It is reported that after a six hour meeting of Labour’s Scottish Executive nothing much was decided. But it seems safe to suppose that, in common with their comrades in the south, some time was allotted to apportioning blame. The media would have got a good kicking, which is not unreasonable given the number of outlets which were happy to be seen pulling the Boris bandwagon over the line. Many of their electronic cousins had a fairly undistinguished campaign too, proving all too susceptible to treating slices of Fake News from the number ten spin machine as veritable tablets of stone.
What is less clear is whether the gathering was able to contemplate the distressing news that some of the principle architects of recent Labour misfortune were actually seated round the table. The old maxim that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it has never been more apposite. One Scottish commentator at the weekend, a time served opponent of any kind of devolved government, supposed that the loss of all but one of their seats could be laid at the door of London Labour leaders diluting and undermining the Scottish party’s clearcut hostility to another referendum. This particular chap might consider the possible benefits of stopping bashing his head against the same brick wall.
His mates in the deep south were meanwhile engaged in telling each other that there was nothing wrong with the Labour offer. And, given time and a fair wind, the temporary Tory voting working classes would see the error of their ways, and recognise that Jeremy might have been a prophet without honour in his own backyard, but that history would surely record his sainthood. They too seem to have perfected the mantra that ‘abody is out of step bar them; the keepers of the true flame of socialism. Here in Scotland of course the game is only at half time. Whatever else may have been settled in the early hours of Friday morning, matters constitutional gained a fresh head of steam. Hardly surprising, when Johnson’s tartan troops could speak of little else but independence, and the party of Scottish government was banging the drum for Indyref2.
But the Labour Party has a more checkered history than either. There was another rather infamous meeting of the same Scottish Executive in the early seventies, which voted by an admittedly small margin to set its face against an elected assembly. Rather embarrassingly they had to be reminded by head office that devolution was party policy. Then of course there was the unlovely George Cunningham MP whose infamous 40% rule was to scupper the ‘79 referendum result and help pave the way for 18 years of opposition and Mrs T and all her works. That particular referendum campaign was treated to the sight of the aforementioned commentator, joined at the hip to the late Tam Dalyell, traversing the land warning that devolution was the devil’s work.
Then, as now, the party couldn’t quite make up its mind about all this devo stuff. Whilst George Robertson famously predicted it would kill nationalism “stone dead”, Tam - the old Etonian who went red rather than blue – pronounced it the “slippery slope to separation.” I think Tam may just be ahead on points on this one. John Smith, who had piloted the doomed first Scotland Act over long weary nights through parliament, and Donald Dewar who, with colleagues, drafted the later one and took real pleasure in reading out that first historic line “there shall be a Scottish parliament”, were both committed to a parliament and signatories to the Claim of Right.
But even post Holyrood there remained a sceptical rump who doubtless helped persuade their brethren of the merits of linking up with the Tories for the Better Together Campaign in 2014. A campaign led by Alistair Darling (though his memoir suggests he was a somewhat reluctant general) and vocally supported by Gordon Brown, instigator of the Daily Record’s notorious front page Vow! Neither hostile to devolution, but both handmaidens of the No vote on independence. So then, as now, Labour leaders on both sides of the border were happy to sign up to the constitutional status quo, occasionally promising a few more beads to the natives if they would just stop being so damn restless. Then, as now, the Tories wrapped themselves in the union flag which apparently becomes increasingly precious the more Saltires are seen fluttering.
Yet now we seem, at last, to be in some sort of end game, and how the two main unionist parties play it will determine not just the future success or otherwise of the SNP but of their own parties in Scotland. (We might pause here to spare a thought for Willie Rennie who has not just failed to learn from his own party’s history but to read it up.) Already some all too familiar hints are being dropped into selective ears. Might Boris revive the F word and offer a form of federalism? Might there be a re-think on repatriating some long devolved powers to Westminster rather than Holyrood? Twitter too is seeing the revival of the bid for English independence from its troublesome neighbours.
We shall see. And we shall see quite soon. This week we will learn the shape of the Scottish Government’s bid to gain the power of decision over the holding and timing of another referendum. And Scottish Labour will have the opportunity to join the Tories to resist it tooth and nail as before. Alternatively they could reflect that whole tranches of their former support simply do not share their implacable opposition to real self determination for a nation which voted against both Boris and Brexit. Labour has often been a house divided on this issue, but the diehard unionist wing is now living in an increasingly small room.
In truth all parties should view another referendum on Scottish Independence as an opportunity. If the Tories are right and Scottish voters will say No, then their case will be tried, tested and made. Ditto Mr Leonard’s Scottish Labour party. The most obvious way to take the temperature of a post Brexit Scotland with Boris in charge is to put the question to the people and the issue to bed one way or another. I have spent this last weekend in Northern Ireland where, among other minor earthquakes, the Alliance Party made significant strides, particularly among young voters weary of sectarian politics. Their posters say “Had Enough? Demand Better.” I can think of worse slogans for the next Yes campaign.
First published in The National 16th January.