It is rarely commented on, but I wonder if there is something which should be said about the fact that two of our recent Labour prime ministers and one of their chief factotum's constituencies have fallen to opposition parties? I always assumed that senior figures would preside over rock solid majorities and their ‘personal’ vote would hold up such majorities even as their tenure ceased. But not in the case of Blair, Brown and Mandelson, the chief architects of New Labour. I wonder what lessons these grandees have taken from the fact that their seats are now held by unknowns from the opposition? Apparently none, and Labour’s current leader, seemingly so bereft of ideas and it seems memory has clearly embraced the trio’s long gone unlamented wisdom.
I am prompted to consider this legacy and its current regurgitation after reading of Gordon Brown’s ongoing battle to stop another Scottish independence referendum. Gordon is very fixated on the ‘union.’ Perhaps with his profound knowledge of economics he has grasped an essential truth, viz. that economics trumps democracy. So how important is the Union? I wonder what our forebears in the Labour Party said about previous dangers to this wonderful, wealth generating marriage of disparate parts?
An article in History Ireland paints a picture of 1920s Labour attitudes to Irish independence as being somewhat dependent on the party’s desire not to be associated with ‘emotional’ or ‘irrational’ elements lest these might impair its standing with the mainland electorate at a time when Labour was poised to win power. In 1920 the party conference (in Scarborough, where all the big decisions were made) had voted to support Irish independence, if determined by the will of the Irish people. But Ramsay MacDonald sought successfully to ensure that the policy didn’t interfere with the party’s domestic electoral focus, which was chiefly to prove its managerial credibility. In the words of History Ireland:
“MacDonald’s overriding ambition for his party was to extend its political attraction beyond trade-unionised workers, to attract progressive voters and thus to replace the Liberal Party as the alternative governing party to the Conservatives. To achieve this it had to demonstrate its moderation, reliability and patriotism so that at some stage in the near future it could be entrusted with the reins of political office. This meant distancing itself from extremism, militancy and, above all, absolving itself from accusations that, in Churchill’s famous phrase, it was not ‘fit for office’.
To MacDonald an increasingly militant Irish politics fell into this category of emotive, irrational and unpredictable activity, with which Labour associated at its peril. This could endanger the whole Labour project of seeking to secure the confidence of the British electorate with the intention of becoming a future government. Between 1918 and 1924, when the first Labour government was elected, MacDonald skilfully manoeuvred Labour policy on Ireland so that the party could never be accused of flirting with extreme Irish nationalism.”
MacDonald’s caution may have paid off for the party but it also meant that Labour became more of a bystander on the Irish question and merely accepted Irish independence as a fait accompli rather than something that it helped fashion. Irish independence came about precisely through seeming ‘emotive, irrational and unpredictable activity,’ the hallmarks of most independence convulsions which so offend the establishment.
Had he been around in 1920 I wonder whether Gordon Brown would have used the same arguments against Irish independence as he does against Scottish independence today? He clearly thinks an independent Scotland would become an economic basket case without the overwhelming might of the British economy propping it up. By the same token, you might imagine that Ireland should have gone belly-up a long time ago. But as we have seen, despite a shaky start, the impact of the Great Depression and the 1930s Anglo-Irish Trade War, the republic eventually prospered. Latterly, since it joined the then Common Market in 1973 it prospered more than it ever did under British rule (part of the ‘economic war’ with Britain centred round De Valera’s demand of the UK government that it should repay £400 million he claimed the Brits had overtaxed them between 1801 and 1922). It is perhaps one argument against Scottish independence that the London government might seek to penalise Scotland for going its own way, echoing the Irish experience.
This surely does not form part of Brown’s argument as it would be entirely self-destructive, although such a fear could dent a pro-independence vote, along the lines of ‘project fear.’ But nor is Brown suggesting that Ireland would now be better off it were to be repatriated into Britain (leastways I very much doubt he would say anything quite so daft). And it is impossible to imagine any Irish wishing to undo their century old independence.
What connects this ramble with the loss of those Labour leaders’ seats? Not Tory or SNP populism, but the rejection of dominance by remote, unaccountable forces, be it ‘London’ in the case of Scotland or ‘Brussels’ in the case of England. These names in inverted commas are shorthand for being out of touch. Clinging on to old constitutional arrangements offers no inspirational vision for the future, and Labour seems incapable of surmounting the challenge of Boris Johnson’s empty rhetoric about ‘levelling up.’ Just as MacDonald sought to be classed as a ‘safe pair of hands’ so Labour's current leader merely stands for better managerialism (this isn’t much of an ambition given how low the bar has been set under Johnson’s incompetent government).
Corbyn, despite his evident weaknesses at least challenged Labour’s longstanding inertia. Something has to be said in praise of that, even if it led to the opprobrium of the establishment and the blizzard of lies issued by its media satraps.