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.