Kieran Wright shows how Scottish Workers adopted a less left-leaning justification for their stand on constitutional issues in the years after the party lost power to the Scottish National Party. As a result, the party failed to present itself as a clear center-left alternative to the SNP and downplayed the progressive case for Scotland’s remaining UK.
The results of the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections will determine whether Britain remains united for longer. If the Scottish National Party continues its success in the recent elections, the demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence is likely to increase. The recent success of the SNP is due in large part to the fact that the SNP has been more successful than the Scottish Worker in arguing that the preferred answer to the constitutional question is the best route Scotland uses to pursue a social democratic policy. Consequently, challenging this argument is essential if Labor is to reclaim a significant segment of the support that has been lost to the SNP in recent decades.
In my research, I use the language used by elected representatives in the First Ministerial Question (FMQs) session in the Scottish Parliament as an indicator of the strategic approach Labor and the SNP are pursuing, starting with the first session in 2000 and ending with the last. session before Holyrood 2016. Until 2007, the Labor Party’s strategy was to frame its stance on constitutional issues with reference to the party’s progressive identity. He argued that remaining in England was the best route to Scotland which benefited from a progressive center-left policy, and characterized independence as a distraction from the pursuit of progressive goals such as overcoming poverty. Losing power to the SNP in May 2007 appears to have prompted the Labor Party to change this strategy and increase the extent to which it questions economic viability and the desire for independence rather than the progressive credentials of those who support it.
The strategic approach adopted by Workforce can be obtained by counting the number of times certain key words appear in the written record of contributions to FMQs sessions by Labor representatives. An important part of Labor’s pre-2007 strategy to question the progressive credentials of the SNP refers to the latter being labeled ‘nationalist’ the party seems aloof. It makes a simple count of the number of times the party MSP has used the term as one way of tracking the extent to which Labor has adopted the strategy. Likewise, a search for the use of the term ‘poverty’ provides an indication of the extent to which party representatives use profanity from a center-left stance, as it is a word used disproportionately by those on the left of the political spectrum. . Meanwhile, the use of the word ‘currency’ provides an indicator of the extent to which Labor has adopted a strategy of questioning the economic viability of Scotland’s independence, the issue of which currency the newly independent Scotland will adopt is an important aspect of economic criticism of independence.
The results presented in Figure 1 clearly show the MSP of Labor using the terms ‘poverty’ and ‘nationalist’ up to and including 2007, followed by a dramatic decline after the party went into opposition. In 2011, the use of the term ‘poverty’ began to increase again, but there was no accompanying increase in the use of the term ‘nationalist’. The Labor Party does not appear to have returned to its pre-2007 strategy of trying to associate the SNP with non-progressive ideology. In contrast, the use of the term currency is increasing, indicating that the party is increasingly using strategy to criticize the SNP’s stance on economic grounds.
Picture 1: Total use of the terms ‘nationalist’, ‘currency’ and ‘poverty’ by Labor representatives during their First Ministerial Inquiry Session in Scottish Parliament 2000-2016
I argue that the increased focus on the economic case against independence has undermined Worker’s ability to present itself as a distinctly center-left party relative to the SNP. Center-left politicians tend to speak positively about their ability to deliver improvements to public services. In contrast, the center-right emphasizes financial constraints where the goal of better public services must be pursued. In focusing on the economic constraints on which independent Scotland would be forced to operate, the Scottish Workforce uses a language much redder than center-right.
The negativity of the arguments raised by the Labor Party can also be seen as undermining any attempts by the party to present itself to be at least as pro-Scotland as the SNP. In focusing on the things Scotland do not as an independent country and not to what it could have as a part of Britain, the Labor Party allowed the SNP case that independence was a more positive, pro-Scottish and progressive answer to the constitutional question to be relatively unchallenged.
There is evidence to suggest that the type of Labor Party and SNP imagery projected during the study period had an impact on public perceptions of each party’s policy identity. Poll data from the British Election Study pointing out that during the year the independence referendum took place, when Labor’s association with criticism of the idea of economic independence would be so prominent, Scottish public opinion shifted from seeing Labor as the left-wing party of the main Scottish party to seeing the SNP occupy that position.
The example of splitting the former Czechoslovakia into its parts shows the potential effect of a large number of voters believing that they can only have the economic policies they want through territorial separation. In that example, Slovak voters who were hostile to free market reforms introduced after the collapse of communism felt that they could only block those reforms by breaking away from Czechoslovakia, and this happened despite their little pre-existing desire for Slovak independence. The fate of Czechoslovakia shows that a multi-national state like Britain can only survive if there is a maximum potential for all kinds of political contestation to occur within an existing constitutional framework. In the Scottish context, this means that the SNP’s strategy of characterizing social democratic goals as most attainable through an independent Scotland is not to be denied. The role of the Scottish Workers must provide that challenge. It must be argued for a positive and progressive case for the union.
Note: above refers to the author published works in Parliamentary Affairs.