THE days are starting to draw out, snowdrops are peeking through, the daffodils are sprouting, the trees are coming into bud, and for political anoraks up down Scotland it all means only one thing. Spring Party Conference season is upon us. Yay. The Labour Party conference kicked off last weekend and it was truly enlightening, albeit unintentionally. Like many, I was bemused by the bizarre comments from Sadiq Khan in his remarkably ill-judged remarks, but it seems Scottish Labour HQ can’t even smear us competently.
First published in The National, 2 March 2017.
I’ve always had Mr Khan on my “good guy” list. The abusive, racist campaign he endured from the Tory charlatan Zac Goldsmith certainly had me onside, and he seems to have put in a decent shift as London Mayor, especially on community and diversity. He was and remains a sensible voice on Brexit, and has made good noises about working across the home nations to form a coalition of the various interests they London, Northern Ireland, and Gibraltar all represent along with us.
So it did not ring true when the trailing of his big speech made quite clear, being in favour of independence is pretty much the same as being racist. In Scotland of course, that just sounds daft, so far is it from the truth, but it seems clear the intended audience was elsewhere. This was a speech not for the few folk in the hall, but for across the UK. Now is not the time for dividing the country. Labour is for a United Britain, and to be against such a thing is to “foster division”. That might have been the intention, but the hasty rewrites making clear that he didn’t mean that thing he had himself tweeted earlier just looked like amateur hour. The furore overshadowed the entire conference.
The point was even starker the following day, when the Big Boss came up North too and the hall heard from the Jeremy Corbyn, the UK leader. He also wants a United Britain because, well, Together We’re Stronger. Apparently we should also “respect democracy” and just get on with Brexit, which in reality means leaving the Tories to it. It saddens me greatly, as someone who has no hostility (and a fair bit of affection for the Labour Party of days gone by) to hear a Labour leader deliver a Tory message. Mrs May might as well have written it for him. Labour deserves better, and Scotland certainly does.
Both speeches were illuminating because they so obviously came from somewhere else, and took so little account of reality in Scotland. The reality of Brexit, whatever it turns into, is that we are going to be working across borders like never before, and nobody has been more assiduous in that than Scotland. We want to see the UK, as a whole, turn this boorach into something that works. Brexit is, if it happens, by its very nature an act of destruction brought about by an inter-party squabble. Instead of a blueprint for the future, we have a yawning nothingness. A red, white and blue void into which the Tories are about to hurl us. Now millions of our friends and neighbours feel anxious in the communities they have made their home. Is Mr Khan saying that for the sake of one Union we should simply let the Tories rip us out of another we clearly voted to remain part of? What’s he even offering, work with a UK Labour Party that has proven it is no match for a ruthless and hard-edged Tory government even if it wanted to be? He actually came to Scotland, where the dogs in the street know we have a different path available to us, and said if we take it we’re the ones causing division?
I feel for the Labour Party. There are a lot of decent folk in there who deserve better. But this conference, for this observer, threw a bright light onto where Scottish Labour actually is. Two big hitters up from London, making tone deaf speeches that ignore where they actually are yet still telling us what is good for us, while a hollowed out Party wondering why the voters are less and less in thrall to it. The biggest cheer I saw of the weekend was an unequivocal “we’ll never back independence”. Aye fair enough, but for the minority of voters overly agitated about the constitution they’ll never out-Union the Conservative and Unionist Party and they don’t appear to want to try to out-Nat us.
Scots want to see a government that acts to create the sort of country we want to be, in the communities we live in. I’m not in favour of independence as a magic wand in and of itself, it is a means to the better society I think we do all want to see, and I think we’re in with a better shout of making it happen in Scotland than in a mean, nasty little UK run by this or any likely future government. We have allies the length and breadth of Europe, and Scotland is at the Social Democratic progressive mainstream, not the fringes. If the Scottish Labour Party wants to put the interests of the UK constitution before all that, then they cannot blame their former voters if they continue to choose a different path.