(Written 30th September)
Both the new Labour Leader and the over-zealous, independence obsessed social media patrol have got it wrong on Scotland and Jeremy Corbyn respectively.
Since appearing on the Andrew Marr show on the eve of the annual Labour conference last Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn’s performance has been heaped with praise – both by his supporters on social media as well as some of the most stringent critics of his policies – for its straight talking, no nonsense approach that hallmarks the Labour leader’s public interactions.
However, his comments on the SNP and Scottish secession received far less enthusiasm from within the independence support base.
Marr suggested that he held common ground with the SNP and the wider independence movement on policies such as trident and the economy, and cited Corbyn’s alleged unionist leanings as the only impediment between them and the new Labour leader.
Corbyn said that the SNP had “a headline in that they’re opposed to austerity” but that he was yet to see “the economic strategy behind it which doesn’t either continue the austerity that’s happening now.” And went onto detail examples of the SNP’s underlying pr
Naturally, this assertion that the SNP was merely engaged in populist posturing under ‘an austerity badge’ without the policies to match, was immediately dubbed ‘ill informed’ and the allegations of quietly pandering to austerity rebutted by the party, its supporters, and various pro-independence new media outlets and blogs.
All fine and civil and polite and to be expected.
And then came the Cybernats.
The sudden barrage of abuse aimed at Corbyn that came pouring on social media was inundated with charges of Unionist! Britnat! Snake! Red Tory! Liar! and other similar invectives…
Of course, ensuing headlines full of self serving spin around Corbyn’s stance on the SNP from the anti-SNP and anti-Corbyn media did little to stem the tide of flooding vitriol coming in form all quarters on social media.
But such fringe fanaticism is self-explanatory, and putting is to one side, it is not impossible to see why Corbyn’s position on Scotland has caused the different degrees of disgruntlement among secessionists. Briefly addressing the Scottish electorate during his first Labour conference speech on Tuesday, Corbyn said that he understood that Labour had disappointed Scotland, that he agreed that it had lost its way and that they needed to “renew our party in Scotland”.
However, his method to do this seems to be to rely on the counsel of Kezia Dugdale, the recently elected Scottish Labour leader under whose leadership support for the party in Scotland continues to decline, and who as former leader Jim Murphy’s deputy campaigned alongside the Conservative party against Scottish independence. Dugdale represents everything that is wanting in Scottish Labour and Jeremy’s assertion that “under Kezia and my leadership, it will change” could have only seemed like a badly timed joke to Scottish voters.
It’s clear that Scotland, and the democratic deficit which lies behind the case for independence is unfamiliar territory for Jeremy Corbyn. But it seems that poor briefing rather than a penchant for “Red Tory” unionism is responsible for his repeated blunders on the Scottish question.
In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if most of his knowledge of Scotland comes from Scottish Labour MPs like Neil Findlay, a left leaning Unionist who seems to suffer from selective amnesia concerning Dugdale’s inconsistency on Corbyn’s potency as head of party before and after his victory.
But lack of awareness of Scotland’s political landscape, a weary affliction widespread among even the most well-meaning sections of political classes south of the border, does not warrant the slurs of “Liar politician” and “Red Tory” being slung his way by (the vociferous minority of) independence zealots that are collectively known as ‘Cybernats’. Nor does he deserve the likening of his financial policies with the Conservative party’s havoc wreaking agenda of austerity by the SNP and its wider (and far more moderate) base of devotees.
After all, here is a man who rose from backbench obscurity to parliamentary prominence as the leader of a party whose whip he defied 500 times during the course of his political career. A man who was arrested for demonstrating against South African apartheid; who stood outside the Iraqi embassy protesting Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against the Kurds while the British government armed the former; and whose voting record, whether defying the Labour whip against Conservative welfare reforms or against the Iraq war, smacks of anything but a Tory tendency.
The fact that someone like Corbyn-whose commitment to social justice is as evident in policy as it is in his own rousing rhetoric- now leads one of the two main parties at Westminster must surely be cause for celebration rather than scorn or concern. Surely such credentials must deeply resonate with the similarly anti austerity, socially democratic styled SNP.
So despite his ignorance of the Scottish political landscape, such allegations do little in the way of constructive debate simply because after skimming the Islington MP’s record in parliament for the last thirty years, calling him any kind of Tory, whether red or blue, is no less implausible than branding Nicola Sturgeon a Unionist.
But that said, there were plenty of measured responses from independence supporters who were disappointed at his lack of understanding of the Scottish perspective. For the leader of a party that aims to win back the votes it lost in Scotland, they provided much food for thought.
Broadcaster and journalist Lesley Riddoch wrote that Corbyn “showed no evidence of innovation, recent thinking or even some enthusiasm for resolving the “Scottish question” ’’ and then asked the pertinent question; “How can grassroots politics, self-determination and federalism be right for policy formation, the future of Ireland and the Labour Party itself – but not for Scotland?”
The National’s view was that while “Corbyn’s down-to-earth, thoughtful brand of politics was a much welcome change from the usual spin and smear of Westminster”, his stand against austerity and policies like “ non-intervention in the Middle East, Trident” resonated with readers of the only daily independence supporting newspaper in Scotland, it was “disheartening to see him reel off the same tired lines about the SNP yesterday.”
It’s true, as Corbyn stated on Marr, that flags don’t build houses. But it’s also true that Labour didn’t build very many houses while in power in Scotland and neither has the present Conservative government. And yes, Corbyn has plans to change that as he heads Labour’s new social housing campaign, something to be welcomed by all who wish to see steps towards a more equitable society.
But that is exactly why Corbyn needs to understand the case for Scottish Independence, even if he disagrees with the premise: because the lack of social justice, while a mainstay of the Yes campaign’s drive for independence far from dominated the grounds for seeking self determination.
The democratic deficit, whereby whatever way the Scottish electorate votes in general elections will never make any difference to the overall result, lies at the heart of the independence argument. And a pro-federalist, united Ireland inclined progressive like Jeremy Corbyn should understand that the principle behind this disparity means that Scotland cannot sit on its hands and wait every five years on the off chance that another inclusive democrat appears and delivers a socially just United Kingdom in which all its member nations can thrive.
And that crucially-something which has escaped members of the commentariat like Andrew Marr- it was the grassroots groups and new media platforms galvanised through the referendum campaign that were and continue to be the driving force behind Scotland’s political awakening and the SNP’s sweeping general election victory.
And Jeremy Corbyn has demonstrated that he understands the importance of reaching out to those who possess conflicting beliefs to his own. In the name of that very plurality his shadow cabinet composes of Blairites and those with views diametrically opposed to his on policies as far ranging as defence, the economy and public services. In keeping with this open spirit, perhaps he should think about extending that same hand of friendship towards Scotland’s increasingly popular independence movement.
It doesn’t sound fantastical. Jeremy Corbyn closed his speech to conference yesterday by paying tribute to a Scot; “The last bearded man to lead the Labour party was a wonderful, great Scotsman, Kier Hardy.”
It’s hard to imagine any of Labour’s leaders of the past two decades, drenched in Blairite devotion, invoking the party’s working-class, Scottish founder in such a manner.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, breaking through the pervasive trend of deep-rooted ignorance over Scotland’s political landscape among the Westminster classes looks more feasible than ever.
It’s merely a case of both parties sitting down and listening to one another’s narrative, instead of indulging in or being influenced by accusatory sound bites.