JOHN McDONNELL’S CONTRIBUTION to the 2019 Edinburgh Festival could hardly have shaken up the goldfish bowl of Scottish politics more effectively. In stating that a UK Labour government would not seek to block a second independence referendum where a consistent majority of Parliament and people are in favour, our future Chancellor confirmed again that a Corbyn-led administration will govern like no other in British history. When tests of democratic values arise, the party will refer to consistent principle rather than political expediency.
A well-rehearsed media storm ensued. All very predictable and not a little jaded. But the headline froth was given an additional, fleeting jolt of life by the cry of collective anguish which followed from the usual suspects of the Scottish Labour Party’s (SLP) unrepentant right. A group of signatories, including Ian Murray MP, put their names to a letter condemning McDonnell’s intervention. “The answer to nationalism”, they opined, “is not more nationalism.”
Where to start? Many of the signatories are veterans of the SLP’s Better Together campaign, a strategic folly so damaging that years later the SNP reach for it still as a political comfort blanket whenever Richard Leonard looks to be making headway in re-establishing the party’s radical credentials. The issue for the signatories is not ‘nationalism’ per se. They like nationalism just fine, as long as it is consistent with an allegiance to an unreformed British state and constitution many decades past their sell-by dates.
The signatories doubled down on their despair. Leonard was urged to “stand up” to Corbyn, while McDonnell was directed to “apologise” to Richard. This from people who have made it their business to criticise Leonard’s stewardship at every opportunity, and for whom the direction of travel the SLP has adopted since his election has been nothing short of a catastrophe.
Let’s consider the state whose integrity Murray et al are at pains to defend. The Lords exists in a feudal aspic of inherited privilege and unaccountability. Senior civil servants and military officials have publicly signalled their willingness to sabotage the next Labour government. The state broadcaster, disproportionately staffed at its highest echelons by elite private school graduates and ex-Tory Party staff, has long made evident its open antipathy to Corbyn and the shadow cabinet. The Institute for Statecraft was recently exposed as using taxpayers’ money to promote tweets calling Corbyn a “useful idiot” who helped the Kremlin cause. State security services routinely surveil and criminalise trade unionists and civil society campaigners. You don’t have to be familiar with the ruling class disruption fictionalised in Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup to believe that the state as presently constructed would present a significant institutional barrier to the democratic mandate of a Labour government.
In contrast, Richard Leonard has long promoted a federal solution to the antiquated provisions of the UK’s uncodified constitution. It is that constitution and the state it underwrites that all those quick to condemn McDonnell seek to preserve. Our position is clear - we oppose independence and see no need for a second referendum. We are a class-based party of social justice, not national identity. But if a majority of Parliament and people demand a second say on their constitutional relationship with the UK, we will not ignore them.
Corbyn appointed Pauline Bryan to the House of Lords for the express purpose of leading a re-imagining of the British state. Pauline has collaborated with Richard on Red Paper Collective publications for many years. A UK Labour government committed to the most far-reaching programme of economic and political democracy in British history would look more than a little inconsistent if it chose to defy the settled will of the Scottish people and Parliament.
Richard had previously locked himself into a difficult position to defend in any and all circumstances - namely, that the SLP would oppose a second referendum come what may. In principle, whether to hold a referendum should be a decision for the Scottish Parliament, consistent with the Claim of Right which Labour has supported for 30 years and which confirms that the Scottish people have the right to determine their own future. The question at issue is how the UK Parliament should respond to a request from the Scottish Parliament, so it is reasonable that the UK party should decide on this.
There is a good deal of sympathy for Richard Leonard on the party’s left. His contrasting of ‘economic self determination’ with the tepid constitutionalism of the SNP articulates values prioritised by the vast majority of SLP activists. But while John’s statement undoubtedly placed Richard in an awkward position, this was a boil we had to lance.
The SNP’s arsenal of grievances has just had its most potent weapon decommissioned. No longer can nasty ‘Westmonster’ be accused of standing in the path of another referendum. We have demonstrated that against the backdrop of a radical Labour government we are content to allow another referendum to take place, this time on our terms.
Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘New Labour in a kilt’ politics have many things in common with the right of our party. But one continuity stands out above all others - both are kept awake at nights by the prospect of a Corbyn-led government. Despite going unremarked on by a commentariat more comfortable with confected feuds, an unspoken alliance exists between centrists determined, for their own party or factional interests, to frustrate the election of a government whose radical agenda eclipses the tepid ambitions of both camps.
With a Labour government in office, the SNP will have a hard time maintaining the strategically practised pessimism of an eternal Tory England to which Scotland is unjustly tethered. It will be the reality of a socialist administration, rather than the reheated patriotism of the ‘kamikaze unionists,’ which in the event of another referendum will convince Scottish voters to stay in a radically reformed union, no longer governed by a Tory Party happy to see the UK splinter on the altar of a No Deal Brexit.
Co-convenor Edinburgh CFS/Momentum, and Edinburgh North and Leith CLP executive