2011 has been a remarkable year in Scottish politics, with change the order of the day. Only the SNP of the major parties still has the same leader. And Alex Salmond has of course completely changed the game as regards the Scottish Parliament. In May the SNP won an outright majority of MSPs. Something that was not supposed to be possible with the Parliament’s partly PR voting system. Yet the SNP did just that and the other parties have been in disarray ever since. The LibDems and the Tories already have new leaders in Scotland. Though as yet neither Willie Rennie nor Ruth Davidson has shown any signs that they can offer any kind of sustained challenge to the SNP.
The latest party to elect a new leader in Scotland was the Labour Party. This time their new leader is not just the leader of the Parliamentary group in Holyrood, but is the leader of the whole party in Scotland, MPs included. At least that’s the claim. The new leader is Johann Lamont and as she was only elected last Saturday, there is no way of knowing just how she will perform as leader. However the challenges facing her and her party are enormous.
Independence - it’s all about Independence
Now that the SNP has an overall majority in the Parliament, they will be able to hold their promised referendum on Independence.This is due to be held sometime in the latter half of the parliamentary term, ie sometime in 2014. However the Unionist parties seem to have nothing else to talk about just now. They go endlessly on about why not hold the referendum now or why not get the UK government to hold one instead. All the Unionists seem to be running scared and have not as yet figured out how to challenge the SNP government. The more they talk about independence and the referendum the more they help the SNP. The real Independence campaign will probably not start in earnest until mid 2013 at the earliest.
Yet this will be the key, defining moment for Scotland for a generation. So the Unionists will need to get their act together if they are to save the Union. However things are not looking good. The Tories and the LibDems can be pretty much discounted as positive partners in any pro Union campaign. The Tories have never recovered from the Thatcher years and the LibDems are paying the price of sustaining the Tories at Westminster. Not to mention the rather important fact that these two parties are responsible for the largest and longest sustained attack on the living standards of ordinary folk. You wouldn’t really want any of that lot on your side. With friends like them, who needs enemies!
This leaves Labour as the only party that could mount a credible sustained campaign to keep Scotland in the UK. However even Labour has at least three major handicaps to overcome if it is to run a successful campaign. The first is the lack of talent on offer at the top of Scottish Labour. The few remaining well-known big hitters in the party are all at Westminster and none of them even considered standing for election. As the new leader is not just the leader in Holyrood but the overall leader of the party in Scotland, why did the likes of Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy or Alastair Darling not even bother to stand? I suspect that the main reason is that they recognize that the Scottish leader has to be at Holyrood. This is where Scottish politicians have most visibility. Not only that but most Scots like their own parliament in Edinburgh and indeed, by all accounts would like it to have more powers. It would simply send the wrong message if Labour was to elect a Westminster MP as its leader in Scotland. This however does nothing to hide the lack of talent among Labour’s MSPs. The party has just suffered its worst ever defeat in Scotland and yet the new leadership comes from the very MSPs who led the party into this catastrophic reverse. Not much hope for renewed leadership or inspiration.
The second problem that Labour has to overcome is that the party is still blamed by large numbers of voters as the party most responsible for getting the country into the economic mess we are in. This is not just a problem for Labour in Scotland, but the inability of Labour UK to offer a credible alternative to the Tory/LibDem cuts is likely to damage Labour more in Scotland than elsewhere. As in Scotland the deeper problem is that by and large the very MPs who were key figures in the previous Labour government - the one that got us into this mess - are still around in the top positions. They may have shuffled the pack a bit, but the team and the message is essentially the same. And having lost on this programme in 2010, there is not much reason to expect a different result in 2015.
This is particularly damaging for Labour in Scotland as the party benefitted enormously from an anti Tory vote in 2010. Desperate to prevent the arrival of another hated Tory government at Westminster, Scots voted in large numbers for Labour. Yet, despite this ringing endorsement in Scotland, Scotland still ended up with a Tory government, albeit in coalition with the LibDems. Labour can never again go into an election claiming that only Labour can protect Scotland from the Tories. Even if everybody in Scotland were to vote Labour in 2015, the likelihood is that we will still have a Tory led government to contend with.
When it comes to standing up for Scotland, none of the Unionist parties can really make a convincing claim to do this. They are all, after all is said and done, just branch parties of UK parties. They are all committed to the UK. This is their biggest problem. They all put the UK first and Scotland second. While the overwhelming majority of Scots put Scotland first. This is true for most Unionist voters who want their parties to represent Scotland at Westminster and not to represent Westminster in Scotland.
This is most clearly seen in the debate, or rather lack of debate, about fiscal autonomy or devolution max, or whatever you want to call it. Give the Scottish Parliament control over all or nearly all taxes is what most Scots want, according to opinion surveys. Yet none of the Unionist parties is remotely interested in this option. As the parties of government at Westminster the Tories and the LibDems could legislate for this now. It is a policy which fits perfectly with both parties basic philosophy. The Tories preach fiscal responsibility and want people to stand on their own feet etc. While the LibDems are full of rhetoric about their commitment to Federalism. Yet in power they do nothing of substance. Why? Presumably because it does not suit their leaders at Westminster. The same is true of Labour, who have shown no interest in this option. The only conclusion that I, and I suspect many others will draw is that the Unionist parties are more interested in the UK and Scotland comes a very poor second in their list of priorities.