The Labour Party & Scottish Devolution, 1967-79: a case study in British political expediency … Part II

by Stephen Tall on January 12, 2010

As trailed here, over the next few weeks I’m publishing ‘The Labour Party & Scottish Devolution, 1967-79: a case study in British political expediency’, the thesis I wrote as an undergraduate some 12 years ago. You can catch up with what’s been published to date here.

‘Beginning to be converted to the least possible’: devolution launched

Devolution: Labour’s ideological dilemma

Decentralisation – the essence of devolution – has proved difficult for Labour, prompting Kavanagh to refer to the party’s attitude as ‘in part at least, an enigma’ (D. Kavanagh (ed.), The Politics of the Labour Party (1982), p.166).

Traditionally, Labour’s electoral support has been most solid in the peripheries and, in its early radical, anti-authoritarian incarnation, it was a noted advocate of decentralisation. Yet this had to be balanced against an ideological belief in the indivisibility of working-class solidarity, and an increasing tendency from the 1930s to identify socialism with centralism. It was precisely this axiom which, in 1976, sparked Neil Kinnock’s ringing declaration: ‘We are representatives of the working-class.’ (Hansard, 5th series, 1976, 903. 292).

This tension between the centripetal and centrifugal is apparent in the different approaches of Labour leaders during the twentieth-century. Both Keir Hardie and Ramsey MacDonald were active in the Scottish Home Rule Association, the former being one of its Vice-Presidents, the latter a secretary of its Scottish branch. In its 1918 reconstruction programme, Hardie’s Labour Party proposed separate statutory legislative assemblies for England, Scotland and Wales. Indeed, between 1886 and 1928, 14 separate bills to establish a Scottish Assembly/Parliament were introduced into the House of Commons.

Although the official commitment to devolution was officially dropped only in 1958, under Hugh Gaitskell’s leadership, Arthur Greenwood rejected the party’s decentralising socialist leanings as early as 1929. It was he who reversed the commitment made in 1928’s major policy statement, ‘Labour and the Nation’, which declared:

… the Labour Party holds that the inhabitants of London and Manchester, of Leeds and Sheffield, and of the other great cities of the country, are the best judges of their own affairs. … It proposes, therefore, … to untie their hands, to encourage them to expand their functions, … to empower them to undertake such services as their citizens may desire, … and the conduct of economic enterprises from which at present they are debarred.

Believing, as it does, in the value of local initiative and patriotism, Labour would support the creation of separate legislative assemblies in Scotland, Wales and England, with autonomous powers in matters of local concern. (Labour and the Nation (1928), pp. 24, 26).

The eagerness of Labour’s first two leaders was not apparent in either of their successors who were responsible for bringing forward (unsuccessfully) devolution legislation. Harold Wilson tainted devolution as ‘a boring word, a boring and soporific subject so far as legislation is concerned,’ (H. Wilson, Final Term: the Labour Government, 1974-76 (1979), p.46); while Jim Callaghan, as late as September 1975, admitted only grudging assent to proposals on which he was later to stake is premiership: ‘I am beginning to be converted to the least possible devolution.’ (B. Castle, The Castle Diaries, 1974-76 (1980), p.497).

Ironically, it was in the 1960s, when the Wilson Government (19674-70) attempted to cure the Labour Party’s ideological schizophrenia – by combining centralist economic planning with regional policies – that Scottish nationalism launched itself into the political arena. It was the surge in support for the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the threat this posed to Labour’s electoral chances, which originally prompted the party leadership’s reluctant conversion to devolution in 1974.

Some form of ideological façade was necessary to window-dress such expediency, and to gain the support of hostile and suspicious backbenchers, who thought devolution an attempt to backtrack on socialist commitments.

As a result, the policy was portrayed as quite separate from the party’s concern with unified economic management: devolution was ‘low politics’, acceptable precisely because it did not impinge on the ‘high politics’ of economic policy. It proved a difficult argument to maintain, not least because the reason many gave for Scottish discontent with Westminster’s government (of whatever hue) was the economic mismanagement seen to be the inevitable consequence of the centre’s detachment from the periphery.

Callaghan made just this point in his memoirs, stating that SNP support swelled because the

decline in the fortunes of Scotland’s traditional heavy industries led to a popular feeling that Scotland was getting a worse deal than England in the matter of securing new industries. … sentiment began to grow that she might be better off without the incubus of England. (J. Callaghan, Time and Chance (1988), p.504).

Attempts, therefore, to divorce the ‘high’ from the ‘low’ were always likely to seem artificial. Gordon Brown, an early supporter of regional autonomy, made the granting of economic powers to any proposed assembly his criterion for support, arguing such support could only work if Scottish Labour ‘insists on genuine economic control in devolved areas.’ (G. Brown (ed.), The Red Paper on Scotland (1975), p.19). This was never likely.

The Labour Party’s inability to construct an adequate intellectual framework, the failure to convince many of its own MPs and activists of the soundness of its devolution policies, was a major reason behind the lack of conviction which haunted the Labour Government (1974-79), both in Parliament and the subsequent referendum.

Next week … Hamilton and the SNP upsurge