ONE of the most common complaints of veteran Scottish Labour activists in recent years has been the way the party has sometimes seemed to hold one belief as being pre-eminent: the belief that the Union must be defended at all cost.
Frankly, few Labour activists joined the party to fight against independence. Instead, their motivations were primarily caught up with a desire for social justice and a willingness to fight inequality. True, most members believe this goal is best pursued within a unified United Kingdom, but few regard the defence of the Union as the defining issue of their politics. The figures are still disputed, but almost one in three Labour voters may have voted Yes in the referendum, seeing independence as a useful route to achieving the more just society that was the reason they got into politics in the first place. Jim Murphy, the party’s new leader, appears to have recognised this reality and decided to do something about it. In the new Scottish Labour constitution agreed by the party’s executive committee yesterday, any mention of defending the UK, or being a unionist party, have been deliberately excluded from its statement of principles. Sources close to Murphy say this is designed to send a message that you can be a Scottish Labour activist and support Scottish independence. As one source said: “Yes voters can feel at home with our new constitution.”
This is one of the ways Murphy is trying to bring about a paradigm shift in Scottish politics, to “reset it” after the extraordinary convulsion of the referendum when the binary choice about leaving the UK seemed to obliterate all other political considerations. Scottish Labour’s new constitution – presented by Murphy as a “Clause Four” moment – is intended to realign the party with its primary aims. Some in Labour will find this hard to do, recent years having inculcated in them a Pavlovian anti-Nat impulse. But others will embrace this new approach with relief. Murphy hopes it will strike a chord with voters who in increasing numbers say the Labour party has forgotten what it stands for, and left its traditional supporters behind.
There is a danger here for the SNP, and thinking nationalists are all too aware of it. The danger is in the timing, with Murphy winning the Scottish Labour leadership on the eve of a UK general election. The SNP did poorly in the last general election in 2010, registering less than 20 per cent of the vote. The main reason, strategists now acknowledge, is that the most important factor in people’s minds was not “standing up for Scottish interests”, which voters have always acknowledged is a strength of the SNP. The primary motivation of most Scots was trying to keep the Conservatives out of Downing Street. This will still be the thought uppermost in the minds of most Scots when they go to the polls on 7 May. The SNP’s aim is to keep a hold of traditional Labour voters who backed the SNP in the last Holyrood election in 2011 and also voted Yes last September. The nationalists believe they can cement these voters as SNP/independence supporters and cut their ties with Labour, reconfiguring Scottish politics. Murphy’s new message to these selfsame voters is that they are not a lost cause in Labour’s eyes. They can flirt with the nationalists, they can even favour an independent Scotland, but they can still come home to Labour when it matters most, in fighting to deprive the Tories of the keys to Number 10.
Murphy has the odds stacked against him to an almost comical extent. Successive polls show Scottish Labour facing a threat to its very existence, rather than any prospect of a revival. But he has already shown a keen eye for the ways in which the SNP’s nationalism can undermine its political effectiveness within a UK context. This is a watershed moment in Scottish politics, and anything can happen.
West must not fall for terrorists’ strategy
TODAY’S unity rally in Paris is an important moment not just for a country deep in shock after the events of recent days, but also for the wider western world which has been shown yet another example of how vulnerable it is to radicalised Islamists intent on slaughter. As broad an act of unity in the face of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the siege at the Parisian kosher supermarket is necessary, because in truth there is little unanimity about what brought about last week’s attacks, nor about the remedies now required to reduce the chances of them being repeated elsewhere. If all that can be shared today is a sense of common humanity in the face of barbarism, then that will be valuable enough. The debates – already bitter and divisive, especially on how the west should treat its large and growing Muslim population - will recommence soon enough.
In such a febrile atmosphere, where visceral instincts sometimes get the better of intellectual reasoning, it is perhaps useful to have one thought uppermost in our minds. It is simply this: we should try not to give the terrorists what they want. What they want is, at root, a state of war between the west and the Islamic world. They want western governments to treat the Muslims in their midst as enemies. And they want these Muslims to feel like strangers in their own lands, believing they have been failed by the western values of democracy, multiculturalism and tolerance. The terrorists want these Muslims to choose instead to retreat from modernity and embrace jihad.
With this thought as our guide, other judgments become easier. It cautions us against the argument – understandable after such an egregious attack on free speech – that Charlie Hebdo’s relaxed attitude towards insulting Muslim sensitivities about the Prophet Muhammad must be emulated if the magazine staff are to be honoured.
To do so would be an error, directing our anger at ordinary devout Muslims, rather than fundamentalist Islamic terrorists with AK47s. Yes, we have the right to offend, and that right should be defended with every sinew. But we can also choose not to offend, and we are right to hesitate before casually denigrating anyone’s faith. Nothing we do should help advance the terrorists’ despicable agenda.