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14 December 2021

What would the downfall of Boris Johnson mean for Labour in Scotland?

The departure of a Prime Minister who outrages Scots could weaken the SNP’s hegemony and benefit Keir Starmer’s party.

By Rory Scothorne

There are lots of good reasons to want Boris Johnson gone as Prime Minister, but here’s one more: the prevailing theory of support for Scottish independence is long overdue a rigorous practical test. Thus far, the theory has gone something like this: Scottish political culture, dominated by professionals and the public-sector middle class, places a far higher premium on the appearance of professionalism and the “public service ethos” than its English equivalent. By opting for Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, the English electorate confirmed all of Scotland’s worst fears about what Brexit meant. Johnson personified the idea that the English public have “had enough of experts”, and have abandoned cautious liberalism in favour of something more insular, chauvinist and unpredictable. If 2014’s independence referendum offered a choice between British stability and Scottish risk, the rise of Johnson turned the constitutional question on its head, at least for a substantial section of the all-important middle-class swing vote.

This theory broadly tracks the polling on independence. After years spent struggling to exceed 45 per cent, a rise in support for “Yes” began in summer 2019, coinciding with Johnson’s arrival in No 10. That rise accelerated after the December 2019 general election and peaked during the Covid-19 pandemic as Nicola Sturgeon effectively contrasted her own leadership style with that of Johnson’s. After gently declining since early 2021 – possibly due to the UK’s successful vaccine roll-out – it has recently begun to tick up again, and the last poll by Ipsos Mori/STV suggested a startling (and possibly outlying) lead of 9 per cent for Yes. But should Johnson be replaced by someone – Rishi Sunak, for instance – who looks like they take their job a bit more seriously, we might expect No to reconsolidate its recent lead. Middle-class Scots would still be unlikely to swing behind the Tories en masse, but it might be enough to dampen their rising distaste for British politics as a whole.

This is not simply politics as spectator sport or betting market. The causes of support for independence matter greatly for the future of British politics more generally, especially when it comes to the Labour Party. Without winning a substantial number of seats in Scotland, a Labour majority is almost unthinkable. Yet the prospects for a Scottish recovery remain bleak: evidence from the Scottish Election Study suggests that constitutional preference has a big impact on party loyalty, and will continue to do so for some time. With the Yes vote corralled into one party and the No vote divided between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, SNP predominance is secure for as long as the constitutional question is at the heart of Scottish politics – and as long as the SNP predominate, it will try its best to keep the constitutional question at the heart of Scottish politics.

As if that wasn’t enough, Labour’s Scottish problem runs even deeper: without a significant recovery in Scotland, the best Labour can seriously hope for is a minority government supported by the SNP. The Conservatives exploited that prospect with devastating efficiency in 2015, producing posters of Ed Miliband tucked into Nicola Sturgeon’s pocket – and are likely to repeat the tactic next time, countering Keir Starmer’s cod-patriotic messaging with warnings about the Labour threat to the Union. Hence Starmer’s insistence that he won’t do any deals with the SNP, and will instead dare it to bring down a Labour government and explain to Scots why it has helped the Tories back into power.

[See also: Scotland’s Budget dodged the tough choices – but the SNP can’t hide behind Boris Johnson’s shenanigans forever]

But even if this mitigates the electoral risk in England, it offers little respite for Starmer’s supporters in Scotland. Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s spokesperson for education and skills, and a rising star in the party, offered a glimpse of the party’s desperation on Twitter last week. “Scots now need to do our bit and back Keir as the next PM,” he wrote, responding to a recent poll showing Labour ahead of the Conservatives: “Backing the SNP, however well intentioned, only jeopardises Labour support in other nations.” 

However bizarre it sounds on paper, Marra’s argument has an esteemed lineage within Scottish Labour. Since Scottish nationalism first broke through to the mainstream in the 1970s, prominent Labour figures from Tam Dalyell to Gordon Brown have warned that pursuing Scottish interests too forcefully risked provoking an English majority-nationalism that could marginalise Scotland even further. The unspoken implication was that the free democratic choices of the Scots are so unpalatable to voters in England that they would rather vote Tory than see us (the Scots) get what we vote for.

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This strange, Labourist vision of Scottish superiority – in which “well-intentioned” SNP voters have to hold their tongue around the touchy and paranoid English – only reinforces the SNP’s argument that the Union is fundamentally unequal and undemocratic. There is, however, a less condescending way of framing the same point. There does seem to be something of an inverse relationship between the SNP’s success and its actual power. When it was still trying to take Labour’s Scottish throne, the SNP offered its voters what political scientists call “blackmail potential” – Labour had to counter the party’s rise by appropriating its demands, and the threat of the SNP was undoubtedly key to Labour’s growing support for devolution from the 1970s onwards.

Now, however, the more dominant the SNP appears, the fewer incentives there are for Labour to pay attention to Scotland at all. And while this may bolster the moral case for independence, it doesn’t help its actual prospects. The larger Scottish nationalism looms in England’s paranoid political psyche, the harder it is for any party seeking votes in England to meet Scottish demands for an independence referendum. The ensuing stalemate serves the SNP’s electoral prospects well, but it doesn’t help to bring independence any closer if the Westminster parties will not permit a referendum to happen. Starmer is probably correct that the SNP would be punished in Scotland for bringing down a Labour government, meaning Labour could well survive a full term of minority government without giving an inch on independence.  

This is where the prospect of a post-Boris Johnson UK matters. As long as British politics is led by someone against whom the Scots can prove and perform their distinctive political virtues, their lack of actual influence doesn’t matter, electorally speaking. Moral distaste sets limits on the appetite for compromise, and virtuous defiance under the SNP helps to compensate for practical helplessness. But faced with a new prime minister who doesn’t outrage Scottish voters quite so directly, the question of actual power might return to the agenda. Under those conditions, Starmer’s appeal to the Scots to get real may ring a little truer: with me, you’ll have a direct line to government; with the SNP you’ll be left complaining on the sidelines. However, if Johnson leaves office and support for independence doesn’t drop, it will suggest that Labour’s Scottish problem goes deeper, and that the Union could be broken beyond all repair.

[See also: What Scottish nationalists could learn from Wales]

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