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The Labour leadership race shows Scotland’s unsettled status

Unstoppable march? Scottish independence demonstrators in Glasgow, in January 2020 - Credit: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

Maurice Smith on how politics north of the border remains as inflamed as ever, as Labour’s leadership race is showing

It can be a tough job being a Scottish independence supporter these days. Already this month two Labour leadership hopefuls have managed to stir up bad feeling. Now Scots face the unnerving prospect of a UK Government ‘love-bombing’ led by Boris Johnson.

With Scottish parliamentary elections due in 2021, and first minister Nicola Sturgeon insisting she wants an independence referendum before the end of 2020, politics remains virulently alive north of the border.

Scots have faced a referendum or major election in every year but one since the independence poll in 2014. The paths to the polling booths are well-trodden. The Scottish National Party has maintained its ascendancy throughout most of that period, having been in power in Edinburgh since 2007, winning two further Holyrood elections since. Victory next year would deliver nearly two decades of power to the SNP. It is an enviable record. The only other consistent trend in Scottish politics has been the decline and further fall of Labour.

In that context, the Labour leadership contest might seem a trivial matter to Scots. All four candidates need to win support in England first, and in many constituencies there they need to persuade activists they can win back votes squandered by the Corbyn leadership last month.

Having lost control of the Scottish parliament in 2007 – a moment few people imagined possible at the time – Labour held 41 Westminster seats in Scotland in 2010, when Gordon Brown was ousted by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Last December, despite a brief revival in 2017, Labour won just one Scottish seat, Edinburgh South. The party’s sole Scottish MP, Ian Murray, is fiercely anti-independence. He is running for Labour deputy leader, and advised party contenders to think before they speak when travelling north of the Tweed.

“I say to all leadership and deputy leadership candidates, please don’t come up to Scotland and talk about things when you’re not quite sure what you’re talking about. Just make sure in the first instance that you at least try and understand,” said Murray. His ire was sparked by remarks made in Edinburgh last August by then shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who appeared to undermine party policy by suggesting a post-election deal with the SNP.

Murray, and other Scottish Labour figures, remain unequivocally opposed to a second referendum on independence, arguing that to change policy now would be to gift the SNP with more Labour votes. Already, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Clive Lewis (who has since withdrawn from the leadership contest) have suggested conceding a referendum to Scots, as have some Corbynites in the Scottish party leadership.

Last week, erstwhile leadership hopeful Jess Phillips MP – whose campaign was backed by Murray – jumped into the fray, declaring Labour’s position as a “unionist” party. “Labour believes in the union because we believe in redistribution, because we want to bring people together, not divide them, and because our compassion doesn’t end at an imaginary line on a map,” said the Birmingham Yardley MP.

“Let nationalists make the case for nationalism, we should make the argument for solidarity and internationalism.”

If that was enough to incense nationalist sentiment, Phillips’ comments were surpassed by leadership rival Lisa Nandy, the Wigan MP, who compared Scotland to Catalonia, arguing that a social justice campaign could be stronger than “divisive nationalism”.

Such references to Spanish politics come freighted with meaning – and interpretation – in the Scottish context. Catalonia has become best-known for scenes of heavy-handed riot police suppressing protest, and the pursuit and jailing of local politicians who ran an independence referendum in 2017, to the wrath of Madrid.

The Yes lobby in Scotland has made common cause with breakaway Catalans. One leading Catalan figure and former education minister, St Andrews-based Clara Ponsati, is contesting extradition in the Scottish courts. A European arrest warrant is being pursued by Madrid on a charge of sedition.

Attacked by SNP figures for supposedly calling for heavy-handed tactics to suppress nationalism, Nandy later accused them of “wilfully distorting my words”. She claimed she was speaking about Catalan socialists who had resisted nationalism in the past, a factor that is a lot less known than the recent all-out battle that has been raging between Barcelona and Madrid.

At first glance, it might appear that Phillips and Nandy have demonstrated a shared “tin ear” to the nuances of Scottish politics. Certainly, Phillips’ rhetoric was influenced by Murray. But it is also possible that the two contenders had calculated that being “tough on the Nats” might play well among Labour activists on both sides of the border. Can Labour tar the SNP with the same negative “nationalist” brush represented by the Tories, or the Leave campaign in England? Might Labour supporters – who are after all the electorate in this campaign – respond positively to attacks on Scottish independence?

The SNP has reacted to the Labour comments with predictable outrage. It has long painted Labour as “unionist”, using the party’s alliance with the Tories and others during the 2014 Better Together campaign as “proof” that Labour does not have Scottish interests at heart. Better Together’s erstwhile chief Blair McDougall is ‘Scotland adviser’ to Phillips.

In truth the SNP sees Labour’s unionist emphasis as helpful to the independence cause. This month Boris Johnson has already dismissed Nicola Sturgeon’s demands for a second referendum in 2020. The SNP is accused of relying on a sense of grievance for its support, and the perception of the main UK parties frustrating Scottish ambitions often plays well for the party.

Downing Street intends to up the ante in Scotland this year, with a publicity campaign aimed at stressing the work of the UK government there. Johnson is promising more visits and longer stays during the months ahead – an initiative that may succeed, but could also rebound badly. When Glasgow hosts the COP26 UN climate change conference in November, the prime minister wants the Union flag to fly high over both event and city.

The temperature is rising in Scotland. Sturgeon and her party are watching Stormont closely, ready to cry foul on any UK concessions awarded to the newly-constituted assembly there in exchange for Brexit. If Northern Ireland is a special case, they ask, why not Scotland? If the SNP is deterred this year, it may attempt to make next year’s Holyrood election a de facto independence poll.

There are serious questions about the fate of devolution. Scottish politicians suspect Downing Street may use Brexit to wrest back control of key policies from Edinburgh.

As big questions remain about whether the SNP really expect London to concede a new poll, or ‘IndyRef2’, tensions sometimes manifest themselves in the trivial: last week Holyrood got itself into a fankle of whether the European flag should continue to be flown at the parliament after January 31. A full vote is expected before the latest Brexit date passes.

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