A GALLOPING horse and a padlocked stable door were the two images that sprang to mind when I read of Richard Leonard’s U-turn on the European Union.

A few months back, in what was described as a “car-crash” interview with the BBC, the Scottish Labour leader insisted: “There has been a referendum in which people overall decided that we should leave the European Union and I have said repeatedly that I think the job of elected politicians is to look at the best way of extracting the best deal under those circumstances.”

This weekend, he said: “I am pleased that Scottish Labour’s executive committee has endorsed my call for the party to back a confirmatory vote on any Brexit deal with Remain as an option on the ballot paper. Scottish Labour will wholeheartedly campaign for a Remain victory in such a vote.”

READ MORE: Leonard backs second EU vote after Corbyn rejects new poll

People, even political party leaders, are allowed to change their minds. That can even be a virtue. They revisit the issues, weigh up the arguments, take account of the wider public mood and change their position accordingly. But let’s be clear. That’s not what Richard Leonard has done here.

Instead, he took a battering from the electorate at the EU elections, leaving his party clinging on to the cliff edge by its fingertips.

So, to save his own political skin, he contradicts everything he has said for the past three years on the biggest political crisis of the decade. It’s like the old cartoon of the politician breathlessly running behind a protest march while explaining to a reporter: “I’m trying to catch up with them because I’m their leader.” No wonder Scottish Labour these days is treated with universal contempt. No wonder no-one really knows anymore what they stand for. No wonder they are deeply distrusted.The erratic acrobatics of the party over Brexit stands in revealing contrast to its iron-clad obstinacy over Scottish self-determination. While UK and Scottish Labour are prepared to tolerate a multitude of voices speaking out on every issue under the sun, from Brexit to Trident, from taxation to immigration, there is one great taboo.

On the European Union, the party can bob and weave and zigzag all over the place, like a drunken reveller trying to make his way home in the pitch black. Leave and Remain are debated at conferences, national councils, national executives. MPs and MSPs publicly disagree with one each other.

But when it comes to Scotland’s potential to take control over its own destiny, there is no debate, no doubts, no questioning, no room for exploration. Just a monolithic, granite-like Unionism. It’s all very strange, considering that hundreds of thousands of Labour voters backed independence in the 2014 referendum. And considering that Labour’s breakneck plunge towards oblivion began the day after that referendum.

The National:

“But Labour is an internationalist party opposed to narrow nationalism,” will be the response of any Labour politician or official who reads this article. Not that these lofty principles prevented Labour backing Brexit until recently.

So why are Labour so intent on keeping the United Kingdom together, come hell or high water? After all, despite the globalisation of world trade, scores of independence referendums since 1945 have resulted in the creation of dozens of new states. It’s the trend of history: the creation of smaller autonomous states co-operating across international borders around issues of common interest, such as the environment, trade and workers’ rights, while keeping power and accountability as close to the people as possible within agreed national boundaries. There is nothing in these arrangements that contradicts the principles of internationalism or socialism. Nothing whatsoever.

So why the fanatical dogmatism to hold together an unwieldy, 300-year-old arrangement that was designed to equip England to expand its capitalist empire, while placating the old feudal landowning aristocracy? The reason, I’m afraid, has nothing to do with principles and everything to do with narrow party-political advantage.

Back in the 1920s, the Labour movement championed a radical form of home rule that would have meant Scottish MPs withdrawing completely from Westminster to establish a quasi-independent parliament in Edinburgh or Glasgow that would sort out matters of common interest, such as foreign trade and defence, through negotiations between the two parliaments on a free and equal basis. That all changed when ambitious Labour politicians from Ramsay MacDonald onwards started adding up the electoral arithmetic. Their fear was that without Scotland and Wales, they could never get the numbers to form a majority government in Westminster.

And in one sense, they had a point. Out of 25 General Elections since 1918, the Tories have been the top party in England 19 times. In Scotland, six times. And in Wales, never. And that, in a nutshell, explains Labour Unionism. To hold Scotland within the Union, not for internationalist reasons, but to compensate for their failure to change the political culture in England.

I’ve never been a Labour voter or member, but I have many friends who were in the past Labour activists. They did not wake up one morning to become narrow nationalists. Their political ideals have not changed fundamentally. But their politics evolved in line with a changing world. And over the years and decades, there were so many like them that they left behind a Scottish Labour Party overwhelmingly dominated by people who were too institutionalised, or too tribal, or too fearful to adapt and move on.

The tide of history is flowing towards independence. All that remains to be settled is the timescale. I hope it’s sooner rather than later. But whether we make that decision in 2020, 2022 or a few years beyond that, it’s going to happen.

And unless it has a revelation even more startling than Richard Leonard’s U-turn over Brexit, Labour will be left behind, high and dry, never forgiven nor forgotten for its role in trying to halt the march of progress. Other forces will emerge to replace it, because an independent Scotland will be a vibrant, multi-party democracy, a melting pot of ideas from across the whole spectrum of left, right and centre.

Or maybe it’s not too late for those left in the Labour Party with vision and intelligence to waken up and open a serious debate over independence in order to save the party from itself. I won’t hold my breath, but I’d love to see it happening.