Scottish independence still matters to voters, even if Anas Sarwar wishes it didn’t

Anas Sarwar has had a pretty successful couple of weeks as Scottish Labour leader. First, he cracked the political joke of the decade when he asked Nicola Sturgeon if she thought she was buying Lionel Messi when she forked out £2 million for a shipyard boss.

In keeping up the pressure on the First Minister over the shambles of the Western Isles ferry contract – involving a state-owned ferry company and a state-owned shipyard – he has kept himself firmly in the news for all the right reasons.

Whether or not his jest had anything to do with it, Mr Sarwar also had a good return in an opinion poll this week, which suggested an upturn in his party’s fortunes, putting Scottish Labour ahead of the Scottish Conservatives for the first time since it lost that runner-up slot in 2016.

In launching his campaign for the local elections next month, he appealed for former Labour supporters, who may have “held their noses” and switched to the Tory party in recent years to “come home”.

He said: “Boris Johnson has let you down. Boris Johnson has let the United Kingdom down. Boris Johnson is a corrupt joke and a liar.”

And in urging former Labour supporters who had backed the SNP to return to the fold, he said that under the Sturgeon government, poverty and inequality had increased while the NHS was “on its knees”.

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis

Elsewhere, his manifesto for the council elections was aimed at making the soaring cost of living the main battleground, accompanied with what must be said were the main Labour standbys of significant spending promises.

A windfall tax on energy companies would be followed by increased rebates on energy bills, £400 “fuel cost payments” for those hardest hit, £100 rebates in water bills, increased welfare funds for local councils, a cap on bus fares and half-price rail travel for three months.

The Labour leader will be challenged as to where the money for all of this will come from. But this observer, at least, thought there was one aspect of important political policy that was missing from Thursday’s document.  

Don’t mention the ‘I’ word

There was not a single mention of the so-called constitutional issue: Scottish independence and the prospect of another independence referendum next year.

Mr Sarwar was quoted in the past as saying that the constitution was not something that got him “out of bed in the morning”, but whether he likes it or not it is certainly an issue that will exercise his opponents in coming weeks.

And, probably because many former Labour stalwarts in west and central Scotland now vote for the SNP, he would prefer to campaign on the cost of living, rather than on his views on independence.

Jackie Baillie, his deputy, insists that it was “crystal clear” that Labour was opposed to Scottish independence, and added that she thought the cost-of-living crisis, rather than independence, would be the priority in this election.

However, try as they might, politicians do not get to choose what our priorities are. The voters do that.

And, recent good run or not, Mr Sarwar may well discover that the threat of the break-up of Britain remains a key issue, even if he would rather it wasn’t.    

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