What Part of the Word ‘No’ Does Keir Starmer Not Understand?

I read Keir Starmer’s essay, ‘Labour will build a better Britain for working people, in The Guardian and before the end of the second paragraph, was wondering who his speech-writer was addressing. I could hear Starmer’s voice as though he was giving a speech and that perhaps made it difficult to find the detail of how for all we were being told was that Labour will strive to deliver: “…better pay, more flexibility, and greater opportunities to get on.”

Every political party promises this but details, details, details. Stating that “a modern, efficient government works in partnership with a brilliant, innovative private sector to create jobs people are proud of”, immediately causes working people like myself to distrust every assertion that follows. Good companies are doing this now; bad companies should have great legislation properly applied to them, up to and including criminal sanctions against bosses who believe themselves a special exemption.

If voters appear to be resisting the professional charms of Labour’s leader, it would be good to drop the woolly promises. Get angry. Use direct speech. Cuss. Looking and sounding like a lawyer is great for promotion in the chambers but in 2010, there were just three food banks in Scotland – now they’re in every town. If the message isn’t cutting through, it’s because you’ve got the wrong knife. Try a sword. Axes also work.

But then we’ve all seen Keir dressed casually. Those arms have never known heft. It would be useful to have Members of Parliament who’ve actually worked for a living – and no, however stressful your day, sitting at a desk in a cubicle reflecting on your glory days as a drunken political intern doesn’t count (and neither does a PPE – Politics, Philosophy and Economics – degree).

But as with that other great anthem, originally composed for Louis XIV’s return to court after a serious bout of piles*, so it only took until the fourth verse of Starmer’s treatise for the leader of the Labour Party to insult the Scots – and I guess the people of Wales and Northern Ireland too. We are not part of your country, your nation, or whatever definition you’re currently applying to the unholy mess that is ‘Britain’. It would greatly help Starmer’s arguments if before visiting Scotland again, he read a history book. If nothing else, it would set his arguments into the correct terms of reference. I would recommend Tom Devine’s peerless, ‘The Scottish Nation: A Modern History’, which actually begins well before the so-called Act of Union and shows Scotland as a nation trading globally.

Scotland prides herself on her unique and often quirky history. For example, no other nation on this planet has actually been sold into destitution by its ruling class. Villages full of people enslaved, yes; entire nations, nope. Read about how the signed ‘Act of Union’ had to be escorted under armed guard, as an Edinburgh mob tried to stop it from being taken south to London.

Most Scots are still discovering their history, motivated and energised by the peaceful independence campaign of 2014. I say ‘independence’ but actually mean ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, two values that were shared by Keir Hardie’s version of the Labour Party. He didn’t just campaign as leader of the Labour party for the rights of Scots to govern themselves, he also championed women’s rights. Nice guy that Keir Hardie. I would have voted for him – and I doubt he’d have lost a black, female Shadow Equalities Minister over the issue either.

You see ‘Sir’ Keir, as a kid who grew up in a council house, went to a state school, studied hard and went to university, I should be the ideal Labour voter. You shouldn’t be having to write missives in national newspapers to try and persuade voters like me that you’re (about to be) turning things around.

I’m not unusual as a voter: I don’t want hand-outs. I want a fair chance for everyone else. I don’t like wars or the proxy for modern Imperial expansion, wars of ‘foreign intervention’. I don’t believe our poorest and most vulnerable should rely on charity but expect that those who can pay taxes, should pay and not through some offshore registered tax-avoidance vehicle (as used by some of the Labour Party’s wealthiest private backers) but from the simple idea that if you hold a passport for this group of nations, still known as the ‘United Kingdom’, then you are obligated to pay for the protection that passport provides. And if from your lofty perch you could understand just how affordable UBI is, especially if it was assets and not income that was taxed, you would greatly advance your – and your party’s – case.

I was living and working in England when Tony Blair led Labour to a landslide victory in 1997. I really wanted to share in the joy and relief of people around me but to be honest, I felt as connected to the spectacle as watching Germany choose a new Chancellor: it was interesting, if only for the conversational anecdotes, (especially that moment at Downing Street when Noel Gallagher realised he’d been set-up).

Reflecting on that time and discussing with family back home why I’d voted for an English party, I had to explain that there’s no SNP in Berkshire and as Blair and Brown were promising a referendum on devolution for Scotland, it seemed like the sensible alternative. Looking back on the choices then, I realise that if Labour were making serious offers to people in Scotland, I’d likely be a Labour voter again. However, the leader of that party can’t even be bothered to use the correct general terms of reference but must instead insist on calling ‘Great Britain’ a “country”, I can only assume that he’s speaking exclusively to voters in England. Language, words, have power and meaning, and that is perhaps why his party has never recovered its primary position here in Scotland.

I am British because it says so on my passport and because online retailers most often refuse to list Scotland as a culturally and politically distinct nation from England except where they’re looking to charge more for postage. It is not by choice that I am ‘British’ but history and an Imperial tradition of occupying lands that belong to people who speak a different language. Knowing what the flag of Union represents to so many people in nations now independent of the Empire, the sight of that rag gives me the boke and no small degree of shame. I see the world’s oldest national flag trapped behind bars of Genoese red and am embarrassed that as I watched the result of the 2014 referendum from a hotel in Hong Kong, where children were taking on the tear gas and plastic bullets of the police, my fellow citizens of Scotland believed the lies of Project Fear and voted ‘no’.

I am not a nationalist. I am a Scot. I believe in the right of people in my country to pursue a path toward fully representative, participatory democracy. I simultaneously believe it is the right of people in England to continue doffing their caps to a monarch protecting a favourite son accused of sexual misconduct and that it is also their right to believe that meaningful change to their way of life will somehow, someday, materialise through the Palace of Westminster.

Labour has a problem with the ‘n’ word and it’s not nationalism, nationalist or nation. It’s the word ‘no’. Three times since 2014, we’ve returned a clear pro-independence majority to Westminster and Labour is still siding with the Tories, even in Holyrood. When you realise that’s where your basic problem of electability lies, Keir Starmer, you might become Prime Minister in England, sir.

Andrew Bentley Steed

* – yes, the music for ‘God Save the Queen’ was originally composed for a King with a bumhole that looked like a cup of cherries.

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