On Wednesday it was Rishi Sunak mouthing vague patronising platitudes, and not to be outdone, on Thursday it was the turn of Keir Starmer. Conscious of my obligations to the readers of this blog, I tried to listen to the speech all the way through, fully intending to jot down notes at the interesting bits, but after fifty five interminable minutes I was left with a blank laptop screen while staring at curling corner of wallpaper near the ceiling and wondering if we were going to need to redecorate. This was particularly remarkable because Starmer spoke for less than forty minutes.
Essentially what we have here in the next UK General Election is a choice between two political parties, one of which will leave your granny to die on a hospital trolley while denying that there is any problem with NHS funding, and the other will leave your granny to die on a hospital trolley while looking very sad about it and blaming the previous government. Tweedledrear and Tweedletrump.
The most notable thing about this speech was the way in which Starmer shamelessly nicked so many Conservative and Vote Leave slogans. Take Back Control, only a Labour party hopelessly in thrall to a Conservative agenda could imagine it was a good idea to pick up and run with a discredited slogan that has become a by-word for political lies and deceit. Next week Starmer will be touring the UK in a bus with £350 million a week for the NHS on the side of it. The clear hope here was to pack this speech with enough English nationalist dog whistling to get Lassie and the entire canine entries at Crufts to sit up and beg for a union flag sausage.
Starmer went on to draw a false equivalence between voting for Brexit and voting for Scottish independence, saying, “I couldn’t disagree with the basic case so many leave voters made to me. People who wanted public services they could rely on. High streets they could be proud of.” It’s not clear who was telling Starmer this, because both before and after the Brexit vote all of that ‘ basic case’ was very firmly something that was in the power of the Westminster Parliament to deal with. Brussels doesn’t provide public services to Manchester or Grimsby. If Starmer couldn’t disagree with that ‘basic case’ it can only be because he, like Brexit supporters, is peddling the politics of delusion.
None of these things that Starmer mentioned is related to the reasons that people voted for Brexit at all, not unless you’re the kind of voter for whom ‘high streets to be proud of’ means ‘not hearing people speaking foreign on the bus.’ Starmer completely ignored the role of English nationalism and xenophobia in the Brexit vote. The Brexit vote was driven by Anglo-British nationalist exceptionalism, a hatred of immigration whipped up by the right wing press, and a false sense of English victimhood, the fantasy that England was being held back by the French and the Germans from its ‘true place’ as a global player.
He went on: “It was the same in the Scottish referendum in 2014 – many of those who voted ‘yes’ did so for similar reasons. And it’s not an unreasonable demand.” And a lot of those who voted ‘no’ did so because Keir Starmer’s party told them that it was the only way that Scotland could stay in the European Union. It’s not an unreasonable demand for them to expect that the politicians who told them that a vote for them would ensure Scotland’s place in the EU should actually exert themselves in getting Scotland, if not back into the EU, then at least restoring freedom of movement and eliminating trade and customs barriers with the EU. But no. Scotland is to be sacrificed on the altar of English nationalist vanity so that Starmer can pursue the votes of Brexit supporters in Middlesborough.
What Starmer had to say about Scotland’s yes voters was total arrant, arrogant, and out of touch nonsense. People in Scotland who voted yes did not do so because of a fear of immigration, or because of distrust of Europe, or because of a nostalgic desire to restore a lost greatness. They did so because they recognised that the Westminster system is fundamentally broken and because they wanted a Scotland that was better integrated into the international community, not one whose relationships with other countries are mediated by the imperial great power delusions of British nationalist exceptionalism. People in Scotland who voted ‘yes’ had a very clear and realistic view of Scotland’s place in the world. This is a small nation which must collaborate with its neighbours. But they want Scotland to collaborate as an equal and as a partner, not as a subordinate which is deprived of the power to make fundamental choices about the path that Scotland takes. Scotland’s yes supporters welcome immigration, they actively seek international cooperation, it’s the opposite of everything that Brexit represents.
Starmer tries to co-opt the “take back control” slogan but won’t say how Scotland could take back control if it wanted to. How does Scotland take back control of the referendum process if this is indeed a voluntary union. Starmer has no answer. His ‘Take Back Control’ Bill won’t allow Scotland to take control of its own future. Take back control, except for viewers in Scotland, who can still have people like Starmer dictating to them what their interests and priorities ‘really’ are.
But more than this, any promise to decentralise Westminster’s power that isn’t tied to major reforms such as PR and the abolition of the House of Lords is worthless. It’s like promising to redistribute the hoard of treasure guarded by a dragon while leaving the dragon in place. Take Back Control remains a meaningless and vacuous sound bite whether it’s used by the Vote Leave campaign, or by Starmer dog whistling to leave voters that he is really one of them. In the absence of meaningful reform of Westminster, anything implemented by Starmer’s government could easily be undone or undermined by the Conservatives when the electoral pendulum swings back in their favour as it most assuredly will.
Unlike the Brexit voters in the north and Midlands of England, the voters of Scotland don’t need to be pandered to by Starmer’s Labour party because they won’t vote Tory anyway, so they can be ignored and marginalised while Starmer goes full throttle for the English nationalist vote. Labour’s priorities are crystal clear, bugger Scotland, we need to get Hartlepool back. There was absolutely nothing in this speech to reassure voters in Scotland that the democratic choices of the Scottish electorate will be respected. For all Starmer’s talk of decentralisation he proposes to do nothing at all about the House of Commons, the dysfunctional heart of British political and constitutional malaise. This speech confirmed that Labour has nothing to offer Scotland except contempt and the paternalistic arrogance of a Westminster that dictates, controls, and traduces democracy in Scotland when the people of Scotland dare to vote for something that the Westminster parties don’t like.
For its part the Conservatives have claimed that Keir Starmer was just offering “empty slogans” in his speech. The irony meter lost control and exploded in a million sovereign pieces.
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