Writing in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, Tom Harris makes the point that the hard left, from which hail both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, has “always been prepared to sacrifice the Union for power”.
This much was obvious before the Shadow Chancellor split his party in two this week over the question of whether or not the Opposition would offer the Scottish National Party a second referendum on independence in exchange for parliamentary support in the House of Commons. Getting Corbyn to sing from the right hymn sheet on the Union has always looked like an uphill struggle for his Scottish comrades.
But McDonnell has gone much further, and much more explicitly, than his boss. Indeed, as Jonathan Freedland points out, he’s gone further than he conceivably needed to. When faced with a backlash, he doubled down.
Why might this be? Well, for starters its worth remembering that Harris might be mistaken when he says that the left is prepared to ‘sacrifice’ the Union. They are very often instinctively hostile to it, regarding it as an imperialist construct. Some, such as George Galloway, do draw a vehement distinction between Irish nationalism and Scottish, but that isn’t a universal position.
The second factor is that the Shadow Chancellor might have cast a cold eye over Labour’s fortunes in Scotland and concluded that they are unlikely to make a significant contribution to the likelihood of a (Corbyn-led) Labour Government. Wooing the SNP, with their dozens of MPs, might look like a better bet – and folding on a second independence referendum is one of the biggest carrots he could offer them.
‘Corbyn-led’ is important. With Jo Swinson today declaring that the Liberal Democrats won’t help put the Labour leader into Number Ten, his only route there – absent a smashing general election victory, which seems unlikely – lies through the Nationalists.
But this strategy, if such it is, contains an inherent contradiction. If Labour’s best, or perhaps only, route to power lies through the support of a substantial number of Scottish MPs of one hue or another, Scottish independence logically implies handing the Right a substantial advantage in the rest of the UK.
A few possibilities suggest themselves: McDonnell hasn’t entirely thought this through; he thinks a second referendum would be won by the unionists; or he plans in some fashion to entrench Labour’s position south of the border in the process of delivering the referendum.
But there is a fourth option. Just as David Cameron offered an EU referendum on the assumption that the Lib Dems would block it, so too might the Shadow Chancellor be dangling an independence one in front of the SNP in anticipation that he wouldn’t, in the end, be able to deliver it – due this time not to formal coalition negotiations, but a backbench revolt.
Make no mistake, this is another acid test for Labour MPs. On Europe, they have made much noise about fidelity to their Party’s official stance, rather than their leader’s more ambiguous position. There is nothing to prevent them doing the same here.
Hundreds of Members of Parliament standing in solidarity with their Scottish comrades and indicating their refusal to collaborate with McDonnell’s bid to trade the United Kingdom for separatist support would be a powerful moment… if they choose to take that stand. Will Labour MPs stand by their leadership, or their Scottish fellows and their country?
In the meantime, his calculation about Scottish Labour’s weakness, and response to it, may become self-fulfilling. At a time when Ruth Davidson is caught in an awkward strategic position over Brexit and Boris Johnson, she has now been handed a powerful card. Consolidating the pro-Union vote is what delivered her victories in 2016 and 2017, and McDonnell has just sent Labour’s remaining voters – who lean unionist – a very good reason to give the Tories another look.
This row is also a useful reminder that, for all the excitement over a single margin-of-error poll lead for independence, the much more concrete threat to the Union comes from those forces – Labour and Remain – prepared to actively collaborate with the separatists and pander to nationalist sentiment in order to try to wield the supposed fragility of the Union to their advantage.