Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Classical Toryism of Labour

My old friend Nick Bibby, whose return from Korea I take as a sign that hostilities there are about to be resumed, writes:

Just as they had south of the Border, it was the Tories that kicked off the anti-independence campaign in Scotland.

In both cases Labour’s struggle to decide whether it disliked the Tories or the Nationalists more was short-lived.

As the only truly British party – with serious representation and the prospect of government in Westminster and the devolved parliaments – Labour is in an unenviable position.

The Scottish Tories are a contradiction in terms and, for all of his protestations, David Cameron could live quite comfortably with Scotland leaving the union and taking its voters with it. Power at Westminster destroyed the Lib Dems north of the Border. The nationalists see Westminster as a sinecure but a sideline. The Greens are already separate parties on either side of the Border.

Only, Labour has everything to lose and nothing to say.

Large chunks of the Scottish Labour Party support breaking the Union, which would almost certainly result in a northern nation where Labour was the natural party of government and left of centre values were the mainstay of political debate. Contrary to popular belief, separation would not doom the remainder of the UK to a servile future governed by the home counties; England is not as Tory a country as a London based media tends to assume.

Whatever the reason, two parties that should be natural allies treat each other with a disdain that is unmatched in British politics. Both claim to be ‘left of centre’ parties and do so with roughly the same amount of credibility. Their antagonism represents a schism in Scottish politics but also raises an interesting question of whether there is a coherent leftwing position on Scottish independence, regardless of partisan affiliation.

There is certainly an impressive body of evidence that Scotland – as with Canada, New Zealand and others – is naturally to the left of her more populous and affluent neighbor and should join that community of former colonies.

Alex Salmond is also keen to associate Scotland with a Nordic or Scandinavian political tradition of social democracy. Certainly the historical links between Scotland, Canada, New Zealand and the liberal traditions of northern Europe are both strong and quite distinct from the ‘top table’ imperialism further south.

Certainly Keir Hardie and other Scottish giants of British left wing history stood fully behind Scottish home rule. Nineteen Labour leaders later and the image of Ed Milliband tripping over himself to agree with David Cameron on the issue may be a little unseemly but is hardly conclusive in either direction.

The economics of separation have been almost entirely argued out from a post-Thatcherite perspective and have owed more to political convenience than economic reality. Scotland will neither be plunged impoverished hell nor vaulted into a stratosphere of wealth by independence. The pie will be smaller than that of the UK as a whole but is likely to be cut rather more fairly.

The general principle of locating sovereign power as close to those it effects directly is certainly a left wing one. This view, taken by the Greens but nobody else, seems a more coherent leftwing position than the nationalism of the SNP or the classical Toryism of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The reasons for this seem to owe more to tribal enmity that political sanity.

The simplest examination of General Election results at least since 1945 gives the lie to the lazy fantasy that an independent England would have had, and therefore might have in the future, a permanent or semi-permanent Conservative Government rather than, as was and would be the case, a Labour Government almost exactly as often as happened within the United Kingdom, including with comfortable or landslide majorities on every occasion when that was the case under the current arrangements.

Those who would counter that that was and would be seats, not votes, are almost always strong supporters of First Past The Post, and must face the fact that England would never return a single-party government under any other electoral system. Great swathes of England scarcely elect Conservative MPs at all. The notion that the Conservative Party has a unique right to speak for England is as fallacious and offensive as the notion that the Conservative Party has a unique right to speak for the countryside.

It would be pointless for the North of England (with a population considerably larger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined) to remain in the United Kingdom if its economically leftish social conservatism serving and served by agriculture, manufacturing and small business, and rooted in Catholicism, Methodism and a High Churchmanship quite different from that in the South, were no longer able to support and to be supported, either by Scotland’s economically leftish social conservatism serving and served by agriculture, manufacturing and small business, and rooted in Catholicism, Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism, or by Wales’s economically leftish social conservatism serving and served by agriculture, manufacturing and small business, and rooted in Catholicism, several varieties of Nonconformity, and the sane High Churchmanship that provides the mood music to the Church in Wales.

The North would be at least as capable of independence as either Scotland or Wales, and would have every reason to pursue that path if they did. But who would then pay for the City to be bailed out next time, and the time after that, and the time after that? And what would the smug South East drink, or wash in?

There used to be two big parties in Scotland, Labour and Conservative. There are now two big parties in Scotland, Labour and SNP. It is obvious from where the support for the SNP has come. Lo and behold, they turn out to be the posh, the wannabe posh, the devotees of shortbread tin Scottishness, the socially conservative in that Church of Scotland way (although heaven alone knows what the Conservative Party ever offered them, any more than their English and Welsh equivalents), the pathological enemies of municipal Labour and of the trade unions, and the white Protestant supremacists.

Bevan ridiculed the first parliamentary Welsh Day on the grounds that “Welsh coal is the same as English coal and Welsh sheep are the same as English sheep”. In the 1970s, Labour MPs successfully opposed Scottish and Welsh devolution not least because of its ruinous effects on the North of England. Labour activists in the Scottish Highlands, Islands and Borders, and in North, Mid and West Wales, accurately predicted that their areas would be balefully neglected under devolution.

Eric Heffer in England, Tam Dalyell and the Buchans (Norman and Janey) in Scotland, and Leo Abse and Neil Kinnock in Wales, were prescient as to the Balkanisation of Britain by means of devolution and the separatism that it was designed to appease, and as to devolution’s weakening of trade union negotiating power. Abse, in particular, was prescient as to the rise of a Welsh-speaking oligarchy based in English-speaking areas, which would use devolution to dominate Welsh affairs against the interests of Welsh workers South and North, industrial and agricultural, English-speaking and Welsh-speaking. Heffer’s political base was in Liverpool, at once very much like the West of Scotland and with close ties to Welsh-speaking North Wales.

There is a strong feeling among English, Scottish and Welsh ethnic minorities and Catholics that we no more want to go down the road of who is or is not “really” English, Scottish or Welsh than Ulster Protestants want to go down the road of who is or is not “really” Irish. The Scotland Office Select Committee is chaired by Ian Davidson, a Co-operative Party stalwart and Janey Buchan protégé who is therefore a hammer both of Scottish separatism and of European federalism. There is no West Lothian Question, since the Parliament of the United Kingdom reserves the right to legislate supremely in any policy area for any part of the country, the devolution legislation presupposes that it will do so as a matter of course, and anyone who does not like that ought to have voted No to devolution.

The Welfare State, workers’ rights, full employment, a strong Parliament, trade unions, co-operatives, credit unions, mutual guarantee societies, mutual building societies, and nationalised industries (often with the word “British” in their names) were historically successful in creating communities of interest among the several parts of the United Kingdom, thus safeguarding and strengthening the Union. The public stakes in the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland are such permanent, non-negotiable safeguards of the Union.

The Union can only be defended in these terms and within this tradition, while any failure to defend the Union cannot be described as left-wing in any way, shape or form. Ed Miliband, over to you.

Buy the book here.


  1. How are the reviews of the "book" going? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

  2. Is that last part something "street"? How very pre-postliberal. One can only too easily imagine Tony Blair speaking "street".

    Anyway, in answer to your question in English, I am told that, while they won't all be able to do it (busy, and what have you), everyone who is anyone has been invited to contribute to a published collection of such reviews.

    Have you been? If not, then I don't know quite how to put this, but what does that say about you these days, or possibly always?

    On topic, please.

  3. Durham debater1 April 2012 at 09:49

    To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen - I debated with Nick Bibby. I know Nick Bibby. And David, you're no friend of his - in fact, I think he would barely remember you if you met again.

  4. Oh, you cannot begin to know how wrong you are...