Johann Lamont will see the light

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By Mark McNaught

Johann Lamont’s speech to the 2013 Scottish Labour conference vividly illustrates the contradiction between the party leadership’s desire to remain in the UK and any possibility of accomplishing, in the post-Thatcher era, any of the social objectives Labour has historically advocated.

If this is the most finely honed argument she can come up with for Scotland remaining in the UK, ‘Better Together’ has lost, and Scots will vote for independence in 2014.  It is hard to believe that even she finds it credible.

By Mark McNaught

Johann Lamont’s speech to the 2013 Scottish Labour conference vividly illustrates the contradiction between the party leadership’s desire to remain in the UK and any possibility of accomplishing, in the post-Thatcher era, any of the social objectives Labour has historically advocated.

If this is the most finely honed argument she can come up with for Scotland remaining in the UK, ‘Better Together’ has lost, and Scots will vote for independence in 2014.  It is hard to believe that even she finds it credible.

In decrying the ‘narrow nationalism’ of the SNP purportedly putting Scotland’s needs ‘on pause’ pending a referendum, she reveals her bitterness and myopia.  It is clear that she cannot see beyond Alex Salmond and the SNP to consider a broader Scotland which supports independence and the opportunities offered by it to build a better society.

Her central argument for remaining in the UK rests on very thin ice, and if she truly wants her party to support Unionism she may wish to consider skating away before it plunges through. While affirming that “sovereignty lies with the Scottish people”, she asserts that “we choose to be in partnership with our neighbours and that means we should be respectful to our neighbours because this is a partnership. And so I do not want a settlement that reduces Scotland’s influence in Westminster one iota.”

Ummm … where to begin?

First of all, no Scot alive ‘chose’ to be in the United Kingdom, and the act of Union in 1707 was not democratically ratified by referendum.  What she may see as a ‘partnership’ is far from voluntary, and numerically speaking results in the dominance of the south-east of England over the rest of the UK.  The 2014 referendum gives Scots an opportunity to change the status quo for the better and dissolve the current dysfunctional relationship.

While ‘respect’ is an admirable attribute, it is not a reason to remain in the Union, especially when it is not reciprocal. Johann Lamont would be ill-advised to pursue this line of argument, because her Westminster colleagues do not seem to respect her devolutionary wishes, let alone those of Scotland.  Scotland will be better respected by the UK after independence, when Scotland will relate to the UK as equals rather than subordinates.

As to the reduction of Scotland’s influence in Westminster; what influence?  Scottish voters have not influenced the overall Westminster majority in the post-war period.  Putting countless other examples aside, was her Labour party influential enough to get even her Westminster colleagues to agree on her stillborn tax devolution proposals?

If she cannot even get her own party’s support, what remote possibility is there of also getting the support of the Tories and Liberal Democrats for such proposals, so that Scots will have some idea of what further powers would be devolved after a ‘no’ vote, as promised?

Apparently, the ‘Better Together’ cross-party alliance does not sufficiently desire Scotland to remain in the UK enough to develop binding devolutionary changes enacted in the event of a ‘no’ vote, so Scots know what they are choosing.  This dysfunctional marriage of convenience, between parties who normally are at loggerheads, will be their undoing.

These dead-on-arrival devolution proposals may actually be immaterial to Johann Lamont, because she goes on to assert that the only powers she wants are those which Alex Salmond already holds, to accomplish improvements in the social programs in the current constitutional arrangement.  Ms Lamont assures us that “I am well aware that you don’t appease lions by throwing more Christians at them. And I will not walk an inch down the road to independence.”

However, through her devolution proposal she recognises that greater taxing powers are crucial to pursuing social policies, thereby resulting in more, yes, independence.  If more income tax powers are appropriate, why not the totality of oil, gas, and whisky revenues? If Scots are indeed sovereign as Ms Lamont holds, why do they not deserve to fully benefit from all that which is produced in their territorial waters and country?

What she fails to grasp is that if she is not willing to walk ‘an inch’ down that road, Scotland goes nowhere, particularly in healing, growing, and ultimately prospering in the wake of Thatcherite economic brutality, which is clearly far from over.

In many ways, the SNP has pursued policies much more in keeping with what the Labour party used to represent, and which ‘New Labour’ has abandoned.  It is not that Alex Salmond is holding social progress ransom to independence.  It is rather that Scotland does not enjoy the constitutional arrangements necessary to effect this positive change on a broad scale.

This reality must be frustrating for Johann Lamont, who wishes to protect the ‘power’ of her Westminster colleagues by belittling the referendum by proxy through the SNP and Alex Salmond.  However, in doing so she is short-changing Scotland’s future.  As more and more socially democratic Scots are realising, independence is the only way to guarantee that they have the tools to build a better Scotland.

The vast majority of Labour supporters will come to see that the only way to build a more egalitarian, socially just Scotland in our lifetimes is to vote for independence.  I honestly believe Ms Lamont will come to see that her socialist roots are more important than the dysfunctional UK, but I realise she must take the position dictated by her Westminster superiors.

It may be after a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, but maybe, just maybe, Johann Lamont will embrace the possibility that she one day could become the Prime Minister of an independent Scotland.  Her former Westminster colleagues can run for Parliament in Scotland, then Labour can eventually win a majority and have a realistic chance of accomplishing their goals for a more socially just Scotland.

Hopefully, she will see the light before that and constructively work for independence.


Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.