Let the Scottish people decide, says JUDITH FISHER


We’re going to have a referendum on independence. The SNP won the election, and at some point in this parliament, they will hold a referendum.   What Scottish Labour needs to do is decide, rationally, what our line on the referendum is going to be.

We’ve been fighting the SNP for so long and so bitterly, yet this is not a question that ever seems to be considered.
Bear with me here.

The referendum is the SNP’s game, and you can’t ever win by playing someone else’s game.

I suspect I can say with confidence that the Scottish Labour Party will not be campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote, but can we win by campaigning for a ‘no’?

One of our key weaknesses as a Party is the perception that the SNP are more patriotic, more confident in how they view our nation’s future.  We are also perceived as negative, and, at times, as ‘talking Scotland down’. Some of this has been our own fault.
If we campaign for a ‘no’ vote, then whatever the outcome of the referendum, does that not entrench those perceptions which led to such a sound defeat in the recent election?

The two scenarios are: we campaign for a ‘no’ vote, we lose, and Labour becomes a political irrelevance, a dinosaur, the Tories, in a future independent Scotland; we campaign for a ‘no’ vote, we win, but our associations with negativity and lack of patriotism become more deeply ingrained with the electorate, and they punish us at the next Scottish elections. A negative campaign may resonate, but the electorate will not thank us for playing to their own fears.

There are, I admit, other scenarios, we could run a positive campaign extolling the benefits of the Union, if after decades of negative campaigning we could shake off our bad habits, but that still places us on the nationalists’ stage, positioning us a Unionist party.

And we’re not, in case we’ve forgotten.

The criticism which we have levelled at the SNP since time immemorial, in the main because it’s true, is that their concern is not really with improving the lives of the people of Scotland, about more jobs, better health and education systems, but instead has just one goal, separation.

Aren’t we in danger of becoming the opposite, obsessed with the continuation of the Union at any cost, even the continuation of our own party as a force for the common good?  If we spend the next couple of years fretting over a referendum, the timing or wording of which we have no real control over, what reason are we giving the Scottish people to support us?

So, what’s the alternative? We could spend the next parliament in two ways: firstly, innovating within our own party to create a coherent, dynamic approach to improving the lives of the people of Scotland and communicating those ideas to the electorate; secondly, holding the SNP Government to account on the issues the Scottish Parliament was created to have responsibility for.

When the referendum comes, we leave it to the Scottish people to decide, then we work with the outcome.

It’s a gamble, I’d be the first to admit that, but we need to stop and think about what we’re doing, about what our real priorities are as a movement, before we blunder our way into the very role that the nationalists would like to cast us in. Instead of the bluster, let’s caw canny.

Judith Fisher is a member of Glasgow North-West CLP, the Scottish Convenor of LGBT Labour and was a candidate on the Glasgow list in the last Scottish Parliament elections. This post was originally published at Progress Online.

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44 thoughts on “Natwatch: playing the SNP’s game

  1. No surprise to say that I agree with this. It’s the position I’ve espoused since the SNP’s victory. For the referendum to be effective we need to separate it from party politics, in the way that the AV referendum was separated.

    This also means we should be calling for the timetable of the referendum to be set out as early as possible. Right now we’re in the ridiculous position of the SNP having appointed a campaign director for it but refusing to announce a date. We have to keep hitting them on this. It’s untenable. The date can be in the second half of the parliament as they wish, but it needs to be agreed to allow the two campaigns to organise fairly.

    1. Alex Salmond won’t set a timetable for the referendum until the Scotland Bill amendments are accepted and implemented, he will only go to the people once all the information on what shape a future independent or federal Scotland will take.

      Also comparing the AV vote with the Scottish independence referendum is plain daft. Voting reforms (specially when we weren’t allowed to vote for PR, which would have had a very different outcome) and the Sovereign rights of the Scottish people to self- govern their own independent country are two completely different things.

      1. If that is really the excuse for delaying the referendum then it is a bizarre one. Most SNP people are currently arguing that the precise shape of an independent Scotland can be decided after the referendum. Issues such as the monarchy, defence agreements and EU membership are all to be pushed off. Why then should the Scotland bill amendments have any bearing on the subject?

        And if you read what I said I didn’t claim the AV vote was similar to the independence referendum. I said it was conducted outwith party politics, as I believe this referendum should be. Do you disagree?

        1. The monarchy is not in question, the Queen will remain as head of State regardless. The referendum is on independence not on becoming a republic.

          I agree that independence should not be political party based but as no other party is truly open to an independent Scotland it’s a moot point unless Labour or LibDem also support the referendum and are ready to face starting again in the event of a Yes majority vote. There are many Scots in favour of independence that are not SNP voters.

        2. I was born and raised in a Labour aligned family, who had several fully paid up Labour Party members. I switched to the SNP after Blair turned the Labour Party into a watered down version of the Tories. If you seriously want Scots votes you have to go back to the grass roots that was the basis of the original Labour Party in Scotland and stop being “guided” by the London based Labour Party. That’s partly why you lost support in Scotland and the elephant in the room I spoke to you about on Twitter is another reason for your falling support. Scots people are angry at how Labour has acted and they need answers on that if you are to win their trust back.

        3. “If that is really the excuse for delaying the referendum then it is a bizarre one.”

          “Delaying”? Did the SNP stand for election on a specific, explicit platform of a referendum being held in 2015/2016, or not? I’m pretty sure they did.

          1. Indeed they did stand on a manifesto commitment to delay their referendum to 2015 or 2016 (and one day Alex will deign to tell us which).

  2. What I get from this article is a clash between the two conflicting aims of the Labour party in Scotland. On the one hand there are its concerns with the standard but very important issues of jobs, health and education but on the other hand the idea that these could all be improved in a Scotland which runs its own affairs is goes against the loyalty that the Labour party holds to the British Establishment and to the British state. Labour is not the party of the people it is the party of the British establishment in Scotland.

    This unwillingness to face reality is exemplified with the continued belief, even within Labour, of an autonomous, “Scottish Labour Party”. No such party is registered with the electoral commission and though Labour has a Scottish region it has no regional leader in Scotland. Labour is a British party through and through.

    The problem for you as an individual and more generally as a party is that though you might regard the idea that Labour is a unionist party with abhorrence the proof is always in the pudding and the Labour party has fought hard against the idea of an independent Scotland and the right of the Scottish people to have a vote on the issue for decades. Why does the Labour party in Scotland campaign so bitterly against the aim of an independent Scotland if it does not regard the retention of the British state as its primary aim?

    The solution you propose here for the independence referendum which is simply to do nothing because you fear the political fall-out of a no vote and cannot bring yourself to vote yes for an independent Scotland is the result of the inability to reconcile those twin aims of the Labour party in Scotland. Improving the lot of the Scottish people and a fanatical loyalty to the British Establishment.

  3. There is no possibility at all of the Labour Party doing anything other than campaigning as vigorously as it can against a yes vote for independence for the simple and obvious reason that they ARE a unionist party-after all it is to your party that the rabid Tory journalist Cochrane turns in hope of preserving the union.

    In 1979 your party (as well as the 40% gerrymander) fielded a number of subsequently very significant MPs on behalf of the “No” campaign which opposed even any devolution. I give you Neil Kinnock and Robin Cook as a couple of examples that spring readily to mind.

    Your party, not the SNP, condemned Scotland to 18 years of Tory government without even the limited protection of the wek propsed parliament.

    Until the “Scottish” Labour party can explain why they favour a Tory government in London over a Labour Government in an independent Scotland they ARE a unionist party and no amount of obfuscation will disguise it.

  4. I am not a dyed-in-the-wool SNP voter, but I HAVE turned my back on voting Labour in recent years.

    For what it’s worth I think the Labour Party in Scotland should implement the following changes.

    1 – demerge from the (British) Labour Party and, for the first time, register as an actual legal entity known as the Scotttish Labour Party.

    2 – have a truly independent leadership. It really stuck in the craw when I praised Iain Gray for his comments about reviewing the Labour Party, only to hear Ed Miliband later say that he TOLD Iain Gray to do this.

    3 – Whilst the Union exists Scottish Labour would be free to have a formal / informal link to the Labour Party and support it by all means at Westminster, but would still be well placed to offer something attractive post-independence. To sum up, your problem is London rule.

    Perhaps it is even time for the alleged 20 – 30% of labour members in Scotland who favour independence to show their cards …………..

  5. The SNP are not concerned with improving the lives of the people of Scotland?

    “The SNP are on a dangerous tack at the moment. What they are doing is trying to build up a situation in Scotland where the services are manifestly better than south of the border in a number of areas.” George Foulkes

    And yes George they did do it on purpose!

    I’m assuming you mean that Labour while not worrying about the constitutional future of our nation are concerned with improving the lives of the people of Scotland. Can you please explain why after 80+ years of slavish Labour support and after 13 years of Labour rule from Westminster that Glasgow is still one of the most deprived areas in Europe?

  6. “we could run a positive campaign extolling the benefits of the Union”

    Something I’ve heard roughly 5000 times since the election: Labour (and Tory and Lib Dem) activists talking about a positive campaign for the benefits of the Union.

    Something I’ve heard roughly 0 times in the same period: an actual positive argument for the benefits of the Union.

    Trust me on this, guys – you’re not going to win the referendum by spending the next 4 years droning on about bailing out RBS.

  7. seeing as there is no case for staying within the Union(the cybernats say) just why are The separationists behind in the Independence polls have alway been behind in the polls.

    leading to Salmond conceding the back position of more devolved powers in what would be a straightforward yes no vote after all there is nothing to stop the Scottish Parliament from negotiating for increased powers from Westminster without any referendum at all

    And just why did more Scottish people vote for the Hated Unionists party than for the separationists in the 2010 election.

    ‘The referendum is the SNP’s game,’ yes but it is a game of two half’s and if needed some extra time to

  8. Scottish Labour has to re-evaluate where we stand as a party after the recent election defeat. But that re-evaluation of who we are, what we stand for and what Labour can do for Scotland has to be separate from our stance on the independence issue.

    If we bind up our identity and values in a ‘No’ vote then one of two things will happen:
    1. Scotland votes yes to independence.
    2. Scotland votes no to independence.
    Either way, it’ll all be over before the next Holyrood election. Let me say that again. The independence referendum will be over – one way or another – BEFORE the next election. If we rebuild our house on the sand of the referendum then it will have collapsed (whatever the result) by the next Holyrood election and we’ll be in no position to fight it.

    1. If Scotland votes yes to an independence referendum then it is pretty obvious that people will assume that Scottish Labour (if it has bound up its identity in the union) – has nothing to say to an independent Scotland.

    2. However, it is just as likely that Scottish Labour will be seen to be irrelevant after a ‘No’ vote if we have been pushing for one. If Scottish Labour is about saying ‘No’ to independence, and the Scottish people can have an SNP government and still say ‘No’ to independence, what do they need Labour for?

    I’m not saying Labour should campaign for a yes vote, or even that we can’t campaign for a no vote. It is But I think that our post-2011-election identity has to be clearly built up and separate from the independence question. We shouldn’t focus on it or build our party up around it. It is a political trap that we need to avoid.

    We need Scottish Labour to rebuild itself on its core values and policy ideas for a better Scotland. Values and policies that will benefit Scotland whether or not the people choose independence.

    Personally, I am not convinced by the need for Independence, but I am more concerned about the kind of Scotland we have in the future – whether we are independent or in the union. If Scottish Labour is to be part of that future then we have to have a positive vision for Scotland no matter what happens on referendum day.

  9. Perhaps Labour in Scotland needs to review its own position regarding independence. The current position as unionist was established 50 years ago and may no longer reflect the position of the scottish membership. Currently, members feel bound to the unionist position as it is the one that they are comfortable with and supported by the current leadership. That might change if the leadership gave a clear signal that either support for the union or for independence are legitimate options for the Labour party members to consider.

    Before the SNP referendum, Labour could hold a series of consultations and its own internal referendum on the issue. It the outcome is a strong endorsement of the union, the scottish leaders can then campaign for the NO position from strength and with a mandate from the members. If the outcome is for independence, the scottish leadership can establish a truly independent Scottish Labour Party which would have a strong role in the future of the country.

    Either way, the accusation that the position is controlled by London will no longer have the weight that it has now.

    A Scottish party defending a Scottish position is one that can be defended and one that will attract support.

  10. What might prove useful would be for Labour/Scottish Labour to explain why we are against Independence. I asked a relatively senior Scottish official the following question about a year ago:
    “if it were proven that an Independent Scotland would be better off in economic terms would we support Independence?”.
    The answer was “no” and was uttered with distaste. My question is simple – why is this the case because until relatively recently Labour policy was for home rule (1948)? Why does this need to be the case?

    1. Even among the local Labour Party members, meetings and surgeries in Angus during the 1970’s the topic of Home Rule was frequently discussed and held to be a strong Labour value. I was present at many of those meetings as I had several relatives involved in the Labour Party movement at that time. So yes, you raise an interesting question, when (and why) did Scottish Labour distance themselves as a whole from proposing an independent Scotland? My view is probably around 1974/5 when English Labour started dominating what Scottish Labour thought and brought them into line with the UK Unionist approach that their Southern counterparts decreed.

      1. “when (and why) did Scottish Labour distance themselves as a whole from proposing an independent Scotland?”

        We never have supported independence. “Home rule” always referred to devolution, not independence. And I think you should try to remember that independence is still not the preferred position of a majority of Scots.

        1. An interesting question from David Munro though Tom.

          If it was proved to your personal satisfaction that independence would make Scots as a whole better off, would you support independence?

          1. Unequivocally yes. And what about you? If it was proved to your personal satisfaction that independence would make Scots as a whole worse off, would you support remaining in the UK?

          2. Unequivocally No. I don’t campaign for an independent Scotland based purely on economic grounds.

            But it’s good to know that your only ideological difference with the primary aim of the SNP is simply one of economic opinion.

          3. Tom, I am one of the people of Scotland as are my family and friends but I’m a Scot not a Briton.

            If the UK was to throw billions of economic sweeteners into Scotland in a bid to ensure that it stayed in the UK I’d still vote SNP.

            Since an independent Scotland will be richer due its control of its mineral, energy and natural resources and with economic policies decided in Scotland for Scotland it’s just a hypothetical question anyway but I believe in honest answers just like yours where you make plain your national identity is based on economics only.

          4. BUt its not economics – it about what will make the people of Scotland better off.

            Its interesting to see that nationalists would rather see the people of Scotland live in poverty (when the oil runs out, for instance) than be part of the UK.

          5. John, in your world the only economic asset Scotland has got is the oil and unlike countries such as Finland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic who survive well with no oil we can’t make it on our own without being joined to and run by England if the oil runs out. In your view without the oil we’re too small, poor and stupid to make it on our own.

            Aye John, your showing the classic patronising attitude to Scotland.

          6. Doug, I didnt say the only economic asset that Scotland has got is the oil – but once it runs out, we wont have that revenue.

            This debate should be about whats best for the people of Scotland, and it seems that nationalists want independence even if it made people poorer.

        2. “If it was proved to your personal satisfaction that independence would make Scots as a whole worse off, would you support remaining in the UK?”

          That is a stupid question as Independence is about making choices to suit Scots for better or worse the same as one does/did in their marriage vows.

          1. The point being that I would always put the people of Scotland before ideology. Both you and DougtheDug have just admitted you would not. I’m not surprised but I admire your honesty. Rare in the SNP these days.

          2. My reply at 3:51 to Tom at 3:36 should have gone in here but since the “reply” button runs out after five replies down on this site I managed to put it in the wrong place.

          3. honesty. Rare in the SNP these days.

            I think you might want to retract that sweeping statement as it sums up the hypocritical attitude in your party.

        3. And I think you should try to remember that independence is still not the preferred position of a majority of Scots.

          And how do you know this to be true, as far as i know the people of scotland have still to be asked. I take it you make your conclusions from the assorted political polls taken on the subject. Are these the same polls that predicted a landslide for Ian gray and labour in the holyrood elections, less than a month before the SNP romped it.

          I work on building sites and any of the guys at work who need convinced of the benefits of independence, well I have a few printed copies of the McCrone Report, and that is all the convincing most need.

  11. Having chosen to return to land of paternal family years ago, I oppose the SNP at grassroots level and worry that the easy actions of last SNP minority govt to make prescriptions free and freeze council tax as well as remove all form of learner contribution have lulled scottish people into a belief that an independent scotland can be a land of milk and honey with universal services of all sorts. In reality all they have ensured are services in education and health that are gradually becoming worse in terms of length of time to be seen or quality. As for council services the freeze on council tax means a growing prop of council income comes from local charges to be paid often by those needing care. Regressive taxation is underneath many SNP policies and we must flag this up, comrades

  12. Very interesting! Key point: majority, mandate & manifesto – SNP can do what they like in shaping referendum. Further complication is the likelihood of “further powers” for the Scottish Parliament being considered in a second question when we vote: be it defined then as “fiscal autonomy” or similar to Calman or what used to be “devo max” but now we hear “independence lite” more often. Labour should feel instinctively at home in this terrain but it’s also the safer bet for First Minister Salmond to get something positive for the SNP in the referendum. Two questions make it more likely we have to be positively campaigning for a preferred outcome that we assess as best for Scotland.

    1. “SNP can do what they like in shaping referendum.”

      I’m not at all sure that’s the case, Stephen. As you say yourself, the SNP aim to complicate the question by asking about “Independence lite”. Surely the people of Scotland have a right to be asked one single straight yes/no question? And if the Scottish government won’t do it, and do it soon, maybe someone else should.

      1. “Surely the people of Scotland have a right to be asked one single straight yes/no question?”

        Why one? The devolution referendum had two questions on it, why shouldn’t the independence one offer the same?

        “And if the Scottish government won’t do it, and do it soon, maybe someone else should.”

        I wonder if you realise just how bad it looks, how cynical and opportunist and craven, when you team up with the likes of Michael Forsyth. I suspect not, which is why you will lose.

      2. Fair points admin, but ultimately the SNP can do what they like through a vote of MSPs in shaping the referendum given their overall majority.
        That doesn’t mean our own Members of the Scottish Parliament or any other body are unable to articulate a variety of views on legality, wording and process with regard to the referendum. This remains “the SNP’s game” due to that Holyrood majority.

  13. The concern that many people have about this whole business is the message that the world sees of Scotland going the same way as the French Canadians. Economic as well as political instability to achieve what? To put it into context workers in the City of London and Canary Wharf paid £11bn in tax and National Insurance last year, the equivalent of the entire Scottish Workforce. We receive a block grant from Westminster of £30bn to maintain services without the reserved powers of the armed forces, and social benefits etc. Looks to me like a bit of a large economic gap opening up already without going into even greater detail at this stage.

    1. You’ve proved your ability to quote large numbers. Now what is your point?

    2. I don’t know where you get figures from, but Scottish income tax is around 10Bn with nic at 7Bn which along with corp. tax, capital gains, inheritance, and stamp duties makes total inland revenue of 22.7Bn
      Customs and excise is 14.8Bn with other tax (car tax, council tax etc) at 7.7Bn making total revenue of 45.2 Bn
      This is not counting north sea oil at 9.4Bn which makes a grand total of 54.6Bn going to London of which we get 30Bn back.
      these are 2006 figures
      http://scottishdemocraticalliance.org/attachments/article/13/The_Great_Obfuscation_GERS_2006.pdf

      What exactly does Scotland get from the union, in return for this money.

      1. “of which we get £30Bn back… What exactly does Scotland get from the union, in return for this money?”

        The £30 billion you refer to is the Scottish block grant only. UK government spending on welfare, defence, etc, counts for about the same again.

        1. Thank you, but on closer inspection, even taking a share of the uk national debt,and assuming a geographical share of North Sea oil revenues, GERS says the Scottish public sector revenue account in 2008 was in surplus to the tune of £1.3bn.

        2. Tom the main difference is that an independent Scotland could choose to spend money on what it needed or can afford rather than on things it doesn’t wish for… Like Norway it could choose to be part of NATO and have the associated cost or it could opt out. Perhaps a defense pact with England Wales and the UK could suffice. The options are endless and the Scottish people could decide post independence. One issue that troubles me, however is the fact that the total revenue for Scotland is so obscured, even the GERS report doesn’t give the full total… As a Scottish MP running for the leadership of the Scottish Labour party I wonder if you could enlighten me as to why this is the case. If Scotland is to make up it’s collective mind one way or another perhaps all the information in the public domain would help… Rather than another Macrone report style cover up.

  14. It is very clear to me that the all-wise and all-knowing Alex Salmond (joke, honestly) knew exactly what he was doing by saying that the referendum will take place in the latter part of the SNP’s administration. By that time Labour may even have decided where they stand on independence.

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