Labour’s defence of the Union makes it look like we have nothing else to say, warns ERIC JOYCE


Scottish Labour needs to stop defending the union. Why? Because it isn’t at risk.

The SNP understands this; that’s why their increasingly transparent objective is a federal UK. Murdo Fraser, the Tory leader-across-the-fields understands too ­­­­- that’s why he’ll make it their new platform next year. The Lib Dems have been saying it for years. Even (!) academics and journalists get it. And, most important, the Scottish public? Consistent polls show up to 30-ish per cent in support of outright independence (with much of those accepting federalism as an intermediate step), a little less for the status quo and the remainder for a home-rule which buys into the UK for good reasons pertaining to economics, defence, foreign affairs and a few of those big and small institutions it’d be expensive, and pointless, to replicate in Scotland.

So when Scottish Labour bangs incessantly on about the union it makes us look like we’ve nothing else to say; that our self-perception is that of the last redoubt against the savage. It’s ridiculous and we need to move on sharpish. And here are three thoughts to help us on the way.

First, most people in Scotland are aware of the benefits of the UK critical mass, hence the big Labour vote last year. BUT they’re mainly concerned about health, education, their living standards. And they’re quite self-confident and optimistic about Scotland, thank you very much  That’s why the SNP’s positive messages, in spite of their previous failure to deliver, kicked our heads in at a Scottish Parliamentary elections voters understood was obviously not about independence.

Second, the SNP is, in offical policy terms if not support, a right-of-centre party. That’s why the Tories can’t get traction in Scotland. The SNP wants to cut taxes, reduce public services, spend more money on the better-off and less on the less-well-off. That’s why they want to reduce corporation tax, maintain a council tax freeze, give the better-off free prescriptions and tuition. So here’s a thought: why doesn’t Labour substitute a set of bold, progressive alternatives for the fear we peddled during the election? Why not ask the best-off to help pay to reduce the cuts to the rest?

Third, we may have been cuffed last month but we are, actually, still here. The Labour group in the UK parliament is huge and, more importantly, while the Labour group at the Scottish parliament is small, if you look at the folk who’ve been elected they’re an impressive and capable bunch. They’ll learn the idiosyncratic ropes quickly and very soon; given the right ideas, freedoms and structures they’ll be ripping into the coming failure of the SNP to deliver again in no time.

So, what next?  A Scottish Labour Party leader, to start with? Just a thought, like. A period of anarchy where presently leaderless Scottish MSPs say what they think? A rejection of the  presently popular (unquestionably free tuition, council tax freeze) in favour of new ideas which capitalise on the coming public anger about  growing waiting lists and shrinking public services? Jesus, I hope so.

All the Scotterati chat right now is about independence. But that’s an irrelevance. Meanwhile, the SNP is intelligently segueing the language of independence into a federalist vision most folk in Scotland agree with. And don’t doubt that the wording of the referendum will reflect that. That’s not because they believe in the vision, but because they know that that’s what Scotland wants. We in Scottish Labour need to push them off that ground; force them to argue for their raison d’etre – outright independence. But, crucially, we need to do that because we believe in federalism. We’re not obsessed with the union nor with independence – we’re obsessed with getting the best deal for people in Scotland. And that’s it.

Finally, this: Scotland isn’t naturally right of centre or left of centre. It’s “where’s-my-personal-and-family-interest-and-good-public-service” centred. When the cuts bite, universalism won’t seem so smart. What will seem, and be, smart is a well-argued critique of the UK’s collective strengths alongside the ability of Scots to look after ourselves. Together. So let’s get cracking.

Eric Joyce is the Labour MP for Falkirk. Follow him on twitter at @ericjoyce.

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22 thoughts on “The Union is not at risk

  1. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Never mind the union diversion, let’s divorce ourselves from that argument and focus on being a genuine alternative to what has been and continues to be a right-wing government. A credible plan for local government financing that exposes the council tax freeze for the mass service cut that it was (dare I suggest land tax?) would be a killer start. And a Scottish Parliament focused restructure with an elected Scottish leader is a necessary step.

  2. Eric, could you have a wee word wi yer pal Davidson. Calling the SNP “Neo-Fascist” is really beyond the pale and does nothing to enhance the perception of Scottish politics – whatever the flavour.

    1. Could you have a wee word wi yer pals that are spamming every comment thread with the same complaint? Spamming does nothing to enhance the perception of Scottish politics – whatever the flavour.

      1. And of course, the reason he said what he said was that he was fed up with being shouted down by nationalists. Everything has a context.

  3. Great analysis. If we follow the federal principle, it takes us to the right anwsers on most of the organistional and leadership issues we are all talking about. But some big new ideas on local tax, public transport (especially in rural areas), improving public services and creating jobs for the future (apprenticships & amp; training in sustainable industries) will start to bring back some of the feel good factor about Labour that I think Eric sums up brilliantly with his “where’s-my-personal-and-family-interest-and-good-public-service” line.

  4. Your hypothesis that Scots favour Westminster control over ‘economics, defence, foreign affairs’ is incredibly off the mark.
    It is Westminster handling of those issues that has given the SNP the majority.

    1. Yet if you look at the Scottish Election study, probably the biggest test of opinion in recent years, it shows that only 24% want independence, while 38% want more powers and 38% want the status quo.

      I’d say that was a majority of people wanting Westminster to maintain control over economics, defence and foreign affairs.

        1. I found the data from the SES to be very compelling for two reasons. Firstly, the sample size was much much larger than is normal in opinion polls such as the one you quote. Secondly, they asked the same people the same questions over a period of time, so its a much more accurate guage of how public opinion is moving.

      1. But in the Scottish election,the biggest test of public political opinion,the majority voted SNP.

        1. And in the Scottish Electoral Study, it showed that most people voted SNP despite not wanting independence. Its quite a big study, and asks lots of questions which are not answered simply by looking at how many people voted for a particular party.

      2. re your comment about people not wanting economic powers devolved. Are you seriously saying that the 62% of people from the survey you mentioned that want more powers for the Scottish parliament are not wanting more economic powers, do not want more fiscal powers a key economic power?

        I think the situation is people would prefer the Scottish parliament to do things that Westminster but do not (necessarily) want to cut all ties.

        What powers do you really think the 62% want devolved if it does not include economic fiscal powers. Even the very limited Scotland bill suggests devolving borrowing powers. The labour led committee under Wendy wanted the borrowing powers raised from the level of Calman.

        The other question is whether the 38% really just want a defined set of more powers or whether it is a step to something more down the line. Off course the 38% mentioned are not a block but will have disparate views. I think that is labours real fear the more you devolve the easier it is to go the full way.

        I think the only economic power that those wanting more powers within the union will be round currency.

    2. Surely the figures show a large and consistent majority against outright independence? And don’t most people agree that the SNP campaign, which was positive, along with the public’s focus upon public services and not reserved issues, won the day?

      1. Hello Mr Joyce,thank you for taking the time to respond.
        Indeed,poll results disappoint in regards to full independence while the trend of rising SNP electoral support continues to amaze. It is the disparity between the two which is confusing for me.Is the gap a result of the Lib Dem vote latching onto the only other viable option?If those Lib Dem voters don’t support independence then why not a vote for Labour?I don’t get how a vote for the SNP can be for anything other than independence.

        1. Maybe, as the recent Scottish Election Study has shown, they wanted good governance, and knew that if independence came along, there would be a referendum in which they could reject it?

  5. Don’t want to be to ‘textual analysis’ here, but you’re second and last sentences conflict a bit. IMHO, the devo max objectives of the SNP administration reflect the gap between support for independence and support for the SNP in May. It seems to me that people interested in politics as activists need to think through how and why their ideas about how their ideas about the way they’d use those powers stand up against the other’s. In a way, it’s almost the role of party politicians, as salespersons of a way of seeing the world, to be polemical at times. That often obscures the fact that governance involves compromises, an attempt at intelligent and decent choices, irrespective of party affiliation. But the difference still matters,because it gives people a democratic choice. The Lib Dem collapse, for my money (which isn’t much) comes because the SNP dominate the Tory ground the Lib Dems would otherwise occupy. A lot of lib dems voted SNP because they see the Uk from a federalist, not nationalist, perspective and were fed up being berated by Labour. But that wasn’t the underlying reason for the SNP’s success, nor Labour (very temporary !) failure. What do you think?

  6. “That’s why they want to reduce corporation tax, maintain a council tax freeze, give the better-off free prescriptions and tuition.”

    So on that basis is it now the Labour party’s preferred position to bill students for their higher education?
    I can assure you, Mr Joyce, that I do not come from a “better off” family. My father works for Alexanders Dennis and my mother a cashier in a local business in Falkirk. Being the member for my constituency I’m sure you will have some idea that my parents are not in any way the “better off” but simply honest, hard working people that have sweated all their days to give me and my sister an opportunity at universtity. I am the first person in my family to have done so and were it not for the SNP getting rid of the graduate endowment I probably wouldn’t be sitting where I am now in Madrid for a year.

    “All the Scotterati chat right now is about independence. But that’s an irrelevance.”

    Wait a minute, did you not just say that upwards of 30% of people are in favour of independence? Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, how can the strong opinion of 30% of people be deemed an irrelevance? What percentage of people voted for the Labour party in May? Are all of these people an irrelevance?

    “We’re not obsessed with the union nor with independence – we’re obsessed with getting the best deal for people in Scotland. And that’s it.”

    I genuinely hope that is the case. I personally would like to see Scotland be an independent nation but I understand the other arguments for remaining part of Britain. I just hope people let the arguments on both sides get a fair hearing and let the people decide soon.

    1. I unambiguously believe that students from better-off backgrounds should pay fees set by the Scottish Government at a rate which will ensure HE institutions have sustainable settlements. Not charging fees, on a means tested basis, is regressive by definition and it’s fairly clear that Scottish universities are heading for significant funding shortfall by comparison with English ones.

      The essence of my argument is that the concept of outright independence has never had, and never will, acquire majority support in Scotland. I think Alex Salmond believes that which is why SNP politicians, when they’re being frank, are clear that their true political objective for the referendum outcome is Devo Max.

      1. Thanks for the reply, Mr Joyce. I commend you for having an opinion that is very unpopular but which you believe to correct. I personally believe in the principle of free education for all and think that the positives over the long run via tax should outweigh the initial investment costs in a student. Should the reverse be true then we should be asking fundementally what value does a degree really have? Do too many people go to university? I also think that people that work and pay taxes should expect basic services as a reward for doing so; like the education of their children. I understand the argument for not wanting to fall behind England but surely it just shows that once you agree to introduce a fee it’s only the thin end of the wedge. I don’t for one minute believe that if tuition fees had remained in Scotland before/during the crisis that politicians wouldn’t have used the crisis as a means to increase fees (and probably not just for high earners). Having been to university and completed last year I can honestly say that the majority of lecturers that I have come across are somewhere between poor and okay. Most of the information is merely regurgatated year on year and some of the questions have been the same since the 80’s in my particular degree. I genuinely can’t fathom how the universities can require more money. Having in the past seen some of the expenses charged by research groups/fellows at a particular university I can only presume that money is certainly being wasted and not used to further the individual student.

        On the other issue, do you believe in Devo Max? As it seems to be suggested that you believe the people don’t want independence but do want something a little less than that. In that case, I think Labour should bring forward a federalism plan knowing full well that this is the desired, settled opinion of the Scottish people. If we don’t bring forward a bill in line with what we believe to be the Scottish people’s beliefs then Labour is failing really to deliver what it preaches and is merely an anti-SNP party. For my own view, I would love to be able to vote for a Labour-esque party in an Indpendent Scotland.
        Anyway thanks for your time reading this! I personally can’t vote for you more because of the education than anything else but we’ll see.

  7. I think we have to accept that many people who are/where traditional labour supporters are frustrated by the unionist stance. We must reclaim the “federal” position. We cannot pretend that many labour supporters do not want to see a stronger stance here.

  8. Labour can’t ‘reclaim’ the federalist position since it has never been labour’s position in the first place. Rightly or wrongly the labour position on devolution has always been a reflection of the state of play with the Gnats. In fairness, the only UK leader who has taken a devolutionary stance other than through the threat of the Gnats was Ted Heath…and much good it did him.
    George Anders is completely right about labour voters wanting a stronger stance on improvements to devolution, but labour MPs/MSPs lag well behind the wider party on this. A wee tickle to calman here and there is not going to do the business.
    M4rkyboy is not too wide of the mark either. Blair and Brown’s handling of foreign affairs, electoral reform and civil liberties have been instrumetal in driving people away from Labour and given the nature of the Tories and the Glib-Dumbs it’s no surprise that the Gnats have benefitted accordingly.
    As for independence or federalism….the referendum will probaly settle that for some time to come, but opposing the referendum is not a wise position. How clever is it to tell people that they are too thick to make their own decisions?
    The referendum itself is by no means won or lost for either side, but the Gnats did win the election on a referendum platform; voting agiant it taking place just looks churlish.

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