Jim Murphy: Labour Should Have Tackled Scottish Nationalism Twenty Five Years Ago

Jim Murphy MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, speaks from a soapbox in support of the Union on the final day of his 100 Streets in 100 Days Better Together tour, in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow.
Jim Murphy MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, speaks from a soapbox in support of the Union on the final day of his 100 Streets in 100 Days Better Together tour, in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow.
Jane Barlow/PA Wire

MANCHESTER - The Labour Party's long-term failure to address growing nationalism in Scotland for over a quarter of a century is partially to blame for the demand for independence that almost lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, Jim Murphy has said.

The shadow international development secretary, who took a leading role in Labour's campaign to save the union over the past few months, said today that if the party had its time again it "would do things differently".

Speaking at a fringe event at the Labour Party conference in Manchester, Murphy also told The Huffington Post that he thought the divisions within Scottish society opened up by the referendum campaign would take some time to heal.

"I think if we had our time again in Scotland we would do things differently," he said. "I don't mean the last week and the last two weeks. I am pretty proud of our campaign, that both Labour and Better Together ran."

"But, I think we watched the growth of nationalism and the party that attached itself to that sentiment, the SNP, and we watched it grow and probably didn't sufficiently address the intellectual basis of it until the referendum."

The pro-union campaign, led by Alistair Darling, won the referendum 55% to 45% on Thursday. However the campaign had a nail-biting conclusion with most polls showing the result was too close to call. At one point the Better Together campaign was basking in a 20% lead.

Murphy said he took his "share of the blame". He told Labour activists that the problem had been a "quarter of the century at least in the making".

"Rather than making an argument about the nature of nationalism in a country of five million people, geographically located of mainland Europe in a constantly and uncertain world," he said. "We tried to borrow their vote."

"I and others didn't make the argument. We didn't try and win their affection. We tried to borrow their vote and allowed nationalism to grow. If we had our time again we would do things differently. We didn't engage in the argument early enough.

The long referendum campaign, whilst mostly good natured, did have flashes of anger and bitterness. And the tone of the debate has led to worry that it may be hard to repair divisions in Scotland between some Yes and No voters.

Answering a question from The Huffington Post at the Manchester event, Murphy said there had been "remarkable passion" shown during the campaign, but that "passions occasionally turned to aggression".

He said the No side, of which he was a leading figure, should not be too "overt" in its celebration. "This is a victory without a vanquished. The general feeling in Scotland amongst the majority is sense of relief," he said of No voters. "Many Yes voters feel a genuine sense of frustration and are really deeply disappointed."

Murphy said it would take a "wee while" to recover from the campaign. "We spent two years emphasising our differences, sometimes over emphasising them, we have to spend the next wee while talking about what we have in common. I think it will take a while, I can't put a date on it, we will all have to work very hard on it."

Johann Lamont, the leader of Scottish Labour, told the same event that that she found Alex Salmond's response to the No vote "troubling" given democratic decision of Scots to reject independence. She said "over two million people voted in Scotland, more than voted in 2011 full stop, to say Scotland should stay in the United Kingdom".

Tomorrow David Cameron will host senior Tory backbenchers at Chequers in order to persuade them not to oppose plans to devolve further powers to the Scottish parliament. The prime minister made the pledge in the dying days of the referendum campaign in a last ditch attempt to persuade Scots to vote No.

However several Tories have criticised Cameron for promising to change the constitution of the United Kingdom without consulting the party or parliament. In an attempt to appease his MPs, the prime minister has promised to introduce an "English votes for English laws" rule that would stop Scottish MPs from voting on legislation that only affects England.

However Ed Miliband has refused to endorse the idea, branding it a "political trick" designed to limit the ability of Labour, which has a large number of Scottish MPs, from being able to pass legislation through the Commons.