John Connell: The Yes movement within Labour

Johann Lamont, the leader of Scottish Labour, and former prime minister Gordon Brown are backing the Union - but many within the party favour independence, writes John Connell. Picture: Jane Barlow
Johann Lamont, the leader of Scottish Labour, and former prime minister Gordon Brown are backing the Union - but many within the party favour independence, writes John Connell. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Johann Lamont’s Labour Party is engaging in a self-defeating campaign by opposing Scottish independence, writes John Connell, as Yes voters within the party’s rank and file are kept a “sordid secret”

I joined the Labour Party more than 40 years ago while still in my teens. It did not occur to me at the time to consider any other party as my political home. Labour was built into the bricks of the community in which I grew up in the old mining village of Fauldhouse, West Lothian.

Even through my university years, when I took an interest in Marxism and far-left politics generally, I threw not a second glance at any of the fringe socialist parties of the time. I remained firmly embedded in the Labour Party. My adherence to the party has been sorely tested many times over the past two decades in particular, first of all with New Labour’s quiescence in the face of rampant capitalism’s worst excesses, not least in closing its eyes to the appalling behaviour of the thieves and pirates who destroyed our banking system, and latterly with the London-based party hierarchy losing its claim to even the centre ground of politics as it flirts with sub-Tory and now sub-Ukip policies.

But I have remained in the party, partly out of loyalty, and partly because of a (possibly misplaced) hope that the more that people like me leave the party the more it will be left in the hands of those who have quite forgotten what the roots of the Labour Party truly are and whose interests it was established to serve.

I have also always been a supporter of Scottish independence. The reasons for that are manifold and complex, and while it is a stance that has developed and matured in my mind over the years, it is one from which I have never wavered. I know from my own experiences over the years that there is, in fact, a fairly sizeable rump of pro-independence supporters within the party, but you would never know this to be the case from any communications either within the party or those emanating from the party to the outside world. It is as if our existence is a sordid secret, like the crazy uncle in the attic, to be kept hidden from the rest of the world.

But the maintenance of that sordid secret has come at a cost, I believe, to the Labour Party over the years. Its cost can be calculated in terms of a definite democratic deficit within the party, since not once in all those 40 and more years has the party ever thought to ask me my views on separation, but also in terms of the wilfully myopic stance that the party hierarchy has been forced to adhere to since the referendum hove into view.

Not only does the party have to stick to the pretence that the Labour Party is a homogenously unionist party, pure and simple, when something like 20 per cent of its membership disagrees with that stance, but it has also been completely unable to permit any discussion of the policy directions the party will wish to take should, horror of horrors, more than 50 per cent of Scottish referendum voters choose to separate from the United Kingdom in just a few weeks’ time.

This conscious myopia has also led to two other serious issues for the Labour Party in Scotland in recent times.

The first is one that has become sadly apparent since the unofficial referendum campaigns got under way. Like every party machine, the Labour Party has a cadre of careerists, those already in office, at whatever level, those with political ambition and perhaps with an eye on elected office in the future, and those who already work or seek to work in advisory and analytical roles at senior levels in the party. It would be foolish to try to argue that all of these people are pro-unionist, but we would not know either way since they have all, to a man and woman, drunk the cool-aid and are keeping their heads down, supporting the one truth, the unionist truth. That is unfortunate, of course, for those individuals acting in bad faith by keeping their separatist views to themselves in the hope of future advancement. But I would argue that it is bad too for the party, since it serves no supposedly democratic body well to have a substantial number of its people feeling forced to suppress their views. That might be an acceptable position for a zealous faith-based organisation to take, but it is certainly not acceptable for a political party in a democratic system.

Secondly, the myopia has extended to a complete inability of the Labour Party in Scotland to recognise that, on many questions of public policy, it has more in common with the left-of-centre SNP than it will ever have with its pro-unionist partners in the Conservative, Liberal-Democratic and Ukip parties. The frequent sight of Labour’s MSPs tearing into SNP policies that the Labour Party itself might well have produced at any time in its own social-democratic history is a sad one indeed. Such is the unionist imperative.

But while the party machine might be obdurately ploughing its unionist furrow, there is one element of the Labour firmament that remains open to persuasion, and that is the Labour voter in Scotland. The careerists can hide behind their bad faith; the party hierarchy can continue to pretend it is a uniformly unionist party; but the Labour voter is quite a different beast. There are some amongst them who will feel that voting for independence is akin to voting for the SNP - of course, the party machine is happy to encourage that falsehood, but it could not be more wrong.

What the party will not tell Labour voters is that there are good arguments for believing that voting for independence might be the only way of ensuring a Labour victory over the SNP in the years following the vote. Vote No and the SNP will continue to thrive; vote Yes and the Labour Party in an independent Scotland will be able to throw off the shackles imposed on it by their Westminster colleagues (and that includes all those Scottish Labour people who have gone native in the Westminster club over the years, many of whom are leading the Better Together charge right now) and begin to develop a distinctively Scottish approach to the critical public policy questions faced by our small country.

The reasons why I intend to vote Yes are, as I said already, manifold and complex. Very few of them are about short, medium, or even long-term economic consequences of independence. Independence is forever. So, most of them are around questions of culture, of history, of the strength, intelligence, drive and enterprise of our people over the centuries, people who have made a difference in every discipline and in every part of the world, of true internationalism rather than nationalism, of our rightful place as a European nation rather than as a reluctant partner of a Little England seeking to pull its skirts up around itself to protect itself from the foreign horde, and of a future that will be ours as a country to make. We will sink or we will swim by our own efforts.

I, for one, believe we will swim.

• John Connell is a retired head teacher and now an education consultant. This article was supplied by Yes Scotland.