Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Twice in a generation

Scotland’s non-nationalists approach a second referendum as a majority without a movement, writes Stephen Daisley

It seems like only two and a half years since the last referendum on Scottish independence but the Scottish National party assures us a generation has passed, and I would advise you not to question them. It seldom ends well.

Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a rerun of that plebiscite, in part because Brexit seems to offer a propitious set of circumstances and in part to appease her excitable ranks. The first minister’s initial pretext for another vote was keeping Scotland in the European Union, though that has since been downgraded to retaining single market membership and now party figures brief that they could settle for the European Free Trade Association. The SNP has so many positions on Europe, George Osborne might apply to run one of them.

Under these circumstances, unionists should be buoyed. There is cause for quiet optimism: Brexit has not delivered the boost for independence the SNP expected and Scots have not embraced prospect of a second referendum. Indeed, the singular focus on constitutional politics has inspired a revival of Scottish Toryism. Ruth Davidson and Theresa May now enjoy higher net favourability ratings north of the border than Sturgeon.

Scottish Labour has suffered most from the shift to national identity politics. The party continues to languish in the polls ahead of May’s local elections and Brexit has prompted a shift in allegiances. Former member of parliament Eric Joyce, ex-Scottish Labour spin doctor Simon Pia and poverty campaigner Mike Dailly all have broken with the party to back a second referendum. The party’s spring conference was overshadowed by the row over Sadiq Khan’s comments on nationalism, though the London mayor secured unseemly vindication when Claire Heuchan, a black feminist academic, came to his defence only to be hounded off Twitter by the cybernats. If anything, the campaign of vilification against Heuchan and Khan has hardened the resolve of Scottish Labour activists to challenge growing chauvinism within the SNP.

Less helpful has been Jeremy Corbyn, either at Westminster or on his rare but all too frequent visits to Scotland. His most recent intervention on a second independence referendum undermined months of work by Kezia Dugdale to woo ex-Labour voters who switched to Ruth Davidson last May. Far from reviving the party’s fortunes, as his leadership backers predicted, a March poll found 77 per cent of Scots against Corbyn. In these divided times, you would struggle to get 77 per cent of Scots to agree that the sky is blue but Labour’s leader has managed to bring some much-needed unity to Scotland.

Dugdale remains the best thing Scottish Labour has going for it and when not clarifying her national leader’s latest gaffe, she has been setting out her own blueprint for a rejuvenated, more democratic and less centralised United Kingdom. She wants a people’s constitutional convention and a new Act of Union to remake the UK as a federal state ‘to restore faith in our politics, build a more united society and create an economy that works for working people’.

The party believes it must cut a middle path between separatism and the status quo, backing the union but pushing for yet more devolution. English voters still show no signs of enthusiasm for federalism but Scottish Labour hopes a moderate offering will eventually coax back voters unimpressed by a choice of austerity-powered independence and hard Brexit unionism. In the end, the party reckons, the nationalism closer to home will win unless an alternative vision is presented.

That vision cannot simply be about economics and political structures. The nationalists have ripped up most of their 2014 case for separation and are expected to go hard on identity politics if another poll is held. Sturgeon’s party is adept at stoking grievance and prodding sentiments – useful distractions when your 10 years in government have resulted in a crisis in education and red flags popping up across the health service.

Scotland’s non-nationalists are a majority without a movement, an ideal without a name. They are not as forthcoming in their feelings as the secessionists but they can be convinced once again of the virtue of sticking together. Lamenting SNP policy failures and pointing to Scotland’s £15bn deficit is not enough. Scottish Labour must contribute to a positive case for the union. There is power in a union but there is also love and laughter, duty and belonging, shared history and common hopes. Unionists have to tap into this sense of Britishness if they are to defeat nationalism for a full, proper generation.


Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail. He tweets at @JournoStephen



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Stephen Daisley

is a political journalist and commentator based in Scotland


  • Stephen,
    Good try but no coconut. Well done for taking on the impossible.
    As you know Labour in Scotland are finished. The May local elections will see wipe out. All they have left is one MP and a handful of list (list = dross) MSPs. And of course I nearly forgot to mention, one MEP, David Martin. He has been an MEP for 27 years and no one has ever heard of him until recently when he declared his support for a second referendum.
    Labour in Scotland, The Branch Office, has no local organisation left. There will be a few well paid ‘managers’ in Unity House Glasgow, with no idea what they are meant to do. Apart from that the only thing Labour has left that are still functioning are a couple of social clubs in darkest Ayrshire and one in Fife. If Scottish Labour were a dog the vet would have put it down ages ago.

    PS Question – What is a Daily Mail journalist doing writing an article in support of the Labour Party in Scotland?

    A) Money
    B) As a dare.
    C) To get at the SNP.

  • David Peacock,

    It is interesting that unionists don’t like to associate themselves with the term unionist. Its as if there is a kind of self loathing in what they believe in.
    I believe that it is Scottish Labour’s unquestioning faith in the union that has finished them in Scotland. They were driven to their position as the arch unionist Scottish party because of the hatred of the SNP, not by ideology. Many of Labour’s natural supporters voted Yes. The Scottish Labour Party never saw that coming in the run up to 2014 or if they did they thought they could whip the masses behind The Party as always.
    Historically The Scottish Labour Party has never been ideologically unionists. Because of the contempt for the SNP their position has to be polar opposite, so during the independence campaign they found themselves standing next to Tories, campaigning with them and addressing Tory conferences. It did not look good. Its still going on.
    The brand is now so toxic they cant even call themselves unionists.

  • Not sure from this article why Stephen wants Scotland to stay in the union. Is it just because he dislikes the SNP. Scots were told that remaining part of the UK would make them better off. Leaving the EU makes that a debateable claim.
    Gordon Brown and Brian Wilson said we needed to maintain working class unity. The English working class do not seem to want to unify with anyone who is not like them.
    Khan’s notorious and misjudged comments on Scottish nationalism showed a clear lack of understanding of its nature – though played well to English prejudices while ignoring the nature of the English nationalism he was promoting.
    Labour in Scotland is still to recover from the leadership of progress supporting Jim Murphy. His right wing policies allowed the Labour Party to be outflanked on the left by the SNP and on the right by the Unionists. He took Labour into the wilderness.

  • The referendum was the catalyst for labour’s deep seated problems , which have been a long time in the making.

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