Scotland & the end of the Empire State

Gerry Hassan on self-government, the weaknesses of Labour (and Tory) opposition to the SNP and the need for a new constitutional settlement as the Brexit imbroglio unfolds

In the shadow of Brexit, Scotland – like much of the rest of the UK – finds itself in a very strange place.

British politics is in many senses dead. Only the zombie UK Parliament and Boris Johnson’s Tory Government with no mandate refuses to recognise it. Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland all now march to divergent political rhythms and cultures – with each having different dominant political parties (SNP, Tories, Labour, DUP, respectively). Brexit is driven by an increasingly reactionary, fractious English nationalism – with the add-on of a divided, nervous Wales for now.

The SNP are by far the leading party of Scotland and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. But they are now twelve years into office and dominant as much by default as through positive action. These include the nature of multi-party politics, a divided opposition, and the significant negatives of the Tories and Labour. The recent Panelbase poll put the SNP on Westminster voting intentions on 39%, up 2.1% on 2017; with the Tories on 21% (-7.6%); Labour 20% (-7.1%) and Lib Dems 13% (+6.2%) – on a national swing this would give the SNP 48 seats (+13), Tories 5 (-8), Lib Dems 5 (+1) and Labour one (-6).

The state of the SNP is paradoxical. Impressive from afar, filled with members (120,000 plus) and monies, and with a reputation for competence in office. Meanwhile, SNP ministers and politicians talk with a confident progressive language that Labour south of the border can only look on in envy. But the picture is now beginning to slowly change as years of office take their toll and the difference between rhetoric and reality become increasingly stark.

Scotland, despite appearances and talk, is not a social democracy and the SNP are not a social democratic party. Instead, their policies – no tuition fees, free care for the elderly which has just been expanded to all ages, a long freeze on the council tax recently rescinded – all point to a defensive social democracy for professional and middle class Scotland.

There are other signs of Scotland’s championing of humanity and wanting to do things differently from Westminster, as an embryonic welfare state begins to emerge with the slow devolution of such powers, but for now it only covers a small part of the overall welfare budget. As telling, after twelve years in office and a decade of Westminster-imposed austerity, the gaps and inadequacies in their record and the state of the country are increasingly obvious.

The State of Scotland’s Opposition: Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens

In this situation you might think the opposition parties to the SNP would thrive, but this is not the case. The Tories had an Indian Summer renewal under Ruth Davidson but she has now gone as leader due to Boris Johnson and Brexit. This has left behind the reality that Davidson remade the Tory appeal around her own brand and personality with no real substance beyond that. Her resignation has revealed that she had made little impact on detoxing the Tory image in Scotland.

As for Scottish Labour, the party enjoyed a flip in its downward trajectory in 2017 when it surfed the Corbyn bounce and came back from one seat in 2015 to seven – having won 41 in 2010. It is now back to its lifeless, moribund, miserabilist self, sulking in the corner and pining for the return of the good old days.

It has had no influx of new Corbynite members and energy, such people having joined the SNP and to a lesser extent, Scottish Greens, post-2014. It has no grassroots Momentum initiative, and no real idea how to do opposition politics let alone challenge the SNP.

The party is on to its ninth leader in twenty years – Richard Leonard, a former trade union official and economist – who recently scored the ignominy of a 7% voter satisfaction positive rating (40% seeing him negatively; 53% didn’t know). The Lib Dems under Scottish leader Jo Swinson have a little more spring in their step, but will struggle even more north of the border to make traction when memories of the Cameron-Clegg coalition and its harsh cuts are still so recent.

This leaves the big question of where the political opposition to the SNP comes from. One particular dimension is where any serious centre-left critique of the SNP’s centrism comes from. It has become more and more self-evident that the absence of such a political argument and force hinders Scottish politics, and gives the SNP leadership a degree of freedom of manoeuvre which is ultimately not helpful for anyone. Further, it aids a political agenda on domestic policy not that different from New Labour: pro-corporate capitalism, pro-lobbyist, and supportive of privatisers and outsourcers.

Labour’s troubles mean it is incapable of fulfilling this role for now. The Scottish Greens could be one political force that could undertake this – sitting with six seats in the Scottish Parliament and being pro-independence, holding the critical votes that the SNP need to have for a parliamentary majority on this. Yet, there is an ineffectiveness in how the party does its politics which means it lacks a radical edge and doesn’t have much to say beyond its middle class comfort zones to the majority working class communities of Scotland.

Thus many people have been talking about the prospect of a new party of the left for the 2021 Scottish elections. But that is a lot easier said than done, as the previous poor performance of RISE (that came out of the Radical Independence Campaign – RIC) in the 2016 elections showed.

All of this takes place in the context of the Brexit debacle, the increasing right-wing direction of British politics, and the multi-layered crisis of the British state, which long predates Brexit and was given institutional and popular form by Thatcherism.

Indyref2 and Labour’s problem with Britishness

This is the backdrop against which the SNP are progressing the claim to indyref2 – requesting a Section 30 order from Westminster to make any referendum legal, binding and agreed by all sides in the way 2014’s was. This will undoubtedly be refused at first ask from a Tory Government, but a subsequent vote looks very likely.

The Corbyn leadership has said if they form a government they will not ‘block’ an indyref, but do not want one in the ‘formative years’ of an administration. This stance makes sense for any potential Labour government and as a pre-election position, given the party may find itself needing the votes of SNP MPs to enter and remain in office. The SNP understand this and will not agree to support Labour without guarantees; not surprisingly the rump Scottish Labour Party completely disagree with Corbyn on this.

This still leaves the SNP facing strategic challenges about how to win a future vote such as the role of a Scottish currency, the finances and economics of independence, and the issue of a ‘hard’ border between an independent Scotland in the EU and a rUK outside it. All of these could trip up independence, but it does look likely that the positive case for the union – already problematic in 2014 – has become even more threadbare and lacking a progressive credo, being dragged down by the disaster nationalism of Brexit.

Labour are considering the idea of a federal plan for all Britain with Baroness Pauline Bryan, Corbyn’s constitutional spokesperson in the Lords, working on a detailed package. Some Labour members and activists hold faith that this will be comprehensive in its scale of reform and ambition, plausible and feasible to implement. This ignores that for all of its history Labour have opposed the idea of political federalism and upheld the idea of parliamentary sovereignty.

It also matters that Labour has to deal with the English dimension of regionalism versus an all-English solution, the semi-detached nature of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and critically, how federalism relates to and tackles the huge systemic economic and social inequalities that disfigure the UK.

Labour’s problems here are informed by its historic constitutional conservatism clinging to the wreckage of the traditions and mythologies of the British state – something as powerful a trait on the left as the right of the party.

But another feature, examined by myself and Eric Shaw in our recently published The People’s Flag and the Union Jack, has been Labour’s failure to take on the dominant reactionary forms of Britishness and absence of telling a counter-story of left patriotism. This would be anchored in the progressive, enlightened values of Britishness which Labour and other radicals have created and championed: a story which has become increasingly problematic to tell and sell.

Whatever the future shape of the UK and its politics Labour has big questions to address about how it understands Britishness and the four nation politics of the UK.

This terrain will become even more urgent and critical as the Scottish and Northern Irish questions become even more acute. For some on the left and in Labour salvation is still to be sought by the maintenance of the British state and the UK despite everything. But for many others on the left, the potential end of the UK as we know it is not a cause for mourning, but rather an opening and a liberation allowing for a new political settlement across the peoples and nations of these isles and the final demise of the Empire State which has harmed and oppressed people for too long.

Gerry Hassan

Gerry Hassan is co-author of The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party, published by Biteback Publishing.