ADVOCATES of the Union ask us to believe in a progressive vision of the UK that no longer exists, writes Joyce McMillan
LAST weekend, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the former Labour First Minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish, offered up the view that independence might, after all, be the shock to the system that Scotland needs, to generate a sense of national self-confidence and to motivate the nation to tackle its major social problems. McLeish remains a Labour man, of course; and he still prefers the idea of Scotland remaining within the UK, as part of a “transformed Union”.
At a deeper level, though, it sounds as if McLeish – like many other thinking Scots on the non-nationalist left – is moving towards the view that independence might be a better option, for Scotland, than a constitutional status quo in which victory is claimed by the current “no” campaign; and if you want to understand why, then there is no need to look further than Gordon Brown’s high-profile speech on the same subject, delivered at the Book Festival on Monday.
Now, first, let’s be clear that as advocates of the Union go, the former prime minister and chancellor is a cut above average; and in his speech on Monday, he certainly offered something slightly more than the usual scaremongering establishment bluster. The strongest section of his speech involved a reflection on the idea of common citizenship across the nations of the UK, and an argument that the British state actually offers a more egalitarian and inclusive model, with more effective transfers of wealth, than either the United States or the European Union. Break that up, says Brown, and the four nations could become involved in a dismal “race to the bottom”, seeking to outbid one another in terms of low tax and poor workers’ protection, in order to attract inward investment.
The difficulty with Brown’s argument, though – apart from its typical switch from a promising positive to a threatening negative – is that it only works if we can sustain the vision of the UK as a progressive nation, marching firmly along the path of ever-greater opportunity and equality. In the afterglow of the UK’s Olympic triumph – and of Danny Boyle’s remarkable opening ceremony – it is relatively easy to make the case for the UK as a successful multicultural society, in which people from all sorts of backgrounds can achieve glittering success; in his speech, Brown even argued that “Scottish values” have been instrumental in shaping this progressive and democratic Britain, and that we shouldn’t give up on the idea.
The brute fact is, though, that in the world of real politics, Britain itself has largely given up on that project over the last generation, choosing time and again to elect leaders who reject the post-war settlement celebrated in Boyle’s opening ceremony. Instead, all of Britain’s elected prime ministers since 1979 – Thatcher, Major, Blair and now Cameron – have favoured a regression towards Victorian-style laissez-faire capitalism, a process which, in true Orwellian style, they call “reform”.
And if Gordon Brown did not share their instinctive hostility to the public sector, he still bought in to the idea that light-touch regulation of Britain’s huge financial services industry, and a high tolerance for soaring income inequality and ballooning debt, represented the keys to continuing prosperity and growth. With hindsight, his major contribution to the well-being of ordinary British families came from his willingness, through family credits, to use public money to subsidise bad employers paying poverty wages; and as this week’s employment figures showed, Britain is now a country not only of high unemployment, but of working-class employment so insecure, so scanty, and so badly paid, that it often simply cannot support a decent, relaxed and convivial family life.
If you add to that the increasing corrosion of free public provision in England, the casualisation of employment opportunities so that connections matter more than ability, and the consequent marked decline in social mobility, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the progressive Britain our parents and grandparents set out to create, in 1945, has been largely undermined since 1979; first by a succession of Conservative governments, and then – alas – by the New Labour government in which Gordon Brown served.
So when it comes to a “race to the bottom” in terms of the proper regulation of business, it simply makes no sense to accept lectures from the man who, between 1997 and 2007, allowed London to become the arrogant and unaccountable wild frontier of global finance, with all the consequences that we now suffer. And when it comes to the Union – well, there is little doubt that all the negative arguments mustered by the “Better Together” campaign will probably secure a “no” vote, come 2014.
Yet even Gordon Brown must be able to see that the humiliation of Alex Salmond on that day will do nothing for the morale or the future of the Scottish people, unless there is a radical shift in the options offered by the “no” camp. If it is true, as Brown argued on Monday, that Scots cannot afford to go it alone without massive tax hikes, then we will be voting “no” in a spirit of dangerous self-contempt, just so that we can keep holding up the begging bowl to Westminster. And if it is true that Scotland could manage perfectly well outside the Union, but chooses to stay – well then, we would be sacrificing that possible future for the sake of a progressive idea of the Union that the present UK government seems hell-bent on destroying.
What Gordon Brown is doing, in other words, is asking us to bet our futures on a Danny Boyle vision of Britain that is no longer really represented by any major UK political party, and that now seems incapable of winning victory in a UK general election. And in the end, we will probably fall for that argument; not because it offers us any real future, but because of our sense of connection to all the millions of people, up and down the UK, who still mourn that vision of a post-war nation worth building, and of a Britain that in its high commitment to the health, well-being, and education of its own people, once made a little sacrifice – even of Scotland’s national sovereignty – seem like the right choice, in a bold new world.