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Pandering to Scottish self-pity

As Labour slumps in the Scottish polls, Allan Massie argues that it is paying the price for playing the nationalist (small n) card against the Tories

Coming up to the Scottish Labour Party's special conference a few weeks before the general election, Tony Blair was under some pressure. His decision to hold a referendum on the party's devolution pro-posals had gone down badly with those who thought a general election victory would be sufficient mandate to introduce a bill setting up a Scottish parliament. There was some dissatisfaction too with the degree of control being exerted from Millbank. Though a majority of Scottish MPs had supported Blair in the leadership election-in the run-up to which Gordon Brown had learned that he couldn't count on the votes of a majority of his Scottish colleagues if he ran against Blair-both Blair's Scottish credentials and his commitment to traditional Labour were being questioned.

So we had a public relations stroke. We suddenly learned of Tony's granny from Red Clydeside, a notable battleaxe who had campaigned on the issue of 'Arms for Spain' in the thirties. She was actually no blood-relation, since she and her husband had adopted Leo Blair, Tony's father, and there was no evidence that she had ever influenced the young Tony. But that didn't matter. She served her purpose: to suggest that Tony had roots deep in the Labour Party in Scotland. Not a lot has been heard of granny Blair since; nothing really.

Blair, it is said, goes down badly in Scotland. He doesn't have the rapport he has established with Middle England. Indeed, his appeal to Middle England is held against him by many, and when he tried to suggest that there was a Middle Scotland too (which there is), people shook their heads in indignant disbelief. So there are those who claim that he is a liability, not an asset, in Scotland; though, as a matter of fact, the opinion polls don't support this view. They still show him as more popular than the Labour Party.

Of course Labour has been in trouble since its referendum triumph, and it is easy to lay this at the door of Blairism. Onslaught on single parents, imposition of tuition fees (from which students from Labour's working class support will be exempt)...these are dismissed as Tory policies such as Scotland rejects.

This is frankly rubbish.

That Labour has slumped in the polls is undeniable. But the reasons have little to do with a rejection of Tony Blair, however one may regret having to say so.

Certainly Labour seems to have lost some of its traditional support. Those who assumed that Blair's election would mean an immediate reversal of Tory policies have been disappointed, and may have drifted to the SNP where they can keep intact their illusion that cloud-cuckoo-land may be translated into reality.

But the real reason for the loss of support is different. It is first the series of scandals that have been exposed in Labour's west-central Scotland fiefdoms. Labour is no longer seen as a party defending the people against Tory harshness, but as a party which has itself been guilty for a long time of the abuse of power, and as a party mired in (actually small-scale) corruption. At a municipal level Labour now seems like a party that has been in power for too long. The Labour fiefdoms have developed all the faults characteristic of a one-party state. Now that the Tories have gone the spotlight has been turned on Labour, and an awful lot of voters don't like what it has revealed.

The second reason is equally potent, though in reality ridiculous. At least since Labour began to recover after the 1983 election, the party began to play a dangerous game in Scotland. Crying out that the Tories had no mandate, since they were a minority party in Scotland, Labour carelessly subverted the Union. It played the nationalist card in an attempt to embarrass the Tories and steal the SNP's ground. It succeeded in the first aim but not in the second.

The more Labour presented Scotland as a victim of Thatcherite aggression, the more it stoked the fires of nationalism. The party pandered to Scottish self-pity, and did not pause to consider that in doing so it was endangering its own position. Then, after winning the election, Labour compounded its folly by welcoming the support of the SNP in the referendum on devolution.

During that campaign, writing in oppos-ition to devolution, I frequently quoted the old limerick about the young lady of Riga, who went, as you may recall, for a ride on a tiger. 'They returned from the ride/With the lady inside/And a smile on the face of the tiger.'

Well, the tiger is smiling broadly, more broadly than ever; and the young, or rather elderly, lady-the Scottish Labour Party-still doesn't know what has happened to it. So to its incredulous consternation, it finds the (SNP) Nationalists tarring it with the brush with which it so happily tarred the Tories. Labour, the Nationalists say, is a branch-office party which takes its ideas from London. This is absurd, when you consider the composition of the government; but some people seem to believe it.

In playing the nationalist (small n) card against Thatcher and Major, Labour was doing the equivalent of paying the Danegeld.

'And that is called paying the Danegeld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Danegeld,
You never get rid of the Dane.'

That is Labour's problem now: how to calm the nationalist spirit it provoked. I don't think wheeling out memories of Tony's Glasgow granny will do the trick.

Allan Massie is a columnist for the Scotsman


Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

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