Sunday National, 6th March 2022.
And so to Glasgow. This weekend, Scottish Labour is meeting in conference. A full year has passed since Anas Sarwar took over as party leader, and racked up the party’s worst ever performance in a Holyrood election.
But all’s change. The font is new. The banner reads “Future.” Neil Kinnock’s new Labour rose is out, replaced by a knot-work thistle, which graduates from socialist red into a slightly bruised-looking purple. Unveiling the new logo, Sarwar conceded that changing a logo “doesn’t change the way a single person votes.” But, he said, “changing our mindset and changing the culture of our party does.”
So what precisely does he have in mind by way of substantive “change”? Having ploughed through all 7,000 words of his speech, I’m still none the wiser. Trying to be open minded within the constraints of my rampant prejudices, much of what Sarwar said was the empty sloganising and sermonising we expect from middle of the road politicians who don’t really have anything to say.
You could have slipped the phrase – “the politics of failure have failed. We need to make them work again” into the speech – and nobody would have found the sentiment out of keeping with the gist of his political analysis. It would’ve still got a clap.
There were familiar Blairite buzzwords, which make the left of the party jumpy for obvious reasons. Under Sarwar, Labour will “unashamedly pro-business.” The “culture of defeatism” must end, he says. “We are not a debating society”, “winning matters” – a profound idea which I am sure hadn’t struck any party delegate before.
Having asserted “won’t win by talking to ourselves, about ourselves, or living off our past” – this inward-looking speech proceeded to spend a lot of time talking to the Labour Party, about the Labour Party.
There were some particularly curious lines. A favourite was “I love the Labour Party, and I love Scotland, and I am determined to change both” – because nothing expresses true affection than the demand for complete renovations. Try it out in your personal life. “Darling, I love you, and that’s why I’m determined to change you” is the motto many a divorce is made from.
Then one of the strangest. “I believe Scotland is the best nation on earth, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. We can be both proud of our country and reject the exceptionalism that we witness far too often.”
But is this really true? And is this what Scots – including Scots who’re independence-minded – really want to hear? Their internal polling has clearly identified a perceived patriotism gap in Labour’s political brand. But reading between the lines, it suggests to me that Sarwar and his colleagues still fundamentally misunderstand the forces which have driven their political collapse, and what they have to do to win back sympathetic attention.
Sarwar says his party “must own the future,” but this section reminded me a lot more of Jack McConnell’s description of Scotland as “the best wee country in the world.” McConnell was determined this couthy branding should be rolled out across the country back in 2004. I suppose he meant this to express a kind of plucky self-confidence, but it was a slogan which caused many Scots to cringe to the sphincter, and rightly so.
It isn’t true, for starters. In geographic terms, Scotland isn’t a particularly small country. If you roll out your atlas, an independent Scotland would be solidly in the band of middle-sized powers globally. Stretch out world population charts from largest to smallest populations – and we’d fall in the mid-range, alongside many other European nations.
But “best nation in the world”? From politicians who say they reject chauvinistic nationalism, it is singularly strange to hear this kind of patter. Just imagine how Scottish Labour would have reacted if Nicola Sturgeon made this kind of claim from the podium at the SNP conference. I suspect Ian Murray would be taking an aneurism on Twitter rather than sitting stony-faced in the party politburo. The Scottish Tories would respond in a characteristically animated fashion too. These are people who think being asked whether you are “Scottish” or “other British” in the census is some kind of separatist plot – people who think questions about whether you speak or comprehend Gaelic or Scots is a sinister development. They’d pop a gonad at the suggestion Scotland is “the best nation on earth.”
And you know, they might be right to do so, because it is a ridiculous thing to say. It is remarkable to traffic in this kind of exceptionalism, attribute it to your opponents, and then bounce into a critique of it in the same sentence. I can’t be the only person who wants Scottish self-government who just doesn’t think these terms. Just look at the demographic facts for one thing. Other parts of the world are healthier, better connected, better maintained, more developed, more equal, living longer than we are.
I don’t know anybody who thinks this country is perfect, pro-independence or otherwise. Indeed, it is precisely the imperfections which have convinced many of us that it matters who takes political decisions, and to conclude the democratic institutions of an independent Scotland would be better placed to recognise and address those failures. You don’t need to embrace facile slogans about being “the best nation on earth” to think we could govern ourselves better than the British state.
In keeping with Scottish Labour’s continuing determination to reject the constraints of political reality, Sarwar’s speech also leant heavily into the essentially anti-political bromides of “broken politics”. More inspiration drawn from Jack McConnell, I suppose. “You can’t have ambition for Scotland if you only want to speak to half of Scotland,” he argued, saying “that’s why the SNP is holding Scotland back. You can’t be a First Minister for all of Scotland if you are only interested in representing half of Scotland.”
He characterised Boris Johnson’s administration as their mirror south of the border. “Ultimately, we have two governments – the SNP and the Tories – that want to force you to pick a side. Well, the Labour Party I lead will always be on your side. We need to stop doing politics the way our opponents do it – pitting Scot against Scot, Yes against No, Remain against Leave, Holyrood against Westminster.”
Vote Scottish Labour to rise above the politics of politics and to make our politics unpolitical again. It is sorry, sorry stuff. The Sarwar schitck is that this represents some kind of mature political analysis. So let’s maturely contemplate what it means.
Will Scottish Labour be on the same side of the big landowners and the communities who want land reform? Will the party be on the same side as the energy developers, and the people objecting to the local developments? Will they be on the same side as people arguing for lower and higher taxes? Will they be on the same side as people who want to see more people in prison, and on the same side of those who think we should be jailing fewer people? Will they simultaneously support the workers on strike, and the employers whose decisions drove them to it? Facile barely covers it.
You can’t tell the public, on the one hand, that the current Westminster government are a gang of crooks corrupting public office and ruining the lives of thousands of vulnerable people across the country – and on the other, say that political divisions are a bad thing.
“Why can’t we all just get along?” is not profound political analysis. And worse, if Sarwar and Starmer are serious about finding ways to reknit the things which make the UK disunited, pretending that the disunity is created and cynically exploited by your opponents rather than representing widespread public feeling is flatly delusional.
Because fundamentally, this is a deeply patronising account of recent politics in the UK. Listening to Sarwar, you’d think these political disagreements are all the result of some kind of false consciousness his opponents have foisted on a passive and gullible electorate. The wicked Tories convinced the good-hearted British people to care about Brexit. The wicked Nats manufactured divisions between Scots on the constitutional future which would never otherwise have broken out.
This is of a piece with how the SNP is often positioned by unionist politicians in Scotland, who seem to struggle with the idea that independence is a mainstream political view actually held by a significant proportion of the people who live in this country. Pretending it is a party political obsession is just a self-deceiving way for them to ignore inconvenient facts of their political life, and to tell themselves and their supporters soothing fairy stories about how it will all pack up and pack in any day now.
“Conference, we will not win if we only seek to speak to those who already vote for us. We have to speak to those who may be thinking about voting SNP, Tory, LibDem or Green, and show them that we have changed. And prove to them that we are worthy of their support. That’s how we build the future and win again.”
Conspicuously absent, however, was any real suggestion about how this is to be achieved, or how Labour proposes to package its “change” in a way which could simultaneously appeal to progressive, eco-minded independence voters on the one hand, and pro-union social conservatives on the other. Particularly in circumstances when a senior member of the Orange Lodge is a-okay as a Labour candidate, but pro-indy party members are beyond the pale. It is one thing to say “we need to win more votes to win.” A year on, there are no signs that Sarwar has the faintest idea how to achieve this, any more than his predecessors did. Towards the end of his speech, he said “our best days lie ahead of us.” Wishful thinking, I think.