WITH its echoes of Dangerfield’s 1935 work on Liberal England, this book has an odd title. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw question both the concept of “Labour Scotland” and the finality of its decease but, by focusing on Labour’s decline, have produced a telling analysis of the most dramatic changes in contemporary Scottish politics.
The Strange Death Of Labour Scotland
Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw
Edinburgh University Press, £19.99
The Labour Scotland myth had a most limited validity. Nineteenth-century Scotland was overwhelmingly Liberal, the Tories strengthened from 1918 until 1959, and even Labour’s brief hegemony – from 1964 until 2007 – was restricted to the cities and central belt.
Labour’s dominance rested on three seemingly solid bases: council tenants (54.4 per cent of 1977 Scottish households), trade unionists (55 per cent of the 1980 population) and Roman Catholics. By 2005, council houses constituted only 15.1 per cent of households, by 2010 trade union membership had shrunk to 32.2 per cent of the population and the solid loyalty of the RC vote evaporated. STV for council elections completed the process and saw Labour’s control of 20 out of 32 councils in 1995 reduce to two in 2012.
The conflict between the centralist New Labour project and a more traditionally social democratic Scottish ethos left post-devolution Scottish Labour floundering. Free personal care for the elderly, rejected by Westminster, was the most public tension. Scottish Labour also remained committed to comprehensive education and a uniform NHS, while New Labour injected market-system reforms into both.
Hassan and Shaw see Scottish Labour’s dilemma as not only carving a distinctive identity from its Westminster centre but winning a local contest for the traditional social democratic vote against an SNP which more confidently asserts its place on that spectrum. Its even greater problem is that it dare not imagine what role it might play if the SNP pulls the rabbit out of the hat and wins the forthcoming referendum. That lack of imagination might yet turn decline into demise. «