Labour may soon get its revenge on the SNP

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer

At last a Scottish politician has come up with a persuasive argument in support of Scottish independence.

The Scottish government this week declared the latest in its ongoing series of national emergencies. This week, we had the national “housing emergency”. Unfortunately, from the evidence presented so far, the actual declaration of an emergency seems to be the only “action” ministers are prepared to take in order to tackle the crisis. No extra money or special initiatives were announced by Shirley-Anne Somerville, the shadow justice secretary, when she made the much-trailed announcement.

To suggest that Somerville is the minister responsible for housing – or indeed, justice – would be wrong however. This is an administration that survives on its ability to evade responsibility for anything and everything that has gone wrong in its 17-year rule. Even before she made the formal announcement, observers knew with certainty that she was not about to stand up, declare the latest emergency, and accept, on behalf of her party and her government, responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. In fact, it’s difficult to name a single failure that has manifested itself under this devolved administration – historically high NHS waiting lists, declines in school standards, lack of progress on vital roads infrastructure projects, the aforementioned and shamefully high drug death record in Scotland – for which a minister has acknowledged as his or her fault.

It was no different this time. As Minister Somerville patiently explained, it’s all the fault of Westminster. Well, of course it is. One might draw the uncomfortable conclusion that if Scottish ministers are so helpless in the face of all these crises, we might as well scrap devolution altogether.

What is the point of drawing up an election manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections, even concocting a “programme for government” at the start of each parliamentary session in Edinburgh, if every single failure is to be blamed on the UK government and parliament?

It’s no coincidence – in fact it is precisely the aim of Somerville’s and all her ministerial colleagues’ strategic incompetence – that such a conclusion should be invited. No degree of devolution can give Scotland the powers it needs to run things better, say the SNP. So best give us them all and everything will be great.

Accountability for one policy or another is all very well, but as arguments for tearing apart the territorial integrity of a sovereign state, it’s pretty weak. In fact, the danger for the nationalists is that their constant determination to avoid all responsibility for everything they do, for every one of their failures plays right into the hands of their opponents. All Labour has to say is: we actually believe in devolution, we’ll work with the UK government to sort things, not constantly oppose them in everything they do.

The housing crisis is a particularly vulnerable subject for the SNP, given that it was at least partly exacerbated by former first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s failed attempt to impose rent controls, thereby driving significant numbers of private landlords out of the market and making even fewer affordable homes available for rent.

So what happens when the UK government is a Labour one rather than a Conservative one? Labour has never won a single general election at UK level during the SNP’s time in government at Holyrood. It’s fair to say that they have probably not game-planned such a scenario, which would begin with the Scottish electorate breathing an almighty sigh of relief. Will the nationalist refrain of “a big boy done it and ran away” work quite as well when the big boy in question was voted into office by Scottish as well as English and Welsh votes?

The SNP barely even make a secret out of the fact that a Labour government at Westminster would be politically disastrous for them. They have advanced with their petty cry of “evil Toaries!” for nearly two decades, and even before Labour resumes office, it is an excuse that has started to wear thin.