Maybe it’s too little and too late, but Miliband’s response to the Queen’s Speech was impressive, says Joyce McMillan
As The Better Together campaign constantly demonstrates to such entertaining effect, there are no end of bad reasons for voting No in the forthcoming independence referendum. It is not a good idea, for example, to vote No because you think there will be border posts at Gretna, or that Scotland will not be able to use the pound, or that we will be forced to wait for years to “join” the EU: history, realpolitik, and common observation of the workings of modern Europe combine to suggest that none of these things is likely to happen.
Nor – in my view – is it a good idea to vote No in such a historic referendum because you do not like Alex Salmond, a politician of almost 60 who will surely be gone from the political scene within the next 15 years. And it is certainly not a good idea to vote No because you think Alex Salmond resembles Kim Jong-un, the strange hereditary dictator of North Korea. Indeed if you are tempted to share Alistair Darling’s little “joke” on that score, I can only recommend a sobering hour or two with the results of the last Scottish Parliament election, a four-party square go in which the SNP won a share of the popular vote – around 45 per cent – of which no recent Westminster government has been able to dream.
If Alex Salmond has stronger democratic credentials than most elected leaders, though, there are still some better arguments for the Union than those routinely advanced by Better Together. One of them involves the hope of a UK that might return, one day, to a more balanced social-democratic political culture, leaving behind the free-market fundamentalism that has so increased economic inequality and chronic poverty in Britain since the 1980s. And this week, as the Queen drove to Westminster in her new gilded coach to open parliament for its final session before the 2015 election, close observers of the Westminster process might have noticed just a glimmer of improvement in the chances of such a change.
For in his response to the Queen’s Speech, in the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Labour leader Ed Miliband gave one of the most convincing performances of his career so far, challenging the House to recognise the mass apathy and contempt for mainstream politics that marked the recent European parliament elections. More, he offered up a list of measures that would have been in the Queen’s Speech if a Labour government had been in power, and made it sound like the basis for a decent manifesto.
He mentioned a “make work pay” bill that would attack low wages and zero-hours contracts, a banking bill to encourage more lending to small businesses, a communities bill to devolve power from central government, a consumer bill to attack profiteering by giant power companies, a housing bill to promote more affordable housing, and an English NHS bill to improve services and halt the current privatisation process.
Most controversially, Miliband also talked about a new immigration bill; even here, though, he is carefully nuancing his line. The purpose of such a bill, he said, would be to ensure that “workers are not undercut”; in other words, he is clearly suggesting that it’s not migrant workers themselves who are the problem, but the employers who are allowed to pay them much less than a British living wage.
It looks, in other words, as if Westminster is now entering into one of those periods when it systematically underestimates a leader of the opposition – Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair – on the grounds that he or she is a bit odd, and has never been prime minister before. If Ed Miliband fails to become PM in May 2015, though, it will not be because of his adenoidal voice, nor yet because his parents were refugees from Hitler; it will be because he will have failed to build a coalition for credible social-democratic change in Britain that can also win the hearts of swing voters in the south-eastern English marginal seats where UK elections are decided. At Westminster, that game is now on; and recent polls suggest that it could be a fairly close-fought affair, with much tighter margins of success or failure than before English politics acquired its significant fourth party.
None of this makes life easier for Alex Salmond, who essentially needs another looming Tory victory at Westminster if he is to convince the average Scottish voter that the UK is a busted flush in terms of progressive politics for the 21st century. There is, of course, plenty of evidence – for those who want it – that even the unexpected return of a Labour government next spring would do little to shift British politics to the Left. On Wednesday night, on BBC Scotland, the Scottish Green Party leader Patrick Harvie made a passionate case against Labour MSP Anas Sarwar that the failure of the UK properly to share and redistribute its growing wealth over the last generation has all but destroyed the social-democratic and redistributive argument for voting No; and many who once supported the Labour Party would now agree with him.
For the moment, though, it seems that there are still hundreds of thousands of Scottish voters who will remain loyal to Labour given the smallest encouragement, and will not vote to sever formal links with the rest of the UK so long as Westminster seems capable of change. Although Yes supporters may well wonder at voters’ continuing willingness to be seduced by that faint possibility, there’s no doubt that the draft programme outlined by Ed Miliband on Wednesday represents a better kind of reason for voting No than most of the embarrassing stuff produced by No campaigners so far. Did you hear the one about how Scots wouldn’t be allowed to go to Great Ormond Street Hospital, after independence? I expect so.
Yet if Unionist campaigners north of the Border are increasingly undermined by their association with such nonsense, Ed Miliband is at least now trying to look like a British social democrat for the 21st century; and although it’s small and fragile shift in the political climate, it could be a significant one, for Scotland above all.