The recriminations are in full flow following the EU elections which saw both the Labour party and the Tories in Scotland perform appallingly poorly. Well, I say appallingly, but that’s only because schadenfreudingly isn’t an adverb.
The Tories have reacted in their typical manner, by refusing to accept that it’s happening. Just as they managed to persuade themselves and an overly eager Scottish press that they had really won the General Election in Scotland by virtue of coming a distant second, now they’re consoling themselves with the delusion that no one really won the EU elections in Scotland at all. The SNP coming first in every Scottish local authority area except Orkney and Shetland, on an increased turnout, isn’t really a victory. The Tory party continues to dig itself a deep hole on social media by promoting this line, insisting that the SNP didn’t really do that well and that it really wasn’t a message to Nicola Sturgeon. They’re so far down the rabbit hole it’s quite amazing that they’re still getting a WiFi signal.
Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she’d like to see another independence referendum next year and is bringing forward legislation in Holyrood to prepare for it. 46% of voters in the EU elections cast their votes in favour of pro-independence parties, which represents a very strong basis of support for independence before an official campaign has even begun. Since the franchise for this election didn’t include 16 and 17 year olds, and an unknown number of EU citzens were illegally disenfranchised, it’s quite likely that real support for independence is even higher. It’s bound to increase even further if those people who voted for another EU referendum find that Scotland is taken out of the EU without one. A lot of people are still hoping that Brexit can be avoided, when it can’t the question is going to be what happens to their attitudes to independence.
Along with the Lib Dems, the Tories, and the BBC are pushing the line that people who “lent their votes” to the SNP in this election might not necessarily support another independence referendum or would vote yes in it when it occurs. Naturally they refuse to accept the possibility that if this is true about people who voted for pro-independence parties, then logically it must also be true about people who voted for anti-independence parties, and you cannot therefore assume that everyone who voted for parties which are officially opposed to independence is likewise opposed to independence.
Ruth Davidson, making a brief foray out of the cave where she’s been hiding since the election, warned Nicola Sturgeon not to take the people who voted SNP for granted. The Tories are now accusing the SNP of deceiving voters, after Nicola Sturgeon called for another independence referendum next year, just hours after her party trounced the opposition parties in Scotland. Because, you know, “Oh I didn’t realise that the SNP wanted Scottish independence,” said no one, ever.
So the attack line now favoured by the Scottish Conservatives is that the SNP has been exposed to a surprised public as seeking Scottish independence via a referendum, which is based upon their 2016 manifesto commitment to do so if there’s a material change in circumstances such as Brexit. The SNP secured a majority for this position in the Scottish Parliament, and restated it during their recent party conference, and again before the Euro elections. Meanwhile the overwhelmingly anti-independence media in Scotland consistently conflates support for the SNP with support for independence, and uses criticism of party policies of a devolved administration led by the SNP as a proxy for attacks on the entire idea of indepedence. And now they’re trying to tell us that no one realised that a vote for the SNP might be interpreted as a vote for independence.
The most bitter substance in the world is denatonium benzoate. Dilutions of as little as 10 parts per million are unbearably bitter to most people, which makes it the favourite drink of the anti-independence press in Scotland. According to a scientific website all about the properties of denatonium benzoate, exposure to it is irritating and unpleasant. So exactly like the British media in Scotland then. However it is rumoured that scientists are investigating the manufacture of an even more bitter substance, distilled from the tears of Scottish Conservatives who saw their party plunge to fourth place with a paltry 11.6% of the vote.
However it’s the Labour party in Scotland which has really gone into meltdown following the EU elections. To say that the party performed abysmally is an underestimation of the order of saying that the Black Death was a minor public health issue. Labour dominated Scotland during the 1980s and 1990s, bestriding the political landscape like a colossus, in these elections it plummeted to fifth place, polling in single figures slightly above the Greens.
Campaign chief Neil Findlay MSP resigned from the party’s front bench, and announced that he wouldn’t be seeking reelection in 2021. He denounced the infighting and factionalism that plagues the party. There’s little prospect of things getting any better for the Branch Office under its current leader, or indeed anyone who cared to replace him. Richard Leonard is utterly bereft of charm and charisma, of the ability to make an appeal outside the narrow confines of a trade union branch meeting filled with his pals. But Labour’s problems in Scotland run much deeper.
The Branch Office has only got itself to blame. Labour in Scotland have for too long come across as defenders of the status quo, all too willing in local government to support the Tories in practice if it means getting one up on the SNP. The knee jerk opposition of the party leadership to independence has meant that Labour has been weak on defending the devolution settlement.
If voters in Scotland couldn’t rely upon Labour as a bulwark against the Tories, as a strong and distinctive voice for Scotland within the UK, then what precisely is the point of the Labour party? Labour should have been defending the devolution settlement, reinforcing it, strengthening it, instead they have all too often conspired with the Tories in undermining it. In heavily remain supporting and Brexit-sceptic Scotland, Labour’s position of “constructive ambiguity” on Brexit only resulted in the party’s support being unamibguously deconstructed. People who voted Labour in Scotland traditionally expected the party to oppose Conservative madness, not to facilitate it.
Labour in Scotland was suffering from the problem that its message on Brexit was tailored to an English electorate, and it failed to resonate even there. With no distinctively Scottish Labour position, the party is lucky that it managed to achieve the pathetic 9.3% that it did. It could fall even further. It probably will. If Scotland doesn’t make the choice of independence, it will become as irrelevant as the Branch Office. Scotland’s future within the UK is the political impotence and irrelevance of Richard Leonard.
The reality facing Labour now is that its claim to represent those in Scotland who want to remain in both the UK and the EU is manifestly past its sell by date. The choice facing Scotland is no longer a choice between independence and exiting the EU on the one hand or the UK and EU membership on the other. It’s a choice between being a neglected province of a right wing UK where English nationalism is on the rise and the devolution settlement is under constant threat, or independence and our own relationship with the EU.
My new book has just been published by Vagabond Voices. Containing the best articles from The National from 2016 to date. Weighing in at over 350 pages, this is the biggest and best anthology of Wee Gingerisms yet. This collection of pieces covers the increasingly demented Brexit years, and the continuing presence and strength of Scotland’s independence movement.
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