Let’s be clear, there is only one big political party in Scotland 100% committed to Scotland being back in the EU. It’s the SNP. The Tories seem content to go on letting Brexit fail. The Conservative and Unionist Party have no credible plan to rescue the UK from the Brexit slough of despond. Nor is Labour’s plan any more so. It goes by the name of making Brexit work. It is a policy from the rose-tinted spectacle school of political thought. If anything, it’s worse than the Tory position. Labour has seen the huge economic damage Brexit has done the UK, yet persists with empty sound bites on a subject that is only exceeded in importance by the defence of the realm from foreign and domestic foes.
Labour’s position has no substance, and its repetition serves no purpose other than to make it harder for the UK to begin to recover its lost European status. With every passing day, Labour digs a deeper hole for itself. The more it waffles about getting Brexit to work the harder it will be for the UK. Labour needs a big shock. That shock can come with the voters of Rutherglen and Hamilton West voting in an SNP MP in the forthcoming by-election.
Labour has said it will put the cost-of-living crisis at the heart of its by-election campaign. The party’s deputy leader in Scotland, Jackie Baillie, has said that Labour will offer the electorate of Rutherglen and Hamilton West, “Hope of a better world.” Not surprisingly, the SNP is offering the same thing. Hope is ubiquitous whenever there is an election. The difference is that the SNP offers the credible proposition of an independent Scotland in the EU. The SNP can argue that independence can return to the voters what they have lost with the Tories reckless Brexit. It can, with significant confidence, say that EU membership will benefit Scottish jobs, Scottish exports, Scottish trade, Scottish manufacturing, Scottish farming, Scottish produce, Scottish tourism and hospitality, Scottish education and the Scottish environment and ecology. The SNP can credibly argue that Labour offers nothing but more Brexit.
London governments tend not to react to Scotland unless the fate of the union is in the balance. The SNP’s fortunes have taken a few blows in recent times. It doesn’t appear these days to be the slick election-winning machine it was as recently as 2019. But it’s central promise – an independent Scotland – remains a highly potent issue. Support for independence has consistently stood at well over 45% for the past two years. Early last year, one poll recorded support at 56%. These very high levels of support for ending the union now appear hard wired into Scottish life. Much as Tory and Labour would like it otherwise, sustained high pro-independence attitudes are a fact of Scottish political life. Short of independence itself, Scotland must learn to use the position to Scotland’s advantage.
A win for the SNP in a campaign focused on Brexit would galvanise Labour into a fresh assessment of its Brexit approach. Rutherglen and Hamilton West is no leafy suburb. There are patches of modest affluence, though it has more than its fair share of deprivation. It may not have behaved electorally like the Red Wall seats in the North of England. In most other respects – income levels, home ownership, deprivation indicators, social attitudes – there is little to tell them apart. Two factors do. Scottish independence and the EU.
In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum the constituency was split 50/50. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, it voted 62% Remain, the same percentage as Scotland as a whole. If anything, the Brexit vote has strengthened support for independence. Voting SNP in Rutherglen and Hamilton West will put Scotland front and centre of the general election campaign in a way a Labour win won’t. The voters can make sure they are listened to far more closely by Westminster by defying the expectation that the seat is Labour’s for the taking.
A flame under Scottish politics
Hamilton is practiced in political upsets. On 2 November 1967 the late SNP hero, Winnie Ewing, took the old constituency of Hamilton from Labour, in a by-election. She won with a majority of 1,799 votes and put a flame under Scottish politics that burns still. When the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election is run sometime in the autumn the political temperature in the UK will have gone up a notch. Those who can offer voters absolute clarity, who can establish clear water between them and their opponents stand a good chance of winning.
The Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election matters to Labour’s ambitions to secure an overall majority at Westminster at the general election. It matters far more to the people of all of the UK. A defeat for Labour is a win for the millions and millions who want Britain back in Europe. And a more pro-Europe Labour is far more likely to win big at the general election than a Labour party that is Tory lite on Brexit.