Richard Leonard’s nationality should not be his defining feature as Scottish labour leader

Corbyn supporter Richard Leonard was elected leader of Scottish Labour last weekend, winning a convincing majority over his rival Anas Sarwar. Scottish Labour was the dominant political force in Scotland until 2015 when they lost a staggering 40 seats, mostly to the SNP.

Clearly, this is a party in need of revitalisation if it is to remain relevant to Scottish people. In a time of rising nationalism for Scotland as well as the rest of the UK, the question on many lips is whether Richard Leonard, an Englishman, is the right person to head this revitalisation.

The Acts of Union merged Scotland and England in 1707, and since then Scottish nationalism has taken many forms. In recent years, nationalism has had a direct impact on UK politics, with 1,617,989 Scots voting to leave the UK in 2014. While this was not the majority view, there clearly was and is a huge nationalist presence in Scotland, especially amongst young voters.

It is in this context that Richard Leonard was elected the new leader of Scottish Labour last weekend. Born in Yorkshire and educated at an English private school, people are questioning whether he is a suitable choice for leader of Scottish Labour, or whether the impact of his nationality is being overstated and exaggerated.

Some concerns are certainly valid. In the 2017 election, despite losses, the SNP still came out on top in Scotland, with 35 seats. In the 2014 referendum, 73 per cent of those who voted to leave the UK said they did so because of ‘disaffection with Westminster politics’. For many, a privately educated white English man like Leonard, is symbolic of an out-of-touch, privileged and distinctly English Westminster.

However, the impact of his nationality can be overstated. Undeniably, Leonard’s ‘Englishness’ is more of a hindrance than a help, but there are many things about Leonard’s policies and allegiances that may ingratiate him with the Scottish public. He is a trade union man, with a membership for both the Unite and GMB unions. He is also a proponent of nuclear disarmament in Scotland, a policy position he shares with the SNP. Importantly, he has lived in Scotland for almost the entirety of his adult life.

Leonard’s own views on his nationality are very upfront, perhaps helping to minimise the ‘issue’ at hand. When asked about his birth place in an interview he joked, “I can’t do anything about that; it’s a done deal.”

In his own words, “people are fairly relaxed about it.” Perhaps, then, people are placing too much attention on Leonard’s English heritage. It is clear from his new position that it hasn’t hindered his career in any meaningful way thus far.

It is difficult to say whether being English in a country whose political climate is dictated partially by nationalism will hurt Richard Leonard and his team. It is certainly won’t be the thing to gain him any support. But the implication that the Scottish public can look no further than patriotism and nationalism when deciding their political allegiance is fairly patronising. One can only hope that Leonard’s success or failure as the leader of Scottish Labour will not be judged solely on his place of birth, but on his policies and actions.

Image: Scottish Parliament via Wikimedia Commons

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