What have the Romans ever done for us? It's one of the funniest Monty Python routines and it is still relevant - it's the oldest and the newest complaint in politics. Now we have Alan McGee getting in on the act in a recent blog on the Huffington Post. His assertion - for he makes not attempt at an argument - is that in seven years the SNP have done more for Scotland than the Labour Party in 70. Really? Let's have a go at Labour's greatest hits:
- the NHS
- National Minimum Wage
- Council housing and New Towns
- IBM and Silicon Glen
- National Parks
- The Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) and Scottish Development Agency (SDA)
- Sex Discrimination Act
- Race Discrimination Act
- Equal Pay Act
- Civil partnerships
That's not an exhaustive list, just a start.
Oh yeah, and the Scottish Parliament too.
McGee's list? A wee bit smaller and a lot more contestable:
- The Referendum (actually a Coalition Bill)
- Free Prescriptions (extending to the middle classes what children, pensioners and those on benefits already got for free)
- Free Higher Education (with £20,000 average debt on graduation for low income students)
- Free Concessionary Bus Travel (actually a Labour achievement)
- Bedroom Tax Revoked (mitigated after Labour pressure)
- Council Tax Freeze (£100million cut in services in average local authorities)
- Historic Poll Tax debts written off (accounting action taken in England a decade ago)
Why does this matter? Well, it's all part of a nationalist narrative that seeks to deny that there were any progressive achievements in Scotland before the SNP formed a minority government in 2007. It is not plausible in terms of actual history, but that is not the point - this is myth-making not fact-seeking. The myth is two fold - that only the SNP look after Scotland's interests and that they are a progressive party. Neither assertion is true. Dislike the modern Scottish Labour Party all that you like, but it has a record as a nation-building in Scotland that is second to none.
On homes, Scot John Wheatley in the short-lived 1924 minority Labour government introduced the first government support for council housing. The 1945 Attlee government created the New Towns which cleared Scotland's slums. And Wendy Alexander, as a Scottish Government minister, wrote off Glasgow's housing debt which allowed the creation of the Glasgow Housing Association and their transformation of social housing for Glaswegians.
In industry it was Labour-led state-planning that transformed Scotland into the confident, growing economy it is today. Hector McNeil, Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, brought IBM to Greenock in 1951. A move that led to the micro-electronics industry growing in size and scale until it was termed 'Silicon Glen' - an industry that created the conditions for, among other things, the substantial computer games industry that exists in Scotland today. It was Tom Johnston, Secretary of State during the Second World War who created the Hydro-Board - the basis for Scotland's leadership in renewables that was built on by Donald Dewar and Jack McConnell. Willie Ross created the Highland and Islands Development Board and the Scottish Development Agency that built the infrastructure of modern industries that are the backbone of modern Scottish prosperity.
Socially, it was Labour who introduced equal rights. Tackling sex and race discrimination - and in the Equalities Act extending additional rights to gay men, lesbians and people with disabilities. Abolishing the homophobic Section 28 (Section 2A in Scotland) and legislating for civil partnerships across the United Kingdom.
Now, politics is - of course - about the promises made for the future. But the credibility of those must be tested by voters, and the best guide is the record of changes made in the past. Each of the Labour achievements I have listed dwarfs those that McGee cites. No surprise really, the Labour Party are Scotland's progressives, Scotland's social democrats. The offer for the future from Scottish Labour is 200,000 extra new homes in Scotland over a parliament, a Living Wage, and an energy price freeze and a new 50p rate of tax - opposed by the SNP. It's not just what Scottish Labour has delivered in the past that matters for Scotland - it's the quality of what is on offer too.