London Mayor Sadiq Khan was yesterday forced into a humiliating retreat after sparking outrage by likening Scottish nationalism with racism.
A furious row erupted when it emerged that Khan intended to make the comparison in his address to the Scottish conference at Perth.
Before standing up to speak, Khan released a passage from his speech which claimed there was “no difference” between “those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish, and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion”.
The extract came in part of the speech which contained warnings that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump meant the world was “becoming an increasingly divided place” with the “rise of populist and narrow nationalist parties” around the world.
Khan’s words were condemned by senior figures in the SNP including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, while Labour colleagues came to his defence.
Sturgeon said: “I’m a big admirer of Sadiq Khan, but today’s intervention is spectacularly ill-judged. It is an insult to all those Scots who support independence for reasons of inclusion and social justice – the antithesis of what he says.
“It is a sign of the sheer desperation and moral bankruptcy that has driven so many from Scottish Labour’s ranks. Very disappointing.”
As it became clear the controversy was overshadowing Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s keynote speech to conference, Khan attempted to limit the damage. A last-minute rewrite saw the addition of a qualifying paragraph, which was not in the versions of the speech released earlier.
When he delivered his speech from the conference platform Khan repeated the offending passage, but qualified it by adding: “Now of course I’m not saying that nationalists are somehow racist or bigoted, but now, more than ever, what we don’t need is more division and separation.”
But by the time Khan, one of the UK’s most prominent Muslim politicians, had made his revisions the anger over his original version had made the London Mayor the focus of attention at conference.
The furore was yet another distraction from Labour’s efforts to rally the troops ahead of May’s local elections and to present Dugdale as a dynamic and effective Scottish leader.
The question marks over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s dismal showing in the Copeland by-election had dominated the conference on Friday.
Today the spotlight will fall back on to Corbyn when he heads north to address delegates on the final day.
Khan’s arrival at the Perth Concert Hall saw him pursued by the media and the Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf had joined Sturgeon in condemning the remarks.
Yousaf tweeted: “When Sadiq Khan was subject to racist dog whistle mayoral campaign from Tories, I was amongst the first to publicly back him and condemn it.
“To have him accuse SNP of being racist party is deeply insulting and of course untrue. The first BME (black and minority ethnic) MSP was from the SNP Bashir Ahmad.
“The SNP also appointed first BME minister to govt. We are pro-migration and are leading the fight to protect rights of EU citizens. So will take no lectures on politics of division from a Labour Party that sold ‘controls on immigration’ mugs.”
A spokesman for the SNP said: “Sadiq Khan is quite right to highlight the dangers of prejudice – but it is spectacularly ill-judged to compare supporters of Scottish independence to Trump or Brexiteers, and indeed it is an insult to many former and current Labour voters.
“It is only the SNP Government which is providing principled and strong opposition to the Tories’ hard Brexit obsession, while Labour run up the white flag and allow themselves to be rolled over by the Brexiteers and their right-wing agenda.”
Ross Greer MSP, the external affairs spokesman for the pro-independence Scottish Greens, said: “For a party heading towards complete irrelevance, labelling almost half of Scotland racist is a bizarre choice from Labour.
“The Yes movement stands up for an inclusive Scotland, welcoming refugees, immigrants and all those who choose to live here. Compare that with Labour’s union-flag bedecked ‘One Nation’ campaign and their ‘control immigration’ mugs and it’s clear who the narrow nationalists are.
“Scotland faces a clear choice: we can be dragged along with an angry, isolationist ‘hard Brexit’ or we can join the world on our own terms, as a progressive, inclusive nation.”
Before Khan made his alterations he had been defended by senior Labour figures.
Jackie Baillie, the English-educated MSP for Dumbarton, challenged Sturgeon on Twitter.
Baillie said: “If nationalism is not about racism why then do your supporters tell me to go home because of my accent?”
Scottish Labour’s health spokesman Anas Sarwar called on Sturgeon to drop the “faux outrage”.
Sarwar tweeted: “All forms of nationalism rely on creating an ‘us’ vs ‘them’. Let’s drop the Scottish exceptionalism and call it out for what it is.”
Douglas Alexander, Labour’s former foreign secretary, also took to Twitter to criticise nationalism.
Alexander said: “For years nationalist leaders have peppered their speeches with attacks on ‘London’ and ‘London Labour’ to say ‘they are not us’.
“Despite their protestations of joyous civic nationalism Sadiq Khan (who is London Labour) understands this code. Nationalism is about exclusion – not inclusion. Patriotism needs no enemy while nationalism demands one.
“The answer after Trump/Brexit isn’t Scottish or British nationalism with more walls, borders, grievance and new divisions. It’s to remake case for co-operation, for solidarity, for independence and working with our neighbours.”