During the 1980s, Scotland’s political scene was polarised by a cathartic and visceral detestation of the UK Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This, for perhaps the last time, caused a genuinely British response, in that many Scottish opponents of Conservatism, badly discouraged by the calculating and dishonest way which the Home Rule that Scots had voted for had been snatched away by a self-interested Westminster, fell back to old loyalties, and threw their weight behind the familiar Labour Party, in an effort to rid themselves of the hated Tories.
The consequence of this, and the exhaustion of the SNP, which had campaigned well and won the Devolution Referendum in 1979, only to be denied the promised result, in what was, in the end, a referendum in which the rules had been rigged, was that Labour in Scotland grew to its most powerful. It dominated the political scene, and virtually – indeed at one point actually – removed all Scottish Tory MPs.
However, despite its success against the Tories, Scottish Labour could not kill off the SNP or the desire for nationalism. We’ll look at the broader history of nationalism in Scotland another time, but now I want to describe why Scottish Labour has such hatred for the SNP.
The first lies in the fact that Labour is founded on Marxist values of internationalism. It has always felt that nationalism gets in the way of class struggle and is an aid to the political Right. There is a reason, after all, why Labour Party Conferences sing the Internationale.
The second is more pragmatic: in the 1980s, Scotland elected 72 MPs to Westminster, the majority, for decades, of whom were Labour. Put bluntly, London Labour needed Scottish lobby-fodder.
Then, the career structure of a Scottish Labour politician was clear: climb the ladder in Scotland and move to the rich life of London, possibly even to be a Cabinet member or even Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. This was and remains both Scottish Labour’s advantage and Achilles ’ heel; on one hand, it could offer a direct route to the dizzy heights of political life to the best and the brightest – but on the other hand, once they left Scotland, they rarely looked back. This is why the Labour members of the present Scottish Parliament are such obvious second-raters; the good ones aim for London. For young hopefuls in Scottish Labour, Scotland and Scottish politics were stepping stones to greater things.
Finally, for now, by the late 1980s, Scottish Labour had become firmly convinced that it was the natural Establishment party of Scotland. It had worked hard to get there, and all across Scotland, party nepotism was rife. Membership of the Labour Party was – in many Local Authorities – an unwritten necessary requirement to get a decent job. Having, as they saw it, divvied up the nation, they were passionately opposed to giving any of that power away.
The problem was that the SNP would not lie down and die. While they had whipped the Tories, Labour could not crack the nut of SNP support, and as the 1980s wore on, it became increasingly clear that nationalist support in Scotland was not just a few recalcitrants in the Northeast or the forlorn but dogged few camped out outside the gates of the old Royal High School at the foot of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, which had been the proposed site for the Assembly of the 1979 vote.
No-one had ever been in any doubt that Labour’s concessions to Home Rule, up to and including the 1979 Referendum, had been designed to spike the guns of nationalism, to make Labour the saviour and marginalise the SNP. Labour was always, to its core, a Unionist party and remains so today; yet maintaining its position of dominance required it to recognise that in the SNP there was an enemy they could not easily defeat.
Furthermore, by no means everyone in the Labour Party had been happy with the infamous 40% rule, which deprived Scotland of the legitimated reward of an Assembly it had voted for. Many rising stars in the Scottish Party were determined that this should be redressed, and believed that it was the only way to end the nationalist threat.
In 1988, as the Thatcher years drew to an unlamented close, this sentiment began to coalesce into a new movement, which directly and inevitably led to the 1997 Scottish Assembly referendum, and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.