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Sadiq Khan's Scottish Nationalism Comments Are As Frustrating As They Are Offensive

27/02/2017 12:18
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It's disappointing yet unsurprising. Three years on from the independence referendum, Labour politicians are still painting their lost Scottish voters as gullible sheep beguiled by divisive nationalism.

According to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who spoke at Scottish Labour's Party Conference this weekend, supporters of Scottish self-determination are equivalent to right wing Brexiteers and Donald Trump supporters. Considering his reputation as a hardheaded centrist, it was an astonishingly foolish intervention.

His trailed conference speech said: "There's no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we're English or Scottish and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion." Khan later amended the speech to stress that he "wasn't saying that nationalists are somehow racist or bigoted" - the trouble was that he already did.

Now, I'm not promoting Scottish exceptionalism. The SNP might portray Scotland as a land of milk and honey but racism and ethnic tensions exist here just like anywhere else. However, if Khan genuinely believes that people who wish to divide on 'background, race or religion' spearhead the pro-independence cause, then he's not been paying attention.

Barton Swain, a columnist for The Washington Post, observed that Scottish independence "only has to do with home rule insofar as home rule means social democracy and soft diplomacy rather than economic liberalism and the use of military force".

While I think this analysis underplays the role of the radical left - a group that has almost unanimously shifted to supporting independence - it recognises that the values of Scotland's Yes movement are far removed from most other separatist factions.

A recent Panelbase poll found that a majority of respondents who voted No to independence believe there's too much immigration in Scotland; a majority of Yes voters disagree. If the SNP's goal is to divide based on race or background, then they're not doing a very good job.

In his speech, Khan also quite reasonably compared London and Scotland as "twin beacons of progressive values and hope", but he again overlooked key statistics. Poll after poll shows under-35s are more progressive in their attitudes. Poll after poll shows a majority of under-35s support independence. Poll after poll shows left-leaning voters support independence. In London, the same demographics form a big chunk of Labour's base.

Scottish Labour's response has been to ignore this and launch a new campaign against Indyref2 regardless. Kezia Dugdale's rationale is that "independence is not an escape from Tory rule" (it probably is) and "not an escape from Brexit" (given Hard Brexit it almost certainly is).

Fearmongering about nationalism simply won't wash in a country set to be pulled out of a trading bloc it voted to remain in by an aggressively right wing government it didn't vote for. Ideology and pragmatism easily trump patriotism as principal factors when deciding on independence.

The most frustrating aspect of all is Labour's inability to comprehend why they've triggered such deep-seated ill will. Scottish voters didn't simply turn into frothing flag-wavers overnight - in fact, research by the London School of Economics after Labour's 2015 wipeout showed there was no rise in nationalist sentiment whatsoever.

It's usually overlooked now but a third of SNP supporters said they were more likely to vote for Labour when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected. Many Scots yearn for a left wing Labour party that's both competent and unequivocal in its message, but it's increasingly evident they'll be waiting a long time.

And that's the most depressingly ironic thing about Khan's speech. While he preaches against nationalism, his party has signed up for Theresa May's 'red, white and blue Brexit' without so much as a whimper.

It's a Brexit designed to inhibit freedom of movement and leaves the status of EU nationals in the UK unclear. It's a Brexit that has delighted UKIP's Nigel Farage due to May's unflinching stance. It's a Brexit driven by unfettered, isolationist British nationalism.

Labour leaders north and south of the border have spoken time and time again about developing a strategy to win back Yes voters. And yet it's almost impressive how far they've gone to avoid engaging with what said voters are saying.

Labour face electoral annihilation even at local level, Scotland is set to leave the European Union despite voting against it and the Tory government are pushing Britain into closer relationship with a dangerous demagogue. Khan's message to Scottish voters who want an alternative? You're all racists.

It's pretty much the last straw for those on the Scottish left who've clung on to the possibility that the party can change for the better. The saying here often goes: "I never left Labour; Labour left me." At the rate they're plummeting, there soon won't be a Labour party left to leave.

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