The majority of Scottish voters are enormously hostile to Boris Johnson's agenda, but the SNP's grip on the country appears strong. Can Labour's plans for constitutional change point to a way out of the impasse?

The Question Time leaders debate last week featured a fierce interrogation of Jeremy Corbyn on the subject of independence from Scottish audience members, and several questions to Nicola Sturgeon on independence from English ones. This sustained focus on the Scottish question probably occasioned the most thought the English left has given to the issue since the final week of the independence referendum campaign in 2014. Yet for Scottish voters, the distinctive shape of politics down south has been a constant and inescapable concern. We do not have the luxury of sidelining Boris Johnson’s agenda as ‘the English question’ – though in many ways it is – because the decisions made by English voters are likely to overwhelm whatever happens in Scotland. 

This sense of collective political alienation, crucial to the popularisation of Scottish nationalism over the past four decades, is compounded by a set of media narratives that fit uncomfortably into the Scottish scene. The constant emphasis on the importance of the NHS, for instance, sidelines the fact that NHS Scotland is devolved; the SNP’s minority government in Edinburgh will continue to run it, regardless of who wins, at least until the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2021. This means that Scotland is in fact partially insulated from some of the consequences of a possible Conservative majority. Devolution was supposed to defend key sections of Scotland’s distinctive institutional architecture – things like law, local government and education – from a Scottish Office in Whitehall populated by Tories on the basis of an English majority. The further devolution of powers over welfare and taxation have enhanced this protection, a level of privilege not afforded to those swathes of England that have also been saddled for decades with Tory governments they don’t vote for.

But even that nagging sense of cross-border solidarity – often callously dismissed by nationalists as a ‘suicide pact’ – has been eroded by rising support for Brexit amongst many voters in the English North and Midlands. Where Scots responded to their own marginalisation by demanding some semblance of a European nation-state, be it through devolution or independence, England’s peripheralised regions – along with crucial sections of the Welsh and Cornish electorates – have been convinced into backing what amounts to reinforced centralisation of power in London, a direct threat to Scotland’s own expanding autonomy. Part of the strategy of the post-financial crisis ruling class has been to turn the London-state’s harried outlands against each other, filling the deep territorial cracks in their own hegemony with a mulch of red-baiting Britannic jingoism and the celebrity Anglo-populism of Johnson and Farage. It is ludicrous for English left-wingers to decry Scottish nationalism for the threat it poses to a unitary British state that has only ever been their enemy. But it is understandable to be afraid of what would be left behind in Scotland’s absence: by grim coincidence, the technical term for a fear of the dark is Scotophobia. 

In Scotland, such divide-and-conquer tactics – far more obvious to those for whom they aren’t designed – are being observed with a mixture of helpless exasperation and grim determination. They have undoubtedly helped to consolidate a solid anti-independence bloc around the Scottish Conservatives, with whom Scottish Labour’s own grasping unionism can’t hope to compete. The SNP is now battling to make inroads into Tory constituencies won from them in the 2017 election, concentrated in a bulbous cone of seats in the north-east and a thick blue wall along the border. Some of these largely rural seats were once focal points for the SNP’s old appeal to the anti-statist localism of kirk-bound communities and exurban individualism, but have now been sidelined in favour of a new nationalist core vote in the deindustrialised urban Central Belt. 

The election result in Scotland will be determined, above all, by the SNP’s ability to manage the contradiction between these two souls of modern Scottish nationalism: a vaguely de-centralising politics of small capital and stubborn small-town independence, favoured by the neoliberally-inclined Deputy First Minister John Swinney; or the bureaucratic urban corporatism of Scotland’s outsized professional-managerial class, embodied in the lawyerly competence of Nicola Sturgeon. At the leadership level, there is little real conflict between these approaches, but they each depend on class coalitions and identities which remain at odds which each other, as the former’s localist and conservative tendencies push against the centralising and progressive ambitions of the latter.

Scottish Labour’s focus, meanwhile, is designed to expose the systemic limitations of the SNP’s approach. For all that Labour’s UK manifesto is sneered at by nationalists for its regurgitation of existing Scottish policies, there is a profound difference between the two. Labour’s platform in Scotland is deliberately big and brawny, wielding the big state against big capital (although, miserably, retaining big nukes for big geopolitics) in a way that the SNP’s vision of nimble neoliberal statehood can not. The SNP’s ‘growth commission’ prospectus for the economics of independence envisions an increased reliance on strict fiscal discipline and existing transnational economic structures, from the continued use of Sterling to close integration with the European Union. Their desire to redistribute the crumbs of footloose foreign capital is consistent with the party’s tradition in government of pandering to multinational corporations like RBS, Amazon and the fossil fuel sector, but such a watered-down vision of sovereignty contradicts the nationalist movement’s own arguments for democratic self-determination. Nobody elected Jeff Bezos.

Labour’s programme is a clear break from their previous conciliatory attitudes to Scottish and global capitalism, from a windfall levy on fossil fuels companies to a further tax on the global profits of multinationals, accompanied by crucial interventions into ownership structures. Its spending and infrastructure promises are similarly generous, extending HS2 to Scotland along with £100bn of state investment. They are promising the removal of strict limits on Holyrood’s borrowing powers, a ‘floor’ to protect the block grant from Westminster from cuts, and the devolution of employment law, enabling – and thus daring – the SNP to match Labour’s interventionism in the Scottish Parliament. 

But Brexit, and the party’s inability to articulate a truly democratic approach to a second independence referendum, are still undermining Labour’s appeal to the coalition of working-class and left-wing middle class voters who switched en masse to the SNP during and after the independence referendum. The party has failed to distance itself from a reputation for cronyism and tribal self-sabotage, and has not decisively associated itself with a distinctly Scottish idea of socialism. Dusty nostalgia for ‘Red Clydeside’ has not been supplemented by an understanding of later iterations of national radicalism like Scottish CND and the movement for home rule, which have for obvious reasons been more successfully claimed by the SNP. Struggling to hold onto the handful of seats won in 2017 may be the full limit of their potential, but activists have also been targeting a long list of SNP-Labour marginals across the Central Belt in which any UK-wide surge towards Labour may still have an impact.

If the result of the election is a Conservative majority, the SNP will hope that Scotland has backed them enthusiastically enough to form the basis for a renewed push for an independence referendum. Boris Johnson can claim Westminster’s constitutional right to refuse one, pushing the SNP into a very public battle in the courts while it seeks to reinforce its mandate in the 2021 Holyrood elections. One possible obstacle to these efforts will be a very different court case: Alex Salmond’s trial over allegations of attempted rape and sexual assault is supposed to begin in March. This may make the construction of a new anti-Tory, anti-Brexit independence majority harder, but the party could nevertheless benefit from the further grinding-down of Labour’s Scottish vote as the life-raft appeal of independence becomes increasingly inescapable. Whether the SNP will be able to launch that life-raft against the wishes of a fiercely unionist government, however, is another question, and large sections of the independence movement are already discussing the potential of mass civil disobedience.

If the election produces a Labour government, however, it will almost certainly rely on the SNP for support. Labour has as good as admitted at this point that it will allow an independence referendum should there be a mandate for one in 2021. Any SNP ‘red lines’ on Trident are unlikely to survive their collision with the reality of British public opinion on defence, but speak to a broader opportunity which minority government will offer to Labour members: many of the areas on which Labour still needs to be radicalised are those on which members can find common ground with the mainstream of the SNP. On not just Trident, but free movement and constitutional reform, cross-party work between the Scottish labour movement and the SNP will become essential. 

Of those three, it is constitutional transformation that can provide the best opportunity to renew the party’s agenda over five years of hard lessons about the limitations of the British state. The Labour manifesto promises a ‘constitutional convention’, led by a Citizen’s Assembly, to explore how the redistribution of wealth and economic institutions across Britain can be accompanied by a redistribution of democratic power. Scottish Labour’s own manifesto offers further detail on this, calling for a UK-wide ‘charter of rights’ that could form the embryo of a written constitution. This could include a range of economic, social and political rights, from welfare provision to trade union freedoms, which no devolved nation or region of the UK could diminish. A dispersal of democratic decision-making across the country would instead allow a race to the top, turning regional and national self-government into a laboratory for ambitious experimentation with socialist policy. We could compare the achievements of the London Assembly’s Universal Basic Income with those of a Northumbrian Parliament’s Universal Basic Services. The UK and Scottish manifestos both propose replacing the House of Lords with a ‘Senate of the Nations and Regions’ to oversee this ‘rebalancing’ of British intergovernmental relations, ending the ‘hierarchy’ of Westminster over everything else and embracing a principle of ‘co-determination.’

Yet these proposals remain extremely vague, and should Labour win, one urgent priority for Scottish Labour will be to ensure that they do not fall by the wayside in the excitement of a new government. Governing not just with the support of the SNP at Westminster, but in collaboration with devolved parliaments, will require far closer attention to be paid to the territorial aspects of British politics than the English left has been used to. Understanding the Scottish question means finally recognising its relationship to the English question: regardless of how transformative Labour’s economic agenda is, if an unspoken English bias continues to dominate the discussion and practice of British politics, Scots will continue to feel marginalised and frustrated by it.

Scottish Labour wants to reinject class politics and a self-critical realism into Scottish political discourse, but is up against an overwhelming need to dissolve the nation’s own failures and differences into a single voice that can speak out against England’s overbearing grip on the British political imagination. Escaping such an impasse cannot be done through Scottish action alone – even with independence, England’s looming presence will still be felt in Scotland’s political, cultural and economic life. The most obvious solution, as writers like Alex Niven and Tom Hazeldine have recently suggested in their work on the ‘Northern question’, is the politicisation of England’s own territorial diversity, and a federalism – or indeed confederalism – of genuine equals. If socialists don’t want to see the break-up of Britain, they’re going to have to start thinking about the break-up of England.