Scotland and the long game

Paul Salveson on Brexit conundrums and future scenarios

It’s always interesting to get a different perspective on politics when north of the border. A recent family trip coincided with the SNP’s annual conference in Glasgow, preceded by a 100,000-strong pro-independence march in Edinburgh, which hardly got a mention in the London media. The SNP leadership is playing a clever game in managing demands for another ‘indy’ referendum, trying not to discourage the party’s grassroots which is pushing for an early poll, whilst recognising that there isn’t – yet – anything like a comfortable majority for a ‘yes’ vote. That could all change following Brexit.

A perceptive article in The Herald suggested that the SNP leadership, whilst being strongly anti-Brexit and in favour of a ‘People’s Vote’, actually stands to benefit from the UK leaving the EU. The argument goes that Scotland will become further disadvantaged by being part of an independent UK – a variant of the traditional Marxist ‘immiseration theory’ (the poorer the workers get under capitalism, the more likely they are to rise in revolt). That theory was always a bit dodgy and wasn’t borne out by experience, in most cases. But the SNP leadership may be onto something in this particular case. It’s one of the ironies of Brexit that the places likely to do OK, economically, are the areas that voted ‘remain’ – in particular, London. Scotland will suffer, which as we all know voted strongly to remain. But many parts of pro-Leave England, particularly the North, are likely to fare badly in a post-Brexit Britain (see various reports by IPPR North and others).

So where’s this leading? Well, it’s looking increasingly likely that we will leave the EU and a last-minute deal will be done, based on The Chequers plan, with some modifications to appease the Tories’ right-wing. It’s hard to see May going for a second referendum on any basis. Her hand could be forced if the DUP withdraws its support but I can’t see them being that daft (and don’t underestimate that Ulster canniness). It’s always desirable to keep options open and a collapse of the current administration leading to a General Election, as Labour is hoping, might just happen. But it’s unlikely.

So what happens then? A likely scenario is that we leave the EU with a deal that nobody really likes and which leaves many parts of the UK, including Scotland, Wales and the North of England, worse off. It’s hard to imagine the Tories going for an early General Election with May in charge, but entirely possible that they get a new leader and then go for a snap election next year, which they would stand a good chance of winning. Labour remains far less popular than they need to be, outside the big cities. They haven’t made the dramatic comeback in Scotland which they’d been hoping for and their performance even in traditional Labour areas isn’t brilliant.

That isn’t to say Labour isn’t in with a chance, and some on the left are hoping that Brexit will open up opportunities to reach the sunny uplands of ‘socialism in one country’. Certainly, not being bound by EU directives would make rail nationalisation easier and potentially avoid compulsory competitive tendering (aka ‘race to the bottom’) for public service provision. But beyond that, there is little fresh thinking being done within Labour’s ranks about what a progressive strategy for a post-Brexit Britain might look like. There are exceptions. Blue Labour’s Jonathan Rutherford wrote an interesting piece for New Statesman this summer which I have a lot of sympathy with. He argues for a ‘progressive’ populism with a strong emphasis on cultural identity. This is something the SNP has been very good at, Labour much less so. It doesn’t do culture, nor ‘identity’ unless it is of the modern identity politics kind, which doesn’t leave much room for many of its traditional white working class supporters. Rutherford supports ‘English patriotism’ draped in a red-ish flag. I don’t. English nationalism, still more an English parliament, would be inimical to the interests of the North.

Labour has toyed with a new, progressive regionalism but it hasn’t got much traction in leadership thinking, which is very London-centric (or even North London-centric, as Jo Cox once reminded me). The Hannah Mitchell Foundation, albeit a cross-party group, tried hard to influence Labour thinking but had only limited success; it should perhaps be revived as an explicitly Labour pressure group.

At the same time, Labour does not – and never will – have all the answers. The next few years will see the emergence of centre-left regionalist parties which will steal some of Labour’s progressive clothes (as the SNP has done in Scotland, and Plaid in Wales). Labour has had an easy ride in the North, which has resulted in many former Labour voters either not voting or supporting the right.

That should change. Already, the Yorkshire Party has won a few council seats; similarly in the North East the regionalist party there has picked up respectable votes in local elections. I suspect a Lancashire Party would do well if it positioned itself so that it picked up votes from across the spectrum.

Obviously, having a fair voting system would help small, emerging parties. But we don’t have that, and we never will get it under a Tory Government. There’s a teeny-weeny chance it might happen under Labour, but pulling it away from its traditional centralist and sectarian instincts won’t be easy. Good luck to those who are trying.

Paul Salveson

Paul Salveson is a visiting professor in transport & logistics at the University of Huddersfield.