Demise of Empire State Britain

Gerry Hassan with eleven takes on the SNP, Labour, independence and the problem of the British state

The SNP won a fourth term in the recent Scottish elections, winning their highest ever vote – 47.7% of the constituency vote and 64 seats in the 129-seat PR-elected chamber. The Greens, a pro-independence party, won 8.1% of the regional vote and eight seats: both record highs, contributing to an independence majority of fifteen seats. Here are eleven takes relevant to Scottish politics and its future – with huge consequences for British politics.

1. If the Tories win the next UK election this would amount to 19 years of successive Tory governments, following on from 18 years of Thatcherism. Overall that would mean that the past 50 years have witnessed 37 years of Tory governments (74%) which Scotland did not vote for. The last time the Tories finished ahead in the Scottish vote at a UK election was in 1959: the era of Macmillan and ‘you have never had it so good’.

2. The SNP have now been the Scottish Government for 14 years. Such a period of dominance brings downsides in terms of how the SNP does politics and governs, with part of its success due to the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, the salience of the independence question, and the weakness of the SNP’s opponents – the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems.

3. At the same time, Sturgeon has been in frontline politics in senior roles in the SNP for the entire 22 years of devolution – which makes her an archetypal insider. If this were not enough, her husband, Peter Murrell, has been chief executive of the SNP for that entire 22 years. That concentration of power and decision-making is bad for politics and also bad for the SNP as a party – and cannot be sustainable.

4. Scottish Labour have had, over those two decades, ten leaders. Some have failed to have any real impact – Richard Leonard being an obvious example. The current leader, Anas Sarwar, had a decent recent election, winning widespread plaudits. But despite that, Labour’s vote continued on its downward path: 21.9% of the constituency vote and 18.6% of the regional vote, the lowest votes the party has achieved under devolution (the latter being the party’s lowest Scottish vote since the party was constituted in 1918). It would have been worse under Leonard, but Sarwar’s personable style is not enough without substance.

5. There will be no immediate indyref, but this will remain a live issue and the defining topic of Scottish politics. It suits the forces of independence to wait when Boris Johnson says no or delays. Such a Westminster response – particularly if the issue ends up in the UK Supreme Court – makes the independence case synonymous with democracy and changes the nature of the union in a way which undermines the union case.

6. Both pro-independence and pro-union arguments have heavy lifting to do. The independence side has to come to terms with the risks inherent in such dramatic change, and address the thorny issues: the fiscal deficit, currency and borders.

7. However, the pro-union corner seems reduced to a sort of ‘disaster nationalism’ – saying that Scotland would be the equivalent of a basket case bereft of Westminster subsidies. Add to that the degeneration of Tory unionism into an obsession with putting Union Jacks on everything and dragging the Royal Family – and in particular William and Kate – into the constitutional debate, and the dearth of fresh thinking is apparent. Too many on the pro-union side take succour in the difficulties for the independence argument. Rather, they should recognise that they are fighting a defensive war and one of retreat on the territory of their opponents.

8. Labour’s lack of understanding of the British state remains a major drawback. The recent massive Corbyn-commissioned report on reforming and democratising the British state and moving towards a more federalised Britain has been parked. Gordon Brown is on manoeuvres – supposedly setting up a UK-wide constitutional convention. But no one in the UK Labour Party knows anything about how it is to be organised, its basis or how it will be housed. The Corbyn report understood that one central problem is the nature of the British state; it is unlikely that Brown will have such insights.

9. As long as Britain remains so unequal – economically and socially – and undemocratic, with an atrophied political centre and unprecedented centralisation, particularly in relation to England, the dynamic of Scottish independence will remain to be solved and addressed. There is a British as well as a Scottish dimension to independence.

10. Scotland needs a credible left politics challenging the centrism of the SNP. At the moment the importance of the independence question shields the SNP from being held accountable on their domestic agenda. The nearest equivalent to a left critique of the SNP’s record comes from the Scottish Greens, but they are less critical because they are pro-independence, and limited on the politics of class and inequality.

11. Scottish Labour have got through ten leaders while being increasingly not listened to as they have shifted from being the political establishment to being usurped in that role by the SNP. If Scottish Labour is to have a future not only does it have to grasp how to do opposition, it has to challenge the insider elite politics of the SNP.

Labour cannot position itself against Scotland’s right to decide its own future – which the party has done under a succession of leaders. Rather than stonewall or equivocate, the party has to champion self-government and Scotland’s right to decide. In so doing it should challenge the conservatism of the nationalism of the SNP, and the nationalism of the unionism of the Tories which defends an archaic British state.

Scotland’s constitutional debate is not going away any time soon. It should not be seen as a diversion from radical change, but rather as a means to bring it about, and bring about the demise of Empire State Britain.


  1. The decline of Labour in Scotland and the crisis of a constitution which allows the Tories to rule a country they last had an electoral majority in 1959 is not new. When Gerry and Eric Shaw published their book THE STRANGE DEATH OF LABOUR IN SCOTLAND IN 2012 the Labour established was bewildered – the party had 41 seats and was impregnable. Three years later it had one seat and has not recovered.

    As Gerry outlines, the standard tactic of appointing a new leader is a busted flush and ten have gone down to defeat – the Scottish paralysis is part of a wider paralysis which has just seen a Blair-Brown era figure appointed as Starmer’s chief of staff. The constitutional convention plan of the 2019 manifesto is on permanent hold, Gordon Brown wanders lonely as a cloud, and Starmer in his trip to Edinburgh in December could only argue the indy ref issue must wait till after the pandemic. No issue of democratic principle was involved. So Labour’s vote continues to decline.

    Labour is now a busted flush in Scotland and the decline is affecting England. What is to be done? As conference this autumn will be a political vaccuum it is time to do what Compass has suggested. Set up a Citizens Assembly on the constitution to break the deadlock

    trevor fisher

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