Pat Kane: Labour for Independence isn’t a mad idea

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Economic equity and social justice don’t exclude the context of an independent Scotland, writes Pat Kane

THE scene is the aftershow of a riotously joyful Celtic Connections gig. I have just met one of my oldest friends in the Scottish music scene – a great facilitator of the business of rock in this country for over 30 years. A smart, sophisticated man. We fall to talking about politics.

I’m surprised to find out that he describes himself as “virulently Labour”. He explains: “I’m of that generation: hate narrow nationalism; closer to a worker in Liverpool than a laird in Ullapool. You cut me, I bleed Labour.” You’re a bit in trouble then in the old homeland, aren’t you? “You could say that,” he murmured, gripping his German beer.

For those of us who would describe ourselves as “Scottish Left”, and who see independence as the most immediate lever to realise our values and visions, it’s chastening to hear just how subcutaneous some political identities are. I sent my friend scurrying off with the challenge: “Come on now! You should be starting Labour for Independence!” Out of the mouths of party-animals …

Yet even as a piece of social-science fiction, it’s an interesting concept. Under what conditions – say, the next 24 months leading up to the most important political event in 300 years for Scotland – could a “Labour for Independence” exist? One basic argument for the existence of such a group is the need for strategic thinking about the party’s survival in the event of a majority for independence.

If the current Scottish Labour leadership’s claim is sincerely held – that is, willing to serve Scotland, no matter the constitutional arrangement – then it seems somewhat reckless for the Scottish Labour movement not to develop some sense of its platform in a future independent country.

Many on the Scottish Left have given the SNP our crucial votes over the years, regarding the party as the main instrument towards achieving full sovereignty. But post the Great Day, would we necessarily wish to find ourselves with a “National Party of Scotland”, to quote Alex Salmond immediately after the May 2011 victory: a party fully vindicated in its mission, and awaiting a electoral mandate which might even extend (according to some recent polls) its current command of the Scottish polity?

I don’t question the talents, commitment and values of the SNP Cabinet, MSPs and wider membership. But one-party dominance would not be healthy for a newly independent country, which would need all available minds and talents on hand to steer us through the rapids of realpolitik, geopolitics and globalisation. Would Scottish Labour – or at least some significant chunk of it – really want to be on the sidelines at this vital moment?

Despite the fury this would cause in the current leadership, would it not be prudent for some groupuscules in the People’s Party to start brewing up some wisdom, strategy and research around their post-independence existence?

Of course, in an earlier, less acute stage of the “process-not-event” of Scottish self-determination, we have seen innovation of this kind from the Labour Party in Scotland. Jim Sillars famously broke off from being a hammer of the Nats to found the Scottish Labour Party, and thence to the SNP itself. From the 1980s, the ginger-group Scottish Labour Action once contained both Wendy Alexander and Jack McConnell in its ranks. SLA produced confident pamphlets about Labour’s “home rule” traditions which envisaged much more “fiscal autonomy” than anything proposed by the party at present. We should not forget the mavericks of old, like John McAllion, Dennis Canavan and (perhaps) Malcolm Chisholm, dormant volcanoes of “independent-mindedness” in Scottish Labour. And of course, all of this backed up by the heritage of Keir Hardie and his “home rule” case for the Labour Party in Scotland.

Is Scottish Labour capable of the same kind of innovation? Certainly, if the leadership line holds against constructing an answer to the SNP’s “devo-max” proposition, Labour for Independence might become a necessity for some.

UK Labour let the musculature of federalism go to waste in its 14-year Westminster dominance. It spurned the chance to cement a “progressive majority”, through a steady argument for PR with Lib-Dems as allies. . Does every member, and every MSP, in Scottish Labour really want to be lining up alongside the serried horrors of Westminster, associating themselves with an acid rain of negativity, fear stories and condescension? Or might at least some of them want to argue a Labour case for independence which allows them to speak as the social-democrats, or democratic-socialists, they are in their hearts? I’m on the steering group of the Jimmy Reid Foundation precisely because it creates a space on the Left in Scotland for economic equity and social justice that includes – or at least doesn’t exclude – the context of independence.

Back at the rock’n’roll gig… I left my “cut-me-I-bleed-Labour” friend with a hug across his shoulders. We’ve worked together in this country for nearly a quarter of a century, and we’re certainly not going to let the difference between left-independendista and democratic-socialist sully that in the slightest. “But promise me”, he pleaded at the last, “the SNP will disband as soon as they get independence, won’t they?” I doubt that very much, I answered. But for the health of the country, I hope that some in Scottish Labour are thinking about how they’ll cope, and maybe even thrive, in the early days of a fully sovereign nation.

Pat Kane is a musician and writer. His blog on Scottish ideas is Thoughtland (www.thoughtland.info).

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