We all have an inheritance from our grandfathers.
Some are tangible – a watch, a book, a rosary – while others are more ephemeral, like lessons learned, wisdom gifted, or fond recollections of family holidays. The stirring scent of aftershave or pipe tobacco, the taste of an old recipe, or the sound of a rust-bucket car sputtering to ignition, horse-racing on television, or prayers at the dinner table.
I have inherited some of these things from my grandfather but above all he bequeathed me a sense of right and wrong, an impulse towards justice, and an intriguing, inchoate attachment to Labour, an emotional connection if not a political one.
Grandfathers are central to politics in the west of Scotland. Until recently, the most common response to a declaration of support for any party other than Labour was an incredulous, “Your grandfather would be turning in his grave if he could hear you now”. Voting Labour wasn’t a political decision but a family custom, like Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or stuffy car journeys once a month to visit an elderly aunt that no one particularly liked. It wasn’t something you did, it was the done thing.
I keep having the same conversation with friends from backgrounds similar to mine. You’re probably familiar with the syntax: A defiant confession of support for the SNP, followed by a caustic prosecution of Labour’s assorted betrayals, and then the trump card: “My grandfather would agree with me if he was still around”. The most recent of these discussions reminded me of a much older conversation.
Granddad was Labour
“When will you die, Granddad?” I asked one summer’s afternoon during one of our walks with his German Shepherd, Smokey, in a nearby wood which I called “The Jungle” on the basis that it was bigger than a few square feet and I had recently discovered Kipling. I was six and like all children secretly obsessed by death.
My grandfather was my best friend; “Batman” and “Robin” we called each other, he having admirably absorbed the pop cultural signposts that charted my childhood. I never imagined him as old but I had recently learned that he was born in nineteen-canteen (for years to come I assumed this Glaswegian slang was a synonym for 1919) and I knew that people got old and died.
“Not for a long time, son,” he reassured me.
“But what age will I be?” I persevered.
“You’ll be a teenager; fourteen or so.”
He died a year later.
Granddad was Labour. I doubt he was ever a member, except perhaps in early life, but he was Labour. His socialism was material, not materialist, forged in the soul-crushing poverty and indolence of the Great Depression. He never read Marx or Engels to my knowledge but as a schoolboy he witnessed truncheon-happy police subduing a wildcat march for jobs and food and there and then he knew which side he was on. (“What socialist worthy of the name,” wrote James Maxton, “does not feel in his heart a tremendous pity, a tremendous desire to relieve immediately the sufferings of the victim?”)
Religion of priorities
After he was demobbed from the Army – he fought at Dunkirk but seldom spoke about it – he and a friend went to a public meeting to hear Aneurin Bevan speak. That the visceral miner-turned-MP enchanted Granddad is hardly surprising; Bevan’s blunt credo, “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”, summed up his own attitude to politics. For Granddad, ‘socialism’ was just a ten-bob word for common decency.
We were a political family then. Not professionally or intellectually but politics was a regular topic of impassioned conversation in the living room. The names Scargill, Benn, and That Woman weaved amid the electric blue fug of convivial Sunday evenings. Such ideological differences as existed were intra-Left disputes over tactics and strategy. Of course Militant were good socialists but hadn’t their behaviour been less than comradely? Kinnock was undoubtedly a compromiser but he was also the man to finally beat the Tories, wasn’t he? The miners, now several years on from their defeat, were beyond reproach.
I imagine conversations like these look place in working-class households up and down the country, as well-meaning people convinced themselves that collective struggle and municipal socialism were one election away from revival. They never were and when Labour changed with a changing world it was inevitable that people would be left behind. Until a few years ago, they had a few choices: Hold their nose and vote Labour, waste their vote on a fringe Left party, or stop voting altogether.
Robbing the dead
The referendum up-ended this. The Nationalists had already begun to displace Labour with an appealing melange of leftish rhetoric, populist poses, and competent governance. The old Labour Party was reborn in the SNP, so the mythos went, a party unburdened by Blairite modernisation on economic and social policy and unhaunted by the spectre of Iraq. Now Labour was sharing a stage with the wicked Tories to defend the iniquitous Westminster system. The staunchest bulwark against nationalism could finally be swept aside and the SNP could claim the mantle of Scottish social democracy.
I miss Granddad. During the referendum, I kept wondering what he would make of it all. Then I heard his voice in Archie Macpherson, the veteran sports broadcaster having delivered a heartfelt speech against independence in the final weeks of the campaign. Trumpeting the solidarity that created the welfare state and built the NHS, Archie conceded the flaws of the United Kingdom, but insisted: “I intend to stick on that particular road, difficult though it may be.”
This was Granddad speaking, I convinced myself (aided by a moderate physical resemblance). His statement of principle — “I am as concerned about food banks in Liverpool as I am in Glasgow or Dundee” — just sounded like him.
But it wasn’t him. I have no idea how he would have felt about independence. His politics were his own, shaped by time and place and personal experience. I cannot impose by guess what I do not know. I have no right to rob the dead.
We dream different dreams
This is why I’m uneasy when friends bring up their grandfathers in explaining their own conversion to the SNP. Papa wouldn’t recognise today’s Labour Party, I’m told. If he was here today, he would be voting SNP too. It’s the real socialist party now.
Labour has abandoned socialism — or at least the brand of socialism our grandfathers would have recognised — but its custodians are not to be found amongst the Scottish electorate who have flocked to the SNP, not now or ever a socialist party.
Our grandfathers joined the Labour cause with enthusiasm and their grandchildren are no less impassioned about the movement to which they have signed up. But we are not remaking the society our grandfathers created. We dream different dreams and hew to our own ideals.
These men of steel and coal and wrought iron built a society on industrial and social solidarity in the shadow of Britain’s finest moment, our impossible triumph over the Nazi war machine. Few of them harboured illusions about the imperial past but nor were they enervated by the fashionable self-hatred that grips the modern Left. They believed in right and wrong and weren’t ashamed of it. Nationalism meant something very different to them than it does to us now.
Their world belongs to them. We have no right to rob the dead.
On the eve of General Election 2015, that world is set to be turned upside down as Scotland prepares to break with half a century of political history and turf out its Labour MPs in favour of a clanjamphry of Nationalists. For those who left Labour long ago — because Labour long ago left them, they would say — all sentiment is gone or such as remains has been dulled by time and anger.
Now there is hatred, sincere, white-hot hatred. The public is in vengeful mood; it doesn’t care about stopping the Big Bad Tories. The class enemy is no match for the national enemy. At least the Tories have always been upfront bastards; Labour sold us out to keep their jobs and expenses.
The Nationalists have dislodged Labour in the Scottish Parliament and are now almost certain to do the same at Westminster. And maybe they deserve to. They’ve been smart, lean, and hard-working. They’ve earned a reputation for competence in government. They’ve secured the support of much of the Scottish Left without once venturing beyond the low-tax, pro-business, neoliberal centre ground. Fifty years of voting Labour and that party seems at a loss to articulate the hopes and aspirations of huge swathes of Scotland. ‘Give the other lot a go’ has powerful appeal.
Everything I write about Scottish Labour now feels like an elegy. Not simply for a political party but for a time and place and people no longer here. Rejecting Labour is spurning an inheritance from our grandfathers but some inheritances ought to be spurned. It is for us to decide if this is one of them. Burke’s contract between the living, the dead, and the yet to be born is a relationship, not a straitjacket.
But if we are to break our ties to Labour, let’s be sensible about the party we’re leaving behind. It is not the monstrous regiments of neocons portrayed by the SNP but in fact the most successful, transformative left-of-centre political force in these islands and perhaps across Europe.
Harold Wilson said the Labour Party was a moral crusade or it was nothing. It is also an instrument for change and that is how our grandfathers used it. They are due a debt of gratitude for what they bequeathed us: A free and democratic country, a welfare state, and universal healthcare. Resistance to Nazism and Communism, security through Nato, and the great loosening up that saw Britain soften its attitudes on race, sex, and criminal justice and relinquish its grip around the world.
In the Attlee years, young men returned from battle abroad declared war on giant evils at home. Later, middle-aged men raising families in this reborn country looked to the white heat of technology to send their children to university rather than down a pit.
Some who lived to see the coming of Blair rankled at the silencing of the old songs but New Labour, in the early days and in its own way, continued the progressive legacy, with the minimum wage, parental leave, LGBT equality, and coming to the aid of the poor and oppressed the world over.
For some, this is all outweighed by Iraq, pandering on immigration and welfare, and an ill-judged referendum alliance with the Tories. For others whose party was conspicuous by its absence on many of these achievements, the scales have always been tipped against a party that fashioned the very modern, optimistic Britishness that set back their own national enterprise. Others still may note these accomplishments and shrug, What have you done for me lately?
“There’s no crime so mean as ingratitude in politics,” the Tammany Hall fixer George W. Plunkitt once bitterly observed.
I have no idea how I’m going to vote on May 7. I suspect I won’t make up my mind until the final days. Heart and head will compete as in every election but this time history is calling too. How many more times can we be let down? If Labour is the answer, why is its standing in England so low that we in Scotland are obliged to carry it over the line? But can we trust the SNP, whose record on progressive politics is iffy to say the least? Do we really want to be the generation that casts off social democracy in favour of nationalism?
If we stick with Labour, and that now looks all but impossible, it needs to get its act together and put forward a hopeful yet practical vision for Scotland within the UK in the coming decades. If we choose to end the Labour era, we will break with the political traditions of our grandfathers. Some will turn in their graves while others will cheer us on.
But even if we turn away from their politics, we should not give up on their values. If Nationalists we must be, let our nationalism be civic and progressive, free from superiority complexes and prating victimhood. Is nationalism possible without parochialism? I don’t know but we ought to try. If not, and if we must care more about poverty in Hamilton than in Hackney, then count me out.
We will be grandfathers and grandmothers one day and decades later, when we are gone, our grandchildren will struggle with our legacy. They may spurn it and cringe that we could ever be so short-sighted, reactionary, or foolish. But let them cringe at our choice of party or policy, not the values that underpin them. Those values of fairness, compassion, and solidarity are the most precious inheritance from our grandfathers and we have a duty to pass them on.
Originally published on STV News.