Oh Snap

Could Jeremy Corbyn Save the UK from Breaking Up?

In Scotland's confusing election campaign, the prospect of more Tory rule could finally repel Scots from the Union.
June 5, 2017, 12:21pm
Is this the most confusing election poster ever? (Photo author's own)

One week before Scotland's independence referendum in September of 2014, dozens of Labour MPs – including many who travelled from other parts of the UK – took the train to Glasgow and paraded through its streets, gathering for a speech by Ed Miliband.

As they marched through the centre of town, a pro-independence prankster on a bike was on hand with a sound system, cycling alongside them and blasting out the Imperial March tune. "Scotland, your imperial masters have arrived!" he roared, in what became one of the most viral moments of the referendum campaign.


Last weekend in Glasgow, things looked slightly different. Jeremy Corbyn was in town, having just given a speech to hundreds of supporters. As he left, he was chased down the street by a man on a bike, who managed to catch up with him at a set of traffic lights. The Labour leader rolled down his car window.

"I wish you all the success, Mr Corbyn – I hope you become our next Prime Minister," the breathless cyclist blurted out before the lights changed again. At that point, the pub beer garden over the road figured out what was going on, and the would-be PM sped away to loud cheers and cries of support. The cyclist's footage of this moment has since gone viral online, too, although with a slightly different takeaway message than the September, 2014 escapade.

So what can these incidents tell us? Are Labour in Scotland no longer the "imperial" party associated with a decaying union, pitted against an energetic, youthful and, above all, hopeful, pro-indy campaign, but now the very source of that hope, optimism and energy? Have the memed become the meme-makers?

Certainly, Corbyn's speech in Glasgow last week was refreshing in one area: he didn't spend the whole 40 minutes he was on stage sniping at the SNP, as is customary when it comes to Labour leaders in Scotland. It was almost like there was a national election happening in which their main opponents are the Tories.

But it would be difficult to view his speech last week in isolation from the rest of his party's campaign in Scotland, which has continued in much the same vein as before: namely, that the SNP are very bad. This happens to be exactly the same election message being punted by the Tories and Lib Dems in Scotland too, with all three parties jostling for the top spot when it comes to who can hate the Nats the most.

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The end result can be confusing at a local level, before we even begin to consider the national picture. Just south of Glasgow, one centrist Labour candidate has been running a campaign singularly focused on trying to win over Tory voters, in an effort to take the seat from the SNP. This has meant doing things like including favourable quotes from a Tory MSP in his campaign literature and erecting a billboard with a giant picture of Nicola Sturgeon, alongside that classic Labour campaign slogan: "Vote Conservative". Confused yet? You will be, as this was apparently to try and influence Tory voters to switch to Labour, lest they let the SNP in by accident. But any passing drivers would presumably have smashed into about three lampposts by the time they had figured out its intended message.

Similarly, on the 26th of May – the day campaigning resumed after the Manchester attack – Jeremy Corbyn could be found delivering a policy-focused speech about foreign intervention and terrorism that dominated the evening news and the next day's papers. Kezia Dugdale, his Scottish counterpart, spent the day getting one of her staffers to dress up in SNP colours so she could… beat them in a go-kart race. Labour are in pole position, geddit??!!!


The SNP are content dealing with opposition parties – whose campaigning revolves entirely around how much they hate the nasty Nats and their divisive politics of separation – fighting among each themselves for pro-UK voters. Those voters have been increasingly consolidating around the Tories, who – it turns out – are quite good at British nationalism, and that suits the SNP even more.

But the difficulty with this election has been that it has not been fought on constitutional issues – either independence or Brexit. Instead, the economy, public services and national security have been brought to the fore. The wildcard factor in this election has been the Corbyn campaign, and the SNP haven't been sure whether to attack Labour from the right (cutting corporation tax is actually good), the left (Corbyn has just nicked all our policies) or at all. In the end, they seem to have settled for telling people that voting SNP is the best way of keeping the Tories out, and given the party holds nearly every seat as it is, this seems hard to argue with.

When the senior SNP MP Angus MacNeil remarked two years ago that Corbyn was the Labour leadership candidate they feared most, because he had the "courage and vision" to sort out the party's problems, he added that there was nothing to worry about. Corbyn was never going to win. His words now seem more prescient than he ever intended – Corbyn did win the leadership (twice), and has not been the disaster many predicted.

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A Scotland-only poll at the weekend saw Labour gain 8 percentage points, although still end up in third place behind the Tories. It's easier to believe that the catalyst for this has been the Corbyn-led UK campaign, rather than the 100,000 doubtlessly inspiring letters that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have been sending to pro-union voters, urging them to "stop the SNP".

The 2015 election was preceded by a massive furore over whether Nicola Sturgeon secretly wanted David Cameron to win, as a leaked memo alleged. While it wasn't true, it wouldn't necessarily be the worst case scenario for the SNP if Theresa May got a thumping majority, provided she doesn't take too many Scottish seats in the process.

The prospect of perhaps another decade of Tory government may prove decisive as Scotland gears up for another independence referendum, pushing voters towards leaving the UK. As far-fetched as it still may be, a Corbyn administration would present a direct challenge to the cause of independence, presided as it was on hopeful notions of social justice and creating a better future that, we were told, is impossible to achieve within the UK.

Corbyn may seem like an unlikely candidate for the saviour of the union, but then he seemed like an unlikely candidate for saviour of the Labour Party, too.