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Much ado about independence

In criticising McDonnell’s remarks on a second Scottish independence referendum, a group of Labour candidates are harking back to an outdated British nationalist outlook, says STEPHEN LOW

IT’S a long-established tradition in Edinburgh at this time of year that some douce petit bourgeois expresses outrage about a performance on the Festival Fringe. 

This is then taken up as a shock horror story by the media. It’s about as much of a ritual as the firing of the one o’clock gun. 

This year features some slight novelties though. The voice of the affronted Establishment isn’t a retired Tory councillor or free Presbyterian minister, but a clutch of would-be Labour candidates. 

The object of their ire is not some allegedly edgy comedian or student dramatist, but Labour’s shadow chancellor. 

And the offence isn’t, as per, jokes of questionable taste or underdressed theatricality, but a defence of basic democratic norms.

When being interviewed at a Fringe event on Tuesday John McDonnell MP was asked about his attitude to holding another Scottish independence referendum. 

The attitude of a Westminster Labour government matters here because to have any authority any future indy ref would, like the 2014 one, need to be agreed with the Westminster Parliament. 

McDonnell said: “It will be for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people to decide that,” adding: “We would not block something like that. We would let the Scottish people decide. That’s democracy.” 

You’ll note that he doesn’t say that he thinks there should be one — merely that if enough people in Scotland want one, then a Westminster government shouldn’t ignore that democratic mandate.

In what looks very like a confected fit of anger, some of Scottish Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidates publicly disowned McDonnell’s remarks.

In doing so they completely, and it seems very much deliberately, misinterpret what had been said. “We,” they say, “oppose another independence referendum.”

McDonnell had very pointedly not advocated another referendum, but merely stated that if enough people in Scotland want one, then a Westminster government shouldn’t ignore that democratic mandate.

Taken at face value, the only possible inference of the candidates’ statement in response to McDonnell’s remarks is that they think a future Labour government should block any future indy ref — regardless of the views of Scottish Parliament and electorate.

How does that square with any idea of democracy? No-one in Scottish Labour is keen on independence or having another referendum. 

It’s not so much just that they want Scotland to remain in the UK, it is that they are determined that any mechanism that could change that should be prevented — regardless of what Scottish people might think. 

This is a more extreme constitutional position than that held even by Margaret Thatcher, who accepted that Scotland had the right to leave the UK if that’s what people in Scotland wanted. 

Despite saying: “We do not see the answer to nationalism as being more nationalism,” what they are proposing is an adoption of a British nationalist outlook that harks back to the empire.

It’s an attitude that flies in the face of the principle of the rights of nations to self-determination that has been has a staple of political thought and action for over a century. 

That principle has been expressed and supported by politicians as diverse as Lenin and David Cameron. 

In fairness it can be argued that as an idea it isn’t the most fundamental of socialist principles. 

There have certainly been those over the years who have opposed it — Rosa Luxemburg being the obvious example. 

Of course she saw the whole notion of endorsing national identity as a distraction from the more important tasks of opposing war and dispossessing the bourgeoisie.

It’s fair to say that these aren’t causes close to the hearts of the Blair-era nostalgists so keen to criticise the shadow chancellor.

It is, though, the authoritarian nature of the “however you vote it will be overruled” attitude on display that is the more concerning thing. 

What is being demanded is that Labour should be using the mandates of MPs from the West Midlands and London to prevent the people of Scotland asking a question about their own future. 

It resembles the situation outlined famously in Brecht’s Die Loesung: would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?

Of course what this really shows is how politically bankrupt Labour’s right actually are. They, in concert with the Tories and SNP, are determined to keep the constitution at the forefront of debate, because froth about flags keeps social change off the agenda.

Scottish Labour shouldn’t fall for it.

Stephen Low is a member of the Scottish Labour Party.

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