After its Highland hammering in May, it makes sense for Labour to listen to Scotland.
It may have been attending a little too hard, though, given the course of the leadership election.
The surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn is eerily reminiscent of events north of the border, where debates over jobs, education, and the health service — that is, practical politics — have been replaced by pitch battles over identity, belief, and loyalty.
Falling literacy rates in schools and drastic college cuts, missed targets on climate change and NHS waiting times, a regressive Council Tax freeze, a centralised police force in crisis, and private money building schools and hospitals — none of these have dented the SNP’s popularity.
Jeremy Corbyn, favourite for Labour’s top job, shares the Nationalists’ populist rhetoric against elites and their prioritising of The Cause above all else. There are those on the Left who will say “about time too”, for some English progressives buy into the narrative that what is happening in Scotland is a social democratic moment. It is not. It is a nationalist moment, if a very different kind of nationalism from the one espoused by Ukip.
When social democrats elsewhere in the UK pine to emulate the SNP, they are misunderstanding the Scottish Nationalists as essentially (if not as crassly) as the likes of David Starkey. The SNP is a party with a centre-left heart and a centre-right head all wrapped up in a flag. It is Janus-faced, posing as radical in the TV studios of London while governing from the centre at Holyrood.
The SNP is an unconventional nationalist party; it is pro-immigration and pro-EU. Nicola Sturgeon and others like her are instinctively centre-left and outward-looking. But like other nationalisms, the Scottish national movement is often tempted by grievance and patriotic sentiment. Do Labour members fancy flying Union Jacks from their homes and car aerials, dressing in party-branded clothing, and waving their foam fingers in ecstatic approval as the leadership changes the rules to ban MPs from publicly criticising party policy? Does the future of Labour politics lie in crowds outside the BBC, ministerial phone calls to the employers of troublesome academics, and framing every debate in terms of who is more patriotic?
However many coats of red you daub on the SNP, scratch beneath the surface and you find a nationalist outfit. That is no bad thing and the party should stop trying to pretend it is something else. With xenophobic nationalism on the rise again on the continent, Europe needs such an example of a civic nationalist party. But Labour is not that kind of organisation. It may be constitutionally conservative and cowardly on immigration but when it addresses the country, Labour tells people they are hard-working and deserve to get ahead in life. It doesn’t tell them they are victims of a remote power that holds them in contempt.
One consequence of a Corbyn victory would be to establish what the SNP really stands for. With an “authentic” socialist running the Labour Party, the claim that Scotland’s electoral shift is motivated by a desire for social justice rather than nationalism could finally be tested. Anyone expecting the return en masse of ex-Labour supporters would be sorely disappointed. Nationalists don’t hate Labour because it is centrist; they hate it because it offers the possibility of a progressive UK, arguably the last remaining obstacle to independence.
Another aspect of the SNP that Corbynistas might struggle with is the centrality of faith. During their election campaign, the Nationalists rebranded the NHS the “NHSNP” and no one found this strange or untoward. When a political party is the centre of your life, you don’t. SNP supporters talk about Nicola Sturgeon and her party in devotional tones while denouncing the opposition as heretics. A majority of Nationalists say they take criticism of the SNP as a personal insult; no wonder they banish all unhelpful news and comment with the warding charm “SNP bad”.
As Labour campaigners will attest, no matter how desperately they tried nothing could win back Nat switchers ahead of May. They weren’t knocking doors so much as wandering into a revival tent in the middle of the Rapture. A number of commentators have teased out this point and asked if the SNP is becoming a religion of sorts. Stop pointing out our faith-based devotion to the SNP, Nationalists reply. Now why didn’t you cover Nicola walking on the Clyde and feeding all of Govan with two fish suppers and five slices of Mother’s Pride?
Whatever it is, the SNP is an attractive movement for many. It offers the disadvantaged and ignored a sense of belonging, a purpose, and a strong national identity. It tells them that everything wrong in their life is the fault of the same malefic villain: Westminster. Poor? Blame Westminster. Feel you’re not in control of your life? That’s Westminster too. Wonder why the SNP talks Left but triangulates its way through government? Well, it’s Westminster making them do it.
Westminster, the Emmanuel Goldstein of the SNP.
Labour is a sentimental party, given to the emotional spasms lamented by Nye Bevan, but members feel protective of their leaders, not reverential. (Most Labour backbenchers would balk at the party loyalism on display at Holyrood, where SNP backbenchers exist to cheer ministers and never, ever to dissent.) Historically, Labour owed more to Methodism than Marxism — the observation of Morgan Phillips, not Harold Wilson — but as Bevan put it at another time Labour’s only religion is the “language of priorities”. The SNP speaks the language of redemption but its only priority is independence.
The real shame of Scotland’s post-rational politics is that the case for independence is strong, if not on economics in the short-term undoubtedly on politics. Two months ago, the electorate rejected 58 out of 59 Tory candidates and still they have a Tory government. The Nationalists, to whom Scots awarded 95% of available seats, are consigned to impotent opposition. Scotland is the only country in the world where one is a bigger number than 56. But the SNP knows it can’t win on dry constitutional theory and so it promises a land of milk and honey.
When independence comes, as it likely will, and brings with it the dawning of economic reality, as it surely must, some will gag at the bitter economic medicine they will have to swallow. They truly believe that a “free” Scotland will be a socialist paradise. Other Nationalists — I suspect the majority — know this to be a fantasy, a convenient myth to lure the disaffected and the marginalised to their cause. They would quite like Scotland to be more social democratic too but if it turns out to be yet another low-tax Celtic tiger, they will not weep. After all, the goal of the SNP is national liberation, not economic justice.
The Nationalists can sustain the levels of support they currently enjoy as long as people are convinced that independence, and a socioeconomic nirvana, lies around the corner. But a Corbyn-led Labour Party would have to begin delivering soon, at first on mood and later on policy. The new left-wing supporters would expect to see the party putting clear blue water between itself and the Tories. What that looks like is not yet clear. In the short term, Corbyn would be able to keep the peace by making the right (which is to say left) noises on austerity and the wicked Tories. But how long before his backers pressured him to commit to higher taxes, public ownership and unilateral nuclear disarmament?
The Scottish Nationalists can wave a flag and make all these things go away but Corbyn would not have that luxury. There could be no appeal to a national religion. If he wins, the wellspring of optimism his candidacy has inspired will have to be tended but in a way that does not unsettle the parliamentary party. That is a real challenge and one that will be a source of tension under Corbyn’s leadership. As the experience in Scotland shows, when you ride the wave of a grassroots movement you give credence to its leaders and aims.
The people cramming into town halls and community centres and blocking off London streets; the earnest young lefties and ancient CND-badged Trots; the union paymasters and dreamy Green voters — they will have handed Corbyn the leadership. They will not go back to their constituencies and let the professionals handle things. The Blairites might be irksome backseat drivers but the Corbynites will itch to get their hands on the wheel as soon as possible.
If Labour really is experiencing a “Scotland moment”, the party has no idea what is about to hit it. Nor, I suspect, does Jeremy Corbyn.