Something quite dramatic and very significant happened in the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future last week. The leader of Scottish Labour followed quickly by the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats said that their members would now be free to support a ‘Yes’ cause in any future referendum. This is huge, not just for the fact that it is now ‘alright’ to support independence in once firm unionist parties. It is huge because new rules of engagement are shaping up and the parameters of the debate are being redefined.
I suppose we always knew it would happen. Labour being so totally set against their former voters and on the same side as the Tories on something so important as independence was always totally unsustainable and has practically killed them. It is so blindingly obvious that their firm and unequivocal unionist position would have to be addressed.
We surely aren’t too far away from the first serious Labour politicians coming forward to express support for independence. Measured at first, this will grow into a meaningful movement and voice within their party. Most of the voices associated with unconditional unionism are now gone, having been rejected, defeated and voted out. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who have recently joined Labour are a bit more adept, informed and accommodating than the SLab dinosaurs of yore.
We will then move towards a place where we can look forward to a ‘Yes’ position being a broad movement of SNP, Green, ‘Labour for independence’ and some Liberals. It will look very much like the Yes campaign in the referendum for the Scottish Parliament but even more like the campaign for a Scottish Assembly in 1979. There will always be a strong unionist voice within Labour and that is fine and should be respected. In the Scottish Assembly campaign in 79 there were Labour campaigns for and against devolution. Similarly there will be opposing Labour campaigns for and against Scottish independence.
The No side in the future will primarily be the Tories with assorted ideological unionists from the other parties. Nearly all Tory voters voted No and other than the SNP they are the one party that is comfortable with their constitutional position. Again, looking at historical precedents a future No campaign will look very much like the No campaign of 97 when the Tories were almost alone as the voice and face of opposition to the Scottish Parliament.
There is of course the temptation to over emphasise the impact of political parties positions on referendums but it should not be ignored. Where ‘Better Together’ could barely be more dysfunctional in its almost clown like approach to the referendum I believe that the Scottish people found a broad cross party campaign attractive. People will always pay attention to the politicians they recently voted for but more than that it set the parameters for the debate and influenced the media coverage.
The next referendum will be very different and the realignment that is currently being undertaken is fascinating. The Scottish people aren’t through with this yet and there will be another referendum. Scotland’’s politicians better start to think about which side they are going to be on.