There has been much analysis of Johann Lamont’s controversial speech on Tuesday. Robin McAlpine wrote perceptively about a retreat from devolution and the end of “Scottish” Labour. The fact that Alex Massie welcomed the speech in the Spectator is a fairly good indication of how far it was a retreat from socialism or social democracy. There is truth in both, but the theme which struck me was how much this high stakes political gamble seems to be motivated by the politics of resentment.
The tone and the message are a plaintive wail that it’s not fair. Not fair that the SNP Government is getting credit for delivering popular policies. Not fair that Labour lost the Scottish election. Not fair that the Scottish Government continues to be able to deliver centre left policies that Labour said they couldn’t afford. Not fair that Labour in Scotland has lost their entitlement.
Lamont apparently cannot bear to celebrate the success of a Labour (and LibDem) Scottish Government protecting free education in Scotland because it is a policy being continued by the SNP. And because the betrayal of free education in England is a wound in the Better Together argument.
Lamont’s attack on universalism does not really carry the conviction of a Blairite fixated on privatisation and market based solutions. Lamont is an unlikely New Labour revivalist. It is resentment, and a desire to use whatever means to try and damage the SNP, which is at the root of this lurch to the right.
Not resentment at horrific levels of poverty in some parts of Scotland and the related health outcomes. Not resentment at savage Tory welfare cuts. But resentment at the success of the SNP Government. Resentment at having been cheated out of power at the Scottish elections. For indeed the sub-theme is that Labour lost because the SNP cooked the books and promised what could not be delivered. This is not just a strategy for the future, but an attempt to re-write history and paper over Labour’s humiliation in 2011.
Lamont states that Scotland cannot have Scandinavian style social democracy without Scandinavian style taxes, but she makes no argument for that. It would be skating on more powers ice. Instead she plunges into an attack on universalism and the pursuit of neo-liberal small state “solutions.” Where do those socialists and social democrats who remain in the Labour Party go now?
There is a second aspect of Labour’s new strategy. Even some neutral observers have acknowledged that the SNP has been winning the economic argument for independence. The repeated use of the Government and Expenditure Revenue Scotland figures has exposed the myth that Scotland could not afford to be independent. A series of unionist politicians have been forced to concede that Scotland is not too small or too poor to go it alone. The controversy over Iain Duncan Smith’s intervention in the referendum debate reflected how far objective opinion has moved.
Launching an attack on free education and free health care can therefore also be seen as an attempt to try and shake confidence in the Scottish finances. Lamont may be calculating that she can sacrifice popularity if she can reintroduce the Scotland is too poor to be independent discourse. And it probably fits more comfortably with the psyche of some of her Westminster colleagues.
Johann Lamont’s speech to party activists was not filmed clandestinely, it was actively promoted and spun, but ultimately it may come to be seen as the key moment of the referendum campaign. External factors such as the Euro crisis may still derail the Yes campaign, but Lamont’s choice of an overtly neo-liberal, British unionist strategy for Labour in Scotland is a huge boost for the cause of independence. Lets hope she invites Blair to help sell it.