Scottish Labour is doomed if it denies right to choose over independence – Kenny MacAskill

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Many stalwarts of the early Scottish Labour party backed home rule and the party shouldn’t sacrifice itself for the Union, writes Kenny MacAskill.

Scottish Labour are about to embark on a debate that will be both damaging and debilitating. A debate though there has to be, as it goes to the very heart and soul of the party, as well as defining their future direction and even their political relevancy.

Pro-independence supporters march through Edinburgh. Picture: PA

Pro-independence supporters march through Edinburgh. Picture: PA

As their southern colleagues decide on left versus right, in Scotland Labour need to decide where they stand on the constitution.

Of course, many Labour members will say it’s not what defines them, let alone drives them. That’s perfectly understandable but in Scotland having a position on it is imperative and the current one has proven catastrophic for them.

As down south, some have demanded one more heave for socialism, it’s replicated here by calls for a further defence of the Union, even self-sacrifice to achieve it. That latter suggestion is truly absurd. It’s reminiscent of 2007 when Labour hegemony fell in Scotland and it was viewed by the Scottish Labour leadership as an aberration. The electorate had wandered off like a wayward child but would return home soon enough.

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Rather than temper or reflect they became more strident, even dogmatic. It resulted in the calamitous defeat in 2011 and yet once again they doubled down rather than adapt to the changing Scotland.

Despite growing Scottish self-confidence and booming grassroots Yes movements in former Labour heartlands, they supped with the devil in the Better Together campaign. Just as the poll tax was the issue that gave the SNP credibility in those areas, it was Labour’s No campaign that killed them stone dead in those parts.

Party of my parents

The disdain and contempt for them on the doorstep was palpable. Not supporting Yes was one thing but wrapping themselves in the Union Jack quite another. I always knew they’d pay a price but I never realised just how great.

And so, Labour, who were the party of my parents and grandparents and who dominated my early life, have been reduced to just one Scottish MP and even he’s out of kilter. Appointing an English MP as Shadow Scottish Secretary was the ultimate humiliation. Colonial status indeed. It’s not for the SNP to interfere in their internal grief and indeed it would be counterproductive. Wishing those who respect Scotland’s right to choose well is, though, reasonable. Scotland needs to unite to face the onslaught that’s coming and standing shoulder to shoulder with them will be important. Indeed, there’s many I know and respect.

However, as a columnist and someone who’s written about Scottish Labour history, I feel entitled to make some comment. It’s true that Labour of the last 40 years have become increasingly unionist. I know, as my good friend Henry McLeish who remains a member, has studied and lived much of it, and has told me. But of course, it wasn’t always that way.

I posed next to the statue of Keir Hardie in Westminster Hall and the ILP and early Labour Party were always committed to Home Rule. The early Red Clydesiders sought to deliver upon that pledge in the 1920s. Whilst Jimmy Maxton fulminated over what more could be achieved in Scotland, colleagues like George Buchanan and then Rev James Barr lodged bills seeking self-government. They basically sought all powers other than defence and foreign affairs to be transferred to Scotland, though it was anticipated that even they would follow.

A total absurdity

In many ways, it was independence in the empire as the modern SNP seeks independence in the EU. Similar in powers to the Irish Free State that had been established in 1922. Those votes were defeated and Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour leadership were the cause of it. But still the commitment remained especially within the ILP and wider Labour Movement.

War and other issues waylaid it, though Tom Johnston, inarguably the greatest Scottish Secretary, remained supportive of it but only when the time was right. Sadly, he faded from the picture and the central machine opposition remained, if not increased. Devolution was only kept alive at the STUC by Mick McGahey and the NUM. Labour’s commitment to devolution, as the 1979 referendum showed, became a reaction to the surge of the SNP and was lukewarm amongst many.

However, that later changed and devolution was born. Some wanted more powers and the parliament to evolve. Yet it seems that the independence vote has pushed many and most of the current leadership into an irredentist unionist camp. The suggestion that it’s almost a sacred duty of Scottish Labour to sacrifice itself for the Union is a total absurdity that besmirches the legacy of Hardie and others.

Backing independence isn’t required but supporting Scotland’s right to choose is essential. Do that and they have a place, reject it and they’re doomed.

Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian