Will the Scottish Labour Party ever change its stance on Scottish independence? Letter from Scotland November 26

The Labour Party has become increasingly defined by opposition to a second referendum and to the SNP generally  – but it doesn’t seem to be bearing fruit electorally. There was a Highland Council by-election last week – won by Frenchwoman Sarah Fanet for the SNP from the Conservatives.  It was interesting to see that on the day, the Green Party got roughly the same number of votes that the Labour Party had won in 2017. The actual numbers were small – but an Ipsos Mori poll of Holyrood voting intentions told a similar story, with the Greens on 12% – up 4% since the election earlier this year – while Labour dropped 3 to 15%. If this trend continues, the Labour Party could soon slide into fourth place – and the Green Party will expect more prominence in media coverage of Scottish affairs.

Scottish Labour’s leader Anas Sarwar – the fourth Scottish Labour leader since 2014 – has spent the last few weeks angrily berating Nicola Sturgeon about deaths in hospital – including of Covid patients who were also suffering from other conditions such as cancer. Sarwar comes across as hectoring and aggressive and seems to hold individual doctors and Nicola Sturgeon personally responsible for failing to keep these very sick people alive. Medics at the hospital have issued an angry statement about the way they are being called out in the public forum.

As a proportional representation Parliament, Holyrood might be expected to produce a more European-style politics, rewarding politicians who can build alliances and forge compromise.  In Wales, the Labour Party has broken the mould and made a cooperation agreement with the independence supporting Plaid Cymru. But Scottish Labour remains stridently opposed to a referendum on independence in Scotland and Labour refuses any opportunity to make common cause with the SNP – for example when the SNP in Westminster proposed a vote of No Confidence in Boris Johnson, far from supporting this, the Labour Party didn’t even participate in the debate.

The rancour between Scottish Labour and the SNP goes back a long way. Scottish Labour probably needs to separate the SNP from support for independence. Many traditional Labour Party supporters also support independence, and they wouldn’t consider voting for the party now because of its aggressively anti-indy stance. The party doesn’t even appeal to many of the voters who are agnostic about independence – for those I know, the compromise position in the last election was generally to vote Green in the first, constituency vote.

I have some sympathy for the Labour Party – they won the referendum for the Union in 2014. I think they still haven’t come to terms with the fact that they burned so much of their political capital in that fight. They broke up the furniture in the Labour Party’s Scottish home, they snapped off the banisters, they even took the books from the family library and threw them on the conflagration –  and it all went to keep the Conservative Party warm

On the eve of that referendum, as support for independence surged, Labour Party activists pounded the city streets and took to the internet, day after day. Supporters poured over the border to help: Gordon Brown gave the speech of his life. Brown and others assured us that Scotland could ‘lead not leave’, that membership of the UK was the best way to secure Scotland’s membership of the EU; that the devolution settlement would be protected, indeed that it had further to go and more to offer  – they vowed that federal autonomy for Scotland would become a reality.

I bought all that – and voted No. On the morning after the election, I expected to see David Cameron outside Downing Street with Gordon Brown, thanking him and assuring us all that Scots’ concerns would be noted – it had been a narrow victory. Of course, instead, Cameron did not reach out to Scots who voted ’Yes’ or even those of us who had considered it. Instead, he made his EVEL speech, blocking Scotland’s MPs from voting on “English” matters in the Commons.  Then followed a hard Brexit forced on Scotland despite clear opposition, and now we see consistent, deliberate undermining of the devolution settlement. Tory donors are elevated to an increasingly cynical House of “Lords” and given power over Scottish affairs – most Scottish MPs will never take up places there because they are members of the SNP which does not participate. The National newspaper makes sure to always refer to erstwhile Labour members by their titles – Baron “Lord” Foulkes of Cumnock: Baron “Lord” McConnell of Glenscorrodale. The point is not lost on its readers.

What effect has all this had on support for independence? Of course, Margaret Thatcher always used to say that if Scots wanted independence all they had to do was to elect a majority of SNP MPS. That seemed unthinkable then – but has happened at every General Election since 2014. The UK Government is fighting hard to suppress private polling they did in the run-up to the 2019 election – it is rumoured that this showed 60% support for independence. Who knows? It fell in recent polls to just under half  – but a recent poll again showed 55% support for independence.

The UK government’s strategy seems to be to refuse calls for another referendum and hope it all goes away. That strategy is echoed by the Labour Party. A piece in the Guardian by Martin Kettle last week displayed this  PoV  – he seemed to see the movement towards Scottish independence as the result of an unpredictable and perhaps irrational surge of nationalism that might subside as easily as it rose. In fact, there are very real issues underlying this trend, from Brexit to the general sense of a growing democratic deficit and a divergence in values and political culture.

Gavin Esler makes the point powerfully in his book “How Britain Ends” that a UK which was serious about maintaining the Union with Scotland would have to grasp the nettle of real reform – for example: abolish the House of “Lords”  and replace it with a Senate of the Nations and Regions; take on board Scotland’s deep opposition to Brexit and give it similar status to Northern Ireland.

What about Kettle’s suggestion that the UK Government can play for time and wait for the move to independence to fade away? Will that be enough? Support for independence over the last half-century has come in waves which have indeed fallen back – but each has left independence at a higher point. Here is a passage from my father Arnold Kemp’s book on post-war Scottish politics  “the Hollow Drum’

“The 1970 general election was regarded by the SNP as disaster although it doubled its share of the vote from 5 to 11.4 percent. The party had got itself into another classic nationalist scenario, that of heightened expectations punctured by reality. Gordon Wilson, former national secretary whom I first met at university in the 1950s, remembered: ‘We had hopes not in the urban areas but in the rural areas. We hoped to keep Hamilton. That was Verdun, that had to be defended, ils ne passeront pas. In the event they did’.

On the Sunday morning after the election, Wilson recalled, they had gathered in an atmosphere of despair. ‘As we waited for the Western Isles result, Douglas Henderson suggested that we might resort to prayer. Anyway, Donald Stewart sneaked in and kept our parliamentary presence and credibility alive. He was the first nationalist to win a parliamentary seat at a general election and he kept us in the game. That was crucial.’ “
The Scottish independence movement has come a long way since then. Of course, it was the Labour party that delivered devolution in 1999. They may have not benefited from this electorally – but Scotland has. In many ways, Scotland is better governed than it has ever been and is gradually building the competencies it will need as an independent country. A wave of support and confidence might one day arrive that is big enough to carry the point. At that point, Scottish Labour may decide to go with the flow.

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