On 5 September, sitting in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard in Edinburgh, I exercised my right to vote, resting my ballot paper on my knee, as I sat on the grave of Colonel Dugald Campbell of Ballimore and his wife Christina Lamont Drummond. There was neither rhyme nor reason to it. I had planned instead to visit St Ninian’s cave in Wigtownshire as some sort of ill-conceived pilgrimage to seek a blessing on the decision I had struggled with scarce a month before, walking through ankle-deep Atlantic waters between Oronsay and Colonsay. This Campbell grave was an accident born of necessity: the Edinburgh location fitted a busy schedule and the lingering need to be somewhere memorable (somewhere mine) when I cast my vote. The grave? It just happened to be there; it just happened to be dry.
Returning to the spot on 18 September, I paid more attention to the names, and subsequently discovered that Dugald Campbell had been MP for Argyllshire in the mid-eighteenth century and his son – Duncan Campbell (also commemorated on the gravestone) had been MP for Ayr Burghs at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In their time, they were agents of an approach to Union politics that secured the reins of power in the hands of an elite. Dugald occupied a seat vacated by his uncle and acquired a state pension to sweeten the onerous responsibilities of office. Duncan, meanwhile, seems seldom to have uttered a word on the floor of the Commons.
I had gone to Greyfriars with seventeenth-century precedent in my mind. The Covenant was signed there in 1638, and there was something about the referendum which, at that moment, evoked the sense of a dialogue between people and power that had historical roots more solid than the contemporary debate which, on 5 September, was as yet to echo to the sound of Gordon Brown’s sonorous oratory at the Loanhead Miners’ Welfare Club. After months of denying historical precedent as a useful approach to the referendum (The Drouth,18 March 2013), I, in the end, clung to the past to find meaning in the present. And it is the past that has also informed my appreciation of this post-referendum moment – admittedly, a more recent past and a history that occupied a younger me when, in 2000, I published The Radical Thread – a study of Paisley politics in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.Try as I might, the last three months have drawn me back to where my academic career began: to the study of a party that lost its claim on the political loyalties of a community and a country that came to see in Labour the inheritor of a radical tradition that Liberalism no longer appeared to evoke. The dynamics today are similar: we are in a period of political transition. That needn’t mean, however, that history will repeat itself, although the parallels at times seem compelling.
Contrary to expectations, perhaps, the legacy of the referendum will only in part be found in the constitutional compromises of the Smith Commission and how they might (or might not) rethread of the cords that bind the United Kingdom. For Scots, the saga in which devo-max or federalism may be but a tale will be the re-territorialisation of Scottish politics and with it a process of party re-alignment that has the potential to alter the trajectory of politics as they have appeared since the 1890s. There are reasons, I would suggest, why Brown demanded that Scottish politics be ‘re-set’ at the end of November: it’s what you do when the tide of history appears to be against you, it’s what you do when the past offers worrying intimations of political mortality. And Paisley has seen it all before.
In what follows, then, contemporary reflections will be set alongside historical parallels suggested in the politics of Paisley and the wider context of Scottish politics at the point when Liberalism lost its claim on Scotland. Today, Paisley’s MP is Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary. His majority (in terms of votes) has grown at each contest since he secured the seat at a by-election in 1997, and it stood at 16,614 at the 2010 general election. It is, perhaps, one of the safer Labour seats in Scotland: Alexander secured 60% of the vote last time round, and Renfrewshire council is controlled by the Labour party. But 47.19% of the electorate voted ‘yes’ to independence in September (2% above the national figure), and despite the recent suspension of three councillors (for burning a copy of the Smith Commission report), the SNP presence in the local council is considerable. But let me be clear: no particular predictive intent ought to be deduced from this juxtaposition of Paisley’s past and present. While it gives my tale a neat symmetry, it is simply coincidence, for example, that Paisley’s first (Rosslyn Mitchell) and current Labour MPs boasted a legal background. Whether all such coincidences are as simple, as uncontroversial, or as neat, I must leave you, dear reader, to judge.
Between 1832 and 1924 Paisley returned Liberal members of parliament, their last being the former prime minister, Herbert Asquith. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this unbroken tradition would give birth to trans-generational loyalties that tested prospective political candidates against an
In 1832, at the passing of the Reform Bill, Paisley was Radical. Paisley has been Radical ever since, and it is Radical now. … whoever may come to contest this seat again, I would advise him not … to have a political platform composed of a little here and a little there… a kind of mixy maxy thing that has no proper name … Paisley people do not understand political acrobats such as that.
To former provost Cochran, the result was a lesson in politics for the ‘Upper Ten’ in Paisley who had dominated the Liberal ranks for too long and had come to take Paisley for granted. Five years later, however, the politics of identity were still being played out: the Irish question had set the scene for political marriages of convenience that called the alignment of identities and party labels into question. When the Conservative candidate at the 1891 election was presented with a written question as to whether he was standing as a Conservative or a Unionist, he asked ‘what’s the difference?’. A voice from the audience proffered an answer: ‘the ane’s an open Tory an’ the ither’s a cloaked Tory.’ 
The day after the 2014 referendum, Paisley’s current MP voiced his concerns to the Guardianabout the ‘overwhelming lack of trust and respect for politicians on all sides’.The comments on the newspaper’s website, however, drew particular attention to Alexander himself and the Better Together message of the ‘no’ coalition. TDLX referred to the MP as a ‘Tory enabler’, Glowfish called him a ‘Red Tory’, Dubdemon referred to Alexander’s ‘Tory puppetmasters’, and Prof Williams commented on ‘fake tory scum’.
In their twilight years as the majority interest in Paisley, the Liberals faced similar taunts. By the inter-war period of the twentieth century, the Liberal Unionists had merged with the Conservatives, and it was the Liberal party itself – the party of Gladstone – that became increasingly dependent on Tory votes (the anti-Red vote) at elections. In 1924, the Liberal party lost Paisley to Labour despite a pact with the Unionists. Hugh Roberton was damning in his assessment of Labour’s opponents that year: ‘Liberalism was not only dead today, but was going to be buried in the bowels of Conservatism’.Seventy years after an anti-socialist pact in Paisley failed to prevent the election of the constituency’s first Labour member, an alliance in defence of the Union has compromised Labour’s identity in the eyes of some voters. Clearly, pragmatic alliances in the cause of a greater good have unfortunate consequences, but it’s arguably how you deal with them that makes the difference in the long term.
The response from Paisley Liberals to the changing political context of the 1890s was initially to look again at organisation, although the dominance of the local industrial elite within the party’s ranks and the persistence of a Liberal Unionist element in the local party remained an obstacle to embracing a more radical agenda. In 1896, however, an Advanced Radical Association (ARA) was formed to secure the representation of the burgh ‘on Radical principles’, and to promote ‘government of the people, for the people, by the people’.With Labour making inroads in local government, many Liberals considered it time to re-claim the radical agenda. A letter in the Glasgow Evening News made it plain:
It is true that Liberalism has been cornered in Paisley by a select few who, if they are rather dull, are … respectable and wealthy … The fabled old Chartist fire … is a hoary old chestnut in which truth has not abode these last thirty years.
At a meeting of the ARA in October 1897, activists were encouraged to ‘permeate the Liberal Party with new ideals, new ambitions, new determinations’.
There is an awkward contradiction in re-asserting claims to the past while simultaneously expressing the desire to renew a party. The ARA in Paisley ultimately came to nothing: the Independent Labour Party [ILP] in these years was proposing an alternative conceptualisation of politics based on class. By comparison, class-blind notions of ‘the people’ and ‘the commonweal’, as they were evoked by the Liberals, seemed dismissive of social inequalities and ultimately little more than rhetorical window-dressing on the self interest of the establishment.
Similar tensions have been evident in Scottish Labour since September. When Jim Murphy accepted the leadership of the party on 13 December, he echoed Brown’s desire to re-set politics, and spoke of a ‘fresh start’ for Scottish Labour led by a ‘new generation’.Two days later, however, he emphasised that the party’s ‘political faith grew out of something deeper which is ingrained in our Scottish character’: ‘It was there before our party in the beauty of Burns’ poetry, the economic vision of New Lanark, the actions of the highlanders who stood against brutal landlords.’Reconciling past and present, according to Murphy, was to be achieved by organisational change – the re-positioning of Scottish Labour in the UK context, the ‘refounding and rebirth of our Scottish Labour Party’.
To observe that something once ‘found’ cannot be re-founded, or to retort that a return to the womb is at best problematic, might appear facetious were it not that in this rhetoric one can appreciate the contradictions at the heart of a party that appears to have lost its raison d’être. In some respects, this has little to do with the referendum: Alexander himself identified the dilemma the day after the poll, ‘The traditional structures of class identification have been under severe strain.’Similarly, Ross McKibbin has noted: ‘The Labour Party … was fundamentally an industrial working-class party. Today it has to hunt around for support in a much more fluid class system.’
The language of workers’ rights allowed Labour to speak for the majority when the majority of Scots were working class and indebted to industry for their employment, and it sustained the party into the second half of the twentieth century. It’s a voice that is still heard, despite the legacy of New Labour, in the trade union movement and elsewhere. UNITE’s Suki Sangha greeted Jim Murphy’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party with scepticism, noting:
The Labour Party was founded because there was a need for ordinary people to have a political voice within parliament. At a time when people across the country are having to rely on foodbanks to survive, the need for a party that truly represents the founding socialist principle’s of Keir Hardie’s Labour has never been greater.
It took some time, however, for Labour to convince a sufficient number of Scots that they should question Liberal ideals of ‘brethren labouring for each other’s good’.Structures might frame political beliefs but they seldom explain it. Gilmour Street train station did not echo to the sounds of Labour victory in 1922, as the Red Clydesiders left Glasgow: in the short term at least, it was enough that no party offered a convincing alternative to free trade – a central tenet of Scotland’s Liberal faith. Contemporary parties would do well to remember that: in politics, you only ever have to do enough.
Still, there is something to be learned from observing how class came to determine the rhetoric of Scottish politics and how the language of nationhood now poses an alternative vision of who ‘the people’ are, and how a meaningful majority ought to be constituted.
In 1922, Asquith, having held the Paisley seat which he won at a by-election in 1920, was adamant: ‘class government was opposed to the best interests of democracy’.The message had been a popular one in 1920 when he put before the electorate ‘the guiding principle … that no class and no interest … is entitled to prevail over the predominant interest of the community as a whole’.Four years later, however, it failed to convince. In the interim, the divided Labour ranks in Paisley had re-grouped behind a charismatic candidate and the national party had its first taste of government, unemployment had risen dramatically, order books in the local engineering works were drying up, rents were on the rise once again, and relief schemes were being introduced by the town council. The new Labour MP for Paisley explained what had happened:
The voters hammered out two conflicting intellectual points of view and decided for the Socialistic as against the individualistic … the eventual difference between the two sides is that we were affirmative, they were negative; we were creative, they were critical; we were constructive, they were analytical. We tried to explain political principles as ethics. They expressed them as expediency.
In a speech to the Reform Club in London, Asquith commended his opponent, and explained the growth in the Labour vote in Paisley in terms of the
indefatigable and intensive use … by volunteers … of all the weapons in the arsenal of propaganda – speaking in the highways and by-ways, teaching at school and in class, … the dissemination of handy and readable literature, terse and perhaps full-blooded, but easily read and easily remembered… The faith which was so engendered became a real religion – a fanaticism – but when it came to be mobilised it could move mountains.
The elder statesman had come to realise that Labour had created a majority and that that majority identified itself in class terms.
It is plausible to read Labour’s take on the post-referendum environment in a similar way. When, on 13 December, Jim Murphy pledged to put Scotland first, he was acknowledging that the referendum had confirmed that politics had been reconfigured, and that – despite the victory of the ‘no’ campaign – ‘nation’ had eclipsed ‘class’ as the most convincing evocation of ‘the people’. In this he echoed Alex Salmond’s resignation speech at Bute House on 19 September when Salmond affirmed that while his party had lost the referendum, it could ‘still carry the political initiative’.Scotland, he noted, ‘can still emerge as the real winner’. In an attempt to shake free of the associations of the Better Together campaign, Murphy confessed: ‘I share far more with many of you who voted yes than I do with some of the political leaders who campaigned for No.’Such sentiments – though he won’t have known it, I don’t suppose – echoed Asquith’s sympathies with his Labour opponent in Paisley in 1922, when Violet Bonham Carter (Asquith’s daughter) confirmed that Liberal and Labour aims were ‘very much the same: the difference between them was a difference in method, a difference in attaining those ends.’
For a UK party, however, the Scottish nation is a far harder constituency to serve than class. How Labour will fight the next UK general election when its major opponents are different on each side of the Tweed is a conundrum many politicians have faced over the years (Asquith included). But add to the mix the determining influence of the (Scottish) national agenda, and Murphy’s urgent desire to rewrite Scottish Labour’s constitution appears understandable, nay essential. What it means for Labour at a UK level – and hence the power of that party to shape the politics of the Union – is another matter altogether.
For the historian struggling to narrativise trends as yet indecipherable from the flotsam and jetsam of daily political machinations, the lessons from Paisley (if that is what they are), are perhaps to be found in how we might come to write about 2014.
Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the Scottish parliament on confirmation of her election as First Minister on 19 November contributed to that process, when she concluded with a quotation from the Earl of Seafield who – as she put it – ‘signed away Scotland’s sovereign independence in 1707’:
As he did so, he lamented: ‘There’s ane end of ane auld sang.’
The song lay lost for 292 years until we reconvened this parliament in 1999.
This First Minister intends to make sure that we adorn that auld sang with new verses.
Verses that tell of a modern and confident Scotland, fit for purpose and fit for all her people.
Together, let us now get on with writing that story.
In placing herself, and thus her party, at the end of such a historical continuum (no matter how contested), the new First Minister followed a well trodden path which sought legitimacy by appealing to history and claiming its weight. David Cameron had done something similar on the morning of 19 September when – borrowing John Smith’s phrase – he suggested the ‘no’ vote affirmed that the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people was to remain within the Union’s embrace.
For both the Liberal and Labour parties the pull of the past, as we have seen, was powerful in Paisley, and so it has proved in Scotland as a whole. It encouraged David Lowe in 1919 to identify an ‘instinct for freedom and justice’ in Scottish Labour politics, and prompted William Marwick in 1947 to identify a centuries old ‘rebel tradition’.The self-styling of the Labour party as the closure of that radical narrative, however, is now more open to question than it has ever been – a state of affairs confirmed in the uneasy tension in recent Labour pronouncements to at once re-capture and jettison its past.
The Liberal party in Paisley proved incapable of re-claiming the radical inheritance of the burgh when, from 1924, ‘class’ spoke to the majority more powerfully than ‘community’, and Labour was seen as its legitimate heir. Whether or not ‘nation’ is now replacing ‘class’ as the prism through which the majority of Scots identify their interests is open to question, and whether or not Labour will be able to resist counter-claims to the national narrative is a moot point. The SNP got there first. What is clear, however, is that the implications of 2014 go beyond party to Scotland’s sense of itself: the struggle over who is best equipped to express that is merely a symptom of the far deeper changes that are happening.
Place is now asserting an influence on politics to an extent unknown since 1707. In comparison with what we face now, eighteenth-century visions of ‘the people’ and nineteenth century notions of ‘class’ – both commendably abstract and capable of re-invention – were easier to accommodate in the Union relationship than the hard boundary of Tweed and Solway. Yes, nationhood too carries an intellectual and emotive baggage not necessarily appreciable in the unmediated landscape of our borderlands. But it is real in ways that shifting collectives are not: it is real in the sense that laws will increasingly be contained within its bounds, it is real in the sense that it distinguishes ‘others’ without recourse to ideology but merely by where they live. It also carries the weight of history perhaps more obviously than class could ever do, but it does not answer who is best placed to write it … and when.
Given the pace of recent events, I feel obliged to tell you that this was written on 17 December 2014.
Catriona M.M. Macdonald, The Radical Thread: Political Change in Scotland, Paisley Politics, 1885-1924(East Linton, 2000).
Paisley Daily Express,24 June 1886.
Ibid., 24 June 1886.
Ibid., 9 July 1886.
Ibid., 26 May 1891.
Guardian, 19 September 2014.
http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/19/scottish-referendum-douglas-alexander-2015-election-wake-up[accessed, 16 December 2014].
Paisley Daily Express, 17 October 1924.
Ibid., 4 April 1896.
Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette, 11 April 1896.
Ibid., 9 October 1897.
http://www.scottishlabour.org.uk/blog/entry/jim-murphy-nothing-will-hold-back-our-ambition-for-scotland[accessed, 16 December 2014].
http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/19/scottish-referendum-douglas-alexander-2015-election-wake-up[accessed, 16 December 2014].
Ross McKibbin, ‘Labour Vanishes’, London Review of Books, 20 November 2014.
Sunday Herald, 14 December 2014.
Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette, 15 January 1887.
Paisley Daily Express, 4 November 1922.
Ibid., 26 February 1920.
Forward, 8 November 1924.
Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette, 15 Nov 1924.
http://www.snp.org/media-centre/news/2014/sep/statement-first-minister-alex-salmond[accessed 16 December 2014].
http://labourlist.org/2014/12/together-lets-build-the-fairest-nation-on-earth-jim-murphys-victory-speech/[accessed 16 December 2014].
Paisley Daily Express, 3 November 1922.
http://news.scotland.gov.uk/Speeches-Briefings/First-Minister-acceptance-speech-1277.aspx[accessed, 16 December 2014].
D. Lowe, Souvenirs of Scottish Labour (Glasgow, 1919), p. 125; W.H. Marwick, Labour in Scotland(Glasgow, 1947), p. 6. See also W. Haddow, Socialism in Scotland(Glasgow, n.d.), p. 9.
Catriona M.M. Macdonald, ‘’Their Laurels Wither’d, and their name Forgot’: Women and the Scottish Radical Tradition’, in E.J. Cowan and R.J. Finlay (eds),Scottish History: The Power of the Past(Edinburgh, 2002), pp. 225-253.