Why are Scottish Labour intellectuals such chronic pessimists? Last week former Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed independence would start a ‘race to the bottom, a dog-eat-dog competition’ and the result would be that ‘all the benefits that have been built up over time will be lost’.
Brown envisions an SNP government willing to roll an independent Scotland on its back – he sees the hawks that watch from commanding economic heights, ready to dive and drag the people down when Scotland becomes fair game for global business. The SNP might intend to raise the minimum wage, but it will only be a matter of time before businesses force the hand of Europe’s newest state to push down low-income thresholds once again, he asserts.
But what if Labour wins in an independent Scotland, and begins instead a race to the top built on progressive taxation, regenerated public industry, and wealth redistribution? No chance of that, says Scottish Labour Pessimist the Second, Brian Wilson, who sees little prospect of a Labour government after independence. In last week’s Scotsman he predicted a ‘centre-right Scotland, united behind Nationalist rhetoric and highly dependent on its permanently right-wing neighbour, is the much more likely outcome’.
According to this bleak plot, an independent Scotland’s working people would not look to the Labour party for political guidance, but huddle in around an SNP whose own mock-Napoleon lacks real experience of bitter global forces. And, to top off this impending doom, another Labour stalwart, Lord George Robertson, warns the very integrity of nations will erode if we go our own way – ‘the global balance would be substantially upset’ with the ‘re-balkanisation of Europe’.
Scottish Labour’s dreary narrative, which sees helpless people thwarted by the rotten aims of corporations and Tories at every turn, is writ large by Brown, Wilson and Robertson who claim insight into the economics, politics and international affairs that govern the world. These men have seen devilish forces seep into every unguarded economic nook, demanding dogged obedience and toil. If British Labour cannot defeat these vampires and lead the people to security, then what chance has a tiny nation-state with its tired, downtrodden folk, and a political class that thinks it can govern by ‘consensus’?
Like Calvinist preachers who divined little hope short of the second coming, these statesmen’s worldly inspiration gives them no confidence in people’s self-reformation. Gordon Brown, who as Prime Minister penned a book called Courage – full of odes to against-all-odds heroes – has lost his faith that working folk can demand collective power to change their lives. And today’s Scotland has no gods and precious few heroes, while the rest are small, divided, and helpless.
So he speaks from Labour’s script when he told the people of Cowdenbeath they should vote No ‘because they know the importance to Rosyth of jobs for defence contracts throughout the whole of the UK’. He told his Fife constituents that after decades of deprivation and industrial decline, they should be glad work in customer services. And he is determined to remind them that their social rights and social security depend on the pooling and sharing of resources by a Westminster system that feeds the fruits of labour to a rich elite, and pulls support from under working families.
Brown says nothing about control of resources by the people who make them, or creating a welfare system where dignity and worth determine funding levels. He sees no way for productive and profitable work to be created by communities and for society – because these are not the visions of a pessimist. And many Labour colleagues share this pessimism. They doubt the capacity of a small nation-state in the world, and suspect the interests of a privileged few would take the reins of Scotland’s government. They see little change inherent in nationalism that would meet the needs of working families. Instead Scottish Labour set smaller tasks they think they can achieve: to make decisions about the issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives, protect the achievements of devolution, and leave economics and social security to Westminster.
It wasn’t always like this. Gordon Brown used to follow the guiding lights of old Labour in calling for power to be taken from above and shared among the masses. When he wrote the original Red Paper, he sought social and political structures that would ‘guarantee to people the maximum control and self-management over the decisions which affect their lives, allowing the planned coordination of the use and distribution of resources, in a cooperative community of equals’, with ‘free universal welfare services controlled by the people who use them’.
Here is an intellectual tradition we can follow. It leads to a solution for our party’s current pessimism, and the helplessness it entails, through meaningful independence for ordinary working people.
For many Labour supporters who support a Yes vote, the aim of independence is not to distribute wealth to individuals through the state, but to distribute the power of the state – not by devolving power to community groups or citadels of local government, but by combining people’s power in a Scottish state to challenge the fortresses of business and economic elites Brown knows so well.
This week Labour members past and present will meet in the STUC to discuss the future for Scottish Labour, to articulate a vision for an independent Scotland with a strong Labour government. After the referendum the energies of the Labour party will turn to winning the elections to a Scottish Parliament with powers over budget-setting, taxation, pay, as well as skills and investment. These are the levers with which to change the economic, and social, prospects of a nation.
We seek independence that gives the people strength and skills to resist the capitalist forces ranged against us, and demand the good work, high wages, decent welfare, universal public services, and other elements of independent social life that all deserve.
These are different ambitions from those of the Scottish Labour leadership we see at the moment, a leadership too willing to get hung up on the priorities of budget distribution. We attribute this distraction to the task the Party has set itself at a British level, to govern at Westminster through parliamentary means rather than to win power for working people. In this, it has abandoned the best traditions of the labour movement and indeed of the Labour party. It is these traditions that we seek to revive, and we think they can be decisive in the months to come.
Our movement, the Labour movement, used to call for Home Rule, and used to try and show the people who live and work in Scotland that the powers of a state can be their powers, the economic gains and abilities of government can be their gains, and the interests and concerns of political leaders can be their own interests and concerns. We call this democracy, Labour-style, and it inspires us to campaign for a Yes vote.
There is no easy place in the Labour Party to make this case, to articulate the interests that ordinary people have in using the powers of independence. There is no aspiration to make Labour a movement for people who refuse to succumb to a dog-eat-dog fight, who will not to embark on a race to the bottom or fight some Hunger Games with weaker or less wily states of Europe, but who aspire to use the power of one peripheral state to secure the lives of working people here. Our party should support a legal living wage, fully funded services that benefit all with the tax-system to afford it, and full employment in meaningful work. We want Labour to build upon the plain of Scottish politics, stand for those elsewhere oppressed by first-world extortion, and supports working people in the rest of a United Kingdom tending to disunity.
Like those senior stalwarts who see so little hope for Scottish Labour, we too think intellectually, and speak with comrades about the economic threats, technical difficulties, and political obstacles that impede the progress we seek. We respect all those in Labour who insist that independence is a dead end, but seek to build a better society where we are, in Scotland.
Ours is no small hope amidst the pessimism of a Unionist Labour Party, but in taking a stance within our Labour Party, we are proud to call ourselves the wilful optimists.