Party poopers

Written by Henry McLeish on 14 October 2014 in Comment

How quickly the idea of ‘Better Together’ has vanished as the party conference season reverted to its old tribal narratives

How quickly the idea of ‘Better Together’ has vanished as the party conference season reverted to its old tribal narratives. Did 45 per cent of Scots really vote to leave the Union? Did the seismic shockwaves shake the Union and its political parties to their core? Whatever happened to the notion that the high point of postwar democratic engagement, achieved in the referendum vote, would lead to the rebirth of our failed politics? 

There is a palpable sense of dismay, bitterness and betrayal that an outcome that promised so much, in terms of a better future for Scotland within the Union, has become such an unedifying political mess. The Conservative Party conference, particularly, captured the mood of a Union and Westminster that has learned nothing from their near-death experience in the referendum and the near certainty that Scotland’s battle for a constitutional settlement is not over.

There is now a widening political and constitutional fault line between Scotland and England; not only about how we are governed, but in the way that politics, parties and values are developing. England is now facing more extremism, the rise of the right, populism and an intolerant right-leaning Conservative Party. This madness is undermining the postwar consensus on how a caring and successful Union can function and be properly governed. The war on the poor is unethical, hugely destructive of social cohesion and solidarity and a threat to the wellbeing of millions of children. Unfortunately, amidst this turmoil, Scotland’s future and the last two years’ lessons are in danger of being overlooked or sidelined; a huge mistake. The referendum of itself achieved very little. But the outcome and the campaign were remarkable in providing the Unionist parties with an agenda for change, insights into a better politics and possibly, the last opportunity for a new modern Union to be created. There are hardly any signs, even at this early date, of lessons being learned. Indeed, the Tory conference provided conclusive proof that arrogance, ambivalence and indifference to Scotland were being taken to new levels!

Despite the kind words for Ruth Davidson, the Tory conference dynamic was chilling. Boris Johnson reminded us that London was still the UK capital. David Cameron seemed relieved at the referendum result but remarkably complacent about the need for urgency or inspiration to secure Scotland’s future in the Union. England is his total focus and this was reinforced by his MPs worried about UKIP, thrilled by Tory support for the rich at the expense of the poor, relieved about Scotland still being part of a declining Union and enthused about “English votes for English laws”. There was no understanding of what had been happening in Scotland for the last three or thirty years; relief about the outcome, yes, but no resolve to tackle the core issue of the absolute sovereignty of Westminster being the dead hand of our parliamentary democracy.

David Cameron’s speech, though, was the clincher for anyone who had doubts about how politics may drive Scots to question again their role in the Union. If the notion of the absolute sovereignty of Parliament is of little consequence in the real world, it would be a mistake to use this as the pretext for removing the UK from the EU and from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the influence of the European Convention. We are proud and founding members of the Council of Europe but would end up alongside Belarus and Kazakhstan if we left the ECHR.

Britain has also opted out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which most other countries in the EU have signed up for. Why do other successful European countries deal with progressive policies and modern concepts but the UK can’t? UKIP and the Conservative Party are perpetrating a con on the electorate in England by pretending this is about national sovereignty when it is about the threat posed by progressive policies and modern ideas, to neo-liberalism and unfettered markets. Out of the EU or the ECHR on the back of English votes has little appeal in Scotland, will only worsen its role in the Union, highlight the growing political divergence of Scotland and England and reignite the whole question of leaving the Union! 

A UK Labour victory in 2015 is now essential if Scotland is to have a future in the Union. Labour in Scotland has to change and become a powerful and more autonomous social democratic party, pursuing socially just policies and progressive centre-left ideas. Above all, it needs to develop a more powerful set of proposals to capture the essence of home rule and build towards a federal structure for the UK. A new battle every few years for more powers makes no sense and is wasteful of political energy. This form of periodic horse trading exposes the poverty of thinking and ambition at the heart of our politics. A vision for the future is required which makes sense of this. If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it is the realisation that none of the existing devolution commission proposals goes far enough and some form of maximum devolution may be the only way to halt the constitutional train before independence. Denial isn’t a strategy in Scotland and Westminster just doesn’t get it. 

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