Where does Labour go from here?


by Andrew Barr

Ever since the Scottish Elections in May there has been much discussion amongst Unionists of a Labour fightback north of the border.  But just how likely is this prospect in the changing era of Scottish politics, and, if successful, how long would it last?

During the aftermath of June’s Inverclyde by-election Labour prematurely declared its fightback had already begun.  Bearing in mind that the Labour majority had halved and the SNP vote had almost doubled at the Inverclyde polls, this proclamation seemed to overlook Scotland’s changing political landscapes and the new dearth of old heartlands and the dissolution of past Scottish loyalties.


Labour’s hopes of such a fightback seem to centre on the view that Scottish politics is fought on an election-by-election basis rather than a broader, more evolutionary national narrative.  This is not the case.  Instead of alternating governments between Labour and the Conservatives as in English politics, Scotland is seeing a more linear and long-lasting change in its opinions and trends.  And for the parties of Union that increasingly Nationalist narrative is sought to be remedied by the promises of new Scottish policy and of further devolution.

Most recently the former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, once bitterly opposed to devolution, proposed that Westminster devolve every power it could in order to save the Union.  “Scottish ambition,” he said, “is fraying English tolerance.”  But what happens when Westminster has devolved every last power and played every last trick in the book and Nationalism remains intact?  Taking Scotland to the brink of independence will not diminish the independence cause.

Even Labour, once the party of devolution and Donald Dewar, did not convert to home rule until it began to lose votes to the Nationalists.  It was a move the Labour Home Secretary at the time willingly admitted had not been made in order to strengthen British relations but only to secure power.  And therein lies the problem: the parties of Union evolve for the prevention of independence rather than the progression of Scottish society.  Scotland is more likened to a territory on the conqueror’s board game than a real land of real people in need of change.

The problem for the Union now is that, given Scotland is below the democratic standard of nationhood, independence will always remain the ultimate pro-Scotland stance until such a Union is dissolved.  Independence is an end to one thing that must be obtained before the beginning of another; such is the extent of Scotland’s constitutional abnormality.  There is no Unionist solution which offers greater democracy than the rights of sovereignty being reinstated to the people.  The illusion of pro-Scotland Unionism can and will win back temporary votes. But it is not ever-lasting.  It slows Nationalism down but does not halt its progression.  Something must dry up or run out somewhere along the line.

If devolution falls short of the people’s sovereign right then it betrays its own principle and cause for self-determination.  If devolved matters should be praised then reserved matters should be questioned.  If we are to define democracy as a nation governed by its people then that definition must be universal.  This is not the whim of romantic nationhood but the practical, fair, and respectful way in which all the world’s nations should coexist.

As Alex Salmond once said, “Labour’s devolution bus runs on SNP petrol.” The bus, it seems, is at last running out of road.