Power in a Union

In the first article for the Scottish Young Fabians blog take over, Dominic McGinley makes the case for unionism. 

Scottish Labour tends to trip over its own feet when discussing the Union. We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve looked in disbelief at double-digit swings from Labour to SNP in working-class constituencies. In response, the party has quietly been split between those who think embracing another Independence Referendum will miraculously have the Nationalist masses hurrying back to the fold, and those who wish to consolidate the base - all 18% of it - by doubling-down on the Union. Our nervous position in recent times has been to support the Union… but not very much. It seems as if we resolve to reject an Independence Referendum, but to look pensively into the middle-distance as we do so.

The calculation is simple. Our present voters are: old people who vote Labour tribally; young people who vote Labour trendily; and middle-class Unionists who vote Labour because they can’t decide whether they dislike Tories or Nationalists more. The second group are often wishy-washy on the Union, the third are firmly in favour. Any expansion of our vote can either encompass working-class SNP voters in one direction, or middle-class Liberals and Tories in the other. It’s difficult to see how we can persuade both of these camps at once.

It’s easy to see, however, that the present stance won’t do. It’s like feeling awkward about picking red or black at the Roulette table, so putting your money on green. Not even that: as the ball rolls around the wheel, it’s like telling the other gamblers that whether it’s red or black isn’t the most important issue at stake, but that actually the dress code and price of car-parking are what we should all be focussing on right now. All very laudable, but buttering few electoral parsnips. Talking about food poverty from Holyrood’s third-party ‘corner of shame’ achieves nothing, if the electorate can’t take us seriously.

The debate over Brexit taught us the dangers of sitting on the fence on constitutional issues: it’s pointless, cowardly and disingenuous to smile at both sides, or pretend that we’re in favour of neither. Like the world’s most tragic magicians, we hope that slight-of-hand will satisfy the audience: instead they feel cheated, and insulted that we can’t tell the truth.

Does the answer lie, as a few MSPs have posited, with support for a second Independence Referendum? Ostensibly, this strategy is attractive: we’ll make a pompous Wilsonian self-determination argument, and we can win back the voters we’re used to representing. But it rests on the fallacy that recasting Labour as a Poundland SNP will attract those voters. There’s no evidence that Nationalist voters care first-and-foremost about left-right arguments – if they did, they’d desert the party whose record of burgeoning social inequality is hardly endearing.

Instead the SNP have found a sweet spot of public opinion, based on a facile narrative of grievance. They still present themselves as a party of opposition, after 13 years in Government. As long as this story goes unchallenged, the effectiveness of their snake-oil salesmanship shows no sign of letting up. The nebulous group of voters to whom a newly Nationalist Labour Party would theoretically appeal, disaffected socialist SNP voters, don’t seem to exist. Arguably, the Greens already occupy this space (2016 share: 6%, 2019 share: 1%). Adopting a policy of passive nationalism would lose the support of Unionists, with a corresponding rise in support amongst Nationalists far from certain.

If we look embarrassed to be Unionists, we serve the Nationalist narrative that Independence is the only route to socialism. If the party makes a bold, left-wing case for the Union, it is more likely to persuade SNP voters to back Labour. If it gives up on the old strategy of hoping left-wing voters will sense the ideological vacuum within the SNP, and instead attempts to persuade them that socialism and Unionism are not mutually exclusive, it may have more success. If it can assume the role of Scotland’s main Unionist party, showing Unionists that the Tories are a cause of SNP success, not a cure, it will stand a chance of building an electoral coalition. In short, if the party puts the progressive case for Unionism, it can stop accommodating, and start persuading.

Dominic McGinley is the Youth Officer of Dunfermline CLP who, grades permitting, will be studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics from October. He also sits on the Executive Committee of the European Movement in Scotland. 

Do you like this post?