David Gow says Scottish Labour must seize the opportunity of the SNP’s floundering to be stronger on Brexit and economic policy, and Owen Smith has recently demonstrated the way.
Brexit has changed everything, but few in Scottish politics will admit it.
This applies not least to the SNP, whose renowned sure-footedness has all but collapsed. Nicola Sturgeon has belatedly appointed Mike Russell as Brexit minister, weeks after Theresa May anointed two (or three with Boris) – and only after it became blindingly obvious she cannot deliver on her pledge to keep Scotland in the EU with or without independence. His job presumably is to keep an eye on the squabbling trio and try and cosy up to the EU’s (various) negotiators. Either way, the second independence referendum looks like a broken dream.
Now we’re left flabbergasted by the self-delusion (or cynical disingenuousness) of senior SNP spokesmen such as Derek Mackay, Finance Secretary in the Scottish Government, who blandly reassured Good Morning Scotland listeners that a £14.8bn budget deficit worth 9.5% of GDP would not prevent Scotland from entering the EU as a full member. After all, he said, the UK ran up a 10%-plus deficit in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and was not expelled.
But that was in 2009-10, when western governments undertook a fiscal expansion to help prevent a global slump after bailing out the banks with multi-billion aid! (Austerity really kicked in later). The UK did, however, end up in the EU’s excessive deficit procedure, which is not a prelude to exclusion but, potentially, to big fines for failing to reduce the deficit below 3% and debt below 60%.
A more realistic, sober assessment has been given by Scotland’s greatest living historian, Sir Tom Devine. He has set a 5-year timeframe within which the SNP can stage and win a second referendum. But that seems generous. It may assume that the real negotiations via Article 50 start next year (at the earliest), conclude formally in 2019, and there’s a second indyref in, say, 2020-21.
That’s a load of assumptions. By then, of course, the real costs of that stunningly stupid Brexit vote will be apparent in terms of lost output and other disasters. The UK and/or Scottish economy will most likely be in a poorer shape than now, not least because the evidence that May will deliver on her “let’s look after the poor and alienated” is non-existent.
Step forward Owen Smith, still the likely loser when Labour’s leadership election result is declared a month ahead. He at least has had the merit of proposing a plan: parliamentary approval required to trigger an Article 50 application and a general election or referendum to consider the outcome of those Brexit negotiations. By contrast Jeremy Corbyn simply cannot wait for the UK to exit the EU and, presumably, conclude trade deals with his beloved Venezuela, Cuba et al.
Our second-term leader-in-waiting has plenty to say about “solidarity” and “leaving no community out” but – as we know from his ex-economic advisors now leaving the sinking ship – not one viable plan for delivering in government. What’s more, he and his team are simply letting the May and Sturgeon governments off the hook when neither is capable of dealing with the real legacy of 2008: growing inequality/poverty, precarious employment, stagnant incomes, threats to decent pensions, educational, and digital and technological gaps. In July new UK infrastructure projects collapsed to a new low: has Corbyn and his team said anything? Oh yes, a wholly uncosted £500bn national investment bank/programme ”financed” by taxing the rich and clamping down on tax evasion (Osbornomics revisited).
Scottish Labour needs to be stronger on both Brexit and the economy now that the SNP is starting to be past its peak – and, above all, its stewardship of the economy and society is being shown up as wanting across the board. It needs to draw up some attractive and workable plans for both economic and social policy in the timeframe set by Prof Devine or even earlier. It needs to start talking to its European allies/sister parties about viable anti-austerity programmes. Because, let’s face it, Team Corbyn won’t – and it cannot be allowed to drag Scottish Labour, already in deep trouble, towards its terminal crisis.