We have two parties who agree who agree on almost every aspect of domestic policy but are at each other’s throats over independence, writes Joyce McMillan
As we have every reason to remember this week, there is politics, and then there is politics. One kind of politics concerns itself with the common coin of our shared life, and with the decisions we have to make about how our nation or community should best be run, from bin collections and tax levels to foreign policy.
And then there is that other kind of politics which is, most fiercely, about identity and belonging, about who we are, and who are the others; and it is often driven - at the moments when it surfaces in our lives - not by a desire to make a better world, but by fear of losing an old one. And because it deals in such primal emotions, this kind of politics often very quickly flares up into the kind of hate speech and violent talk that can - by some lost souls - be reinterpreted as a pretext for violence itself.
Britain has some experience of this process, of course, from the long Troubles in Northern Ireland, through the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, to this week’s bombing. And here in Scotland - well, we have seen several decades of identity politics without significant violence, since the SNP began its long rise in the 1970s; yet still, we should be conscious of its dangers, and of how it can betray the majority of voters.
We are fortunate, at least, in having an independence party which has gone to some trouble, over the last 25 years, to cast off its Bannockburn image, and to rebrand itself as a centre-left party which wants independence mainly as a means to a social-democratic end. Yet there is still one area where identity politics is betraying the Scottish people, with possible grim consequences; and that is in the complete breakdown of the broad anti-Tory alliance between the SNP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats that gave Scotland its huge majority vote for devolution in 1997, and put down a marker that this country would not be trampled over by Westminster Toryism again.
The deal-breakers for that alliance have been many, of course, ranging from the Labour shift to the right that allowed the SNP to start annihilating the party in its traditional heartlands, to the Liberal Democrat decision to go into Westminster coalition with the Tories in 2010.
Whatever the reasons, though, what we are left with, in 2017, is a Scottish centre-left which still speaks for a large majority of Scottish opinion, but which is hopelessly split over the matter of independence, to the point where some Labour politicians are seriously advocating voting Tory in some Scottish seats, in order to defeat the SNP. And to add insult to irony, this moment comes just as official Labour policy has moved to the left again; so that it is difficult - as Alex Salmond has wryly pointed out - to see much in the Labour manifesto that radically differs from current SNP policy in Scotland.
All of which surely invites some serious thought from all three parties about their priorities, as between constitutional politics and the more bread-and-butter variety. Following the Brexit vote, Nicola Sturgeon perhaps had no option, given her party’s 2016 manifesto, but to make some moves towards a second independence referendum; but it’s now evident that she should not try to call one until the terms of Brexit have become very clear, a process which could take half a decade.
And for the other parties - well, it’s abundantly clear that the rigid Unionist stance now being taken by Scottish Labour represents a betrayal not only of their party’s great home rule tradition, but of many former supporters who have shifted their allegiance to the SNP. To prefer a federal solution for the UK is one thing, and the Liberal Democrats at least have the excuse - a fragile one, under current circumstances - that that has always been their party’s official policy.
To talk, though, as if the very idea of Scottish independence in Europe represents anathema for Labour supporters, and is so repugnant as to justify voting Tory to prevent it, is simply ridiculous for any party of the left. It mystifies the idea of the British state in a way that is both reactionary and foolish, wrongly suggests that our sense of Britain and Ireland as an island community of nations could not survive Scotland’s independence, and probably dooms us to another ten years of hard-right Tory government, at a critical moment for our nation and for the planet.
For the truth is that under 21st century conditions, the question of independence or union is not significant enough to justify support for those who would fail to take decisive action against climate change, who would not tackle social injustice, and who would continue to collude with global elites whose compulsive greed, and massive trading of arms, is turning whole areas of the planet into uninhabitable hell-holes. In the face of this crisis, the SNP need to lay off the Labour Party, who may be their favourite tribal enemy, but who are no longer even the main opposition in Scotland.
Likewise, if the Liberal Democrats care about Europe as much as they claim to, they need to stop talking as if Brexit mattered less than the Union, and start co-operating with the Scottish Government on trying to salvage what we can of Scotland’s relationship with the EU. And if Scottish Labour are a party of the centre left, they need to keep the Tories firmly in their sights, and drop the nonsense about the SNP being the main threat, if not actually the anti-christ.
In 20 years time, Scotland may be an independent country, or it may still be a devolved part of the UK, with greater or much reduced powers. Whatever constitutional path we choose, though, it will be the politics of taxing and spending, of achieving sustainability, and of the push towards social justice or the slide towards its opposite, that will dominate our lives. And the more we focus on that, rather than on the brittle politics of threatened identity, the more likely we are to encourage civic peace; and to emerge on the right side of the argument.