No, Nicola Sturgeon does not have much reason to be worried about Jeremy Corbyn. But the rest of the country does. To borrow from the tabloids, Corbyn is The Most Dangerous Man in Britain because, though no-one in London seems to appreciate this, he could be the man whose leadership of the Labour party leads to the end of Britain as we know it.
Now I know people in England have tired of Scots banging on about the constitution. And I know that some things don’t have to be viewed through the prism of the constitution. Nevertheless, it’s a much more important issue than anything anyone says about trains. Or the health service.
Corbyn tells the Herald today that he’s not a Unionist, he’s a socialist which, frankly, does not come as much of a surprise. Everything we know about Corbyn’s worldview leads one to suppose that, had he been in Scotland last year, he’d have voted in favour of independence. That, after all, is what many, perhaps even most, of his fellow-travellers on the far-left did. Not, of course, that Corbyn has demonstrated any interest in this subject, one of, I remind you, considerable importance, at any time in the past. His constitutional thoughts have been confined to a long-standing support for a United Ireland.
In any case, the problem – for Corbyn and for Labour – is not Scotland, it is England. And the Union can be lost in England just as surely as it can be in Scotland. Even now, this is something of which too few people in London seem aware.
We have been here before, you know. In 1979, Labour was split on the question of devolution and Scotland, as a whole, was ambivalent about the proposals for a (weak) Scottish assembly in Edinburgh. Support for devolution was warmer than opposition but still only tepid. Just 63 percent of eligible voters bothered to trek to the polling stations.
Eighteen years later it was all very different. The long years of Conservative supremacy at Westminster, coupled with the decline of the Scottish Conservatives, helped ensure that, by the time Tony Blair came to power, devolution was indeed, as John Smith had put it, ‘the settled will’ of the Scottish people.
This was not, as is too often suggested, because Labour was convinced devolution was the only way of seeing off the Nationalists but because devolution offered Scottish Labour a route to some kind of power at a time when it seemed as though Labour might never win again in England. It was a question of ‘protecting’ Scotland from Toryism, not a bulwark against nationalism. (That justification came later, in response to quibbling from the likes of Tam Dalyell that devolution was a highway to independence.)
The point is simple: a prolonged period of Tory ascendancy at Westminster helped persuade Scots, rightly or not, that devolution was now essential. Now, absent a significant recovery in Tory fortunes north of the border, perhaps you can explain why history might not repeat itself if, as seems likely, Corbyn becomes leader of the Labour party and if, as also seems plausible, this ensures the Conservatives win a thumping majority in 2020?
Were that to happen (and of course it might not!), Nicola Sturgeon could then fight the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections on a manifesto promising another referendum on independence. By the time the referendum was held, the Conservatives would have been in power in London for a dozen years with several more still to come. The party might then be led by a leader who could, viewed from Scotland, easily be less attractive than David Cameron.
And if, for the sake of argument, the Conservatives had a majority of, say, 120 seats in 2020, it’s entirely plausible that Labour might not be in power until 2030 at the earliest. That would be 20 years of Tory rule.
None of this, of course, is certain. Nonetheless, none of it is impossible either. I’d simply suggest that if you were plotting these things from a nationalist perspective this is the kind of long-term scenario that would not discourage you unduly.
It’s true that, by 2021, the Scottish parliament will have significant new powers and true, too, that the people’s enthusiasm for the SNP may wane partly, perhaps, as a consequence of those new powers. I wouldn’t, right now, want to hazard too much cash on that bet.
So, given all this, do you really think the SNP are ‘afraid’ of Jeremy Corbyn? Aye, right. Now that’s not to say they’re worried by Yvette Cooper or, lord help us, Andy Burnham either, merely that the easiest road to a prolonged Tory ascendancy in England runs through Corbyn’s leadership. And while the SNP might not welcome such an ascendancy in terms of day-to-day policy it remains the case that they are capable of taking the long view and can appreciate that, well, there are worse things for nationalism than this.
A Labour government at Westminster being one of those things. If you doubt that consider this: would last year’s referendum result have been closer if Labour had been in power in SW1A or would the No side have prevailed a little more comfortably? I don’t think that’s a very difficult question. (Indeed, it’s possible – not certain but at least possible – that a Labour victory in 2010 might have helped thwart the SNP in 2011 and that there might not have been a referendum at all. At the very least the referendum might have been held on terms more favourable to Unionism.)
I know that many, perhaps most, Labour members in England don’t give a stuff about any of this but they might pause and wonder if Alex Salmond, and other Scottish nationalists who seem happy with the idea of a Corbyn-led Labour party, really have Labour’s best interests at heart. (Hint: they don’t.)
As for the English Tories, well, their enthusiasm for the Union is also not what it once was or might, indeed should, be right now. At some point, however, the Union is likely to need Labour to win again in England. And sooner might be better than later since later might prove to be too late altogether.
That’s why, for this as well as many other reasons, Jeremy Corbyn is so dangerous. It’s no laughing matter. If, that is, you think the survival of the United Kingdom an issue of even modest importance.
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