Devolution and the Decline of the Left

As we come to terms with Tom Nairn’s legacy, Finn Smyth considers how Scotland has fallen into the ‘dead centre’ of social democracy.

When academics, activists and critics convened in Edinburgh last November to salute Tom Nairn’s legacy nearly a year after his death, there was no escaping the grim prospects facing radical politics in Scotland today. For those in favour of independence, the SNP offer no path forward after exhausting every material avenue towards another referendum. What’s more, twenty-five years of devolution seem to have failed either to produce radical new socioeconomic reforms or to defend existing ones from austerity. When Nairn’s The Break-up of Britain was published in 1977, the British and Scottish left were gripped by a similar pessimism. The ‘contentious alliance’ between the Labour government and the trade unions was breaking down, and when Jim Callaghan pronounced ‘the death of Keynesianism’ at Labour conference in 1976, he admitted a failure on the Left to explore or embrace progressive alternatives to a decaying status quo.

The “Dead Centre” of Social Democracy

Nairn’s arguments were intended to circumvent the flawed structures of British parliamentary politics and provide Scotland with a radical alternative. As Fintan O’Toole remarked on the occasion of the conference, Nairn was significant for how “he upset a way of binary thinking” that had opposed British parliamentary unionism to traditional nationalism. He understood the urgent need for theories and critiques generated outside existing political structures. Now as then, many similar patterns of party organisation, policy and thinking continue to plague the left – as shown by the political trajectory of Scotland after devolution, and the path taken by the Labour Party.

For Nairn, ‘civic nationalism’ offered a radical response to the growing malaise of British social democracy. [1] “British political life”, wrote Nairn, has revolved helplessly in diminishing and sinking circles, from which both main political parties try to strike out in vain. They imagine that ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ wing solutions are feasible without a radical break in the crippling state formation which corsets them both and forces all new policies back into a dead centre of ‘consensus’.[2]

For Nairn, the ‘dead centre’ of withering social democracy needed to be radically challenged, not grudgingly sacrificed to neoliberalism. Devolution was not an end point, but the first step in the total separation of Scottish politics from the Westminster bubble. By winning autonomy over the Scottish economy’s key sectors, the left could defend existing reforms and win new ones from the uncompromising British state. Flying Scottish radicalism in Tory Britain’s face, devolution could be the catalyst for an independent, democratic, socialist Scotland.

Twenty-five years after devolution’s enactment, civic nationalism has also sunk into Nairn’s dead centre and, for some on the left, his legacy today actually underpins the existing neoliberal settlement. For James Mitchell, “Radical Scotland has barely been evident under devolved government.”[3] Instead, we have witnessed with devolution the annihilation of Scottish Labour, the collapse of organised labour (fifty-five per cent of workers were unionised in Scotland in 1980, falling to thirty-two per cent in 2010), and the newfound supremacy of a Scottish National Party whose economic policies often embrace austerity.[4]

In similar vein to Nairn, Eric Hobsbawm warned of a growing crisis in the British labour movement and Labour Party in his 1978 essay ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted. It points out the limits of worker militancy and the fragmenting composition of the traditional working class, leading some to read it as an intellectual founding document for what became New Labour.[5] Arguably, Hobsbawm’s ‘realistic Marxism’ is ideologically connected with the ‘radicalism of the centre’ of Blair’s third way, just as Nairn’s civic nationalism may have perpetuated stagnation in Scotland. There are parallels between the behaviour of the Labour Party in the seventies and of the SNP in the last few decades.

Nairn’s negative critique of the British parliamentary system provided a model for the SNP’s perpetual and popular criticism of Westminster and the Conservatives. Equally, Hobsbawm’s negative critique of  the Labour deadlock under Wilson and Callaghan motivated left-wing activists in Labour whose radical politics was eventually rejected by the party right. The Labour left tested the  potential of radical politics in times of industrial weakness, just as the left-wing movement for devolution sought to rescue Scotland’s welfare state and social infrastucture from Thatcher’s assault. Unfortunately, Scottish governments have failed to realise devolution’s supposed positive potential to reverse the social state’s decline. Over half of Scots lived in council housing in 1977. This has collapsed to a fifth of Scots today. [6] 

The Contradictions of Devolution

         In ‘The Forward March of Devolution Halted’, Leighton Andrews argues that devolution’s expansive logic – with the Scottish Parliament’s authority spreading to more policy areas over time – has finally been exhausted.[7] The SNP have ordered their rhetoric in terms of Scotland’s collective dislike of conservatism, and argued repeatedly that only with absolute independence can they enact the social reforms denied to Scots within the UK. But despite the Scottish Parliament’s increasing autonomy, SNP Governments have been  the janitors of a twentieth-century social democracy. Instead of taking advantage of the fiscal and legislative opportunities of devolution, the SNP present themselves as caretakers of an unrealised Scottish state, occupied by the day-to-day business of mitigating the damage wrought by Conservative governments on Scottish communities.

Counterintuitively, then, devolution has left both socialists and social democrats dissatisfied. It has not led to the radical break with British political structures in the way that socialists like Nairn had hoped, while Scotland’s social democratic welfare state remains vulnerable to erosion. Child poverty rates in Scotland have mirrored wider UK patterns, with nearly twenty five percent of Scottish children living in poverty in 2020 – roughly ten per cent more than in the 1960s and 1970s.[8] As one group of critics have argued, far from fomenting a clear break with the familiar landscape of British politics, devolution has cemented Scotland’s position within the neoliberal structure of the union by streamlining the process of governance, instead of making it conflictual. Consultation exercises, committee reports, and consensus-building are key tenets of the Scottish Government’s approach to policymaking, and “the details of policy and its enactment are often less significant than the consultation process itself.”[9] Just as Keynesianism was meant to ‘manage’ capitalism, reserving economic and government control to an elite and brokering the relationship between labour and government via a ‘social contract’, so too are the politics of devolution that of an elite. The 2014 Living Rent Campaign for rent controls, for instance, demonstrated the vapidity of the government’s policymaking consultation processes. Despite an overwhelming majority of consultation respondents supporting rent-controls, the government triggered another consultation a year later (partly in reaction to angry landlords), only for the same pattern to be repeated. Rent-controls were only implemented in Scotland in 2022 as an emergency measure by the SNP-Green coalition.

Rather than addressing a democratic deficit in Scotland, opening up parliamentary politics to the people, devolution has proved a continuation of the managerial policymaking of British government today. The Scottish Government’s obsession with consultation and consensus impedes the conflict and diverse discourse that create genuine democratic impetus.

Without cohesive democratic channels within parties or attached to government, mass movements then and now have few ways to articulate their demands at the level of institutional power. As discussed, these movements can threaten the integrity and popularity of the elite, who waste real opportunities to transform society for the better.

Proletarian Positivity

The original, radical discourse which inspired devolution in Scotland was a significant element of a political counterculture which opposes the dominant, moderate one. Countercultures like this produce the tools with which democratic socialists can seek to win power and change society. Once aspects of their movement become established, new Hobsbawms and Nairns can engage in their negative dissection, and meanwhile new countercultures emerge from which new positive positions can form. In his 1964 essay Origins of the Present Crisis, Perry Anderson argued that a chief focus for democratic socialists ought to be the consistent implementation of their ideals and values in their organisations, alongside the constant advocation of them in original and critical ways [10]. Describing this principle as ‘proletarian positivity’, Anderson pointed to Raymond Williams’ argument that the perpetuation of a democratic socialist culture in the organisations of the working class, activists, and organisers, is the best way to increase the appeal of radical alternatives in times of crisis. The more sophisticated and professional a left culture is, and the more left organisations embody their ideals of democracy, the more enticing democratic socialism becomes at times when new ideas are sought to challenge the status quo. As Williams famously wrote at the end of his 1958 book, Culture and Society:

There are ideas, and ways of thinking, with the seeds of life in them, and there are others, perhaps deep in our minds, with the seeds of a general death. Our measure of success in recognising these kinds, and in naming them making possible their common recognition, may be literally the measure of our future. [11]

[1] Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain, (Verso: London, 2021)

[2] Nairn, The Break-up of Britain, p.37

[3] James Mitchell, The Scottish Question, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014), p.281

[4] Gerry Hassan, Eric Shaw, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2012), p.7

[5] Herbert Pimlott, ‘From ‘Old Left’ to ‘New Labour’? Eric Hobsbawm and the Rhetoric of ‘Realistic Marxism’, in Labour, vol.56, (Athabasca University Press: Alberta, 2005), p.177


[7] Leighton Andrews, ‘The Forward March of Devolution Halted – and the Limits of Progressive Unionism’, in The Political Quarterly, vol.92, (The Political Quarterly Publishing Co., 2021), p.512

[8] Amanda Gavin, Child Poverty in Scotland Since the 1960s, (Scottish Parliament: SPICe, 2021), p.16, accessed (19/08/2023):

[9] Cailean Gallagher, Rory Scothorne, Amy Westwell, Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland, (Luath Press: Edinburgh, 2021), p.49-50

[10] Perry Anderson, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, in New Left Review, vol.1, (1964), p.44[11] Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, c1780-1950, (Penguin: London, 1966), p.324

Finn Smyth studies history at the University of St Andrews and has worked for Progressive International as a writer and researcher.