The visceral hatred between Scottish Labour and the SNP is an ugly manifestation of the politics of envy and a loathing that comes from seeing yourself reflected in the ambition of others and wondering, ‘what if?’ Asked to explain this bizarre dynamic from parties with broadly similar leanings to the left to visitors from down south and I find myself struggling for words or to provide a proper explanation. If it was a straight divide between politics of the left or right or of good versus evil then it would all be so much more straightforward but it isn’t. It is about two parties locked in a wrestling match rooted in an acrimonious history that each thinks they have the moral high ground on but few can actually remember the cause. It is tribal in its most fundamental sense, except that instead of each steadfastly standing their ground, there has been a constant drift from one to the other. Although, to be fair, the most obvious defections appear to come from the left of the Labour Party to the more broad church of the SNP.
Politicians, locked in the struggle, find it difficult to explain the relationship themselves but it is, without doubt, a damaging and corrosive affair that can do little to enhance the level of political debate. And that is the paradox because Scotland finds itself engaged in what should be the most fascinating debate of our time, with the main protagonists not made of the same shades of grey as those at Westminster and yet they are so busy fighting between themselves that they seem paralysed to raise their game.
Independence for Scotland is, of course, what absolutely divides them, but when there remain so many other meetings of mind, that is a bridge some see the worth in crossing. But in the main, despite their commonalities, they hate each other with a vengeance. And respond to any attempts, even by non-partisan journalists, to elicit any level of agreement on policy or practice, with accusations of ‘if your not with ‘em, you’re against them’ and that divides even the commentariat into camps and that is never a sensible starting point for balanced debate.
And in the last week or so that inexplicable rancour has been to the fore over debates and debacles on the value of oil, the invasion of Iraq, the renewal of Trident, and the Referendum Bill.
And it is on these issues that the absurdity of the resentment is stripped bare.
Who, in their right mind, would now admit that the Iraq war was fought on justified terms? It has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Tony Blair’s reasons for invading Iraq were based on lies. WMD did not exist. Scottish Labour MSPs last week abstained from a vote.
On Trident, who on the left could seriously argue that at a time of enormous budget constraint, welfare cuts, and ugly and increasing social inequity that a £100bn bill is worth paying to renew a WMD that sits like a white elephant on the Clyde as a deterrent to a threat that has still to emerge?
Scottish Labour abstained from a vote.
And on oil, which has become a strange stick to hit the SNP with in any reference to independence, who could say that whether a barrel is worth $113 or $178 that it is not a valuable asset for any country to have? Labour appears to argue it’s not.
And on the First Minister presenting the Referendum Bill to Parliament and the date for the vote being announced as 18 September 2014, who could not agree, that regardless of your view on independence, that this was an important milestone in an historic debate? Scottish Labour said it marked the date of Salmond’s retirement.
It’s petty, it’s lacking in intellectual rigour and it’s in danger of turning off a whole generation of voters. Margo MacDonald, once Labour then SNP and now Independent and the sheer embodiment of the way Scottish politics can morph and manifest, was right, when in sheer despair at the pedestrian nature of the speeches in the chamber, she said: “This is a big question, it needs big people and big answers. Can we big it up, First Minister?” Over the course of a couple of decades there are few opportunities for seismic events to shape a generation’s politics. For mine, it was Thatcher, apartheid and nuclear weapons. I marched in support of the miners, of Mandela and of the right to ban the bomb. I was a Greenham Common woman, albeit one that came down from Scotland in the luxury of an air-conditioned bus and went back home before the need for a warm bath became too necessary.
So, this generation of voters, those that may not have been touched by the Iraq war but seen the terrifying rise in the threat of Islamic terrorism and have understood the nuances of that debate and how events may be linked, what else will help shape their politics?
The referendum on independence must surely count as the biggest political decision that any of us will have to face, particularly given we were not offered the option of choice when it came to an illegal war. But with the main parties in the debate so entrenched in their respective corners, what can be the hope of this discourse becoming the one that defines or inspires a generation?
Margo is right; this is too important a decision to kick around like the usual political football.
This is a chance in a lifetime – a 300-year chance – let’s big it up.