Scottish Labour’s Conservative Disposition
‘To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant…’
The news that Scottish Labour used the financial crisis to discredit the movement for Scottish independence is, for supporters of independence at least, hardly newsworthy. Who would have thought, though, that the latest revelations from Wikileaks would have shed more light on the murky underworld of Scottish Labour?
That underworld became even more murkier with the publication of Gus O’Donnell’s report revealing Labour’s shameful dealings with Libya and what Alex Salmond, in reference to the opportunistic posturing of Scottish Labour on the issue, has referred to as the most blatant example “of organised political hypocrisy”. All this in the same week that Jim Devine was unceremoniously disowned by two of his former Labour drinking buddies in the House of Commons bar (he’ll be missed). In the ideal world, all the SNPs Christmases should have been rolled into one in the last week but alas, in the fiefdom of Scottish Labour’s Scotland, a week is a short time in politics.
There will be few people who will be surprised to hear that Scottish Labour’s Jim Murphy was orchestrating the financial crisis attack from the Scottish Office, albeit with Maggie Broon pulling his strings. Things have come to a sorry pass, however, when it falls to a leftie to point out that, during the boom years of Labour’s boom and bust, the Labour governments and the UK Treasury, year after year, were quite happy to rake in the revenues from the corporation tax, income tax and VAT receipts, not to mention the significant investment and spending multipliers generated by RBS, HBoS and their employees. In those boom years, there were no concessions then from anyone in Scottish Labour that this demonstrated how ‘successful’ an independent Scotland could be. The dominant narrative was “Stronger together weaker apart” – funny how that narrative comes to an abrupt halt at the English Channel.
Counterfactual history (the Achilles heel of Scottish and other aspiring nationalisms) can’t prove anything of course, so we’ll never know whether an independent Scottish government in the years 1997-2010 would have shown the same incompetence and neo-liberal zealotry as British Labour governments did in these years. But we do know that the architects of Labour’s boom and bust – Gordon Brown and Ed Balls – were also the architects of the de-regulatory framework that precipitated the crisis and made the Scottish and British economies so vulnerable to its numerous consequences, one of which, of course, was a new Tory government.
It remains one of the most remarkable electoral phenomena in post-war Europe that Scottish Labour has won every single British general election in Scotland since 1964. What makes this all the more remarkable is that the consequences of this have proved so devastating for the majority of Scottish Labour voters themselves. Like Gladstone’s repeated bouts of self-flagellation after purposively and, we must assume, successfully resisting the temptations of London’s East-End prostitutes, it seems that Scottish Labour voters just can’t get enough of Tory governments at Westminster. This is, therefore, the most enduring problem (for nationalists) in Scottish electoral politics: why does Scottish Labour continue to be the main beneficiary of the anti-Tory reflex in Scotland?
We can get some help in answering this complex question from an unexpected source. In his 1956 essay ‘On being Conservative’ (Rationalism in Politics and other essays, Methuen 1967), the conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, provides a classic exposition of what he called the “conservative disposition”, if we define “classic” in the same terms as the poet Ezra Pound, “A classic is news that stays news”. In his essay, Oakeshott outlines the “general characteristics” of the conservative disposition:
“They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be…What is esteemed is the present; and it is esteemed…[not] because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity…Stay with me because I am attached to you…To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant…the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”.
The conservative disposition is not unique to the average Scottish Labour voter of course, not even in Scotland, and Oakeshott’s use of lower case ‘c’ alerts us to his universal pretensions. But we do know that whatever it is that’s keeping this particular show on the road, it has little to do with socialism. For Scottish Labour is to socialism what lifestyle anarchism is to anarchism (Oakeshott would have approved of such an unthreatening and conservative bunch). The lifestyle anarchist wants to ‘opt out’ of society, do her ‘own thing’, and often seeks compensation for the shortcomings of the real world, conveniently displacing her own shortcomings, in an array of lifestyle consumer products. In other words, lifestyle anarchism is the very antithesis of anarchism.
It is perhaps Oakeshott’s emphasis on the familiar, the present, and by implication, the resigned tolerance that informs limited horizons that, along with a strong dose of Scottish fatalism, helps to explain much of the electoral success of Scottish Labour. At any rate, those of us who support independence need to do a lot more research on this. Research that, nevertheless, ought to be informed by the acknowledgement that the very existence of an SNP government demonstrates that there is a soft underbelly to Scottish Labour’s support.
Britishness, like capitalism, trades on Oakeshott’s “familiarity” and the ontological security of the “present”. Familiarity with, among other things, ‘British’ popular cultural icons like Brucie, Tarbie, Gazza, the Sun, Posh ‘n’ Becks, the BBC, ‘Corrie’ and Eastenders. Remember when on BBCs Question Time, Scottish Labour’s Helen Liddell used the threat of ‘Corrie’ and Eastenders being removed from Scottish television screens as an argument against independence, and was applauded for it? And this in the middle of the digital revolution in television! We long ago entered the hinterland of Nietzsche’s “perspectivelessness” in the battle between the nationalisms in Scottish politics – if everyone is telling the ‘truth’ and everyone disagrees, how are we to arbitrate between them? Answer: stick with the familiar, with what you have in the present. So far, this has worked a treat for Scottish Labour.
Again like capitalism, Britishness also trades on other things, one of those is well illustrated by Scottish Labour’s attempt to use the financial crisis to discredit the arguments for independence: fear, or to paraphrase Oakeshott, fear of the unknown, the untried, the possible. Meanwhile, many people in Scotland have good reason to be frightened, not only about the effects of the next five years of Tory government but what may prove to be the next decade or more of Tory governments. And as this suggests, it isn’t independence that Scottish Labour voters should be frightened of.
Whatever happens in the next five years there is the possibility, not yet the likelihood that the Tories will get back into office in 2015, perhaps with an outright majority. Unfortunately, by the time of the 2015 general election, a lot of damage will have been done to Scotland as a consequence of Tory policies and Labour’s boom and bust, whatever cheap sticking plasters the next Scottish government can put on the gaping wounds. And it has to be said that one of the most unforgiveable consequences of Labour’s boom and bust is that it has provided the Tories with what will be their most potent weapon in the 2015 general election. You can write much of the Tory script for that election yourself, ‘The Conservatives are fixing the economy, don’t let Labour ruin it (again)’, ‘This Ed got us into this mess, the other Ed won’t get us out of it: Proof that two Eds are not better than one’ or, one for the post-modernists, ‘Ed doesn’t have the ear of Balls’.
This assumes that the Tories themselves don’t mess up. The Tories don’t need to worry about Scotland of course, nothing to lose nothing to gain there. In spite of the current pessimistic growth projections, the Tories will hope that, eventually, the ‘British’ trend rate of growth will be restored, ‘business confidence’ will return, the banking levy (a demand on the small change of the big banks) and regulatory tweaking will be successfully sold as the City’s contrition, and the bandwagon of house price inflation will get rolling again. With these and other ‘business as usual’ measures in place, a grateful Tory/wavering (old) New Labour constituency in middle England will conclude that it’s all been worth it. As for the Scots, well, they’ve been content with Hobson’s Choice so far, so what will be different in 2015? But here’s a thought: if middle England votes in another Tory government at Westminster for another five years in the 2015 British general election, does anyone know what Scottish Labour’s Plan B is?