As Labour momentum increases, SNP should think of independence as a long-term project – Joyce McMillan
It’s Tuesday afternoon in Liverpool; and whatever the weather outside, the sun is shining on the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, as he delivers his big party conference speech. As if invigorated by the small shower of glitter chucked over him by a protester, Sir Keir talks persuasively and with a touch of passion, for once, about the damage done by the past 13 years of Conservative government, and – in perhaps the most resonant phrase of his speech – argues that if Labour had to restore Britain’s public realm in 1997, modernise its economy in 1964, and rebuild the nation after a huge collective trauma in 1945, then if elected in 2024, the party will have to do all three.
He also speaks with real empathy of the plight of ordinary people and families left stranded by 15 years of wage stagnation and the current cost-of-living crisis. The party’s slightly awkward new slogan “Get Britain’s Future Back” has been criticised by many; but I suspect that it will resonate with millions for whom the main impact of the recent decline in living standards has been a growing exhausted inability to plan or hope for anything beyond the next frightening round of bills.
And when it comes to specific policies, the previously vague Sir Keir begins to flesh things out a little; he talks, for example, about building upwards of a million new homes, rewiring Britain’s electricity grid for the green energy revolution, and investing heavily in the neglected skills training sector. He offers, in other words, the outline of a fairly sensible, vaguely social democratic programme for the kind of “decade of renewal” a battered UK urgently needs; and the need for it has become so obvious, after years of increasingly chaotic Tory government, that Sir Keir has begun to attract the support even of former dyed-in-the-wool Tories. The latest group of converts includes the mighty Conservative grandee and former Telegraph editor Max Hastings; and it can safely be said that Sir Keir and his resurgent party are now building the kind of political bandwagon that wins Westminster general elections, usually with a substantial majority.
If it is finally a glad, confident morning again for Labour, though, current Scottish politics is a tale of two leaders, the other of whom is undergoing a political nightmare that only his most committed haters – of whom there are sadly quite a few – would wish upon him. History will, I think, look kindly on the grace with which Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf has handled the appalling personal and political situation in which he currently finds himself, with his parents-in-law trapped in the apocalyptic punishment bombing of Gaza, following the horrifying Hamas attack on Israel’s territory and people last Saturday.
In truth, though, the horror of these events, and the sheer pressure they place on the First Minister, only adds another overwhelming layer to the formidable mountain of troubles he faces, as his party prepares to gather in Aberdeen for its annual conference. The party’s spectacular thrashing by Labour in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, its dwindling status in the polls as Labour reasserts itself across the UK, open divisions over independence strategy and its alliance with the Scottish Greens, and now the bizarre defection to the Tories of MP Lisa Cameron, all present Humza Yousaf with a Herculean task in raising party morale, fighting off any possible challenges to his leadership, and charting a way back towards better times.
Politics is a rough old game, of course; and even for the resurgent Labour party, deep and divisive questions still remain – for example about how the wounds of Brexit can be healed without rejoining the EU, and about the obvious and uncomfortable contradictions in Sir Keir’s comments this week on Israel/Gaza. Above all, there are questions about exactly how Sir Keir and his Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves intend to finance the massive programme of economic reinvestment which they envisage, and in which they expect government to play a leading role. And there are persisting questions about how far the abysmal performance of the UK Government in recent years can be remedied by a simple change of party; or whether the recent rampant excesses of Prime Ministerial power, currently being exposed by the UK Covid inquiry, need a far-reaching constitutional response, in which Sir Keir and his colleagues seem deeply uninterested.
For the moment, though, the Labour party walks in the sun; and for the SNP, there is really only one way forward in such times, despite the snake-oil solutions – usually involving sharp turns to the social or economic right – offered by many who are not friends of independence. The task, which will be a long one, is to start building a persuasive and eloquent vision of an independent Scotland, in perhaps 2040, that is no longer waiting and hoping for Sir Keir to base his new British energy company here, and to throw us a few jobs in return for our massive energy wealth, but has taken control of its own resources at last, and is using them both for the benefit of people in Scotland, and as a responsible ally and trading partner among nations.
After a long period of SNP dominance, in other words, the battle is on again, for the votes of the big centre-left majority of Scottish voters. And the prize will go first to the party that fully recognises the nature of that struggle, instead of indulging in deeply unconvincing political insults against a rival that is in many ways an ideological twin; and then to the party best able to show how a better future can be put within the reach of everyone living in Scotland – not tomorrow, and not even the day after, but before today’s generation of pre-school children reach their late teens, and begin to judge us on the world we have left them.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.