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27 January 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:04am

How supporting a Scottish referendum may be the only way Labour avoids being wiped out

If Keir Starmer backs a second vote in due course, nationalist voters might swing away from the SNP and back to the party. 

By Philip Collins

In The Break-Up of Britain, a book written at the height of the first wave of Scottish nationalism, in 1977, Tom Nairn described an ideology that showed a Janus-face to the world. Nationalism is still doing that, as all the Brexit-loathing Scottish nationalists do an about-turn on every argument when it comes to their defining cause of Scottish independence.

One side of the argument runs that a country should be an independent, sovereign unit. It should not join a currency union. It should draw up its own laws, police its own borders and take rightful ownership of whatever resources it finds in or under the seas. Boris Johnson on Brexit turns into Nicola Sturgeon on Scottish independence. This is then countered by the case that we are richer together and it is foolish to impoverish ourselves for a fantasy account of national sovereignty in a networked world. Leaving the union and a single market with our largest trading partner would be a disaster for prosperity – Johnson on Scottish independence is indistinguishable from Sturgeon on Brexit.

[See also: Can anything halt the SNP’s advance towards Scottish independence?]

The Conservative strategy has been to say nothing except no to a second independence referendum. The best way not to have a referendum, runs this argument, is just not to have one. Wake up every day and don’t have a referendum, until the problem disappears. This strategy is a sort of reverse Micawber. Carry on and hope nothing turns up.

Into the concurrent crises of Brexit, the pandemic and its consequent recession, Scotland’s First Minister has presented an 11-point plan to the national assembly of the Scottish National Party. If the SNP takes office after the Holyrood elections in May, which looks probable, the Scottish government will request from the British government a section 30 order, which under the 1998 Scotland Act permits Holyrood to pass laws that are usually the preserve of Westminster. When this polite request is refused, as it will be, the SNP plans to hold a referendum of its own devising in any case and challenge the British government to a few weeks of performative nationalism in court.

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The polling and the politics certainly seem propitious for the SNP. A majority of Scottish voters want another referendum and a clear majority would, if they were asked today, vote to break up Britain. A recent Panelbase poll showed 55 per cent of Scots supported independence. Just as Brexit was a gathering of protesters with different causes, so is Scottish independence. Wrapped up in the case for independence is some righteous anger at Brexit, a great deal of personal animus against Johnson and disbelief at his government’s handling of the pandemic.

Brexit has changed the calculation, though not economically. It is not really true that the economics of Scottish independence are any more attractive after Brexit. The hit to GDP would be severe and the imbroglio of the currency is best avoided. If anything, independence after Brexit is even less materially desirable for Scotland. But the question has changed nevertheless. Scotland has always had a proud sense of nationhood but that has become the organising principle for political affiliation in a way it never used to be. In another battle between prosperity and identity, the latter will once again put up a good showing.

[See also: Scottish independence poll tracker: will Scotland vote to leave the UK?]

All of this means that Sturgeon might be on the verge of utopia. Not actually gaining independence, which would be a victory from which she would not recover, but falling gloriously short, with her grievance against Westminster intact. She would look authoritative, in control of events and just shy of successful; so much easier than achieving independence, which would introduce a whole battalion of economic troubles.

Against this constellation of hostile forces the combined phalanx of the unionists occupy a defensive line. Successive waves of devolution have not stilled the demand for more power, as Donald Dewar originally hoped it would. There are whispers that Johnson is about to start turning up in Scotland. He might be better staying at home, as he advised everyone else to do. The top reason that swing voters give for supporting independence is that they do not want Johnson to lead their country.

A new Heath Robinson constitutional rearrangement is probably not enough, though this is also, at the moment, the Labour position. In a recent speech Keir Starmer announced that Gordon Brown will lead a constitutional convention to devise a new settlement. At times it seems that there is no question to which Brown would not propose the answer of more devolution. But there is little suggestion that the Scottish people want more powers. They want more power, or at least the feeling of it.

There are two better responses. The first is to fight back. The SNP has done no serious work on its economic prospectus since the 2014 referendum and this argument can be won. Allow the fevered circumstances of a post-Brexit pandemic to pass and then make the economic case for the Union. The economic case needs to be merged with patriotism, rather than argued as a separate case. It is patriotic to be as prosperous as we can be. The quality of our decisions matters more than their location. At the moment, the more Labour in Scotland tells its electorate how awful Johnson is, the more it contributes to the master argument of the SNP.

There is a more radical version of this argument in which Labour signals it might sponsor a referendum in due course. This might be the only way back for Labour in Scotland, to try to peel off the large body of voters who are not especially committed to the SNP but who do want an independence referendum. This is the kind of tangle that a party born to respond to an economic question gets into when the basis of political affiliation changes. It is what we call an identity crisis. 

[See also: Will Alex Salmond’s rage be the downfall of Nicola Sturgeon?]

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost