Chaos in the Commons points to a very ugly election in Scotland - Joyce McMillan

Independence aside, there are only fragile differences between SNP and Labour who are often competing for exactly the same voter demographic, writes Joyce McMillan.

IT WAS, most observers seem to agree, a bad business, that has both damaged the reputation of the Westminster parliament, and left the speaker of the House of Commons in a seriously weakened position.

If there is one truth, though, that has emerged with great clarity from Wednesday’s chaos surrounding the SNP’s Commons motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, it is that no matter how bitter or ugly we thought it might be, the upcoming general election tussle between the SNP and Labour for Scotland’s centre-left votes is likely to exceed our worst expectations.

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For there is no doubt that this debacle was partly caused by the bitterness of current relations between Labour and the SNP, with the SNP eager to expose Labour divisions on Israel/Palestine, and Labour, on the night, simply unable - to the point of placing extraordinary pressure on the Speaker - to tolerate the fact that SNP’s substantial representation at Westminster enables it, occasionally, to command a vote on a motion of its own choosing. And the news for Westminster politicians, as this week ends, is that the idea that any parties or politicians have emerged as “winners”, from such shameful scenes on such a serious issue, is the worst kind of Westminster insider nonsense.

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn in the  House of Commons, where chaos reigned after the SNP lodged a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. PIC:/UK Parliament/PA WireSNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn in the  House of Commons, where chaos reigned after the SNP lodged a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. PIC:/UK Parliament/PA Wire
SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn in the House of Commons, where chaos reigned after the SNP lodged a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. PIC:/UK Parliament/PA Wire
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These events, though, must leave voters in Scotland even more conscious than before of the harshness of the general election battle we are about to endure. As many have observed, the deep hatred between Scottish Labour and the SNP is a classic case of the narcissism of small differences. Both are essentially parties of social democrats subject to strong rightward pressure from big commercial lobbyists and sections of the media; and many of those now supporting the SNP grew up in the Scottish Labour tradition, before becoming disillusioned during the Blair era.

The two parties are therefore often competing for exactly the same voter demographic, and doing so via policies which - independence apart - are often all but identical. Hence the intense rows over every area where a small glimmer of divergence appears between them, such as this week’s spat over Labour’s proposed new windfall tax on North Sea gas and oil producers. By and large, the SNP’s record in government over the last 17 years - and particularly its efforts to mitigate the worst effects of a failing UK benefits system - means that it can plausibly claim, at the moment, to be outflanking Labour on the left, a position enhanced by its stance in support of the Palestinian people.

Yet these differences remain fragile. Any social democrat in Scotland must, in any case, be well aware of the limits to the Scottish Government’s power in tackling the profound inequalities that are now entrenched across UK society; and is bound to be tempted by the idea of a new Labour government at UK level which might - in however constrained a way - at least try to shift the balance of financial and political power back towards ordinary working people.

One thing that those voters will not be doing, though, is choosing between a politics based on nationalism, and a politics based on the struggle for social justice and a sustainable future. In Scotland as everywhere, there is of course a small minority of voters, on both sides of the independence question, for whom national identity - British or Scottish - is the be-all and end-all of politics.

For the vast majority, though, the quest for a sustainable future in a just society easily trumps any idea of nationhood; and the SNP’s electoral success over the last 17 years derives not from any surge in nationalist sentiment - surveys suggest there has been none - but from a sense, increasingly understandable following the debacle of Brexit and other Westminster scandals, that the UK may no longer be capable of delivering any such future.

What Labour has to offer now, in other words - if it wants to win back those Scottish voters - is a sense that it can create a real change of direction at Westminster, and begin to shift the ideological basis of UK politics away from failed 1980’s neoliberalism towards something more rational and sustainable. Turning unionism into a flag-wrapped culture war may attract some former Tories, and please some diehard Labour folk; but it will certainly never persuade those Scottish voters Labour has lost to the SNP since 2005, any more than they are persuaded by Saltire-heavy independence marches.

For if there is one guiding principle in current Scottish politics, it is the timeless truth - as expressed by the late, great John Hume of Northern Ireland - that “you can’t eat a fleg”. It applies equally - let unionists be warned - to both the Union flag and the Saltire; and both the cause of unionism, and the cause of Scottish independence, will succeed or fail by their ability to offer the ordinary people of Scotland the decent and sustainable future they seek, as free citizens of a 21st century democracy.

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So far, and despite all their many failures in government, it seems to me that the SNP are still scoring higher on that report card than Labour under Keir Starmer, already mired in compromise with a right-leaning UK system whose performance in recent years can only be described as abysmal.

Yet because I am not a ‘nationalist’, but a convinced green social democrat and lifelong internationalist, I reserve the right always to vote for whoever best promotes those values, regardless of the flag they carry. In that, I think I am typical of many Scottish voters. And I suspect it will be the worse for any politician, seeking votes in Scotland, who fails to grasp that truth; and tries to bedazzle us with weasel words about patriotism of any stripe, while failing to take the actions, and embrace the policies, that really raise the people up, and empower them to choose their own fate.