From the Spectator 3 April 1976, p.9.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
“Politics,” said Lenin, “is concentrated economics” and whatever you may think about the rest his ideas, you have to agree that he had a point there. This thought is occasioned by a three day stint at the Scottish Council of the Labour Party conference in Troon. This annual event does not normally attract much attention from the press but these are not normal times. The Labour Party in Scotland is not at all happy about its future electoral prospects. On the right, Mrs Thatcher seems to be quite popular among the Scottish voters. On the left they are facing a potentially powerful challenge from Mr Jim Sillars’s Scottish Labour Party. They also have the impression that they are surrounded on all sides by the Scottish Nationalist Party.
For years the Labour Party was able to dismiss nationalism as the eccentric pursuit of minds befogged by Celtic vapours. Scotland, it could be said, was poor, for whatever historical reason, its industry outdated, its energy resources declining and its agriculture inadequate. The English connection, with a redistributive Labour government at Westminster, was the only hope for the Scots. For a long time it worked, Scotland provided a solid bedrock of Labour MPs, that in the current political line-up are essential if a Labour administration is to be formed. Now that is the simple political expression of elementary concentrated economics. But then a new economic factor set the whole political equation awry – North Sea oil.
The SNP, in a cleverly orchestrated campaign, set out the slogan: “It’s Scotland’s oil”. From then on every time some Westminster politician extolled the great benefits to the UK of the North Sea bonanza, it proved to the Scots that it would be even more of a boon to Scotland if they kept it all to themselves. The ‘Nats’ suddenly became credible to a much larger Scottish audience. Even more horrendous, they began to win seats. The initial response was abusive, the must printable being “Tartan tories” and “kilted fascists”. Incidentally, in the light of his subsequent course, Mr Jim Sillars was the greatest hammer of the Nats and their policies.
Things were not too bad while the SNP was taking seats from the Tories, or replacing the Liberals in the mid-term protest vote stakes. But lately they have shown a distinct capacity for taking seats from Labour. Late, very late, the Labour establishment in London decided that it was necessary to head off this threat. The very idea of a future Labour administration was put into the realm of impossibility. As Mr Willie Ross wittily observed in Troon “There is a Labour majority of one and he is out on bail”. Thus it was that the White Paper on devolution was born. If it was an advance on the extreme restriction of Tory policy and eschewed the Liberals’ federalism, it fell far short of what was acceptable to the devolutionists and dangerously permissive to the anti-devolutionists.
In the event, Mr Sillars denounced the document as inadequate and, with Mr John Robertson MP, bolted the party to form “the Scottish Labour Party”. The Scottish Labour Executive majority, and probably a majority of the members, objected to it as a concession to the SNP and an offence against internationalism. These same internationalists were, of course, violently opposed to the Common Market.
The situation was impossible, the only beneficiaries the SNP and possibly Mr Sillars. Pressure was brought to bear both from London and, more importantly, from the Scottish trade union establishment to accept devolution. As the British TUC has shown they are convinced of the need for continuing series of Labour governments. In the Scottish TUC they feel the same, with the added feature that the Communist Party has a much greater influence in its councils. The Communist Party has the shrewd suspicion that it would have a better chance of getting its members elected to a Scottish Assembly than they have shown in Westminster elections. Their weight and the weight of the STUC was sufficient to swing the balance toward the idea of a devolved assembly, but an assembly with much greater powers than the White Paper envisaged.
The Scottish executive, in their statement at Troon, accepted the STUC line completely. No veto power for the Secretary of State over Assembly legislation, control over the Scottish Development Agency, the right to raise finance – over and above the block grant – other than by a surcharge on the rates and a number of other amendments to the White Paper. Such has been their acceptance of the devolution case, at least on paper, that there is very little that separates them from the Sillars Labour Party. Which may explain why speaker after speaker offered forgiveness and a warm berth to the prodigal SLP.
What is most significant is that they look very much like getting most of what they want. Mr Short let it be known that he welcomed constructive amendment to the White Paper. In this he was echoed by Messrs Ron Hayward, Michael Foot and Willie Ross, this last seemingly intent on relinquishing any reserve powers the White Paper accorded him.
On this basis they achieved, as one speaker observed: “... unity doon in the toon of Troon”. Lions laid down with lambs all over the place, Mr Alex Kitson tipped as a likely successor to Jack Jones – if the government will ever let him retire – expressed his complete agreement with John P. Mackintosh MP, a very unlikely piece of solidarity. Only the perverse Mr Willie Hamilton, a dab hand at lese-majeste, managed to get to the rostrum to say that the policy was “blatant political appeasement”. He was abruptly told to get off and concern himself with his proper study, the Royal perquisites. Mr Tam Dalyell, who agrees with Hamilton and also has a political death wish, made valiant attempts to achieve martyrdom at the rostrum but the chairman, a gentleman with selective vision and a sketchy idea of the rules of debate, studiously ignored him.
So it was that unity was achieved at Troon. The delegates were told that now they had a real policy with which to fight the SNP. They were urged to go over on to the offensive. The comrade delegates must counterpose the Troon policy to the complete lack of everybody else, particularly the SNP.
And so it may be, except that the public unanimity masks a very wide range of differences. In private, or in their cups, or both, leading members of the Scottish party and a large number of rank and file delegates will confess their lack of faith in devolution. Many of them see it as the slippery slope that will inevitably end up in complete separation. More than a few think that the further they go along this path the more hostages they give to the SNP, who can always outflank them on this issue. They are haunted by the possibility of Assembly elections turning into a landslide win for the SNP, who will then have an unanswerable mandate for independence,
It matters not that the SNP has no discernible coherent policy for an independent Scotland. It does not help to point out that the oil will be extremely costly to acquire and will, anyway, run out in twenty years. All of that is of little consequence to those justly disenchanted with the major parties and intoxicated with a handful of slogans.
Even assuming that the refurbished policy attracts support in Scotland it may well have some difficulty south of the border. A sassenach cloud, no bigger than a barrage balloon, hovered briefly over Troon in the person of Eric Heffer. Mr Heffer, a not inconsiderable force in the Labour Party, represents a Merseyside constituency where the problems are as great as Scotland, without benefit of oil and with a 20 per cent lower government handout. Describing himself as “a Heffer with horns”, he demanded a referendum of the constituent parts of the UK on the question of devolution. Mr Benn’s success with his call for the Common Market referendum suggests that Mr Heffer might be on a winner here.
After all this worthy and weighty debating it was something of a relief to listen to Mr Michael Foot’s fraternal address. In it he promised to reappoint Willie Ross if he is elected prime minister, a statement unaccountably popular with the delegates. In a further bid for all imaginable ethnic votes he told the conference that he was part Irish, part Cornish, part English and part Scottish. A statement that drew the comment from a sneering Young Socialist, “and part socialist”. It is clear that in Scotland, more than anywhere else, you cannot please everyone. I fear that is what the Labour Party in Scotland is trying to do.
Last updated on 2.11.2003