Labour needs to have a distinct Scottish policy
“To put it at its simplest, the best conceivable conditions for a massive revival of the SNP would be a Conservative Government which faced, but could not handle, Britain’s endemic economic problems and which clearly did not give a fig for Scottish affairs.”
These words could have been written any time in the last few years but were written by John P. Mackintosh in one of his last newspaper columns before he died over forty years ago.
The SNP is exploiting the sense of malaise caused by Boris Johnson’s mishandling of Brexit, COVID and austerity and the Prime Minister’s evident contempt for Scottish devolution.
Grievances are symptoms that will grow and stoked opportunistically if left unattended. And there is much to be aggrieved about.
Mackintosh understood this well. He frequently referred to the “dual nationality”, of being both Scottish and British and the possibility of an “opt out”.
And he also understood structures of government and public policy.
The Scottish Question, for Mackintosh, was multi-faceted and had to take account not only of the emotional pull of national identity but the practical realities of providing decent public services and social justice.
He understood that Labour needed a specific Scottish policy within a UK framework. Devolution could not be put off, awaiting reform of the state as a whole.
The former Labour MP had been a long-standing advocate of home rule throughout his political life.
In 1958, he argued in favour of an “exciting, positive programme” against his party’s renunciation of its home rule policy.
Over a decade later, he contrasted the “sense of failure” and “gloom” hanging over Britain with the SNP’s “sense of dynamism”.
A progressive party had to offer hope, an exciting and positive programme.
Labour came to understand this well in the 1980s.
It was Scottish Labour, not the SNP, that successfully harnessed the anti-Tory mood after 1979.
Labour was Scotland’s national party back then and fully embraced a devolution policy that distinguished it from the SNP’s independence and the Tories’ unionism.
The case for a Scottish parliament was built on opposition to Margaret Thatcher just as the case for independence is being built on opposition to Boris Johnson today.
Parts of England suffered at least as much as Scotland under Margaret Thatcher but what Scotland had that the north of England lacked, at least until recently, was the sense of identity that helped mobilise opinion for positive ends.
Being anti-Tory in Scotland has long been key to becoming the largest party.
Any party that aligns itself closely with the Tories will suffer electorally.
The SNP suffered for a generation after SNP MPs voted with the Tories in the no confidence vote in 1979.
The Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out after coalescing with the Tories in 2010.
And Labour’s involvement in Better Together continues to haunt the party.
Keir Starmer needs to steer a course that takes account of the sense that the UK is failing, that current constitutional arrangements are inadequate and offer an ‘exciting, positive programme’.
There is an added dimension that did not exist in Mackintosh’s time and still had not emerged in more than three decades following is death.
The ‘sense of failure’ and ‘gloom’ pervading politics was never restricted to Scotland.
But a growing sense of alienation, of real grievance has become powerfully evident in parts of England.
The loss of the ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England could become an important turning point, an opportunity for Labour.
The grievances that found outlet in support for Brexit and voting Tory last December hurt Labour and will hurt communities in these places.
In 1968, Mackintosh sketched a plan for what he called “a workable regionalism” for all of Britain.
It was never taken up and now looks dated, but it was a good start.
It was a more comprehensive scheme than most others from that era but it too missed much that needed to be addressed.
The emphasis was on devolution with little attention to the need for reform at the centre – the source of many legitimate grievances.
Unless and until the centre is reformed and change occurs throughout the state, no amount of devolution will remove the source of grievances and we need to come back to this issue again and again.
But the greatest challenge for Keir Starmer is addressing the immediate challenge posed by the SNP.
Labour cannot afford to end up on the same side as the Tories opposing another referendum if a clear majority back the SNP next May or, worst of all, on the same side as the Tories in another binary referendum.
The real challenge on Friday is to outline a strategy that allows Labour to have a distinct Scottish policy that can operate within broader reforms of the UK. That’s what Mackintosh understood so well.
The UK needs a new constitutional architecture, a redistribution of political and constitutional power.
But there is an urgency to articulate a distinct Scottish policy ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections.
Failure to do this will lead to accusations that his UK-wide reforms involve an attempt to kick the Scottish Question into the long grass.
It may be too late to argue for a third option after next May’s election if there is a majority for a referendum.
Labour needs a clear, distinct policy now.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will give this year’s annual lecture in memory of former East Lothian member of parliament J. P. Mackintosh.
The lecture, established in honour of the county’s former MP John Pitcairn Mackintosh, who died in office in July 1978, has moved online this year. However, the event has been postponed to a later date (TBC).