AT THE RISK OF understatement, it was a busy weekend for Scottish politics. There was Salmond’s inquiry appearance; a no confidence motion in the deputy first minister; and finally, a pith helmetted Scotsman leader comment that I may address later this week. Before all that, let’s not ignore the transition in the country’s erstwhile ruling elite, the Scottish Labour Party.
Nobody was surprised to see Anas Sarwar sweep the vote. He was the predictable, centrist, unionist option. Monica Lennon’s willingness to toy with voter demands for a second independence referendum may have been a concession to reality too far for a membership who pine for the comfort blanket of Normal Politics.
Given Sarwar’s affluent, privately educated background, Scottish Labour will find it difficult to double down on reassuring contrasts of class and nation, socialism and nationalism. But maybe that’s a positive. Scottish Labour adopted a Walter Mitty-esque role for itself, speaking for “the communities”, long after Scotland’s working class unceremoniously removed them from office. Sarwar is perhaps a better-adjusted representative of what Scottish Labour really is today (Leonard and Jackie Baillie are also privately educated).
The trouble is, this has deeper consequences for Scottish democracy. Holyrood has six parties of worthy but tepid middle-class liberalism. The SNP’s hard won status after 2014, as a mass party with roots in Scotland’s peripheral working class, has receded. Democratic deficits have returned to haunt the devolved order. A “void”, as Peter Mair called it, separates political actors from the people. And this election confirms that Scottish Labour has little ambition of filling that void, which, once upon a time, was its historical purpose.
Personally, I don’t dislike Sarwar. I found the attacks on his backgrounds a little grating. After all, his family connections cut both ways. Sarwar’s father was speaking out against the Iraq War and wider anti-terrorism hysteria while a great many Scottish Labour “leftists” were cheerily signing on to carpet bomb Baghdad (to do otherwise, they told themselves, would only embolden Scottish nationalists).
Still, Sarwar’s status as the candidate of hardened unionism involves him in real contradictions. On the one hand, Keir Starmer is looking to compensate for his People’s Vote frenzy with a Union Jack frenzy. In Scotland, that plays well with hardened Conservatives and nobody else. On the other hand, Labour voters have turned to Scottish independence in droves. Some may return: there is evidence of a small fallback in Yes support. That said, Neil Findlay was surely right to say that flouting fifty percent of the electorate doesn’t add up.
The past weeks have shown that Scotland desperately needs effective opposition. SNP leaders simply don’t fear their opponents or the voters, and all manner of behaviours follow from that. I doubt anyone in Bute House will be losing much sleep over Anas Sarwar, particularly if he keeps up the Unionist act. For Sarwar, putting country before party means making Labour electorally competitive by making a realistic pitch to Yes voters, rather than indulging the nineties nostalgia of a rump membership.