The SNP: A whole new mentality

The Scottish debate is a way of asking what kind of country people want to live in.

The former US president Bill Clinton has entered the independence debate, calling for “respect” from all sides. “How honestly you try to listen to other people and then come to the practical conclusion,” he said, “is sometimes as important as the decision that’s made.”

This is something many Scots have noted, given the litany of scare stories in the press – and from pro-Union sources – about the consequences of independence. But there is little awareness on all sides that the debate is changing Scotland in the process and altering some fundamental perceptions that the UK has about itself.

As things stand, Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party and pro-independence forces look likely to lose the referendum on 18 September 2014. But they and Scotland will be changed utterly. Until May 2011 and the SNP’s landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament elections, independence was thought of by many in Scotland outside the SNP as marginal, or even irrelevant. This is still true when it comes to Westminster politics.

Yet whatever the limits of the SNP’s vision, independence is being normalised by being debated, discussed and challenged, and that, in turn, is having all sorts of consequences. On one side, we are witnessing a crisis of confidence of pro-Union opinion. Once progressive, proud and sure it was creating a shared future, it now seems reduced to a set of grumpy old men warning of the dangers of separatism on every aspect of life, from the lights going out to Scotland being an easy target for terrorism.

By contrast, the SNP’s argument has become much less risky. Salmond is able to present it as a politics of continuity by attempting to reinvent the honourable Scots tradition of “unionism-nationalism”. At the centre of the First Minister’s version of independence is a commitment to the pillars of the British state: Crown, currency, Treasury, Bank of England, even the British welfare state.

What is being offered at the moment by mainstream politicians is two versions of home rule: one side (the SNP) doing so tactically, the other (the unionist parties) in retreat and making concessions. But both sides are acknowledging that beneath the binary nature of much of the debate, there is some shared understanding, and recognition of the complex modern world.

Scotland’s public life increasingly resembles that of an embryonic state rather than the “stateless nation” of old. North of the border, debate now centres on the extent to which that state becomes formally self-governing and how it cooperates with the rest of the UK.

The Scottish debate is a way of asking what kind of country people want to live in. This is influenced by revulsion at the direction of British politics – not just under the coalition but also under Blair and Thatcher before them. It is a reaction to the UK being the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, with power concentrated in London, a redoubt of the global elite.

To talk about Scottish independence is a way of expressing optimism for a different kind of politics, not only for a different country. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, that change in mentality is likely to stay with us. It is history in the making for Scotland and the UK.

Gerry Hassan is the co-editor with James Mitchell of “After Independence: the State of the Scottish Nation Debate”, to be published by Birlinn in August

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.