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.
One 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.
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.
Others 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?
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.
‘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.