If I had a pound for every person that has asked how we win back Scotland, I would be lying on a beach in the Bahamas. The interesting thing is that nobody in the last Labour shadow cabinet asked me that question before the 2019 general election. If they had, perhaps then shadow chancellor John McDonnell would not have come to a lunchtime comedy festival chat show and changed our well-established position on Scottish independence a few months before a general election that we should never have agreed to.
But we cannot dwell on the past. We must look to the future if we are to prevent the breakup of the UK, although it is my own belief that this is very unlikely. The opinion polls back that up, and rarely put support for Scottish independence ahead, beyond the margin of error – although, given all that has gone on with Brexit and Boris Johnson, it is surprising that the nationalist campaign is not riding much higher.
But Scotland’s future in the UK depends on a strong Labour party. And we do not have much time to recover. The 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections will be a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland, and the Labour movement must come together and do what we have always done so proudly: stand up for the interests of Scotland.
Those interests lie firmly in remaining part of the UK. As an internationalist party that has solidarity at its core, how could we believe in anything else? It is in the national interest. We must therefore reject the political dogma that comes from the nationalists who want to rip Scotland out of the UK at all and any cost.
We have to acknowledge that Brexit will be bad. It will damage the Scottish and UK economies, harm our future prosperity and diminish us as a country. That is not only my view but the view of every respected commentator and, unsurprisingly, the UK government itself with forecasts suggesting from a 2 per cent to 16 per cent hit on GDP depending on the type of Brexit and the region. Scottish independence on top of Brexit would be unpardonable folly and inflict untold uncertainty with inevitable damage to the Scottish economy.
So, what must the Labour party do to resist Scottish nationalism and win back support for the union? There are three key steps.
First, we must be absolutely clear where we stand as a movement. We are against independence and against a second independence referendum. Full stop.
There is no gain to be had for Labour in flirting with the issue of independence. It will not bring us any more votes and we will be giving up on our core Labour values built around solidarity. We need to stop dancing to the tune of our opponents.
With only 45 per cent of those who voted backing Scottish independence in 2016, there is no mandate for another referendum. And as the UK’s most eminent pollster, Sir John Curtice, said, you clearly can’t extrapolate a mandate for a new independence vote from the general election results in 2019.
Labour must stand firm in its values. The Tories won an 80-seat majority in December, but that doesn’t mean we now accept all their policies and positions are the right ones. Quite the contrary – we continue the fight. We have not suddenly started supporting Tory austerity. So why then would we concede something we don’t believe in because the Scottish National Party (SNP) won the majority of seats on a minority of the vote?
Imagine this scenario. A prime minister decides that in order to resolve a major constitutional issue he will offer a referendum totally convinced he will win it comfortably. Does this sound familiar? Well, it should as this is what David Cameron did on the European Union (EU). He facilitated an EU referendum without believing in the potential ends. He lost. We should never facilitate the means if we disagree with the ends.
The positive case
The second step to rebuilding support for the union is to make the positive case for staying in the UK while calling out the extreme form of separation the nationalists are offering. The positive case is something we did not present as much as we would all have liked in the 2014 referendum. We live in a family of nations that pools and shares its resources. The taxpayers of the whole of the UK put their money into the central pot and these funds are then reallocated according to a well-established formula. Scotland benefits from this to the tune of over £13bn a year. That is a UK dividend that will be difficult to turn away from.
Then there is the issue of the UK single market. One of the main pillars of the nationalists’ opposition to Brexit was, rightly, the impact leaving the EU and turning away from our largest trading partner would have on the UK economy from. After the Brexit vote, the nationalist position – and mine as the co-chair of Scottish Labour for the Single Market – was to take the least painful option and stay in its institutions – the single market and customs union. It would have been the right thing to do. So, how is it that the SNP’s argument is good for the UK and the EU, but not good for Scotland and the UK? It is intellectually incoherent.
This leads to the question of borders. Sadly, a border will now be required between the UK and the EU, whether that be in the Irish Sea or otherwise, but we would also need a border between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. Already Scottish government ministers are talking of ‘tampon raids’ from those pesky English after Holyrood approved free sanitary provision for women in Scotland. If they can’t stop the illegal trade in tampons what kind of border will be required in the event of independence?
The positive case for the UK is economic and is about the free movement of goods, people and services. But it is also much more than that. It is social, political and cultural. We are all ’Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ whether you are in Liverpool or Ullapool, Folkestone or Fort William – it’s a common Scottish phrase which means our issues are the same. Our history is the same. Our future is interlinked.
But what of the Scottish nationalist sentiment – that feels more prominent and extreme than in 2014? Here, Labour can win the argument by taking on the nationalists’ plans for Scotland. The analysis in the SNP’s own ‘growth’ commission conceded there would be at least 15 years of austerity with no clear path back into the EU and a deficit that will require increases in tax and slashing of public spending. On top of this, the nationalists’ previous case for independence was based on an average oil price of around $115 a barrel. It’s less than $40 today at the time of writing, and revenues have plummeted. It is now a net cost to the Treasury rather than the financial foundation for a new country.
Then there is the potential introduction of a new currency. That would mean ditching the pound and putting something in its place which would require tens of billions to be maintained in reserves. Those funds would have to be borrowed through the creation of eye-watering national debt.
We get no answers from SNP politicians when we confront them on these issues other than a wave of a flag, a cry of ’standing up for Scotland’, and the accusation that you are somehow ‘unScottish’ if you dare question them. Their vision sounds like Brexit with a kilt on to me, but even more damaging.
A vision for Scotland
Labour should provide a radical progressive policy platform at Scottish and UK level that looks to the future. What is the Labour party vision for Scotland in 10, 20 and 30 years’ time? We haven’t really articulated this well as our politics is paralysed and poisoned by constitutional arguments.
We should start by demonstrating to the Scottish public that the UK Labour party is a credible alternative government at Westminster. The cocktail of Brexit with a large Conservative majority is music to the ears of the SNP but a progressive and popular UK Labour government would change all that and show that there is an alternative path for Scotland.
We have to change to win but we also have to reconnect. That is what many of us have been fighting for in these recent leadership and deputy leadership elections. Labour should be talking about the future and taking on the big issues of the day. We do not need to have all the answers, but we need to have the ability to listen, learn and respond.
These big issues are plentiful: how do we resolve the crisis in social care? What is our response to the climate emergency? How do we see the future of work with automation and disruptive technologies? Where will the future careers of the UK be with artificial intelligence, robotics and biosciences? How do our workforce and education system respond to the rapid change in the world of work? And how do we fund our public services?
It is a fact of British politics that the road to UK Labour government runs through Scotland. That is as true today as ever. The scale of the challenge is huge. We need a 13 per cent swing across Britain to get a one-seat majority if only one Scottish Labour MP is elected, or an 11 per cent swing if we manage to get 16 Scottish Labour MPs. The 1997 Labour government got a 10 per cent swing. This is the challenge we must meet if we are to have any realistic chance of having a Labour prime minister again.
Winning back Scotland is not just in the Scottish national interest, but the UK national interest too. We need a credible alternative government at Westminster to prevent the breakup of the union. That is what is at stake. I’m up for that challenge.