Hope is in the air after Starmer’s first visit to Scotland as PM

8 July 2024, 15:13

Britain's Prime Minister Keir Starmer, left, meets Scottish First Minister and SNP leader John Swinney during a visit to Edinburgh
Britain's Prime Minister Keir Starmer, left, meets Scottish First Minister and SNP leader John Swinney during a visit to Edinburgh. Picture: Alamy
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

Long before the general election campaign kicked off, when the Labour party was still trying to win just its’ second MP in Scotland in the Rutherglen by-election, I asked Keir Starmer if it wasn’t his job to offer hope to the people of that constituency – especially those who would benefit from the scrapping of the two child cap on benefits.

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He was under huge pressure then – as he was all through the last six weeks – to say that a Labour government would end that particularly cruel piece of Conservative policy, but he wouldn’t. What point is offering hope when it can be so easily dashed was what he didn’t say, but meant, in his refusal to bow to that pressure. Better to offer pragmatism. To be honest, it left me dismayed.

Similarly, the election campaign we’ve all just been through seemed to offer little in the way of hope – just change. Ultimately that was clearly enough given Labour’s landslide victory, which was particularly obvious in Scotland where the swing to Starmer’s party and away from the SNP has changed the electoral map once more. A change is, after all, as good as a rest, and boy do we need a rest from the last decade of chaos and, in Scotland’s case, constitutional battle.

But after yesterday and the new Prime Minister’s visit to Scotland – his first official engagement as PM - I think hope is in the air. Looking at the photograph taken in Bute House yesterday, and the language coming from both Starmer and John Swinney, it seems the desire for a reset of relations is honestly held by both men, and could very well be implemented if both governments work together in good faith. There’s certainly been enough bad faith to last a lifetime.

Scotland has two governments. The actuality of that has taken a while to sink in at Westminster which hasn’t been able to decide whether to embrace that or deny it. We’ve had UK governments which have treated Scotland as a foreign country – devolving powers and then forgetting that what it does in London still has a major impact in Edinburgh – and others which have just ignored the fact that devolution is a thing, circumventing the Scottish Government when it so chooses.

The fact of two governments has also riled the SNP which has been in charge of the Scottish end of that pairing for some 17 years now. Since 2014 and the rejection of independence it has attempted to govern as if Scotland had voted otherwise, then had to gnash its teeth at the constitutional strictures of devolution - and demand a second referendum from every new PM, knowing that it would not be granted.

And in the midst of these two governments the Scottish people have felt ignored, abandoned, and been generally misunderstood. Little wonder then that at the election last week they rejected the Tory government at Westminster and gave the SNP a bloody nose in the process. They did it to Labour before when they felt taken for granted. Thursday was the SNP’s turn.

But, to quote Starmer, a page has been turned. There is hope on the horizon that the constant battle between the two governments, which has been detrimental to Scots, is over. Starmer wants to re-set the relationship, and an FM whose MPs are now sadly depleted would be foolish to say otherwise and Swinney is far from stupid.

Both men could now work together to find a solution to the issue of the Grangemouth oil refinery closure, and with it the loss of 500 jobs. What a constructive start that could be. GB Energy, whenever it is finally shaped into a real thing, should also be welcomed by a Scottish Government which should take any tool available to help drive towards net zero and see investment in renewables – even if it’s not the perfect solution they would want. And let us see what the review of the Universal Credit system brings, and indeed the changes he wants to implement in the NHS in England. Maybe, just maybe, these too could be good for Scotland. Scots will be watching intently.

Starmer also said that he wants to take the party politics out of the governments’ relationship. That may last for a while, but the looming Holyrood election will ultimately put paid to that approach. The SNP is licking its wounds right now – but it will not be shy in condemning any Labour failures in Scotland it can use to its advantage.

Both parties have an eye on the 2026 Holyrood elections already; Labour hoping to see a similar result play out as last week’s, the SNP regrouping for the fight ahead, with many ex-MPs now re-appraising the potential of running for the Scottish Parliament. The party will have some soul-searching to do before then of course – Labour hoping that might last long enough to ensure it can capitalise on any potential, chaotic infighting.

And let’s not forget the Conservatives. They may have had a better night in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK but they now have a leadership election ahead both at UK and Scottish level. Who knows which direction they might lurch, and indeed whether the Scottish Conservatives will do what they have threatened in the past, and separate themselves from the rest of the party. Will they be at all relevant come 2026?

There is a lot ahead of us with a new government – and a lot riding on the reset both Starmer and now Swinney are signed up to. But there is hope in the air that the two men can find a way that – the constitution aside – can better the lives of all Scots.