The Scottish independence referendum was one that Labour long believed would never come to pass. Optimists were bullish: the former cabinet minister George Robertson confidently predicted that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. Others, among them Tony Blair, recognised the potential for the Scottish National Party to dominate the new parliament but believed that the proportional electoral system used by Holyrood would deny the party the majority it needed to win a mandate to hold a referendum on independence. Both were wrong.
After forming a minority government in 2007, the SNP achieved a landslide victory in 2011. That result, which we predicted, exposed the enfeebled and hollowed-out state of the Scottish Labour Party in a country it once dominated. Having won nearly a million constituency votes in the first devolved election in 1999, Labour achieved just 630,000 in 2011. Its local branches have the lowest membership of any outside of southern England and it now holds fewer council seats than the SNP. In addition, many intellectuals, writers and artists in Scotland have long since given up on Labour. These people matter because they help to create a climate and a culture.
The SNP, once derided as a fringe party of eccentric nationalists and “tartan Tories”, has prospered by colonising the social-democratic territory historically occupied by Labour. As the frontiers of the welfare state have been rolled back in England, Alex Salmond has rolled them forward in Scotland. Since taking office, his government has scrapped National Health Service prescription charges, abolished university tuition fees and introduced free social care for the elderly. When the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, denounced this settlement as fiscally unsustainable and declared that Scotland could not be “the only something-for-nothing country in the world”, she misjudged the national mood.
From the beginning of the referendum campaign, Mrs Lamont and her colleagues struggled to win over disillusioned voters. Labour’s decision to offer the lowest level of devolution of any of the three main Westminster parties, despite polls showing majority support for “devo max”, left it without an attractive alternative to the status quo, until a desperate late scramble led by Gordon Brown.
With the exception of the quietly effective Douglas Alexander, it was outside the party’s front ranks that the most signs of life were shown. Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary, engaged thousands of voters through his admirable “100 Towns in 100 Days” speaking tour. In an age when stage-managed appearances drain mainstream politicians of all authenticity, Mr Murphy’s unrelenting defence of the Union from a platform made of two Irn-Bru crates was proof of the virtues of traditional campaigning. He has the look of a future Labour leader in Scotland, someone who has the qualities to take on and even defeat Mr Salmond and his popular deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.
Against the expectations of many, Mr Brown thrived in the final weeks of the campaign. Having presciently warned in the summer that Westminster had mistakenly framed the contest as a battle between Scotland and the UK, rather than one about Scotland, he seemed to take charge as the cross-party Better Together campaign floundered.
The former prime minister spoke at public meetings with passion and clarity. It was Mr Brown who reframed the debate by proposing a “modern form of home rule” and who, because of his deep understanding of history, articulated the unique achievement of the Union: the creation of a multinational state in which not merely civil and political freedoms but economic and social rights are shared.
Such was his righteous fury at the SNP’s claim that the Scottish NHS was threatened by Westminster, despite health being a devolved matter, that Mr Brown even vowed to stand for election to Holyrood if the First Minister did not desist. If, as expected, he resigns his Westminster seat in May 2015, he could yet thrive as a political pugilist in a new arena.
Yet if Scottish Labour is to be rebuilt, it will not be through the efforts of individuals such as Mr Brown and Mr Murphy alone. Rather, it must draw inspiration from the energy, civic nationalism and creativity demonstrated by the pro-independence movement. The emergence of what Gerry Hassan, the co-author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, calls the “Third Scotland” has been one of the most inspiring legacies of an invigorating campaign in which a nation asked itself fundamental questions about identity and purpose and, in so doing, inspired a democratic reawakening.