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“Independence is one of those issues that will never go away”: Anas Sarwar on the fight over Scotland

The Scottish Labour leader on Brexit, trans rights and how Keir Starmer can win the next election.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On a clammy Edinburgh afternoon, the corridors of the Scottish Parliament felt airless. Encased in jagged panels of timber and granite, oak lattices framing its windows, this building was meant to be a symbol of modernity and openness: a New Labour-devolved dreamscape. Inside, it was gloomy and tense. News crews hovered and aides shuffled around rumpled and pale.

SNP politicians, who have governed here since 2007, are under criminal investigation over £600,000 worth of donor money. Senior figures have been arrested. Their dear leader, the electorally untouchable Nicola Sturgeon, resigned abruptly in February after eight years in the role. Following a miserable leadership election, which included a debate on sex before marriage and use of the word “neverendum”, her former health secretary Humza Yousaf triumphed. As First Minister he has looked ever more startled.

Among a cluster of offices in the parliament’s upper reaches, however, the mood was sunnier. This was Labour’s quarters, staffed by many who had been through the party’s long low ebb in Scotland: defeated by the SNP in Holyrood for 14 years, left with just one MP in Scotland after the 2015 general election, and fewer Scottish Parliament members than even the Conservatives, who became the official opposition here seven years ago.

“If anyone’s looking for advice in crisis management, there are no better advisers than Labour politicians, particularly Scottish Labour politicians. And there’s certainly lots of crisis management that the SNP has to do just now!” laughed Anas Sarwar, the leader of Scottish Labour.

In a textured grey suit, white shirt and brown brogues, Sarwar, 40, came across as smoothly as he was dressed – gossiping off the record, all easy presence and toothy smiles (before politics he worked as a dentist in Paisley, and married one too).

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Politics is his world, as the son of Mohammad Sarwar, a former Glasgow MP and governor of Punjab in Pakistan, and Perveen Sarwar, who runs charitable work in Pakistan. He first met Sturgeon when he was 12, in the southside of Glasgow: she was campaigning against his father in the 1997 general election.

Yet he only comes into the Scottish Parliament once a week, preferring to travel around introducing himself to voters. He has seen polling that shows most Scots “don’t know” how he’s doing as leader. Having identified as a “Brownite” in the past, he laughed a little too loudly when I asked if his leadership had its own philosophy (“ ‘Sarwarism’, is that what it is? Not sure it’s got a ring to it!”). With a rival like Yousaf – a fellow Glaswegian child of Pakistani heritage, who was two years below him at the same school – Sarwar must try and stand out. At present he differentiates himself by backing nuclear power, planning an NHS restructure (by dismantling the 50 boards that run it in Scotland) – and, of course, on the constitutional question.

[See also: Why Labour is winning back Leave voters]

Sarwar is the tenth person to take on the ill-fated role of Scottish Labour leader since Holyrood was established – stepping up weeks before the 2021 Holyrood election, in which Labour came third for the second time in a row. He was one of the 40 Labour MPs to lose their Scottish seats to the SNP in 2015, having represented his home city as Labour MP for Glasgow Central – his dad’s old seat – for five years. As an MP, he ran Scottish Labour’s 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign: his side won, but Labour collapsed in the process.

But Scottish Labour – which now boasts a red thistle logo where the rose used to be – seems to be having more luck, at last. When we met, Sarwar and his staff were waiting for a Redfield & Wilton poll due out that afternoon, which would reveal the impact of the SNP scandal on voters. Published shortly after our interview, it showed the SNP had slipped to negative approval ratings (-4 per cent) with Labour far ahead at 12 per cent.

We settled in a poky meeting room on the cusp of a progressive makeover: huge posters of a Gandhi quote (“Be The Change You Want To See In The World”) and a retro 1945 “Labour for Homes” campaign advert were framed but not yet hung. Clasping a mug of milky tea and sitting on the edge of his armchair, Sarwar became nervy, balling his fists as he spoke. After two years of working to make Labour a “credible opposition”, it was suddenly time to morph into a government-in-waiting. Repeatedly, he told me his party had to “build a positive case for a Labour win, not just a negative case for why the Tories lose the next general election”.

Lately he’s had a lot of chances to discuss this with his Westminster counterpart, Keir Starmer, who has visited Scotland three times in three weeks. (On one trip, the Labour leader declined a deep-fried Mars Bar, whereas Sarwar obliged – it was like “eating your mum’s pakora then eating chocolate straight after”, he told the press pack).

With a wry flicker of frustration, Sarwar told me he’d spent the past two years of his leadership reminding everyone that “the first Red Wall to fall was Scotland” and there was “no route back to a UK Labour government unless you rebuild” it. Now, Labour MPs in the rest of Britain are finally realising Scotland’s electoral potential – which Sarwar said had been “a challenge for our wider UK Labour colleagues” to understand, though he insisted Starmer always did. “Keir totally understands that he has to be a prime minister for all of the UK, and that means not seeing visits to Scotland as some kind of state visit, but that actually Scotland is integral to who he is as a person. That is really, really important.”

While Starmer and Sarwar’s experiences “mirror” each other – in that they have each been gifted Tory and SNP government meltdowns – the two men’s policy interests are not always aligned. The day before our interview, for example, Starmer abandoned a Jeremy Corbyn-era pledge to scrap tuition fees. Sarwar, in contrast, wouldn’t introduce fees in Scotland, where university tuition is free.

If Labour wins the general election expected next year, Sarwar will need voters to have a reason to elect a Scottish Labour government as well two years later at the Holyrood election. He has told Starmer, “I want to go into 2026 in the midterm of a popular Labour government, not the midterm of an unpopular Labour government.”

This means policies people can see “in practice” that “we can start implementing from day one” in 2024. “I want us not to say, ‘Elect Labour so we can be better managers than the Tories’, or, ‘Elect Labour because we can be better managers than the SNP.’ We’ve got to say, ‘It’s time for a change, and this is what that change looks like.’ ”

[See also: Why did progressives ever fall for the SNP?]

Brought up in Glasgow in the 1980s, Sarwar is the youngest child of four; his parents had settled in Scotland from Pakistan, and married in 1976. His father started a wholesale cash-and-carry chain, which became a booming family business (in 2016, it was reported that Sarwar’s share – since relinquished – was worth £2.7m to £4.8m).

A boyhood of private schooling and trips abroad for his mother’s charity work was nevertheless darkened by racism. His father became Britain’s first Muslim MP in 1997, and Sarwar has described finding threatening letters on the doormat and racists throwing bottles.

Sarwar’s own three sons, aged six to 14, give him political “drive” today. Recalling an idealistic speech he gave a decade ago as an MP, imagining his children would grow up in a world that “sees past difference”, he shook his head. “I think back on that speech, and I cringe about what’s happened in our country and in our world since then.”

When Diane Abbott, the longstanding Labour MP, was suspended last month for writing that Jewish people do not experience racism (they weren’t forced to “sit at the back of the bus”), Sarwar was struck by his eldest son Adam’s reaction: “He said, ‘But Jews had their own bus that took them to concentration camps.’ If a 14-year-old boy can understand that, and not see a hierarchy of prejudice, then it’s not that difficult for people in frontline politics to see it.”

Should Labour let Abbott and Rupa Huq – another Labour MP who was suspended, then readmitted, after calling the former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng “superficially” black – run again? “Ultimately, that’s a decision for the party, but I expect from my own party here in Scotland no compromises, and a red line when it comes to prejudice and hate.”

Sarwar’s politics are oriented around social justice. “Fundamentally, why I joined the Labour Party was that I’ve got a belief that everybody should have an equal opportunity in life, regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexuality, or social background.”

[See also: Is it over for the SNP?]

This is at the heart of a more pressing divergence between him and Starmer, on trans rights. The latter has opposed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill – Scottish legislation allowing people over 16 to self-identify their gender, recently blocked by the UK government. Sarwar and a majority of Labour MSPs voted in favour of the bill.

“I think undoubtedly I have regrets,” Sarwar admitted. “Where the regret comes is I look upon what’s happened since the passing of the bill, and I feel as if everybody’s lost.” He opposes Yousaf’s pursuit of a legal challenge to the UK government’s veto. “Both the order from the UK government, as well as the legal action from the Scottish government, are taking us down a route where we are continuing the conflict,” he said, calling instead on the equality watchdog to rule on the law’s implications.

“There are big lessons to be learned here,” he warned. “That’s an honest and open dialogue I’ve had with Keir directly: learn the lessons from Scotland, don’t approach it the way it’s been approached in Scotland, let’s not have the same division that’s been created here. Let’s try and find a longer-term consensus rather than conflict.”

Brexit, too, is awkward. Labour nationally keeps a rhetorical distance from Europe, determined to win back Leave voters in England and Wales. In Scotland, where the majority voted to stay in the EU, the referendum result boosted support for independence.

“I want a closer relationship with the European Union. I’m really direct about that,” said Sarwar. To the extent of the UK re-joining? “Longer-term, what happens in terms of that relationship, I think that’s probably a longer-term conversation or discussion that probably goes beyond the next five years of a Labour government.”

This is just one way of trying to win over SNP voters and Scots who want independence from Brexit Britain. “We may ultimately disagree on the final destination for Scotland,” Sarwar said. “I don’t support independence, I don’t support a referendum. But I absolutely support change.”

Yet he wasn’t naive about the obstacles to becoming first minister of a unionist Labour government in a divided Scotland. “Independence is one of those issues where people can look at it and think, ‘OK, it might disappear’, but it will never go away.”

[See also: Glenda Jackson: “It is never, ever a level playing field”]

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