It seems like only two and a half years since the last referendum on Scottish independence but the Scottish National Party assures us a generation has passed, and I would advise you not to question them. It seldom ends well.
Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a rerun of that plebiscite, in part because Brexit seems to offer a propitious set of circumstances and in part to appease her excitable ranks. The first minister’s initial pretext for another vote was keeping Scotland in the European Union, though that has since been downgraded to retaining single market membership and now party figures brief that they could settle for the European Free Trade Association. The SNP has so many positions on Europe, George Osborne might apply to run one of them.
Under these circumstances, unionists should be buoyed. There is cause for quiet optimism: Brexit has not delivered the boost for independence the SNP expected and Scots have not embraced prospect of a second referendum. Indeed, the singular focus on constitutional politics has inspired a revival of Scottish Toryism. Ruth Davidson and Theresa May now enjoy higher net favourability ratings north of the border than Sturgeon.
Scottish Labour has suffered most from the shift to national identity politics. The party continues to languish in the polls ahead of May’s local elections and Brexit has prompted a shift in allegiances. Former member of parliament Eric Joyce, ex-Scottish Labour spin doctor Simon Pia and poverty campaigner Mike Dailly all have broken with the party to back a second referendum. The party’s spring conference was overshadowed by the row over Sadiq Khan’s comments on nationalism, though the London mayor secured unseemly vindication when Claire Heuchan, a black feminist academic, came to his defence only to be hounded off Twitter by the cybernats. If anything, the campaign of vilification against Heuchan and Khan has hardened the resolve of Scottish Labour activists to challenge growing chauvinism within the SNP.
Less helpful has been Jeremy Corbyn, either at Westminster or on his rare but all too frequent visits to Scotland. His most recent intervention on a second independence referendum undermined months of work by Kezia Dugdale to woo ex-Labour voters who switched to Ruth Davidson last May. Far from reviving the party’s fortunes, as his leadership backers predicted, a March poll found 77 per cent of Scots against Corbyn. In these divided times, you would struggle to get 77 per cent of Scots to agree that the sky is blue but Labour’s leader has managed to bring some much-needed unity to Scotland.
Dugdale remains the best thing Scottish Labour has going for it and when not clarifying her national leader’s latest gaffe, she has been setting out her own blueprint for a rejuvenated, more democratic and less centralised United Kingdom. She wants a people’s constitutional convention and a new Act of Union to remake the UK as a federal state ‘to restore faith in our politics, build a more united society and create an economy that works for working people’.
The party believes it must cut a middle path between separatism and the status quo, backing the union but pushing for yet more devolution. English voters still show no signs of enthusiasm for federalism but Scottish Labour hopes a moderate offering will eventually coax back voters unimpressed by a choice of austerity-powered independence and hard Brexit unionism. In the end, the party reckons, the nationalism closer to home will win unless an alternative vision is presented.
That vision cannot simply be about economics and political structures. The nationalists have ripped up most of their 2014 case for separation and are expected to go hard on identity politics if another poll is held. Sturgeon’s party is adept at stoking grievance and prodding sentiments – useful distractions when your 10 years in government have resulted in a crisis in education and red flags popping up across the health service.
Scotland’s non-nationalists are a majority without a movement, an ideal without a name. They are not as forthcoming in their feelings as the secessionists but they can be convinced once again of the virtue of sticking together. Lamenting SNP policy failures and pointing to Scotland’s £15bn deficit is not enough. Scottish Labour must contribute to a positive case for the union. There is power in a union but there is also love and laughter, duty and belonging, shared history and common hopes. Unionists have to tap into this sense of Britishness if they are to defeat nationalism for a full, proper generation.
Originally published in Progress.