There are times when political events read like a modern history exam question: Discuss the circumstances that led to the rise of Scottish independence, with particular reference to the SNP’s narrow victory in the 2007 election; the collapse of Gordon Brown’s authority after the aborted UK general election; and the collapse of Wendy Alexander’s call for a referendum on independence. The failed Wendyrendum is clearly a defining moment in Labour’s disintegration in Scotland.
By proposing a referendum, and then being forced by Gordon Brown to retract it, Wendy Alexander handed the SNP a double bonus. The idea of a referendum has been legitimised, and Labour in Scotland’s subservience to its London masters has been confirmed. Talk about an own goal – this like holding a penalty shoot out in your own box.
Most people in Scotland will now think a referendum is inevitable if even Labour is talking about it. And by trying to defy Gordon Brown’s authority, and then being firmly put in her place, Wendy Alexander has offered herself as a living metaphor of Scotland’s place in the Union. Some wits have even suggested that Wendy Alexander is a closet nationalist who has been working for the independence cause all along. Alex Salmond couldn’t possibly have expected better of his opposition leader if he had appointed her himself. Of course, she isn’t an SNP mole; but in one sense Wendy – who is a small ‘n’ nationalist like Donald Dewar – may have unconsciously been following the logic of Scottish independence.
Labour’s situation is dire in Scotland, and something drastic had to be done. Perhaps not this drastic, but certainly things couldn’t just continue as before, with Alex Salmond being allowed to make the political weather in Scotland and making independence respectable. Labour had to strike out on its own, become more assertively Scottish, more autonomous, more detached from London.
This was clearly what she was trying to do in standing up to Brown, and it is actually not so different to what the Welsh Labour leader, Rhodri Morgan, has been doing in Wales. In Cardiff, Labour has actually entered a coalition with the nationalist Plaid Cymru, Wendy could reasonably argue that if Morgan can get into bed with the nationalists, why shouldn’t she call a vote on independence which Labour would almost certainly win?
However, she came up against the brick wall of her own lack of constitutional authority. Wendy Alexander is only the leader of the Labour group of MSPs in Holyrood, she is not the leader of the party in Scotland, Gordon Brown is. Consequently, she was always liable to be over-ruled by him after he came under pressure from Westminster MPs. Brown couldn’t just say it was “a matter for the Scottish leader to decide” because it isn’t – he is her boss and collectively responsible for her actions.
But to return to our original exam question: has independence really been brought any closer as a result of the chaos of the last ten days? Or are we simply back to the status quo ante, with no majority in the Scottish parliament for the SNP’s referendum bill? Labour has now resiled on its commitment to “support any referendum on independence” as the chairman of the Holyrood Labour Group, Duncan McNeil, put it last week. We are now told that the Wendyrendum was just a bluff, a tease, and that Labour always intended to vote against the SNP’s bill for a referendum in 2010. The other parties won’t change their minds, which means that the numbers still don’t stack up for Alex Salmond.
Well, numerically that may be the case, but politically I think the climate has changed. It is the decomposition of Scotland’s traditional party of choice, Labour, that is what we have to watch. The way things are going, the SNP may be about to welcome some new recruits. After all, what is there to stay for? Labour is a laughing stock in Holyrood, Gordon Brown is discredited and on his way out, the Tories are on their way in in Westminster. The only party, north or south, which appears to be interested in promoting recognisably Labour policies on health, council housing, education, Trident etc, is the Scottish National Party.
Many Labour party people in Scotland feel a sense of bewildered betrayal at Gordon Brown following the 10p tax debacle. Far from making a decisive break with Blairism, he seems tobe drifting even further to the right, taking his policy agenda direct from Daily Mail editorials. Building a social democratic Scottish National Party, may now be the best, perhaps the only way of ensuring that the soul of the old Scottish Labour Party lives on.
What Alex Salmond needs to do now to hasten Labour’s disintegration is to show that he is sincere in seeking a social democratic Scotland, and that he is no longer a separatist. The SNP have shown that they can implement Labour policies; now they have to show that independence does not mean cutting Scotland off from the world. Salmond realises this, of course, which is why he has been so keen to emphasise his willingness to co-operated with London on common issues, like terrorism, foot and mouth, the environment, the Grangemouth dispute, joint ministerial committees.
Salmond intends to further domesticate the idea of independence by emphasising the enduring “social union” with England, through common institutions like the Monarchy, the NHS, even the armed forces. (At the Edinburgh military Tattoo, Salmond took the salute from the Queen’s regiments and led the crowd in singing “God Save the Queen”). The SNP is in the process of redefining independence as a new kind of union – a coming together of the various nations that make up the British Isles, including possibly the Republic of Ireland.
If the SNP can demonstrate that independence is not some leap in the dark, but a natural progression from Holyrood, and that Scotland will still share a common destiny with the other nations of the UK, then he will have gone a long way to counter the charge of separatism.
Following Wendy’s double u-turn, the Alex Salmond probably will not be able to get a referendum in 2010. But he has probably already won the 2011 Holyrood election given Labour’s disarray. By then the process of ‘normalising’ independence might be well advanced. The Calman Commission will have proposed greater powers for Holyrood which will further legitimise the idea of extending devolution. And with a Tory government in Westminster possibly curbing the voting rights of Scottish MPs, the scene may be set for a replay of the 1997 devolution referendum some time after 2012. And the rest, as they say, is history.