Among all of the acres of words that have been written in recent days about Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to push ahead with draft legislation on a second independence referendum, one thing you’ll struggle to find more than a cursory reference to is Scottish Labour’s announcement that they will be voting against the bill, if and when it arrives on the floor of the Scottish Parliament (a stance reiterated by MSP Neil Findlay in an interview with talkRADIO's George Galloway on Friday).
OK, that may appear to be a “chicken clucks” story – knee-jerk opposition to any exercise of Scottish self-determination is what Labour does, after all. But if we take all of the party’s statements over the last few months with the seriousness they would surely want us to, the decision they’ve arrived at is actually something of a mystery.
In the immediate aftermath of the realisation that Scotland was to be dragged out of the EU against its democratically-expressed will, we were told by Labour that it was too early to say what their stance would be on holding a second referendum. They needed to take time, as did we all, to discover what exactly Brexit was going to mean for Scotland.
The party leader, Kezia Dugdale, was particularly adamant that she didn’t want to have to choose between the union with England and the union with Europe, which was a pretty clear indication that she didn’t regard the union with England as being the more important of the two – a startling statement for any unionist politician.
If all of that was honestly-meant, we can only assume that what Labour have learned about Brexit between June and now has reassured them tremendously, and that they therefore feel able to recommend to Scots that they should forego an independence referendum and kiss the EU goodbye.
So the obvious question is this: of all the new information that has emerged about Brexit between June and now, what exactly is it that has set Scottish Labour’s mind at rest so comprehensively? Could it be the thrilling prospect of Amber Rudd’s fascistic “foreigner lists”? Perhaps relief set in when Theresa May made clear that Britain would be withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, thus making continued membership of the single market impossible?
Maybe comfort was finally attained when Liam Fox declared that EU citizens currently living in Scotland and the rest of the UK were not human beings with rights, but “cards” to be played in a negotiation? Or perhaps the tipping-point was when the Prime Minister confirmed that no part of the UK, regardless of how it voted in June, would have an “opt-out” from leaving the EU, meaning that Scotland cannot now avoid the stark choice between the hardest of hard Brexits and remaining in the EU as an independent country?
Hmmm. None of this appears to make any sense. A party that claimed to be concerned about Brexit on 24th June really ought to be a hundred times more concerned now, rather than suddenly sanguine. Just how bad would things have to get before Kezia Dugdale says “hmmm, actually this is all a bit much, maybe we might abstain on the referendum bill or something”?
It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that there’s no red line at all for Scottish Labour, and that even if the London government withdrew from the European Convention on Human Rights, suspended habeas corpus, reintroduced hanging, and set up concentration camps for Bulgarians, Ms Dugdale would still be telling us that Brexit Britain is infinitely preferable to the “uncertainties” of a second independence referendum.
The reality, of course, is that Scottish Labour already knew on 24th June – just as they know on every day of the year – that their absolute loyalty to the British state trumps every other consideration. The temporary pretence of having a more nuanced attitude may have been presentational, or they may have had a fleeting worry that the demand for a second indyref would prove to be so overwhelming that they’d find themselves on the wrong end of a tsunami.
As it turned out, the polls have shown that Scotland remains evenly divided on independence, allowing Labour to retreat to their new comfort zone – namely, being the junior partner in a de facto unionist coalition that is now firmly led by Ruth Davidson and the Tories.
There’s a paradox here, because in one sense Scottish Labour does still matter tremendously. Their rump support is substantial enough that if Kezia Dugdale were ever to take the lead and embrace independence, the deadlock would probably be broken and a clear majority for a Yes vote would emerge. But her inevitable decision to follow the opposite course is precisely what is consigning her party to future irrelevance, regardless of constitutional developments. Without offering something that will make ex-Labour independence supporters sit up and take notice, she’s settling for what she’s currently got – which is a distant third place.
Until a year ago, the charge used to be that Scottish Labour was a mere “branch office” of the London party. Impossible though it may seem, the situation is now even more pathetic than that, because they’ve effectively become the Scottish branch office of the anti-Corbynite plotters. The hard-won addition of a place on the Labour NEC for a Scottish representative was correctly seen not as an opportunity for the Scottish national interest to be heard at the heart of the party’s decision-making process, but simply as one extra vote for the Progress wing.
What a miserable footnote in history that is going to be : when the moment of national crisis arrived, the leader of Scotland’s once-dominant party mustered all of her influence and political capital…and used it in her function as a willing pawn in someone else’s pointless power struggle.
James Kelly's blog, Scot goes POP!, is among the most popular political blogs in the UK. He has also contributed to a number of newspapers and magazines.
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