Labour and the UK: how late it is, how late

By David Osland

To lose one constituent nation of the United Kingdom, Mr Johnson, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two would look like carelessness.

Yet the Brexit obsession of a party that stubbornly maintains “and Unionist” in its full name has taken us to the point where a paraphrase of Lady Bracknell’s famous admonition in Oscar Wilde’s trivial comedy for serious people represents a serious problem for a trivial politician.

After Britain’s departure from the European Union, the Break-up of Britain has gone from the deliberately provocative title of a then-celebrated semi-Marxist polemic from the mid-1970s to a realistic possibility by the end of the decade.

The current occupant of 10 Downing Street hymns England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as “the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red, white and blue flag”, as if they were the Famous Five, but sadly missing Timmy.

Even the note of lighthearted jingoism betrays Johnson’s blithe bourgeois incomprehension. Johnson’s predecessors, John Major and Theresa May, are openly asking what happens if the centre cannot hold. Gordon Brown has gone so far as to pose matters in terms of the UK becoming a failed state.

Scottish independence will prove the dominant issue for the next period in politics, with an intransigent – and overwhelmingly English, of course – Tory government on a Madrid-style collision course with the devolved administration in Edinburgh.

Nicola Sturgeon cites Brexit – which the Scots rejected by two to one – as justification for a second independence referendum so soon after the ostensibly once-in-a-generation exercise of 2014.

But while Brexit has brought matters to a head, the underlying issues go far deeper than membership of the EU. The gulf between the neoliberal order the Tory right will now proceed to construct and the society desired by a majority of Scots looks unbridgeable.

Meanwhile, the Good Friday Agreement expressly provides for a border poll if there is evidence that a majority in Northern Ireland wishes to become part of a united Ireland. That evidence is now coming in.

A survey for the Sunday Times over the weekend found that 47% of voters in the Six Counties declare themselves “pleased” at the prospect, while an equal 47% declare themselves “upset”. Were a vote held tomorrow, in other words, it could go either way.

Thank demographic change here: to reword Gerry Adams’ infamous dictum from the 1980s, the way forward for Republicanism is now the ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite verifiably beyond use.

But Brexit is again a factor, and the arrival of a border in the Irish Sea can only reinforce growing feelings of divergence.

Granting the SNP indyref2 would generate irresistible pressure for an Irish unity referendum. If Scotland did vote to go it alone, the impact just 20 miles away could prove decisive.

The Sunday Times poll even found 15% support among English voters for England leaving the United Kingdom, and there have been fringe calls for an independent London.

Yet Labour’s response to the crisis of the British state, to recycle an old slice of far-left jargon that no longer looks quite so hyperbolic, has been to reinvent itself as the party of kinder, gentler Britishness.

No video clip of a Labour frontbencher is now filmed without the backdrop of the Union Jack.

For me, the automatic association is with the National Front party political broadcast I remember as a teenager in 1974. This is subliminal and involuntary: it’s the first time I saw it – and the first thing I think of when I see it again.

That may not just be my problem. For voters of Irish descent, an important Labour base in many English cities, ‘that red, white and blue flag’ is not a happy symbol either. Younger people, especially the university educated, are also likely to be unenthused.

Nor is slugging it out north of the border for a share of a unionist electorate now  split three ways, and with the Tories in pole position, a promising strategy to claw back seats which Ed Miliband lost precisely because of his attachment to unionism in the first place.

Making Labour’s prospects slimmer still is Keir Starmer’s recent heavy-handed dismissal of Richard Leonard, even if it has not resulted in the intended coronation of a Blairite successor.

Laying down the law from London does nothing to detract from the strength of the ‘branch office’ jibe regularly directed at Scottish Labour.

If you do have a vote in the Scottish Labour leadership contest, cast it for Monica Lennon, who at least seems to get some of this.

It’s not even clear that Labour’s turn to the Union Jack, accompanied by a sizeable dose of social conservatism, will be particularly helpful in the quest to recapture the Red Wall.

The Tories and the Farage outfit the pollsters have already euphoniously dubbed REFUK have longer standing – and frankly better grounded – claims on this ideological territory.

When the Tories fail their newfound support – as fail them they inevitably will – the space will instead open for the sort of transformative politics Corbyn and McDonnell proposed at the last two general elections.

‘Jezza without the baggage’ was supposed to be Starmer’s unique selling point, and perhaps the main reason for the ease with which he dispatched Rebecca Long-Bailey last year. Now let’s see him actually try it in the Midlands and the north.

The vicissitudes of history and the collapse of any material basis for Orange supremacy make Irish unity an idea whose day will come, if not immediately, then soon enough. My sense is that Scottish independence is already more likely than not.

But if Starmer’s concern centres on persuading Scotland to stay, a listening exercise with the foregone conclusion of devomax, which a party out of power is any case in no position to deliver, it is already a day late and a saltire short.

How late it is for the UK, how late.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author.

Image: Independent Lion Rampant Scotland Flag. Author:Scotch MistSodacan, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

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