Is Jim Murphy trolling or is he really not a Unionist?

There is a chance — distant, I grant you — that Jim Murphy only stood for Scottish Labour leader so he could troll the cybernats.

Every time he skooshes open a can of Irn-Bru or talks about football or jogs past STV in his Scotland top (hey there, handsome), Twitter is soon ablaze with 45ers snarking, taunting, memeing, or employing (sometimes creative) forms of what my granny used to call “language”.

(Have you noticed that Yes people swear so much more innovatively than Naysayers? Labour and Tory types are straightforward F-bombers; Nationalists neologise and compound-adjectivise profanity into a potty-mouthed poetry.)

So far in his short tenure as Scottish Labour leader, Mr Murphy has riled his opponents by pledging to rewrite Scottish Labour’s constitution to define it as a “patriotic party”, appointing Blairite ultra and Nat-basher John McTernan as his chief of staff, announcing a push to “reach out” to Yes voters, flying to Aberdeen to meet oil industry figures as the SNP government watched in horror at the plummeting oil price, and picking a fortuitous mansion tax fight with English colleagues to fund 1000 extra nurses above and beyond however many the Scottish Government hires.

The ability to get under the skin of political opponents is an unjustly overlooked skill. Alex Salmond has it, so did Harold Wilson, and it served Barack Obama well in his first term.

Paul Keating, the former Australian prime minister, was a world-class riler who could enrage the opposition with a few carefully chosen words and smile beatifically as his rivals shouted and screamed for the TV cameras. When his Liberal challenger John Hewson asked why Keating wouldn’t call an early election, the Sydney bruiser flashed his shark grin: “Mate, I wanna do you slowly”.

Deployed judiciously, this skill could help Mr Murphy do mischief to a dominant but hairtrigger-sensitive SNP. Governments riled start to make mistakes.

The latest occasion for Murphysteria is the Labour chief’s announcement that he is not, after all, a Unionist.

During a lunch with journalists, Mr Murphy sought to distance himself further from the referendum and the electoral poison it has pumped into certain parts of the body politic.

According to the Daily Record’s David Clegg, Mr Murphy said: “I have never been a Unionist. It’s never been my political tradition. As a family of Irish Catholic immigrants we’re not Unionists. I grew up in a family of trade-unionists, but we’re not political Unionists.”

While there had been a “temporary alignment” during the referendum in the form of the Better Together campaign, Mr Murphy insisted Labour and the Conservatives represented “two different Unionist traditions”.

He explained: “A Conservative and Unionist tradition inside the Conservative Party and elements of the Liberal Democrats, and you had a trade-unionist and socialist solidarity tradition inside the Labour Party.

“For a moment there was an alignment for different reasons of political culture and history, but that moment is gone.”

In one sense, this is all so much hogwash. Here is one of the saviours of the Union — who braved eggs, insults, and snippy tweets from National Collective to keep the UK together — dismissing the very notion. Jim Murphy is shocked, shocked, to find there’s Unionism going on in this establishment.

In another, more complex sense, Mr Murphy’s non-Unionist support for the Union is not as implausible as it might sound.

The Unionist/Nationalist dichotomy is an ultimately misleading shorthand that occludes the nuances in philosophy, instinct, and identification on both sides. By what metric is Patrick Harvie or Colin Fox a “Nationalist” — those quotation marks almost write themselves around the word — and under what curious rubric is George Galloway or Neil Findlay an ideologue of Unionism?

I don’t know whether Mr Murphy is a Unionist or not but I can believe that he is sincerely uncomfortable with the label. How could an uber-modernising New Labour type believe in anything quite so old and fusty as the Union? How likely is it that a Scottish Catholic of Irish descent would identify with a political and historical construct associated with British imperialism? This is especially true of Labour left-wingers, although no one would confuse Mr Murphy for a socialist. (A Labour-historied colleague quipped: “I can buy Jim not being a Unionist; it’s the suggestion that he’s a trade unionist that cracks me up.”)

This is just as true of some Yes campaigners, whose support for independence was not located in any substantive philosophy of “Nationalism” but rather on a pragmatic calculation that an independent Scotland would be more conducive to socialism, egalitarianism, or republicanism. This approach was embodied by the Radical Independence Campaign and even Yes Scotland chairman Dennis Canavan.

So too were there politicians on the No side who harboured no affection for the Union or its symbolism but who determined that Scotland’s continuing participation in an economy of 65 million made more sense than going off on its own with just five million. For these non-Unionists for the Union, their vote was against independence and its perceived risks, not necessarily an endorsement of a political system which they deem to be flawed. If they felt any sentiment towards the Union it was for a particular moment — the Liberal reforms, World War II, the 1945 Labour government — rather than the holistic political system.

Part of the problem is the polarisation of the two constitutional positions so that opposing views have come to be seen as character flaws and not genuine differences of opinion. The media have to take some of the blame for this. All too often, we framed the debate as a zero sum showdown between Unionists and Nationalists. There isn’t much scope for shades of grey in four-minute one-plus-twos. Some Labour politicians conceded privately during the referendum that they were uncomfortable with the Unionist label. It might have made more sense to be public about that disquiet, even if it provoked some headlines about divisions in the No camp.

Of course, this is another reason why federalism, not the status quo or last-minute vows, should have been at the heart of the No message. Had independence opponents put forward an alternative to the current constitutional arrangements, one that reflected their professed progressive values, they wouldn’t have to be fighting a rear-guard semantic action four months after the referendum.

Mr Murphy’s rebranding exercise is necessary to challenge the suspicion that Scottish Labour is a London-centric party and he a London-centric politician, existing to represent Westminster to Scotland rather than the other way around. Necessary, but not sufficient. If he is a non-Unionist who believes in the UK as a platform for political and social progress, Mr Murphy has to craft a more convincing narrative of what that looks like. Hollow soundbites about “pooling and sharing resources” aren’t going to cut it anymore, if they ever did.

Tactics and strategy can get you far in politics but only so far. You also need policies, credibility, and a story to tell. The SNP has all three; Scottish Labour has none. But it has a leader, its opponents’ contempt, and the media’s low expectations. It’s a start — but that’s all.

Originally published on STV News.

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