In difficult times, Sadiq Khan may be Labour’s best hope for the future. The Mayor of London is one of his party’s most polished performers. As the elected Labour politician with the greatest power, he has credibility that Jeremy Corbyn can only dream of. He connects with ordinary voters and speaks up for London’s elite interests in the same breath without ever sounding false.
And yet despite all his polish and promise, at the weekend, when he ventured north to the Scottish Labour conference, he got it wrong.
Not because nationalism is never divisive or bigoted – as he suggested, it often can be – but because the furore over his comments could have so easily been avoided.
Khan stepped on to the podium at the Scottish Labour conference, which enjoys little of its past relevance but endures the same level of scrutiny, guilty of being poorly briefed. His claim that Scottish nationalism is about seeking to be apart from the English, and follows the same thread as the racism he himself suffered, was red meat into the grievance sausage machine. It was yet more evidence that the wider Labour Party has developed a deaf ear for Scotland.
Khan’s stumble caught the attention of Downing Street, which is cautiously laying the groundwork for indyref2 – a campaign that looks set to be very different from its predecessor.
With just over a month until Article 50 is triggered and Brexit gets under way, the government is putting itself on a war footing. Number 10 refuses to be drawn on whether it will grant permission for a second independence referendum, but behind the scenes it is gearing itself up for one anyway. Cabinet ministers have been told to get out and promote the work of their departments do across the UK, and a media operation is taking shape.
Theresa May has built a Spartan political persona based on caution and reserve, only rarely breaking a natural defensive posture. Her authenticity allowed her to visit one-time Labour heartlands in Copeland and Stoke Central in recent weeks, and make a connection with average voters that the Conservative Party hasn’t had for decades. A trip up to Scotland to read off an unfamiliar script and risk a similar gaffe to the one Khan committed at the weekend would be out of character.
Downing Street seems more aware of its limitations in the looming campaign. May has given a solid performance of the respect agenda, even when dismissing most of the Scottish Goverment’s demands on Brexit.
There are problems that the UK government faced in indyref1 that May’s administration will be able to avoid. There was no stronger proponent of the “Project Fear” strategy in 2014 than George Osborne. His Treasury led the assault of grim economic predictions and brutal messages on currency. There is no inconsistency in arguing that approach contributed both to the outcome and the narrowness of the No victory. It cemented support for the Union while adding to the 15-point gain for Yes over the course of the campaign.
Osborne only absorbed half of that message, and was so convinced his strategy was a winner it was deployed again in the EU referendum, to the exclusion of almost all else. Economic warnings crowded out any attempts to build a positive case for the EU or take on the claims of the Leave campaign on immigration.
But Project Fear was a doomsday machine. Its mutually assured destruction meant that when it was deployed again, it commanded little respect and simply fed into the populist, anti-expert mood.
Osborne is now out of his job, on the back benches and out of favour. David Cameron is out of politics altogether, having struggled against twin shackles of being a Tory and a “toff”. May doesn’t have to wrestle with one of those labels, and with the continued decline of Labour and Ruth Davidson leading the opposition at Holyrood, the other doesn’t carry the toxicity it once did.
But there are problems this government has in seeking to preserve the Union that Cameron never had to deal with. In 2014, the Labour Party was still able to convince people it was a functioning party connected with its electorate. It spoke for Scotland at Westminster and was in opposition at Holyrood. Likewise, the Liberal Democrats were in government with Scottish MPs in senior roles.
Not only is that no longer true, with Labour and the Lib Dems in oblivion, but a new Better Together is inconceivable. Kezia Dugdale has tried to seize back some of the initiative she lost on the constitution, but by sheer weight of numbers and name recognition, this will be a campaign dominated by Ruth Davidson and the Tories.
And then there is Brexit, a prospect that could unravel over the next two years as the UK tries to leave the EU with many of the same benefits it had as a member. No-one can know what the impact of the negotiations will be – as Mark Diffley, the research director of IPSOS Mori Scotland noted last year, a disastrous Brexit could curb appetite for independence while a swift, successful one might make voters feel adventurous about constitutional change. And, having seen the UK make one leap in the dark in 2016, who can say whether Scottish voters won’t be willing to make their own in 2018 or 2019, dismissing the economic case for staying in the Union?
One thing is clear: Brexit will be hard work, and it’s going to take up a lot of people’s attention. Governments have a limited bandwidth to deliver their priorities and deal with the unpredictable, and ministers will struggle to negotiate simultaneously with the EU and the Scottish Government.
The UK government is widely expected to trigger Brexit on 15 March, two days before the SNP conference in Aberdeen. Nicola Sturgeon, whose own enthusiasm for indyref2 has been questioned, will be forced to respond. Whatever shape that takes, and whenever the poll comes, this month the UK government cautiously began preparing its response.