IT has been just another unedifying week in British politics. Filled with chaos, confusion, charge and countercharge.

A major strand of the past week was the manoeuvrings between Labour and the SNP in the House of Commons. There were ­obtuse proceedings, debates about ­motions and amendments, and ­controversy over the role of the Speaker – all leaving the SNP feeling disrespected. Underlying all this was the mutual mistrust and jockeying for position between Labour and the SNP.

Deeply felt emotions and ­political ­dynamics between the two parties ­underpin these events. All political ­parties across the world view ­opponents warily and antagonistically – this is part of ­political democracy. But there is ­something more elemental and off-the-­radar between the two parties – how they see and act towards each other.

This rivalry has consequences for all ­involved in Scottish politics, ultimately having a deleterious effect on both ­parties, public policy, the values and principles which shape public life, and the future of Scotland – including independence.

READ MORE: Ofcom is failing to take action on GB News, say senior TV executives

Independence supporters often state with certainty that “the Scottish Labour Party” do not exist. Rather they are, in the resignation words of ex-leader Johann ­Lamont, “a branch office” of British ­Labour. This has a degree of truth in it, but is also an overstatement as Scottish ­Labour exist as an organisation and brand – just not a fully autonomous one.

Many in Scottish Labour like to dwell on the supposed irrationality and ­grievance culture of Scottish ­nationalism, trying to problematise and ­stigmatise it, ­ignoring that nationalism exists ­everywhere in the world. British Labour are a British ­nationalist force – with “British jobs for ­British workers” being invoked by Gordon Brown, while Keir Starmer repeatedly wrapping himself in the Union Jack. There is in this, an element of ­deliberate incomprehension of “the other” on both sides which has long-term costs.

The National: Anas Sarwar pointing at Humza Yousaf while Jackie Baillie looks on

The current political landscape and the prospect of a UK Labour ­government makes this even more acute; ­exacerbated by the rising popularity of Labour in ­Scotland, with the SNP being on the back foot after 17 years in Holyrood.

The SNP won 48 of 59 Scottish Westminster seats in 2019 and will struggle to achieve this against the pumped-up Labour ­challenge. This newfound competitive politics has come as a shock to the SNP, just as the end of Labour’s dominance in Scotland shocked it – all of which contributes to a febrile, abrasive atmosphere.

A short history of Labour-SNP rivalry

REMEMBERING history is important in all this. In 1888, Keir Hardie stood as an independent Labour candidate in the Mid-Lanarkshire by-election where he finished third. One of his major planks was Scottish home rule, and five years later in 1893, he was one of the founding members of the UK-wide Independent Labour Party (ILP) that had a major commitment to home rule.

In the 1920s, James Maxton, Gordon Brown’s political hero, as a Labour MP was not only a passionate supporter of home rule, but spoke at times in ­support of independence, describing it as ­“building a socialist commonwealth”. These points underline that the cause of Scottish self-government has been at the heart of the wider labour tradition from the beginning and is not owned exclusively by the SNP or anyone.

THE modern era of antagonism between Labour and SNP began with the electoral rise of the SNP in the 1960s and Winnie Ewing winning Hamilton in 1967. This resulted in Labour’s Willie Ross describing himself as “Hammer of the Nats” and using the dismissive phrase “tartan Tories” about the SNP.

READ MORE: Sky News deletes tweet of Keir Starmer admitting to talks with Isaac Herzog

In this period, Scottish Labour were completely committed to the British state, centralisation across the UK and anti-­devolution. There is a telling set of ­observations in their evidence to the Kilbrandon Commission on the ­Constitution in 1970 where the party’s deputation stated emphatically that “there is no such thing as a separate ­political will for Scotland”, no issue of distinct mandates, and no question that Labour would ever challenge a UK Tory government elected without a Scottish mandate.

At this point, some of the ­fundamental Labour-SNP antagonisms began to ­harden and fossilise, aided by further events in the 1970s – particularly after ­Labour abandoned their anti-devolution stance in 1974 pressured by the electoral threat of the SNP.

Jim Sillars (below) was a young Labour MP first elected in a 1970 by-election, who ­observed how newly-elected Winnie ­Ewing spoke about Labour and Labour MPs. Writing retrospectively in the 1980s as an SNP member pre-Govan, he ­observed that Ewing made the mistake of attacking “the labour movement” rather than the Parliamentary Labour Party, questioning their motivation and ­commitment in what Sillars took as an assault on those very values, rather than demand they remain true to those values.

The National: Jim Sillars

Looking back now at those attitudes, ­Sillars reflects: “In 1967, there was very little intimate knowledge of the labour movement in the SNP. I don’t think ­Winnie knew very much about the ­labour/socialist movement, how proud we were of its history of struggle and ­success, and the socialist ideology that underpinned it – and so how offended we were by what we construed were her attacks on people who embodied our values.”

He observes in the present day: “There was also – pre-79 group – no left wing in the SNP. It is different today. We have trade unionists who are SNP – including elected ones as MSPs and MPs – and it was the swing from Labour to SNP in the Central Belt that drove the great surge in support in the years since 2007.”

The folklore of Labour and SNP ­continued throughout the 1970s. It ­culminated in the 1979 ­devolution ­referendum and 1979 vote of no ­confidence in the Callaghan Labour ­government when the SNP voted against Labour, resulting in a one-vote ­victory of 311 to 310. This brought down the ­government (with no one ever ­mentioning the votes of the 13 Liberal MPs led by David Steel in the same lobby as the SNP).

This day 45 years later is still brought up by Labour figures, as the ­parliamentary vote led to the May 1979 election and ­election of Margaret Thatcher. Nick ­Cohen, formerly of The Observer, dragged it up last week after the antics in the House of Commons saying that this is just what you expect from “tartan Tories” who collaborated with the Tories to bring down a Labour government in 1979.

Present hostilities

Labour's continued bitterness towards the SNP could be seen last week, as Labour candidate and former minister Douglas Alexander claimed that “I ­struggle to identify a single area of Scottish public life that has got ­significantly better in recent years.” This is – to put it mildly – a bit sweeping, dismissive and a caricature of events.

This is not to deny that the SNP after 17 years in office do not have questions to answer and improve on. The SNP’s ­Panglossian defence of their supposed vast array of achievements over the ­period does now – in significant places – ring a little hollow given the lack of funding in large areas of public life.

Equally, a regular Labour trope from the likes of Anas Sarwar and others is to talk of Scotland and the UK and “their two failing governments”. It is a good phrase from a Labour point of view but implying any sort of equivalence between the Tory and SNP-Green administrations is not how most Scots see things.

Similarly, numerous examples can be found where senior SNP politicians call out the Labour and Tory parties as ­basically the same. SNP Westmister leader Stephen Flynn said last year that UK Labour leader “Keir Starmer is ­little more than David Cameron with a red tie” which is palpably untrue and not that good a political insult.

READ MORE: GB News co-owner denies Islamophobia after Twitter history exposed

Scottish public opinion does not see ­Labour and Tories as interchangeable either. For all the minimal offer from Starmer, and acceptance of much of the Tory agenda, public opinion in Scotland still recognises significant differences. A poll last year showed that Scots by a margin of nearly 3:1 prefer a Labour government over a Tory government.

Despite all the ­retreats of Labour in recent years and since Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, stating that there is no real difference between Labour and Tories does not sit well with most Scottish voters.

The long-running dispute ­between ­Labour and the SNP solidified and ­became more toxic in the 2014 ­independence referendum. A major point of fury for independence campaigners was Labour joining forces with the Tories in Better Together. This was widely seen as a betrayal of Scotland leading to the ­accusation that Labour were nothing ­better than “red Tories”.

This is now seen as a strategic ­mistake by many in Labour for which they paid a high price in the 2015 UK ­election when their Westminster Scottish ­representation crashed from 41 to a single seat. Yet this does not mean that Labour can in perpetuity be viewed and defined by this mistake.

The National: Vote Labour to stop independence referendum – Gordon Brown

All political parties make profound and costly strategic mistakes. Think of the SNP in 1979 voting with the Tories, which reduced their Westminster seats from the high point of 11 in October 1974 to two in May 1979; and Labour in 2014 side-by-side with the Tories. These two moments defined first the SNP, then ­Scottish ­Labour for years. ­Eventually these become part of the tapestry of ­history – as 2014 will at some point.

One missing dimension from much of the analysis on Labour and the SNP is the human factor. There is the overarching point that it is the same sort of folk – sometimes literally the same people – who have over the years joined Labour and the SNP. This crossover extends to the ­characteristics of voters from the two ­parties who in recent times have drawn from the same pool – centre-left, ­working class, west of Scotland – with many ­being Labour voters in 2014, later switching to ­pro-independence.

The common ground between Labour and SNP

Independence aside, the bigger picture is the similarities between the two parties. This is often described as “the narcissism of small differences” to quote Freud; or as openDemocracy’s Peter Geoghegan puts it (regarding Labour and the SNP), people “often hate what’s actually quite similar to themselves”.

Underneath all the rhetoric, both parties share common features including in places their obvious conservatism, control politics and top-down nature. Both have invoked at their peak the metaphor of “movement politics”. “The labour movement” used to be the central way that Labour thought of themselves and is still residually mentioned, with the SNP citing “the independence movement.” But both contain obvious tensions.

Labour for years – despite originating in the trade union movement – have sought to limit union influence in the party: a stance which was obvious as early as the 1926 General Strike when senior Labour parliamentarians distanced themselves and the party from the strike.

The SNP in 2014 and its aftermath cited continually the importance of “the movement”, but they have been wary of it becoming a permanent reality as that might mean having to cede control. The SNP leadership post-2014 have failed to engage in any tangible actions which can be seen as “movement building”.

READ MORE: Lee Anderson has Tory whip suspended over Islamist comments

This is not synonymous with protest marches, but rather the infrastructure building of a variety of resources and values. Instead, the SNP have invoked “movement politics” while wanting to see the party as a manifestation and expression of that to the exasperation of many. This is the idea of “movement” as a rhetorical device to mask a politics of control.

Both Labour in Scotland and the SNP in their peak years emphasised their radical credentials. Yet a common conceit runs through both in how they have presented their radicalism. In these periods, Labour first, then the SNP, ran Scotland and invoked areas over which they have little control. These have traditionally included defence, foreign affairs, nuclear weapons, and in recent months, the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Labour in their peak years did not have radical policies in areas close to home such as local government, housing or public services. The SNP have ended up in office embracing a similar take as partly a camouflage for their domestic conservatism. Hence, over the numerous areas of which the SNP has control – local government, education and health – the party have been far from radical or bold.

The National: cottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (left) and First Minister of Scotland Humza Yousaf at the

Yet, in defence, foreign affairs and nuclear weapons, they can safely take a radical stand against the British state and its impact in Scotland. What Labour and now the SNP’s rhetoric on such issues disguises is that in their periods running Scotland, they have both become system parties, insider parties and incorporated into the Scottish political establishment.

The power of Scotland’s right to decide

Beyond this convergence are obvious differences including the principle of self-determination. Scottish Labour continue to refuse to embrace the idea of Scotland’s right to decide its own future. This is controversial in some quarters in the party for the reason that Scotland’s right to decide is both popular and seen as making sense to most voters.

This issue produces tensions within the wider labour movement. Labour ­voters are overwhelmingly supportive, while the STUC and individual affiliated ­unions have shown their support for the party. This means this topic has traction and future possible movement.

Current political sentiments challenge all parties. The SNP have to understand the Scotland beyond their appeal which it does not represent. The nationalists – like Labour before them – have never won a majority of the popular vote. The SNP peaked at 49.97% in 2015; Labour at 49.9% in 1966. This means that just as ­anti-Labour Scotland was always a ­majority of the popular vote, the same is true of anti-SNP Scotland.

From this follows that the SNP do not speak for or represent all of Scotland and that people who criticise and challenge the SNP are not criticising Scotland – a road regularly travelled by some SNP and independence supporters.

READ MORE: UK showing 'lack of interest' in food labour shortage in Scotland

Similarly, independence supporters have to recognise the validity of the views of those unconvinced – or who believe in the Union. It is bad politics to not be able to understand the rationale of ­opponents and opposing views, and in the ­independence debate, this is a major part of the ­dynamic from the most passionate supporters on both sides.

In essence, this is a willful refusal to ­recognise the logic of the other side and in so doing to attempt to delegitimise them – on such an important ­subject, this does not work. Instead, it helps parts of ­independence and the Union produce ­caricatured versions of their opponents, ergo pro-Union views are brainwashed by the BBC, Labour and “the Vow”, with some Unionists thinking ­independence ­supporters are driven by flags, ­romanticism and anti-English ­feelings. The entire debate is poorer due to such sentiments.

A final thought is that the similarities between Labour and the SNP are hardly ­surprising given their shared roots. The significant cost of the dance of mutual contempt and hostility between the two parties ­extends across most of the body politic of Scotland.

For a start, Labour and then the SNP have been shaped at best by what could be described as a defensive social democracy which is not that dynamic, progressive or redistributive, and has instead been shaped by a conservative mindset, resisting the encroachment of various Westminster policies.

The National:

Equally, the division within Scotland’s social democracy between Labour and the SNP has contributed to the ­qualities above and prevented the evolution of a shared language and set of values ­emerging which would speak for a ­constituency and include not only the nationalist and ­labour traditions but others as others such as ­Liberals and Greens.

The divisions between the two, the ­fetishisation of difference, and the salience of the independence question has contributed to Scotland’s social democracy ­becoming calcified and frozen in time – much to the ­detriment of the two parties, Scottish ­politics, and the cause of independence.

Across the developed world in the past 40 years, social democracy and the left have engaged in deep debates about the nature of the economy and political economy, how to support the diversity of civil society, the role of government, the state and public agency, the balance of well-being and economic growth, and issues of sustainability and thinking beyond the short-term.

This absence in Scotland is about ­something more fundamental than the SNP’s oft-cited point about the lack of “levers” in the Scottish Parliament and particularly “economic levers”. Such a shrunken ambition can be seen in the SNP’s refusal to address the ­trade-offs and choices involved in a renewed ­independence project post-2014.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf affirms support for Ukraine on second invasion anniversary

There will always be competition and disagreement between political parties for as long as they exist. But it would be to the benefit of all of us if we could establish some common ground and language by which Labour, the SNP and some of their representatives, members and supporters, along with folk from other progressive parties and traditions, could speak, listen and learn from each other.

Scotland’s divided social democracy and war of attrition between Labour and SNP is a zero-sum game and race to the bottom politically which produces a heavy cost to our politics. A country which prides itself on the strength of its social democracy should have reducing child poverty and tackling our endemic health inequalities at the forefront of every public debate rather than the tinkering and posturing we currently engage in.

There are good things which have come from Scotland’s social democratic ­tradition, but there is so much more we could do. Twenty-five years into the ­Scottish Parliament and nearly 60 years after Winnie Ewing won Hamilton is as good a time as any to say we can do ­politics better than we currently do.

This is not just about identifying the common ground of Scotland’s centre-left but working out the substance of what social democracy stands for and ­tackling endemic poverty, horrendous health ­inequalities, progressing redistribution and giving voice to those who feel they are voiceless. In the process, Scottish ­politics – and what we agree and ­disagree on – could become more about real tangible things, aiding the debate on our future, collective confidence, and ­ultimately, ­independence.