Scottish Labour: Someone doesn’t care if the house burns down

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In the second on series of articles examining the dilemas of the independence movement, former Yes campaigner and Labour activist Hollie Hollingworth says some in Scottish Labour seem intent on torching the party. Instead, they should find a route away from its predicament through a democratic and radical alternative.

On 15 of October 2012, the UK Prime Minister and the Scottish First Minister signed a document comprising a memorandum of understanding and a Section 30 order, which would allow the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a legal referendum on Scottish Independence, to be known by the shorthand “The Edinburgh Agreement.”

Cut to 7 years latter and its two signatories cut a distant figure. David Cameron is banished to the lonely after-dinner speaker circuit. Alex Salmond is no doubt plotting his revenge somewhere. But the way that Scots consider and discuss our constitutional future has not advanced much.

Phrases like ‘Respect the result’ and ‘Respect the Mandate’, indeed words like ‘respect’ and ‘mandate’ have lost all meaning. At times, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the debate is circular and futile. Activists who campaigned for Better Together remember the time as a confrontational, nerve-wracking one that is marred by aggressive confrontations with screaming members of the public.

Read another angle: Ben Wray on the Janus-faced SNP leadership

Quite different to my experience being a student Yes and Women for Independence activist which was a wonderful one, shared with good comrades and friends. I think I spent as much time in the pub talking to other Yes voters as I did trying to convince others to vote for Scottish Independence.

It’s time for those who found their ideological forever home within this polarised dynamic to admit that they exist in a constitutional echo chamber. When considered on its own this is not a particularly bad thing, it can be useful to have a basically supportive community to share ideas with. But not if we are only repeating the limitations of debates past.

I think there will and should be another opportunity for Scotland to vote on full Independence. What follows is an attempt as a Labour member to break through the old debates and positions, with specific reference to the failure of Scottish Labour to comprehend the real dimensions of the constitutional debate.

Labour, the constitution and the flaw in the plan

The discussion I have heard and taken part in with Labour members around Indyref2 has been very limited. There is a Campaign for Radical Democracy within the Labour party, who advocate a shift in position within the party away from staunch unionism to pro-referendum, as an acknowledgement that many people who should be voting Labour early and often are disappointed in the way that Labour has engaged with this debate. Members of our group are varied in their opinions of whether Scotland should separate from the UK.

Those in the wider party who oppose another independence referendum range from those who treat the issue as a vacuous annoyance to those who speak of 2014 with the hushed, choked manner of people who have seen ‘Nam. While I can empathise with those who do not wish to repeat what for them was a miserable experience, I will never agree to simply refuse to referendums as a legitimate democratic process.

They can be that, if done right. It is not the role of Labour to promote Scottish Independence, but it is Labour tradition to challenge current power structures and advocate for the decentralisation of legislatures. From the election of Keir Hardie; to Brand, Boyack and the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly; to the Scottish Constitutional Convention, there is a precedent for Labour not only holding a position, but driving change on these issues. Labour must, once again, be clear that it is at the forefront of challenging power as it currently exists, whether that power is Westminster or Holyrood.

This need is crystal clear to me as someone who voted Yes in 2014 because of values and ideology I still hold. I am alarmed at the attitude of senior elected members of Scottish Labour who appear to be willing to limit the potential of the party by building a platform of weak social democrat policy with Union Jack bunting strewn on it. Steering the conversation toward a UK Constitutional Convention (to happen in 2024 at the earliest unless I’m missing something) without public affirmation is an inexplicable attempt to call in public trust that hasn’t existed in Scotland since 2007.

It is not normal behaviour for a party that holds the ultimate goal of forming an administration to not actively appeal to its bread and butter vote. Someone, somewhere, doesn’t care if the house burns down, just as long as they can stand in the centre of the pile of ashes.

That someone isn’t Richard Leonard, whose proposal of a multi-question referendum was coldly killed at February’s SEC meeting. So what could happen next? Many have been following with interest the Citizens Assembly of Scotland.

Citizens Assemblies – a way forward?

The Government has commissioned this assembly, with the first meetings having taken place in October, which involves 100 citizens selected by an external party to be as reflective as possible of Scottish society to establish how the government can better involve people in decision making.

The intended result of this exercise when the weekend sessions are concluded (sessions have been suspended as mass gatherings are banned) will be that the Chairs of the Assembly will present a vision of how decision making in Scotland should look. It would be difficult to argue that the result of this could not or should not be the basis for outright change, or a national referendum to confirm the public’s agreement with the outcome.

In February 2020, the First Minister confirmed that she wants to establish another Scottish Constitutional Convention. This exercise, if carried out in good faith and in a balanced way, could achieve a collegiate outcome. But this convention can’t simply be a replica of the Parliament, or even of the first convention which focused heavily on the participation of business and industry.

A limited number of politicians and private interest parties, with a much larger showing of organisations that represent the interests of people and causes would be a start; with religious leaders, poverty, age and disability campaigners, women’s organisations and environmental groups just a few.

This, again, may result in a proposal that leads to a referendum and if done well and sensitively, could even be co-operative.

A matter of when rather than if

Some, including Joanna Cherry QC MP, would argue that it is not clear in law that the UK Government must give permission to hold a referendum, though cooperation is much more desirable than the opposite. All the same, the present leadership of the SNP have ruled out a referendum that is not formally agreed between the Scottish and UK governments, much to the displeasure of some in their ranks.

Should Nicola Sturgeon decide to kick up her heels and buy a holiday home in Catalonia any time soon, the way forward for the SNP will very much depend on who succeeds her. Cherry may play coy now but a bombastic, illegal wildcat referendum followed by a legal challenge in the UK Supreme Court seems very much like her developing style.

As long as the SNP continue to be the dominant party in Scottish Politics, our political discussion and debate will return time and again to the constitution. Bleating that Nicola needs to get on with the day job does not make electoral gains. A confident and comfortable challenge to the framing even of our constitutional debate will achieve much more, much quicker especially moving forward into very difficult economic circumstances. Economic and social good can and must go hand in hand with greater power for citizens. What this means will continue to be discussed and Labour must rearrange its stall before its voter base evaporates.

You may also be interested in ...

Enjoy reading this article?
Join our mailing list
Subscribe now