Now for the Hard Part

Oct 21st, 2014 | By willb | Category: Articles, Features, Frontpage, Lead

While the clear No victory in the Scottish referendum was a huge relief to many, the political minefield the campaign left behind means there is much hard work to do before we’ll see any renewal of Labour and the UK left. WILL BROWN reports.

The No vote means that we have avoided many problems independence would have created. However, the constitutional legacy of the campaign will be with us for some time. As Harry Barnes has noted on this website, while the belated and hurried promises of ‘devo-max’ made by the three main parties may or may not have been necessary to deliver a No vote, there are no simple fixes for the UK constitution.

Scottish indep NoOne key problem is the so-called ‘English question’ – whether it is fair for Scottish MPs to continue to vote on ‘English’ laws. David Cameron was quick to pounce on the issue, trying to make party political advantage from the No vote, securing a Tory majority over ‘English’ areas of policy.

As Harry Barnes notes, while there is not much appetite for a separate ‘English parliament’, a complex system to decide who can vote on different policy areas in Westminster would also be unworkable.

The constitutional expert, Vernon Bogdanor, has warned that Cameron’s position could lead to a situation where we have a Labour government unable to govern on huge swathes of policy, thereby creating a divided executive. Perhaps more importantly, the very idea of ‘English’ policy areas is, according to Bogdanor, highly dubious in a state where the vast majority of the population live in England and where changes to public expenditure or taxation in England have direct consequences across the UK.

For the long-term health of the union, devo-max also poses problems. As the BBC’s Alan Little argued, part of the reason why Scotland feels so detached is that the institutional basis of the Union, of British identity, has become so eroded as a result of the decline of nationalised industries, privatisation and marketisation.

Giving more power to Scotland over areas such as health and education will do nothing to reverse this trend and may well reinforce it. The more devolved Scotland becomes, the harder it is to re-create any sense of Britishness, progressive or otherwise. Indeed, some argued back in the 1990s that Labour’s devolution plans, far from ‘lancing the boil of nationalism’ would actually enhance it and that certainly looks like it was a good call now.

Neal Ascherson (a Yes supporter) noted in the Observer that ‘Scotland is being carried along on a process of steady institutional, political and social divergence from the rest of the UK’. While this might not mean a return to the independence question as soon as he hopes, it does make the longer term task of rebuilding solidarity across the UK borders considerably harder.

Yet, despite the problematic consequences of further devolution, there can be no rowing back from the promises made in the final weeks of the campaign. Nothing will do the main UK parties more discredit than to renege on promises of devo-max. Now that vow has been made, it has to be honoured.

Furthermore, it needs to be done quickly and Cameron’s attempt to link it to solving the English question has been rightly criticised, leading to what looks like a retreat by some Conservatives on this linkage. Delivering devo-max ought to be fairly straightforward, though there will doubtless be struggles over the precise content of further devolution. Solving the wider UK constitutional questions will take longer if it to be done well.

One further issue is that devolution anywhere – in Scotland, or within England – also poses some wider problems for the left. The idea of universality, of fairness and equality of provision in health and education, and on issues such as taxation, has been core to left values since the creation of the welfare state. While decentralisation has a great deal to recommend it, an inherent feature of decentralisation is that it may lead to greater inequality of provision across the UK. These issues need to brought into the discussion should there be, as Labour is proposing, some kind of constitutional convention.

Mixed legacies

The wider political legacies of the referendum are also mixed. In Scotland, there are obvious dangers that defeat may lead to a great deal of negativity from the Yes camp, exemplified by the vitriol and condemnation already seen on social media, such as from the nationalist Twitter feed #the45.

John Harris has written in the Guardian that denial, blame and claims of betrayal are present in Scotland among Yes voters. As academic and commentator Gerry Hassan argues, the SNP’s reaction to defeat has done little to heal such wounds. Its leaders have made no conciliatory statements and no effort to reach out to the No majority.

Scottish inde Mary PitcaithlyOthers claim it was ‘the rich who voted No’, the old who betrayed the young, the BBC who biased the result, or that ‘non-Scottish residents’ (ie. English voters in Scotland) blocked independence. All these arguments betray a failure to face up to defeat by Yes supporters.

Hassan reports recent polling data which shows that voting patterns were much more complex. A majority of well-off and middle class voters did vote No, but not by large margins in all social class categories. Working class voters were much more divided both in terms of social class and geographic region. In some lower social class categories and regions the majority voted No, belying a simplistic ‘rich versus poor’ split. Among the young, there was a large majority for Yes among 16 and 17 year-olds, but only 48% for yes among 18-24 year-olds.

The harder truth for the Yes camp is that it failed to reach out to enough people. Harris draws a point of much wider relevance from this:

‘What the new forces in Scotland will have to get their heads around is that many people do not like change, often with good reason – and to be successful, left politics always has to be bundled up with a deep and sympathetic understanding of that fact.’

Of course, there is optimism about the referendum too. The energy and levels of political participation it generated have been much commented upon. The referendum saw a massive grassroots effort, mostly linked to the Yes campaign, drawing in many disaffected voters and the young, first time-voting ‘generation Yes’.

The turnout and the campaign also showed that modern politics is entirely characterised by apathy and cynicism. Granted, posing a question about which political community you want to belong to is likely to result in a high turnout – it’s not something people don’t have a view on. But the campaigns went beyond that, opening up discussions of what kind of political system and society people wanted.

There is hope that this – ‘exciting beyond words’, according to Harris – might be something the left in the UK as a whole could draw strength from. Barry Winter has noted how one of the great positives of the Common Weal project is it’s ability to speak in a new, more accessible way.

But if all that energy is to be harnessed in a constructive way divisions will need to be healed. For the left, that means finding areas of common purpose among those on both sides of the argument, and both sides of the border.

Can we distil, from discussions about a future Scotland, ideas about changes to the economy, to politics and to social policies that could help transform all of the UK? Can Scotland’s conversations about a future constitution inform the impending UK-wide need to address political change?

Political parties

It may not be overstating it to say that we may have just one more chance to remake the Union before there’s a new push for Scottish independence. A renewal of social democratic politics will have to be at the heart of it. Whether the left in Britain can take this opportunity, and in particular whether Labour can learn any valuable lessons from the referendum, remains to be seen. Early signs are not overly encouraging and time is relatively short.

In Scotland, Labour is in a dreadful state and disappointed Yes voters are now gunning for Labour’s Westminster seats. A complete overhaul of the party, and in particular a jettisoning of its arrogant assumption that it is the natural party for Scotland, is long overdue. In the UK as a whole, Labour’s tired, amateurish conference did little to suggest it was becoming a more vibrant body.

However, the picture is mixed. On the one hand, many of the policies cited in Scotland as reasons for independence are being addressed by Labour with commitments to end the bedroom tax, to tax the rich, raise funds for the NHS, and repeal the Health and Social Care Act. Labour is also rightly pushing for the devo-max pledge to be honoured and not linked to a UK-wide political settlement at this point.

On the other hand Labour remains caught between two stools on economic policy: failing to reassure the right, exemplified by Milliband’s catastrophic omissions in his speech; and failing to set out a clear alternative to George Osborne’s never-ending austerity.

However, centrally important though Labour is in this process, it will not just be down to political parties to make the running.

Some go as far as to suggest that political parties have no role in facilitating change. ‘Conventional politics has fallen out of use,’ claimed Armando Iannucci in the Observer.

Paul Mason, writing about the young activists in the Yes campaign, warns of a political vacuum among Scotland’s youth (and in English and Welsh cities), born of an absence of any alternative to the narrow choices on offer. Asking where does the disappointed ‘Yes generation’ go? Mason answers ‘not to the SNP and not to Labour’. For Labour in particular, he says, ‘a big part of the marginalised urban poor of western Scotland has had it with them’.

Diagnosing the problem is the easy bit, however, the crisis of Westminster parties and the wider crisis of established parties in western Europe is there for all to see. Declines in voting, in party membership and cynicism with electoral politics are all prevalent trends in liberal democracies. The disconnect between liberal democracy and contemporary capitalism, analysed by Wolfgang Streeck in New Left Review, leaves democratic systems in a state of atrophy.

But stating that parties are in trouble, or that more people participate in other, new forms of activism, isn’t itself a strategy for change. No-one has yet suggested a way for liberal democracies to function without political parties.

Even unflinching critics of Labour, such as Ian Martin (writer of ‘In the Thick of It’), acknowledge a temptation to rejoin Labour. While some look to vote for left alternatives such as the TUSC or the Greens, he retorts, ‘But come on. That won’t prevent another five years of Tory rule. And that simply can’t be tolerated.’

As the ILP has argued in Our Politics, a new kind of relationship has to be developed between political parties and non-party campaigns and movements for change, each feeding the other. For this to be realised, political leaders will need to show a willingness to take risks and a level of imagination that has been in short supply.

It will require Labour, if it gets into office, to show that it can deliver on some of its current promises. But it will also need those outside and critical of political parties to articulate in a more constructive way what might reasonably be asked of those parties.

Routine, and frankly boring, denunciations of a ‘Westminster elite’, and dismissals of electoral politics, serve only to drive the demagoguery of UKIP and political cynicism. The Yes campaign showed that a more positive conversation is possible. There is an opportunity now for us to build on that, but it will not be with us for long.

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See also:
‘Constitutional Conundrums’, by Harry Barnes
‘Scotland’s Referendum: Why the Left Should Oppose Independence’, by Will Brown
‘Scotland’s Referendum: Reimagining a Nation’, by Barry Winter
‘No Short Cuts to a Progressive Scotland’, by Vince Mills
‘Want to Escape Austerity? Move to Scotland’, by Ernie Jacques.

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  1. As always there is much to agree with in Will’s article but also lots that I consider problematic and unconvincing.

    Not least the implication that our Westminster elites might be part of the answer to problems of a broken, unfair and unbalanced Britain, and that the Scottish referendum was an exercise in democracy and that the people have now spoken. Well they did and it wasn’t.

    After a week of unprecedented panic and phone-a-friend pleading by a tearful prime minister, establishment politicians, non-dom celebrities, underpinned by dire threats by economists, vested interests and big corporations about the likely flight of capital and firms relocating south of the border should the Scottish people support independence. And when it looked like these tactics weren’t’ working promises of more devolved powers (devo-max) turned the tide and the people of Scotland said No and the union was saved.

    But the very next day, the tiny island of Malta, with a population of 422,971, celebrated 50 years of independence from the UK and apparently it is a peaceful, happy and, in relative terms, economically successful country. How did a country with a population less than that of Edinburgh (487,560) manage that?

    Also independent Norway and New Zealand, social democratic countries with comparable populations and resources as Scotland, seem to be able to manage their affairs without the multiplicity of dire problems said to befall an independent Scotland. The United Nations – Human Development Index – ranks Norway number 1 in the world, with New Zealand 7th and the UK lagging behind at 14th. How can that be?

    It’s a bit of a puzzle, don’t you think, when everybody who is anybody (apart from the Yes coalition) shouted from the rooftops that independence would – a priori – result in economic devastation and see the country ostracised from the EU family of nations and cut adrift from the benign protection of London and Her Majesty’s government.

    Oh, and throughout the 18-month referendum campaign, and before, every national newspaper north and south of the border (apart from Glasgow based Sunday Herald) was dutifully and unashamedly pro-union. And within hours of the referendum announcement, some of those cuddly No winners torched the Herald’s Glasgow offices.

    Demographics
    And despite academics like Gerry Hassan trying to muddy the waters, it is a fact that the demographic of the referendum showed the young, poor and excluded voting Yes, and the middle classes, elderly, English ex-pats and wealthy on the No side. Broadly speaking then, support for the union rose in line with disposable income, wealth and processions.

    Yet despite all the bullying and arm twisting, Glasgow (on the red Clyde), the largest voting district by far with the worst levels of deprivation in the whole of the UK, split 53.5% / 46.5% in favour of independence. So large numbers of traditional working class voters turned away from Labour and notions that we are Better Together and were unimpressed by promises of jam tomorrow. Wonder why?

    Oh, and with a turn-out at 84.6%, the highest ever in British electoral history, those who think the matter is now settled might have a rude awakening if promises are broken and things don’t change. Because we all know – don’t we? – that the Grim Reaper has a habit of slimming down the older demographic and calls for another vote will become unstoppable if the Scottish people believe they were lied to and sold-a-pup.

    So unless Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling can deliver on devolution promises, Labour support is likely to collapse further to the advantage of the newly formed 45% coalition.

    Millions of good people voted Yes & No
    Despite all the media hysteria and political hyperbole, and the pointing of fingers and making-up of motives, to fit particular points of view and prejudicial narratives, millions of very good people, Yes and No supporters, registered and voted for the very first time in their lives – ever – and became engaged in political debate and in discussions about what a good society might look like.

    But, on the other hand, it disappointed me that usually reliable reporters, commentators, bloggers, social democrats, trade unionist and socialists gave an impression that Yes voters were not only wrong but were misguided fruitcakes who were siding with beyond-the-pale nationalists. In reality it was quite the opposite insofar as it proved to be a unique political occasion and a wonderful political festival and national awakening that, worldwide, put Scotland centre stage. That was sometimes great theatre, but overwhelmingly it was a positive and unique experience with ordinary members of the public engaged in politics, saying what they wanted and being listened too, for the first time ever.

    Corporate bullies
    And while we’re at it, let’s unite and join the boycott of Asda, John Lewis, RBS, et al whose threats of gloom, doom, higher prices, and jobs disappearing across the border, fed the fear-and-lies machine in a way that had little to do with democracy and everything to do with self-interest, bottom-line greed and bullyboy tactics.

    Gordon Brown & Kirkcaldy
    It’s generally accepted that Gordon Brown made a significant contribution to turning the tide of in favour of the Better Together coalition insofar as in the final days of campaigning he made barn-storming televised speeches in defence of the union underpinned by repeated reference to Labour values, solidarity, historical achievements and passionately reminding us that it was UK soldiers who fought together, won the peace together, built the NHS and the welfare state together and laced this political spin with dire warnings not to let narrow nationalism split asunder and destroy “what we have achieved together”.

    And while it is true that it was a post-war Labour government and the British people who built the NHS, welfare state and millions of much needed quality social houses, taking credit for all this is a bit rich given the contribution New Labour made to the neoliberal horror story and it’s part in the outsourcing and privatisation agenda leaving a legacy of unprecedented inequality, social exclusion, deprivation, food banks, etc.

    If anyone wants an objective view on what the union, Labour and Gordon Brown have achieved together, over decades, then visit Kirkcaldy and other staunchly Labour-supporting towns in Fife and Scotland, and see for yourself the shocking dilapidation and general disrepair and lack of investment. They are bomb sites. But this same Labour leader – proud of his labour movement values – was able to find hundreds of billions to bail out the banks and the city and to compound this mistake via Quantitative Easing and support for the very people (bankers, venture-capitalist, and bond and currency traders) responsible for the credit crises and austerity.

    And, of course, we are repeatedly told –aren’t we? – that whether we agree or disagree with Better Together leaders like Alistair Darling, they are principled and honourable, good-egg politicians. Well not in my book they aren’t and especially not Darling who is already enjoying the fruits of the City gravy train, even before he gets his gongs, fancy title and seat in the House of Lords. Last year, on top of his MP’s pay and generous expenses he picked up another £263,000, including one £30,000 pay-day courtesy of Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan Chase. Yes the same JP Morgan that was fined $13 billion (half of its yearly profits) for its part in the 2008 banking crises after admitting to unbelievable greed and financial irregularities which, in turn, became the excuse for austerity, the trashing of our welfare state and full-frontal attack on the jobless and those most vulnerable, including the disabled. But unlike some ‘benefit cheats’ few, if any, will see the inside of HM prisons or even lose their jobs.

    And as surely as night follows day, after referendum day and into the foreseeable future, the good people of Kirkcaldy will be left to rot and survive as best they can while their sons and daughters compete for zero-hours, minimum wage jobs, while the unemployed are forced to onto hideously expensive workfare programmes, are required to work for nothing in Poundland or to spend five days per week, writing and rewriting CVs and downloading databases of jobs that often don’t exist.

    Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas
    While Will makes a valid point about decentralisation and devolved government leading to different policies on social issues and maybe even more inequality across the regions, that argument– to my mind – is only valid if our highly centralised governmental system could (or ever would) deliver change and embrace a different economic model and a more democratic and modern way of testing public opinion and choosing representatives.

    And while there are no easy options for Labour, should it win next year’s general election, much could be done within existing budgets with the cancellation of Trident and nuclear weapons and with vanity projects such as High Speed Rail, together with real determination to make the multinationals pay tax on turn-over and projected profits. It’s not rocket science.

    But while all this is debatable and easier said than done, our Westminster Turkeys, and the vested interests they support, are not about to change a Parliamentary and electoral system that keeps them safe and serves, so well, their own personal self-interests. As ever money talks!

  2. There is a lot of interesting material in Will’s article. I agree that there are hard constitutional choices ahead and that there is a disconnect between the power of capital and democracy. And I am in complete accord over Labour’s lack of economic credibility, though setting out a different economic path to neo-liberalism, and convincing people that such a huge paradigm shift is possible, would be quite an achievement for a political party facing a general election in seven months time. Particularly as the Left – never short on slogans and quick fixes – has nothing approaching a coherent programme itself (though I do wonder why the arguments of UK Uncut and the Tax Justice Network have been so comprehensively ignored by the Labour leadership. They ought, at least, to be a part of the answer and do illustrate the fact that contemporary capitalism is completely bloody bent).

    However, I struggle with other things that Will says. For instance, his citation of Alan Little’s article is not, in my view, wholly accurate. Little argues that Britishness was anchored in “the power of empire, the experience of World War Two, the building of the post-war state”. So the decline in support for Great Britain isn’t just down to neo-liberal economics and the dismantling of the Atlee welfare state. It’s also because of the loss of empire.

    Little’s point is probably right. The union was created at a time of imperial expansion – and specifically after Scottish attempts to establish its own colonial project has literally floundered – so the end of empire probably did weaken the union.

    Little also points out that the fellow feeling amongst unionised workers in heavy industries that crossed national borders (in GB at least) has now disappeared. However, there are still lots of workers who do similar jobs across the borders of GB. What has disappeared is any sense of solidarity between them. The working class is, in other words, now fragmented and in any event is in many ways indistinguishable from used to be called the lower middle class. Indeed, even ‘professionals’, such as lawyers and teachers, now find themselves increasingly without autonomy or even much dignity at work. The ILP has already looked at these arguments and, rightly, in my view, decided to move away from the sort of political analysis that talks about the working class as if it were one mighty person or a synonym for the sword of justice.

    But I digress because Will doesn’t, thankgod, start talking about the working class in these terms. He points out how disengaged the poor in Scotland are with Labour and with traditional politics, and that young people are increasingly turning to nationalism. Rightly, he sees this as a huge risk and a barrier for building an alternative politics.

    The problem is he doesn’t seem to have any suggestions as to what they alternative may look like. Instead, the role of the Left is to ‘articulate in a more constructive way what might reasonably be asked’ of political parties (so the Tories, UKIP, Liberals and Greens as well as Labour then?).

    No, the role of the Left has to be to imagine what the beginning of a better road to a different location may actually look like. If it can’t, then we might as well support an independent Scotland because no one is going to listen if we simply object to specific policies.

    What I want is not a socialist alternative (there isn’t one to be had), but a compelling social democratic one that might at least set us off in the right direction. Who knows what could happen then.

  3. Hi Jonathan
    Thanks for you comment. Just time for a couple of brief repsonses.
    I agree absolutely about Alan Little, I was making a very partial reference to his analysis – he made more and wider points.
    My line about the role of the left should perhaps have been phrased ‘part of the role of the left…’
    And I agree when you say ‘the role of the Left has to be to imagine what the beginning of a better road to a different location may actually look like’.
    I do not have any ready-made blueprints or alternatives – I’m a bit perplexed as to why you’d think I do. But your phrase ‘imagine what the beginning of a better road..’ suggests you agree about the very sketchy and tentative nature of current Left politics is. And I agree that some sort of social democratic politics that ‘might at least set us off in the right direction’ is about right in the current context.
    I suppose my point about parties is that that process of imagining should/might come out of an interaction between parties (and on the left I’m mainly talking about Labour – I left that rather implicit) and movements/campaigns.
    Best wishes
    Will

  4. Ernie: You claim that the young, the poor and the excluded voted ‘yes’; whilst the middle class, the elderly and English ex-pats voted ‘no’. Well, at best, a majority of each of these categories seem roughly to have voted the way you claim – except that there seem to have been sizeable minorities in each camp. Then when it comes to the young, your majority seems to have held up for the 16 to 18 years olds, but not for the 18 to 24 year olds.

    Then is there not some cross-over between your various categories? Surely some of the elderly and the ex-pats are also poor and excluded. Whilst some of the young will have middle class and ex-pat backgrounds.

    And is it healthy to seek to dismiss and ignore the votes of any categories of people, unless they actually act in ways designed to remove the very operations of the democracy itself – as happened in Hitler’s rise to power?

    Nor is it feasible just to attack politicians and their friends because they try to hoodwink people. Unfortunately, it happens all the time. Although this is not to ignore the fact that the rules of the democratic game should seek to draw-in the horns of the self-interested and the manipulative. But we often have to work within the current system to change this.

    Malta is a nation I have a great deal of admiration for – including its high electoral turnout. Ann and I have visited it on numerious occasions and have friends there. Its independence (in association with its neighbouing island of Gozo) arises from a mixture of its long history, its geographical position, a growth of anti-imperialism and its cultural development. It has a large Catholic population, but any attractions which this might have for links with a similar neighbour such as Italy were destroyed by the development of Mussolini’s fascism.

    It is not easy to suggest that Malta’s pattern can somehow determine Scotland’s. Scotland’s populations is more than 12 times greater that of Malta, yet it is spread throughout a mixture of a few large cities and very wide rural areas. Malta’s islands tend to be packed with a small population. Nor does Malta share a border with the eqivalent of England – nor have the same interconnections with any such equivalent.

    It is now an important time to look for solutions to what Ernie sees at Scotland’s interests, within what can be a transformed UK system. For many of the problems faced in Scotland emerge also in the regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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