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by Henry McLeish
08 October 2015
Westminster seems incapable of understanding the dangers posed by a Union in terminal decline

Westminster seems incapable of understanding the dangers posed by a Union in terminal decline

Scotland’s First Minister issued a challenge to the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders in Scotland to drop their opposition to a second independence referendum after their conversion to what, on the face of it, seemed like a softening of their anti-independence line. It was political theatre but shouldn’t disguise the fact that all Scotland’s political leaders, including the SNP, have serious anxieties about the timing of another referendum. 

Westminster, as ever, seems incapable of understanding the dangers posed by a Union now in terminal decline.

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn, Scots are anxious to know if Labour can win in 2020 and if not, when. The referendum highlighted a vast number of political ills and grievances but now an independent Scotland is being seen as the only escape from the Tories at Westminster. Thus, Labour has a real dilemma which was partly reflected in the Scottish leader’s recent remarks. The SNP has identified the “triggers for a new referendum” but their biggest fear is a second referendum defeat.


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The questions are obvious. Does Labour rework its future on the basis of reaching out to those in the SNP, Greens and Liberal Democrats who see the realignment of Scottish politics and parties as the only way forward and who remain committed to a radical programme of progressive centre-left policies for Scotland in a four-nation union?

Or is the SNP beyond the reach of the other parties and, consequently, should Labour trim its expectations accordingly?

Can Westminster, under Tory or Labour control, ever deliver home rule for Scotland, a federalist solution for the UK or an EU structure for the UK?

Should we just accept that Scotland remaining in the UK is under threat from the Tories? Therefore, is Labour being pushed to change or modify its historic opposition to independence?

Labour must address these questions. Scotland’s membership of the Union is not some marginal distraction on the way to the Holyrood elections.

If the majority of Scots want Scotland to become a nation state, with all the political independence that entails, then the end could justify any means. Questions about the quality of life, tackling inequality and creating a fairer society become of lesser importance to the SNP’s main aim, which is that exiting the Union will, of itself, be the basis on which these social and economic issues will be successfully addressed. There is no overwhelming evidence, from the referendum or general election, to suggest that Scots buy into the nation state/seat at the top table argument without there being a more serious discussion about what that will mean for people.

For Labour, this is where politics and the constitution intersect and provide an unprecedented opportunity to argue the compelling case for interdependence not independence, patriotism not nationalism, nationhood not statehood, with a much clearer focus on the quality of life debate and Labour’s historic commitment to justice and equality.

Unless you wish to concede independence, this is the only way forward for Labour: a new politics which argues the case for Scotland the nation, where the politics and priorities of a progressive left platform, a new constitutional offering of home rule or federalism, and the idea of interdependency are combined for the benefit of us all.

We have not yet had this debate and its absence has allowed the SNP to enjoy prolonged success. Labour’s should go on the offensive, lead and not shy away from a second referendum. But this time, it should be about the future of Scotland, not independence.

The No campaign was negative from the start, while Yes became a lightning rod for political change, inspiring a mood and momentum. No died a death after David Cameron’s calamitous intervention the morning after. Nothing else was agreed, other than the fact that Scotland would stay within the Union. No won the battle but the Yes campaign, winning hearts and minds, could win the war. 

Scotland today remains bitterly, but evenly, divided with recent opinion polls suggesting a 50/50 split on the referendum question. There is no consensus on a possible long-term outcome and even if there was, how this could be achieved.

The next referendum should, within the context of four-nation politics and a more flexible Union, offer a choice between independence and an attractive, sustainable, workable and inspirational alternative. The political thinking behind this is simple and stark – unless Labour has a compelling, inspiring narrative about Scotland’s future and offers an intelligible and attractive alternative then the narrow debate about more powers will lead to independence.

Labour has to get into this debate. If not, Westminster will become the centre of a Greater England. Or a Lesser Britain.  

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