Velvet and Stone
Interview with Neal Ascherson, journalist and historian, by Jamie Maxwell (@jamesmaxwell86).
Neal Ascherson was born in Edinburgh in 1932. He was educated at Eton College and then at Cambridge, from which he graduated with a triple starred first in History. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s he worked as a foreign correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer. In the mid-1970s he moved back to Scotland to write for the Scotsman. During this time he founded the breakaway Scottish Labour Party (SLP) with Jim Sillars and Alex Neil.
He returned to London at the start of the 1980s with his wife, journalist Isobel Hilton. In 1993 he was awarded the George Orwell Prize for Journalism and in 1995 he won the Saltire Award for Literature. He stood unsuccessfully for the Liberal Democrats at the first elections to the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. In 2002 he published Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland. Since 2009 he has worked as a professor of archaeology at University College London.
How do you account for the decline of the Labour Party in Scotland?
Well there are a lot of reasons. One is the general decline of radical socialism since 1989, which discredited all the great visionaries and thinkers. Another is just what everybody repeats: stagnation – the stagnation of a controlling force with great patronage.
This is the result of a sort of lemming tribalism with the Labour Party, founded on the idea that you get elected and we wave goodbye to you at Central Station and say “You’re going to betray us and we know it but we still love you”, and off they go. An element of that still survives – the career structure, the Westminster-centred ambition. And those professional expectations are absolutely bolted into a sense of ‘Britishness’.
Then there is the despair about recent Labour governments, which has played a big part. Scottish Labour just slowly fell into a pessimistic view of everything. There was a time when the labour movement could say, “This is what we want for Scotland. We’ve got great ideas and new plans”. All that is completely in the past. Labour has become tired and reactive. Of course, that was one of the joints in the armour through which the SNP went at the last two elections.
Where does the deep animosity between Labour and the SNP come from?
The Labour Party in Scotland is incredibly possessive. Loyalty is one, two and three in values. It would be kind of admirable if it wasn’t so politically limiting. But it comes mainly from the fact the SNP is starting to eat into the working class vote. There are people who used to vote Labour and their fathers did and their grandfathers did but now they are voting SNP. That is unnerving.
Perhaps, also, there is a kind of inner discomfort because somewhere deep down in Labour hearts they actually agree with a lot the SNP stands for. Somewhere in the bone marrow there’s a feeling that they would like Scotland to govern itself and that the SNP is now doing what it should have done. Nobody would ever admit that but maybe it sort of accounts for some of the bitterness. Nevertheless, some in the SNP can be extraordinarily merciless about Labour and I don’t like that.
Would it be fair to say the SNP now occupies the radical territory abandoned by Labour?
In some ways, the rise of the SNP has aspects of being a very British thing. The Nationalists are trying to build a kind of reverse Hadrian’s Wall behind which the very best of the British post-war settlement will be preserved. They are saying “behind this wall we will preserve what’s left of British social democracy, what we can save, not all – what is gone can’t be recovered – but what is left we will defend here and only independence can really do that”.
This is a formidable position. In England people just laugh and say “You can’t do that. You can’t do away with tuition fees and have free prescriptions – it’s antique, it’s archaeology“. But, actually, maybe it’s not. That is what the SNP are promoting – the very best of British social democracy.
Nonetheless, I do think Scotland needs a Labour Party. That it still commands a pretty huge allegiance and yet is in such a plight is no good to anybody. I mean it is all very well for the SNP to rejoice in its weaknesses and contradictions and hopeless blunders, but in the end Scotland does need a Labour Party.
Is the break-up of Britain now inevitable?
The Salmond strategy is to bear down on the whole devolution structure in such a way that it could be shown not to work and a situation would arise in which Westminster was continuously blocking Scottish demands and the Scottish people would feel that the current constitutional settlement just wasn’t working. But now things have moved so fast that his long-term strategy may be to just spin things out until devolution breaks down of its own inadequacy.
Then there is the Quebec scenario. Maybe what happened in May was that ten of thousands of people felt free to vote for the SNP because they knew it was not necessarily a vote for independence. You can have that for a bit, but if you want full independence there has to be some long-term strategy which gradually changes opinion. That means Salmond has to show the limits of devolution, so that demands knock against denials down south but those denials are repeated with an increasing lack of conviction by the British government.
Of course, the whole ‘independence-lite’ battery of ideas complicates things. That strategy depends on keeping devolution going – on ‘devolution-max’. But I’m not sure the plan isn’t to slowly, slowly drive events toward a crisis which will only end one way: with people deciding independence is the only route out of this, that it’s the best way for Scotland to manage its relations with the rest of Britain. Ultimately, though, I think it will break the way that Alex Salmond wants.
Can you imagine the break-up of Britain happening as a result of the English just losing patience?
I’ve argued this in the past – partly because of my experience in Czechoslovakia with the so-called Velvet Divorce, where the Czechs got fed up of the Slovaks and just booted them out. And I can’t see a million people gathering in Princes Street shouting ‘freedom’ – I don’t think that is how Scotland works. Perhaps the English will just get terminally fed up with the growing complexity, cost and bad feeling of the devolution arrangement and they will just say ‘this is our final offer – devolution max – and if you want more you can fuck off and be independent’. And suddenly, in a really undignified way, Scotland will arrive at independence.
The real question is: who is a Unionist in England and why? That’s the difficult thing to find out. You can see why some people are because their careers are locked into the UK framework and if it disintegrates then their careers disintegrate too – Scottish Labour ministers in the British cabinet, for instance – but who else apart from that very small group really cares?
Is it possible Nationalists underestimate the resilience of the British political structure?
The people who really care about the Union are in Scotland – and quite a lot of them feel quite intensely. But in London, apart from the clique of people at Westminster who owe their careers to the UK machinery, no-one really cares. And the SNP have been quite smart in their new approach to ‘Britishness‘. They are aware that the issue of ‘Britishness’ has to be treated with some care and that if they can appropriate it in some way – draw out its sting – that would be a good thing to do.
One of the things about the Anglo-British political tradition is that it absolutely doesn’t allow for federalism, partly because of this insane dogma of parliamentary sovereignty – you can’t have federalism if parliament is absolute. But if you look at modern federations, like Germany, their constitutions include an obligation to equalise living standards in all parts of the country, in all states of the federation. In Britain, though, this would be absolutely unacceptable, unthinkable. Imagine some Prime Minister or another stood up and said “My first obligation is to equalise living standards so that living standards in the south-east shall be the same as on the Tyneside”. People in this country would think the natural order of things had been turned upside-down.
When Tony Benn became a minister in the 1960s – and I think this must be apocryphal – he had a huge map of Britain hung upside down in his office, so the channel was at the top and Scotland was at the bottom and, apparently, he said, “This is how we need to look at this country, with the money and the power draining by force of gravity out of the south east”. That was a great idea. I rather liked him for that. I don’t know if it’s actually true or not.
How would Labour fare at Westminster without its Scottish contingent?
It comes back to the English question, which is: why do the English leave all the pain and agony and concern about their nation to a few mindless thugs with Union Jacks painted on their faces? Why don’t the English middle-class and intellectuals go out there and take hold of their country and do something radical with it? It is not true that there is absolute built-in Tory majority in England. I don’t buy the idea that in the long-term, without Scotland, England would be stuck with endless, timeless Tory domination.
What would a post-UK English nationalism look like?
I’m a bit optimistic about it. I’m hopeful that English nationalism, taken out of the hands of the hooligans, could become respectable. After the Union the English could look at their country and see it as it were for the first time, without all the miasma and entanglements, without the cataract-impediments created by the idea of Britishness, which confuses state and nation, and they would understand that an enormous amount needs to be done to modernise their country. I’m kind of optimistic that post-Union, England would be not a bad place – it could work, although it would be one hell of a fight.