Labour needs to take more heed of the “Scottish dimension”

By Martin Gostwick

"Scottish and British flags with Tam o' Shanter" by The Laird of Oldham is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The way Scotland votes will have a critical effect on the result of the general election. Speculation is rife on the possibility of a pact between the Scottish National Party and Labour if Jeremy Corbyn emerges as leader of the party with the largest number of seats, but without an overall majority.

It is said the price for sustaining a Labour Government would be a green light for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Corbyn is, of course, going all out for a Labour win. But anxieties behind the campaign were revealed – to the fury of the party in Scotland – by shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on a visit to the Edinburgh festival fringe in August. Easing the door open on a referendum, he said Labour would not attempt to block a referendum if Hollyrood voted for one: “We would not block something like that. We would let the Scottish people decide. That’s democracy.”

Championing the right of the Scottish people to decide is the one over-riding objective of the YES movement in the election – to achieve the strongest possible mandate for securing a second referendum on the nation’s independence. As such it is the broad, popular underpinning for the SNP’s flagship policy and as such is the putative shaper of the next non-Tory UK Government.

Uncomfortably, its founding purpose runs directly counter to official Labour policy, rousing the passionate ire of members north of the border, and the opposition of anti-nationalists north and south. More uncomfortably for Labour, the dominance of the SNP over Scottish politics over the last two decades places it in an existentially-threatened minority.

It is worth recapping straightaway for the Standard's followers outwith Scotland that the YES movement is not synonymous with the SNP. It is a broad church, comprising members of political parties such as the SNP, the Greens, the Scottish Socialists, and a sizeable number of Labour voters. It also hosts a large body of civic associations, such as trade unionists, CND affiliates, pensioners, women's groups, health service workers, even a formidable contingent of bikers, and sections representing English and other EU residents.

Within the last month, they have marched a quarter of a million strong through Edinburgh capital - the latest of demonstrations in cities and towns throughout the country over the couple of years.

The mandate it seeks will be gained primarily by ousting as many of the 13 Tory MPs as possible, while Labour's 7 MPs, and the 4 Lib Dems will be strongly challenged too for their opposition to, not only independence, but a referendum itself.

Latest opinion polling suggests that the SNP will win back almost all the seats they lost to the Tories in the calamitous 2017 election, and overall win 50 or more of Scotland's 59 seats. The Greens have helped by agreeing not to stand in a few marginals.

The election will, of course, have Brexit and Britain's future relations with the EU as its main focus for the UK's main parties, for voters in the rest of the UK, and the metropolitan media, and therefore on who will form the next Westminster government, and whether it has an overall majority.

But a focus of equal importance should be, what impact will the result in Scotland have on the future of the United Kingdom itself? The voting in Wales and Northern Ireland will also have great significance in this context.

How will whoever forms the next UK government respond when the newly revived SNP, then holding all but a handful of seats north of the border, seeks within a few weeks a Section 30 order empowering the Scottish government to hold that second referendum?

Successive Tory PMs have flatly rejected granting the order, as have the Liberal Democrats, while Labour has equivocated, only saying considerations of the matter will not be an early priority. Calling it a "distraction" is the leaders' favourite term.

YES movement pessimists fear an SNP triumph will have no impact whatsoever on the UK parties’ leaderships. They are already canvassing options for some kind of unilateral moves towards independence if and when the Section 30 order is rejected. Optimists say a new Westminster Parliament will be duty-bound to acknowledge the democratic case for it, and they caution against making any precipitous move which can only fail.

Opinion polls indicate that Scotland is split 50-50 for and against independence, a slight, but significant, change since the 2014 poll went 55-45 for No. The SNP, the Scottish government and the supporting YES movement will be gambling all in seeking an early resolution of the question. And immensely complicating it will be the even larger question of whether Britain will be in or out of the EU by then.

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