Tuesday 16 September 2014

Scotland's Vote 21: Visions of England

The Yes campaign contains two extreme and opposing views of English politics. In my view both are mistaken.

The pessimists see the future of England as Tory and UKIP boots, stamping on a human face, forever. They believe the Conservatives and UKIP will win a majority at the 2015 General Election, and their government will be the stuff of nightmares. The UK will become a dystopian blend of Mad Max and 1984, and Labour will be powerless to turn it back. Scotland must leave before it is too late.

The optimists are represented by the singer and activist Billy Bragg. In their view, Scottish independence will revitalise the English left. The very fact of a Yes vote will show that the evil British Establishment is vulnerable; and a socialist dawn north of the border will provide a worthy example to follow. It may be that some optimists are secretly pessimists; they believe in the nightmare scenario, but feel guilty about abandoning their English comrades, so they pretend all will be well.

Source: STV

(Wales and Northern Ireland would influence the politics of a Scotland-less UK only a little, as England would have 92% of the remaining population. For the sake of simplicity, I will mostly focus on England.)

The nasty parties

All hyperbole aside, the pessimists have a point. In many respects, the Tories are still the nasty party. David Cameron wishes to reduce the size of government as a matter of principle, not just in response to the current fiscal climate. Theresa May has promised to repeal the Human Rights Act. Boris Johnson... well, it is hard to know where to begin, as he makes a point of issuing six ludicrous remarks before breakfast.

UKIP makes the Tories look positively reasonable. It came first in the European elections this year, and after the Clacton by-election in October it may well have its first elected MP. The Conservatives have promised a referendum on EU membership, and needless to say, UKIP will be vigorously campaigning for an exit.

Sooner or later, Labour would win an election and make a course correction leftwards; but what then? They cannot undo an EU exit. Even if nothing so drastic happens, Labour lacks positive appeal. If the absolute limits of reform within the UK are represented by Blair and Brown, or Miliband and Balls, why not declare independence?

How worried should we be, especially those of us who live in England?

First of all, the UK is nowhere near having a Conservative majority. In the 2010 election, they faced a tired and discredited Labour government. The young, smooth David Cameron opposed Gordon Brown, a dour Scot with limited connection to middle England. Even so, the Tories failed to win a majority across the UK, with only 36% of the popular vote.

Despite its less than inspiring leadership, Labour has a slight lead over the Conservatives. On current polling, the Electoral Calculus website predicts a Labour majority of around 30, and at most one or two UKIP MPs. Without Scotland, Labour would have a thin majority of 12 -- but remain well ahead of the Tories, and able to form a government with support from the Lib Dems or Plaid Cymru. So a Conservative majority government looks unlikely at this point.

If the Tories get lucky

For the sake of argument, let's imagine the Conservatives beat the odds and win a majority in 2015.

The consequences of repealing the Human Rights Act depend on what replaces it. If there is a UK Bill of Rights compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as some Conservatives advocate, it is not necessarily a problem. If they replace it with nothing, it would be a step backwards, but only in that it took the UK back to 1998. Withdrawing from the ECHR itself would be a far more drastic step with serious consequences for the UK's international treaty commitments, but the Tories have been careful not to promise it.

An EU referendum would probably not result in a vote to leave. Most of the current Conservative leadership are opposed to an exit, as are Labour and the Lib Dems, and the leaders of big business. Corporate executives are not sentimental, and they have no wish to see the UK harm their profits by exiting the EU. Even UKIP voters will think twice about leaving if they believe their jobs to be at risk.

No doubt the Conservatives would cut services and privatise, where they felt they could get away with it. That caveat is important; past Tory governments have never come close to implementing the wildest dreams of their right-wingers. I still wouldn't like it, but if that's what the UK votes for, that is what it should have. Scotland already has a devolved parliament which can ameliorate the effects of Tory policies north of the border, by increasing taxes if necessary.

The impact of UKIP

The electoral strength of UKIP is often exaggerated. They won 17% of the vote in the 2009 European elections, but 3% of the vote and zero seats in the general election a year later. By the same token, their 28% of the 2014 European vote is unlikely to translate into many seats in 2015.

In Clacton, the popular local MP Douglas Carswell has defected to UKIP. They may hold his seat and perhaps gain one or two others; but in a byelection this June, Newark was retained by the Tories with a convincing majority. On the whole, UKIP do not look ready to sweep into power in a large number of seats, as analysis by Electoral Calculus confirms.

If anything, the European issue highlights the weakness of the Conservatives. Polling confirms that most voters regard Europe as far less important than health, education and jobs. In the Labour victories of 1997, 2001 and 2005, the Tories were punished by the electorate for their obsession with Europe. History may well be about to repeat itself, especially if UKIP splits the Conservative vote to the benefit of Labour and the Lib Dems.

Beyond New Labour

Ed Miliband does not look like a heroic Prime Minister in waiting. He is cautious, uninspiring, and too close to the failures of the previous government. Then again, Tony Blair has shown us where a belief in heroic destiny can lead; perhaps Miliband's low-key style is not so bad.

However the independence vote is about the long term, far beyond Miliband's leadership of Labour. Can the British left move beyond the catastrophes of the Blair and Brown years?

There are reasons for optimism. The Labour government of 1997-2010 was brought down by two very specific factors.

The first was the financial bubble which began in the mid-1990s and continued until the crash of 2008. Governments around the world were seduced by the promise of easy money; they deregulated the banks and let the good times roll. In this respect, the Clinton and Bush administrations in the USA were no less guilty than Labour.

Times have changed, and it is no longer possible to pretend casino capitalism will solve all our problems. The current Labour party has difficulty framing the right questions, let alone finding answers; but in the longer term, there is opportunity for new and creative thinking about how we organise the economy.

The second factor is the Iraq war. Blair had been in power for a little more than four years on 11 September 2001. After that, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a massive distraction for the government. The human and financial cost was enormous. The absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ruined the government's credibility. Along with much else, war destroyed the chances of ambitious domestic reform under Blair and Brown.

A future Labour government, and progressive movements more generally, will not be so poisoned by the Iraq war and financial crash.

The sunshine scenario

If the prophecies of doom are exaggerated, what about the optimists? Would Scottish independence revitalise the English left?

All things are possible. It would certainly be a seismic political event for the rest of the UK; but I am not convinced it would help progressives. It could equally well bolster right-wing English nationalism, to the benefit of the Conservatives and UKIP. At this point, it would be unwise to predict the long-term effect on public opinion.

To the extent that the "British establishment" is a real thing and not just a convenient abstraction, it consists of laws, institutions, and people. After Scottish independence, most of these would remain in place. I see no reason why they would give up their militaristic, capitalist ways simply because Scotland had left. The British state is nothing if not adaptable; it adjusted to losing the USA in 1776, Ireland in 1922, India in 1947, and Hong Kong in 1997, so I expect it would adjust to losing Scotland in 2014.

It is also doubtful that an independent Scotland would inspire English reformers, over and above the effect of a devolved Scotland. Scottish politics have been only slightly to the left of England in recent history, and would likely remain so after independence.

If English progressives want change, Scottish independence does not offer any short cuts. They would have to go out and fight for it. In the past, they have won victories ranging from national pensions to gay marriage. Previous generations of English reformers did not sit around and wait for a sign from north of the border, so I see no reason why their successors need one today.


Both the pessimistic and optimistic visions for England are greatly exaggerated.

If Scotland remained within the UK, it would face some risk from the possibility of a hard-right Conservative government. In my view, that risk is not great enough to be a decisive argument for a Yes vote. Independence would carry other risks, and voters must weigh the options carefully.

Billy Bragg is correct about one thing -- there is great scope for reform and renewal in the UK. Scotland has the option of participating in that reform directly, instead of watching from the sidelines.

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