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The limits of Caledonian Starmerism

The SNP has already mastered the terrain of inoffensive centrism that the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar is trying to contest.

By Rory Scothorne

At some point during the last fifteen years Scottish politics broke in two. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment, but it happened between 2007, when the SNP narrowly edged into power at Holyrood, and 2015, when Labour was all but obliterated in the wake of the independence referendum.

That schism gave Scotland a politics of parallel universes, each with its own logic of success. In one, the SNP battles not to stay in government — any alternative remains almost unimaginable — but to get as close to a majority as possible, and to maintain its claim to a mandate for an independence referendum. The Scottish Greens inhabit this universe too, quietly establishing themselves as an alternative for disillusioned pro-independence voters as well as a credible junior partner in government.

In the other, Labour and the Conservatives scuffle for second place, competing — with the Liberal Democrats as well, in some cases — to be the first choice for voters whose priority is to save the Union and stop the SNP. Recent polls have hinted at something of a reshuffle in the order of this universe, with Labour receiving a significant boost to overtake the Scottish Conservatives in the wake of partygate.

After languishing at 20 per cent or less for years, Scottish Labour has begun to approach something closer to 25 per cent, raising the prospect of several gains in future Westminster and Holyrood elections, though the upcoming local elections — last held in 2017 — are harder to predict. Yet even if Labour can make it back into second place, it is important to remember how vast the gulf is between second and first. In constituency polling for the Scottish Parliament, the SNP’s lead — around 22 percentage points — is roughly the size of Labour’s entire projected vote share.

Scotland’s two political dimensions don’t just have their own political logic, they are propelled by distinct emotional energies, too, which can appear alien and inexplicable to those on the other side of the breach. Because it is where Scotland is governed, the SNP-Green universe is a place of hard choices, sober responsibility and gentle encouragement. Voters there are expected to be faithful and forgiving, always conscious — and constantly reminded — of the looming threat of Westminster and the limits it imposes. It is also a site of force-marched optimism and stubborn self-confidence as the cosmos awaits independence.

The other side of the split has usually been a stranger, sadder place. It is, or feels itself to be, a universe in exile. Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats have all had their turn running Scotland in the past, but have been supplanted in their own home by pro-independence interlopers. The result has usually been a much bleaker affective mix of resentment, paranoia and alienation, in which the SNP and “nationalism” have ruined Scotland but there is not much hope for an end to their rule.

The most important thing about this two-track politics is that there is almost no crossover between worlds. Where there is, it comes from strange places. Many supporters of Alex Salmond’s Alba Party, for instance, combine the most intense characteristics of both sides — complete faith in independence, deep paranoia about the SNP and the Greens — while living at the dark edge of the indyverse.

Over the past year Scottish Labour has also tried to bridge the gap. Not in constitutional terms: under the UK leadership of Keir Starmer, Labour has re-emphasised the “muscular unionism” that was perceived to be waning under Jeremy Corbyn. Yet the party has also undergone something of a vibe reset under its Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar. The stern industrial nostalgia of Richard Leonard, the Scottish party’s previous leader, has not been replaced by the simmering bitterness that preceded him, but a more catch-all (some might say vacuous) optimism.

Take, for example, two key moments in Sarwar’s rebranding of the party. The first was a viral media moment from the 2021 Holyrood election, in which Sarwar “showed off his dance moves when he came across an outdoor class while out campaigning”, providing journalists and online supporters with an endearing video of the new leader gyrating to Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” alongside a group of Lycra-clad exercisers. There was no politics here, just a vision of a normal, modern guy, happy to connect with the public on their terms in the way that only one other Scottish politician — the First Minister — seems able to do.

Then there was Scottish Labour’s recent adoption of a new logo, swapping out the old red rose for a slightly cartoonish thistle that fades from red to blue — another safe, inoffensive effort to re-embed the party in modern Scottish life, signalling a comfortable embrace of national identity alongside a less single-minded ideological perspective.

In both cases Sarwar is trying to break free of the spiritual limits of the unionist political world, which has been weighed down by a gloomy, almost apocalyptic seriousness since 2014. If Scottish Labour has benefited from partygate, it is partly down to the party’s ability to offer a cleaner, more neutral vessel for anti-SNP voters than the Scottish Conservatives.

Scottish Labour’s polling bounce is a vindication of sorts, then, for Scotland’s variant of Starmerism: an effort, north and south of the border, to de-politicise the Labour Party to the point where it can be all things to all people dissatisfied with the people in power without threatening any kind of radical shift in direction. The approach appears to be working in England, too, where Labour has aimed to follow public opinion rather than lead it, and has finally opened up a significant and consistent lead over the Conservatives that has survived the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There is, however, a vital difference between Scottish and UK politics that sets hard limits on the potential of Caledonian Starmerism. Thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system, Westminster is still basically duopolistic. Come election time, everyone is forced into the same political universe, where the options mostly boil down to Labour or Tory. In Scotland the SNP benefits from the fact that it can be expected to support a Labour government rather than a Tory one at Westminster, making an actual Labour vote unnecessary. In England Labour benefits from their ability to blackmail progressive voters into supporting them, thanks to the fact that if Labour can’t form a government, the Tories will.

Scotland has a far more proportional electoral system, where voters have plenty of options. Paradoxically, that pluralism has produced a predominant SNP, which has already claimed and mastered the terrain of inoffensive centrism that Sarwar wants to contest. Scottish pundits often claim that the SNP is kept in power by the national question, which grants it at least 40 per cent of the electorate while unionists divide across their own left- and right-wing options. For a while, it seemed as if Scottish Labour would disappear into the void between the nationalist and unionist universes. But it’s worth wondering if the national question has also kept Scottish Labour alive, by sustaining a cohort of voters who want their inoffensive centrism to be British as well as Scottish. If it weren’t for unionism, what would have stopped them simply voting SNP? If Sarwar really wants to break through Scotland’s interdimensional rift and challenge for first place rather than second, he’ll need a better answer to that than a cartoon thistle and “Uptown Funk”.

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