Alastair Osborne warns against the folly of Scottish Labour reacting to last week’s bad election result with ill-considered support for a second independence referendum.
We used to joke that Ayr Constituency Labour Party had been responsible for the Poll Tax, not Maggie Thatcher. Back in 1984 we won a by-election in the solid Tory Regional Council seat of North Kyle (including Troon) at the height of the grassroots Tory rebellion against their rates revaluation. In a panicked response the Tory government came up with the hated Poll Tax and the rest is history.
OK, that story may be slightly apocryphal but there is a lesson there: never react to a crisis with something that is going to turn out even worse. That’s my advice to those in Scottish Labour who have been so quick to embrace a second independence referendum as the answer to our miserable performance in the general election.
There may come a time when we support such a referendum, if it is the clear will of a substantial majority of Scots. But we are guilty of very sloppy thinking if we go along with the SNP’s mantra that this election was a clear mandate for IndyRef2.
The SNP secured 45% of the vote on a platform of ‘Lock Boris out of No 10 and Stop Brexit’. The SNP clearly smashed it in terms of winning here in Scotland and have a mandate and responsibility to do everything in their power to stand up for Scottish interests at Westminster and resist Tory policies that would be devastating for ordinary people across the UK. However, as I have argued many times before, referendums are not there to break a deadlock, like cutting a pack of cards. They are only appropriate to ratify what has become the clear will of the people in relation to a burning social, political or constitutional issue, like divorce reform in Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement or Scottish devolution.
We keep falling into the traps set by the SNP. They were never going to welcome all the new powers delivered by the Smith Commission. According to them we had broken ‘the Vow’. We helped them secure a General Election when it wasn’t in Labour’s interest to face the electorate at that time. They never wanted a Labour government elected for the UK because only a Tory government serves their cause. Now we are in danger of allowing them to turn the result of Scottish votes into a mandate for a second independence referendum when that wasn’t the key issue on which people were voting.
The message of the election result for Scottish Labour should be: ‘Don’t react, resist’.
If you want to draw any immediate conclusions from the election it should be to seize on the near 75% of the Scottish electorate who voted against the Tories. Now that is a mandate to oppose and resist the Tory government. Scottish Labour should be calling for those who oppose the Tories to join in a Scottish resistance, determined to use all the powers of the Scottish Parliament (and more where needed) and to work in partnership with our local authorities to make Scotland different and to protect people from the impact of Tory policies.
But in truth the SNP have never really wanted devolution to work, because that doesn’t serve their cause or add to their politics of grievance. We should be shaming them into taking up the challenge to make devolution work to deliver a progressive agenda, stand as a bulwark against the Tories and as a beacon for the disillusioned Labour heartlands in England that lent the Tories their votes.