Scottish Labour has learnt the hard way the difficulty of moving on from a constitutional debate where there is only a binary choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. A lesson that UK Labour is yet to learn with Brexit, but will realise soon enough I fear.
Scottish Labour’s attempt to move on from the referendum in the 2016 Holyrood election failed with voters refusing to listen to a party that wasn’t clear on where it stood on the question of independence. This was improved on in 2017 and our strong ‘no to a second referendum’ message helped deliver seven MPs to Westminster. On the other side, the independence vote coalesced around the Scottish National Party (SNP) and whilst 45 per cent is not enough to win a referendum, it’s enough to deliver electoral success.
For the nationalists, independence remains the answer to every question, with SNP support in Scotland staying stubbornly high despite numerous domestic failings: this week the SNP were under fire for yet another delay in opening of a flagship £150m children’s hospital at the eleventh hour, falling exam grades and Nicola Sturgeon’s continued her silence over drug related deaths doubling in 10 years; Scotland now has worst drug death rate in the EU.
The SNP’s stance on Europe – that Scotland’s exit from the European Union would prove catastrophic – has always been puzzling, as Scotland’s economy is far more intertwined with the UK than it is with the EU. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as our trade with the EU. And the SNP’s claim that Scotland would be better off being independent than being forced out of the single market by Brexit is simply untrue.
Nationalists argue that decisions affecting Scots should be made in Scotland, then why is a parliament situated across Europe making decisions that affect them more palatable than a parliament based in London? If Scots reject austerity imposed on them from Westminster, they are unlikely to accept it from Brussels.
Whilst 60 per cent of Scottish voters believe that support for independence would increase after a no-deal Brexit, once the impact of Brexit hits it will be much harder for the SNP to argue that an exit from UK will be a smooth transition. Then of course we have the tricky issue of currency and border controls. None of this is an easy sell for the nationalists. In fact, Brexit makes Scottish independence harder not easier.
Although polls are showing a small shift public opinion, Scots were asked in 2014 whether they wanted independence and 55 per cent voted to remain in the UK. A pro-EU and pro-UK policy therefore not only makes electoral sense but is surely the only position Labour – an internationalist party of equality and solidarity – can take?
For those who suggest an electoral pact with the SNP, I would point them to the fate of the Scottish Greens in the European elections. In country after country across Europe, Green parties took votes from social democratic parties, but not in Scotland, where the evidence was that if people wanted to vote for the SNP, they would vote for the SNP not SNP-lite. Scottish Labour must not offer a second independence referendum because it needs to be the main pro-UK, pro-EU voice in Scotland.
We also need to be bold with new policies and ideas. Even casual observers of the current SNP administration can see that they are devoid of ideas and competent policy development is neglected in favour of their independence obsession. The glory days of political dominance are behind us but we are in a position to offer a radicalism as Keir Hardie did a century ago. If it does not, it is hard to see how Scottish Labour can survive.
Scottish Labour are proud of the part we have played in Labour’s history, the long list of politicians we have sent to Westminster to change the whole of the UK for the better and our role in preventing the economic catastrophe of a ‘yes’ vote. Scotland is not a colony or a possession under Westminster rule but an integral part of the UK because that is the democratic choice we made less than five years ago. There can be no electoral pact with the nationalists because to achieve their one and only goal of independence they must destroy Scottish Labour and that long tradition.