And then there were three. The surviving candidates for the UK Labour leadership brought their round Britain quiz show to Glasgow at the weekend, a city where once the Labour votes were weighed rather than counted, now an SNP fiefdom.
Rebecca Long Bailey, backed by that nice Len McCluskey and his union, seemed to grasp the scale of her party’s problem with the tartan electorate. Noting that the Nationalist vote had gone up by almost precisely the numbers lost by the Labour and Tory parties, she suggested you didn’t need a degree in applied mathematics to figure out to whom Labour’s once faithful had defected. Indeed. But she prefaced that with something else; something which was once an article of faith as well as an arithmetical truth in days not long gone. “We won’t win a general election without Scotland,” she told the hustings audience.
Perhaps, had the Scottish leg of their tour lasted a little longer, she might have gleaned some other salient truths. She might have learned, as the Sunday National reported yesterday, that Labour For Independence had just re-launched having been deluged with inquiries after an appalling December election result. For while there have undoubtedly been mass defections from the people’s party to the SNP, there are still very many Labour voters who will never become Sturgeonistas, but are nevertheless persuaded that Independence is Scotland’s best hope, or, at the very least, that the tectonic plates have shifted so dramatically that another referendum on the matter is a democratic imperative.
Meanwhile Keir Starmer, currently treating this battle for the top Labour job as a long walk across eggshells, would only say the question of Holyrood having the power to call a referendum was “interesting”. Well. Yeah! But Starmer is still banging the drum for federalism, an instrument which must now be suffering from orchestral fatigue having been pressed into service every time Labour panics. Nandy too has concluded that all we need is more power for local councils. Fluent though she is, Nandy, like so many of her London based colleagues, understands little about the political dynamic in Scotland. That much was clear from her early, disastrous suggestion of how “divisive nationalism” could be tackled, throwing in Catalonia as an example.
Though she might comfort herself that she shares that incomprehension about contemporary Scotland with the only surviving Labour MP in Scotland, Ian Murray, currently bidding for the deputy job. Mr Murray popped up on Question Time from Dundee last week, once more setting his face against any form of Scottish self determination, or any referendum on it. I don’t know Ian Murray, although we have mutual friends in his Edinburgh constituency. But I would offer him some unsolicited advice. If he continues to play King Canute with the tide of Scottish public opinion, he might get more than his tootsies wet. He holds on to that seat not because of his devotion to a united kingdom, but because he’s earned his keep as a good local MP. There are a number of people in Holyrood and Westminster who are backed by voters purely on that basis.
Labour in Scotland has a mountain to climb, but it will stay in the foothills unless and until it recognises that the country, not least post Brexit and Boris, has huge swathes of voters convinced that Scotland will not fare worse as an independent nation state. If Labour truly believes that is still a minority view, then let them agree to put it to the test.
Which brings us to the one party in Scotland wholly obsessed with Independence – the Scottish Tories. As of this week it is to be led by Jackson Carlaw, whose first pronouncement as the new boss was nothing if not startling. He understood the SNP, he said. They were not a political party, they were an “evangelical faith based cult.” Let’s not get too technical here. This assertion was pure mince.
Many people vote SNP because they are true believers right enough, but not in anything resembling a deity. Some vote that way because they want independence and think that party might be able to deliver it. And some vote that way because they look at Jackson Carlaw and Richard Leonard and think, nah! The Scottish Tories in contrast could very easily be confused with real zealots. They have based all their last election campaigns on the slogan “no to Indyref 2”. It featured on every billboard, every leaflet, every communiqué. If a Scottish Tory prophet ever comes down from the mountain top with tablets of stone that will be inscribed thereon.
But all is not as it seems at Camp Carlaw. There are a number of experienced Conservatives who, like their Labour counterparts, have not set their face against independence having had a close look at the current UK administration. There are many Tories in Scotland whose loathing of Boris Johnson is well documented in private. One of them used to be Ruth Davidson, but it seems the lure of the ermine may have dulled the distaste. Like their Labour counterparts some of these Tories have also concluded that locking the door on a second referendum with London hands on the keys is not exactly a vote winner north of Berwick. To make that leap of, ahem, faith himself, Jackson Carlaw would have to perform something of a double somersault. But he’s not a stranger to that gymnastic discipline #no deal Brexit.
So, curiously, what might offer the final shove needed to get a referendum under way may not be those of us convinced of the merits of independence, but former opponents who have either changed their minds with the changing of the Tory guard, or have concluded that keeping telling Scotland to get back in its box is not in their own electoral best interests. I have never been convinced that the Prime Minister and self declared Minister for the Union will have a sudden Damascene conversion over IndyRef2. Then again I’ve never accused him of consistency either. If there is one sure thing about our Boris, it’s that nothing is a sure thing.
First published in The National 17.2.2020