In seeking to cement Labour’s opposition to a second independence referendum, Richard Leonard has only energised a debate he hoped to end
CURIOUSLY ENOUGH, it was not a particularly slow news week when the revelation of a Scottish Labour leader’s opposition to independence made the headlines.
As those paid to follow his exploits might expect, Richard Leonard did not achieve such media attention on his own initiative, but in consequence of a short but characteristically explosive intervention by Jeremy Corbyn, who appears ever-more distant from Leonard in both his thinking and priorities.
In an interview with BBC Scotland during the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, Corbyn said, with the air of someone who hasn’t decided which takeaway to order from, that he is not “ruling out” giving consent for a second Scottish independence referendum, should he become prime minister. While Corbyn indicated his personal opposition to such a plebiscite, he added that any decision on the matter would be made “at the time.”
A relatively brief statement, albeit of the kind that shaves years off the life expectancies of Scottish Labour press officers. Yet past experience has demonstrated how much commentators across the political spectrum are prone to make on Corbyn’s occasional, gnomic utterances on the subject of Scotland’s constitutional affairs. Even my CommonSpace colleague Alasdair Clark proposes that Corbyn is “instinctively supportive of Scotland's right to determine its own future,” based on his recent remarks.
At the risk of cynicism, that is a matter for debate: the average Leonard Cohen song has more words than Corbyn has ever devoted to Scotland’s once-and-future right to self-determination. Granted, his reticence could have been explained by a desire to simply leave Scottish affairs to Scottish Labour, the autonomy of which was once so trumpeted and mocked simultaneously. Richard Leonard’s subsequent hysterics have demonstrated this is obviously not the case. The breakdown in communications between branch and head office that was impossible to ignore during the latter days of Kezia Dugdale’s tenure has seemingly not been repaired.
Following Corbyn’s gaffe/statement of principle, Leonard appeared to countermand his party’s UK leader when he told press that Labour will commit to opposing a second independence referendum in its next UK manifesto, on the dubious logic that this would provide a Corbyn government with a mandate to refuse permission for such a vote, regardless of who happens to hold power in Edinburgh.
Talk of mandates and precisely what they justify no doubt caused much amusement in Bute House, residence of a First Minister whose commitment to a second referendum was not exactly secret when her government was re-elected, and in Holyrood itself, which still contains a fragile but extant pro-independence majority. Thus far, Leonard has not elaborated on what mandates any of these might enjoy, other than a parliamentary parking space.
Ian Blackford MP, the SNP’s Westminster leader, while condemning Scottish Labour’s apparent descent into “the same old arrogant and ignorant approach that has alienated their traditional supporters”, articulated the obvious criticism as well as anyone: if Leonard’s claims hold true, Labour will be “threatening to block Scotland’s democratic right to hold a future independence referendum.”
Opposing independence and opposing the right to vote on the matter are two entirely different things – not so long ago, recognising this distinction won David Cameron unlikely applause from the Catalan independence movement, which Madrid continues to deny anything resembling the Edinburgh Agreement.
Leonard – who, during some FMQs, could almost be replaced with an answering machine programmed to recite “use the powers you have” – appears to seek a constitutional position that will eliminate the need for him to talk about constitutional affairs. Good luck to him - when he finds it, perhaps he can announce it to the Scottish press while riding a unicorn.
The difficulty for Leonard is that enlivening the discourse around constitutional reform – whether it be old arguments about devolution, federalism, ‘devo-max’ or even junking the whole apparatus of the British state and starting from scratch – tends to provoke more arguments than they end. And engaging with those arguments is absolutely the last thing those anti-independence fundamentalists within Scottish Labour intend to do. Doing so would invalidate their long-held, self-imposed delusion that there is a clear-cut divide between constitutional natterings and ‘bread and butter’ economic issues, the central pole of their risible contention that there is no such thing as left-wing nationalism in the country that produced John Maclean.
The Labour-aligned Scottish political writer Rory Scothorne, whose analysis of Leonard’s latest intervention was more detailed and withering than most, placed the Labour leader’s comments in the context of the division within Labour – one of many – between those who seek democratic transformation, and those who find the whole business a deeply suspicious, Nat-flavoured distraction from getting elected. Only the former, in Scothorne’s opinion, hold any hope for the party: “If Scottish Labour is ever to recover, if they are to not only counter the enduring appeal of a Scottish breakaway but also revive their own battered identity, they must offer and argue for a plan, throughout the UK, to bring about a complete revolution in the structures of the British state, far beyond the tepid reforms of ‘devo max’ or ‘federalism’.”
Scothorne might not want to hold his breath. In January of this year, Corbyn’s Scotland spokesperson Lesley Laird stomped on any loose talk about post-Brexit constitutional reform, much less a federal constitution, describing federalism as an “unhelpful” label and warning against raised expectations.
With characteristic timing, Leonard responded three months later to demand that shadow cabinet office minister Jon Trickett should “get a move on” with plans for a federal constitution and an elected second chamber. Such a move was not, amazingly enough, forthcoming. Neither was any response to the Common Weal paper ‘An Unequal Kingdom: The Barriers to Federalism in the UK’, published earlier this year, which challenged federalist advocates to demonstrate what their solutions would involve and how they could be achieved. Nevertheless, Leonard apparently felt confident enough to promise Labour delegates in Liverpool last weekend that Labour would “rebuild Scotland with a federal Britain.”
In framing Leonard’s abandonment of Scotland’s democratic freedoms as a betrayal of 1989’s Claim of Right, in which the Scottish Constitutional Convention poetically recognised our national right to self-determination, Scothorne highlights that Labour, so eager to seek plaudits for devolution during the recent 20th anniversary of the vote that delivered a reconvened national parliament, has fallen far from the constitutional radicalism once embodied by so many of its prominent Scottish representatives.
Once, there was considerable discussion and debate within Labour circles about constitutional reform – you even got the sense that they were engaging in it out of choice, rather than being dragged into participation by wild horses.
True, those surviving members of the cohort that stood in support of the Claim of Right are unlikely to be found in the same room together these days; no such contemporary banner exists beneath which George Foulkes, Michael Fry and Tom Nairn could willingly gather.
However, it was not always thus. In the 1989 volume A Claim of Right for Scotland, a cross-party collection of the intellectual arguments which underpinned the historic document, the former Scottish Labour MP for Edinburgh South Nigel Griffith reflected on the Constitutional Convention that accompanied the Claim: Despite the mutual distrust that existed between Labour and the SNP, Griffith acknowledged that it was both right and necessary for the SNP to be included in the Constitutional Convention, “because they articulate the concerns of many people, and they have solutions which have some support but which are not espoused by other parties.” Would today’s Scottish Labour seek SNP input in their plans for a murkily-defined ‘federal Britain’?
In one of his last essays written before his passing in 2012, the writer and politician Stephen Maxwell - the driving force behind the SNP Left’s intellectual vanguard, the 79 Group, and director of the party’s campaign in the Scottish Assembly Referendum - wrote in 2011 that one of the chief hopes for non-Tory defenders of the Union lay in “a revival of the Labour Party’s fortunes in England to reconcile Scottish social democrats to the continuation of the Union.” Maxwell warned at the time that the prospects for this were “uncertain at best.”
In the murky post-Blair, pre-Corbyn era, Maxwell articulated what has since become common knowledge: the public were rightly confused over what the Labour Party even stood for anymore. It has become popular to suggest that the rise of Corbynism has rendered this old critique no longer accurate - that new leadership has infused the party with a long-absent sense of principle, direction and certainty about its ideological goals.
Yet Maxwell’s words still sound more relevant that many Corbynites would like to admit: “How far is Labour willing to champion more radical versions of devolution,” he asked, than the Calman-inspired Scotland Bill that in 2011 sat before Westminster? Judging by what we have seen since, not at all. Whenever an opportunity to do otherwise presents itself, contemporary Labourites – be they Corbynite or Blairite, Scottish, Welsh or English – respond with a reticence that makes root-canal patients look enthusiastic.
In reaffirming an unforgiving opposition to not only independence, but anything that could lead to it, Leonard has not only fallen back into a cycle which delivered electoral disaster for his predecessors, but has also lost any claim he might have had to democratic credentials worth the name, and made a less-than-diplomatic offer to those former Labour voters who abandoned the party in Scotland or voted for independence: “You were wrong, and we won’t be giving you the opportunity to be wrong again.”
If Leonard or his party had anything new, anything like the intellectual ferocity or imagination of the socialists and nationalists, reformers and revolutionaries who once mapped out visions for the country’s future, some of which have succeeded, some of which have yet to come to pass, then he might be in a position to fight back. As it stands, Labour – even in the age of Corbyn – will still find the edge of its infrequent radicalism blunted against a British state they have resigned themselves to living with, in whatever form.
Picture courtesy of Scottish Labour
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