There is no room for complacency on the progressive Left in the wake of referendum result, writes Joyce McMillan
ON WEDNESDAY morning I headed for the European Parliament office to give a talk, as I do once or twice a year, to a group of young American Hansard Society scholars, in the UK for six weeks to learn the ins and outs of British politics.
Before I left, I checked the notes I normally use for these talks, covering what I always thought of – in rough outline – as the three phases of the Union between Scotland and England, since 1707.
The first phase, of course, was the long period of Empire, which drew Scotland into the Union in the first place with its vast global offer of economic and professional opportunity.
The second phase was the “Spirit of 45” era, the three-and-half-decades of postwar welfare-state consensus which lasted from 1945 until the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979.
And then there was the third phase, which used to bring us up to the present day: the story of Scotland’s “consensus of dissent” from the direction taken by the British state after 1979, of the gradual divergence of voting patterns between England and Scotland, and of the ever-greater agitation for home rule that accompanied this growing difference of opinion, culminating in this year’s independence referendum.
What was immediately obvious, though, was that the talk now needs a fourth section.
For if there is one thing that has become clear, now the referendum dust is settling, it’s that the choice we were compelled to make on the 18 September has ended the phase of our story that began in 1979, by splitting that long-standing anti-Thatcherite consensus, and dividing it between those who detest the politics of neoliberalism enough to take a chance on independence, and those who prefer – for a myriad of reasons – to stick with the British state, despite its long rightward drift over a period of 35 years.
That that rightward drift has taken place, and is now perhaps reaching a tipping-point, is I think fairly obvious to any serious observer. All the major Westminster parties are now running scared of Ukip, a populist right-wing party whose policies, when analysed, amount to little more than a bundle of nostalgic prejudices.
They are vulnerable to Ukip’s attack because they have themselves become so disconnected from ordinary grassroots opinion; culturally, and in terms of style, the three main Westminster parties now look like competing, identically-suited teams of salesmen for the same top-down economic system, rather than representatives of the people seriously challenging existing patterns of power.
All three parties have tolerated, and failed to reverse or even fully expose, the huge and growing economic inequalities that now weaken Britain’s economy, and disfigure our society.
And this week in Birmingham – David Cameron’s upbeat leader’s speech notwithstanding – the Conservatives offered a genuinely alarming exhibition of increasingly irrational and dogmatic right-wingery, announcing substantial – if completely unfunded – possible tax cuts, while assaulting the most vulnerable with another cruel round of benefit cuts, ditching the Human Rights Act of 1998 in a largely meaningless gesture of anti-European jingoism, and producing new proposals on the surveillance of “radicals” so extreme that a whole posse of Tory elder statesmen were raising their voices in protest, almost before Home Secretary Theresa May had finished her speech.
What we do not yet know, though, is what Scotland’s new No-voting majority really make of all this, and how their opinion will divide in future elections.
It is possible, for example, that the referendum itself has administered the kind of shock that some predicted after independence, forcing a large tranche of the Scottish middle-class to abandon the luxury of centre-left protest voting, and to take responsibility for its own underlying conservative sentiments. It certainly seems possible that many middle-class Scots will never risk voting SNP again, following the shock of last month’s events, and may begin – given the current weakened state of Scotish Labour – to revert to their “natural” home in the Conservative Party.
If I were an SNP strategist, in other words, I would be worried about a permanent loss of support in those SNP heartland areas of Perthshire and the North-east that voted heavily against independence; and if the Labour and Conservative parties succeed in foisting a rushed income-tax-only enhanced powers package on to Holyrood, then a sharp rightward shift in Scottish politics seems almost inevitable, as Scottish governments struggle to shoulder increasing responsibilities for welfare and social security with just one highly sensitive tax instrument at their disposal.
Yet it’s also true that there must be hundreds of thousands, among the two million who voted No, who did not intend, by their vote, to endorse any rightward shift in UK or Scottish politics.
According to Lord Ashcroft’s much-debated post-vote poll, 25 per cent of those who voted No did so primarily because they wanted more powers for the Scotish Parliament within the UK; another quarter were driven by a strong emotional atachment to the Union, which might – I guess – be an attachment of either Left, or Right.
So if we guess that a good quarter of No voters are still on board for the fight for greater social justice – and that a substantial majority of Yes voters were driven more by the dream of a better society than by raw nationalism – then we still have a chance of building a new progressive consensus in Scottish politics. As recently as the 1990s, of course, the Labour Party would have been a key element in that consensus; today, it seems like a broken vessel for any serious pursuit of greater economic justice, and those on the non-SNP centre-left are as likely to be drawn to initiatives like Common Weal in Scotland, or the regional People’s Assemblies against austerity south of the Border.
Either way, though, it seems possible that a majority for a better, fairer Scotland is still there to be mobilised, in alliance with those who share the same priorities in England and beyond; but only if we can transcend the decaying Westminster party structures that increasingly deaden our politics, and begin to find new, robust organisational forms capable of embracing both Yes and No voters from the great Referendum Debate of 2014, and of carrying the fight for a better society onward and upward, into an uncertain future.