Well, it probably seemed a good idea at the time.
On 31 May Neal Lawson – chairperson of the “influential left-wing think tank” Compass – penned an open letter to the SNP calling for a “progressive alliance” with the Labour Party.
The letter might best be described as obsequious (synonyms: servile, ingratiating, unctuous, toadying, oily, greasy, grovelling and oleaginous). Its tone evokes that of someone fallen on hard times trying to tap a loan:
“Most esteemed Sirs! Mindful of your legendary munificence, I turn to you in my hour of need. Struck down by the vagaries of fate, I would humbly request a modest contribution from your financial largesse, to see me through until payday. I remain, your obedient servant, Neal.”
Lawson thinks he knows which buttons to press in his letter to the “progressive” (sic) SNP.
He writes “as a Londoner”. (You can smell the sackcloth and ashes as he typed that phrase.) He refers to “your country”. (Even though, as confirmed by the 2014 referendum, Lawson inhabits the same country as the SNP.)
Adopting the language of the SNP – Look! I’m really one of you! – he denounces the unholy trinity of “English Tory rule, the Daily Mail and the City of London”. (As chairperson of a think tank, Lawson probably found it too vulgar to go the whole hog and inveigh against “Westmonster” rule.)
Lawson professes to being “jealous of the political conversation you had as a nation over independence” and the consequent “rise in political consciousness”. But, Lawson continues, it’s time to move on. It cannot be a matter of independence or nothing.
“We have a duty to go around and beyond tribalism,” he writes. Another referendum is off the agenda for at least a decade. In Scotland and the rest of the UK “Labour knows they can’t win outright.” And trade unions are “shifting to embrace pluralism”.
(Momentum member Rhea Wolfson was recently denounced for supposedly having dismissed the importance of Labour winning in 2020. Labour Party member Neal Lawson goes a step further and writes off Labour’s chances completely. But maybe that’s what it takes to run an “influential” think tank.)
Ever so gently, Lawson mumbles in passing a couple of secondary concerns.
The SNP seems to have “shifted” from seeing independence as “a pragmatic tactic to build a good society” to seeing it as “an end in itself”. And SNP “party discipline” is transforming the SNP into a “machine” inappropriate for the fluidity of 21st century politics.
The solution to all this is a “progressive alliance” between the Labour Party and the SNP. “As ever,” concludes Lawson, “you must be bold and take the lead in forging a new politics. Compass is here to help.”
Lawson’s open letter achieves the rare feat of being even more ridiculous than the ritualistic calls for left unity periodically issued by the SWP.
The SWP knows that their open letters don’t deserve to be taken seriously. But Lawson – being the chairperson of an “influential” think tank – probably really does believe that his open letter constitutes the pinnacle of political acumen.
Lawson’s basic problem is simple ignorance.
The SNP is a nationalist party for which independence has always been an end in itself. To achieve that goal it wants to destroy the Scottish Labour Party and deprive trade unions of an organised political voice by securing their disaffiliation from the Labour Party.
This is something very different from trade unions “shifting to embrace pluralism”.
The referendum of 2014 saw class politics overwhelmed by nationalist grievance-mongering, nationalist scapegoating, nationalist tribalism, and nationalist irrationality. Lawson has a strange idea of what constitutes a “political conversation” worthy of envy.
The SNP is intolerant of dissent. Its MPs and MSPs are banned from making public criticism of SNP policies. Critical motions submitted to party conferences have been ruled out of order. And criticism from outwith the ranks of the SNP is denounced as “talking Scotland down”.
The reason for this intolerance is not to be found in the answer suggested by Lawson’s rhetorical question: “Is all this part of your (the SNP’s) incredible rise tapering off?” It has everything to do with the inherent nature of the SNP as a political project.
In power at Holyrood for nine years, the SNP’s policies have seen a slump in levels of educational achievement, increased class inequalities in education, cuts in NHS standards and increased waiting times, massive cuts in funding for local authorities, and subsidies for the middle classes at the price of cuts in jobs and services.
In its 2007-11 term of office the SNP relied on Tory votes when it suited them. In its referendum White Paper the only tax change promised by the SNP was a cut in corporation tax. In recent months the SNP has repeatedly voted with the Tories against a 50p tax rate for the richest.
All this – and much more – undermines Lawson’s claim that “something like Denmark on the English border” would have been the outcome of a ‘Yes’ vote in 2014.
(Yes, it’s true that Denmark has a hereditary monarchy, is a member of NATO, has seen a recent upsurge in support for populist nationalism, and is surrounded by water on three sides. But that probably isn’t what Lawson meant.)
Lawson is also blissfully unaware of the absurdity of his invocation of a “duty” to go “around and beyond tribalism”.
When the Lib-Dems won nearly 70% of the vote in the Orkney and Shetland constituencies in last month’s Holyrood elections, cybernats suggested that the islands be handed over to Norway.
Tory and Labour victories in Edinburgh in last month’s elections triggered demands by cybernats that the city’s English inhabitants be sent back to England.
And the cybernat response to the Tory victories in in Dumfries, Galloway and the Scottish Borders was to propose that the ‘border’ be redrawn so that the south of Scotland became part of England.
But there is hope on the horizon. Lawson’s letter may yet prove to be the start of a belated learning curve for its author. And the source of that potential education lies in the responses to the letter.
Lawson holds out the hand of friendship. But this is the response he gets:
“For us, it IS independence or nothing. … Why would the SNP form an alliance with a party that despises Scots? … Labour doesn't only despise Scots. It despises everyone that is not Labour.”
“The biggest problem a progressive alliance faces in the UK is that the UK most of the time votes Tory. … Labour in Scotland is an ex-party. It has gone from dominating Scotland for 60 years to being an irrelevance on the way to total extinction.”
“I use the term ‘British Labour’ advisedly. Because it is necessary to constantly remind people that it is a British political party. A party of the British establishment.”
“There is no possibility of an alliance between British Labour and the SNP because they exist for entirely different and quite irreconcilable purposes. The SNP exists to serve the people of Scotland. British Labour exists to serve the ruling elites of the British state.”
"(Lawson wrote): It can't just be about independence ... Yes it can, if we decide that. What it can't be is what anyone other than Scots decide it is. … Like most unionists, Lawson’s reaction can be reduced to a mixture of pique, resentment, confusion, loss, sadness and rejection.”
Lawson should also bear in mind that his article was published on Commonspace. That’s read by the ‘left wing’ of the Scottish-nationalist political spectrum. If that’s the response from the ‘left’, what would the more ‘mainstream’ nationalist response look like?