The Labour Party in Scotland, partly in response to needing to differentiate themselves from the UK party in the context of devolution, adopted a position against the renewal of Trident and in favour of nuclear disarmament.
Yes indeed. And there have been no debates on Trident in particular or nukes in general at any Labour party conference, Scottish or otherwise, since. Even the reflex of declaring a degree of “independence “ from the Westminster party line is nothing new in and of itself. We’ve already had the “New” Clause Four earlier this year…though that seems an aeon ago now…
So while there was nothing new in principle in the party effectively confirming what was already “policy” in principle, there was a good deal of difference in the context of the debate, and maybe even the meaning of its result. And again, a reflex that has been exercised with an immediate electoral objective has a historical significance, perhaps, that is the opposite of the intention of its shakers and movers.
First of all, as things stand, the number of elected representatives from the party in Scotland who will have a vote on the matter when it comes up for actual debate in yer actual Parliament is…well..one. Secondly, although his vote is welcome, as things stand Jeremy Corbyn is in no position to whip the rest of UK Labour Party into the No lobby with anything more substantial than Ken Dodd’s Tickling Stick. There is simply no doubt that when the renewal of Trident is voted on, the vote will be an overwhelming majority “Aye” including within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
So why does it matter? Why is there any difference between a heavily symbolic vote in 1999 and a similar vote now? Well, first of all, there is actually going to be a bill in the parliament of what I’m increasingly coming to think of as The Continuity UK. Second, the SNP were in nothing like the position they are now in either legislature in 1999. Third, the CUK Labour Party is now (sort of) lead by a sincere unilateralist for the first time since Michael Foot. (Though the Scottish Party, which is about to become Unilateralist, isn’t …Confused? You won’t be after the latest episode of SLAB!)
It would be easy, under the circumstances, to dismiss this weekends vote as an empty gesture. I don’t quite think that’s true. I don’t think the labour Party (both branches) are now in the traditional policy making position of the Liberal Democrats..that is, confident in the expectation of never actually being able to do anything about making their high-minded policy into actual…well…policy with actual…well…consequences, some of which are going to be hideously complicated.
And this is partly because the SNP are themselves going to have to get themselves beyond symbolism when it comes to “reserved” matters like welfare and taxation as well as defence. Let’s be honest, the SNP, who are never going to be in a position to run the UK are not untainted with empty symbolism possible with no prospect of power or responsibility. For one thing, there are going to a package of powers, and Iain Duncan Smith telling Mhairi Black this week that the Holyrood can always raise taxes to offset UK cuts..is not the first or last to come up with that particular game of “Call My Bluff.”
And he’s not entirely wrong, either. The SNP government in Holyrood are nothing if not cushioned both by the ineptitude of their local opposition and their doubt very irritating posture of moral superiority on questions of little reserved matters like taxation, welfare, immigration, foreign policy, war etc etc etc all of which would become much more tricky and much more live issues were there to actually be a credible left-wing opposition in either polity, Not-Quite-Scotland
or the Continuity UK.
Like everything else right now, however, I think the real meaning of the event of the Labour Vote this morning is historic rather than immediate, of tectonic rather than “political” significance. Little by little, the UK as we have known it is ceasing to exist. And it is the emergence of a Scottish left opposition that will bring something like the Scotland most Bella readers voted for last year, slowly, messily, unpredictably…through a form “independence” …into being.
There is nothing about this morning, however, that alters my conviction that in one shape or another “independence” is the predicate and not the consequence of change. And that, unfortunately, it almost certainly has to come first