There’s none so blind as those who will not see. Surely the new motto for Labour in Scotland, as its current leader, Richard Leonard, makes another speech trying to re-calibrate the offer of a party which has been in electoral freefall for some years now. Neither he, nor the higher echelons of Labour, seem able to spot the smallest glimpse of the bleedin’ obvious. Let me try and help. It’s not just about a lacklustre leader, though Mr Leonard was not at the front of the queue when the charisma gene was being distributed. And it’s not just about having kept some dubious company in 2014, though that clearly went down like a cup of cold sick with many adherents. (A tendency to offer an adjoining hip to the Tories which was later reprised in Aberdeen’s council chamber).
It’s difficult too, to see how yet another change at the top would make much discernible difference whilst the messaging remains stubbornly at odds with the stated ambitions of so many voters. It’s said that Jackie Baillie was instrumental in stiffening the “no to Indyref2” promise in Labour’s recent policy statement; a slogan with a wearily familiar ring. Good luck with that pitch, which saw off no fewer than 7 of the 13 Scottish Tory MP’s at the last UK election. Meanwhile Ian Murray, Labour’s solitary Scottish voice at Westminster, and shadow Secretary of State (whatever that is), is best placed to whisper in Keir Starmer’s ear that just one more anti-Indy push will bring the Labour troops home. Except that so many have found new homes, or at least new causes; new rallying cries.
Successful political parties are about listening as much as leading. And for several elections on the trot Labour has wilfully turned a deaf ear to huge tranches of its erstwhile base shouting that they favour independence. And to other tranches asking awkward questions about why their lot seemed shorn of anything much resembling improvement after many years of Labour representation. Add to that the cumulative frustration of getting UK governments for which they haven’t ever voted and the prospect of their children being deprived of opportunities and study in Europe – when they voted remain – and you don’t need Sherlockian powers of deduction to spot a rising tide of terminal discontent. Streets ahead in the polls right now is the “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more” tendency.
During his speech, Mr Leonard said he was “issuing a warning to Scotland’s political establishment: your old ways were never the answer. But the need to break with them is more urgent now than ever.” Well, er, yes. To which those of us listening might have responded that the physician might like to start by healing himself. By acknowledging that the old Labour ways aren’t the answer, and survival depends on breaking with them pretty urgently – now more than ever!
There is a tribal strand of Labour who consider it a betrayal of the working classes to contemplate breaking up the United Kingdom. A wing which fails to grasp that nationalism and internationalism in a Scottish context are not mutually exclusive options. People who extol the virtues of a “precious union” with the UK, but set their face against making common cause with like minded people all over Europe and, indeed, the world. You do not become a global player by hauling up the drawbridge, as the more myopic Little Englanders seem intent on doing.
Some of what Mr Leonard said in his speech will sound very familiar to the Scottish Government. The plea for more borrowing powers, the need to build an economy around green initiatives, the jobs guarantee scheme which he wants to widen. As has been the case throughout my adult life there are those in Scottish Labour – and, in fairness, in the SNP – who find the prospect of two left of centre parties making any kind of common cause anathema.
Making common cause with the Conservatives really ought to be rather more alarming. If it’s true that Jack McConnell has been involved in any kind of electoral dalliance with the arch plotter Michael Gove I will be very disappointed. While anyone who thinks George Galloway is part of the answer must be looking at a very odd set of questions.
What none of the opposition parties in Scotland seem able to accept, however, is that the time for tinkering around the constitutional edges has long gone. Nobody is buying Federalism 4.0, or the third sequel to The Vow. There is only one question which matters now: leave or remain. Leave the increasingly insular, incompetent and cackhanded embrace of the UK government, or remain to live as second class citizens under a fourth rate Westminster administration.
It’s become fashionable to posit the theory that support for independence has risen chiefly on the back of the comparison between the First Minister and the Prime Minister. I think the desire for self determination runs deeper than that. There are no prizes for noticing that Ms Sturgeon is rather more committed to the day job than Mr Johnson, though the latter has not set a high bar.
What is becoming clearer, though not to Mr Leonard, is that very many hundreds of thousands of Scottish voters have taken a look at the post Covid, post Brexit landscape and concluded that Scotland will not have the navigational aids to negotiate those twin horrors whilst shackled to a British identity which ceased to be recognisable or even desirable some considerable time ago. I note that the Proms concerts are pondering whether to drop Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory from the traditional last night programme. In truth it has long been offensive in a multi cultural world to wallow in that brand of dated jingoism anyway.
But there is another more pertinent and current reason for changing the playlist. Britannia rules nothing these days. There is precious little hope around and glory is not a credible aspiration.
First Published in The National on 24th August.