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independence referendum, politics, scotland

The losers take it all.






JOHANN LAMONT has resigned as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, accusing “dinosaurs” in UK Labour of undermining her leadership. London Labour she says, “must recognise that the Scottish Labour Party has to be autonomous and not just a branch office of a party based in London”. At first I thought that quote had been made up by the Nationalists.

Normally it is the losers in a referendum who descend into factional strife, but this time it is the victorious unionist parties who have collapsed into acrimonious disarray. First, Labour and the Conservatives fell out over David Cameron’s attempt to hijack the devolution process to lock Labour out of England. Now Labour has descended into what can only be described as civil war between Westminster and Holyrood. Not even Labour is Better Together.

Is Jim Murphy really going to parachute into this maelstrom as London’s man in Holyrood? Perhaps he’ll put on his egg-stained shirt again and begin another 100-town tour, looking for a seat.

Is brooding Gordon Brown going to stand for Holyrood as the father of the nation? He recently caused immense confusion by announcing that, despite his fondness for federalism, he regards devolution of income tax as a “Trojan horse” for independence. He’s just too big for Holyrood; I can’t see him hunched and scowling over one of the shiny desks playing second fiddle to Nicola Sturgeon.

Anas Sarwar seems to me the likeliest candidate for Labour’s poisoned chalice, even though he’s an MP. But he is divisive and confrontational, having described the SNP Government as a “dictatorship”. The agreeable and non-sectarian Kezia Dugdale, their education spokeswoman, would be the imaginative choice, but for that reason will almost certainly not be chosen.

But there will have to be a proper leadership contest, that’s for sure. And that is only going to open up the divisions between the UK party which just wants the Scotland problem fixed and a Scottish party that fears electoral oblivion next May.

It’s clear now that the Scottish Labour Party is moving, in spite of itself, towards devolution max. We could be about to see the emergence of an Independent Labour Party pledged to home rule.

Something has to be done, because Labour’s UK dinosaurs seem determined to keep fighting the last war. They have been attacking devo max as if it were synonymous with independence, banging on about oil revenues, indyref economics and the deficit. Labour sound as if they are still in Better Together with the Tories, which is a bad place to be. The UK party doesn’t seem to realise that devo max is by far the preferred option of Scottish voters and is the most stable solution.

The Scottish Labour leader’s departure also throws into confusion the Smith Commission that is supposed to be coming to an agreement on more powers for Holyrood by the end of next month.

Lamont’s Devolution Commission proposed fiscal devolution, but was overruled last year by Labour MPs in Westminster who feared loss of power for them. Now the Scottish Labour representatives on the Smith Commission have no idea what Labour’s policy is going to be – and who do they speak to for guidance?

Smith will, of course, deliver something well short of what could be described as devo max. Yet there could have been a chance for Labour to reassert its hold on Scottish politics. Scots have said by a margin of nearly two to one that they want to see all important decisions on tax and welfare taken in Scotland.

No wonder Alex Salmond has started dropping hints about a political comeback – another final farewell tour of Westminster from the Frank Sinatra of nationalist politics. He told BBC’s Question Time that he might stand as an MP at Westminster at the next General Election.

It’s an attractive idea. Salmond is still a big personality and is back to his old combative form. If he stood in the Gordon seat being vacated by the retiring Liberal Democrat MP, Malcolm Bruce, he has a very good chance of winning.

Just imagine: Salmond rides into Westminster next May with a block of 20 SNP MPs, and perhaps a Green MP too, wiping out the LibDems, outflanking Labour on the Left and taking the fight to the Tories. It is not inconceivable that, in a hung parliament, the SNP might even hold the balance of power. That would be hilarious: Ed Miliband depending on Salmond’s goodwill to secure the government of the United Kingdom. Could Salmond be the next deputy prime minister of the UK?

OK, before we get carried away, polling expert Professor John Curtice points out that there are no Labour seats in which the SNP is less than 10 points behind. And while the SNP have shown a swing of 15% in polls for Westminster voting intentions, in the only comprehensive opinion polls on the General Election they are still behind Labour.

Hence the proposal of a Yes alliance in May – to translate the Yes campaign into a home rule alliance for maximum devolution of power. And it might just happen. The electoral alliance already has the support of at least two of the candidates for the SNP deputy leadership. In Edinburgh, SNP and Green activists have been examining the numbers and wondering if they could form a tactical alliance to remove Labour MPs in the city.

It is also possible that independents could be fielded in key seats. Could the former BBC presenter Lesley Riddoch, for example, stand against LibDem Lord Thurso in Caithness and Sutherland, where the majority is less than the SNP vote? The model would be the way journalist Martin Bell won Tatton as an anti-sleaze candidate in 1997.

Some 1.6 million Scots, in the face of all the threats and warnings from the media and the Westminster establishment, voted for independence. There has never been an explicitly nationalist political movement of this scale ever before in modern Scottish history. The SNP electoral landslide in 2011 was delivered not by people voting for independence but against a lacklustre Labour Party. Somehow, in the crucible of the referendum campaign, a fundamental shift has taken place in Scottish attitudes towards independence.

There have been mass demonstrations and events by independence supporters almost every weekend since the referendum. The SNP’s membership has more than tripled to 84,000. And Salmond senses that the constitutional debate has moved south, and that he can not only fight Scotland’s corner, but also argue the case for English regional devolution as he did on Question Time.

It has been an extraordinary recovery. I was at the Yes Scotland “victory” party in Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth exhibition centre at 6.20am on September 19 when Salmond conceded defeat in the referendum. He looked exhausted, deflated, humbled. Now the twinkle is back in the eye, he is dominating the discussion and teasing about yet another Westminster comeback. He even looks 10 years younger. He realised he has passed his sell-by date in Scotland – but it seems as if there is a useful job to do in Westminster, exposing what he sees as the hypocrisy of the Westminster parties.

Labour keep reminding the Yes campaign that it lost, telling nationalists to “get over it” and “move on”. But curiously, they are the ones who seem stuck, as even the arch-Labour unionist John McTernan observed in The Scotsman last week: “The referendum losers are strutting around like victors and the winners look like battered and bruised losers.”

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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