Only a fortnight ago Kezia Dugdale summed up Scottish Labour’s opposition to a second referendum on Scottish independence:
“[At this weekend’s Scottish Labour annual conference] I set out Scottish Labour’s opposition to another independence referendum. Scotland is divided enough already, without yet another attempt to separate our country from the rest of the UK.
The people of Scotland do not want another independence referendum. It’s time for the Nationalists to listen to the voices of ordinary working people. [Given the levels of poverty in Scotland], it would be shameful to spend the next few years talking about independence.”
Although it counted for little more than gesture politics, Scottish Labour underlined its opposition to a second referendum by launching an online petition:
“Sign the pledge against a second independence referendum and join the fight for a stronger Scotland inside a reformed UK, with jobs and opportunities for all.”
But last weekend Jeremy Corbyn visited Glasgow and told the media: “If a referendum is held, then it is absolutely fine, it should be held. I don’t think it’s the job of Westminster or the Labour Party to prevent people holding referenda.”
“A spokesman for Corbyn” and “a source close to Corbyn” tried to minimise the damage.
According to the spokesman: “Jeremy reaffirmed our position today that if the Scottish Parliament votes for a referendum, it would be wrong for Westminster to block it. Labour continues to oppose a further referendum in the Scottish Parliament.”
But Labour has not taken a position that Westminster should agree to a referendum if Holyrood votes for it. And Corbyn’s argument that the Labour Party should not “prevent people from holding referenda” does not fit in with Scottish Labour’s opposition to a second referendum.
According to the “close source”: “Westminster blocking a second referendum would give the SNP exactly what they want – more grievance. Kezia Dugdale is absolutely right to oppose a second referendum at Holyrood and keep the pressure on Nicola Sturgeon to rule one out.”
But the SNP has an infinite supply of “more grievance” anyway. Their entire political life consists of conjuring up “more grievance”. And if Dugdale is right to “keep the pressure” on Sturgeon to rule one out, a second referendum could only be the result of a defeat for Scottish Labour – not something to be described as “absolutely fine”.
Corbyn, his spokesman and the close source all reaffirmed opposition to independence in the event of a second referendum.
But this faded into the background, overshadowed by (not entirely accurate) headlines such as “Corbyn: Second independence referendum should be held” and “Corbyn absolutely fine with a second Scottish referendum”.
Corbyn’s opponents within the Labour Party were quick to exploit his statement. “Often asked why I resigned from Shadow Cabinet. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jeremy Corbyn. He’s destroying the party that so many need,” tweeted Scotland’s only Labour MP.
For the viscerally anti-Corbyn MSP Jackie Baillie it was too good an opportunity to miss: “This is a misguided and irresponsible comment from Jeremy Corbyn that is an insult to the dedicated work of Scottish Labour MSPs, councillors and thousands of activists who have campaigned against a divisive second referendum.”
Of course, Corbyn’s factional opponents within the Labour Party will attempt to exploit the issue.
And it would be legitimate to argue that Corbyn’s core argument is correct, i.e. Scotland’s right to self-determination means not just the right to independence but also the right to hold a referendum without having to seek Westminster approval.
Even so, Corbyn’s statement was wrong on any number of levels.
Despite the attempted spin of the unnamed spokesman and close source, Corbyn’s layback attitude to the prospect of a possible second independence referendum cannot be reconciled with Scottish Labour policy.
Corbyn’s statement clearly came out of the blue and without advance warning: Corbyn had not described a second referendum as “absolutely fine” when he had spoken at the Scottish Labour conference just a fortnight ago.
Although Corbyn was referring to what position Labour in Westminster might or should adopt towards the demand for a second referendum, his statement read – even without the additional spin by the media – as an endorsement in principle of a second referendum.
The statement confused “people holding referenda” with the SNP’s campaign for a second referendum.
Opinion polls suggest there is no popular support for a second referendum (at least in the short term). The SNP demand for another referendum is the product of its own one-trick-pony nationalist politics, not a reflection of public opinion. The SNP wants to hold a referendum, not “people”.
By appearing to legitimise their demand for a second referendum, the statement played into the hands of the SNP. Sturgeon’s mocking response to Corbyn’s statement was to tweet: “Always a pleasure to have @jeremycorbyn campaigning in Scotland.”
The statement also played into the hands of the Tories, who have already overtaken Labour as the official opposition at Holyrood. It allowed them to present themselves as the only genuine opposition to Scottish independence (which, in turn, is a further gift to the SNP).
Corbyn’s statement was also an extension of what is wrong with his approach to Brexit.
For Corbyn, it seems that once a referendum appears on the political agenda, the specific interests of the labour movement no longer count for anything. Instead, the labour movement should either submit to the result and vote with the Tories (Brexit) or submit to the demand for one and vote with the SNP (Scotland).
Above all, it is not “absolutely fine” if a second referendum were to be held. Irrespective of the result, it would divide Scottish society and weaken the labour movement – in both cases, probably for more than a generation – to an even great degree than the 2014 referendum.
The 2014 referendum was a profoundly divisive event. Previously coexisting national identities were pitted again each other. By elbowing aside class-based politics and voting patterns in favour of national-identity politics, it also resulted in a collapse of electoral support for Labour.
A second referendum would take that process a stage further. In fact, the impact would be far worse than in 2014.
In 2014 the SNP did at least attempt to run a campaign which was based to some degree on economic arguments (however spurious those arguments may have been). But identity politics will be at the core of a second referendum: bad English/British (racist and pro-Brexit) and proud Scot (pro-EU and inclusive).
What was fundamentally wrong with Corbyn’s statement was not so much his off-the-cuff speculation about what position Labour in Westminster might take about a second referendum. It was his failure to understand the poisonous political impact of a second referendum, whatever its result.
Corbyn was wrong. And no-one on the left should feel obliged to defend the indefensible.