In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, Armando Iannucci performed a TV sketch in which he ascended to heaven and discovered the extraordinary things Scottish audiences had missed out on due to having ‘our own programmes’. He goggled at the first ever broadcast interview with an alien and a programme revealing the secrets of alchemy, both shunted from Scottish screens by ‘a Paul Coia quiz show about hills’ and a ‘cartoon series about Gaelic accidents’. There has been no better expression of the deeply Scottish suspicion that the English might be having more fun than we are. ‘Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on,’ the SNP’s Winnie Ewing announced after her shock victory in the 1967 Hamilton by-election, which sent the British government into a panic about the hitherto unthreateningly eccentric force of Scottish nationalism.
Labour was split: should Scotland get an ‘Assembly’, voting for its own programmes? Or would Scots find peace within a unitary British state and under a Labour Party which finally lived up to its socialist promise? Scottish Labour MPs initially tended to favour the latter idea, having watched enough Scottish television and being sufficiently aware of their own capabilities to know the dangers of self-determination. But after three excruciating decades, these divisions eventually resolved themselves into a Scottish Parliament which has struggled to live up to expectations. Richard Leonard, elected as the new leader of Scottish Labour last month, ran on a platform condemning the ‘managerialism’ that has characterised both Labour and the SNP’s approach to devolved government since 1999, pledging to ‘stretch every sinew’ of an institution that has been hamstrung from birth.
In its plans for the Scottish Parliament, New Labour lazily folded years of work by devolution activists into its post-Thatcher ‘modernisation’ project. Rather than the ‘workers’ parliament’ called for by the Scottish Trades Union Congress in the 1970s or the state envisaged by the left-wing intellectuals who wrote in the journal Radical Scotland in the 1980s, devolution became part of the party’s accommodation with neoliberalism. A cravenly governmental solution to the ‘problem’ of Scottish identity, the parochial discourse of ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ stifled more utopian aspirations for social justice and self-determination.
The political theorist Wendy Brown has argued that when devolution becomes a function of ‘governance’ rather than democracy, it ‘frequently means that large-scale problems, such as recessions, finance-capital crises, unemployment, or environmental problems, as well as fiscal crises of the state, are sent down the pipeline to small and weak units unable to cope with them technically, politically or financially’. When Scottish Labour insisted the SNP clean up the local fallout from a global financial crash, the SNP protested its powerlessness in the face of ‘endless Tory governments’ down south, and blamed the Labour Party for enabling them. The SNP turned devolution fatigue into a bout of stop-the-world separatism in 2014.
During the 1980s, the Scottish demand shifted from an insistence on being included in global progress, to indignant protests at being dragged along with the neoliberal revolution. By the time of 2014’s independence referendum, the message was clear: we want to get off. The referendum’s radical reputation came from its adoption of ‘folk politics’, a term coined by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their book Inventing the Future. Privileging the ‘small-scale, the authentic, the traditional and the natural’, it is, they write, a ‘political common sense that has become out of joint with the actual mechanisms of power’. Many in the ‘Yes’ movement stirred notions of bringing power closer to home, making the economy work for the ‘common weal’ and ending austerity. ‘Imagine a better Scotland’ was one slogan, but faced with the chasm between the reality of Scotland’s globalised economy and an imaginary Scottish commonwealth, voters politely declined to cross a purely speculative bridge. As Srnicek and Williams argue, folk politics ‘lacks the tools to transform neoliberalism into something else’. The local struggles it inspires offer ‘at best, temporary respite against its onslaught’.
Some on the Scottish left were canny to this. The Red Paper Collective, a group of left-wing Scottish Labour members, produced publications during the campaign stressing the real location of power – in the headquarters of multinational corporations – and proposing ‘progressive federalism’ as a way of breaking up the British state without breaking apart the British labour movement. Yet their critique of ‘Yes’-style folk politics seemed as hopeless as the target: the implication was that ‘real change’ – Leonard’s campaign slogan – could only come through a socialist Labour government at Westminster, backed by the trade union movement. The prospect of Ed Miliband bringing down global capitalism convinced nobody.
The entanglement of Scotland’s folk-political energies with the politics of ‘Yes’ also meant that when Corbynism arrived in 2015, much of the enthusiasm that materialised in England failed to cross the border. Scottish Labour left-wingers were forced into a digital Corbynism, enthusiastically following distant triumphs via social media while grimacing at their own analogue programmes. The conclusion of the journalist Jamie Maxwell, that ‘Scotland has already had its “Corbyn moment” and Sturgeon was its principal beneficiary,’ was a fair expression of the popular mood.
It seemed that devolution might prove to be Blairism’s lethal parting shot, dooming Scottish Labour to centrist irrelevance while the left reinvigorated the party in England. The party’s remaining left-wingers weren’t thought worth consideration. Contributing to Mark Perryman’s The Corbyn Effect, a collection of essays, Gerry Hassan wrote that ‘the politics associated with Momentum have not translated north of the border, with the group not even organising in Scotland. Corbynista politics have coalesced around the much smaller Campaign for Socialism … which has been characterised by a defensive, oppositional and tribal Labour left politics.’ This isn’t quite true – Momentum, in collaboration with CfS, has been organising in Scotland since 2015 – but, more significantly, those two sentences constituted the entirety of Hassan’s discussion of the Scottish Labour left, a bit of an oversight in a chapter called ‘The Coming of Caledonian Corbynism’.
Leonard’s victory, taking 57 per cent of the vote against the early favourite Anas Sarwar, suggests that Hassan missed something important. Some have blamed the result on Sarwar, who struggled to shake off questions about the practices of his family business. Nevertheless, he was an experienced and kenspeckle politician, who might have scraped a win had it not been for the efforts of the two key pillars of Corbynism: the Labour left and the trade unions. In Scotland, the former is almost entirely concentrated in CfS, founded in 1994 to fight against changes to Clause IV of the party constitution, and the Scottish Labour Young Socialists, founded in 2015. When Leonard’s campaign began, they threw themselves into organising weekly phone banks in multiple cities, orchestrated surprise endorsements from what were thought to be right-leaning constituency parties, and pushed Leonard’s message online and in print.
After spending years on the defensive against Scottish nationalism, the Scottish Labour left has developed a guiding principle: ‘class over nation’, a message found in their online graphics and home-made badges as well as in Leonard’s speeches. They have close links with the unions, which organised resources and members behind Leonard. The leftwards shift of Britain’s trade union leadership, historically Labour’s last line of defence against the radical left, is an underappreciated element of Corbyn’s success. This alliance between the Labour left and the trade union leadership is the result of decades of thankless work across the UK by groups like the Red Paper Collective and CfS. Yet the gleam of a new social movement, alchemised out of a dull, sinking party by Corbyn, is obscuring the role played by these old networks. Leonard’s unexpected ascension is a reminder of their importance.
If Leonard is to succeed further, he will need convincingly to link those old Labour left and trade union networks to the distinctively Scottish folk politics that underpinned the ‘radical’ campaign for independence in 2014. His personal background should be an asset: despite years working for the climate-sceptic and nuclear-friendly GMB union, he is a member of Scottish CND and a former board member of Friends of the Earth Scotland. He may prove capable of tapping into a growing sense that the SNP is replicating the triangulation and managerialism that alienated so many Scottish voters from New Labour. But the national question remains a sticking point. He must hope that Scotland’s folk politics stem from what Eric Hobsbawm described as ‘the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people, which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist’. Leonard, who grew up in Yorkshire and admits to siding with England in sporting contests against Scotland, has to hope too that the SNP is right to say that Scottish national identity has shed any nativist leanings. His future prospects rest on the outcome of the gamble that underpins his entire project: that it is ultimately the politics of class and conflict, not nationality and consensus-building, which can win working-class Scots back to Labour. That outlook has been the object of derision for decades – but so was Jeremy Corbyn.