the middling Scotland sitting uneasily in-between. In the last two weeks, the tenor of part of the debate has begun to change. Alistair Darling, head of the ‘No’ camp, in the John P. Mackintosh lecture, one of Scottish Labour’s few post-war cerebral figures, has talked of independence as ‘the road to serfdom’.
Darling stated that ‘an independent Scotland would rejoin the UK’ and continued, with a mindset of simplistic separatism, predicting that ‘British music will no longer be our music’, and suggesting that British culture and sporting achievement would thus become foreign.
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The previous week, Gordon Brown, in a similar high profile intervention, said that independence would mean Scotland becoming the equivalent of a ‘British colony’. SNP plans were he argued ‘a form of self-imposed colonialism more reminiscent of the old Empire’.
Now there are hot-headed people on the pro-union and independence sides. There are some wild men of the cybernat domain who need to be curtailed for the ‘Yes’ side’s self-interest. But the mostly grey men of ‘No’ land are something else, because they have status, standing and are not exactly shadowy social media figures.
Something unites the strident voices of the ‘No’ men. They are by and large of a certain generation, having their political views formed in the 1960s and 1970s before civic nationalism changed Scotland. They are nearly exclusively Labour, seen in the hectoring voices of Brown, Darling, George Robertson, Brian Wilson and many others.
They are Westminster focused and have been shaped by and scarred by the long experience of achieving a Scottish Parliament and a limited version of devolution, constitutionally and in Labour politics. This has contributed towards a cautious, unimaginative politics which is oblivious to reflecting on its limitations or the record of Labour, both positive and negative, in Scotland and in New Labour.
Scotland, despite the SNP’s current standing, has been shaped by ‘Labour Scotland’. This is basically what a place looks like after it has been run by Labour for generations; the patronage, powerlessness and exclusion of so many people in a nation which calls itself centre-left. Labour at some point need to offer some explanation for this, an apology even, which cannot be avoided by overblown rhetoric.
A major factor here is taking responsibility. When I was a young Labour Party member in Dundee the problems of the council and local services (run by Labour) were according to the councillors always someone else’s fault – the Tories or ‘the system’. It has always been disingenuous, but this avoidance of responsibility was at the heart of Labour old-style machine politics.
I am not saying all Labour people were like that, but that it went to the core and ethos of Labour culture. And you can see it at work with Labour language on the constitutional question. George Robertson rightly challenged the cybernat bullying, but isn’t it time Labour cleaned up its own act and stopped portraying the Nats as a Scots equivalent of Pol Pot?
There is a deep seated problem in Labour unionism which has consistently shown that it has trouble coming to terms with the SNP – unlike other unionisms (Tory and Lib Dem for example). Some of this is due to the electoral threat of the SNP to Labour’s fiefdoms but it goes back decades to Willie Ross and Tom Johnston. This is because Labour unionism is about power and its rationale has been threatened – in Britain, the British state and in its Scottish power base.
Tom Johnston, Secretary of State for Scotland in the Second World War, was one of Labour’s most passionate home rulers in its early days. Yet when he got his hands on the levers of the state he became an ardent centraliser and turned his back on home rule, mirroring Labour itself. In his autobiography published in 1952 he wrote that those radical dreams were for the past, asking in trenchant tones, ‘What purport would there be in getting a Scots parliament in Edinburgh if it has to administer an emigration system, a glorified Poor Law and a graveyard?’
Thus was Scottish Labour’s unionism put in uncompromising terms when the threat of the SNP was non-existent. This was a politics of managed dependency, of Scotland too poor, pathetic and small to make it on its own feet and needing the life support system of the union. Hardly a positive, affirming unionism.
On one level this generation of Labour politicians have gone too early with their apocalyptic warnings. Yet they may succeed in moving some swing voters in the independence referendum to the ‘No’ side. But if they do they will build up resentment which will make the prospects of independence much more likely in the medium to longer term.
Frightening people can work in elections. The Tories and US Republicans have used such tactics in the past but it produces diminishing returns, and eventually becomes counter-productive as voters increasingly see through it.
There has to be, one hopes, a wider set of considerations than just partisan calculations. Is the debasement of the English language really what senior figures such as Darling and Brown want to be remembered for? An aggressive, abrasive, seemingly desperate British nationalism.
There is actually a positive case for the union. The problem, which underlines Brown and Darling’s language, is that it has not been consistently put for the last 30 years. So far these hectoring pro-union voices are not helping but hindering this, contributing to the long-term unionist crisis of confidence. And in so doing they are weakening the democratic debate which Scotland needs to have about its future as a society and nation.
They have to change their tone for their own sake otherwise they will not only undermine what little respect for politics there is left, but wider democracy and public engagement. If they are unable or unwilling to embrace a more nuanced, modern and relevant language reflecting the Scotland of today, rather than of the past, they will ultimately weaken and discredit the cause of the union which they claim they wish to protect.
Scotland needs to hear from pro-union voices what the Scotland of tomorrow and union of tomorrow will look like: how it will rise to the challenges of globalisation and interdependence, gathering Euroscepticism in the British body politic, and the rising trend of ‘Britain plc’ as an outlier for the global forces of power and privilege. That would begin to contribute to a debate worthy of shaping Scotland’s future. Are there any takers?