Joyce McMillan: Labour didn’t always hate the SNP - so what’s changed?

AMID the hate-filled hurly-burly of current political debate, it is often a soothing experience to step back, and take a longer view. This week, I have been reading (and reviewing for this weekend’s Scotland On Sunday) Ben Jackson’s new book, The Case For Scottish Independence; not, as its title might suggest, a polemic in favour of a “yes” vote, but a detailed study of how the arguments for Scottish independence have changed and evolved over the eight decades since the SNP was founded, in 1934.

Donald Dewar and Alex Salmond together at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in May 1999

It’s a fascinating story, for anyone interested in recent Scottish politics; but one aspect of it struck me with particular force, as I turned back towards this week’s political landscape, and that was the vital and creative role played by key figures in the Labour Party, during the 1980s and 1990s, in developing and articulating the case for Scottish home rule, and in embracing the idea of Scotland’s sovereignty over its own fate.

By the time of the devolution referendum of 1997, Donald Dewar and Alex Salmond, as leaders of the Scottish Labour and the SNP, were happy to campaign together for a yes vote to a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers. Voters responded to this historic strategic alliance between Scotland’s two social democratic parties with a massive “yes” majority; and Labour retained the constitutional initiative through the early years of devolution, until the disaster of the Iraq War in 2003 signalled the start of Labour’s long electoral decline in Scotland.

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All of which presents a painful contrast to the image presented by Scottish Labour today, as a sad rump of a party so possessed by hatred of the SNP that its deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, was caught out the other day retweeting a peculiarly nasty conspiracy theory to the effect that the Aberdeen lockdown – clearly made necessary by a sharp spike in new Covid cases – had only been introduced to distract attention from this week’s huge political row over the SQA exam results.

It is increasingly obvious, after all, that Scotland now needs a substantial opposition party that can challenge the SNP government from the left, and not only on the matter of exam results deliberately moderated the better to reflect Scotland’s existing patterns of inequality and social injustice. To put it bluntly, the SNP government’s vaguely Blairite approach of talking the talk of a 21st century “green” social democracy, while in fact compromising far too often with the destructive forces of 21st century global capitalism, is beginning to look less and less adequate as a response to the shuddering series of crises shaking the global system, and the UK in particular.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the SNP left itself is restless, and worried about what they call the party’s “drift to the right”. And for a Labour Party in any kind of fighting form, and with any coherent radical programme of its own, this political moment should offer a huge opportunity to begin to take votes back from an SNP that often seems exhausted and compromised, after 13 difficult years in government.

The Scottish Labour Party, though, cannot convincingly step into that role; and the reasons are twofold. Firstly, the Labour Party at UK level still has not resolved the huge divisions thrown up by the collapse of the Blairite project after 2010, and the trauma of a Corbyn leadership bitterly rejected by large sections of his own party. And then secondly, with the exception of the postwar “welfare state” years between 1945 and 1970, the truth is that moments of energy and expansion for the Labour Party across the UK have traditionally been associated with radical or open-minded attitudes to the UK constitution.

It’s therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that since 2010, Labour’s fear of appearing “unpatriotic” in England, and its ever more virulent hatred of the SNP in Scotland, has backed it into a position of constitutional conservatism that effectively hobbles it as a party of radical democratic change. In Scotland, Labour’s absolute priority at the moment should be the promotion of a vibrant 21st century vision of social democracy, and the calling-out of the SNP government when its policies fail to match its centre-left rhetoric; and it should be willing to accept, and even promote, any constitutional arrangement that makes that vision more achievable.

Instead, though, Labour in Scotland – still traumatised by the SNP’s success in replacing it as Scotland’s leading party of choice – has allowed itself to fall into a reactionary emotional pattern where hatred of the SNP, and of the idea of independence, trumps every other consideration, and sometimes drives the party into ugly alliances with the Conservatives in the defence of a Union which – to genuine social democrats – simply looks increasingly indefensible.

In the great picture of 21st century politics, there are of course more important matters afoot than whether Scotland is technically independent or not. Yet to defend the existing powers of our parliament, to insist on our right to maintain close trading and cultural relations with our European neighbours, to regain our vital freedoms as EU citizens, and to set a path towards a more just and sustainable future for the people of Scotland – those are all areas on which the SNP and the Scottish Labour Party not only can make common cause, but perhaps, in these times, have a moral duty to do so. And if that means that the Labour Party increasingly has to consider the possibility of independence – well, so what, since freedom, democracy and social justice are surely the party’s primary goals?

For these are grim times, made grimmer by the catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic in countries like the UK which have handled it badly.

And social democrats who are foolish enough to frame one another as the principal enemy, in the age of Johnson and Trump, are finally betraying not only the history of their own parties; but also those voters who, against the odds, have continued to choose the possibility of a better, fairer and more harmonious future, over the path of reaction and hate that is currently so popular, but that can, in the end, lead only to destruction.

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