Will Anas Sarwar lead Scottish Labour back into second place at Holyrood? On the strength of the campaign he has fought, he deserves to, for he has run the most positive, energetic and ideas-based offering in a dreary and rancorous election. Sarwar has been almost alone in trying to make the May 6 poll about something other than arid constitutionalism.
His proposals are all sound, social democratic measures: a jobs guarantee for young Scots; investing in cancer and mental health treatment; and extra funding for schools to recover from the educational setbacks of Covid-19. Against an increasingly stale-sounding Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Tories' angry-robot leader Douglas Ross, Sarwar has been a breath of fresh air. Even some overly enthusiastic shaking of his backside during an open-air dance class has not managed to dissuade me from my view that he has run the best campaign.
There is a 'but' coming, but not that sort of butt. Sarwar's efforts to rise above the entrenched Yes-No divide have mostly been successful but they hit a snag in his interview with Andrew Marr. The BBC presenter noted that three of Sarwar's candidates have previously backed a second referendum on independence, prompting the Scottish Labour leader to pivot back to a favourite talking point that what people in Scotland really care about is the pandemic. (Even though an Ipsos MORI poll from the start of the month showed 49 per cent of Scots citing independence as ‘very important’ in how they will decide to vote, compared to 15 per cent for Covid-19.)
In fact, Marr was being generous. The Scottish Conservatives briefed journalists on seven Labour candidates who have either backed indyref2 or called for the decision to be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood. Indeed, the Tories themselves were being generous, having left out further Labour candidates in the same position.
Labour people hate this issue. Those who take a harder line against independence wish a clearer stance had been adopted before now. Those on the soft-nationalist wing object that Labour is not a Unionist party and shouldn't be held to that standard. It's a divide that symbolises how much damage the independence question has done to Scottish Labour, just as nationalism and wider identity politics have kept other social democratic parties out of power across the West. In truth, the home rule issue has been a fault line in Labour politics in Scotland for generations (among the intellectuals) and since the 1970s (among politicians and activists).
Donald Dewar, the architect of devolution and the inaugural First Minister, conceded that he was 'a cultural nationalist' while rejecting political nationalism. At risk of blaspheming against the closest thing the devolved era has to a saint, the real dividing line in Dewar's politics was between the competing sentimentalisms of Scottish national identity and political Labourism.
It hardly mattered whether Dewar could accept the label of political nationalist: he had long since drunk in its logic and infused it into the devolution settlement he devised. The flaws of that settlement which have done so much to empower and advance political nationalism were, for the most part, his doing, and could have been avoided, again for the most part, if the devising had been entrusted to someone unburdened by his sentimentalism.
These matters have receded into the past and yet they still set the pace for Scottish Labour politics a quarter-century later. Labour has every right to be a devolutionist, or cultural nationalist, or Dewarite sentimentalist party, but it must recognise that the 2014 referendum foregrounded more than one change in Scottish politics. Nationalism is much more assertive and electorally successful now, but Unionism is also more assertive and more of a force at the ballot box, albeit not on the same scale. As long as this remains the case, Labour cannot expect to leave itself open to the former without closing itself off to the latter.
Since nationalism vs. Unionism is still the dominant mode of Scottish politics, it might have been wiser for Sarwar to use this election to cannibalise Unionist support for the Tories by wedding his superior presentational and policy offering to a more anti-nationalist stance on the constitution. The approach he has taken, of transcending these divides, might have been better reserved for the 2026 election.
Assuming Westminster does not bend the knee to nationalism before then, the next Holyrood election will take place after 12 years without a referendum and with no obvious lawful means of otherwise achieving one. That could be enough to disenchant a section of SNP support and defuse the fear of separation among some Tories. It could create an electoral opportunity for a party that pitches Scotland an escape from its constitutional funk, complete with a fresh face and ideas that come without flags attached. In short, Sarwar may have run his 2026 campaign five years too early.
We will find out in the days after May 6 if his strategy has paid off. Whether he leads Labour back to its place as the main party of opposition or falls short, Anas Sarwar will have another five years to build Labour up into a party of government. By which time, there might be an opening for such a government after almost two decades of the SNP.