Observing the opening gambits of the Yes and No camps in the New Year is fascinating. Who and what is shaping the narratives? Where are the central threads? What insight might we glean from speeches on strategy and tactics? Who is laying a breadcrumb trail on the nature of the debate to come?
Looking at speeches made and articles written by big beasts on both sides in the last week, they appear to share a common focus: Labour.
Despite recent Scottish election results, Scotland is predominantly a Labour-leaning country. More people identify themselves with Labour than any other party, though those old hegemonies in terms of party politics are weakening. Folk increasingly are prepared to switch their votes around according to circumstance and consequence, in electoral terms. But in the battle for votes in the referendum, those who would still identify themselves as predominantly Labour voters form a significant constituency. The focus on all things Labour would suggest that private polling in both camps indicates it’s soft in terms of yes/no intentions. For yes, these votes are persuadable; for no, these votes must be shored up.
Hence, we’ve had an appeal from Nicola Sturgeon to Labour supporters to discard party jackets. And a riposte from Anas Sarwar in his adjunct to Gordon Brown’s speech in Fife last week. He said: “There are those whose talents lie in re-writing history, where for them airbrushing the successes of the Labour movement across the UK is an everyday ambition. Quite happy to say in one breath that the UK has never helped to achieve social justice then on the other saying we need independence to protect the NHS and the Welfare State. Institutions thought up by, created by and delivered by the Labour movement right across the UK. And there is a reason for that. It’s a deliberate attempt to con Labour voters into thinking that no change, or no good, can ever come through a Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK and that only a vote for independence can bring change. Well, they’re wrong.”
Sarwar’s theme is continued by Jim Murphy in his essay for Scotland on Sunday today. Urging Scotland to change governments, not passports, Murphy suggests that one of the central arguments proposed by those arguing for independence is that voting yes allows Scotland to rid itself of Tory governments forever. His thrust, though, is that we can change governments without constitutional reform and achieve the Scotland we want. “What holds us back has never been the United Kingdom, it has only ever been the type of government in the United Kingdom. But they’ve always been chucked out; as Cameron and Clegg’s coalition can be just months after the referendum. The things that Scots have demanded – jobs, homes, devolution, a health service and so much more – have always been delivered by ambitious Labour governments. And those achievements have been irreversible.”
We’ll return to the historical revisionism in both statements, but clearly Labour thinks it’s on to something. And there’s a kernel of truth in all this. Yes Scotland and the SNP in particular, have and continue to highlight the impact of this Conservative led government on the lives of ordinary Scots to appeal to undecideds. And at various points, they have explicitly suggested that voting yes allows Scotland to divest itself of the risk of governments we did not vote for imposing its values on us anyway.
Which is why Malcolm Chisholm asked what I reckon is a killer question for Yes at First Minister’s Questions this week. “Given that the First Minister’s whole referendum strategy is based on having a Tory Government in London, how will he scare the Scottish people when they are faced with the prospect of a Labour Government that will boost employment, freeze energy prices and provide the resources for a massive expansion of childcare?”
Leaving aside the hyperbole, the question amounts to this: if, as polls are beginning to suggest, it appears that Labour will win the next UK General Election and not the Conservatives, what then? If the threat of continued Conservative rule is weakened the closer we get to the referendum, how will Yes respond?
It is a crucial question for the yes camp and clearly one which they have begun to wake up to. Labour is still leading in UK polls; it’s not a dramatic lead but a consistent one, and would be enough to deliver at least a minority Labour government. Overtures are already being made to the Liberal Democrats about the possibility of working together in coalition.
There are ways to address this. The Scottish people are not fools but pointing up the shockingly arrogant and misleading revisionism currently being bandied about by leading Labour figures needs to happen. I’m no torch bearer for the Liberals but as a historian, I’m affronted that their role in delivering key planks of our welfare state – state pensions for one – is being airbrushed. Scottish Labour’s track record on social housing also bears repeating, ad nauseam.
And as some of the rebuttal statements already suggest, seeds of doubt need to be sown as to whether things, particularly on welfare reform and economic policy, would be any better in the short and medium term under a UK Labour government.
But if Yes is to successfully shift this narrative, its chief proponents might need to make the ultimate sacrifice and discard their own party clothes. Effectively it comes down to positing that Labour’s charm offensive is entirely self-seeking. Labour wants Scotland to vote no in order to vote Labour into power in 2015. But how to counter that? By suggesting that by voting yes in 2015, Scotland can vote for the Labour Party it wants – or at least the sort of old Labour values many still hold dear – in 2016.
Taking such an approach will be discomfiting to many in the SNP, particularly those elected representatives, activists and supporters who are as capable of displaying as irrational hatred of all things Labour, as many in Labour demonstrate towards the SNP.
But it might be a necessary evil. The question is can they do it, if the need arises? For so many years, cause and party have been intertwined but if needs must, will the SNP be prepared to separate its loyalties and argue that only independence offers Scotland the opportunity to vote for the sort of Labour government and values many still identify with? In short, if required to do so, will the party be able and willing to put cause first?
*I apologise for the lack of italics and more especially, links in recent posts. I am blogging currently from the wordpress app on the iPad and cutting and pasting from articles and inserting links is clunky and beyond my limited skills. The speeches and articles referred to above are all readily searchable.