If I am cynical about British Labour it’s for good reason. This is a party of back-stabbers who have no qualms about turning their blades on voters should self-interest demand it. They betrayed Scotland for their precious Union before. They will do so again. They colluded with the Tories in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign because of their mutual interest in maintaining the structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state. Those structures have not changed. Nor has the shared imperative of the British establishment parties to keep a political system which serves them well, even as it fails the people in all manner of tragic ways.
In an otherwise rather silly column which imagines British Labour supporting independence, Kevin McKenna notes that their operation in Scotland hasn’t changed since the British parties lost control of Holyrood. Discussing what he persists in calling ‘Scottish Labour’, McKenna observes that British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) “has been in retreat for 12 years”. It is a commonplace of Scottish political commentary that this retreat has been into a bubble of bitter resentment towards both the SNP and the voters who had the effrontery to rob BLiS of what they regard as their entitled status in Scotland. A resentment so corrosive that neither rational nor creative thinking can survive.
It’s difficult to know whether the resentment which has paralysed BLiS for all that time also infected the rest of the party, or whether the resentment is simply more concentrated in BLiS, them being more directly affected. What we can know for certain is that, in terms of policy, there is but one British Labour. If BLiS didn’t adapt to Scotland’s new political and electoral reality in 12 years, neither did British Labour as a whole.
The question that arises is why would British Labour change now. If, indeed, it has genuinely changed in the ways that many seem to suppose are implied by John McDonnell’s ‘promise’ that British Labour would not block a new Scottish independence referendum.
I look at this ‘promise’ with the jaundiced eye of my cynicism and I smell deviousness and duplicity. This is, of course, the hallmark stench of British politics. But the stink seems particularly strong around John McDonnell’s comments. My first thought is that this is a ploy to split the pro-independence vote in Scotland. A ploy which, were it effective, would serve both to undermine the independence movement and weaken the SNP. There is obvious advantage here for both British Labour and the British Nationalist ideology it shares with other British establishment parties.
So what! I hear some in the Yes movement say. If BLiS drops its dogmatic opposition to anew independence referendum this only strengthens the mandate to hold such a referendum. But that mandate requires no strengthening. It is already as strong as it needs to be – and then some. And British Labour are not in power at Westminster. They are not in a position to decide whether the British parliament should grant gracious consent allowing Scots to exercise the fundamental right of self-determination. So John McDonnell is giving us precisely nothing with his ‘promise’ not to block a new referendum even if we are naive enough to suppose that promise would be kept should it be put to the test.
McDonnell is aware that a large proportion of traditional British Labour voters in Scotland support the restoration of Scotland’s independence and that many of them have been ‘lending’ their votes to the SNP knowing that this is the only way to achieve that objective. He will know, also, that many of those people are itching to get back to voting as their fathers did and their fathers before them. They feel a certain loyalty to British Labour – or to the values which British Labour once represented – and they will seize on any excuse to return to the fold. John McDonnell’s ‘promise’ provides that excuse.
This still leaves the question of why McDonnell has decided to make this ‘promise’ at this time. But we’ve already seen that the ‘promise’ isn’t worth much even if taken at face value. And its value gets increasing dubious the more closely we scrutinise it. Let’s remind ourselves of his precise words.
The Scottish Parliament will come to a considered view on that and they will submit that to the Government and the English parliament itself.
If the Scottish people decide they want a referendum that’s for them.
We would not block something like that. We would let the Scottish people decide. That’s democracy.
There are other views within the party but that’s our view.
Note the final sentence. That’s a get-out clause if ever there was one. Who is he referring to when he says “our view”. How are we to be sure that view prevails against those “other views within the party “. Note what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say that this is now official arty policy. His words can easily be interpreted, or portrayed, as implying that the matter is being debated within the party. There is nothing conclusive there. Nothing anybody should be clinging to.
Perhaps even more significantly, note the use of the future and future unreal conditional tense. The Scottish Parliament “WILL COME to a considered view”; “they WILL SUBMIT that to the Government”; “we WOULD NOT block something like that”; “we WOULD LET the Scottish people decide”.
At no time does John McDonnell acknowledge the existing mandate. At not time does he recognise that the Scottish Parliament has already “come to a considered view”. Nowhere does he mention that this “considered view” has already been submitted to “the Government and the English parliament [sic]”. To do so would be to respect the authority of the Scottish Parliament. Which no British Nationalist politician can or will ever do.
Nor will they respect Scotland’s people. John McDonnell also says,
“If the Scottish people decide they want a referendum that’s for them.”
He refuses to allow that the Scottish people have already made known their choice in this matter by voting for parties with a clear manifesto commitment to holding a new referendum.
It may be thought that John McDonnell is taking a bit of a risk with this ‘promise’ to break with British Nationalist dogma and respect democratic principles. What if British Labour does end up in power and all the conditions he stipulates are met? Wouldn’t that make it awkward for British Labour to renege? Which brings us, finally, to an answer to the question of why this ‘promise’ is being made now.
John McDonnell is a professional politician and so is not inclined to take risks where the cost would fall on himself or his party. Therefore, he must have reason to be sure that British Labour will never be put in the position of being expected to honour his ‘promise’. He would only make such a promise if he was confident that the Tories were about to apply a ‘final solution’ to the Scottish problem.
John McDonnell is undertaking to respect the Scottish Parliament. not now but at some unspecified time in the future, because he is as certain as he needs to be that there will be no Scottish Parliament by that time.
He is undertaking to respect the democratic will of the people of Scotland, not now but at some unspecified time in the future, because he is confident the Tories have a plan to ensure that the people of Scotland are prevented from ever deciding the constitutional status of our nation or choosing the form of government that best suits our needs.
John McDonnell is attempting to deceive the people of Scotland in the name of preserving the Union. Don’t be fooled!
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