Labour Hame editor Duncan Hothersall says it would be foolish to fight the upcoming election along constitutional lines on a “Get the SNP out” ticket. We can’t just oppose; we need to offer a vision of something better.

The Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints is now making daily headlines exposing the serious problems inside a government that has clearly been in power too long. John Swinney is being forced to reveal legal advice against his wishes. Don’t look now but the Scottish Parliament might just be finally flexing its muscles to hold ministers to account. It’s only been fourteen years.

Against this background opponents of the SNP Scottish Government smell blood, and a growing cacophony sees the toppling of Nicola Sturgeon as priority number one, bringing with it, they think, an end to nationalist dominance of Scottish politics and the endless threat of a second referendum. Maybe.

You would think we might have learned by now, though, that it’s not enough simply to oppose what is; we must have a coherent argument for why what could be is better.

The independence movement in 2014 was fuelled by the perceived failings of the UK, with just a light dusting of empty promises about independence delivering a land of justice and plenty. The Brexit campaign in 2016 focused on the perceived failings of the EU, but glossed over the reality of what leaving would mean, as we are now finding to our cost. “Something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done” feels like the motto of modern politics, and so far it’s been an unmitigated disaster. Let’s not do it again.

I am an avowed opponent of nationalism, and I think our country has stagnated badly under a government more interested in using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to build anti-UK grudge and grievance than to build a better Scotland. But when I see George Galloway buttering up the Tories and arguing that we should set aside literally every other facet of our politics in May in order to vote the SNP out, my question is but what happens then? And if your answer is it doesn’t matter then I’m sorry but we profoundly disagree.

Political parties should work together on specific issues when they do agree – like we did in the successful Better Together campaign in 2014. But an election is not a binary referendum, and any attempt to twist the upcoming vote into the shape of one will end in tears.

We will soon be voting for the people and parties we want to govern Scotland – to lead its education and health systems, to define its laws and its social security, to set its devolved taxes and fund its public services. There may well be areas in there where different parties can find common ground, but for the most part the political values of the unionist parties significantly differ on these issues, and that’s a choice we have to put in front of the voters in May.

With less than ten weeks to go before the vote, Scottish Labour finally has a leader in Anas Sarwar who can set out a distinct, progressive vision for a devolved Scotland rooted in the union. He has precious little time and faces massive barriers, but he has the chance to present an alternative that is so much better than the “Get Sturgeon” rhetoric that has taken hold of rabid unionism. He can say what we would actually do better, across a range of political areas – including the constitution, but going far further than that.

And unless we do that – unless progressive unionists go into this election with a clear vision of how setting aside nationalism can deliver a better Scotland – then all we can offer to the electorate is negativity, which they will not compare favourably to the aspirational, if deluded, option of independence.

There are many good reasons why this current SNP government should be brought down, but unless we can combine those with a vision for a better Scotland we are selling the Scottish people nothing more than a pig in a poke, just as the nationalists tried to do in 2014. They saw through them then and they will see through us now.

If you believe in small government, low taxes and individual responsibility, vote Tory. If you believe in collective action delivering well-funded public services underpinning social and economic security for the workers who have brought us through the pandemic, vote Labour. You can be sure in either case that those elected will oppose a second referendum and argue against independence.

I do understand why, after fourteen long years, the idea of a unionist alliance could seem like the best hope. But look past it. The electorate will. And if there’s nothing of substance there they’ll see that too. We will lose, and we’ll deserve it.

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12 thoughts on “A better alternative

  1. That’s well and good – and negativity doesn’t win elections. But unless the SNP can be removed, we’re stuck on the hamster wheel. And you have to ask how any of the opposition parties, acting alone, could beat the SNP, given its position in the polls. Without tactical voting, the opposition is too split to achieve anything. We should know that by now. Getting rid of the SNP is the sine qua non – the rest is for after.

    1. Fair comment. I’d say the Scottish electorate has been voting tactically in Scottish elections since 1999 and is unlikely to stop doing so. There’s a big difference though between people choosing to vote tactically and efforts like the “Alliance 4 Unity” or a “unionist pact”.

      1. An interesting article and also an interesting reply to the first comment. I understand the desire to believe that politics will return to the previous pattern where voting is linked to attitudes towards tax rates, public services, etc but I don’t think that likely while the constitutional question remains unsettled. The referendum in 2014 did provide a clear No vote, but on the basis that Scotland would be voting to leave the EU if it voted to leave the UK. The fact that Scotland has now been taken out of the EU, though voting Remain, does mean that circumstances have changed. The election in May is going to be dominated by the question of whether Scotland should have a new independence vote in light of the changed situation and Labour can not sit on the fence with a ‘of course the people of Scotland have the right to decide their future, but not now’, answer. If Labour is willing to work with the Tories as part of a Unionist Alliance after the May election – just as it does in Aberdeen City Council – it should day so.

  2. It is probably time for the SNP to have some time out in opposition—but it wont happen.
    Half of Scotland’s population want to be self governing. They have been voting tactically for 30-40 years to get rid of, first the Scottish Tories, then Scottish Labour. The Lib Dems just melted away. Its not as if Scottish “nationalism” is any different from British/English “nationalism” that we see from the Tories and Labour (c’mon, stop pretending).
    We have a government in Westminster which has been seen as indifferent to those who live outside England (actually the south of England, but perception is not precise) for decades and Boris just exacerbates this. Starmer seems adrift at sea, with no compass, and has some discontent in his own party. Apparently
    There should be a constitutional solution to all this.
    Seven years after the referendum, the Tories are not interested in finding one, and Labour do nothing but complain how tired they are of “the constitution” when they have done nothing to solve it. –Hush, don’t mention BREXIT–why on earth not?

    It could be federalism, but “England” doesn’t want it.
    I prefer confederalism, with shared sovereignty, which could involve Ireland (United?) but doubt if there is any interest.
    This Salmond/Sturgeon thing is a big set-back for the SNP (without knowing the outcome) but unless something changes, we will be back at indyref2 again at some point.

    I try to imagine why people would be motivated to elect Mr Ross as FM, who has been an MSP, then an MP and now wants to be an MSP again. If Davidson hadnt got him appointed leader, we wouldnt have a clue who he is.
    And I’m sorry, but Anas Sarwar has been about for years; and has no great public rapport.
    What does he want? He talks in political cliches, so we dont really know.
    A coalition with Ross? Now that is something I suspect would appeal to them both! But not the public, and that is the REAL problem.

  3. I agree Duncan, an anti SNP alliance would be a disaster for Labour. It would cement the notion prevalent amongst many that there is no difference between the two parties. For YES voters this would be seen as a cynical attempt to thwart democracy by mis-using the democratic process. It is not a good idea. The real problem for Labour is that cannot offer a positive vision for the future when hamstrung by the constitutional position of the UK party on one hand and when ideological differences amongst the three main UK parties are negligible on the other. The UK centre ground is crowded, in Scotland the left of centre ground is also crowded: Labour, the SNP, and the Lib Dems and Greens to a lesser extent all crushed together on a pin head. Ideology matters but the homogenisation of party politics has put ideological choice in the bin. Ideology matters less when its not ideology you are selling. The SNP is the home of independence and even with the knife fight going on inside and around it, people from all political persuasions will vote for them. Most other political considerations are on hold until independence is achieved.

    The United Kingdom as an idea has lost its appeal. There is so much wrong with it, it’s institutions, it’s ceremonies, it’s history and it’s present actions – I cannot think of a positive vision for the UK. I think it has nothing to recommend it – the present incarnation of Conservatism underlining this. Sir Keir Starmer’s support for much of the government’s position is alarming as is the use of the Union Flag. How does this appeal to at least half of the population in Scotland, half the population of Northern Ireland and a sizeable proportion of the Welsh?

    Mark Lazarowicz’s article ‘Federalism is not enough’ gave a great insight into the reality of the situation facing the party, and Scotland as a whole. Mark outlines the need for a form of true home rule almost at a confederation level. That might be attractive to some. But, even Mark does not give any reasonable reason for staying attached to the UK. What is the benefit of UK membership – a strong economy? Is it strong? Does it outweigh direct participation on the world stage at the UN? Does it outweigh not having to become involved in the UK’s hard power? There’s a big bucket of Nuclear waste sitting at Faslane and roaming around under the seas threatening something, or someone for some reason – if everyone in Scotland wanted rid of it we couldn’t so it. These and many other reasons are why the constitutional question is going to be around for a very long time.

    IF Labour went down Mark’s route it might work to delay independence but to cement UK relations for the long-term the UK has to recognise Scotland as a partner at the very least. Personally, I think that if Labour recognised the reality and stopped being afraid of democracy and prepared for independence it could quickly turn the party’s fortunes around and lead with strong social policies challenging the Scottish Government to come up with better. I also do not think that Anas Sarwar’s statement “…under my leadership we will be a pro-business party…” is going to appeal to a lot of socialists in the country.

    Mark Lazarowicz’s article ‘Federalism is not enough’

  4. Hi Wynn. Sadly, “under my leadership we will be a pro-business party” suggests to me that Sarwar is planning to move Labour to the right to try to appeal to Tories to vote for Labour as a Unionist, pro-business Party. The cost of this shift will likely be that socialist leaning yes voters will be more inclined to take their vote elsewhere.

  5. A reasonable article Duncan, but framed in terms of “unionists” v “nationalists” and therefore perpetuating the conflict in my view.

    I regard myself as a “unionist” I joined my first Union as a student and was a trade union member my whole working life. I was in several trade unions moving from one to the other as my life changed. I’ve been happily Scottish and British for many years and pro the European Union and NATO. Unions are generally a good thing and leaving the United Kingdom would be sad. However, that’s what I’m voting for.

    In my view the Westminster system is archaic and not fit for purpose. It is also designed to protect itself. I don’t believe it will be changed substantially.

    Westminster governments, of all hues, have moved the UK from a debt/gdp ratio of around 45% when I started voting to around 85% in 2019 – pre Covid. That despite the UK discovering oil, selling off energy, communications, transport, housing stock etc etc and then enduring 9 years of austerity.

    Scotland hasn’t voted Conservative since 1955 but England seems to be moving more and more towards the Conservative party. They have now been in power for more than 10 years, with 3 more to go and, according to polls and some pundits, it is very likely they will get another 5 after that.

    In these circumstances I believe this particular “union” isn’t right for me, or Scotland.I am therefore voting to leave so Scotland can be governed by people more in tune with the Scots and form unions more suited to the Scottish people.

    Does that make me a “nationalist”?

    1. Your point on the debt/GDP ratio is fascinating. In reality the current five year average ratio is lower than it has been for most of the life of the UK. It has certainly increased since the historic lows of the 60s, mainly due to the 2008 crash and certainly exacerbated significantly by COVID-19, but in historical terms it remains low.

      It’s also an extraordinary argument to choose to champion independence, given the likely significantly damaging impact of that on debt and GDP!

      1. I think high UK debt levels have generally been driven by wars, declining between them and, whilst we have been in wars during my lifetime, we haven’t been in any protracted large scale wars. The last 50 years have been relatively peaceful and, as I said, we have become an oil producing nation and we have sold off many of the nations assets. Despite that the Govt felt it had to introduce austerity measures simply to limit the rise. Covid will push it higher.

        Whether Scotland can make the changes required to change the political and economic model we are currently in, I don’t know. I do believe however that the course the UK is on isn’t the one I want to be on and, I believe, many Scots are of the same view. I also believe that voting for Labour in Scotland, hoping for a Labour govt which will change the direction of the UK is futile, I tried it for 34 years and whilst life was always better under Labour, the systems have not changed significantly.

        The point of my response though was this, and I apologise for not making it clearer. Your article says clearly that you are an “avowed opponent of nationalism” inferring independence supporters are “nationalists”. Does believing as I do, even if you think it “deluded”, make me a “nationalist ?

        1. No it doesn’t. I do accept that some supporters of independence aren’t nationalists. That said there is usually, though not always, an element of nationalism in any argument for independence if one examines it closely, even if it just an implicit assumption that “we” will make better decisions than “them”.

          1. By the same token, those arguing against Scottish independence are often nationalists as well, though they have a different idea of the nation that should be the sovereign political unit.

  6. Thanks for your response Duncan. It gives me a little hope that our country isn’t completely broken. We should all, in these difficult times, be careful of the language you use.

    Referring back to your article, as I said, I believe it to be reasonable but it doesn’t go far enough.

    If Labour wants to persuade me to vote for it, and to remain in the UK, it must do two things.

    1. As you say in the article, paint a vision of Scotland which fits with the vision of people like me as well as fitting the values and vision of your party. I think this is the easy bit. After all, I voted Labour for 34 years.

    2. Convince people you can deliver it. This is the bigger issue. People like me see Scottish Labour as a satellite of UK Labour which, to win UK elections, needs to win the vote in England. England appear to be more conservative than people like me so you either a) have two visions in one party and try to manage that b) create a single vision which encompasses the UK and wins elections. (That’s not worked well recently) or c) Split the party, which would mean building a different relationship. In solving that issue you also need to consider that the delivery of any vision any Scottish Govt has is to some extent dependant on the UK Govt. With a Conservative majority Govt in the UK I would suspect any Labour vision would be difficult to deliver in Scotland. Wales, whilst not the same as Scotland, does seem to suggest that.

    Again, thanks for your response and I will watch with interest as Mr Sarwar makes his changes.

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