The curse of Brexit: the referendum claims its first scalp, Scottish Labour

Division over a second Scottish independence referendum redefined Scottish politics in this month's elections to its Edinburgh parliament and pulled Scottish Labour apart – thanks to the threat of Brexit.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
10 May 2016
 David Cheskin/PA Wire/Press Association Images All rights reserved.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. Credit: David Cheskin/PA Wire/Press Association Images All rights reserved.

The UK’s 23 June referendum on membership of the EU is a European event and will have ramifications across the continent. Already it has had one clear consequence. The Labour party in Scotland has become the first victim of the Brexit referendum.

In a situation where centrifugal forces are at work, as is usually the case in Britain, being in the middle can be an advantage as forces press towards the centre. In normal times, last week's elections to the Scottish parliament in Holyrood would have seen Scottish Labour calling on everyone to ‘pull together’ (the classic phrase of a centrifugal system) after the country’s independence referendum of 2014; and put the nationalist versus unionist conflict into its history box. But the times are not normal, they are even maddening. The Brexit referendum acted as a centripetal shock in Scotland. In a situation where centripetal forces are at work, being in the middle means you get torn apart. The impact on the main party of the British Union, Labour, already reeling from the Westminster wipe-out, was another body blow that may prove fatal.

I am going to interrupt the intended flow of Blimey, it could be Brexit! to look at this impact briefly. It’s important enough in itself for the future of the UK, which is my major theme, but also it demonstrates the systemic significance the referendum is going to have.

Labour was driven into third place in last Thursday’s elections to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood – behind the Scottish Conservatives. Labour fell by 13 seats from 37 to 24. The Conservatives rose from 15 to 31. The SNP remained dominant with 63 seats, down 6 from 2011. For the foreseeable future, Labour will remain a marginal party in Scotland unless it merges with another force in an imaginative fashion. So far as Westminster is concerned, Scottish Labour is over and done with unless PR is introduced for elections to the House of Commons. Labour in Britain is now an Anglo-Welsh affair. 

The Brexit referendum on its own did not cause this outcome and the interesting consequences that will follow. It was already likely and may even have been inevitable. The impact of the referendum was to accelerated it decisively.

It seems impossible to communicate to English people who have not visited Scotland recently how different the country is from the rest of the UK. It has different parties, a different political culture, a different parliament, and different energies and priorities. (One of these differences is that although attitude surveys do not suggest Scots like the EU any more than the English, they are significantly less likely to vote Leave.)

The divergence became irreversible after the Scottish National Party became the majority governing party in 2011, and the British prime minister then agreed that they could hold a referendum on independence. Alex Salmond, the SNP’s leader, and his team, however, were convinced that it was the “settled view” of the Scottish people to support devo-max within the Union, not full independence. Although the SNP itself desired independence, their judgment was that the Scottish voters did not, at least not yet. They were governing with this in mind. So when Salmond pushed for a referendum he sought a third option on the ballot… for devo-max.

David Cameron, doubtless informed on every detail by the intelligence services, sought to exploit the situation with the aim of crushing independence. He agreed to lower the voting age to 16 but absolutely refused to give Salmond the third option of devo-max. The idea was to force Salmond to accept inevitable defeat in a binary yes/no showdown – and thus secure the future of the Union.

As the Tories were very weak in Scotland, the ‘No’ Campaign had to be run by Scotland’s Labour politicians, with Tory money. After furious campaigning, famously, the polls swung towards a ‘Yes’. Then, orchestrated by Gordon Brown, the three main party leaders (Miliband, Clegg, and Cameron himself), signed a vow that promised Scotland its parliament is now “permanent” and that the country could have devo-max if it voted to stay. This meant that in the final week of the referendum campaign, the ‘No’ side could send leaflets into people’s homes offering devo-max without the risk of independence.

Ironically, if Cameron had permitted a third option on the ballot, the SNP’s opportunist calculations of playing both sides of the street could have rebounded on them. Labour might have supported devo-max, putting distance between itself and the Westminster Tories, thus gaining equal if not more credit for the outcome than the SNP. Instead, by siding with the Tories in support of the Union, Labour lost the allegiance of its Scottish working class support. In last year’s Westminster elections in the wake of the independence referendum, Labour was wiped out thanks to the winner-takes-all effect of the archaic, House of Commons, first-past-the-post elections. Now, in last week’s election for the Scottish parliament, Labour lost every constituency seat in Glasgow, ending an era. As significantly, the Scottish Conservatives have become the official opposition to the SNP. Labour in Scotland no longer has an official role at all; it has joined the ranks of the smaller parties.

There has been an exaggerated celebration of the Scottish Conservative triumph in leading her party to a mere 22% of the vote, well mocked by Mike Small. The media have made their new leader, the charismatic Ruth Davidson, their latest darling thanks to her displacing Labour to become the main opposition to the SNP. She shrewdly played to her advantage her gay feminism, encouraging the media to project her as authentic rather than posh and therefore less cruel and entitled.

But it was the Brexit referendum not Ruth Davidson that twisted the knife into Labour's hopes.

Suppose it had not been called. Any argument about holding another referendum on independence would have been confined to within the SNP. Thanks to the experience of 2014, devo-max has ceased to be the settled will of the Scottish people and became the unsettled outcome. The process of the referendum created a situation, as I noted in Chapter 5, where a clear majority of young people are for independence, but found their votes overwhelmed by a geriatric endorsement for staying within the Union. The call for independence still has a lively future, therefore. However, the referendum’s clear result is fresh and barely 18 months old. The larger public will not thank anyone for disrespecting the outcome. Its new powers have anyway not yet been transferred in full to the Scottish parliament. Nicola Sturgeon and her team now leading the SNP are more than justified in holding back. Independence would not have been an issue at all in this year’s Holyrood election except for one thing: the threat of Brexit thanks to David Cameron’s own British referendum.

If there were to be a vote in favour of Brexit it would create a new situation. Scotland is in two unions. Should the outcome of the referendum be a vote to Leave, Scotland has to choose between the two. The whole of the SNP agrees that provided Scotland votes Remain, as is likely, should the UK as a whole vote Leave, then it should be up to the Scottish people to decide whether they want to be taken out of the EU by England against the country’s will, or declare independence from Westminster and retain the status quo by remaining within the European Union. For them the Brexit scenario means another Scottish referendum and voting ‘Yes’ to independence in Europe.

The Scottish Conservatives and Ruth Davidson, are quite clear on the matter. Their one overwhelming message is ‘No’ to another referendum under any circumstances and ‘No’ to independence were one to be held. They want the UK to Remain in the EU but for them, England is far more important and the British Union is the one that matters most of all. Davidson states that the EU represents 16% of Scotland’s trade; the rest of the UK 60%. That this may not make sense (as trade is not an either/or choice) does not matter, as it is an effective way of communicating her judgment.

What choice should Scottish Labour make? It found itself in the traditional constitutional centre, where life was once safe. Culturally it was always a conservative Unionist party with a philistine, ‘practical’ approach to power; personified, say, by John Reid (now Lord Reid of G4S). But it is no longer beholden to Westminster's monarchist cloth and bigger boys are to be found in Brussels. Where should an ambitious Labour Scot look for advancement? Those in Scottish Labour who are less hidebound and more internationalist are naturally attracted to Europe; indeed, Scotland is historically a more European society than England. That Scottish Labour wants both Britain and the EU is now natural, so much so that the last thing it wants is to chose between them. Labour’s new young leader Kezia Dugdale was pressed sympathetically and skilfully by Mary Riddell to confront the painful consequence of the Brexit Scenario, in an interview with the Fabian Review. You can see the fatal influence of the referendum at work:

As Nicola Sturgeon has made clear, if Scotland were to back EU membership – an outcome which looks certain – while the UK as whole voted for Brexit, then another independence referendum might be inevitable. Were that to happen, then would Dugdale do all she could to hold the Union together, or might she campaign to stay in the EU and so protect the advantages that membership brings to Scotland?

“I just don’t see an issue with that. You can argue for two unions at the same time.” But not, I suggest, if the referendum is lost and Scotland wishes independently to rejoin the EU. “Yes … complicated. I see tremendous benefits from the EU to Scotland, so I would do whatever I could to preserve and promote that. The same argument applies to the UK. I would very much like both those unions to stay.” But would her first loyalty be keeping the UK together?

“I’ve never contemplated that. I really wouldn’t like to choose, because what I want to do is the best possible thing for Scotland. [I would be] putting Scotland first,” she says, pointing out that some have argued that a solo Scottish re-entry to the EU might prove too difficult. But if such claims (decried by Sturgeon as “nonsense”) proved unfounded, might Dugdale argue, for Scotland’s sake, against the UK Union? “Possibly. It’s not inconceivable,” she says, so offering an unprecedented hint that the Union might not long survive a vote for Brexit.

Ah, honesty in politics! The prize for keeping an open mind was humiliation. Dugdale was immediately set upon by the Labour hierarchy and forced to backtrack, as the BBC reported, “she later insisted she would vote to stay in the UK in any future referendum”. But the reality was revealed. Meanwhile, in the spirit of Corbyn, Dugdale had Scottish Labour propose a modest increase in taxation to improve social spending. You can only proclaim your intention to raise taxes in advance if voters are wedded to your overall project and believe you capable of its delivery. Labour support fled in both directions, to the right and the left. Those who, for whatever reason, are wedded to the United Kingdom and had got the most terrible fright in the independence referendum, shifted to the non-toxic Conservatives. Those who favoured keeping Scotland in Europe at all costs saw no reason not to vote SNP.

Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour’s former deputy leader, who lost his Glasgow seat in the Westminster parliament last year and was selected from the list vote for a Labour seat in Holyrood on 6 May, said the party had come third behind the Tories chiefly because of “hundreds of thousands of former Labour voters who were still focused on the country’s future in the UK”. It was the Brexit scenario that made this such a live issue. The Guardian reports that Sarwar said finding a middle way between nationalism and unionism was the “fundamental challenge” still facing the party,

We tried perhaps too early to move past the referendum. [I] don’t think the electorate is there yet. People are still thinking about the yes or no question…. Up against the binary situation where we have unionism versus nationalism, that’s a really difficult question for the Labour party… The reality is we are not comfortable nationalists and we are not comfortable unionists.

Unless all the nations of the UK are offered some form of fully federal government, in which people can be comfortable nationalists while being comfortably in the Union, Scotland will vote to leave when the next independence referendum comes around in twenty years or so - or if there is Brexit.

I’ll risk repeating myself, as with so much noise of falling edifices it’s hard to get a feel of the way the ground is shifting. If there had not been a referendum on membership of the EU, then the Scottish Conservatives going on about the union would have made them seem obsessive and fighting old battles, while the SNP arguing about another referendum would have demonstrated an inability to accept the people’s verdict and made them appear divided. In these circumstances, Scottish Labour would have appeared cool and even progressive and would have retained its place as the main alternative to the SNP as Scotland’s ‘party of the union’. The Brexit scenario upended this. It justified the SNP saying if it happened they would call on the Scottish people to claim their independent right to stay in the EU. It therefore presented a real threat to the union for the Conservatives to rally people against. In these circumstances, with many of its voters having voted Yes to independence and many having voted No, Labour was in an impossible position. It was torn apart, unable to define itself under the pressure of the Brexit scenario.

A moving description of the pain can be found in Chris Creegan’s blog. He concludes that Labour in Scotland, “needs a new national narrative”. Meaning? He suggests, “a position based on a new federal settlement which offers some Yes and some No voters a different place to regroup… It’s a tricky and slippery landscape for sure…”. As Sartre said, untranslatably, “Glissez, mortels, n'appuyez pas,”

Outside Scotland, the rest of the UK (now becoming known as rUK thanks to twitter’s love of compression) is also a slippery landscape for Westminster Labour. It too needs a new national narrative. Only what country is its nation? When he fought his campaign for the leadership Jeremy Corbyn was a hit with Labour supporters north of the border and it looked as if he was the man who could bring Scotland back to the Labour fold. The Daily Record, reported that his “rallies in Scotland last week were breathtaking. In Dundee, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, there was a sense of optimism that would have been unimaginable when Labour suffered its general election disaster in May”. The Record became the only newspaper in the UK to back him apart from the Morning Star (for which Corbyn was a contributor).   

TODAY the Daily Record backs Jeremy Corbyn to be the next Labour leader – for the sake of our nation.

We believe he best represents the core Labour values needed to build a fairer country and improve the lives of ordinary Scots.

Corbyn’s anti-austerity message inspires people and restores their faith that a better way is possible.

Any Labour member serious about power knows that without Scotland they may never govern again, certainly not on their own. If Scotland is less New Labour than rUK, maybe Corbyn is the man to bring back its voters to Labour, so essential to restoring its strength in Westminster. But when he returned this spring for the election campaign to Scotland’s parliament, he did not set voters alight in the way the Record had hoped. With little empathy for the rise of civic nationalism and so far incapable of offering a federal solution, Corbyn found it impossible to win Scotland ‘back’ to Labour. The curse of Brexit also deprived Labour's new Westminster leader of the prize that was probably essential for him to secure his position.

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