Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas
Surveying the last 150 years or so of Scottish political history a number of significant changes are apparent: firstly, Liberalism was the hegemonic force in Scotland in the nineteenth century, but collapsed like a pack of cards after the First World War; secondly, there was a period of Tory dominance, but since 1955 the party has spiralled in an irresistible downward direction; thirdly, there is the mercurial rise of the SNP in the late 1960s and 1970s, which has threatened to win independence for Scotland, but has never quite delivered; and, finally, there is the Labour Party, as entrenched and as dominant as Liberalism was in its heyday. We seem to have experienced almost unconsciously a series of peaceful political revolutions, and yet, outside of a deluge of writing on the rise of the [End Page 172] nationalist vote in Scotland, we know very little about the nation's political development in the post-Second World War decades. That particularly applies to Labour. For all its hegemonic status north of the border the history of the Labour Party, particularly after 1945, remains uncharted and under-analysed. Thus, Gerry Hassan's edited collection of essays, which emphasises the party's growth and development since 1950, is very welcome, providing as it does a framework to begin the serious task of analysing the modern Labour Party in Scotland.
However, like any collection the quality of the chapters is uneven, although a number stand out in terms of the excellence of the writing and the level of analysis. Part of the problem lies in the diversity of the contributors, who range from historians to political scientists, to journalists to policy-makers. There is also a wide diversity in terms of approach, the broad brush style sitting rather uncomfortably with more narrowly-conceived pieces of work. Thus the collection is rather haphazardly put together and the reader would have been better served with a series of essays that had a consistency of purpose and methodology. One example of this might be taken from Section IV, which purports to deal with Scotland and the wider world but in fact contains an essay on trade unions and the Labour Party and something on Gordon Brown's philosophy.
The content is very good in places, but rather poor in others. Indeed, such is the level of tedium in some of the chapters that one comes to understand why there exists such a large democratic deficit in Scotland and the rest of the UK. These are writers obsessed with committees, institutions and personalities, and who have no understanding of forces that shape them or change them, far less any concern for their impact on the people of Scotland. The editor's overview of Labour Party histor y since 1950, however, is extremely useful and thought-provoking and contains a number of nuggets that could be the subject of more analysis and investigation. Apparently, the party north and south of the border share striking similarities in term of social profile. Membership is overwhelmingly white, male, middle-aged and middle class and generally is indifferent towards activity, with around 50 per cent never attending meetings in a year (pp. 6-7). Labour is also a party at a crossroads, facing a choice between jettisoning its past and accepting New Labour and the social market or clinging to Old Labour, class and state socialism. The former, obviously, is electorally attractive, while the latter is more principled and more in keeping with the party's ethos and traditions. It is therefore a party fighting for its very soul. But, while interesting and engaging, the other contributors do not build upon Hassan's analysis. The chapters on history are slight in terms of analysis, while the others are so varied in terms of the themes and issues they address that they leave the reader wondering what is the point of the book?
What stands out in the history of Labour in Scotland is that the party cannot be abstracted from the working-class culture within which it was established, but also how that culture has itself been fundamentally transformed in the course of the twentieth century. The party was formed as an alliance of the white, Protestant skilled workers and the petty bourgeoisie. In the course of this century that culture has been decimated by far-reaching economic restructuring, the historical impact of which is still unclear. This has produced a new type of party, as Hassan notes: one that is less misogynist and less sectarian, and these developments are to be welcomed; but that transformation has also been at the expense of other, more desirable features--notably a commitment to greater social and economic equality. For in spite of its weaknesses and flaws, the older workplace culture was capable of mobilising workers around commonly agreed interests and values. In its absence, and as a result of the changes mentioned, we are left with a de-skilled working class unable to challenge effectively the [End Page 173] appropriation by capital of its working space and time to anything like the extent of its industrial forbears. The results of this have been socially disastrous. Even the Tory historian, Ferdinand Mount, writing in The Sunday Times (5 September 2004), has argued that both Tory and Labour governments in recent years have created a class of what he misleadingly calls 'downers', who while suffering 'the daily practical misery of not making ends meet', also have to contend with 'seeing how little the society they live in values their efforts ... and entrenches [their] feelings of worthlessness and inferiority '.
We therefore need to worry less over Labour's relationship to the Scottish Parliament, or whether Brown will replace Blair, or whether the committee structure in Parliament is working effectively, or whether Labour is pro-or anti-Union, and more about these fundamental issues of providing decency and comfort as a right of citizenship. That would bring people and their aspirations and concerns into the debate, something that might prove uncomfortable for Hassan's contributors.