Keir Starmer's "car crash" interview dooms Labour in Scotland

Labour leader Keir Starmer set out his pitch to Scotland on BBC’s flagship politics show “the Sunday Show” at the weekend. It was widely regarded as a car crash. Columnist Lesley Riddoch wrote: " a stumbling Keir Starmer hit the brick wall of Scottish political reality with a bang on TV on Sunday".

Starmer denied that Scotland has a democratic right to a referendum - while at the same time arguing that the damaging Brexit which as rejected by 62% of Scottish voters, is the "will of the people". Asked by interviewer Martin Geissler if the Union is voluntary, Starmer agreed - but then said that even if the Supreme Court rules a referendum is lawful, he would oppose one. He revealed the incoherence of his position - and doomed Labour to continued failure in Scotland. 

Given that polling shows at least a third of Labour voters support a referendum and that the party has longstanding commitments to self-determination; this seems like a historic error. At the next general election, unless Labour changes their position on a referendum for Scotland, they are unlikely to improve their performance much (they currently have one Scottish MP).

Thus the next general election is likely to be the first time in history where the UK elects a Labour government which is rejected by Scottish voters as Scotland essentially votes for independence. At that point, will Labour really be able to argue that it has a mandate to govern Scotland? Will it be able to continue to deny the democratically-expressed wishes of the Scottish people?

The parting of ways 

In his interview, Starmer said the reasons for the decline of the Labour vote in Scotland were essentially no different from in England. But this moment has been a long time coming. Scotland and the UK have been on different paths for a long time. Here is a look back at some of the points on the journey. The pattern has been that at 9 out of 13 elections since 1970, Scotland has ended up with a government it did not vote for.

1970 - Scotland votes decisively Labour but the UK elects a Conservative government 

In June, 1970 the polls suggest a Labour win, but in fact the UK elects a Conservative government under Edward Heath. By contrast, in Scotland, the Labour party takes 44 seats out of 71, with the Conservatives getting only 23.  (At an earlier election in 1959, when the UK voted Conservative, Labour took the majority of seats in Scotland but the Conservatives still got the largest share of the overall vote). This is the moment when Scotland and the UK diverge politically. 

A commitment to more powers for Scotland turns into a lengthy Royal Commission

The Conservatives come into power that year with a commitment in the Queen's Speech to increase Scotland's say over her own affairs. The Conservatives have already felt the sands shifting under their feet. The old, Presbyterian, working-class Tory vote is moving away from the party  - losing the douce suburb of Pollock in 1967 was the first inkling of the coming change. 

So in 1968, with the Declaration of Perth, the Conservatives commit themselves to introducing Home Rule. That commitment turns into a long Royal Commssion, which does not report until 1973 - and nothing gets done. 

“It is essential to maintain the system”

In his new book Scotland Rising, Gerry Hassan quotes the evidence that the Labour Party gives to the Royal Commission on devolution in May, 1970.

John Pollock, Labour MP, said: “The only effective way of solving the Sottish problem is to have a Labour government at Westminster, but we are prepared to put up with a short period in which a Conservative government might be the administration because we can more than make that good in our next administration. It is essential to maintain the kind of system in which a Labour government at Westminster in the future is able to control the country in the interests of all the people in the UK”

1974 - a Labour Government is elected but fails to deliver devolution

When the Labour Party comes to power in 1974, they are also committed to delivering Home Rule. They examine various ideas in a White Paper on devolution in 1975 - one of which is to replace the House of Lords with smaller chambers outside London,  in the four nations of the UK (more radical than their current proposals). Nothing much happens for three years. 

In 1978, the Scotland Act sets out the grounds for a referendum.  In 1979, both the Labour Party and the SNP don’t confidently campaign for an Assembly with extremely limited powers. Important sectors such as the Universities turn against it. On the eve of the vote, former Conservative PM Alec Douglas Home invites Scots to vote ‘No’ promising the Tories in government will bring forward “better devolution proposals”; this never happens.

In fact, the people do vote ‘Yes; to a Scottish Assembly - by 52% yes to 48% No. This is similar to the Brexit result of 2016, which the Labour Party now accepts as a democratic mandate to “make Brexit work”. In contrast, the Labour Government of 1974-79 fails to deliver any change for Scotland and leaves power with the country’s affairs still in the hands of the Grand Committee.  

Asked by the Royal Commission in 1970 if the Grand Committee has “adequate power of control” in the event of a Conservative Government , John Pollock, for Labour, said:

 “If you accept the United Kingdom structure, as we do, such a situation may be the inevitable outcome of it.”

1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, Labour wins hugely in Scotland - but the UK votes Conservative

In these four elections, the Labour Party never gets fewer than 40 of Scotland’s 71 seats. In 1987, Neil Kinnock wins 50 of them. But in the context of the UK electing Conservative governments in a first past the post system, there is nothing Scotland’s Labour MPs can effectively do to challenge the Conservative Party’s agenda.

Iain McWhirter’s book, the Road to Referendum, charts the unfolding disaster of these years in Scotland. Industry is starved of investment. Decision-making power is centralised to London. The process culminates in the UK government deciding to use a hostile Scotland as a testing ground for the Poll Tax. 

The Grand Committee ends up being packed with Tory MPs from the Shires, as there are too few Scottish Tories to ensure Conservative policies get pushed through.

1997 - the Labour Party takes power in the UK, continuing through 2001, 2005  

In this election, Tony Blair sweeps to power and the Labour Party runs the UK until 2010. 

During this period, they make some positive changes - but are unable to bring back the industry that was decimated. The generation that grew up in poverty and hopelessness in much of Scotland in the 1980s has been damaged - many will never fully recover - and the drugs pandemic that still rages through some of Scotland post-industrial wasteland should be understood in this context. These are ‘diseases of despair’. 

Both the Labour Party and the Lib Dems signed up to the Scottish Constitutional Convention while in oppoition and are committed to devolution.  In 1997, Labour holds a referendum, where there is a massive ‘Yes’ vote and the Scottish Parliament is reconvened after a 300-year pause in 1999.

2010 - Scotland votes Labour - but gets a Conservative/ Lib Dem coalition

Scotland now has fewer seats at Westminster - 59 instead of 71. Labour under Gordon Brown wins 41 of these, but the result is a coalition between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. The first referendum on Scottish independence is held and lost, Joe Pike's book 'Project Fear' gives a warts-and-all account of the Labour party's role in Better Together and how Scotland was misled and bullied into voting no by Labour scaremongering. 

2015 - Scotland elects an overwhelming majority of SNP MPs 

The first independence referendum is held a matter of weeks before the 2015 general election. The day after that vote, the Conservatives announce that Scottish MPs will no longer be able to vote on most things in Westminster (EVEL - now repealed). Labour under Ed Miliband says it will not work with elected SNP MPs on shared priorities.

For the first time, Scotland rejects the Labour Party’s prospectus that long periods of Conservative rule are inevitable, but that the Labour Party will make good the damage whenever it gets back in. In that election, the SNP wins 56 out of 59 seats. 

Hard Brexit forced on Scotland - despite those Better Together promises

The next year, the UK holds the Brexit referendum, and Scotland votes decisively to remain in the EU. Despite a central promise of the 2014 Better Together campaign being that Scotland should ‘lead not leave’, that it was a respected member of a voluntary Union, and that staying in the UK was the best way to protect EU membership, the UK government refuses to negotiate with Scotland. 

2017 - the SNP wins a large majority of Westminster seats despite Unionist tactical voting

In 2017, the Unionist parties work more closely together - for example,  the Daily Mail issues a supplement instructing its readers to vote Labour in certain constituencies to defend the Union. The Conservatives under Ruth Davidson stage a revival. Nevertheless, the SNP holds onto 35 of the 59 Westminster seats.  

However, Scotland finds itself again being ruled by a Conservative government that Scotland did not elect. 

In 2019, Boris Johnson is decisively rejected by Scots

The 2019 general election is regarded as having delivered a landslide for Boris Johnson to "get Brexit done". Ironically, the Conservatives UK vote share at that election (43%) is less than what the SNP gets in Scotland (45%), so it must be an even bigger landslide for the SNP, which wins 48 of the 59 seats. 

But the UK Unionist parties - Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem, claim that this election simultaneously delivers an incontrovertible mandate for a hard Brexit - but no mandate whatsoever for an independence referendum. A hard Brexit is forced on Scotland. The Office for Budget Responsibility calculates that Brexit will shrink the UK economy by 4%,  the equivalent of more than £100 billion a year. 

Even after the Scottish general election of 2021 delivers a Parliament that strongly supports a referendum on independence, Labour and the Conservatives argue there is no mandate for one.

Starmer and Labour's position is unfair to Scotland

Keir Starmer's position that he respects the democratic will of the people of the UK - but not the democratic will of the people of Scotland is unfair. He cannot point to any way that Scotland can find a democratic path to a referendum on independence. 

The UK Labour Party has not confronted the reality that many of their own potential supporters believe in self-determination for the people of Scotland. Some may plan to vote 'No" in the next referendum on independence - but they still recognise there is a democratic mandate for one. 

If the Labour Party were to change its stance on an independence referendum, that could positively impact its electoral chances in Scotland. If it doesn't, that will ensure that every vote cast for Labour at the next general election will be read as a vote against self-determination for the people of Scotland. That simple fact means that we are approaching a historic moment.  For the first time, the UK may elect a Labour government - but Scotland will voice a different preference. Independence. 

An independent Scotland can have the governments it elects all the time, not just occasionally. It can pursue its own priorities, use its own assets and build its own future. 

By Jackie Kemp