The future of the left since 1884

Labour, England and the end of British Scotland

Gordon Brown's speech the day before the 2014 Scottish referendum vote was a passionate defence of the politics and history of the British union. He expressed the heart and soul of Labour in Scotland. But his speech was an elegy...


Gordon Brown’s speech the day before the 2014 Scottish referendum vote was a passionate defence of the politics and history of the British union. He expressed the heart and soul of Labour in Scotland. But his speech was an elegy for a lost world of Scottish Labour politics. The elections on May 5 confirm that Labour has not just been repeatedly defeated in politics, it is close to a social death from which there will be no recovery.

Scottish Labour from its beginning was a unionist party. The Scottish Workers Parliamentary Committee was set up in 1899, changing its name to the Scottish Labour party.  The Labour Representation Committee was established in England and Wales in 1900 and changed its name in 1906 to the Labour party. In 1909 Scottish Labour and the Labour party amalgamated. The history of the Labour party is the history of the union.

The end of British Scotland

In the last decades Labour’s role as the Scottish establishment cemented Edinburgh to London at an elite level. In Glasgow, Labour’s unionism was its principle means of warding off sectarian strife.  But the growing estrangement of Labour from the British electorate and the shift in Scotland of the Catholic vote in favour of independence, fatally weakened Scottish Labour unionist politics.

The SNP delivered the coup de grace. It reworked Scottishness into a modern, inclusive sense of national belonging and skillfully excluded Labour from the Scottish family. Labour was defined as the party of Westminster and the status quo. However much Labour exposed the social democratic failings of the SNP it could not fight on the cultural terrain of national belonging and identity. It no longer had a compelling, popular story of why Britain was ‘better together’.

Ten days before the referendum vote on 18 September 2014, a YouGov poll put the ‘yes’ vote on 51 per cent and the ‘no’ on 49 per cent. It proved to be a rogue poll but by the following day Gordon Brown had announced that if the Scots voted ‘no’ they would be granted further devolution with greater control over finance, welfare and taxation. No one in the Labour Party contradicted this concession. David Cameron fell into line and supported it. Brown’s unilateral, last minute fix only confirmed the end of British Scotland.

Despite the vote to remain in the union, the demand for independence had revealed Scotland’s equivocal relationship with England. It highlighted the ambiguous nature of an English polity within the constitution. The morning after the referendum, David Cameron committed his coalition government to further devolution. He raised the West Lothian question and challenged Labour to back English votes for English laws. Despite ample warning of Cameron’s likely intention, Labour was silent. When it finally called for a constitutional convention it sounded defensive. Never had victory looked so like defeat. Labour had won a pyrrhic victory in Scotland and it had failed to identify itself with England. In preserving a status quo that no longer existed, Labour had dramatically weakened itself as a British political force.

Labour’s annual party conference followed the result of the referendum. Even at this late stage it could have addressed England directly and recognised its political identity alongside Scotland and Wales. It could have acknowledged that Westminster must change, and that this would mean reducing the influence of Scotland. It could have decisively embraced devolution within England, offering more power to its cities, counties and communities. And it could have begun a debate on an English Labour party. But Labour did none of these things. It had no story to tell England, just as it had had no compelling story of Britain to tell the Scottish people.

Will Scottish Labour revive itself? It can still call on residual loyalties. It is not a toxic brand in the way Labour has become in parts of England. But what exactly does it stand for? The SNP has seized its social democratic mantle. Scottish Labour has stood for the redistributive, unitary British state. But the Conservatives are transforming its architecture. Scottish voters lack faith in it, and a growing number of English voters believe the Barnett formula that distributes funding is unfair and over generous to Scotland. Both the official Labour party inquiry and Jon Cruddas’ independent inquiry reveal that English voters overwhelmingly reject the idea of the SNP as a partner in a Labour led UK government.

Culture and nation

Labour played a major role in decolonizing the empire. It brokered a cease fire in Northern Ireland, and it granted a parliament to Scotland and an assembly to Wales. These are historic Labour achievements. More by accident than design, it has contributed to the growing dynamic toward greater national autonomy within the UK. But the Labour party’s roots are in unionist politics, and its social democratic politics has depended upon the unitary British state. Devolution has undermined its political foundations.

Labour’s defeat in the general election of 2010 was arguably its worst since 1918. Its defeat in 2015 was worse still. In Scotland it was wiped out. In England and Wales it is strong in London and in the cities and university towns. But London is now more a global city than an English one, and the latter are more cosmopolitan, highly educated and middle class than the country at large. Labour’s success only highlights the growing gulf between the party and the rest of the country. Its presence in English areas of prosperity is tenuous and it has been driven back into the de-industrialised regions which have been heavily dependent upon public spending. Even these can no longer be described as Labour heartlands. The challenge of UKIP’s blue collar English nationalism means that safe Labour seats can no longer be taken for granted.

There is a common view that a country is imagined – what Benedict Anderson, the political thinker, describes as an “imagined community” in his book of the same title. It is invented, and so also reinvented, in representation and the imagination – in books, art, music, film and popular culture. But the story of a country grows out of its customs, traditions, institutions and ways of life. A country has a history and a culture which is material. This culture is an inheritance which forms a common life providing people with their principal source of meaning, and a sense of identity and belonging. Individuals inherit their culture, but they also contribute to reimagining it. In Patterns of Culture, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes culture as “the raw material of which the individual makes his life”. The loss of a culture is a “loss of something that had value equal to that of life itself, the whole fabric of a people’s standards and beliefs”.

In recent decades this common inheritance has started to break apart. Large numbers of people experience a sense of cultural disorientation. Cultural identification has been shifting away from Britishness toward Englishness, Scottishness and Welshness. There is no one single cause, but the globalisation of capitalism that began in the late 1970s plays a major part in the destruction of our common life. In a single generation, industrial class identities and forms of solidarity, along with the work that formed them, have disappeared. A combination of technological change, deindustrialisation and the financialisation of the economy have entrenched a long term trend toward deeper inequalities of power, wealth and income. The commercialisation and standardisation of culture have deracinated local places and identities. Unprecedentedly high levels of immigration has created division, anger and cultural anxiety.

When people feel they are losing a sense of who they are and where they belong, they will either defend their culture, or they will set about reinventing it. Both these conservative and radical responses are redefining the union of Britain.

Englishness is a native identity born of living in the country and for this reason many immigrants in the past have felt themselves excluded or even under threat from it. Anti-immigrant racism has mobilized the iconography of Englishness. However in the last decade a cultural renascence of Englishness has neutralised its association with racism. Increasing numbers of minority ethnic groups are native to England. Generations have integrated themselves into the common life of the country, creating hybrid cultures combining their own ancestral traditions with their English inheritance. Our shared English language, our literature, our music, food and cultural preoccupations are changing and will continue to change.

This cultural hybridity is not the multiculturalism of fixed and permanent ethnic cultures that exist in parallel to one another. It is a practice of cultural mixing as individuals remake their identities in a multi-ethnic society. But Labour’s politics remains within the multicultural approach. It has retained from the 1980s the vestiges of an anti-colonialist, anti-racist politics. Labour is right to stand up to racism and discrimination, but it is stuck in a moral binary of minority good, majority bad.

Individuals from all ethnic groups are reworking culture in everyday life and so shaping a new common life which is the basis for new forms of solidarity and the glue of social integration. There are two main factors that are obstacles to growing social integration. The first is our model of capitalism which is generating inequalities of power, income and opportunities across generations, regions and ethnic groups.  The second is continuing high levels of immigration. Added to these is the security threat of Islamist extremism. While Labour can talk about the first, it changes the subject when cultural anxieties about immigration are raised, and it looks unreliable on the third.

George Orwell remarked that England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. Too often Labour gives the impression of sharing this sentiment. It is an extraordinary misjudgment borne out of the changing composition of the party as it becomes more metropolitan, liberal and middle class. It places Labour on the wrong side of both the cultural and economic faultlines dividing the country. The party ends up estranged from the people it wants to represent.

England and Labour

In October 2015, Labour’s newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech to the Scottish Labour party conference. He told his audience that decisions about policy, the management of Scottish Labour affairs, and the selection of candidates, would be taken “here in Scotland” by members and activists. “That is what I am committed to and what Kezia and I will deliver, with the UK and Scottish Labour parties co-operating in solidarity with one another.”  Corbyn has conceded the end of Labour unionist politics but has withheld from admitting it. There can be no UK Labour party without Scotland. He continues Labour’s evasion of its predicament.

In the forthcoming EU referendum, the desire for national self-determination will lead Scotland to embrace the EU and England to be sceptical. The EU referendum vote risks intensifying existing faultlines within the union. By 2020 Scotland will have got the autonomy it wanted. George Osborne’s northern powerhouse is devolving power to English cities and regions and there will be a growing expectation that English decisions are taken by the English. Constituency boundary changes will mean fewer English seats with an inbuilt Labour majority.

Labour’s position is precarious. Its future will be decided in England. It needs a specifically English strategy to identify the politics and policies it will need to win a majority of English seats. It needs to reform itself into a federal UK Labour party with an English Labour party, and with Scottish and Welsh Labour granted more autonomy to respond to their own national politics. The party will then be in a better position to secure the union in a more federal constitution. It cannot be a technocratic exercise. In England, Labour needs to connect with the remaking of common life, and develop a politics and language attuned to English cultures, and to their regional differences and changing identities.

If as Jeremy Corbyn claims, Labour ‘clung on’ on 5 May, then we are clinging on to a ship that is broken and sinking. There is no status quo in the union and so there is no status quo within Labour. The choice is to cling to what no longer works or let go and open up to the cultural life that is reshaping the country and in doing so radically remake the union of countries in the UK. In this way Labour can build its own future and once more be a party of government.

Jonathan Rutherford

Jonathan Rutherford is professor of cultural studies at the University of Middlesex

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.