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1983 and me. Thought’s on Labour’s greatest defeat.

When Labour unveiled its radical and ambitious manifesto four weeks ago, it looked as if anything was possible. A green revolution, nationalisation of the utilities, redistribution of wealth. In the end it turned out to be the second longest suicide note in history as the dream died in Labour’s greatest electoral defeat since1983..

In Scotland, only one Labour seat remains – the anti-Corbyn rebel Ian Murray in Edinburgh South. It was a massive punch in the gut for Labour’s youthful idealists in their Twitter bubble, who can’t understand why working class people would vote for an Eton-educated Tory.

Hopes that a hung parliament would deliver a Scottish independence referendum, with the SNP striking a deal with Labour, died on Thursday night. It was curtains too for the Corbyn project. Though there will likely be a continuing civil war in the Labour Party over the succession. Shades again of the 1980s.

1983 was the first general election I covered, so there was a distinct sense of having been through this movie before. Indeed, I wrote in the Herald only three weeks ago, that Labour’s manifesto might end up as another “longest suicide note in history”. That was how Labour’s 1983 effort was famously described by the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman .

Many Labour supporters thought it was somehow morally wrong to criticise that document, with its intergalactic spending plans improbably financed by a 5% tax hike on people earning over £80,000. Imperviousness to constructive criticism has been one of the hallmarks of Corbynism. Labour chose to listen to the hyperventilating keyboard warriors on Twitter who attack anyone deviating from the line as a “Tory shill”.

Yet, it should have been clear to everyone that there was something deeply suspect about Labour’s multiple manifesto give-aways. The 5% pay hike for public sector workers, free broadband, cheap rail fares, the four day week, the belated bung of £53bn to the Waspi women. This wasn’t social democracy, it was retail politics gone mad. It culminated in Labour’s promise that every family would be £6,700 better off. People just aren’t that stupid.

If Labour had confined itself to a few well-defined and credible offers on health spending, tuition fees and rail nationalisation, it might have worked. That’s what the Tories did, with their simple message of new hospitals and more nurses. However, the manifesto was only part of Labour’s problem. Corbyn was also sunk by his policy, or lack of it, on Brexit.

How Labour thought that they could win with their leader pretending to have no view on the biggest issue facing the country in half a century defies belief. Again, the guardians of the galaxy on social media insisted that: “he’s just being an honest broker…keeping options open…uniting the country”. Nonsense. It was an irresponsible abdication of leadership.

Labour’s policy on Brexit was as dishonest as it was cynical. Dishonest: because everyone knew that Jeremy Corbyn was a lifelong opponent of the European Union. Cynical: because Labour’s metropolitan Remainers hoped “constructive ambiguity” would fool provincial Brexit voters into believing that Mr Corbyn really would re-negotiate a better Brexit deal in three months. 

No one bought it. The Labour leader’s inability to say who would actually lead his Brexit negotiation, still less campaign for it, was one of the many facepalm moments in a campaign that left my face and palm red raw. Blaming BBC bias only made it worse. 

Of course, Mr Corbyn’s personality and style of politics was also a turn off, and the press made a lot of his past associations with IRA supporters and Hamas. But they’d tried that unsuccessfully in 2017. This time, the Labour leader somehow managed to be even more unpopular in Scotland than his bumptious Etonian Tory rival. How could that possibly be? Hadn’t John McDonnell all but promised a second independence referendum? Aren’t Scottish voters supposed to be more left wing? 

The aversion to Corbyn was mostly down to the national question. But I suspect many Scots shared with Labour voters in England an aversion to Mr Crobyn’s particular brand of London Labour politics. His sympathy, however justified, with the Palestinian cause, obscure LGBTQIA+ demands, and of course his views on immigration and defence. It left many patriotic provincial voters uncomfortable. 

This doesn’t mean that socially conservative Labour voters are all homophobes and racists. Polls repeatedly confirm that the vast majority of English, and Scots, voters harbour no ill will toward gay people or racial minorities. But they aren’t exactly passionate about transgender toilet arrangements or uncontrolled immigration. And millions voted for Brexit 

Thinly disguised contempt for working class Brexit voters was evident throughout the campaign. Labour-friendly comedians like Steve Coogan and Nish Kumar, condemned them as “ignorant” and racist. Did they think they weren’t listening?  

Labour activist on Twitter talked about the “white working class” as if they’re a lumpen mass of unaddressed bigotry. The Corbynite intellectual, Paul Mason, called the election: “a victory of the old over the young, racists over people of colour, selfishness over the planet”.  Not perhaps the best way to attract back core Labour voters in Blyth, Bolsover, Sedgefield.

What middle class intellectuals failed to understand is that, in post-crash Britain, the politics of nation has largely eclipsed the politics of class. The election results north and south of the Border may appear wildly different, but they are both expressions of populist nationalism.

  Brexit is essentially English nationalism. It is a revolt by people the writer David Goodhart calls the “somewheres”, in the provinces, against the remain-voting elites, or “anywheres”, in urban centres. “Somewheres” feel left out by globalisation, as their jobs have gone abroad and mass immigration has altered their communities.

Tories since Disreali have understood the potency of national identity as a unifying force. People who lack the mobility conferred by a university education tend to love their country. They have little else to hold on to in an age of insecurity and rapid change. Get Brexit Done was and English version of Make America Great Again. 

And though the politics are different, Brexit is not so far removed from what happened in Scotland during and after the financial crash. In 2014, the Scottish working classes in the housing estates and inner cities entered politics in unprecedented numbers to vote for independence.  The Yes campaign was inspired by feelings of national identity, community and Scots’ love of their country.  Plus the hope that an independent Scottish government would look after them better than remote Westminster. 

It may be naïve, it may be nationalistic, it certainly is populist. But identity is a powerful political mobiliser in an age of insecurity and mistrust. People want to belong; to feel that they are party of something bigger than themselves. National identity gives them that.

But the problem with nationalism is that tends to be exclusive. Scotland and England are expressing identity in different and contradictory ways – the former in a spirit of pro-European internationalism; the latter in a more inward-looking, nativist anti-Europeanism. These are irreconcilable opposites. 

Nicola Sturgeon has often said that she would like to drop the word “national” from the SNP’s name. She clearly feels uncomfortable with the politics of nationalism, despite having been an SNP supporter all her life. And she has good reason to be wary, given the behaviour of some European nationalist parties. 

Her task now will be to contain the fervour of her triumphant party and constructively channel their hatred English conservatism. It won’t be easy. Boris Johnson has provoked the Scots by ruling out any referendum for at least 5 years. Scotland is about to be dragged kicking and screaming out of Europe.

 The SNP surprised itself by almost repeating the Tsunami SNP surge of 2015. An astonishing achievement for Nicola Sturgeon and confirmation that Scotland and England are growing further apart faster.

When Boris Johnson hailed a victory for “one nation Conservatism” he inadvertently spoke the truth. It did apply in only one nation: England. Scotland is now, in a very real sense, another country. There may not be a referendum next year – Boris Johnson’s crushing majority in Westminster will see to that.  But something will have to give. 

Ms Sturgeon is a cautious politician, unlike her predecessor Alex Salmond, and will not tolerate civil disobedience or unconstitutional behaviour.  But like it or not, she has a fight on her hands. A national reckoning is coming. 

Resurgent Scottish nationalism, and the most unionist Prime Minister in Westminster since Margaret Thatcher, is an unstable and potentially explosive combination. Everything and anything is now possible, including a court battle over a Scottish referendum.  Nicola Sturgeon is demanding that Holyrood gets the power to call referendums. That won’t happen.

But don’t be surprised if Boris Johnson makes a blue-sky offer of federalism; he’s supported it in the past. As the UK leaves the European Union – the one certainty after Thursday – Boris Johnson will try to do a side deal with Scotland, as he did with the DUP. Just don’t expect it to be all that it seems.

A version of this article appeared in the Herald.   

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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