‘Taking SNP seats alone won’t fix unease over the union – in Scotland or England’

John Denham

Labour’s stunning victory in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election opens the door to many more Scottish Labour MPs.

Recent polling shows voters in Scotland prioritise getting rid of the UK Conservatives over choosing a unionist or independence MP.  Tactical voting might bring further gains.

A major Labour recovery would, however, confront the party with a huge judgement call. Is this a turning point? Or is it a breathing space? Is it a return to ‘politics as usual’ in which the constitutional question is marginal, or is it a window of opportunity to re-think a better union?

Labour should not be complacent even if it wins big

An extraordinary series of events propelled the SNP forwards: dissatisfaction with Labour in Westminster and Holyrood, mass mobilisation during the Indy referendum that consolidated SNP leadership, the divergence from the UK government over Brexit, and dislike of the Tories. SNP momentum might well have stalled even if the leadership had not imploded.

If, though, we want a stable and popular union we should not be complacent. Support for independence remains at 47%. Former Ed Miliband advisor Ayesha Hazarika has warned: “Starmer will need to show the people of Scotland that a Labour government can deliver for (Indy supporters) and fast before the Holyrood elections in 2026. Those Scottish elections could well place the future of the union centre stage again.”

A new report by the think tank IPPR suggests that a stable union will need change in every nation, including making a shaper distinction between the governments of England and of the UK.

The idea of the union is by no means dead. Support for the principle of social and economic solidarity across the UK is strong, (even if voters are rather less keen to share their national tax revenues). Nor is there support for wide policy variation (which does not mean voters don’t want devolution). Other studies suggest Scottish voters want more than a simple choice between unionism or independence.

On the other hand, many voters feel their nation receives less than its fair share.

Voters think other nations get too much

Scotland tends to complain it gets too little while England thinks Scotland gets too much. Authors Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones characterise this as a ‘union of grievance’. More than half of voters in each UK nation support either independence or are ‘union ambivalent’, meaning that support is qualified by other considerations.

Wales has the most  voters who back the continued British union. Scotland has most independence supporters and fewest ‘union ambivalent’, England the least independence and the most ambivalent. English Leave voters were prepared to see the UK breakup  to ‘get Brexit done’; but many English Remain voters thought that ‘losing faith in the union’ would be worth it to remain in the EU.

Most voters in England, Scotland and Wales favour Irish re-unification – far more than in Northern Ireland itself.

Only a small minority of voters see Britain as a single state with a single government. Support for ‘muscular unionism’ – asserting the union over its nations – a term associated with May and Johnson but first used to describe Scottish Labour policy, is limited in every nation and the very idea divides supporters of both the Labour and Conservative parties.

Crucially ‘there is no single British national identity with a shared understanding of the union…but….multiple versions of Britishness across the state, each associated with different and at times contradictory visions of the state’. The ‘British’ in England were generally Remainers, but being British in Scotland and Wales meant the opposite.

Those who prioritise their Irish, Scottish and Welsh identities are notably more pro-autonomy and pro-European than their devo-anxious and Eurosceptic English counterparts. The union simply cannot be held together by asserting the importance of a shared British identity or the power of the UK state.

Labour must advocate in each nation for each nation

Studies of  Welsh and Scottish elections suggest Labour success in Wales and SNP dominance in Scotland rested on each party’s ability to present itself as best for the national interest.

In England the Conservatives mobilised English identifying voters over 20 years. In each British nation, Labour must be the best advocate for the nation within the solidarity of union, not just an advocate for the union.

The restiveness of Scottish voters will re-merge unless Labour can refashion both a devolution settlement and a new relationship with the UK government that really delivers for Scotland.  Welsh Labour that has long advocated a ‘union of nations.’ In England the debate has not yet begun.

Labour’s new England membership card, which has no space for a St George Cross, symbolises a party that rarely speaks to England and does not distinguish Britain from England in politics or in governance. This very Anglo-centric British unionist outlook is a problem for the union and for England.

The IPPR report highlights ‘the tendency of the present UK Government (and those seeking to form the next one) to announce policy initiatives for ‘this country’, an entity whose borders are only very rarely specified’. How, it asks, ‘can the UK government avoid being regarded as an English government asserting its will over territory on which it currently does not enjoy a political mandate?’

Building a popular stable union means enabling Scottish Labour to stake its claim as best party for Scotland as well as supporting the union. Welsh Labour should continue doing the same.  But both rely on Labour also having the courage to be the best party for England and not just for the union.

Turning point or breathing space? There may not be long to decide.

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