28 January 2020
By Richard Leonard
If Scotland had Home Rule within the UK, it could allow us to make many of the changes that SNP voters want to see, writes Richard Leonard.
In Parliament tomorrow, Nicola Sturgeon will open a debate on “Scotland’s future”. According to Government briefings written up in the Scottish press, this will involve a “major push” for a second independence referendum. Appearing on TV at the weekend, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said that his party would seek to “mobilise public opinion” behind a fresh vote.
Of course, this will come as no surprise to anyone in Scotland: mobilising for independence is the SNP’s raison d’etre. But far from developing our national horizon, I believe the SNP’s approach this week shows just how limited its ambition really is.
I have made no secret of the fact that I fear for Scotland’s future, and that of the whole UK, under Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government. I fear as well for the future of the planet unless we seize the initiative and act radically and justly now.
But when I was invited to set out my vision for Scotland’s future to the Citizens Assembly of Scotland the weekend before last, I knew that fear alone is not enough – nor should it be. Because the people of this country look to politicians for hope – for an alternative – and if we cannot set out a roadmap for change, we may as well step aside.
So I spoke of my vision for a Scotland that is more equal, more tolerant, and free from fear: fear of poverty; fear of homelessness; fear of hunger and the fear of physical squalor amidst the huge inequalities of wealth.
Tories and SNP inflaming tensions
At the Golden Jubilee Hotel in Clydebank, where the assembly is sitting over a series of weekend sessions, Professor Chris McCorkindale and Dr Alan Renwick set out the constitutional framework which we inhabit. And then John Sturrock QC introduced the panel of political speakers by setting out the constitutional debates which currently occupy us so much.
Each of us made a five-minute pitch to the assembly members, who have been chosen from the ranks of the public to represent Scotland in all its diversity.
But when the microphones moved to the floor, there was a marked change of mood – with citizen after citizen calling on the politicians to address the social, economic and environmental challenges facing our society.
The focus of these contributions reinforced something I have felt for some time: that the public discourse on Scotland’s future is upside down. I oppose Scottish independence because I firmly believe a Home Rule settlement within the UK would offer us the best opportunities for transformative change. And I am energised by this prospect now more than ever because I believe that the visions for Scotland proffered by both the Tories and the SNP will only inflame the divisions in our society – not resolve them.
But far too much of the debate, whether at Holyrood, on election campaign trails, or on the pages of our newspapers, treats constitutional settlements not as means to ends, but as ends in themselves.
A desire for change
I accept that Labour’s message on both Brexit and Scottish independence did not cut through last autumn, and we are actively discussing this as part of a review into our defeat. But if we are to be honest with the people of Scotland, we must resist the temptation to applaud either Boris Johnson’s “get Brexit done” message or Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum, simply because both were electorally successful.
For it is apparent that on December 12, Scotland voted for change. Scottish Labour needs to reflect on why the people of Scotland no longer see Labour as the vehicle for their ambitions to transform society, but it would be a mistake to see these ambitions as simply constitutional. I met voters who told me they were opting for the SNP to challenge the Tory Government, to defy the political establishment or to stop Brexit.
And so it is no good for the SNP to be summarily dismissed as a party of the right masquerading as a party on the left – accurate as that may be. We cannot get away from the fact that many voters – including large numbers of former Labour voters – have turned to the SNP to articulate their desire for change. And I believe that Home Rule within the UK could allow us to make many of the changes that SNP voters want to see, particularly in making Scotland a fairer society in which the Government intervenes to support our public services and grow and reform our economic base, not least in using the considerable powers which already rest with the Scottish Parliament.
Bringing Scotland together
And much as the SNP presents independence as a panacea, it is clear from their own so-called Sustainable Growth Commission that it would exacerbate – not reverse – many of the injustices of the past decade. The party’s economic blueprint, by their own admission, would yield ten more years of cuts. Supporters of independence tell us that need not be the case, that after separation we could chart a different course. But surely it’s the other way round: the SNP should be setting out the kind of society and economy it wants to create, and its constitutional offer should follow. If that’s the society and economy that the Growth Commission sets out, then perhaps independence is the way to create it: but that’s a startling lack of aspiration from a so-called party of Scotland.
I’ve been told that at a time of constitutional polarisation, our vision for Scotland is not workable, but I firmly believe it is the only way to bring our country together, rather than further entrench the divisions of the past ten years.
And if earlier generations had not possessed vision, and campaigned with conviction, there would be no NHS, no welfare state, no equal rights, no Open University, no full employment, no publicly owned housing. Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson might offer quick fixes, but our times are crying out for long-term vision, courage and ambition.
Richard Leonard is Scottish Labour party leader and an MSP for Central Scotland.
You can access the full article on The Scotsman website here.