How to Save the Union (Jeepers! Should I Tell Anyone?)
By Peter Arnott
1. In the Wake of Lord Ashcroft
All the way through the referendum campaign, when talking to friends down south, or even to Labour folk up here, I was haunted by the feeling that no one else was taking all this constitutional stuff all that seriously. They smiled indulgently, and held my hand and told me “I know how you feel.” That was about the level of the conversations.
Then when, predictably, the NO vote came in and the uniform expectation among the grown ups was, as Piers Morgan put it, that we in Scotland had had our fun, and now it was time to get back to the “real” world and real issues.
For all of the press coverage in the last month of the indyref campaign, and all of the panic in the last week of it, all the way through we all, I think, had the uncomfortable sensation of feeling like we were re-inventing democracy while being considered a sideshow. And after, when Cameron’s only thought was that he could play at some vote catching with his English Votes for English laws, and the UK parties could cobble together some half-hearted political sticking plaster in the shape of devolved percentiles of tax , their proposals entirely on the logic of dishing the nats, and not at all on the basis of practical government, it seemed like our peripheral status was being confirmed.
Real government was still something, clearly, that the Jocks were going to be loaned a few extra bits of to keep them quiet while real power stayed exactly where it was. Jolly Jim Murphy, as acting Governor General, would put on his Scotland shirt, hold our hands the way he held hands with the Pope and tell us he under stood that we all wanted “change.” Having failed to make the break, we were expected to shut up.
And that was going to be that.
Well, Lord Ashcroft has delivered his “real” numbers, and they’re taking us seriously now! We in the Yes campaign were a distraction, an irritating irrelevance to “real” politics? And all this time, we thought we were the future. Turns out we were right. And good people down South are pleading with us suddenly. Begging us. “God, don’t do it! Come back to Labour! Save us! We didn’t mean all those horrible things we said! We can’t do this on our own!”
(Oh well. “Real” power at stake in a “real” country now, I suppose. And, yes. there is a bit of what the Germans call ‘unworthy joy’ coursing through my blood vessels this fine Friday morning.)
But, like Muhammed Ali not throwing the last punch when George Foreman was already going down, what is required right now, I think, is a little grace. (We are after all, about to dance with the rattlesnakes).
In which regard I didn’t do so well last night online or on the phone.
Now, come on, said my friend. Be logical. If Scotland elects the SNP instead of Labour, then we’re all doomed to the Tories, you don’t want that, do you?
To which ,I said, still in the mood of gloating just a bit, that if the Labour Party were no longer capable of winning an election in the UK without a few seats in Scotland to prop them up, then maybe they had ceased to serve a purpose.
The Labour Party were in deeper trouble than this in the eighties, said my friend. People wrote us off then, and we came back.
Yes, you did…I said, and the “answer” to your electability problem in the South of England was Tony Fecking Blair and being nice to rich people. When you became electable there, you became poisonous here. Why do you think all this is happening?
And my friend said if I was just going to shout at him like a self-righteous Scottish bastard then he’d just give up …and he’d end up with a government in England imposed on him because of decisions made in Scotland…
To which I replied, “Can you HEAR yourself? Welcome to our world, dick head!”
And he put the phone down.
I really should have been more even tempered than that. Because the conversation we were beginning to have is the conversation we do need to have across these islands, just as we need to get a bit less tribal ourselves. We in the Yes movement need to seriously think right now about what the interim arrangements are going to be, (as we see it) before “independence” happens, whatever that actually means.
Because, guess what? From the post-Ashcroft perspective, let alone the perspective of there only being 4 or 5 Labour MPs left in Westminster and our future representation being undertaken by a frankly untested and unknown crowd of new SNP MPs, I’m not sure we really gave “change” enough serious thought either. We prepared ourselves for the idea of change, we fell helplessly in love with the hope of it. But maybe we didn’t believe in it ourselves quite enough to think it through. And, shortly, we’re going to have to deal with the mechanics, not of “independence” – but of specific responses to specific post election scenarios.
Frankly, I get really uncomfortable with the line I’m supposed to pitch. That the SNP are a genuinely progressive party that really can replace what Labour in Scotland used to stand for. I think that might be true in electoral terms, but in policy terms? I have my doubts.
But those doubts won’t make me vote Green in this election, as I will (probably) in 2016. No fear. There is a job to be done. The Janus face of the Labour party, pretending to be Tories in one part of the UK and pretending to be caber tossing socialists up here is just too crass to do anything other than work for as many SNP seats as we can win.
But this reality has it’s challenges for our side too. And I think we’ll find answers to those challenges not by shouting and crowing and celebrating ever louder in our echo chamber, (no matter how appealing that may be in the short term) but in engaging properly with those progressive individuals and institutions who weren’t on our side in that referendum and may not be in the next one to come up with a future we can all look at together.
2. What Might the Future Look Like after the Wipeout
There was a lot of talk from Scottish Labour post referendum that now that THAT was out of the way, it was time to get together. By which they meant “it’s time for you to cease to exist” That didn’t work out. But even in this moment of euphoria, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the half of us who are against independence are going to agree to cease to exist either.
I’m starting to think, at the back of my head anyway, about where we go next. How we try to govern ourselves in the new circumstances in which we find ourselves in the meantime, before the big constitutional re-arrangement that surely can’t be avoided anymore.
And it has to be together. It’s going to be together. Both within a politically divided Scotland, and in one set of Atlantic Islands. We all have to live here, meaning Scotland, and here, meaning the Atlantic Isles.
So I’ve come up with a plan to save the Union. I want to meet the No side half way and say, guys, if what it takes for us to talk properly about the future is for me to put forward what I think are the minimum conditions for the survival of the UK, then that’s what I’ll do. I will act for the moment like I believe that democratic transformation of these islands, of the British State, is still possible and I’ll put forward to you a scenario, roughly, that I think would work. That I think would be sustainable. Then you can honestly tell me what you think.
I may be convinced that the UK is past saving. You think I’m wrong and that an independent Scotland would be disastrous for everyone. But if now you accept that this problem really isn’t just going to go away, let’s meet in the middle and look at what a sustainable really federal, really changed UK might look like.
I think the Unitary UK left has been in decline since 1979 and that deep down that’s why all of this is happening. I think that after this disaster, the left on these islands needs to be fundamentally rethought, as after 1983. I think that one UK wide party can no longer represent progressive forces in all of the UK. I think a progressive party in London, and one in Wales and Scotland and Newcastle can no longer be one party. I think it has to actually become what it already pretends to be. A coalition for UK issues and SEPARATE parties for nations. The Scottish Labour party has to really do what Jim Murphy (I think) is pretending to do. It has to become a Scottish Party. (If the Tories had done something like that in the 70s, there wouldn’t just be wee David Mundell left).
In Scotland, I want there to be a coherent left opposition to the SNP. (I want to JOIN it) In these islands, I want a coherent democratic opposition to the political hegemony of finance capitalism. And the UK Labour Party ain’t it. In either case. A decentralised, federal Britain, where we have elections by proportional representation to a federal parliament…starts with a properly federal party (or parties in strategic coalition) of the left.
And I think a new UK parliament with a big chunk of SNP MPs supporting a UK Labour government might be the place to start.
It might be a place where both parties could learn a bit of manners to each other.
That’s probably a pipe dream, but whoever these parties are in the future, or whatever they call themselves, we need to re-organise the UK left a federal basis preparatory to re-organising the country on a federal basis. We need to reverse the devolution model. We need power to be vested democratically in the regions and then devolved, as needed, to a central authority.
We need to accept that this will mean that the London City State will turn its de facto independence (the undeclared reality at the root of everything else that has happened in the last 40 years stems from the UK consensus that Blair and Brown accepted that only the London economy matters) into declared independence. If and when that happens, and it will, we will need a Federal Government of the Islands, which will be the centre of democratic power while London remains the trading powerhouse of the islands, ( as it will, no matter what we come up with constitutionally, “separation” included.)
If we are going to counter-balance the hegemony of capital with the leaven of democracy, we will do so much better if all power is not culturally concentrated in the same few square miles.
(The Australians built Canberra to avoid having to choose between Melbournbe and Sydney. This morning my son suggested Bolton? Or maybe Salford. The BBC are there already. Greater Manchester anyway, why not?)
So, in the wake of Ashcroft’s poll, and the likely actual result, it is time for Labour to consider really doing what Jim Murphy is currently pretending to do. That is, after the election, to scrap the Scottish Labour Party as “a branch office ” and start again with a new party of the left based in Scotland which can affiliate with UK Labour (if it chooses, if UK Labour is good enough) for General Elections.
Likewise, a genuinely federal UK is the only way there can remain a UK at all…and that doesn’t mean power devolved (leant) From Westminster to “the regions”, it means political power being based in the regions and devolved TO the UK government…whatever we call it, including FROM London.
The monarchy- down pyramidical constitution we have now is getting in the way of democracy. Dysfunction is getting more and more sclerotic. And hey, if the Tory Party had been Scottish based, a Scottish Party lending its support, rather than a branch office, they’d have 10 MPs in Scotland, not one. Especially on a PR basis. So, come on UK, stop pretending there’s any way “back to normal” and bite the fecking bullet, will ya?
I look forward to having conversations of a rather different quality to those of last year. A little less tribal. A little more inclined to look at “reality” and find it unfamiliar territory that one can’t take for granted. A recognition that the rules have changed on these islands, and that , no, Homer, there is no going back to the “good old used-to-be.”
These islands have looked at the past for long enough for inspiration.
I hope there is now a moment, at least, of positive as well as negative truth dawning upon us. That the way we organise ourselves to live on these islands, politically and culturally and economically is now an active, positive question. What I also hope is, now that the nature of our challenge has become clearer to all of us, whether we were for Yes or No last year. And that all of us in Scotland can use the now established certainty of change to step back from the immediate struggle for parliamentary seats, and examine the beams in our own eyes. The Yes side need to face the future just as much as the good people who voted “No”
We both need to acknowledge that it isn’t going to be a re-run of the past.