Scottish independence: SNP must meet challenge of Keir Starmer's Labour with practical arguments, not nationalistic rhetoric – Joyce McMillan

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, here in Edinburgh. For those with slightly longer political memories, though, it’s also beginning to look like something else we have seen before, notably in the1990s; the long demise of a scandal-ridden Conservative government at Westminster, now heading inexorably towards electoral defeat.

Recent Tory troubles have left the Labour party of Sir Keir Starmer, here with Scottish leader Anas Sarwar, ahead in the polls (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Recent Tory troubles have left the Labour party of Sir Keir Starmer, here with Scottish leader Anas Sarwar, ahead in the polls (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

As we look back over this chaotic year in Westminster politics, it’s worth noting that this UK-wide collapse in the Tories’ likely electoral fortunes has in fact been remarkably sudden. As recently as the end of June, when Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to hold an advisory independence referendum in 2023 – with its back-up plan for a “de facto” referendum – Boris Johnson was still Prime Minister, clinging to office, and barely six points behind Labour in the polls; and when Liz Truss became Prime Minister in September, the parties were still barely more than ten per cent apart.

It wasn’t until the disastrous Kwasi Kwarteng financial statement of September 23 that Tory support began to plummet, and Labour to rise sharply. By the time Liz Truss resigned, in mid-October, Labour were more than 30 points ahead; and despite Rishi Sunak’s attempts to steady the Tory ship, the gap remains at 20 per cent, with little sign of closing further.

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All of which raises profound questions for the UK’s other political parties, whose positions on the tectonic plates of British politics are now shifting rapidly, in response to this long-delayed collapse in Conservative support. For Labour, of course, it is at last glad confident morning again, after a long dozen years out of power.

The Labour Party’s current unity is fragile, without a doubt. Even among those broadly supportive of Keir Starmer’s leadership, the party’s failure to oppose Brexit, or to propose a more humane and effective immigration policy, is sometimes a cause for despair; and it’s not surprising that the same ambiguities are also visible in the party’s approach to constitutional reform, embodied in this week’s new report by Gordon Brown’s constitutional commission.

The Brown Report is eloquent and sometimes scathing in arguing for change in a system of government that led to the multiple abuses of the Johnson era. Yet its more radical proposals for remedying those abuses – notably the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected Assembly of Nations and Regions which would act as a guarantor of the UK’s devolution settlements – are already encountering strong establishment resistance, not least from existing Labour peers.

The report is also strangely silent on the two central shibboleths of the Westminster system – the idea of absolute Westminster sovereignty, which ultimately makes the entrenchment of devolution impossible, and the election of the Commons through the first-past-the-post system (FPTP); many of the questionable positions currently being taken by the Labour leadership, for example, are entirely due to the distortions of FPTP, and the disproportionate power it gives to small numbers of swing voters in a few marginal seats.

For all those contradictions, though, the Labour Party currently has a spring in its step, and a willingness to look afresh at new ideas about Britain’s future; and that, in turn, raises new questions for Westminster’s current third party, the SNP. The reflex response of many SNP politicians and activists, of course, is to argue that nothing has changed, to dismiss the Labour Party at Westminster as no different from the Tories, and to pour scorn on its offers of reform, despite its success in delivering devolution after 1997.

It goes without saying, though, that this tribal reaction will not cut much ice with most Scottish voters, who can see clearly that imperfect as it is, the Labour Party is not the same as the Tory Party, and is far more likely to deliver both progressive economic policies and improved public services, along with occasional constitutional reforms. Despite the surge in support for independence in recent opinion polls, the SNP therefore needs to think its way carefully through this new political landscape, and perhaps swallow the bitter pill that it may be necessary to wait out another cycle of Labour government in the UK – and the disillusion it will doubtless bring in its wake – before the chance of a second and successful independence referendum finally offers itself.

The election of two combative politicians – Stephen Flynn and Mhairi Black – as leaders of the SNP’s Westminster group suggests, of course, that many in the party may no longer have the patience for that long game; and it’s possible they are right. Every political instinct, though, suggests to me that in an age of crisis both personal and global, most Scottish voters will want to hedge their bets for a while.

Polls are already suggesting that while support for independence is rising, that may or may not transfer directly to a 50 per cent plus SNP vote in the next UK general election; and if the SNP starts to make noises about ditching Nicola Sturgeon’s cautious leadership, and adopting a more combative and nationalistic tone, they may risk losing the small gain in middle ground support that has been so hard won since 2016.

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The case for Scottish independence remains strong, made for the SNP every day by the obvious failures of current UK Government, and the vastly superior performance of every independent country of similar size around us, here in northern Europe. For most voters, though, that argument always has to be articulated as a practical case, promising a better and more hopeful future within a reasonable time-frame, rather than as a matter of nationalistic principle and rhetoric. And tempting though the alternatives may be, the SNP now needs to focus on making that practical case, with a clarity and vividness that has sometimes been lacking of late, if it wants to continue to thrive and succeed, in the age of Starmerism.

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