In Alex we trust

by Tom Harris

When I launched LabourHame in June last year, I thought it would be fun to initiate a semi-regular column entitled “Questions To Which The Answer Is Er…'”

The point was simply to expose some of the more glaring inconsistencies in nationalists’ arguments and to poke a bit of fun at them in the process.

So, for example, we asked “Why are the SNP so reluctant to re-regulate the bus industry?” “Does the largest party in a hung parliament always have a right to form a government?” And  “Would the euro be good for Scotland?

Each of these questions is aimed at a particular Achilles heel in the nationalists’ armoury: their receipt of a million pounds from Stagecoach owner Sir Brian Souter; the SNP’s insistence that in 2007 Alex Salmond had the exclusive moral right to lead a government but in 2010 David Cameron didn’t; the party’s long-established (and continuing) support for ditching sterling in favour of the euro.

What was remarkable was the response from nationalist readers of, and contributors to, LabourHame. Was there even a hint of defensiveness or disagreement about their party’s inconsistencies, as there is in every other party? Not a bit of it.

When, before entering government, Salmond said he would regulate the buses, he was right. When he subsequently failed to do so, he was right.

When the first minister, before the euro crisis, advocated Scottish membership of the euro, he was right. When, post-euro crisis, he continued to advocate Scottish membership of the euro (but just refuses to tell anyone about his view), he was right.

When nationalist activists thought that the then prime minister Gordon Brown was trying to prevent Salmond becoming first minister by cobbling together a Labour-LibDem majority at Holyrood, they were appalled. When Gordon Brown resigned to allow the leader of the biggest party in the Commons to become Prime Minister, they were appalled.

That’s when I realised the fundamental flaw in the title of the series: you see, nationalists by definition are not unsure about anything. They never answer “Er…” to any question because there is not the tiniest scintilla of doubt about anything they believe. Even when they’re forced to confront fundamental contradictions in their own arguments, they have only two responses: (a) we’re still right, and (b) by even raising such contradictions you’re talking Scotland down.

And then I had my final epiphany (an appropriate expression, given the nature of the revelation): nationalism isn’t a political philosophy – it’s a faith.

Salmond’s disciples believe everything he says as an article of faith. Their unquestioning devotion to him smacks more of religious zealotry than of political agreement. Alex’s followers believe absolutely, without any requirement for nonsense like facts or evidence, that a separate Scotland will be the wealthiest, happiest nation on the face of the planet. To question these statements would smack of heresy.

In every other party there is a healthy level of scepticism about the leader. I’ve been a Labour Party member under the leadership of Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown and Miliband. Never at any point – even during the period when Blair bestrode the political landscape as an unchallenged colossus – was Labour a slavering, über-loyal party, eager to reply “Yes, Tony” to every prime ministerial utterance. The same is true of every other mainstream, non-dysfunctional party.

And quite right too.

But not the nationalists. And despite the unity of purpose and the discipline such an approach brings, it is, or can be, a weakness. Blind faith cannot withstand any level of consistent analysis or robust challenge for long. Its inconsistencies and contradictions can be exposed, and there is plenty of time between now and autumn 2014 to do so.

Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow south

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8 Responses to “In Alex we trust”

  1. Dr Alan McCowan says:

    “But not the nationalists.”

    Labour Uncut used to be a respectable, intelligent place. What you’re thinking of in permitting this sort of embarrassing, tissue-thin, juvenile rubbish to be aired on its pages is a mystery. The SNP has publicly-expressed disagreement within even its upper ranks on numerous issues (monarchy, gay marriage, gradualism-vs-fundamentalism), let alone the rank and file. It’s like any other party, and this playground name-calling is exactly the sort of dismal tripe that’s seeing the party in Scotland haemorrhage support to the point where it’s (uniquely) too ashamed to even reveal how many people voted in its leadership election.

  2. Dr Alan McCowan says:

    (Where by “the party” I mean “the Labour Party”, obviously.)

  3. Tris says:

    Nationalism is a belief, Tom. You’re right. At least the kind of nationalism of which we talk when referring to the SNP, which I’m sure you will agree, isn’t in the least like that of the BNP.

    It is self belief; a belief that we aren’t too wee, too stupid or too poor. It’s a belief that as England moves farther and farther to the right, embracing Thatcher, and the new Thatcher, Blair, and the new Blair, Cameron, Scotland wants to stay well left of centre.

    Scotland wants to build council houses while England pays for Son of Trident. Scotland wants to fix the roads while England fixes Afghanistan, Iraq, and possibly quite soon Iran and Syria.

    Scotland wants to make sure its old people and its sick are looked after, which let’s be fair, no one could accuse Cameron of caring a tiny bit about.

    Scotland wants to ensure that its education is free, while England wants to rack up huge debts of up to £50,000 for its young people leaving university.

    That’s why Scotland voted in a majority SNP government. No, not because all these people necessarily wanted independence, but because they wanted a left of centre government, which the Liberals and Labour couldn’t any longer offer.

    And no; it’s not all about clichés. We genuinely do care more here about whether old folk die or kids get to school, than they do in the south. That’s why it will be a cold day in hell before there’s a Tory vote in Scotland.

    It’s all about taking our country the way we want to go, not the way that the South East of England wants to go; not the way that the Westminster village wants to go, as the puppet of America.

    You say we trust Alex Salmond. Yes, we probably do. Isn’t that what we should feel about our politicians? I realise that probably no one trusts Dave, or Ed, and you’d have to be mad to trust Nick. As for the Scottish lot, we don’t know who any of them are, there are so new, but let’s be fair; so far they are not up to much.

    Blind faith? No. No more that the other parties. There are people who have lived in grinding poverty all their life on an horrific estate under a Labour council which has done nothing for them…and yet will still say that they will vote Labour because it’s the working man’s party (even though they don’t work).

    There are disagreements in all parties too. I certainly don’t agree with everything the government does, or my local council, both SNP, but the one thing I have utter faith in is Scotland; a Scotland that can stand on its own, and the SNP will deliver that.

  4. Munguin says:

    There sure are plenty contradictions and disagreements in Scottish Labour as Tom will know. Let’s face it he’s blotted his copy book so often you now can’t see the book for the blot. That mad rush to the top of the greasy pole from the East Kilbride News to err…nowhere must have addled his brain for him to come out with such a sour and bitter piece as this. Maybe he should concentrate his mind on his remaining jobs as admin of the ever scintillating “Labour Hame” (get it! Its Labour but also Home, scottish don’t you know, with a small “s” all tartan knickers, Molly Weir and Miss Jean Brodie but not the slightest bit patronising). And of course his Glasgow South sinecure, but is it so secure anymore? In 1999 Labour took all 10 Glasgow seats at Holyrood now they have less than half, let’s see if the SNP can wrest control of the City Council in May. The sinecure may not be so secure after all and Tom might be well advised to get back to his constituency and do some positive work.

  5. Nick Hopkins says:


    I think that Tom has actually hit a number of nails on the head here, though I don’t think it’s so much about faith in Alex as faith in the party line.

    First, a couple of examples at the level of elected politicians; the total lack of noises off from amongst the dumped 2007 intake of MSPs; and the sight of every SNP victor over a Labour incumbent at the 2011 election reading from the same script in their victory speech.

    I think disagreements over side issues such as royalty and gay marriage pale next to consideration of the mindset that the two examples mentioned reveal. I also think the idea that there are splits of much real political significance over gradualism v fundamentalism (whilst other parties may cavil, 2014 at which the fundies may have their way will be here soon enough) is much overdone.

    At an activist level (at least on line), it isn’t true to say that SNP supporters always express the same views, but it is noticeable that real disagreement is rare and anger is very much reserved for Labour and the other parties. This is noteworthy, to say the least in a party which can capture the support of Rupert Murdoch, Brian Souter and Jimmy Reid, and in which left/ right splits might have been expected to have been apparent.

    From the left, there is almost never (to the extent that I have never seen it myself) any real frustration expressed at the speed of the progress of the SNP on social or economic issues, perhaps partly because SNP activists seem rarely to discuss these issues outside of a promise that they will be dealt with better under independence or to highlight the different path being taken in Scotland and England.

    There is certainly never any sense given in the forums I view that the SNP’s moderation might mark in some way a betrayal of the party’s left. This means that Salmond must be almost unique as a self identifying social democratic leader in facing no real rumblings from the left of his party.

    One further example of his good fortune. Salmond goes to China, and his online activist bases goes mad for pandas and inward investment. Blair or Brown went to China, and the Guardian reading element of the activist base went mad about the lack of pressure on human rights.

    Salmond is an effective politician, but the Stepford Wives/ Midwich Cuckoos nature of his activist base makes his life a lot easier.

  6. Nick Hopkins says:


    Aside from the fact that in a number of places you beautifully make Tom’s point for him, I’m curious as to how you square:

    ‘a belief that we aren’t too wee, too stupid or too poor’


    ‘And no; it’s not all about clichés.’

  7. Dr Alan McCowan says:

    “Aside from the fact that in a number of places you beautifully make Tom’s point for him”

    Nick, if that’s what you genuinely think Tris’s simple, straightforward, honest post did, you’re part of Labour’s problem, not part of its solution.

    But even having said that, if you think a party maintaining broad discipline in order to achieve its goals rather than tearing itself apart with idiotic and destructive infighting is a BAD thing that the SNP should be ashamed of, it’s easy to see why Scottish Labour are currently polling at 23%.

  8. Tris says:

    Because, Nick, that cliché is what it is NOT about, if you understand what I mean…

    I really enjoyed your piece. I’d have loved the chance to discuss it with you. I hate typing but briefly…

    You’re right to say that there is a wide range of types who want independence. I’ve met pretty right wing SNP supporters, and socialists too. I think that probably for a lot of them, it is the independence that matters most, rather than today’s policies, which aren’t that extreme one way or the other.

    (Although what the right hopes for after independence, I’m not entirely sure. The likelihood is that people will regroup and new parties will be formed, right and left, I’d have thought. I don’t see any right wing party having any great role in government in Scotland, but maybe with the rules no longer coming from London, and Thatcher out of the way, there could, I suppose be a revival.)

    But for the moment anyway the right is prepared to put up with the fact that the party is following a broadly left of centre agenda, because the aren’t REALLY SNP supporters, they are supporters of an independent country.

    I think that the differences over royalty and gay marriage are things that, people can probably tolerate if the greater goal of an independent Scotland can be achieved.

    In the case of royalty, it doesn’t much matter. They are irrelevant in most ways,as would be a non executive president, or governor general, and if it keeps older people happy to have the Queen, then I say ‘grand’, despite being a republican. (In any case I’m pretty sure that old Charlie and Mrs Parker Bowles will scare the people into republicanism after Her Majesty dies.)

    With gay marriage there was a bit of a flap when Wilson got all bent out of shape about it, but I guess that people can accept again that he’s a very old man, and very old people tend to not like that kind of change. As I understood it, the party took a free vote with that anyway.

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