Lesley Riddoch: Labour can’t simply back independence, it must rediscover its soul

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There is no point in the party simply switching to a pro-independence stance without creating its own particular position argues Lesley Riddoch.

Scottish Labour should beware enemies offering advice, like changing course to support a second independence referendum.

Labour's failures under Jeremy Corbyn have sparked an internal fallout which will have long-term repercussions. Picture: PA

Labour's failures under Jeremy Corbyn have sparked an internal fallout which will have long-term repercussions. Picture: PA

So warned Euan McColm in yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday and he is surely correct. But not because supporting indyref2 would leave the party worse off. It just wouldn’t be enough to tackle the big, central, yawning problem tugging away at the soul of the People’s Party north of the Border since managerialism first gripped New Labour under Tony Blair.

What is Scottish Labour’s raison d’etre? What are its core beliefs? In a country where the SNP speaks the language of social democracy and Conservatives have stolen the clothes of unionism (right down to the union jack underwear) – literally what’s left? The answer seems is currently a torn-looking lucky bag of assorted and often contradictory policies.

For example, Scottish Labour wants a public sector bid to run the Scotrail franchise, but opposes devolving powers so Holyrood can scrap the hopeless franchising process and set up a publicly-owned Scottish railway instead. The party does wants to scrap franchising across the whole UK, except that won’t happen for another five years at least. So, what’s good for British voters (except they don’t want it), is not good for Scottish voters (except they do). Go figure.

In a similar guddle, Scottish Labour voted to scrap the UK’s Trident nuclear missile system on the Clyde in 2015, but meekly deferred to UK party policy that supports renewal in their 2017 and 2019 manifestos. The party wants a living wage that’s a bit higher than the SNP, a Green Deal that’s a lot less radical than the Scottish Greens’ and a policy on Europe – well let’s tiptoe swiftly past that mess.

Yip, the absence of a coherent line on independence really is the least of Scottish Labour’s problems. Put simply, the party has no soul. No guiding star by which to steer the rough waters of political dissent. No overriding conviction or analysis to compel attention, drive direction and dictate logical positions on thorny issues like independence.

Instead Scottish Labour is engaged in a very public and very naked cost/benefit analysis of whether to change position on Scotland’s continuing membership of the union. No matter which way it goes, the grubby process will hardly create instant throngs of admiring converts. The truth is that Scottish Labour is stuck opposing independence for all the wrong reasons – in all circumstances, in any weather and no matter what socialist outcomes might be possible north of the Border. All because independence is the sole objective of the party that stole Labour’s birthright in 2007 and – in the eyes of many – will never, ever be forgiven.

Hating the SNP bends Scottish Labour further out of shape than any position on independence, because it defies logic, it overwhelms rival motivations (even empowering ones), it consumes integrity and reduces politics to the boring business of automatically contradicting the SNP. Argument, to paraphrase Monty Python, is an intellectual process – a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.

But that’s what Scottish Labour is reduced to – automatically gainsaying the party that usurped its place, policies, heartlands and voters 13 years ago.

This enduring grudge match fuels nonsensical soundbites like Richard Leonard’s tweet on New Year’s Day: “Johnson’s hard-right Brexit makes me fear for Scotland’s future, but it’s no reason to accept austerity in a separate Scotland as the least worst option.” Whit?

Or Monica Lennon’s proposal for a separate Scottish Labour party – apparently prompted by John McDonnell’s acceptance of the case for indyref2 last summer, when he overrode Richard Leonard. But a second vote is now what Ms Lennon wants too. So why the need for a separate party then? Unless it’s because Scotland has a distinct political culture. But accepting that means accepting quite a lot of the case for independence too.

So, it’s perfectly true – aping the SNP’s pro-independence platform will get Scottish Labour no further than hysterically avoiding it. Any change must be driven by some demonstrable logic – by a conviction that the important, distinctive things Scottish Labour believes in cannot now be delivered within a pan-British context. That’s the big, difficult, public debate the party must now have to create direction and win some respect.

Is it worth hanging on within the union, in the vain hope that a new Labour leader can somehow win over English voters? If it isn’t, then Scottish Labour has the reason it needs to make a bold change of direction on independence. Changing tack for any less coherent reason will simply lack credibility.

Independence for the sake of independence is kinda taken. Indeed, independence for the sake of dignity, equality and workers’ rights is kinda taken too. So, Scottish Labour should copy its much-reviled political nemesis in one regard only – it must find a shared transformational core belief and use it as the template around which all other policies must fit – including independence.

It’s too late for a cynical rebranding exercise. The only options left for Scottish Labour are to vacate the political space they currently inhabit in favour of a new left party or to completely repurpose Scottish Labour. That could be done without reference to any other party, by revisiting the legacy of Tom Johnston – the inspiring wartime Labour Scottish Secretary whose portrait hung in Bute House during Alex Salmond’s years as First Minister. Johnston’s dislike of landed privilege was so great that all copies of his incendiary 1909 book Our Noble Families had to be found and destroyed before he could persuade landowners to accept hydro-electric schemes on their land in the 1940s. His instinct for a small-scale, decentralised, municipal state led him to set up a Building Society in his native Kirkintilloch so that local people’s savings could also finance council services. Johnston might have led Labour and Scotland towards the same kind of decentralised state Norway and Sweden have become, if his instincts had prevailed.

A modern, re-worked, vision of Johnston’s, empowered, decentralised society is practically the only unoccupied political space in Scotland. Will Scottish Labour dare to explore it or just keep grafting on policies, trying hard not to bang into the SNP, Tories or Greens along the way?