It is impossible to discuss Scottish politics without mentioning the I word. Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since 1707, but the rise of the independence movement over the last decade has called that into question. An occasionally fractious referendum in 2014, won by a comfortable though not crushing margin by the No campaign, served only to invigorate the SNP and the Yes movement, with far-reaching consequences for Scottish electoral politics.
From the 1960s onwards, elections north of the border were dominated by Scottish Labour. More recently, the SNP has taken on a hegemonic position, with Labour struggling to adjust (the party is currently polling at slightly over 20%, in third place behind the Scottish Tories). The sheer amount of antipathy between the two parties has made this a particularly traumatic experience for Labour.
Why do Labour and the SNP hate each other so much? It’s a question asked in genuine confusion (by people outside Scotland) and in feigned bemusement (by Labour or SNP partisans trying to seize the moral high ground). They do have a lot in common. Both are broad left-of-centre churches, encompassing a wide range of views. Sure, they’re opposed on independence, but apart from that there’s so much shared ground. Why don’t they work together more on non-constitutional matters?
The reason is simple. Unlike, say, Labour and the Tories at a UK level, the two parties in Scotland are mostly competing for the same voters. More, neither really believes that the other should exist. The SNP view Scottish Labour not only as essentially uninterested in Scotland’s distinctive interests, but more importantly as a roadblock which should be removed to give the people of Scotland a binary choice between Toryism and independence. Labour, meanwhile, views the SNP as a distraction, whose insistence on pursuing a misguided aim divides the left in Scotland and hamstrings the progressive cause on a UK-wide level.
The SNP want the main divide in Scotland to be between left-leaning nationalism and Tory unionism. Funnily enough, so do the Scottish Conservatives. The Nationalists calculate that, if this choice becomes entrenched, Scotland’s generally left-ish electorate will end up embracing independence. The Tories, meanwhile, believe that such binary opposition would push more Scottish voters – who rejected independence by a reasonable margin in 2014 and have shown no sustained signs of repentance since – towards their column. (I suspect they’re both right: in the long run, a Scotland without a serious UK-wide left party would likely go its own way. But it would send a lot of Tory MPs to Westminster for a while before it did.)
Neither party’s dream features a strong Scottish Labour party, and so both dress for the job they want rather than the job they have and talk up their preferred adversary at every turn: the 2017 election saw exhortations to ‘vote SNP to stand up for Scotland against the Tories’ and ‘vote Tory to tell the SNP you don’t want a second referendum’. And these strategies have met with success. ‘Stronger for Scotland’, painting the SNP as the most reliable bulwark against the Tories, has obviously worked in recent years. The Conservative reinvention as doughty defenders of the Union also yielded results in 2017.
Recently, the two parties have also benefited from Brexit-related polarisation: the SNP (wisely downplaying the fact that the case for Remain looked a lot like the 2014 case for No) has been able to appeal to the many Scots implacably opposed to leaving the EU, while the Tories have done well among Scotland’s Leavers (it should be pointed out that there are still a lot of those: as in 2014, a body of voters that isn’t large enough to win a referendum can have a major influence on multi-party politics).
This pincer movement leaves Labour with little room to breathe: a problem which is only accentuated when the party seems to have little to say about the issues which matter most to the public. Under Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour is doing many of the right things: staking out a position consistently to the left of the Scottish Government (often not that hard – the SNP’s approach in office since 2007 could perhaps best be described as managerial Third Way politics with centralising tendencies), arguing for more radical policymaking and allying with councils, unions and other civil society actors where appropriate to fight against Tory and – yes – SNP cuts. This is an important part of earning the party a right to a hearing from many former and potential voters. But it isn’t going to be enough. Unless Labour can do better on the major constitutional issues facing Scotland – on the issues which are most important to Scots – it will continue to flounder in the polls.
So what should Labour do? With regards to the more immediate issue of Brexit, there’s not much to be said, because the right path is clear. Brexit is hugely unpopular north of the border. 62% backed Remain in 2016 and all the available evidence suggests that that majority has only grown since. Remain outpolled Leave in every council area, and those areas where Leave did best – Moray, Dumfries and Galloway, Aberdeenshire – are rural Tory/SNP battlegrounds rather than post-industrial heartlands. Labour has nothing to lose and a lot to gain by standing up and stating the obvious truth that Brexit, at least in its currently projected forms – and very probably in all likely guises – represents a disaster for Scotland. Its position should be built around pragmatism rather than zealotry: there is nothing wrong with a willingness to lend tactical support to any proposal (be that the revocation of Article 50, a second referendum, a new general election, a Norway-like Brexit) with a serious chance of mitigating either the disaster of May’s deal or the catastrophe of No Deal. But Scottish Labour should be clear that remaining in the EU is the best possible outcome for Scotland and for the UK. If that means diverging somewhat from the party’s UK leadership, then so be it. Of all the criticisms levelled at Scottish Labour in recent years, perhaps the most damaging has been the accusation that it has operated as a mere ‘branch office’. This is no time to prove that criticism correct.
There is also nothing wrong with an evolving position: there is no shame in saying something like ‘when the British people voted to leave the European Union, we accepted the result of the referendum. But over the last three years, it has become clear that this process threatens disaster for Scotland, and we think the electorate should have the opportunity to reconsider.’
Recent signs suggest that this might be happening. Labour in Holyrood voted in favour of revoking Article 50 rather than leave without a deal, and the party’s seven Scottish MPs have supported the full range of Westminster motions aimed at softening or avoiding Brexit. This represents good progress in the right direction, and will hopefully continue.
Not only is Brexit hugely unpopular in Scotland, but the very arguments in favour of remaining in the EU – arguments based on solidarity, on co-operation and on the importance of economic links – are akin to some of the arguments in favour of remaining in the UK. Taking a strong line on remaining in one union but not in the other lacks consistency.
Likewise, there is no future in equivocating about independence. Scottish Labour lashed itself to the mast of the Better Together campaign, and it was overwhelmingly Labour politicians, staffers and activists who provided the organisational muscle and volunteer firepower which delivered victory in 2014. That hasn’t been and won’t be forgotten.
That doesn’t mean that Labour should ape the Tories and build a whole message around opposition to a second referendum. Rather, it means that the party should have a defined approach aimed not at putting the issue to bed so much as ensuring that everyone knows the Labour position – which must be grounded in an understanding of how events since 2016 have shifted the independence debate.
Crucially, that requires an appreciation of the impact of Brexit. The UK still hasn’t left the European Union and (unbelievably) we don’t yet know what’s going to happen. Nevertheless, the last three years have had two major consequences for the national question.
The first point is simple and obvious. In 2014, Better Together told the Scottish people (correctly, at the time!) that voting Yes would jeopardise our EU membership. It turned out that voting No ran the same risk. Scotland voted, comprehensively, to remain in the European Union, but is being dragged out nonetheless. Not for the first time in recent history, the preferences of Scots were outweighed.
The last time a plurality of Scottish voters endorsed a right-of-centre party was sixty years ago. Winston Churchill was still alive, Yuri Gagarin was an unknown air force lieutenant and Alex Salmond was a presumably difficult four-year-old. True, most studies suggest that the political principles of voters north of the border don’t differ that much from the views held elsewhere in the UK (we just don’t like Tories, essentially): Scottish exceptionalism is overplayed. Nevertheless, at the last three UK general elections, Scots have voted left and found themselves governed by the right. And in 2016, Scotland voted overwhelmingly Remain only to see England’s much larger population voting Leave. To pretend that this wasn’t the case, or that it doesn’t strengthen the argument that there are wide political differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, does nobody any favours.
On the other hand, nobody could claim that the Brexit process thus far represents a good advert for dissolving a multi-national union from a position of relative weakness. An approach of ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ has not worked in the Brexit negotiations and there is no reason to think that it would for independence. Scotland’s institutions have been intertwined with those of the rest of the UK for centuries, rather than decades. Untangling them will not be straightforward.
Easy promises made by Leave in 2016 (striking trade deals will be easy, customs arrangements won’t pose any problems, German car manufacturers will ensure that Europe agrees to our every demand) have been exposed as hot air. It turns out that dismissing doubters as ‘Project Fear’ doesn’t answer their points. Now we know the risks of jumping heedlessly into major constitutional change, a Yes2 campaign will face more pressure to produce an adequate blueprint for what an independent Scotland would actually look like: one which can address what currency it would use, how it would cope with the end of a c£10bn annual fiscal transfer under the Barnett Formula, and what relationship it would seek with other European countries. (And it will probably need to be more inspiring than the 2018 report from the SNP’s Growth Commission, a massively technocratic and technocratically massive document which was released with considerable fanfare, relied on some heroic economic assumptions, quietly prescribed extended austerity, alienated many activists and has been referred to only intermittently since.)
One particularly depressing detail is that, in a sense, the worse Brexit gets, the less viable independence would become. If a hard Brexit led to a Yes vote and Scotland rejoining the EU, the border from Berwick to Gretna would become the frontier of the European Union, with all that that would entail for cross-border travel and trade. The economic harm this would inflict on Scotland would be huge – according to figures from 2016, Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is worth nearly four times as much as its trade with the rest of the EU. Quoting economic statistics might sound dry and narrow, but these figures represent hundreds of thousands of real people’s livelihoods.
But the thing is, these arguments are dry and narrow. To the extent that they have an emotional appeal, it’s a purely negative one. An appeal to caution, short-term security and, yes, fear. Those of us who believe that Scotland’s future can still lie within the UK must acknowledge that, while the above points give compelling reasons to be sceptical about the case for independence, they don’t offer any reasons to cheerfully endorse the union. At all. Project Fear Rides Again might win another referendum (though I wouldn’t count on it), but it isn’t going to persuade many erstwhile Yes supporters to change their minds – and in the long run, the demographic trends point strongly towards independence unless a lot of minds are changed. That won’t come from economic doom and gloom, let alone the sterile Scotland-Said-No rhetoric of the Tories.
Trying to move on from the debate altogether isn’t going to work either, much though many of us might wish that we could. Political parties can influence what people care about, but they can’t choose. In any case, the other main parties benefit too much from the independence issue to want to see it fade away. ‘No to a second referendum’ is the most successful line the Scottish Tories have wielded in decades and they’re not about to let it go. Meanwhile, the SNP needs to keep the Yes movement on side and energised. Telling Nicola Sturgeon to get on with the day job won’t work: for many of her supporters, arguing for Scotland’s interests – which much of the country and most of her base believes can only be properly served with independence – is the day job. Labour can’t wait for the independence argument to go away: it must win it, and it can only do that by making a positive case for Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom.
The scale of that challenge shouldn’t be underestimated, but fundamentally it is one which must be faced if the union is to endure down the decades. The task of crafting a positive argument for Scotland’s future within the UK, based on solidarity and optimism, is much bigger than this essay, but one thing is certain: Labour must not allow the SNP and their allies to have a monopoly on hope. No can be a more ambitious position than Yes. The most important challenges confronting us in the 21st century are global problems requiring global solutions: the difficulties posed by the rise of tech capitalism, the threat of the far right, antibiotic resistance and above all the unfolding disaster of climate change. These challenges can only be tackled through international solidarity and co-operation. The United Kingdom isn’t a superpower anymore, but it remains a state with global reach and one of the largest economies in the world. The potential impact of a truly left-wing UK, under radical and imaginative leadership, still far exceeds anything Scotland could do on its own. The advocates of independence would have us believe that this isn’t going to happen: the profoundly pessimistic assumption at the heart of the Yes movement is that British politics has moved irreversibly to the right and that Scotland’s only hope is to abandon the rest of the UK to its fate.
But this reading is based on an overreaction to recent events, and to a determination to judge the UK by its worst representatives. While it would be ridiculous to suggest that recent months and years have shown the United Kingdom in a positive light, polling consistently shows that the British public are receptive to left-wing policy solutions, from the nationalisation of various industries to higher taxation on the wealthy. The most left-wing Labour party in decades came agonisingly close to evicting the Tories from power in 2017 and has polled neck-and-neck with the government ever since. This fight is winnable.
The case for the union must be primarily made in Scotland, but this is not a task for Scottish Labour alone. If the UK party can show clear signs of progress towards power, while formulating radical and credible policy solutions adapted to the world of today, it will become clearer that yes, there is hope for the union. If we cannot point to a positive future for the United Kingdom – if, indeed, it does come down to a choice between perpetual Tory rule and independence – then we cannot expect the Scottish people to keep endorsing the devil they know.