23 January 2020

Labour’s Scottish play is a tragedy in the making

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To say that Scottish Labour faces an existential crisis gravely understates the state of mental and moral confusion in which the party finds itself. Labour’s empire was lost long ago and it has not come to terms with a world transformed, far less begun the task of finding itself a new role.

At its simplest, the party needs something to say and someone to say it. If this is obvious, it also risks being trite. Worse, there is no obvious saviour whose arrival would offer the hope of some kind of transformation in Labour fortunes.

And if Labour’s leadership campaign has shown anything, it is the extent to which the United Kingdom is a fractured polity. Jess Philips talked of Scotland as a place “up there”, Rebecca Long Bailey refers to Scotland as “they” not “we” while Lisa Nandy’s chief contribution to the Scottish wing of this contest was to make a clumsy, and ill-judged, reference to Catalonia as a place from which some lessons could be learned in terms of dealing with the threat posed by nationalist secessionists. Nandy was not, despite what the SNP’s social media monkeys claimed, suggesting it was time to crack heads and imprison nationalist politicians, but her intervention was unfortunate nonetheless.

Scotland, then, is largely an afterthought in this tussle; a reminder that the days when Labour argued that the road to power at Westminster ran through Scotland are long gone, blown-up by an inconvenient appointment with political reality. That ensures this contest is, once again, something which seems to be happening somewhere else.

Only Ian Murray, running for the prize of coming second to Angela Rayner in the race for deputy leader, has any great purchase on the Scottish end of the argument and even then it is not altogether clear that the party’s only Scottish MP carries the support and confidence of everyone in what remains of Scottish Labour.

In part that reflects the manner in which the party has been supplanted by the SNP. This is not just a matter of election results or parliamentary arithmetic; it goes much deeper than that. As a psychological concern, Scottish Labour has still not recovered from the crash. That has induced a state of profound insecurity deep in the heart of the Scottish Labour soul.

So much so, in fact, that a significant portion of what remains of the party has been captured, mentally at least, by the SNP. It is increasingly obvious that much of the Scottish left agrees with the SNP’s assertion that Labour has been mortally wounded by its association with the Conservative party during the 2014 independence referendum. You will not find many Labour people, north or south of the border, who would wish to reform the Better Together band if there were ever to be another referendum on independence.

Indeed, Rebecca Long-Bailey, typically, looked back on that association as a grave mistake when she finally outlined her manifesto for the party leadership. There seems something piquant about the fact she should regret one of the very few campaigns of recent years in which Labour was actually on the winning side. But for the left the Tories are clearly a greater enemy than a Scottish National party that would, if it had its way, dismember the country Ms Long Bailey notionally aspires to lead. Hating the Tories that much takes partisanship into rarefied air indeed.

At the very least, the future of the United Kingdom as, well, a United Kingdom, is not something which greatly troubles much of the modern Labour party. That is a fight happening elsewhere, to be settled by other people.

But while the Scottish question must be settled in Scotland, it is not something to which the rest of the UK can or should be indifferent. For it will have an impact on the whole of the UK and the whole of the UK has an interest in its outcome.

Much of the Corbynite left in Scotland voted Yes in 2014, of course, and perhaps a third of Labour’s remaining voters in Scotland would likely vote for independence again if the question is ever put. As the Scottish party has discovered to its significant cost, it is not possible to have a satisfactory answer to the Scottish question if a third of your supporters are diehard Unionists, a third leftist nationalists and a third hovering somewhere in between. You cannot ride two horses in a two horse race.

Hence the endless prevarications, parsing, and shifting over when and where and in what circumstances the Scottish Labour party might one day choose to support a second independence referendum. At present, to the best anyone can tell, the party’s position is that the UK government cannot simply say “No” to a referendum in perpetuity if the Scottish people want one, but nor should there actually be a referendum. That’s not a wholly absurd position, but it is not a clear or simple sell either.

In the 1980s the Labour Party, which had previously been split on the desirability of devolution, persuaded itself that a devolved parliament was now a necessity. That reflected the extent to which Labour remained the established power in Scotland even as it was exiled from office in England.  If the Tories were going to go on and on and on in government at Westminster, better the half-loaf of power offered by devolution in Edinburgh than no loaf at all.

Well, now the Tories look as though they could be in government in London for another decade. Twenty years of Conservative government in SW1A will, I suspect, concentrate Scottish Labour minds all over again. Better, perhaps, the possibility of left-wing or social-democratic government in an independent Scotland than the apparent certainty of Tory rule in the United Kingdom.

But if that may be the likeliest medium-term trajectory for the Labour Party in Scotland, it is one that will have been assisted by the UK party as a whole. For, right now, the message coming from much of the Labour party is that it is neither very interested in Scotland nor likely to become interested by Scotland. If London gives up on Scotland, do not be surprised if Scotland gives up on London.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator