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Scottish Labour’s Annual Conference and the ‘Highland Luxemburgist’ faction

Neal Ascherson, 2002
From his book:
Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland

One of my tasks for the Scotsman in the 1970s used to be the reporting of Scottish Labour’s annual conference. Most party conferences took place at Perth. They happened in the same hall which would be draped with Gaelic slogans for the SNP conference and then – when the Tories’ turn came in mid-May – stuffed with powdery blue hydrangeas to match Mrs Thatcher’s suit.

At the Labour conference, there was one regular event to which I looked forward keenly. This was the resolution on Highland land policy. Each year, the agenda committee would try to get this resolution dropped, remitted or composited out of existence. Each year the delegates would overrule the platform and settle down to some genuine blood and thunder.

The proposers were nicknamed the ‘Highland Luxemburgist’ faction, after the German-Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and her habit of putting principle before party discipline. They invariably included Brian Wilson, then the young and furiously radical editor of the West Highland Free Press, and the novelist Allan Campbell MacLean. They were usually supported by the militant Skye crofter Margaret MacPherson. The ‘Luxemburgists’ were utterly opposed to the Labour Government’s policy of transforming crofting tenure into owner-occupation. Instead, they demanded that the landlords of all crofting estates be expropriated, and the land be returned to the people to own and manage collectively under a democratically elected Crofting Trust.

Magnificent, incandescent speeches would echo through the hall, punctuated by cheers and glittering references to Gaelic literature, to the nineteenth-century Land Leaguers and to the battles of Highland men and women against the police, troops and landlords sent to evict them. On the platform, Willie Ross, Labour’s Secretary of State for Scotland, glowered in disgusted silence. But every year the delegates would ignore the executive’s pleas and vote massively for the resolution, before trooping off to celebrate with whisky-and-lemonade at the Salutation or the Isle of Skye bars.

Nothing much ever came of these resolutions. The Labour government ignored them and went ahead with its plans to allow crofters to purchase their own holdings. In the House of Commons, Willie Ross had to endure the sarcastic congratulations of Tory spokesmen for standing up to his party’s extremists and defending the ideals of private property. But I asked myself why those delegates, normally well-drilled and obedient to party discipline, rose so recklessly to the pibroch of the ‘Luxemburgists’. Overwhelmingly, that audience came from the industrial Lowlands and the Central Belt: trade unionists and local officials whose background was in the mines or the steel mills or shipyards. How could the tortuous niceties of crofting legislation, affecting only a tiny section of Scotland’s rural population whose way of life and often language was utterly remote from the normalities of Grangemouth, Greenock or Coatbridge, move them almost to tears.

The explanation lies in history. The Highland Clearances, the century and a half of oppression, hunger, exploitation and eviction which the people of the Gaeltacht underwent between about 1750 and the 1880s, are now irreversibly a part of Scottish political identity. Many people at those Labour conferences, whose families had lived in the cities of central Scotland for generations, were descendents of Highlanders driven from their homes by the Clearances. Others remembered great-grandparents who had come to Scotland as refugees from Irish landlordism and famine. But there is more to this emotion than family tradition.

Few nationalisms do not incorporate a wound. The icon of national identity is not complete without a scar left by a foreign sword. All Poles look to Black Madonna of Czestochowa, who bears on her dark, sad face the slashes inflicted by Hussite invaders from Bohemia. The Czechs think of the twenty-seven patriots executed in Prague by Maximilian of Bavaria in 1621; the Israelis remember the Holocaust carried out by the German Nazis; the Irish understand themselves through the Great Famine of the 1840s (laid to the account of British misrule) and through Cromwell’s atrocities.

Scotland can finger such scars, almost all of them the work of the English over the centuries. But, remarkably, the Scots are not obsessed by the evil which others have done to them. Instead, the iconic wounds are the self-inflicted ones: the massacre of Glencoe, the battle of Culloden (perceived accurately enough as the last act of a civil war within Scotland, even through the core of the army which defeated the Jacobites was English), and the Highland Clearances.

The English are accustomed to being the scapegoats of the world, blamed for the slave trade, for Ireland, for appeasing Hitler, for the Bengal famine and all the sins of colonialism. Perhaps they appreciate this status. Perhaps foreign blame is England’s iconic wound; after all, the whipping-boy has a special sense of superiority. Whatever the truth of that, it is often assumed ‘down south’ that the Highland estate-owners who drove out the people and replaced them with sheep must have been English aristocrats and plutocrats, and that the Scots hate the English for it. But, with few exceptions, the clearing landlords were not incomers from south of the border. They were traditional clan chiefs, Highland gentlemen or Lowland capitalists and speculators. Scots cleared other Scots, and the Scots know it.

Source: Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, Chapter 11, pp72-175, Granta Books, London, 2003

Copyright © 2002 Neal Ascherson