Scottish Labour plays patriot game

By Stephen Low

An otherwise unremarkable tenement flat in the street next to mine had a flagpole installed last year. After a break of a few months it is once again flying a large Saltire. A few weeks ago the Scottish Labour party changed its statement of aims and values to saywe work for the patriotic interest of the people of Scotland”. These two things probably aren’t connected other than they both say something about Scotland’s ‘new political situation’. This is one where the Patriot Game seems like the only one in town, or at least the only one that anyone seems interested in playing. This isn’t a state of affairs that anyone on the left in Scotland or beyond should be happy with because the ‘new political situation’ is simply a euphemism for an upsurge in nationalism, and the Patriot Game one the working class can’t win. 

The ‘patriot clause’ (Clause 4 – renumbered from Clause 2 for marketing purposes) was not the only change endorsed at the Scottish Labour Conference in February – but it was the only bone of contention. The existing practice whereby policy for devolved issues is made by the Scottish Labour Party was made more explicit, as was commitment to the Scottish parliament. In essence, though the current statement of  aims and values, based on Tony Blair’s Clause 4 ( the one which changed Labour from being a party with a mission to being a party with a mission statement) wasn’t significantly altered, it  just had the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Scottish’ inserted at every feasible point. “The  Party of moderate progress within the bounds of the law “ talked of in The Good Soldier Schweik  is now “the Scottish party of moderate progress for Scotland within the bounds of the Scottish law”. Far from being contentious when outlined these changes were met with a range of responses which stemmed from “aye whatever” to “if you think it will help”.  The ‘Patriot clause’ though is a different matter. 

The detailed changes were presented first to the party’s Scottish Executive where amendments to remove the ‘patriotic interest’ were voted down. It was then voted on at Conference.  In line with procedure, as it was technically a rule change proposed by the Scottish Executive of the Party, no amendments were permitted, the entirety of the statement had to be either accepted or rejected in its entirety . The Conference ‘debate’ featured 8 speakers for and only one against. A bravura performance from Unite delegate Vince Mills citing Keir Hardie’s remarks about how those who had profited from imperialism were those who urged patriotism on the working class. The heroic efforts of the speakers for the change in avoiding the issue at hand made for a bleakly comedic session. The vote for 69% to 31% against serves to conceal as much as its reveals.  There was miniscule enthusiasm for the change at the party’s grassroots, quite the reverse. Many had spent the two years before the Independence referendum defining themselves against parochial notions of patriotism (often taking considerable abuse in the process).  The only argument sustained in the run up to the conference was that it would be too much of an embarrassment to Jim Murphy to vote this down in the run up to an election. On the day Unite and UNISON voted against, other unions and a number of CLPs abstained, although figures on how many , and thus what level of actual support the measure obtained have not been and probably never will be made  available.   

The purpose behind the move is fairly obvious, in fact worthwhile. The SNP are widely, but wrongly, perceived as being the people who stand up for Scotland. This is an attempt at taking some of that ground back. Labour clearly needs to do something to get itself into public debate, unsurprisingly perhaps the very NewLlabour new Scottish Labour Leadership are  more interested in buying into current prejudices and beliefs than challenging them. Becoming more Scottish is the option that has been chosen, rather than the more challenging one of offering a programme radical enough to displace the politics of identity.

Saying Labour will govern in “the patriotic interest” doesn’t make life easier for the party. Labour would do better by countering nationalist myths, not buying into them. It isn’t a distinct or compelling appeal to say that Labour intends to “work for the patriotic interest”, any tax exile or homophobic bus monopolist can say the same. “The interests of working people and their families” would be a far closer rendering of Labour’s interest in this, and every other, nation.

The supposed reasoning behind the ‘patriot clause’ explicitly involved the  acceptance  of nationalist mythology. The idea was Jim Murphy’s, or at least announced by him, in a speech where alongside a number of worthwhile observations and aspirations he stated; “We will make it clear that we are both a democratic socialist party and a patriotic party. We are a socialist party yes, but we recognise that our political faith grew out of something deeper which is ingrained in our Scottish character. It was there before our party in the beauty of Burns’ poetry, the economic vision of New Lanark, the actions of the highlanders who stood against brutal landlords.”

Leaving aside (for now) an uneasiness around bringing ideas about ‘national character’ into politics. This is fiction, not history. The idea that the labour movement arose from a sense of national rather than class identity would get you a bad fail in any history class. Whilst our movement has had no lack of Scottish specificities, as Labour Historian (and Labour Party member) Ewan Gibbs put it, “To be clear the Scottish labour movement and Party were largely formed out of struggles against Scottish employers and more broadly opposition to a specific Scottish set of political traditions - Unionism’ and Liberalism - within the broader British context. The idea that it was anything other than class antagonism that was behind this and especially the consolidation of the ILP and then Labour in Scotland is just nonsense. Of course specific Scottish circumstances, history and cultural facets had an influence but this is very distinct from ‘patriotism’ … I’d have to fail any essays my students hand me arguing our movement was established out of patriotic sentiment, not due to some disagreement of ‘opinion’ but because the historical evidence just doesn’t exist to substantiate that sort of wild claim.”

The Labour Party, The Labour movement, doesn’t have its roots in Burns poetry, or the economic vision of New Lanark. Apart from anything else the vision on display in New Lanark was social and industrial, rather economic and it belonged to Robert Owen who was Welsh.  These aren’t the only departures from fact in Mr Murphy’s speech, which was much mocked by more historically aware members of the Scottish Labour executive

Jim is hardly the first person to jettison historical truth to construct a patriotic narrative, indeed if that is the game being played it’s almost essential. It is also in fairness, a perfect fit, with current Scottish politics which is fast becoming an environment where facts don’t matter.   Scottish Labour, who are in favour of a mansion tax , banning zero hour contracts in public spending contracts and making the living wage compulsory in all public procurement, are ‘Red Tories’ to be driven out. The SNP on the other hand, despite voting against all of these proposals, presiding over 60 000 redundancies in public services, the loss of 140 000 college places all the while boasting of keeping business taxes low and promising various tax cuts to big business are ‘to the left of labour’ and ‘anti austerity’.

Needless to say the historical record is hardly sacrosanct in this process, the historic support of the labour movement for ‘Home Rule’ is inaccurately equated with current nationalist proposals for ‘full fiscal autonomy’. This is usually accompanied with an entirely fictional narrative of betrayal of Scottish radicalism by a UK leadership. This element is imported to shore up a narrative around treachery of “the vow”. The inconvenient reality that Westminster has exceeded the announced timetable for further devolution makes little impact.  There are various examples of this but the regular column by SNP MSP Joan McAlpine in the Daily Record is a continuous source of such material.

But is this a game Labour should even want to play? Would an adherence to the facts and the reality of a movement founded on the objective experience of class rather than the ‘imagined community’ of patriotism not be better? It is, after all, what makes the party distinctively ‘Labour’

Labour should base what they say and do on what is true, on what happened, not the creation of convenient or cosy myths. Hardie’s politics, and the Labour Party, arose not out of something ingrained in the Scottish character, but as a reflection of and response to, poverty and exploitation amidst growing plenty. The misery of mill and mine created the desire for justice and the realisation that only by uniting as workers could better be achieved. Crying social need and awareness of the power of acting collectively was the driving force – not as Mr Murphy and many nationalists would argue “something deeper” somehow derived from being Scottish. This is of course why the same movement was being brought into being, across the UK, and the industrialising world. If Keir Hardie embodied “something deeper ingrained in our Scottish character” it seems odd that it was the electorates of West Ham and Merthyr Tydfil who were most receptive to the man who had been blacklisted by the Scottish coal owners.

The claim that a ‘patriot clause’ in Labour’s aims and values reflects our movement’s founding aims or ethos, makes no sense. That, however is merely foolish for exposing the party to ridicule (just wait until the next time the history curriculum is talked about in Parliament…). It’s the buying into the myth that we have an ingrained national character that is more worrying.

The idea that a nation has some sort of ingrained character is of course hardly a new one. But if we are to endorse the idea that “political faith” comes from “something deeper” in the Scottish character - unless a truly unique status for the Scottish Labour Party is being claimed. Then the idea is also being endorsed that “political faiths” can develop out of “something deeper” ingrained in say, the German, Hungarian or Croatian character. These and many other countries, have movements dedicated to arguing for precisely this notion. Put bluntly these movements are made up of people who are not our friends.

It is in any case a fallacy: ‘national character‘, insofar as it can be said to exist at all, is not ingrained, there is no “something deeper”, it is hugely changeable. Scotland in my father’s lifetime has gone from voting majority Tory, to being a Labour stronghold, to seeing the rise of nationalism. Similar big transformations - including depressingly the recent rise in nationalism - can be exampled all across Europe. Far from being ingrained, ‘national character’ changes as circumstances change, it is the product of a myriad of factors – not the least of which is the level of class struggle.

But quite apart from the justifications offered having no factual basis, a promise “to govern in the patriotic interest” doesn’t so much solve a problem, as create a rod for Labour’s back.  If it is to have any practical application what can it be other than a declaration that tartanry trumps solidarity. Does it mean for example that Labour would support an SNP government in Holyrood arguing for more money from a UK Labour government in order to hold down business rates in Scotland, at the expense of social spending in the rest of the UK? That would certainly match “the patriotic interest”. But it hardly squares with any conception of socialist or labour values. And where is the “patriotic interest” in not devolving abortion law? There are several reasons why doing so would be a terrible idea - and a debt of gratitude is owed to Labour’s negotiators on the Smith Commission for stopping it - but they aren’t patriotic ones.

Murphy is of course trying to neutralise a perceived SNP advantage, but by agreeing and emphasising that it matters how ‘Scottish’ a party is - and emphasising patriotism as a factor in politics, he risks giving those issues prominence and salience. This of course is quite likely to work in the SNP's favour. These clothes are always likely to look more flattering on the people they were designed for. If politics is to be about, for example, who will create a patriotic parliament - a commitment in a labour party political broadcast - the SNP are by definition serious contenders.

Serious enough though those concerns are, there are wider considerations. Are we to believe that a competition around greatest identification with the patrie represents a progressive development?  I'm not going to credit Jim with the level of cynicism some people do - but it’s not a too great a departure from the dictum of “policies not personalities “to observe he's a fairly hard nosed operator. It’s difficult to believe this has been done from a sense of mission. It has happened because that's what the polling evidence is telling him needs to be done. This is where Scottish politics is now - to get permission to be heard you have to be seen to be, and only be “speaking for Scotland”. This isn’t progressive at all it’s the opposite.

Nationalism has been on the rise, not just here but across Europe. Getting arguments across based on sense rather than Saltire is a challenge. No one denies it. But it is a challenge all of us on the left must face. Scotland already has too many people and parties who will equate progress with patriotism. The Labour party, and indeed people across the labour movement should have the courage and integrity to stand up for truth, for solidarity and what unites rather than divides people.

Such observations are hardly new and though they may seem novel or particularly acute in a Scottish context, neither are the problems:  “…bourgeois nationalism, which drugs the minds of the workers, stultifies and disunites them in order that the bourgeoisie may lead them by the halter—such is the fundamental fact of the times. Those who seek to serve the proletariat must unite the workers of all nations, and unswervingly fight bourgeois nationalism, domestic and foreign.” Lenin Critical Remarks on the National Question 1913

The peoples flag isn’t a white cross on blue – it’s deepest red. We forget that at our peril.

The general flag waving and transformation of the SNP into a mass party is indicative not of some anti-austerity radicalism but Nationalism. Those who would argue otherwise should remember that nationalist movements do not arise in a vacuum. Neither do they argue for support by saying that removing the foreign influence will make people poorer.

Stephen Low is a member of the Scottish Labour Party. He blogs occasionally at

"...bourgeois nationalism, which drugs the minds of the workers, stultifies and disunites them in order that the bourgeoisie may lead them by the halter - such is the fundamental fact of the times. those who seek to serve the proletariat must unite the workers of all nations, and unswervingly fight bourgeois nationalism, domestic and foreign." Lenin: Critical Remarks on the National Question 1913.