Friday 18 September 2015: Scottish referendum a year on

It is now a year since the Independence Referendum in Scotland and, far from being a spent force, the supporters of Scottish independence have flourished in the past twelve months.

Despite a convincing NO vote in the referendum the Scottish National Party, who called the Referendum and campaigned for a YES vote, have gone from strength to strength since the poll. Almost immediately after the vote, the SNP began its campaign to ensure that the Westminster parties kept their last-minute – and somewhat desperate – offers of further Devolution in the days before the poll. The three main Westminster parties – Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – all opposed Scottish independence and wrongly feared the result was going to be very close. It wasn’t, but they panicked and gave last-minute concessons in an attempt to secure a NO vote.

The Scottish people voted by a majority to stay in the Union (55% to 45%) , but the decisiveness of the result was quickly shown to be irrelevant and the desire that the issue would go away for another generation quickly faded.  Membership of the SNP soared after the Referendum and the SNP’s new leader Nicola Sturgeon wasted no time in showing her skill at capitalising on the  Scottish public’s discontent with Westminster – even though they voted to maintain its rule.

The biggest loser after the Referendum has been the Labour Party who were detested north of the Border for its Tory-lite policies, for backing the renewal  of Trident, and for working hand-in-hand with the Tories to save the Union.  By the time of the General Electon eight months later, the Scottish Labour Party was rightly expecting electoral disaster in Scotland. They weren’t proved wrong. In May’s General Election Labour lost some 40 seats – all but one of its Scottish Westminster MPs were sent packing – ending decades of solid dominance in Scotland. The SNP took 57 of Scotland’s 60 Westminster seats.This catastrophic result for the Labour Party only confounded its defeat to the Conservative Party in the General Election. The Tories surprised everyone by achieving a small overall majority, but crucially with 99 more seats than Labour.

Many in Scotland may have voted NO in the Referendum last September believing that the Tories would lose power in Westminster at the general Election. They and just about everyone else was predicting a hung parliament in which the SNP could yield tremendous power and influence. The collapse of Labour, and Lib Dems, in May’s vote only strengthened the Tories. After the election the total number of SNP, Lib Dems and Labour MPs was still woefully short of the Tories’ total. The SNP’s near wipeout of opposition in Scotland, Labour’s struggles, and the reality of another five years of Tory rule and austerity have only added fuel to the discontent in Scotland.

Today Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister and leader of the SNP, has said that David Cameron is living on borrowed time with his support for the Union and that a new generation in Scotland desires independence. She did, however, suggest that she won’t cal for another Referendum in the near future. This is probably as she will only call a Referendum when she’s confident of a YES vote – and she can bide her time.The Scottish Parliament elections take place next year, which will only reinforce the SNP’s dominance and strengthen Surgeon’s hand further. Her predecessor, Alex Salmond – who resigned as First Minister and SNP leader after the NO vote – says that independence is becoming inevitable.

I have always been wary of nationalism and think that Scotland should remain part of the Union. I do think, however, that the Scottish Parliament should be given many more powers and control over most of what Westminster now does in its name. Yet it is difficult to reconcile my desire that Scotland stay within the Union with the reality that Scottish people and politics are diverging greatly from the rest of the UK. The SNP, who now dominate the Parliament in Edinburgh, are attempting to free the Scottish people from the austerity that the Tories have imposed on the country since they came to power in 2010. Scottish policies are increasingly diverging from Westminster’s but are being held back and restrained by central rule.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn and the swing to the Left in the Labour Party may appear to bode well for Scotland remaining  part of the Union. The possibility of a left-wing Labour Governmenrt may encourage some in Scotland that a future Labour Government may be more sympathetic to Scottish desires. Issues such as the renewal of Trident and the pulling back from austerity may become much  more synchronised between a Sturgeon-led SNP Government in Edinburgh and a Corbyn-led Labour Government in London.

However, this assumes that Jeremy Corbyn will succeed in securing not only his position as Labour leader in the coming months, but also that he can win an election in 2020 – when he will be 70 and possibly offering the British public the most radically left-wing manifesto since 1983.  Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that she looks forward to working with Corbyn, especially to attack the Tories’ austerity policies – something his predecessor, Ed Miliband, so shamefully refused to do as he feared voters in England were hostile to any partnership with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament in May. Yet Sturgeon was also quick to highlight the real and potential divisions in the Labour Party and how these will simply play into the Conservatives’ hands.

Some in Scotland are, therefore, suggesting that the swing to the left in the Labour Party will only lead to defeat in 2020. This, they argue, will enable the Tories to stay in power for another five or ten years before Labour inevitably swings back to the centre-right in order to become electable again. This is a real fear and has precedent. The last time Labour went dramatically to the left was in 1983 under the veteran left-winger Michael Foot. That resulted in a disastrous election that year, a Thatcher landslide and another 14 years of Tory rule under her and John Major. In that time the Labour Party ripped itself apart under Neil Kinnock before he and his successors, John Smith and Tony Blair, dragged it kicking and screaming to the centre-right and to victories in the General Elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Many thought that the success of Blair and Gordon Brown while in Government in reshaping the party would hold fast. The dramatic rise of Jeremy Corbyn from backbench obscurity has put that in question. The Party has been shaken to its core and the reverberations have only just begun. If Labour get it wrong it could be a generation before it is ready for power again.

If the leftward swing backfires then the Tories will flourish in England and the SNP in Scotland. With no effective Labour opposition in England, the people of Scotland will inevitably swing back to supporting independence. It won’t take much to force another independence Referendum and many who voted a cautious NO last year will have no such cautions next time. The prospect of a generation of Tory rule will drive the independence cause to victory and an independent Scotland would leave Labour struggling to ever get elected again in the remnants of the UK.

I am torn between fearing a repeat of the Labour divisions of the 1980s and just wishing that Labour would move leftward and, in particular, away from the disasterous belief of the last few years that to be electable the Labour Party needs to ape Tory policies – Tory-lite as many argue the Labour Party has become. We have seen by defeat in 2010 and again this May that aping the Tories just leads to people thinking: well if the Labour Party isn’t offering anything radically different then why vote for them. The biggest issue is always the economy, especially in times of recession, and when people are in doubt about which party to support – and are only offered margins of difference in policies – then they will vote for the party they trust most on the economy – and sadly that is the Conservatives.

Now that the Tories have a majority and have been able to pass their welfare cuts and effectively have free rein to pass whatever Bills they choose, we need a Labour Party that can oppose them – whether by themselves or in partnership with SNP and other parties. At the present we have a situation were less than 50 of Labour MPs after the election in May saw fit to vote against Tory welfare cuts! Despite a massive defeat at the Polls, they still feared looking weak if they oppose austerity.They are weak!  They are a disgrace! Just today, the Commons approved the devastating cuts in tax credits – a popular flagship Blair introduction – which will leave millions of low paid and the poor dramatically worse-off. Effective opposition from the Labour Party is the only thing that is going to stop the Tories. Whether Jeremy Corbyn can achieve that effective opposition and lead Labour to victory in 2020 is to be seen.