Scottish independence: If Labour wants to save the Union, it needs to show the UK has a decent, progressive future – Joyce McMillan

Unionists who dismiss all Scottish nationalists as romantic fools are deluding themselves

Unusually, the UK general election of 1945 was held in the first week of July, at the height of summer. The war in Europe was over, although the war against Japan continued; and it was in this strange hiatus between war and peace that Muriel Spark set her great 1963 novella The Girls Of Slender Means, now playing at the Lyceum in Edinburgh in a brilliant, funny and yet sobering new stage version.

The story is set in a Bayswater boarding house for genteel but impoverished young ladies; and although the characters inhabit a different world from our own, it’s sometimes startling to note how closely their concerns mirror ours today – notably on whether the UK can afford Labour’s promised National Health Service.

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One thing that never comes up for debate, though – despite the ribbing of Scottish heroine Joan about her accent – is Scotland’s place is the UK; indeed in that 1945 general election, the Scottish National Party won just 1.2 per cent of the vote. At that moment, after all, there was no question about what the UK was for, or whether its existence was a good idea. It had just played a key role in the defeat of fascism, in Europe and worldwide. It was also a country that, during the war, had devised a plan for the peace; and was about to start building what it believed would be the world’s first cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Independence support stubbornly high

And it’s in that context that those who are interested in the political future of these islands should consider the strange state of Scottish politics, in the run-up to another UK general election. After years of dominance since 2007, a visibly exhausted and divided SNP now seems likely to experience a humiliating loss of Westminster seats, while Labour – as in 1945 – is set to achieve a landslide victory.

Yet to the irritation of otherwise cock-a-hoop Scottish unionists, support for Scottish independence remains stubbornly at or above the 45 per cent level achieved in the 2014 referendum; and once the current round of election fever is over, serious defenders of the Union should perhaps give some thought to the reasons why.

If Labour wins the next general election, Keir Starmer will have a task on his hands to persuade Scots not to support independence (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)If Labour wins the next general election, Keir Starmer will have a task on his hands to persuade Scots not to support independence (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)
If Labour wins the next general election, Keir Starmer will have a task on his hands to persuade Scots not to support independence (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

For at the moment, the default mode of unionist response to the idea of independence is largely one of insult. Phrases like “the economics of idiots” are bandied about; and respected London commentators can be seen pontificating on how far Scotland has fallen under the SNP, as a supposed victim of soaraway poverty, a uniquely cash-starved NHS, a collapsing education system, and now – the final blow – a new hate crime law that apparently deprives us of our freedom of speech. We have, it seems, been misled into terrible error by “romantic nationalism”; from which the Westminster government will kindly step in to save us.

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Yet one need only take a single step back from the recent spectacle of UK politics to see how flawed this self-serving metropolitan vision is. With one or two exceptions, there is barely a single area in that vision of Scotland where the UK-wide situation is not arguably worse; and that includes not only shocking child poverty figures, but also areas involving civil rights and freedoms. Human Rights Watch reported that in 2022 alone, the UK Government introduced laws that stripped rights from asylum seekers, encouraged voter disenfranchisement, limited judicial oversight of government actions, and placed new restrictions on the right to peaceful protest.

Pillars of political moderation

And all of this, of course, comes on top of the utter chaos and self-harm of the UK’s Brexit years. The Conservative party’s capitulation to its extreme British nationalist wing since 2015 has been a shocking story of political opportunism and cowardice; and their efforts, when it comes to voters being misled by “romantic nationalism”, make the SNP look, to many Scottish voters, like what they are – pillars of political moderation, and cautious internationalism.

Those who want to defend the Union in the long term, in other words, should beware of complacency. Ever since 1707, the treaty of Union has been for most Scots a practical matter; a deal which served the country well, at least in economic terms, for almost three centuries.

It is, though, a matter of record that from the moment when Margaret Thatcher started to speak dismissively of the welfare state project, and to embrace economic neoliberalism, the politics of Scotland and England began to diverge. Post Brexit, the difference of opinion about what kind of future our countries should seek is now both serious and entrenched; and support for independence remains high not because 45 or 50 per cent of Scots are fools seduced by romantic nationalism, but because the UK no longer offers a political project to which they can subscribe, or with which they wish to identify.

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Absurdly exaggerated failures

The only way to defend the Union in the long term is to convince a clear majority of Scots that the UK has rediscovered a decent progressive vision for its future, and is willing and able to put it into practice. Shouting at Scotland, by contrast – dismissing its views, and absurdly exaggerating the failures of its government – will persuade no one who has already raised their eyes to look at the performance of the small independent countries around us in Europe, and begun to wonder why Scotland should be deemed incapable of achieving similar success.

The Union, in the 21st century, is either a decent, mutually respectful partnership, in which Scotland’s massive contribution to the UK’s territory and wealth is fully acknowledged in ways that benefit its people; or it is a bullying and patronising bad marriage, from which Scotland will eventually extricate itself. And its future will depend on the ability of unionists – and particularly of an incoming Labour government, later this year – to understand that truth, and to act on it.



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