Alasdair-McKillopAlasdair McKillop challenges Scottish Labour to accept and positively define its unionism, rather than to diminish it.


Scottish Labour – in its policies and against the backdrop of contemporary Scottish politics – is by any standard definition a unionist party. This strikes me as being an established political reality and to suggest otherwise invites further disillusionment.

Those who reject the label claim the party’s overriding objective is the furtherance of social justice. But by accepting this is best pursued within the framework of the UK, particularly at a time when its existence is fiercely contested, Scottish Labour is a utilitarian unionist party.

Scott Arthur, in his Labour Hame article contending this is not the case, made the case as follows:

“Sure [Scottish Labour] wants Scotland to stay in the UK, but this is because remaining in the UK, even when we have a Tory Government, is the best way to deliver social justice in the long-term.”

This struck me as a perfectly fair formation of that particular position. But surely to advance such an argument only to then try to convince people that you are not, in fact, a member of a unionist party, is to run the high risk of insulting their basic perception of Scottish politics? If you were to be met with a sceptical expression it would be well deserved in such circumstances.

To pretend Scottish Labour is other than a unionist party would appear duplicitous at a time when the public seemed disinclined to give the party the benefit of the doubt. Jim Murphy made this mistake in January when he stated he was not a unionist, a discordant remark given the high profile one-man tour he conducted during the referendum campaign.

Part of the problem with arguing that Scottish Labour is not a unionist party, as I think this would be commonly understood, is that the counter argument rests on the summoning of some phantom party that exists, so far as I can infer, only to fetishize the ornaments and institutions of the UK state. If this sounds exactly like a description of the Conservative Party then there is every chance you are being wilfully tribal. The truth is that mainstream Conservative rhetoric is as much concerned with the UK as a framework for action, albeit different action, as is official Labour policy.

It might be wise to recall, in relation to this point, that one of the main criticisms of the Better Together campaign was its failure to articulate what some referred to as an emotional or romantic case for the union. I’ve yet to hear or read any reasoned argument which is able to define the type of unionist party that Labour apparently is not. As has already been argued, unionism and the pursuit of social justice are not incompatible positions they just happen to relate to different issues. And we know they are not incompatible because current Labour party policy combines the two.

These existential mutterings about whether or not Scottish Labour is a unionist party are a symptom of discomfort with the practice of UK politics at a time of nationalist ascendancy in Scotland. Another is the suggestion that Scottish Labour should separate, to one degree or other, from UK Labour so as to better make the case for policies popular with the Scottish electorate. This possibility has been raised most recently by Kezia Dugdale, when launching her leadership campaign, and by former party leader Johann Lamont during an interview with the BBC. Before we know it, a clamour will be upon us.

Put simply, the idea has all the markings of a shallow quick-fix: it is political gimmickry which suggests little attention to the likely consequences of such a schism. Let’s begin with the observation that it accepts nationalist arguments that political attitudes north and south of the border are becoming ever more incompatible. Let’s also add that it will invite and receive in plentiful amount the quip that if Scottish Labour had to remove itself from a UK-wide institution to prosper then… you see where this is going.

The ultimate logic of the proposition is also unconvincing: would Scottish Labour MPs who had taken a different stance on an issue such as Trident, public spending or immigration to get elected to the UK Parliament really vote against a Labour Government when it came to the crunch? And if this were to happen the benefit would be what, precisely? Those are the questions voters will implicitly be invited to ask by the creation of any new organisation. It goes without saying that such questions will also be put explicitly by the SNP. No one can say with any certainty what would transpire in such a situation but the public will be guided to make certain assumptions. Instead of a new Scottish Labour organisation enticing voters back, it risks looking like a cynical ploy to collect votes on a false prospectus.

Note the reference to UK elections in the paragraph above. This of course reflects that fact that Scottish Labour already has the freedom to make policies in devolved areas of responsibility so a separate party could only hope to be of some benefit when it came to UK-level issues. Issues like those mentioned are undoubtedly used against Scottish Labour, but they are hardly the sole cause of the party’s misfortune. As Gemma Doyle argued in her half of a Progress article on this proposition that was republished on this website:

“The truth is that the Scottish Labour party has full free rein over all devolved policy making. But there has been very little to inspire voters in the way of devolved policies in recent years.”

This might strike some as a hard truth but I don’t think there is any disputing that it is indeed an accurate summary of the past eight years. The areas for which Scottish Labour already has policy-making control are also the areas for which the SNP has had governmental control for the past eight years. If policy autonomy alone were the solution then Scottish Labour would be preparing to demolish the poor record of a government limping towards the end of an extended second term. But this is seemingly not the case according to Kezia Dugdale who said on Saturday that Scottish Labour should be prepared for further electoral hardship next year.

Of course, it’s not only policy autonomy that is being proposed, but also the creation of a more emphatically separate organisation. If it is agreed that policy autonomy in devolved areas hasn’t produced significant results since 2007 then why should it be of any benefit in those areas than remain reserved? Does the argument in favour of a separate organisation ultimately rest on the assumption that voters will be sufficiently impressed by different labelling?

To return to Scott Arthur’s article, it should be noted he got something else exactly right: the SNP’s popularity is, to a large degree, an extension of support for independence. It seems fair to suggest that many of those who favour independence do so because they believe it offers a most promising framework for the creation of a more equitable society. That is to say, they are pursuing the same ends as those who believe social justice can best be advanced by remaining part of the UK. But the logical conclusion to be drawn from this is not the one drawn by Scott: Labour has little to gain by trying to convince those motivated to support independence on such terms of its own commitment to social justice. The basic point of conflict is not the end but the means by which it is pursued. To put it another way, stressing Labour’s commitment to social justice as a response to a nationalist supporter of the same concept is to fail to address the point of difference between the two positions.

I believe Scottish Labour to be a unionist party, but I have little idea of how it views the UK at the end of this period of constitutional flux. This strikes me as a crucial deficiency. On Twitter the other day, the author Philip Pullman said:

“The Labour Party must renew itself. And by far the best way to do that would be to become the party of thoroughgoing constitutional reform.”

If Scottish Labour wants to excite some ideas within itself and project an image of purpose to the electorate, it could do worse than to become clear-headed and assertive on the question of the future of the UK.