Friday 9 August 2019 4:50 am

John McDonnell has put a nationalist cat among the Scottish pigeons

Labour has a problem – and for once it isn’t antisemitism.

This time, it’s second-in-command John McDonnell, who this week defied party policy and threw a spanner in the constitutional works by declaring that he backed allowing Scotland to vote again on independence. 

Speaking at an event at the Edinburgh Fringe (a festival more commonly associated with comedy than politics), the shadow chancellor announced that a second referendum “will be for the Scottish parliament and the Scottish people to decide”, saying “that’s democracy”.

It’s “democracy” that is top of the agenda right now, after a YouGov poll on Monday showed that 52 per cent of Scottish voters now support independence. 


The trouble is that a second vote can only happen if the government in Westminster were to allow it, and Labour’s official stance, at least up until this week, is not to. 

Indeed, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard was caught entirely unawares by McDonnell’s unsanctioned comments. He hit back hard, insisting that a second referendum was “unwanted by the people of Scotland”, in spite of the poll, and on Thursday Scottish Labour issued a statement criticising the national party for the apparent about-turn, courtesy of McDonnell.

The terror for Scottish Labour is real. The party is currently in third place behind the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives in terms of both Holyrood and Westminster seats, and while the SNP remains independence-obsessed, the Tories north of the border have become the leading party of Scottish unionism. 

Labour’s wavering on the issue makes the Tories the only real choice for Scots who want to remain part of the UK, leaving Leonard and his team little to offer. But right now, McDonnell has an obvious motive for throwing a nationalist cat among the Scottish Labour pigeons. 

Anti-Brexit factions in parliament are mulling over a vote of no confidence in the new Prime Minister as soon as recess is over. They are hoping for either a government of national unity or a General Election to oust Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers before the 31 October deadline. 

Either way, Labour will need the support of the other parties in Westminster. And with 35 MPs, the SNP is its most important ally.

Of course, backing another independence vote gives the Conservatives a fresh line of attack in the looming election (“a vote for Labour is a vote to split up the UK”). 


But McDonnell seems to have made a calculation that keeping the SNP on side with the carrot of a referendum is a short-term sacrifice worth making for the sake of bringing down the Tories. 

And given Labour’s slow slide towards support for a different referendum rerun, this time on Brexit, it makes a certain amount of sense. If one result should be replayed because people didn’t know what they were voting for and the situation has changed, why should the other remain inviolate for all of time?

Those who fall into the cognitively dissonant position of backing a people’s vote while opposing another Scotland poll will inevitably argue that the situations are different, for any number of reasons ranging from Russian interference to an apocalyptic threat to the economy. 

But logically, if you believe that some people should have the chance to change their minds, it’s hard to argue that others should not – which is why Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who was a passionate Remainer, has made her opposition to another Brexit vote irrefutably clear.

Lest anyone think such mental gymnastics are observable only in the pro-EU camp, it’s worth looking at the unionist Brexiteers who are plentiful in the Conservative party, particularly in parliament. 

If the key reason for Brexit (as cited by a range of subsequent polls) was to reclaim sovereignty, even at the potential cost of a short-term economic shock, then Scotland has as much right to detach itself from Westminster’s clutches as the UK does from Brussels’.

That’s exactly the case that first minister Nicola Sturgeon has spent three years making, demanding that Scotland’s voice be heard in negotiations (whatever that means) and using every Brexit setback as proof that her nation deserves independence from Westminster. 

It’s working. The EU shenanigans do indeed seem to be gradually bolstering the nationalist cause, as the latest poll shows. But Sturgeon’s drum-banging also appears to be weakening support for the union beyond Scotland’s borders. 

In the midst of the leadership contest, a survey of Tory members found that 63 per cent would be quite happy to see Scotland secede, if that were the cost of the kind of Brexit they wanted. 

These are the people who put Boris in office, and ultimately they are the electorate to whom he answers.

While most Brits still support the union, then, they find themselves at odds with the stances of the three biggest parties. 

The SNP obviously backs Scottish independence; the Conservative MPs do not but many of their members believe it a price worth paying for Brexit; and now Labour is playing with nationalist fire in a gamble to get their man into Number 10.

So are we headed for the break-up of Great Britain? In the game of three-dimensional Brexit chess, predictions are futile.

But don’t be too surprised if McDonnell’s shock intervention has repercussions that go far beyond the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – and for anyone who believes in the integrity of the United Kingdom, the joke may be on us.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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