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Hugo Rifkind

The real threat to Britain (and it’s not the SNP)

Labour's commitment to the Union is as shallow as the Tories' – which, it is now clear, is saying something

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

What a load of mendacious balls everybody talks about Scotland. It’s like a disease. It’s like, you know how they say Ebola probably started in some festering bat cave in Guinea? Well, the referendum campaign was that cave. We had secret oilfields and fantasies about the NHS and endless guff about austerity being done for evil Tory fun, and the VOW the VOW and, dear God, the relief when it ended. Only it didn’t end. Instead it spread. And it set the tone.

People talk now, for example, about an SNP/Labour coalition. As though this would make sense, when they must know it wouldn’t at all. As though Ed Miliband would even fit in Alex Salmond’s pocket, and Salmond (or Nicola Sturgeon, but only Scottish people talk about her) would want him there. As though these were two parties which somehow had aims in common. Only they don’t, do they? Sure, they both veer to the left, but in utterly different ways.

For Labour, it’s because that’s what they are; why they get up in the morning; what it says on the tin; no further questions required. For SNP, it’s more of a strategy. It’s the haircut you have not because it’s getting in your eyes but because you’re going on the pull. This is the party, remember, that the middle classes used to vote for in Scotland, in lieu of effective Tories, to keep Labour out. That whole ‘Ooh, we’re the proud cheerleaders of an avowedly socialist nation!’ routine seems impregnable now, but it only really started during the referendum campaign, and as a quite transparent ruse to woo Labour voters. Sure, they’d been offering free university tuition and opposing prescription charges and suchlike before, but that was straightforward electoral bribery. Bluntly, and much as they may deny it, it’s not a burning passion to go left which has led the SNP to champion independence. Rather, it is a burning passion for independence which has led the SNP to go left. That much should be obvious.


So why would they go into coalition with Labour? If home rule is the aim (and it is), and faux-leftism is the strategy to get there (and it also is, plainly, even if you’d dispute the ‘faux’ bit), why would you want to join a government that showed you could go left within the status quo? And likewise, why would Labour want to go into coalition with the SNP? It would be a frank admission of their own obsolescence in Scotland. Indeed, the more home rule they allowed, the more obsolete Labour would become.

At heart, this is where English Labour unionism comes from; a fear of being utterly up the spout without the Celtic fringe on hand to make up the numbers. I wish it were more than that, but I fear it is not. Find me a Labour unionist who would still be one if Scotland voted Tory, and I’ll find you a person in Scotland who still finds that Tories/pandas joke funny. That is to say, I won’t, and nor will you.

Which is a step up from English Conservative unionism, because that suddenly seems to be nothing at all. Yes, your English Tory will talk the unionist talk, but press him on it — I am belatedly realising — and you will discover that the only Union they’re really interested in is one that has no impact upon them whatsoever. Remember all those decades when there was a Tory PM and almost no Scottish Tory MPs? Remember the way they’d shrug and explain that this was just how a Union works, and that the reverse could as easily be true? Call me a mug, but I actually thought they meant it. They don’t want a partner, these people, but a pet. Indeed, they don’t even want a pet but maybe a Tamagotchi. One you can turn off and leave in a drawer. Which is why, secretly, the Tories are rooting for the SNP and the SNP are rooting for the Tories. Because, unlike with Labour, the SNP and the Conservatives really do have the same big aim: to bring about a time, as soon as possible, where Scotland and England leave each other the hell alone.

So this is where we are. We have Labour being called Tories in Scotland, and the SNP being called Labour in England. We have Tories abandoning unionism for their own self-interest (while pretending they haven’t) and Labour cleaving to it for theirs (while pretending they aren’t). We have the SNP casting coy, come-hither looks at a coalition with Labour, even though they wouldn’t enter one and wouldn’t even be asked to, and are secretly on the same page as the Conservatives anyway. Although not the Scottish Conservatives, who are on another page altogether.

And on the bleak days — which are frequent — I think back to the shivering relief of that bleary, hungover morning in September. Remember? When it looked, at last, as though the people who wanted to break Britain had been sent hamewards tae think again? Suddenly it feels like they were the wrong enemy altogether. It is not the SNP who are the real threat to Britain, for all their swift and startling resurgence. It’s their secret English allies, who are many and various and were hiding in plain sight. And they pretend to oppose the Scottish separatists, and the Scottish separatists pretend to oppose them, but both are giggling behind the backs of their hands. They’re the ones to watch out for. Because they’re just getting started.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


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