A No for Scotland may not be as positive for Labour as we might think

by Rob Marchant

The local and Euro-elections are done. As always happens in the unfailingly cyclical business of politics, we take a breather and start thinking about the next one.

This year, of course, our normal annual cycle is disrupted by that pesky little referendum. Yes, the one that could conceivably break apart the United Kingdom and throw politics-as-we-know it into convulsions, whose aftershock would last for decades, if not centuries.

Conceivably, of course, does not mean probably. While not impossible, it seems pretty unlikely that the Yes campaign will win (and if it does, all bets are clearly off).

Assuming it doesn’t, the scenario we might project is that Labour, which has largely spearheaded the campaign (in view of the little love the Scottish electorate at large has for the Conservative Party), comes off as the proxy winner and that that winning momentum rolls us through the following half-year until a close-run, but ultimately successful, general election result.

That, at least, is how we would like to see things. However, although we might have a pleasant moment in the sun as we enjoy having led the charge which defeated Salmond, it may also be neutralised by an effect few have even considered.

The annoying thing for us is that Cameron has, as John Rentoul observed in his Independent on Sunday column, actually done rather a good job on Scotland – it is a moment of bipartisanship, after all – and it is likely to be as much his moment as ours.

Let us now look at why he has done well (the areas of his leadership where he has done poorly are numerous enough). It is easy to say that he has done nothing; but take a look at the counterexample of his Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy. Catalonia, which has had a nationalist government for most of the last forty years, is asking for a similar referendum.

In order to prevent secession, Rajoy is, ill-advisedly, sitting on the constitution, which technically forbids secession. You can’t do this, he says, because this piece of paper says you can’t. But this stupidly ignores (a) fairness, (b) international precedents, such as the United Nations right to self-determination, and (c) the effect that his denial of democracy has on the Catalan population.

Naturally, the more you tell someone they can’t have something, the more they want it. A referendum Rajoy would have probably once won easily will now be close, when he or his successor is finally forced into having one. Or he may even lose, thereby losing not only Spain’s second city but its principal economic motor, the Catalan industrial belt. Politically, he could scarcely have bungled an important matter of state more effectively.

In marked contrast, what has Cameron said to the Scottish public? “Referendum? No problem, no problem. When do you want it?”

And then, after a short pause, almost whispered: “you are really sure about this, aren’t you? Big step, y’know”. Thereby making many Scots reflect on whether they are sure. Most are not.

Cameron will have done many things by the end of his five-year term, but this is the only one of historical significance (apart from navigating the country’s first post-war coalition, which I’m not sure anyone cares about); that a challenge to the unity of the United Kingdom was seen off on his watch.

It may well, therefore, be tricky for Labour to extract advantage from something which will be a massive diversion from politics-as-usual for half of the remaining term, and which may reasonably be painted as at least a joint triumph, in which Cameron can play the statesman. In an environment where he already has the advantage of incumbency and personal polling, this is not very good news for Labour.

If you think about it, it’s simple: history is more likely to remember the Prime Minister at a historical turning point than the Leader of the Opposition. It’s not remotely fair, given that it’s our party which will have done the vast majority of the local campaigning, but there it is. Above and beyond that, the clearer-headed commentators and opinion-formers will acknowledge that he did a good job. He has done.

Once the grand diversion is over, we will have six months left of the parliamentary term, but by then we may well have a much firmer idea who will win the next election. Let’s hope that it’s us.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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4 Responses to “A No for Scotland may not be as positive for Labour as we might think”

  1. Forlornehope says:

    You’ve also got to take into account Cameron’s cunning plan to give the Scots Parliament control of personal taxation. Just imagine the Tory howls if we had to use Scottish MPs to raise taxes in England after that. He may well be on the way to grabbing almost permanent control of the domestic agenda for England – 90% of the UK. This could be the last straw that leads to a Conservative dominated English Parliament; what are we going to do about that?

  2. uglyfatbloke says:

    Interesting article – one of the better ones I’ve read and one of only a tiny number to consider the post-referendum situation.
    It’s true that Labour has done most of the campaigning and pretty much all of the good stuff. The coalition’s efforts have been questionable at best and simply untrue or stupid or try to out-bid everyone else and it’s the right course to take. The referendum result is probably much more in the balance that the polling indicates, but a victory that Labour can take credit for is readily available just by having he courage that Cameron (and the the guy who lost the Scottish tory leadership contest) could n’t quite muster. Most Scots would prefer Full Fiscal Autonomy to any other option, a great many who actually want independence would be satisfied with FFA and a lot of those who are committed Unionists would prefer FFA to independence. Ed can win the referendum AND secure Scottish MPs (and get the credit for it) by declaring for FFA, but it has to be an absolute commitment….no ifs, buts or maybes, no back-doors to hen-houses.
    FFA in Scotland is also an acceptable proposition to most people in the rest of the UK. There is a popular belief that the UK subsidises Scotland; it’s not true, but the belief is there. FFA would be attractive to those who believe in the ‘subsidy’ thing because the Scottish government would have to raise its own revenue lock stock and barrel.

  3. Two points.

    Firstly, Cameron has not been nearly as conciliatory as you have made out. Cameron’s timetable was that the referendum had to be held by the end of 2014 (the SNP’s pledge at the 2011 Holyrood elections was for the plebicite to take place “in the second half of the parliament”) so the SNP have been forced into going in the Autumn. Also Cameron insisted that the referendum would concentrate on the question of Independence. Salmond knows that the “settled will of the Scottish people” was for more powers for Holyrood and wanted a question on “devo max”. Incidently, of the parties to anounce more powers – none come close to matching Devo-Max.

    Secondly in the event of a no vote, the political landscape of Scotland has subtily changed. There may well be a large amount of people who were “Labour” people who have been disgusted by Labours actions during this campaign – the relentlessly negative campaigning and various smear & scare stories perpetuated by the Labour hierarchy. The highest profile smear being Miliband’s ignorance in not recognising that there is already a seperate Scottish NHS that works in tandem with it’s English (partly privatised) counterpart. In short, Scottish Labour may well still pick up the usual 40 odd seats at Westminster 2015, but have in all likeleyhood already lost the Holyrood 2016 election

  4. uglyfatbloke says:

    I don’t think anybody really expects to win in 2016; it’s just too much of a hurdle and most serious electoral anoraks seem to expect there will be some Scottish losses in 2015. Personally I don’t think that that will be all that serious, but it could be; FPTP may give the gnats a raft of seats in addition to the ones that they look set to take from the glib-dumbs.
    OTH the risks can be avoided. There will be an agreed position of further devolution from Labour the tories and the glib-dumbs at the end of the month and Labour should be leading the charge. If FFA is on the table as an absolute commitment the referendum will be won with an excellent majority. That would n’t bring about he immediate demise of Salmond, but I expect he would go before too long so that Sturgeon can get settled in before the 2016 election.
    I don’t believe Salmond really wanted devo max on the ballot at all. I think he just wanted to be able to say that he would be happy to have it but that that nasty cameron bloke denied Scottish people the choice.

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