Tommy Sheppard MP: Keir Starmer’s attacks on the SNP show a great deal of ignorance

'No-one believes that Nicola Sturgeon is a Scottish Boris Johnson. Starmer doesn’t believe it himself. Yet, the Labour leadership tries to sell this fable.'

Nicola Sturgeon

Tommy Sheppard is a Scottish National Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh East since May 2015.

It is really quite astonishing just how incapable the Labour Party seem to be in addressing their problems in Scotland. For a man of obvious intelligence, Keir Starmer demonstrates a remarkable lack of empathy or understanding of politics north of the border.

His recent essay and conference speech barely mentioned Scotland. The gist of his analysis was that the Scottish SNP government is as bad as the UK Tory government and Labour offers Scots an alternative to both.

The first problem with this is that it blames the electorate. The SNP have won the past four general elections to the Scottish parliament. This happened because people, including many former Labour supporters, voted SNP. Labour needs to ask itself why?

Starmer’s plague on both their houses approach implies there is an equivalence between the Scottish and Westminster governments, not just in the content of their programme, but in their capacity and authority to condition our lives.

That is just not true. The Scottish government, as the recent supreme court ruling demonstrates, is a subsidiary body to its Westminster creator. It’s limited and constrained legally and financially. Most taxation, overall economic policy, energy subsidies and regulation, trading agreements, foreign wars, even who can live here, are matters over which Holyrood has no control.

The Scottish government does, however, control many public services. So, is it fair to say that the Scottish government is as bad as the Tories when it comes to health, education, transport etc.? Some will say yes. But Labour’s problem is that many people in Scotland have friends and family in England.  They see that things are different. Not perfect, but definitely not the same.

The Scottish government uses its limited powers over taxation to make systems more progressive. So top earners do pay higher rates of income tax; buying big houses does cost more in Scotland. More is spent too. Personal care for everyone over 65 – and younger vulnerable adults – is free in Scotland. Those who’ve lived here for over two years get free tuition at our universities. Our health service spends more per head, pays staff more, and has better performance than that south of the border.

And on matters over which it technically has no competence, the Scottish government tries to mitigate UK policy where it can. The discretionary housing fund has almost neutered the bedroom tax, the Scottish child payment tops up the poorest incomes, planning powers are used to effectively ban fracking.

No-one believes that Nicola Sturgeon is a Scottish Boris Johnson. Starmer doesn’t believe it himself. Yet, the Labour leadership tries to sell this fable. They talk of two nationalisms, each as bad as each other.

Even dogs in the street know there’s no equivalence between the British exceptionalism practiced by the Tories and the civic nationalism that is now the majority credo in Scotland. One seeks to extol the attitudes and ambition of empire, the other to be rid of them.

The Tories want to separate Britain from the world, a glorious isolation protected by harsher borders and prejudice. The SNP invite everyone to come join in the adventure of creating a new country. Not just to build a fairer, more equal society at home but to forge new international relationships, placing ourselves at the heart of an inter-dependent world.

That compelling vision is in the driving seat in Scottish politics. A progressive notion based on social justice and democratic participation. This is what Keir fails to understand. This is not a policy that is forced upon the electorate. In many ways, the SNP is the political wing of a social movement that goes far beyond its own supporters. Once upon a time, that was the Labour Party.

But it doesn’t really matter what Keir Starmer, or I, believe. What matters is what the people decide. Over seven years ago people voted in a referendum on Scotland becoming politically independent. They voted to remain part of the UK based on a prospectus that turned out to be false. Now they want to vote again.

That is what the election this May was about above all else. People voted in record numbers for parties pledged to having another independence referendum. The new Scottish parliament has 73 out of 129 members elected on this basis and now supporting an SNP/Green government.

In most democratic systems that would be the end of the matter. Indeed, in most democratic systems, were the newly elected government not to pursue its central manifesto promise there would rightly be outrage.

So, I say to Keir Starmer, do not deny democracy. I know that Labour fought the election opposed to another referendum. That was a legitimate position. But not one shared by the electorate. Now that the election is over the result should be respected. Anything else will see Labour move even farther away from those whose support it once had.

Once this winter is over and Covid is in the rear-view mirror, the Scottish government will set the timetable for the new referendum. It will happen most likely in the second half of 2023. Whatever the limits on the Scottish Parliament’s power to declare independence, it most certainly has the authority to consult the electorate on how they think the country should be governed. Powerful forces will attempt to block that consultation – I hope that Labour won’t be one of them.

Full disclosure. I don’t really mind whether Labour heeds this advice or not. In many ways continuing along its current path will merely fuel support for my party and enshrine Labour’s minority position in Scotland. The SNP has become Scotland’s principal social-democratic party and I am confident that those interests will be advanced here.

Nor do I follow the argument that Labour must win in Scotland to win in the UK. Labour has won UK general elections three times in the last 25 years without depending on Scottish votes. Besides, SNP members of parliament will never vote to install a Tory PM.

But I am concerned about Labour in England. Scotland will become a self-governing country. And when it does it will be very much in our interests to have our nearest neighbour run by a left of centre government. That would enhance the creation of a new productive partnership between nations of Britain to replace the moribund unitary state of the UK. We need to think about that future relationship now. It can only be built on respect and tolerance.

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