Jess Phillips’ lack of a coherent argument for the Union suggest its days may be numbered, writes Laura Waddell.
Enter Labour leadership contender Jess Phillps to the constitutional question of Scotland, trumpeting in accompaniment to Prime Minister Johnson’s new Big Ben bung-a-bob-for-a-bong initiative, this week’s other tuneless appeal which asked citizens, in tedious tabloid alliteration, to chip in for the bell’s running costs.
“I read somewhere,” Phillips tweeted on Monday, with a studiously blasé approach to the subject in advance of her trip to Glasgow the following day, “that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone. Let nationalists make the case for nationalism, we should make the make the argument for solidarity and internationalism.”
So make that argument – where is it? This kind of comment sounds tired to anyone who has taken the scantest interest in Scottish politics at any point in the past decade. Not only does it prop up a topsy-turvy Brexiteer conception of the UK as some beguiling beacon of internationalism while in real time we can see the country floundering for a foothold post-Brexit, but it’s particularly grating in light of Scotland’s voting preference to remain within the EU, demonstrated not only at the time of the EU referendum but in subsequently voting in tranches of strongly pro-EU parliamentarians.
Also stale is the reductive framing of any and all support for Scottish independence as “nationalism”, while pretending “passionate” unionism is anything but an emotive appeal to patriotism and a refusal to grasp and discuss why so many Scots, including Labour members past and present, are drawn to self-governance. And yet, this is surely exactly the area where a savvier candidate might make headway, and demonstrate their understanding of the terrain. If Phillips wants to talk about other issues that matter, there’s nothing stopping her.
Echo of Better Together
While Philips was in Glasgow on Tuesday, reiterating her unyielding belief Scotland should remain in the UK, Johnson had just denied another Scottish independence referendum in a letter to Nicola Sturgeon. The parallel was likely unintended by the Phillips camp, but in an echo of 2014’s ill-advised Better Together partnership, such singing from the same song sheet only reiterates for cynical Scottish voters how close Labour’s position on independence is to that of the Tories. The tack Phillips took is less surprising with the realisation Blair McDougall is one of her advisors, as reported this week in the National, having already left Scottish Labour’s historic and staggering loss of 40 seats in his wake as well as Jim Murphy’s political career in tatters.
With Labour trailing in the polls, and having done so for some time, Phillips is ultimately, in her advocacy for the United Kingdom, telling Scots we should endure a Tory Government until Labour can get into power – but the problem is, Scotland didn’t vote for Labour to represent them at Westminster either. The Johnson letter bluntly underscores the democratic indignity in the constitutional status quo. With support for unionism flying full mast on the same day and at the same time, Philips might as well have plugged Boris’ Big Ben bung for him too while she was here.
Speaking to England
So why take a hardline stance on unionism at all, when a significant chunk of Scottish Labour voters are open to independence? It might be a signature McDougall manoeuvre, but it appears Phillips’ words aren’t really about or even for Scotland but setting herself apart from fellow candidates, Rebecca Long-Bailey and others who’ve expressed openness to the idea of another Scottish independence referendum.
By comparison, they appear reasonable and supportive of democratic principles, while also having a little more insight into why Labour has fared so badly in Scotland in recent years. They personally might not desire independence, but have a base-line level of political depth in their ability to discuss it, rather than blurting discussion-blocking soundbites about division, and it’s in that mould a more convincing candidate might build on ideas Corbyn stirred membership interest in, but sketched out too weakly in federal terms, and ultimately couldn’t deliver.
Philips’ comments the week prior were that she “couldn’t understand” independence support “up there”. Clearly. We can learn something from how each candidate deals with the Scotland question – or, really, problem. There is the sense that when Phillips speaks about Scotland, she is really speaking to England, and specifically to voters likely to be won over by patriotic displays. Labour’s unequivocable unionism has not been a vote winner in Scotland in recent years. Going so heavy handed on it at all while doing the Scottish press circuit seems both unnecessary and foolish.
Solidarity in suffering Tory rule
By the time she appeared on Scotland Tonight on Tuesday evening, at what would be ten-and-a-half Big Ben bongs, even Phillips seemed tired by her own argument, as reductivist as the campaign leaflets nobody has glanced twice at for years. But what even is her argument?
Does she have plans for how to bridge the electoral schism, and deal with the Scottish voters who’ve abandoned Labour in droves, other than by simply panning them outright when she states that she cares about kids in Birmingham and Glasgow, as through they’d leave them to starve? Does she have any more detail on this declaration of “solidarity” and what that means other than suffering the Tories together? What does she propose for Scottish industries particularly at risk of Brexit instability? Perhaps those parts haven’t been strategised yet. At the moment, it’s just put up and shut up, while Johnson bongs on.
In the grit of the Brexit Bill, Scotland’s devolved powers are vulnerable to overrule by Westminster. Where’s that solidarity then, Jess? Given the history of the place, it’s saddening that the Labour Party in general have recently been reticent in standing up for Holyrood’s mandate.
Scotland deserves better than to be kicked around like a political football by candidates signalling their devotion to British identity. Indeed, Scottish representatives might one day not be sent to Westminster to hear Big Ben strike the hour.