Jeremy Corbyn, Labour and Scottish Independence

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, November 17th 2019

This week Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s trip to Scotland made the headlines – and not for positive reasons. Corbyn’s position in less than 24 hours changed more than once on independence.

First, he shifted from his previous position of not having an independence referendum in the ‘early years’ of a Labour Government, indicating that a vote would not take place in ‘the first term’ of an administration. Then when this was seen as the significant shift it was, he rowed back and returned to the first position, stating that a vote would not happen in the ‘early years.’ But he was not finished there and later commented that he would not allow a vote ‘in the first two years’ of Labour in office.

All of this left people confused and questioning the intentions behind the above. This on a day when Boris Johnson’s reputation sank further as he faced the fury of people affected by the Yorkshire floods, which could have led the news bulletins uncontested.

It is not as if we haven’t been here before. Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have long flagged up their open-mindedness on a future indyref. McDonnell in August said that Labour would not ‘block’ another vote, while Corbyn has previously said he was ‘absolutely fine’ with a future referendum.

What are the prime motivations behind Corbyn’s positioning on Scotland? First, there are the tactical considerations. Scotland used to be a ‘banker’ in the Labour column contributing a loyal block vote of 40-50 MPs. This disappeared in 2015 and the most realistic route to any future Labour Government – barring the sort of English landslide rarely seen – is through a hung Parliament and the support of the parliamentary votes of the SNP.

Second, there is an element of constitutionally illiteracy or at best disinterest from the UK Labour leadership. What drives Corbyn and McDonnell is class politics, redistributing power and wealth, and economic and social injustice and inequality. Constitutional issues are an afterthought: something to navigate and make compromises on to aid the wider struggle.

Third, Corbyn and McDonnell are not ‘against’ Scottish independence per se. They believe in principle that such a decision is fundamentally up to the people of Scotland. In this they recognise ‘the sovereignty of the Scottish people’ which many pro-union politicians pay lip service to and which the Commons unanimously accepted in July 2018. They take it as a given.

Fourth, Corbyn this week in Scotland refused to call himself a ‘unionist’ and instead called himself a ‘socialist’. Jim Murphy did something similar post-2014, the second part of which caused much mirth. Corbyn’s stance is more significant, rejecting ‘unionism’, seeing it as a defence of reaction now as much as a longer historic tradition.

Fifth, Corbyn and McDonnell do not believe in the UK in the way that previous Labour politicians did. They see the UK as a force for imperialism, reaction and militarism around the world. This brings them to align themselves with a position which is anti-British establishment and notes its attachment to the politics of the union and its geo-political interests. Scottish independence they understand is a body blow to such pretensions and power politics.

Corbyn and McDonnell are not on their own. After the 2015 watershed the new Labour leader in Scotland Kezia Dugdale equivocated on an independence referendum. After the 2016 Brexit vote she agreed with comments from Ruth Davidson that it would be mistaken for the UK Government to block a vote, stating it would be ‘categorically wrong to do that if there was a compelling sense that the Scottish people wanted a second referendum.’

Some see Corbyn’s wobbles as only making sense as a compromise towards the current Scottish leader Richard Leonard who has turned his back on another indyref under any circumstances, including a majority SNP victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.

Two factors are relevant. First, Corbyn’s positioning is critical if Labour manage to stop the Tories winning and can form an administration in a hung Parliament with SNP support. If that doesn’t happen and the Tories win, then Corbyn’s position will matter if it can be seen as a transition to a more consistent and pro-democratic stance under a new leader. It would seem unlikely that any new leader would take up an uncompromising position such as that of Richard Leonard.

Second, the nature of any Labour-SNP deal would require political intelligence and sensitivity. The stand of both parties is shaped by electoral considerations now, who can benefit and who could lose in the future, and what happens to each party if it went wrong.

It is about the relative balance of power between Labour and SNP and Corbyn and Sturgeon now and after any likely election result. Any future arrangement would have to be very carefully drawn up. Labour have said consistently they will not do a ‘deal’ with the SNP, but instead invite them to vote for or against their programme.

The SNP have stated they will not support Labour without a commitment to an indyref, but also that they will not maintain the Tories in office. Between these two stances there is room for a future agreement if the politics and numbers make it possible.

Labour has big problems north and south of the border. Scottish Labour has, despite a long commitment to devolution, never fully come to terms with a distinct Scottish political dimension – nor been a fully autonomous party.

Hence, over forty years ago, when Labour gave evidence to the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution it set up, the Labour delegation led by John Pollock emphatically stated: ‘There is no such thing as a separate political will for Scotland.’

Labour’s delegation when asked if they would prefer a centre-left independent Scotland to a Conservative Britain replied: ‘The only effective way of solving the Scottish problem is to have a Labour Government at Westminster, but we are prepared to put up with the short period in which a Conservative Government might be the administration because we can more than make it good in our next administration.’

Yet, in 1970, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 2010, 2015 and 2017 Scotland eight times did not vote Tory – voting six times Labour and twice SNP and got eight Tory Governments (one with Lib Dem support). This may happen for a ninth time next month and in the exchanges between Nicola Sturgeon and Richard Leonard this week at First Minister’s Questions, Labour still prefers a Conservative Britain to a self-governing Scotland.

Labour is caught in UK politics holding onto the archaic, undemocratic political and constitutional order – which offers with it the prize of monopoly power on minority votes. It resists embracing a politics of decentralisation, pluralism and reordering power in the UK away from London and the South East. There is even Labour thinking led by Baroness Bryan of Patrick on a federal UK with a detailed 80,000 word policy document written but which has remained under wraps and secret.

This is because the Corbynista Labour project is one of transition – a coalition of the old left oppositionalists such as Corbyn and McDonnell, and newer left currents around grass roots groups such as Momentum. This balance has been hamstrung on Scotland by the moribund nature of the party here with no major influx of new, younger members or ideas, and the balance siting firmly in the favour of the old left.

All of this raises two big questions – both with huge ramifications. First, what is the best way to a future indyref for independence supporters? Is it an alliance with a radicalised Labour, and if so is it really realistic to wait until somehow Labour manages to win an election, or at least, evicts the Tories from office? That gives the power over Scotland’s future to English voters.

Second, where does Corbyn’s Labour go if, as it looks likely, the party loses this election. It does not go back to the supposedly moderate, deeply compromised force under Blair and Brown, and even Miliband. Maybe then, post-Corbyn, the party can fully embrace the radicalism of the new currents and energies, and understand that the British state is a vehicle for privilege, inequality and militarism, far removed from the story Gordon Brown has told of Britishness.

The end of the British Empire State would be a huge moment for these isles and internationally. It would be an opening and liberation for a different kind of politics in Scotland, as well as the rest of the UK, and would offer the British – or post-British left the opportunity to advocate radical and democratic politics.

But does Labour have the political will and imagination to break with the last vestiges of the conservative elements of labourism as well as the ancien regime which has for too long defined power and privilege across the UK?