This week a widely-read Fabian Society paper argued that in future Labour can only win ‘national’ office through an alliance with the SNP. The paper’s central proposal is therefore about Scotland in the UK yet it comes wholly from an English perspective. Below, a centrist former chair of the UK Fabian Society and a former Convener of the Scottish Fabians who campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn ask Scots to put Scotland first just as the English centre-left put England first.
In an interesting paper this week, Fabian Society General Secretary Andrew Harrap argues that the Labour Party’s only hope of forming a UK administration in future is through an alliance with the SNP. Much of the paper is uncontroversial and deploys straightforward data to confirm commonly-held views about Labour’s present predicament. The paper argues that the smaller parties pose little threat to Labour’s present seats but also projects a possible further Labour decline. Labour’s only chance of forming a government, argues Harrap, is an alliance with other parties of the centre and left.
No-one really doubts that in the event of a hung parliament the Lib Dems, of whatever size, would be up for a deal with anyone. So the single detail which makes the Fabian paper an important one is that it puts in clear language the idea that Labour’s only hope for years to come – England’s only hope of a non-Tory ‘national’ administration – is that it find common cause with the SNP in a UK parliament.
While the SNP has welcomed this idea, the Labour Party in both the UK and in Scotland has been quick to rubbish it. The UK party knows that the notion of the SNP holding a powerful UK government role is harmful to Labour amongst English voters. While the Scottish element would see its raison d’etre effectively disappear in the event of a formal recognition by UK Labour that it made a good fit with the SNP. It’s clear, though, that there is considerable sympathy amongst Corbyn supporters for the idea and that, in the very hypothetical event of a hung parliament, a formalised relationship with the SNP would be a no-brainer for a Labour leader on the verge of power.
Naturally, the first pre-condition for this English (see how Harrap uses the word ‘national’ at Figure 5 and Note 3 of the paper) vision to become reality would be for Scotland to vote ‘No’ should there be a new independence referendum. Then, faced with the prospect of perhaps a couple of decades at least before another referendum and in the meantime the scope to look after Scotland’s ‘reserved’ interests in a federal UK, forming part of a UK administration would make sense to the SNP and pretty much everyone else except the Scottish Labour Party.
Harrap’s vision, then, simply points to the obvious in the event of a future, modest Labour resurgence in England combined with a No vote in the next Scottish independence referendum. But this vision is undeniably an English one. What should potential and actual supporters of Labour in Scotland make of it?
Harrap partly ascribes the impossibility of Labour forming a UK administration on its own to the complete collapse of Scottish Labour as a political force in Scotland. He quite specifically warns against Labour in England making it even worse for itself by making the terrible mistake Scottish Labour did in allowing itself to be defined by being on one side of a referendum debate. In proposing a relationship with the SNP, Harrap wants to mitigate – at least in the long term – the effect of the Tory ascendancy currently dominating his English ‘nation’. He accepts, presumably, that the English will be stripped of their EU citizenship and likely the protection of the ECHR, but hopes that in the long term a common front of Labour/SNP/Lib Dem alliance could turn around at least some of the harm the Tories are set to do at all levels.
Strikingly, and in common with other English centre-left commentators, Harrap does not consider that overwhelmingly pro-EU Scots need not be stripped of their EU citizenship and lose the protection of the ECHR, that we may be in a position to defend our social democracy against an English neoliberalism we have not chosen (but the English have), that we may reasonably prefer taking a calculated economic risk through independence in order to defend our culture and values, that we deserve the dignity of controlling our own destiny and making our own choices.
For the terrible actualitie at the core of Harrap’s argument is that it recognises Scotland as a place where centre-left values still hold the day, but accepts the demise of Labour here and demands that Scots accept right wing governance by and for English people for years and years to come in order to possibly be in a position to ‘gie haunders’ to the English centre-left at some unspecified point in the distant future.
This self-interested pragmatism is why many on the left in England advance, elsewhere, bogus political arguments against Scottish independence while of course accepting in private that Scotland is as capable as any other small EU nation of independent self-government working in close co-operation with EU neighbours and friends. Some of these English anti-Scottish independence arguments are simply silly, spiteful and unrealistic – like saying an English government would make life hard and indeed bite of the noses of its own citizens by closing borders and refusing trade and security agreements with an independent Scotland. With other arguments, they simply refuse to countenance Scots making their own decision to take an element of risk in order to pursue a national life informed by our own social democratic values rather than have our culture shifted to the right though decades of neoliberal English Tory rule.
So here are two things that Scots can usefully take from this Fabian Society paper.
First, Scottish Labour members should realise that English Labour has written them off. And, in the context of Scottish unionism, they were right to do so. Scottish Labour’s present leadership has allowed its primary identifying characteristic to become being the junior unionist party to the Tories. And with 25% of previous Labour voters moving to the Tories, all that can happen from now on is that social democrats put independence and the EU before propping up an self-interested English centre-left; that they put defending Scottish social democracy before a unionism led in Scotland by the very Conservatives who wish to impose upon Scotland an English government of English politicians motivated by English imperatives. Such social democrats will move eventually to the SNP, too, and plug any SNP leak to the Tories as that party pursues a centre-left agenda. To survive, Scottish Labour must help save Scottish social democracy through joining the fight for independence. And If the failing leadership will not do that, then members should overrule its failure of vision and do it anyway.
More important, though, and for Scots as a whole, it’s clear that both the English right and the English left see Scotland primarily as a means of fulfilling their own English ‘national’ objectives. Of course, quite a lot of Scots called it that way a long time ago and some of us are just catching up post-Brexit. Today, social democrats in Scotland are finding more in common with friendly nations in Europe of a similar disposition than with England’s right wing, neoliberal, Tory ascendancy. Perhaps in future we will find common cause with English social democrats, either because Scotland chose ‘No’ once again (back to Harrap…) or, more optimistically, because we will be friendly and independent neighbours who may lead and assist English social democrats through example. For now, Scots should choose dignity, self-determination, social democracy.
With apologies to Irvine Welsh, Scots should choose independence in the EU – we should choose life.
Eric Joyce – former UK Fabian Society Executive Chair
Martin Brown – former Scottish Fabians Convener