Labour must embrace radical change on independence

This is a piece I wrote for The Sunday Times 14:8:16  

Two major British institutions confirmed last week, albeit subconsciously, they consider Scotland a separate country with its own distinct politics.

One was the BBC, the other the Labour party.i

There was no official announcement or statement from either. Rather it was everyday behaviour that reflects how people down south now view Scotland.

In Brexit: The Battle for Britain on BBC last Monday, Scotland was posted missing from the battle. Its absence was not some metropolitan oversight, but tacit acknowledgement Scotland had a fought a different battle with a different result and it was up to Scotland to analyse it.

Meanwhile Scotland’s irrelevance in the Labour leadership campaign, unthinkable five years ago, was encapsulated in a throwaway remark by Dave Anderson, shadow Scottish secretary (an English MP, if anyone needs reminding).

When asked about the next election Anderson said he did not rule out the possibility of a future coalition with the SNP. It echoed the call by Clive Lewis, Shadow Defence spokesperson, days earlier for a progressive alliance at Westminster with SNP, Greens and Lib Dems.

Neither was meant as a slap in the face to Scottish Labour, just it is the new reality at Westminster. Scotland’s gone, as far as Labour down south is concerned and it is not just the Corbyn wing of the party that sees it that way.

Where, then, lies the future of Scottish Labour and does it even have one in the UK?

The Holyrood elections three months ago suggest Labour is not yet irrelevant in Scotland, but it is a sideshow. When the Tories seized second billing they confronted head on the issue at the heart of Scottish politics, the constitution …. something Labour chose to ignore.

This was not a momentary aberration by Labour, but an existential problem it has been wrestling with since 1999.

Nobody ever believed devolution would kill nationalism stone dead, apart from maybe George Robertson, but it has evolved more rapidly than even nationalists could have hoped – leaving Scottish Labour now an endangered if not extinct species.

But the party is doomed if it doesn’t sit up, grab the constitution by the throat and wring a coherent policy out of it – be it federalism, Home Rule or perhaps more realistically, independence itself.

Not only must it send a clear message to the electorate , but it must take the initiative rather than feebly react to events. It cannot remain in denial and must be prepared for all eventualities such as independence or even the party splitting.

Labour is in crisis across the UK because it lost its ability to rethink ideas and thrash out some intellectual foundation for its policy agenda as the New Labour era withered away.

In Scotland this has been compounded byt the inability to have a coherent response to devolution and nationalism. The last leader to try was Wendy Alexander with the Calman commission and when she spooked the SNP with her Bring It On referendum challenge in 2008 only to be shut down by clunking fist of Gordon Brown. Since then there has been nothing.

Now the most powerful argument for independence for those on the left – the democratic deficit – has been turbo-charged by the Brexit result.

It was Scottish Labour who first cited the notion of the “democratic deficit” to challenge the legitimacy of the Thatcher government in Scotland in the 1980s.

This was an argument many could empathise with during the 2014 referendum campaign, yet still retain a residual loyalty and solidarity to UK Labour.

But since Brexit all bets are off, not just for myself but many Labour supporters. The democratic deficit now takes pre-eminence as such a profound political decision with historic consequences for Scotland rested on the gamble of a vain and wreckless prime minister trying to assuage the far right of his party and bolster his own position. Such legitimacy must be challenged.

It was a referendum no one but some Tories and UKIP wanted.

As we move into unchartered territory some in Scottish Labour realise it would be in a healthier position today if it had been an autonomous sister-party to UK Labour since devolution. free to steer its own course.

The control freakery of Blair, Brown and Westminster would never countenance such autonomy which only enhanced the damning perception of Labour at Holyrood as a junior partner.

But now under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership Labour in Scotland has been set free to operate as it sees fit. So far the party has failed to seize the opportunity in a credible manner as it continues to be overtaken by events.

But now some senior figures such as former first minister Henry McLeish, deputy leader Alex Rowley, David Martin MEP and Dave Watson of Unison all acknowledged to varying degrees that Scottish Labour cannot afford to oppose the call for a second referendum or the prospect of independence.

When I worked with former Labour leader Iain Gray, one of his favourite quotes was Maynard Keynes. “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Scottish Labour cannot afford to do nothing. It must embrace radical change.





9 thoughts on “Labour must embrace radical change on independence”

  1. I think Simon is right to cite the Wendy Alexander ‘moment’ as pretty significant. For me, it was the moment the branch office status of Scottish Labour became painfully apparent. I’m fairly sure she would have won, but (as I recall it) Gordon and her brother didn’t want the subject of Scotland muddying the waters in their bigger game down south.

    Most of the people I know on the Yes side had quite an ambivalent view of Labour during the 2014 referendum – hoping that we’d win yet being prepared for Labour (in some form) to be a big part of what would happen next. It wasn’t so much the (surely unavoidable) fact of them campaigning with the Tories for a No vote that stuck in people’s throats, as much as the vitriolic nature of that joint campaigning (bayonets; it’s not your Pound; and all).

    Brexit now lays bare the democratic deficit in quite a different way from the effect of Scotland not voting Tory but getting a Tory government in a general election. Leaving the EU isn’t going to be just for Christmas, and the mere fact that other constituent parts of the UK could vote for it in such numbers just shows how, on some very important things, we hope for different countries – going in different directions.

    It will be interesting now to see if Labour in Scotland can hear Simon’s sensible advice and do something breathtaking and fresh. I hope it does. The alternatives are grim, no matter how much certain parts of the Scottish media can be relied on to pour cold water on the next Yes campaign.

  2. I’m nearly astounded at this incisive, coherent work of logic from Simon Pia. Not, I hasten to add, that I ever doubted his abilities on the incisive and logic fronts. It’s more a matter of being astounded at the length and depth of the journey that has taken him to this point. If, moreover, he has ‘done a Keynes’, then surely some very fundamental facts have already changed on Scotland and the Union? More of this please Mr Pia.

  3. Very good article Simon.

    Sadly. all the Branch Manager appears to be doing is playing the unionist card in a attempt to get lost voters back from the tories.

    Disappointing, but hardly surprising.

  4. As a former South Edinburgh Labour member, activist and agent I can only agree – and also sigh with relief – at what Simon has written.

    The image from 2014 that will stay forever burned in my memory is of Scottish Labour representatives at the East Lothian referendum count exchanging contact details with Tory representatives, i.e. AFTER the campaign!

    No matter how sensible, and indeed crucial, Simon’s advice for the future survival of ‘their’ party is, I can’t see these individuals ever accepting it – or at least not as easily as they accepted the hugs, phone numbers, email addresses and Facebook-friend-requests of their braying Tory counterparts in Haddington. They are on the way, if not there already, to becoming a ‘No Surrender’ cabal who will give what Simon has said/argued short shrift.

    I am left wondering, with some bemusement, if the noise this cabal (will) make, and that includes the loud voice the media gives them, represents the majority of what’s left of Labour Party membership in Scotland? If so, hell mend them – the rest of us will, sooner or later, find our independent political way without them…

  5. And yet, the author stops short of endorsing a truly independent Scottish Labour Party.
    The phrase, ‘greater autonomy’ was of course meaningless; a nonsense.
    Dugdale and Co., are third Rate politicos in the eyes of their London Handlers, otherwise they would have been ‘promoted’ to the Big Team Darn Sath.
    They are there as screaming Harpies, bawling Unionist pamphlet SNP BAD barbs, in opposition solely to gum up the administration of Holyrood no matter the cost to our most vulnerable citizens. Hatred of the SNP is the glue that binds them together.
    Until Labour Scotland breaks away completely, and announces a UDI, then they will continue to wither on the vine Up Here.
    Post Referendum, and a successful Yes outcome, Labour will emerge, bloodied and almost beaten, from the Unionist ashes, but not until then.
    The 100,000’s who vote SNP now, who were Labour before, know this. They can wait until we are free of WM for the resurgence.
    That Dugdale, and indeed Davidson and Rennie will not accept or more alarmingly may not realise this, speaks volumes as to their political nous and/or intellect.

  6. Respect! Good article Simon, though I left Labour after 40 years in 2011 to support Labour for Indy and finally SNP, I had wanted Labour to embrace the prospect of Independence, so many now ex Labour members wanted Labour but a Scottish Labour free of Westminster in an Indy Scotland. We were ignored, in fact we were treated appallingly in Labour for Indy as if we were lepers, by the unionist Labour and the politicians in Labour branch office. Maybe if certain Labour MSPs including Miss Dugdale, left their vengeful,obsessional hate against SNP at the door instead of blaming SNP for what has been Scottish Labour’s failings to reach out and work for, not over the tops of the heads of their voters for far too long, Scottish Labour has long stopped consulting their members on anything as big as this. Those of us who left the party, and that was thousands in run-up to IndyRef and beyond, we opened our eyes and realisation of how little Labour actually stood up for or worked for Scotland was evident, but Scottish Labour were very good at keeping our heads in sand with their #BadSNP rhetoric on a daily basis that at the time we thought better the devil we knew. How long we’d been controlled by that lazy mindset of Scottish Labour where that was how they kept us voting them and against SNP. In truth they have been an appalling branch office and now being caught out as actually quite useless for putting Scotland and its people first. To do that they really have to be exercised of that obsession of “How dare SNP steal my Scotland, we own it!”

    1. Oh dear… so familiar… so, so, much so many of us empathise with (from even earlier times). Hence why we remain sceptical as to whether a deeply unlearning Labour Party (not just Scottish Labour) can somehow now ‘change it’s spots’. And hence, again, all the more respect for Simon Pia in publishing this piece.

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