‘It’s an English thing’ or ‘it’s for academics’ are two allegations we often hear made against Blue Labour, yet neither of these two statements are remotely true. Rather, Blue Labour is a restoration of the distinctly Scottish labour and trade union movement which grew out of the mutual improvement societies. More so, Blue Labour offers a vision for the future which is rooted firmly in the parish libraries, reading rooms and working men’s institutes which flourished in Scotland during the 19th century.
Equally, Blue Labour looks back to the days of the ILP and Labour leaders from Scotland such as Keir Hardie, George Barnes, Arthur Henderson, William Adamson and even the late, great John Smith. Today, we no longer remember John Smith as something of a social conservative who fought against abortion and easier divorce, deregulated drinking and gambling. Smith even organised against Thatcher’s attempts to destroy the special character of Sunday and of Christmas Day.
We’ve also forgotten the fact that each one of the aforementioned Labour leaders from Scotland were devout Christians. This is entirely logical since the Scottish labour and trade union movement was forged by Christianity rather than Marxism. Equally, the famous Red Clydesider Manny Shinwell was a Labour Zionist and it’s exactly this kind of shared common good between faith communities and traditional labourism which Blue Labour seeks to restore.
If all this sounds somewhat romantic then that’s because it is, for me Blue Labour speaks unapologetically, to our hearts and our heritage. It’s about the importance of community, place and belonging. Yet, this sincerely held sentimentality should not be confused with the practical need to re-establish Scotland’s autodidactic inheritance.
A rehabilitation of our autodidactic tradition is urgently required because 21st Century Scotland is a place where we have (admirably) expanded the opportunity for a university education to many of our young people. Meanwhile, concurrently destroying our once proud tradition of guilds and apprenticeships and also reducing access to technical colleges and vocational training. This has left an entire generation of young Scots from working class towns with very few options.
Similarly, if many of our young people are stuck then our political discourse is also stuck. Stuck between an increasingly centralist, liberal, Indy-Left Holyrood Government versus a hard-brexiting, austerity obsessed, market consumed Tory Government in Westminster.
Yes, alternatives have been suggested, the Scandinavian model for example. Sadly, the problem with the Scandic-Scottish utopia is that it’s being proposed and projected by Scotland’s own metropolitan liberal elites and post-modern people and the problem with post-modernists is that they are always ahistorical. To be ahistorical is to put no value in place or tradition. It is to completely ignore and reject Scotland’s own unique financial, political, educational, economic, philosophical, sporting, legal and religious institutions and inheritance. Institutions and an inheritance which were forged in part by the Presbyterian work ethic which once imbued working class Protestants a deep sense of decency, dignity and virtue. To think we can simply turn Scotland into a year zero Denmark or Norway is to fail to understand why a Scandinavian model would never work for Scotland.
Therefore, Scotland requires a new way of doing politics which is firmly grounded in our past, a political language conceived by academics in our universities but born to life by ordinary people. Not academics versus workers but academics with workers seeking to build a common good together as opposed the class confrontation of Marxism. For example, at the heart of Blue Labour thinking is the power of relationships and associations which exist, out with the ebb and flow of state and market. Middling associations such as residents and tenants associations, small regional banks, workers on the board, community land buyouts, social enterprises, fan owned football clubs, churches, faith schools, credit unions, cooperatives, and mutual societies all underpinned by the principle of subsidiary.
Blue Labour is also accused by the liberal-left of peddling ‘soft xenophobia’ because they don’t happen to think that ongoing mass immigration and open borders is particularly good for workers’ wages or a cohesive society. Just as the entire working class communities who abandoned the Labour Party and voted for Brexit, didn’t believe that New Labour’s fixation with ‘diversity and inclusiveness’ was especially helpful to them.
Yet, what marks Blue Labour out from the anti-intellectual, expert hating, hyperbole and anti-immigration polemics of the Alt-right and the likes of UKIP, is its application of Catholic Social Teaching. Social teaching which includes the idea of personalism and a respect for the human dignity of all. Therefore, Blue Labour seeks to restrict the free movement of labour and capital while at the same time showing hospitality, solidarity and empathy towards refugees and asylum seekers who find themselves in this county.
More so, Blue Labour’s appropriation of Catholic Social Teaching alongside its robust defence of institutions such as the Royal family has the capacity to negate the impact of sectarianism in Scotland. For us there is no contradiction in being working class royalists and proud Trade Unionists since we understand that our Royal family has always stood as a bulwark against the tyranny of extreme Left and Right! Even back in the days of George Lansbury, the British Left and the wider labour movement never sought to usurp the Monarch.
Today, as Scotland becomes increasingly divided along Unionist and Nationalist lines, it’s also worth remembering that one of the founding principles of the early Scottish Labour Movement was the establishment of a common good between Catholic and Protestants in divided cites such as Glasgow.
For example, John Wheatley was a devout Catholic and a socialist leader during the Red Clydeside era. Wheatley was born in Ireland and eventually became the MP for Shettleston and was an early advocate for social housing. Wheatley was inspired by Lansbury’s leadership of the Poplar Rates rebellion which was a tax protest that took place amongst poor industrial workers in Poplar in London in 1921.
Another early Labour Movement leader in Scotland who is worthy of mention as an inspiration to Blue Labour is Robert Smillie. Smillie was born in Belfast but moved to Glasgow when he was in his teens; he was also the miners leader in the Protestant heartlands of Larkhall. In 1901, when Smillie stood in a Lanarkshire by-election for Labour, John Wheatley (Who was supportive of Scottish Home Rule and Irish Republicanism) had no issue in supporting Smillie or instructing his own Irish-Catholic dominated Shettleston branch of the Independent Labour Party to support and campaign for Smillie, a Protestant of Ulster descent.
With regards to the prospect of another independence referendum- Many Blue Labour people might want to see more powers devolved to Edinburgh, others may want to see more powers devolved to Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle. Yet, for all of us devolution isn’t about Westminster or Holyrood at all, it’s about Falkirk, Greenock, Linlithgow, Kelso. It’s about people being closer to their counties and parishes rather than administrative regions. Most of all, we see nothing un-Scottish about celebrating the positive influence of English liberty and English democracy on Scotland. Personally, I believe that the best days of ‘England’s Promise’ are still yet to come and it would be a great shame for Scots to sever themselves from that.
However, we may well ask, does the socially conservative yet radical, working class Scotland that produced these traditional Labour Movement men and women of virtue and values still exist today?
We believe that such people do still exist, not within the think tanks or within the ranks of Trotskyite entryists or among the political commentators on twitter or among the career politicians newly graduated from Oxford. Rather, we believe that Blue Labour exists subconsciously in the towns and villages of Scotland among the unrepresented, ordinary people who are quietly doing good things in their communities every day. We believe in our capacity to build a politics based on neighbourliness and virtue. We believe that it is possible to have meaningful work and relationships in our workplaces.
Finally, next month Scottish friends and supporters of Blue Labour will gather to discuss how the movement might continue to grow in Scotland. This meeting won’t take place at a city hotel, conference centre or on a university campus. Rather, this gathering will take place in Paisley Methodist Central Hall. It is befitting of a movement like Blue Labour to be meeting in Paisley, a town built on the textile industry with its long association with political radicalism and the self culture and self-improvement of the Weavers Union in the South of Paisley. Hopefully we’ll begin to rediscover Scotland’s ‘radical’ tradition – Family, Faith and Flag